Wrightson

Wrightson and trail
Wrightson and trail

After Picacho, I drove through Tucson and south on I-19 to Madera Canyon, the trailhead for Mount Wrightson. Since it is a popular “workout peak” for Tucsonians, I figured the trail would be packed down to the summit, and therefore doable in an afternoon. However, road construction had closed the road 1-2 miles from the trailhead, spoiling my plans for a quick afternoon strike.

Boy Scout memorial
Boy Scout memorial
Returning down-canyon, I decided to investigate the sign for the Elephant Head mountain bike trail, and was pleased to also find some nice dispersed (i.e. free) camping just outside the heavily-patrolled Madera fee zone. Some of the trails were a bit beyond my ability, and I took an extended detour through a maze of dirt roads on the way back, but much of it was easy enough to be fun. Plus, I had a perfect campsite for the next morning.

Crags north of summit
Crags north of summit
Starting from the car the next morning, I biked back up Madera Canyon, and happily found that the road was apparently not closed to bikes (which also don’t have to pay fees). I locked my bike to the trailhead bench and started hiking, finding that the trail was packed as expected. This made it somewhat icy in the morning, but much faster and easier than powder or slush.

Observatory and Baboquivari
Observatory and Baboquivari
I had hiked the first part of this trail in clouds and rain last month, only reaching the memorial for three Boy Scouts who died in a huge snowstorm 56 years ago. Continuing past the sign, I enjoyed views of some nice crags to the east, and an impressive road leading to the Whipple Observatory on Mount Hopkins.
Trail near summit
Trail near summit
Grateful for the people who had packed a trail in the snow, I eventually reached the summit and its old lookout foundation. With the 4,000-foot climb from Madera Canyon apparently the easiest way to the summit, this must have been a hard lookout to maintain.

Madera alluvial fan
Madera alluvial fan
After taking in the view, including the huge alluvial fan leading north from Madera Canyon, I returned the way I came. I was worried that the trail would be icy, but after hiking for 15 minutes, I started running, and found that the snow had softened perfectly. The return was a wild, skittering, leaping sprint, jamming to techno, swinging around trees on switchbacks, and racing past hikers. I reached the trailhead in under an hour, then passed a few cars on my bike for good measure on the way back to the car.

Picacho (and FAIL on Lemmon)

Picacho and train at dawn
Picacho and train at dawn

Every state that James K. Polk took from Mexico has its own Picacho, Arizona’s being a small volcanic protrusion along the interstate northwest of Tucson. Originally a class 3-4 climb with tricky route-finding, it has been turned into a jungle gym for grown-ups via cables, fences, and plentiful signs. It’s not on any list, and not particularly high, but after a thorough ass-handing-to on Lemmon the day before, I was looking for something easy and below the snow line.

This road sucks.
This road sucks.
How did Lemmon, a drive-up, get the best of me? Rather than driving or riding the paved road, I decided to “play fair” with the mountain by taking the Sutherland trail from the desert at 3,000 feet, yielding a climb of a bit over 6,000 feet. Since the first part is labeled as a 4WD road, and most of the route lies outside the wilderness boundary, I hoped to bike the first 1,500 feet and almost half the distance. I put my bike headlamp in my pack, then waited for the sun to reach the parking lot on the west side of the mountain before starting off. I ignored the angry signs about trespassing on “state trust land,” riding along a well-graded dirt to the rougher Forest Service road. (The signs are apparently unenforced, as a cop right by the 10-15 cars parked right next to the boundary when I returned.)

This road is absurd.
This road is absurd.
Unfortunately, the old road turned out to be one of the worst roads I have ever seen, comparable to Colorado’s famous Lake Como road, with a surface made mostly of fist- to toaster-sized boulders, frequent built-up rubble ramps, and even a waist-high step. Though one intrepid driver in an especially burly Jeep had apparently reached the end of the road, I mostly took my bike for a walk, then locked it to a powerline pole and continued on foot.

Sutherland Ridge
Sutherland Ridge
A boot-pack took me partway up the snowy north-facing slope to Sutherland Ridge, but gave out before the top, leaving me with what turned out to be miles of 4-6″ deep snow on a faint path through boulders and spiny plants. Reaching the junction with the Cañada del Oro trail around 1:00, I decided I would rather not slog the remaining distance to the summit and spend several hours of headlamp time.

Vines attacking cactus
Vines attacking cactus
Hence Picacho… After camping in the desert a bearable distance from the interstate and parallel train track, I returned to Picacho State Park, put a few dollars in an envelope, and set off to tag the peak around sunrise. The recent rains had briefly turned the desert green, but if any snow had fallen, none remained. I managed to avoid touching the cables, and found a bit of class 3-4 climbing along what would have been a non-obvious route. After a few minutes by myself on the summit, I returned to the car and headed back toward Tucson, looking for something to do with the rest of the day.

