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.
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
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.
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.