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

Pushing My Limit on Steel Crazy

by Emily Monday, September 20th 2010

We racked up to Steel Crazy, a four pitch 5.9 route on the spine of the Fortress, at just about two in the afternoon; not an entirely appropriate start for a party of four on long route none of us had done before.  Clare and I would start the route, and the boys would come up behind us.  I'm willing to sacrifice some dignity and admit that I was all psyched for the route, decided that being the most experienced climber in the group meant I should be the first to lead off the pitch, and got up a measly twenty-five feet before facing the crux of the climb, where I was shut down.  Some people will probably disagree with me, but I think the hardest part of a climb is when you're hanging on at your physical limit, you can still see what your next move should be but don't know what will happen in the move after that.  This isn't just a climbing thing; this is a test of how we deal with all the hard stuff in our lives.  The hardest part is trusting that you'll figure it out when you get there.  I did not trust this at all.  My next move involved grappling a little bulge above my head and attempting to thrust all my weight over it, and this part I could do, but I couldn't see what to hold on to after the leap.  Instead, I hung from my arms looking for the next hold until my arms turned to jelly.  And then I came down.

The other hard part of climbing: getting your ego smashed in front of boys.  One of the guys lead the pitch and popped right over the spot where I struggled; maybe some of it was that he's six foot four and I'm five foot three, but most of it was that he's fearless.  On the drive up the mountain, we were talking about fun routes we'd done before, and he related some stories about getting in over his head leading on harder climbs; I asked why he didn't just back off of those situations, and he said it just hadn't occurred to him.  In some ways I was envious; climbing for me includes the task of constantly sorting out the real dangers from the stomach flips.  For him the guidelines were clear, and the stomach flips were no big deal.  On my second attempt I got over the crux just fine.

View from the first belay
View from the first belay

The best part of climbing (again at least in my opinion) is the exposure and the view, and by these criteria the belay station on top of the first pitch of Steel Crazy is superb.  Clare and I sat on top of a little pinnacle, looking out at the jagged front range and on toward Tucson.  On the horizon we could see the outlines of Mount Wrightson and Baboquivari Peak.  Behind us was an alcove where the boys were starting the second pitch.  Clare really wanted to lead this part; she had climbed harder but had little leading experience.  The second pitch is a steep headwall that requires balance on little crystals everywhere, and as we watched the leader dance up the face, he whistled and occasionally sang the chorus of a song stuck in his head, and Clare got nervous.  She said he always whistles when the climbing is hard.

Clare got to the second bolt of the second pitch, and then told me she wanted to come down.  I said okay, but instead of asking me to take up the slack, she took another step, and then another.  She was silent the rest of the way up, until she was at the anchors eighty-five feet later.  She told me not to tell the boys about her momentarily lost confidence, but I thought she deserved a shout out anyway; hopefully they don't read many blogs.  I think I know just how she felt.  After you push past that point of fear there's a delicious sense of focus; it's like the part of your brain that's dwelling on falling gets drowned out by the part that wants to hang on.  The second and third pitches of Steel Crazy are like that:  you're balancing on almost vertical rock on small holds, and after nearly every move it seems like there's nothing left to move to, until you find something that seems impossibly small and you realize you can make it work.  It's an accumulation of tiny steps, and every step is an accomplishment and a celebration that you're still hanging on.

Clare at the summit
Clare at the summit

We ended the climb exactly at sunset.  So exact, in fact, that as I was pulling up from the shade of the rock to the summit I planted my hands in a bright swath of pink light.  We sat at the top coiling our ropes, eating dried mango and candied ginger and watching the colors change, sinking down over the Tucson Mountains.  We hiked out in the dark, headlamps like fireflies among the trees.

sunaet steel crazy
Sunset on the descent


Trail Running With Vibram FiveFingers

by Emily Wednesday, August 25th 2010

How I Learned to Not Hate Running

I started my first trail run ever with the goal that I would just run as much as I wanted to. A quarter of a mile in on the Marshall Gulch trail, I started thinking I should have set some loftier goals, seeing how I only seemed to want to run a few paces at a time up the small but steep rises and dips and rock-hopping creek crossings. From hiking this trail, I had always considered it a mellow walk on a soft shaded path, and now suddenly I was noticing there were rocks and hills everywhere, and they were hard to negotiate at the clumsy speed I seemed to be favoring. There's that spot a little ways in on the trail where if you cut into the creek you run into a small little bouldery waterfall and the sides of the water basin below it are covered in moss; it's always been a favorite spot of mine, as I'm sure it is for many people, and I decided to stop there, sit on a rock, and reset.

My favorite rest stop along the trail.

I've never really liked running. Even when I was running fifteen plus miles a week, I liked the adrenaline and energetic exhaustion I felt afterwards, but never liked the feel of the activity itself. It's so repetitive, and if I didn't have headphones piping music into my ears, I'd get a song I didn't like stuck in my head (which was sometimes beneficial, because I'd get so furious at some whiny little melody that I would run faster, as if I could somehow get away from it). Running is just . . . uncomfortable. So I sat cross-legged on the rock next to the little waterfall in Marshall Gulch and just concentrated on feeling the balance of my back sitting up straight, listening to the water instead of my inane I-hate-running thoughts, and relaxed. Finally a bee urged me to keep moving by trying to crawl under my palm.

On Attempt Number Two I let my strides be shorter as I pranced up the little ridge, and instead of thinking about running I looked around at beautiful yellow columbines, and the stark tree trunks on the side of the hill that got burned. I looked up instead of at the trail in front of me, and realized that my feet in their Vibram Fivefingers could take care of themselves; I could feel and adjust to all the rocks instead of watching and avoiding them. Two women were resting on a tree trunk in front of me and graciously offered me sunscreen when I admitted I'd forgotten mine. One woman asked me about my shoes, and after I explained they were basically just a little piece of rubber to protect my feet, she said she thought they were neat but worried that her ankles would roll on her. "Well, you just don't go that fast," I said, which was something I'd just realized. If you stay at the pace your body likes and can respond to, then it does a pretty good job of protecting itself. It's pretty neat to feel so connected and receptive to the ground you're on.

Women’s Vibram FiveFinger KSO

I made it to the saddle and started in on the Wilderness of Rocks trail. As I slowly minced my way down the slope, the thought popped in to my head that it would be fun to run up it on the way back. (Really? Fun? I thought I hated running . . .) I had some time to scramble around on the rocks and watch beautiful purple storm clouds roll in before thunder sounded and I remembered that a valley full of burned and fragile trees was not a place to be in a lightning storm. So I ran back, and running up that scree-covered hill was fun, and so was running down the switchbacks on the ridge back down to the creek, and there were no songs stuck in my head and no inane thoughts rattling around. My feet felt strong and my posture felt comfortable, and halfway back a smile accidentally crept its way onto my face. A rocky little gully came at me too fast, but my feet found just the right places to keep me from tripping and I let out a little whoop, so thankful that my body found a way through without my brain getting in the way. The way back seemed to be taking no time and barely any effort at all. Among darkening clouds and thunder that sounded like gunfire and the felling of trees, I found myself wishing the car was further and further away.

Yellow Columbines along the trail.


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!