Miner’s Needle, Superstition

Needles' shadows from summit
Needles’ shadows from summit

Frustrated with the cold, dry weather at “home,” I threw some food, clothes, and a bike in the car and headed back to southern Arizona, where everything sticks, stings, or stinks, with two goals: to revisit the Superstition Mountains, and to tick off some ultra-prominence peaks. Ironically, I finally found snow on the drive south, which took an hour longer than expected thanks to nervous Arizona drivers on the snow-packed roads between Springerville and Globe. I finally pulled into one of the camping spots on the way to the Peralta trailhead, set my bike outside, and turned in for the night.

Superstitions from camp
Superstitions from camp
My first goal was to tag Miner’s Needle and Superstition Peak. Unlike Weaver’s Needle, which is barely visible from Highway 60 if you know where to look, Miner’s stands out impressively on the southern edge of the range. It had caught my attention on the drive home from Weaver’s, but I found little online about its difficulty. Superstition, while not much of a climb, is the range highpoint and an interesting-looking peak. Linking them up makes little sense, but would give me a chance to hike/run some new trails.

Saguaro and rock spires near TH
Saguaro and rock spires near TH
This being a weekend at a popular trailhead, I saw a number of cars drive by before dawn, and several more between dawn and when I summoned enough motivation to crawl out of my sleeping bag in the cold. It was cold enough that I took the time to heat my morning “Cup of Sadness,” and nearly froze my hands dealing with the stove and stowing gear. By the time I hit the trail at 8:00, there were 20 or more cars in the lot, and several groups milling toward the Peralta Trail and Fremont Saddle.

Miner's from WSW
Miner’s from WSW
I, on the other hand, headed east on the Lost Dutchman trail, which parallels the south edge of the range, passing through a saguaro forest before heading north up the drainage east of the needle. While Miner’s looks like a single, tall rock formation from the east or west, it is actually three separate spires, with a gradual slope leading to within 50-100 feet of their summits from the north. Leaving the trail at the logical place, I found occasional cairns and bits of trail peeking out from the snow, leading to the saddle east of Miner’s.

Exposed step-around
Exposed step-around
I saw two possible routes to the summit: The first climbs a 30-foot exfoliating slab to a chockstone on the (shady) east side. The second makes a few wildly exposed, face-y moves around to the gully that splits the south side. While the slab offered a painful-not-fatal fall option, the step-around looked like something I could climb in rock shoes. I switched shoes, put my camera on my belt, then spent a few minutes psyching myself up before making the delicate moves around south. The rock (bonded tuff?) is more solid and sticky than it looks, but the handholds are small enough to make it intimidating going up, and slightly more so going down. If I had to guess, I would say it is about 5.6.

Final grovel-chimney with cheater step
Final grovel-chimney with cheater step
Above the step-around, a bit of 3rd class scrambling leads to the spiny-thing “garden” between the three summit blobs. A final, awkward grovel, made easier by someone’s rock step-stool, leads to the summit.
Superstition (l) and Weaver's (r) from Miner's
Superstition (l) and Weaver’s (r) from Miner’s
After not finding a register, I stayed only briefly before retracing my steps. I found a rappel sling at the top of the slab, but that was useless to me, so I retraced my steps, once again taking a minute or two to psych myself up for the step-around.

The technical part of my day complete, I now faced a long hike west, around Weaver’s Needle to the range highpoint. This was deliberate: while I could have done the two peaks as separate outings, I wanted to see more of the Superstitions’ interior. Continuing on the Lost Dutchman trail, I jogged past some campers on the way to a surprisingly lively stream, where it meets the Bluff Spring trail. Heading upstream, I passed more campers before turning right at the next junction, toward Bluff Saddle. The Superstitions are probably a miserable place to backpack for most of the year, but it seems people were taking advantage of the recent snow’s water and cooler temperatures.

Weaver's from SE
Weaver’s from SE
The trail deteriorated after Bluff Saddle, eventually disappearing in a flat, brushy area near Weaver’s. Heading cross-country up the wash south of the Needle, I soon found cairns and bits of trail along the obvious route connecting Needle and East Boulder Canyons. I following the main trail back to Fremont Saddle, where the usual crowd had gathered to admire the Needle from a safe distance.

Leaving the trail once more, I followed a fading line of cairns through the snow to the west. After suffering through snow and spines on the faint-to-invisible route, I found a sign and well-trod path at the saddle above Carney Springs, where I joined the standard route to Superstition.

