Climbing Moby Dick

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.

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.

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.

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.

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