Secret Canyon

by Emily Thursday, July 7th 2011

Bryon wears soft cotton pants and no shoes, so when he walks behind you--even right behind you--you can't hear him at all. He knows how to build a fire by rubbing two sticks together. He knows the best wood for making a bow, and the way to prepare cactus to eat so that it doesn't act as a diuretic. Bryon knows that if you go ahead and chomp into a piece of cactus without preparing it this way, it will act as a diuretic and dehydrate your already desert-worn body.

There's a map in his head of secret canyons he's found where water flows in the summer, and he offered to take Logan and me--sworn to secrecy, of course--to one he calls "cat canyon" because he's often seen the wash full of mountain lion tracks.

A disclaimer for the kind of story this will be: I cannot tell you where this canyon is, though I do hope, dear reader, that you discover an amazing canyon for yourself. In Bryon's case, he was driving along one of our local mountain roads looking for something inspiring, and in the distance he saw a large bright green patch of cottonwoods. So he hiked to them, because cottonwoods mean water. Some days I forget that there are so many places to be explored.

We hiked in the dry bed of the wash until rock walls started to rise on either side. Then from the sand we came upon small pools of murky water and slimy gardens of algae. One hundred yards later, the water was running down to the algae in trickles. Then the pools got bigger, and some of the water was clear. It was weird to follow the water backward, from the mucky places where the desert is thirsty to a more hopeful place where the oasis might last all summer. We waded through deep troughs, and the tall boys were in water up to their thighs; I soaked my shorts entirely.

Crawling up amazing rock formation
Crawling up an amazing rock formation.

In the swimming hole the water was so cool it had this weird relaxing effect. Not so cold that we were shivering, but cold enough that it felt strange to sit still. The rock rising out of the water was black granite with beautiful white veins, and reflections of the water, brighter than its stripes, danced over it.

Reflections playing on the rocks
Reflections playing on the rocks.

In the belly of the secret canyon
In the belly of the Secret Canyon.

Way up in the canyon, the trees closed in. Bryon showed us the place where a mountain lion was slaughtered. He came up the canyon one day to find blood all over the rocks. The now dried carcass was laying near the stream, missing head, feet, tail and hide. The smell stayed in my nose even as we hiked back down to the field of thistles and sweet honeysuckle. I'm told that hunting mountain lions is legal in Arizona. It didn't help me feel any better about it being done.

Angry gila monster
Angry Gila Monster

Hiking back out, we doused ourselves in the water, fending off the afternoon heat. Someday, Bryon says, he'll hike up to the source. We watched the water trickle back into the sand as we neared the car, knowing that somewhere up there a spring was pumping a lot more out.


Repairing a Zipper

by Emily Tuesday, May 24th 2011

It happens to everyone: you've had your favorite backpack for years. It's held textbooks, a week's worth of clothes, and camera equipment. You've dragged it on and off of trains, planes and automobiles; you took it caving and scraped it against rock walls. Its limits were tested and it always stood up to the test, until one tragic day when the zipper split.

Working at the Summit Hut, I've seen the stricken faces of people bringing in beloved jackets, sleeping bags and purses, hoping someone can repair the defunct zipper that keeps separating after the item has been zipped up. Turns out this is usually an easy repair you can perform in seconds with a simple set of pliers. Here's how to diagnose your zipper problem and get you favorite backpack up and running again.

Take a careful look at the teeth of the zipper. If any of the individual teeth are missing, or if the taping fabric next to the teeth is torn, you'll have to send the item in to the vendor or find a seamstress to replace the zipper itself.

If the zipper's teeth are intact, that means the problem is with the zipper's slider, and there are do-it-yourself solutions to that. Start by tightening the slider.

The slider is essentially two channels that come together, pulling the zipper teeth in and pressing them together. Well loved and well worn zippers sometimes loosen up from top to bottom, so they don't put enough pressure on the teeth to lock them together. To tighten the slider, first unzip it all the way to the bottom, making sure that the slider is sitting squarely on the bottom of both sides of the zipper. Take a pair of pliers and clamp them, top to bottom, around the slider on one side of the zipper pull. Squeeze with a medium-firm pressure, enough to feel a little bit of give in the slider but not so much that you press it closed. Repeat on the other side of the zipper pull. Then try zipping it up.

