Monday, December 2, 2013

A Search for Gassler's Camp

November 25, 2013 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The death of Walt Gassler in the Superstition Wilderness Area in early May of 1984 was news Bob Corbin or I didn’t want to hear. The Sunday evening prior to Walt’s fateful trip he had called and asked Bob and I if we could make a trip into the mountains with him. Walt had called us one day prior to his departure without any warning. Neither Bob nor I could make plans and prepare for a trip like this on such short notice.

Walt had his wife drive him out to First Water trail for the hike into Peter’s Mesa. He chatted with Dan Russell at Charlebois Spring about noon on Tuesday, May 3, 1984. Walt hiked up the short-cut trail from Charlebois Spring to the main trail to Peter’s Mesa. His body was found near the junction of the cut-off trail and the Peter’s Mesa Trail by Don Shade and Gene Baker on May 4, 1984. Walt probably died on Tuesday after leaving Charlebois Spring.

Bob Corbin and I wanted to make a trip into Peter’s Mesa country to try and find Walt Gassler’s camp. Bob had visited with Walt and found him to be a very creditable person. The truth was Bob Corbin believed what Walt had told him in confidence. Walt had indicated his camp was near the "mine." Corbin loved to hunt for the Dutchman’s Lost Mine and Corbin and I had made many trips into the Superstition Wilderness by 1986. We were now preparing for a three to four day pack trip into Peter’s Mesa.

Walt Gassler died in 1984. He had been searching
Superstition Mountain since 1932. Photo circa 1970.
I must admit Bob reminded me a lot of my father. He was impeccably honest. Bob always approached most stories about lost gold very objectively. He also had an almost perfect photographic memory for facts, dates, and numbers. What Bob told you could be depended on as the truth. He was a great prospecting and riding partner in the mountains. Bob was always extremely helpful around the camp.

On November 9, 1986, we loaded the horses for another pack trip into the Superstition Wilderness Area. This time we planned a three or four day pack trip to Peter’s Mesa in search of Walt Gassler’s Camp. The weather was beautiful the day we departed the Quarter Circle U Ranch for Peter’s Mesa some fourteen miles away. We rode out of the ranch about 10 a.m. and arrived in our Peter’s Mesa camp about 4:45 p.m. Bob and I set camp near Pistol Canyon. It was bed time when dinner was over and the horses had been fed and watered.

We sat around the camp fire talking about the several versions of the Deering story, other stories related to Peter’s Mesa and the Dutchman’s Lost Mine. Bob and I speculated about Gassler and the possible location of his camp now that we were on Peter’s Mesa near Pistol Canyon. I was somewhat convinced Walt Gassler carried his gold samples into the Superstition Mountains to match them with the country rock in the area of his camp. Corbin wasn’t convinced that was the case. Corbin and I had thought maybe Gassler found his three rich specimens of ore in the mountains somewhere near his camp.

As the embers of our fire glowed and the night air chilled us, Corbin and I finally called it a night. After such a strong discussion it was difficult to ignore the many stories about lost gold in the Superstition Wilderness Area. I am sure to this day that Bob Corbin was convinced Walt Gassler was telling him the truth about the gold on Peter’s Mesa before he died. If Walt Gassler found the gold of Peter’s Mesa he died before he could get any of it out. It was ironic because Gassler had been searching the mountain since 1932.

As I closed my eyes for the night I could hear a distant coyote. I rolled over and looked out of my tent at the star-filled sky above. I realize how lucky I was to enjoy such experiences in the wilderness. I sometimes think I was born a hundred years too late. I was soon dreaming about the lost gold of Superstition Mountain. The wind was blowing briskly when I woke up the next morning at 7:30 a.m. Bob and I slept in—we were quite tired from the long ride.

I rolled out of my tent and started a fire. It was quite cold even by my standards. Anything below 50° F is cold weather to my thin Arizona Desert-rat blood. I led our horses down for water and I had to break the ice so they could drink.

By the time I returned to camp Bob had the fire stirred up and roaring. We soon prepared breakfast and stayed close to the fire for warmth. After breakfast we prepared for our first day of searching on Peter’s Mesa. I wanted to find Gassler’s camp as much as Bob did.

We split up for our search, figuring we could cover more ground that way. We had a good idea of what we were looking for. Gassler had told Corbin he hauled his water in one gallon plastic water jugs. To find Gassler’s camp we needed to locate a site with numerous plastic jugs. Knowing the most common plastic jugs were white or no color at all would make the task much easier. We were quite confident we would find Gassler’s camp. After several hours of searching we discovered this would be no easy task in the wilds of Peter’s Mesa. We continued our search all day. We climbed to the top of the various high points and surveyed the surrounding terrain. All of our effort proved fruitless. We found nothing that resembled Walt Gassler’s Camp on Peter’s Mesa. By the end of the day Corbin and I were convinced we would not find Gassler’s Camp unless it was accidentally.

The next night we sat around the fire quite disappointed with ourselves, but at the same time believing we had made an honest effort to locate Gassler’s Camp. We were still convinced Gassler had a camp on Peter’s Mesa some where. As Bob and I perused the thought we wondered if Walt would have given us erroneous directions about the location of his camp. Could his camp have been on Malapai or even Geronimo Head? Why would Gassler have given information to anyone as to the location of his camp? Information that might lead them to the rich outcrop of gold he might have found.

Gassler had told Corbin, in their only meeting, he had never taken anyone to his camp. Corbin inquired of Gassler if he had ever taken samples of gold ore into the mountains to match up with the outcrops around or near his camp? Gassler told Corbin he had not. This tidbit of information sure didn’t help our cause any. In Gassler’s own words he had never taken anybody to his camp on Peter‘s Mesa. My guess was Gassler’s camp was well hidden from any vantage point in the mountains.

The next morning we broke camp early and prepared for the long ride back to the Quarter Circle U Ranch. Clouds were building fast and a slight drizzle had began. Corbin and I felt we had made an honest effort to locate Walt Gassler’s Camp.

We rode out on the Peter’s Mesa Trail wondering about Gassler’s gold and where it had come from. Speculation was a big part of our conversation. We would have welcomed any accurate information from any sound source. After three and a half hours of hard riding we arrived at my stock truck just east of the Quarter Circle U Ranch. We loaded up thinking about the wonderful adventure we had shared searching for the Gassler’s camp on Peter’s Mesa.

A final update to this story includes another return trip to Peter’s Mesa by Bob Corbin with another party 2004. This party included Jack Carlson, Greg Davis and Kraig Roberts. Bob was being guided to another site of interest on Peter’s Mesa. Still, in the back of Bob’s mind he wanted to find Walter Gassler’s camp and the outcrop he was working. Again, Corbin had no success in locating the possible site of Walt Gassler’s Camp on Peter’s Mesa.

Bob Corbin and I traveled the Superstition Wilderness Area through out his twelve years as Attorney General of Arizona. Bob rode with me in the Superstition Mountain from 1980-1996. Corbin’s wife has published several books on the Superstition Mountain and the Dutchman’s Mine.