Open Climbing Season at Cochise Stronghold

by Emily Thursday, November 11th 2010

Chris tries to tell me what to expect on the fourth pitch: when my quads will start to burn in the layback, the point where I won't be able to see my gear placements, and when I'll be far enough above my last piece that I'll just have to gun it to better ground.

I ask him to please shut up. My palms are sweating and I just want to go before I think too much about it. I've lead gear routes harder than this, but not so far off the deck. We're a few hundred feet up on Mystery of the Desert, a 5.9, 5-pitch trad route that wanders up the side of the Muttonhead, one of the prominent domes in Cochise Stronghold.

Sheepshead summit, looking toward the Muttonhead
Looking toward the Muttonhead from Sheepshead Summit

It's the first climb of Cochise season, a stunning sunny Sunday that still promises to keep the temps in the low 80s: perfect conditions for spending a few hours on a sun-baked rock face. Catching the first glimpse of the Sheepshead, the largest dome on the west side of Cochise Stronghold, was like seeing a loved one get off a flight at the airport. I love it out here. It's my favorite place in the world. The hikes are long, the routes are longer, the granite is a solid rich orange with alien-green lichen. It's a place that always feels sacred and familiar at the same time. The Apache chief Cochise hid his people among these domes and they evaded the U.S. Cavalry for fifteen years. Running through the maze of domes, it's easy to see how. These days it's climbers that venture into the depths for adventure.

The climbing is so fantastic that the start of the season out here is cause for celebration, and the climbing community is more than happy to put on the party. At the start of climbing season each fall and the end of the season each spring, climbers come out for Beanfest, a potluck style dinner (traditionally seasoned with some raucous, ankle-twisting games later in the night) sandwiched between two awesome days of climbing. This year my friend Tanya is the "Bean Queen" hosting the party, and just to give you a preview of how great it's going to be: Tanya got married earlier this year to the wonderful Scott Ayers, and at the post-wedding party she cut off the bottom half of her wedding dress and jumped in the pool, pulling a few best-dressed guests with her. In short, it's going to rock. (No pun intended.)

Getting ready to belay at Zappa Dome, East Stronghold
Getting Ready to Belay at Zappa Dome, East Stronghold

But we're not there yet. We're still leashed onto a rock face with our palms sweating.

Mystery of the Desert is strange and beautiful, starting in a slick shallow  corner, then slanting left along a crack to a beautiful roof which it surmounts through the path of least resistance, up to a big slot: main face of the dome on the right, huge sloping boulder on the left, where you can opt to squeeze through or stem over (stemming is easier, in my opinion; a climber in a party ahead of us admitted he had to take all the gear off his harness and shove it in front of him to get through). After that it's a short piece of slab up to a garden ledge, and this is where we are, about to begin pitch four. Time to go.

It begins easily enough on slab, and I get a nice piece in the bottom of the layback. It's a perfect overlap and I get get my hands firmly under the lip, feet pressing just under my hands. Climbing a powerful layback is like trying to pick up a refrigerator; you have to push with your feet as much as you pull with your hands, and the action balanced between the two keeps you in there. I try to feel the size of the pieces I need, get them in the crack, then clipped, and then I hazard a peek around the lip to see if I did it right. The layback feels great, actually. I feel strong. I get to the top of the layback when I realize it's been about ten feet since I've put a piece of protection in, meaning I'm looking at a 20 foot fall. I start to look for a place to put a piece, but I'm too late: I should have put something a foot below where my feet are now, because the crack has vanished into slab. The fear seeps in a little bit, and my foot slips. An involuntary shriek slips out of my mouth before I catch a handhold and coax my quaking knees onto better footing. Close one.

There's a little climbing left still, but the belay at the top of the fourth pitch is a nice closer to the climb: you can watch your friends come powerfully up the layback with the backdrop of granite domes and Chihuahuan desert spreading out behind them. There's a lot of solitude out here, and there's something about climbing in this environment, something about trusting your life to a friend on the other end of the rope, so far out in the middle of the desert, that makes every climbing day an adventure and an accomplishment.

West Cochise Stronghold

What better than to celebrate with a party. This year, Beanfest is November 13th and 14th in the East Stronghold, and burrito fixin's are needed. Check out "Beanfest 2010" on Facebook for directions, t-shirts, and to see what you can contribute.

Events | Events

Seven Cataracts of Willow Canyon

by Dave Baker Monday, November 8th 2010

Canyoneering in southern Arizona? Well, maybe nothing like the deep, dark slots and long rappels of Zion and other areas on the Colorado Plateau but yes, there are many canyons scattered about that present challenging scrambling and sometimes require rope and rappels to successfully navigate.