Rock spire near Superstition
Rock spire near Superstition
On the way to the summit, I met a man finishing a long traverse from the Flatiron, and another group of three coming back from the peak. Though the summit is a cluster of rock spires, reaching it requires only a couple easy third class moves. After a few minutes looking over the perfect grid of Phoenix streets, I jogged back down to Carney Springs, then took a trail along the wilderness boundary back to the still-crowded Peralta Trailhead.

Weaver’s Needle

The Needle
The Needle

Weaver’s Needle is an impressive fin hidden in the Superstition Mountains. Though only a few miles from Phoenix, it is not visible from the city, and only barely visible from highway 60 to the south. Lying in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, the Superstitions’ many small rock spires are mirrored by forests of saguaro cacti. Though not one of the higher peaks in the range, it is certainly one of the most impressive and popular. Its 5.5 crux, short approach, and scenic surroundings make it one of the more difficult and enjoyable desert peaks.

Cacti and rocks near trailhead
Cacti and rocks near trailhead
After a late start from Tucson, we shouldered a rope apiece at the Peralta trailhead, and got started around 11:15. Cooler temperatures and a few harmless clouds hung around from the previous day’s rain, making for pleasant hiking up the popular approach trail. With 30-40 cars at the trailhead, I was worried about traffic on the route, but it turns out that the vast majority of people were only out to view the Needle from Fremont or Bluff saddle. We passed people of all ages and levels of fitness on the way to Fremont Saddle, none carrying ropes.

Hiking to Fremont Saddle
Hiking to Fremont Saddle
At the saddle, we paused briefly to admire the Needle with the rest of the crowd, then continued on down East Boulder Canyon, where we had the trail to ourselves. As we rounded the west side of the Needle, we heard a dog barking and yelping, presumably frustrated at being left at the base of the route.

Base of approach
Base of approach
The standard route from the west climbs a steep gully between the highpoint and a sub-summit to its south. Shortly before this gully became visible, Mike noticed a couple cairns next to the trail, and we left the main trail to cross the dry wash to the east. After crossing the wash, we followed a line of cairns upward to the northeast, which leads fairly painlessly to the base of the scrambling. Despite Weaver’s being a popular peak near a major city, there is little or no trail along the line of cairns.

Crux gully/chimney
Crux gully/chimney
At the base of the class 3-4 climbing we found the source of the barking, a juvenile dog trying desperately to climb 4th-class slabs to reach its master.
Poor dog...
Poor dog…
It strained and whined pathetically from its precarious perch near the top, and I felt sorry for it as I scrambled up an easier route to the right. After putting on rock shoes, I scrambled on up the gully/chimney to just below the chockstone at the top. Most of the climbing was moderate, secure stemming on good rock with large holds. The final climb around the chockstone was somewhat more serious, with steeper 5.5-5.6 face climbing to round it on either side; I chose left, and Mike chose right.

Looking down crux
Looking down crux
At the saddle, I met the dog’s owners, a guy with surprisingly little patience for loud dogs taking his novice girlfriend climbing. We chatted briefly as they set up a rappel, and I dropped a rope to belay Mike up the final section. I learned that one can descend the gully in two single-rope rappels, so we had hauled the monster 11-pound sport rope all that way for nothing. After belaying Mike to the saddle, I left my rope near the bolts, and we scrambled the rest of the way to the summit.
Final steep section
Final steep section
While the route description mentions more technical climbing above the notch, the rest of the climb seemed 4th class, and the rock is surprisingly good.

Summit view NE
Summit view NE
From the summit, fields of small rock spires and saguaros extend in all directions. An arm of the Canyon Lake reservoir is just visible to the north, while bulky Superstition Peak dominates to the west. Though I am not a desert person, the view made me want to explore the spires and twisting canyons. With two more 5.6-ish spires in the vicinity, Miner’s Needle and the Hand, I have an excuse to return. Scrambling back to the notch, we made a single double-rope rappel over the chockstone — might as well use that extra rope! — then packed up the ropes for the hike out. Having carried my light alpine 50m rope on the way out, I was amazed to find that the big cragging 60m weighed almost twice as much. We returned to the trailhead with plenty of daylight left, though not early enough to complete the long drive home.

Baboquivari

Babo from Thomas Canyon
Babo from Thomas Canyon

Baboquivari is one of the handful of desert peaks technical even by their easiest routes, and one of the better ones at that. Located southwest of Tucson near the Mexican border, it is most often approached from the west via an Indian reservation, but can also be approached from the east via the Baboquivari Ranch. I had hoped to scramble the southeast ridge (5.6) then descend the standard route (5.2?), but ended up just scrambling up and down the standard route. This was probably for the best, as the standard route would have been hard to find on the descent.