If the zipper works a little better now but still separates somewhere, it just needs to be tightened a little more. Repeat instructions above. It's possible to clamp the slider down too much and the zipper will be a little stiff; just keep working the zipper back and forth and it will loosen up a bit.

There are a few rare instances where the slider is completely worn out and needs to be replaced. In that case you can get a handy-dandy Zipper Rescue Kit that contains every common zipper slider size known to the outdoor industry. Now you need to get the slider off, which on jackets and sleeping bags is pretty easy and on other gear will likely involve a little sewing. On jacket zippers (or any piece where the sides being zipped up totally separate at the bottom) the only thing keeping the slider in is a little metal stopper pinched into the bottom. Use your handy pliers (or possibly a combination of implements found on a multi-tool) to open up this stopper and pry it off the zipper. Then slide the old slider off, slide a new slider on, and get a new stopper from the Rescue Kit to fasten on to the bottom with your pliers.

If the zipper is sewn into the recesses of seams in your backpack or tent, you'll need to pull out some of the stitching around the bottom of the zipper to get at the stoppers, which you can then remove and replace with the same instructions above. If you're not handy with a needle and thread, you might want to get a seamstress to take care of the sewing back together. If the item is waterproof, beware that water can seep through the new stitch holes and you might want to get some waterproofing tape to stick over it when you're done.


Climbing Moby Dick

by Emily Tuesday, January 18th 2011

The day began with a long drive down a deeply rutted dirt road into the far reaches of the Cochise West Stronghold. I swear I have car-narcolepsy; sometimes no matter what the circumstances, I completely bonk out in the passenger seat, and this was happening to me as the truck bucked down the road: despite the beautiful views of open desert ranch land and bald, towering domes, and despite the truck bunny-hopping small boulders in the creek, I managed to fall asleep with my head resting on the back of the bench seat for at least a few seconds between bumps of my head against the window. Eventually Clare pulled my head to her shoulder so she wouldn't have to listen to it bang against the glass. She didn't even tease me, though the boys certainly did.

 Moby Dick, first pitch

Lift off: first pitch of Moby Dick

Pulling closer to the trailhead, the canyons unfolded like granite ribbons. We parked and got out and slung on our packs and dropped into the wash, laid out at the bottom of the canyon like a street cobbled with polished white boulders. I had been here before, so I was the acting guide, which would have made our party irrevocably lost if not for the paved river bed. I knew at least that on the approach to Moby Dick on the Whale Dome, it's not time to turn up the gully until you're directly under the dome. You can recognize the dome because it looks like a whale, kind of. There's a crack forming the smile of the humpback mouth. I also knew we wouldn't be directly under it until we had passed a large fallen tree whose branches curved up from where they cross the trail. The first time I picked through the branches I got the eerie feeling of crawling through whale ribs to get to Moby Dick.


There's something magical about the whole days I've spent out here. The approach is beautiful, with lush tree cover in the desert, and after the ribbed branches, after breaking away from the stream bed and a short jaunt straight uphill we found ourselves at the bottom of the climb, two open cracks that would be the wrinkles of whale underbelly if we were to believe the dome still looked like a whale, which it really didn't from there. In any case, we stepped into our harnesses.

I conceded the first pitch lead to Logan. I told him it was because I'd already climbed it and I thought the pitch would be fun for him; in actuality I was nervous about the first awkward and unnerving moves. I didn't think they would be a problem for him, but just like on my first time up the climb, he got into the first strange off-width crack the wrong way, and about eight feet up, right before putting a piece of gear in the rock to hold a fall, his foot slipped. I gasped sharply, imagining a split second where the slip turned into a fall and my boyfriend came tumbling to the rocky ground. In the next split second he had caught himself and placed his foot more firmly on the rock, clipping a cam as he moved over to the next crack system.

Moby Dick, second pitch

Crack system on Moby’s second pitch

Crack climbing is a somewhat rare treat in southern Arizona, and there's a fair bit of it on the first two pitches of Moby Dick, as the climb follows a couple of cracks up the side of the whale. Sometimes they're just used for protection pieces, but often you can wedge a fist in the gap and pull yourself up, or layback up more open cracks, pressing your feet against a wall while grappling the edge of the crack for counter pressure. I like climbing along cracks because it's more physical; you're using your body like you would hexes or cams, locking limbs in and moving up from there.