The idea behind canyoneering is simple really; find an interesting canyon and explore the water course, most often heading downstream. Usually trail-less, these outings involve lots of boulder hopping and sometimes technical rope work. Given the arid climate in southern Arizona, canyons feel like very special places – rugged, cool, shady, big trees, quiet grottos, big drops, with the buzzing, busy, green backdrop of plant and animal life that inhabit these moist mountain corridors.

In Willow Canyon

Boulder hopping in Willow Canyon

Most local canyons do not require rappelling and rope work to descend, but many enthusiasts are drawn to those that do. Admittedly, on some southern Arizona technical canyoneering routes you will ignore the fact that many drops can be bypassed by simply traversing out onto the steep, but walk-able canyon sides on either side as you launch off on a rappel, but what-the-heck, there’s a lot of technical fun to be had out there!

First rappel

Descending the first cataract

The Seven Cataracts of Willow Canyon is one such technical canyoneering route, and it is surprisingly accessible -- located just off the Mt Lemmon Highway in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. This adventure typically begins at Windy Point Vista with a scramble down a steep slope which deposits canyoneers in a lovely section of Willow Canyon that often shows water and is graced with impressively large Arizona Cyprus trees. The first cataract and rappels are not far downstream.

Seven Cataracts

Above the 3rd rappel; Mt Lemmon Highway in the distance

On our trip down the Cataracts, we negotiated the next 4 drops using five rappels. (It usually makes sense to break the first drop into two rappels.) Our fifth rappel ended at a swimming hole that hikers access from the Seven Cataracts Vista (mile post 9.1) on the Mt Lemmon Highway.

Two more, but less impressive drops remain between the swimming hole and the confluence downstream with Bear Canyon, so we left Willow Canyon here using a faint hiker’s trail on the east side of the canyon. We followed the trail into Bear Canyon and then walked upstream to a second vehicle which had been left at the Green Slabs parking pullout (mile post 9.9) on the Mt Lemmon Highway. This section of Bear Canyon was delightfully beautiful. A few of the rappels in the Seven Cataracts are longer than 100 feet, so we brought two – 200 foot ropes and were glad we did. A more detailed description of the route and its variations can be found here.

5th Rappel

The 5th rappel

Difficulty: It’s a little over 1.5 miles from Windy Point to Seven Cataracts Vista, and 2.1 miles from Windy Point to the Green Slabs pullout. None the less, allow plenty of additional time for the rappels.

This route involves technical rope work and conditions can vary tremendously depending especially upon how much water is flowing in Willow Canyon. Sometimes just a trickle moves down the Cataracts, but rain and melting snow can and do produce much greater flows of water. The more flow, the more treacherous conditions become. Don’t hesitate to abandon plans to descend the canyon if water flows seem unmanageable.

Approach this and other canyoneering routes with caution and respect -- all the hazards of canyoneering can easily come into play, including the dangers associated with moving water, hypothermia, hyperthermia, wet slippery rock surfaces, unstable footing, and flash floods. A solid background in rappelling, anchor safety, rope handling, rescue technique, pack management, specific canyoneering skills, and hazard recognition is a must.

Maps: Green Trails Santa Catalina Mountains


Click map for larger image

Activities | Trails

The Joy Of Tarps

by Craig Monday, October 25th 2010

If you are like me you don’t mind a little rain when you are camping. What I do mind is sitting in a damp tent for hours with no view fretting about getting my stuff even more wet if I have to crawl out to go to the bathroom. I also don’t enjoy the sun trying to poach my brain in cranial fluid. The answer for me is an 8’x10’ nylon tarp and 100’ of parachute cord. I love tarps. My tarp comes with me on every trip. It doesn’t get set up every time but it is always there like an old friend, willing to help when I need it.

Many years ago when I first began attending backpacking’s school of hard knocks I bought a tarp. It was a blue poly tarp, either 7’x9’ or 8”x10’. I tried setting it up on several occasions. Every time there was a moderate breeze or more than a passing rain, the bell rang and school was in session. I was always adjusting the thing; too much flapping, pushing gallons of water out of the catchment that my shelter had become. Luckily on a trip through the Wet Beaver Creek Wilderness my friend KF, an Eagle Scout, set up the finest lean to shelter I have ever seen. It was a beauty; maroon nylon 8’x10’, 100’ of paracord(single strand), one tree, one stick, and several heavy rocks. It was clear to me that I had much to learn. Thankfully KF was a willing teacher

Sleeping Tarp 
Sleeping Tarp

Knowing how to tie some useful knots is the most important step in setting up a tarp. There are four knots I use frequently in the backcountry: the bowline, the midshipman’s hitch, the double fisherman’s, and the half hitch. Each of them is used on the tarp. One way to learn these knots is to obtain a piece of cord in the 5mm to 9mm range at least 6 feet long, a knowledgeable friend or clear simple diagrams, and practice. Confidence in your knots when conditions are unpleasant is a great feeling. Your knots must be able to withstand severe stress, if not it is more than likely that your tarp will fail at precisely the time you wish it would not.

