On Sunday I completed a hike that was the culmination of an enjoyable mental and physical challenge spanning the course of a couple years. It began in early 2015 when my friend Alan and I stumbled upon a ruin high above Nine Mile Canyon. After that hike, when I realized that the ruin was easily visible in Google Earth, I began searching satellite imagery in my spare time for other such structures in the Nine Mile Canyon area. I visited a few of the structures that I’d spotted last year, but one had eluded me. It appeared as a faint circle on top of a butte that’s entirely surrounded by cliffs.
This one had no clear hiking route leading to it. I’d stopped several times to inspect the terrain below the butte but found no surefire way through the many cliffs bands. After many months of intermittent research I made an attempt to hike up to the butte last November. That attempt ended in failure. From below I could see two potentially impassable cliff bands. Down low I saw a granary and a small petroglyph panel that I’d never noticed on previous scouting trips–my attention was focused elsewhere. After much searching and work I was able to bypass the lower cliff band by stacking some rocks two feet high in order to climb to the next level. A traverse across a steep hillside led to another cliff band that I absolutely couldn’t climb. Perhaps neither could Roger Palmer, who inscribed his name there in 1964. I’d spent so much time working on the lower cliff band, and hadn’t researched alternate routes nearly enough, that I had to give up and go home with my tail between my legs.
This past weekend I made another attempt at the Fortress. This time I was successful. I had studied the satellite imagery more and found a potential route that involved hiking/scrambling/climbing a full 360-degrees around the butte at various elevations in order to get to the top. The hike to the top took an hour and 45 minutes, and I covered nearly a mile and gained 500 feet of elevation. At the base of the butte I still had a problem. It was surrounded by cliffs and clearly I’d have to put my climbing skills to the test. I dropped my pack and other gear and tried to squeeze up a narrow crack, but some rocks wedged into the upper end prevented me from being able to fit. I couldn’t remove those rocks without the possibility of them falling on me. At the bottom of the crack I found a piece of pottery with black paint.
Further inspection of the cliffs surrounding the butte led me to a spot that looked somewhat difficult but perfectly reasonable. A couple of crude petroglyphs adorned the cliff near the climbing route to the top. I gained the top of the butte with relative ease and found myself right at the edge of the circle of rocks that I’d seen in the satellite imagery. It was roughly 20′ across and had no discernible depression in the center–it seemed to large to have been a pit house. All around the flat top of the butte were pottery pieces, lithic flakes, and remnants of rock walls surrounding the edges. What appeared to be a broken metate was likely two different halves placed together in more modern times. I spent quite some time marveling at the obvious question: why would the Fremont choose to live this high above the canyon floor? It had taken me a long time to figure out a route to the top, but the prehistoric inhabitants likely had to descend/ascend every day just to get drinking water.
I downclimbed from the Fortress with a little more difficulty than I’d anticipated, then spent a few minutes hiking farther up the ridge. The return hike went smoothly and I found myself back at my vehicle in only 35 minutes, having solved all of the difficult climbing problems during the ascent.
Although I felt fairly accomplished, it was too early in the day to just duck my head and drive straight home. I drove back up the canyon slowly, keeping an eye out for any rock art that I hadn’t already seen–though, with almost 20 trips to the canyon under my belt, that’s becoming increasingly difficult. I did spot a couple of new petrogylph panels and stopped to check them out.
Photo Gallery: Nine Mile Canyon XIX: The Fortress