Pitch three reveals an amazing rock feature as you climb up this big gaping flake and at the top you can look down and see open air through the side; it's one big slice of rock just leaning on the side of the dome. At the top of the pitch you get to pitch a belay on chickenheads, big plates of rock poking up from the surface of the dome. Some people find this absolutely terrifying, but I think it's neat--it's so amazing to me that these features exist, and even better that they can be so useful.

The next two pitches go like a choose-your-own-adventure book. There's a given direction to go, and there are a few sections of slab, but much of it is climbing over big plated chickenheads, which is great because you have a thousand holds and a similar number of movements you can make. It's like a jungle gym.

Whale Dome Summit

On top of Whale Dome

We summited Whale Dome and drank in my favorite view anywhere while we munched dried mango and cinnamon almonds, compliments of Clare. The canyon continues cutting steep gorges, driving northeast toward the other side of the Stronghold. We prepared our ropes for the descent, which involves anchoring them in and then tossing them down a 170 foot abyss where they get tangled in trees at the bottom. One by one we take on the rappel, edging over the whale's lips and lowering ourselves into nothing: for 170 feet the rope dangles away from the rock wall as the whale recedes into the canyon bed.

(A logistical word to the wise: a windy day can whip ropes all over the wall, tangling them in chickenheads. I've heard of more than one person who's spent the night hanging from a harness while the ropes were hopelessly tangled on the wall. This descent--and the climb, for that matter--are not for beginners.)

And then, the climb done all in a day's work, we headed home. The fading light turned the rocks magenta as we hiked out, stopping in the middle for an acorn fight, girls against boys. We boulder-hopped back to the truck, and I stayed awake the whole way home.


50 Year Trail

by Emily Monday, December 20th 2010

The 50 Year Trail on the west side of the Santa Catalina Mountains is a magical place. It's hard to explain why really; this network of trails does not go up one of the many scenic and rugged canyons, but rather loops around on the shallow ridges and washes below the range. It was cloudy on the morning that two girlfriends and I went out to shred through the trail on our mountain bikes, and the clouds broke up the sun as it crested over the summit, making huge rays scatter over the valley. When I described how pretty this was to my boyfriend and my brother, both avid mountain bikers who have lived in Tucson much longer than me, they said they had often seen the same thing out here. The late-blooming sun keeps the valley below cool until midmorning, and in the past few weeks the wildflowers have had a second run, filling the valley with California poppies one week, bird's foot morning glories the next, and raging pink barrel cactus flowers throughout. The morning of our ride it was raining in Oracle and in Tucson, forming dark curtains around our slice of the mountains.

Sunrise On The 50 Year Trail

Sunrise On The 50 Year Trail

Kristen invited her friend Terri, who was from Australia and spoke with the most adorable accent in the world. Kristen and Terri are trail builders, and often ride mountain bikes in to work sites, loaded down with a day's worth of water and heavy tools, but Terri had never been mountain biking for fun. Kristen and I got to play the role of guides, leading her through the loops and twists of the trail. We got to a section called the chutes, where the trail is rutted down to a smooth channel. Terri had heard about this section of the trail, which is more intermediate because of the steep drops and turns, and we told her she didn't have to ride it; it loops back to the starting point and she could wait until we got back. But she dropped into it right behind us, taking on the downhill as if it was as easy as... well, as riding a bike.

Heading through the chutes

Riding the chutes

I love the chutes. This section is definitely best appreciated on a mountain bike: on foot it's dusty, steep and rutted, but on a bike it's transformed into a roller coaster. The track is narrow and packed, the downhills are steep enough that you barely ever have to pedal, and you can just ride on the spine of these little ridges, feeling the momentum zooming you around the desert.

The first time I went mountain biking, my brother took me out to Fantasy Island and within the first ten yards I hit a small little rock and went flying over the handlebars, opening up my knee and my elbow; I have scars to show. He laughed at how I just went barreling down the hills, too scared to hit the brakes. It was fun and terrifying at the same time, because the desert housed so many things to scratch and stab you if you fell over, but it was exhilarating to find the right balance through the tough parts. I was always happy to be out in the desert, but also a little relieved when we got back to the trailhead.

Coming out of the chutes

Exiting the chutes

The same kind of relief showed on Terri's face when broke back onto the road, heading toward the car. I wanted to go another round.

Beginners and novices might only be separated by this one detail: when you're ready to go home, and when you still want more

Activities | Trails

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!