Finding a place to set a tarp is a part of campsite management that is both an art and a science. Usually I am camping where there are some trees to anchor from, which is nice. I look for a spot that has ground that will be comfortable to sit or lay on and two trees 10 to 20 feet apart that can take a very strong tug and not bend much if at all. Those are my main anchor points. My tarp has cord pre-attached with a bowline to the grommets on the corners and in the middle of each of the long sides. The cords attached to the middle of the long sides will be attached to the main anchor points up high, the corners angled down towards the ground to form an A frame.

The height of the anchors depends on your situation. Do you and friend(s) need a place to hang out and cook or must you sleep there in a driving rain? I’ll leave it to you to determine how close to the ground it needs to be. The first thing I do is wrap the cord around the tree and tie a bowline. It is a non adjustable knot but is very secure and easy to untie when it is time to go. Since most of the time I need a hangout tarp this anchor is about head high. The opposite cord is then attached to the other main anchor point as close to level with the first anchor. For this I use a midshipman’s hitch with an extra locking loop. This knot allows me to create lots of tension and lock it in place, it is adjustable and releases easily. If your midshipman’s is a little shaky, simply wrapping the cord around the trunk or branch a couple of times and securing with whatever granny-spaghetti monstrosity you can come up with will do.

Anchoring the corners of the tarp is what separates the engineers from the uncomfortable. The corner cords have a limited effective angle. If you have a bad angle on any of your cords there will be a slack spot in the tarp that will be a source of continual annoyance. Rarely can I find a spot that provides perfect low anchors. If I can’t use things already in place I look for big rocks with flat sides. (*CYA Alert* Always pay attention for critters when moving rocks or digging your hands into bushes.) The bigger the rock the better the anchor; besides, huffing around camp like the World’s Strongest Man loser really impresses the ladies. I use a couple half hitches to connect to the rock; they are easy to tie and slip securely against the rock. For low branches a midshipman’s is usually the ticket. Voila, extreme picnic engaged!

Hangout Tarp
Hangout Tarp

Never do I have enough cord attached to the grommets when I start my project; there is inevitably an anchor that is a little too far away. To attach a piece of extra cord I use the double fisherman’s knot, its easy and strong. If you are planning on setting up a tarp with any regularity bring lots of paracord, its cheap, has many uses and expands the possibilities for your tarp and food hang. Trekking poles come in pretty handy too.

The tarp set up I have described is very basic. You may find yourself in conditions that pose challenges not covered here. Creativity and trial and error will usually allow something to work. Remember school is always in session out there and the grading is pass/fail with extra credit for bomber knots.


Backpacking the Pinalenos

by Logan Monday, October 18th 2010

I don’t know if I can call myself an avid backpacker just yet but I think I am starting to get there, mostly thanks to Craig Little. Craig is a master backpacker or as he puts it an “extreme picnicker”, so I will call him a Master Extreme Picnicker. In the past six months I have been lucky enough to get to tag along on two of his backpacking adventures. Craig is usually ambitious with his trip choices; he likes to tread the path less trodden and make big loops in the big hills. We have a similar aesthetic. The trip to the Pinaleños, while mostly on trail, was still what I would consider ambitious because not many people go to the Pinaleños for much more than day hikes, and our loop (as we found out) used trails that don’t see much traffic. We planned to hike up Ash Creek on the north side of the mountains, top out just below Hawk Peak, traverse east over to the Around the Mountain trail and use that to access Frye Canyon and take it back to the bottom and then bushwhack the deserted low lands back over to the car, 25 miles… four days… totally doable.

I have been wearing Vibram’s Fivefingers for over two years and I haven’t looked back. I started wearing them as a lightweight compact option for a decent/rappel shoe for multi-pitch rock climbing. The first time I used them to hike off the back of Tahquitz Rock I was changed and they became my preferred off road shoe. I felt more in touch, more balanced and they forced me to pick my lines with more care and foresight. They expanded my experience of the 3D world that is nature. Of course there was a bit of a break in period my feet had to adapt to a less cushioned and unsupported way of life, in other words they had to become tougher and stronger. I am glad to say that they have over the past couple of years done just that. The Fivefingers have graduated from an occasional hiking shoe to my full time footwear and so for this trip I thought why throw on my heavy hiking boots when I could keep it light and bring two pairs of Fivefingers instead.


Just so that people know the Ash Creek trail head starts up and left of the creek at the end of the jeep road it does not follow the creek like we thought. However the creek is so pretty if you are like me it will draw you in as it did our party. There seems to be a faint trail that follows the creek for a while, we were obviously not the only ones to miss the trailhead. So we hiked the creek for quite a while before, due to a rainstorm and a tight section of canyon, we had to make our way up a ridge composed of mostly exposed rock. We picked the wrong side to scramble up. From the high ground on the west side of the creek we saw the trail across the canyon on the East Ridge… oops. It was a good thing that we saw the trail because once we back tracked and bushwhacked over to it the sailing got a lot smoother and the rain let up. I was glad to be wearing my Fivefingers they seemed to perform quite well on the numerous scrambley (my word but you can use it) sections that we encountered due to our off trail shenanigans.

We camped about half way up Ash Creek near a place called Oak Flats, there just happens to be a great camp spot right off the trail you can’t miss it and when we found it we knew it was home for the night. The next morning brought great cool temps and lucky for me a fresh dry pair of Fivefingers! Everyone else had to use their wet shoes/boots from the day before. I LIKE DRY SHOES, especially when you can carry two pair for the weight of less than one pair of hiking shoes let alone boots.

Ash Creek is beautiful, full of cascades and exposed cliffs and Ash Falls is a spectacular 120-150 foot stream of white water combining those two elements in a very captivating way. Our second day of hiking brought more amazing views and some steep hiking. It was shaping up to be a great day. A little more rain a lot of elevation gain and raspberries galore; we hit the mountain at the right time. We made our way up through the pines and aspens until we hit the road that would take us east over to the start of the Around the Mountain trail. I prefer the trails and their dynamic construction much more than the hard packed flat road, Fivefingers and our feet are better suited for variable terrain. My feet only started to noticeably hurt on the road so I stayed on the softer more shapely shoulder. We made camp in a flat part of the forest just off the dirt road that leads to the ATM trail, sadly we could not safely make a fire but we had Sailor Jerry to keep us warm. It got cold and windy but after such a beautiful day of hiking we were all in good spirits. If I were to sum up the second day and barely do it justice I would say Ash Falls, Aspens and Raspberries.


Around the Mountain trail starts on a shaded hillside and after the rains of summer looked more like the North West than the South. Moss covered boulders and lichen covered trees bordered the rarely used trail. It seemed like we were alone on the mountain except for the bears and mountain lions. In fact the only evidence of use on the trail were the lion scratches and occasional bear and cat scat. The rest of the day was spent descending the mountain on trails that were barely visible through the thick growth. The views were amazing and the growth was beautiful, it felt remote and wild. Frye Canyon was just as pretty as Ash but in a different way. The fire that had burned it years before opened it up and made it thick in under brush perfect hunting grounds for Mountain Lions.

We saw many indications of the large cats through out the day, then at the base of the canyon while we were out on a rocky out cropping looking down on swirling pools and cascades carved out of the rock I turned to see something I had always wanted to see, a mountain lion descending out of a juniper 30 yards away! It was amazing and took the words right out of my mouth when I finally got the words out it had all but disappeared up the hill. I then had a reaction I never thought seeing a mountain lion would prompt… I chased after it. My brother and I charged up the exposed ridge hoping for another glimpse, I was lucky enough to see it again just before it walked out of view. My brother and I continued to pursue the great cat to the top of the ridge but it was gone. We were foolish and excited. I do not recommend pursuing mountain lions they are not to be trifled with. However the puma was out numbered and by running after it my brother and I were acting much more like predators than prey… still kind of a bad idea.


We camped that night at the turn around at the base of Frye canyon surrounded by waterfalls on both sides. We got up early in order to beat the heat back to the car. This meant that we had to bushwhack the desert through drainages choked with mesquite and cat claw it sounds like less fun than it was. It was a beautiful morning and the views up at the canyons we had spent the last three days ascending and descending were spectacular. Even crossing the un-trailed desert I felt confident in my Fivefingers, I remain a convert and believe that there are few activities these “shoes” aren’t capable of handling. We made the car just before it got scorching and celebrated with one last dip in Ash Creek before heading into Safford for burritos.


The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!