Sunrise on Mount Wrightson from camp
Sunrise on Mount Wrightson from camp
After loading up the van, Mike took off to ride a section of the Arizona Trail, while I drove up through Tucson and around to the east side of the Baboquivari Range. Though my itinerary was all within the United States, I was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint on the way north, and passed another on the way back south. The agents were efficient and slightly bored rather than aggressive, peering into the back of the van for a few seconds before waving me on, but I would quickly become exasperated if I frequently traveled south of I-10.

Van-proof road
Van-proof road
I found the Thomas Canyon road without too much trouble and, after passing through the gate, continued happily on well-graded dirt. I knew this approach required a high-clearance vehicle, so every mile I drove was two fewer miles I had to jog. The road turned van-proof just before a water tank 2.1 miles from the highway, leaving a bit under 5 miles of road to jog to reach the trailhead — not bad. After a false start in which I forgot my rock shoes, I was on my way bright-and-early at 10:10 AM.

Based on my memory of some directions I found online, I turned right at a fork 5-10 minutes’ jog from the car, following two hunters in a pickup who I assumed knew where they were going. This turned out to be a mistake — the correct route continues left past a couple of forks, before finally turning right/north up Thomas Canyon at a 4-way intersection farther west. After jogging past the hunters, I found that my road dead-ended at an old fence, and knew I was off-route.

Rather than retrace my steps to try another road, I continued up-canyon, following decent cow-paths through cactus, ocotillo, and mesquite up the valley to the north. Though I knew I was not on-route, the bush-whacking was manageable, so I continued to the head of the wash, passing occasional debris left by migrants, then started scrambling toward the ridge to the north.

Clemente Windmill
Clemente Windmill
Fortunately I looked back only a short way up the ridge, and noticed a road perhaps a mile to the west. Retracing my steps and following more cow-paths west, I reached the well-traveled road I should have taken, and hike-jogged past the abandoned Clemente Windmill to the ranch gate, arriving around 11:20. My false start and scenic brush tour had only cost 20-30 minutes, so I was still in good shape.

Nice ranch house
Nice ranch house
The Baboquivari Ranch house was in good shape, though apparently unoccupied at the moment, with signs directing hikers around to the east. After wandering around north of the house a bit, I picked up the faint trail as it passes right of the corral, then follows the wash north to the saddle east of the peak. Just past the corral, I met the apparent owner of the car occupying the one parking spot at the gate, an older man with a pair of garden clippers. My pleasure at seeing someone clipping the cat-claw away from the trail was short-lived, as the man seemed to have given up only a few hundred yards past where I met him. While the rest of the trail was usable, it was too spiny to run on the descent.

Crags from saddle
Crags from saddle
Continuing up-canyon, I followed cairns along the sometimes-faint trail as it crossed and re-crossed the stream-bed. As the wash steepens, the trail switchbacks up the grassy east side, traverses into a slabby gully, climbs the gully, then traverses again to the saddle. It is worth taking extra time not to lose the trail here, as the terrain is steep and spiny. The trail eventually crosses a saddle with a fire ring, where the spectacular cliffs to the north come suddenly into view, then continues up Baboquivari’s north side.

Lion's Ledge and SE ridge (l)
Lion’s Ledge and SE ridge (l)
In retrospect, the southeast ridge route is obvious from the approach, crossing the brushy Lion’s Ledge from the saddle right of the peak to a point partway up the left-hand skyline. However, my internal compass was off, so I thought the southeast ridge route must somehow go up the imposingly steep ridge above the saddle. I continued along the trail past the saddle, then ascended a burned ravine to regain the (northeast?) ridge above the brush. After some fun class 3-4 scrambling, I was confronted by vertical walls with no apparent 5.6 route. Traversing around left on outward-sloping ledges turned up nothing I wanted to climb, so I returned to the top of the burnt ravine and continued up and counterclockwise to hopefully rejoin the standard route.

Anchor above chockstone
Anchor above chockstone
Scrambling up a slot to a chockstone, I climbed fun, pocketed class 4-5 rock to its right, where I found a solid 3-bolt anchor indicating I was some version of “on-route.”
Top of slab pitch
Top of slab pitch
From this point, the route apparently goes up and right, then climbs a broad, slabby face to a 2-bolt anchor with some bright webbing. From there, it traverses right and descends slightly to the base of the “ladder pitch,” where a number of rods and large metal brackets are all that remain of the old ladder.
Old ladder bracket
Old ladder bracket
This crux pitch is probably about 5.2; while I did not need my rock shoes, I found the climbing somewhat tricky in my aggressively-lugged running shoes, which edge and smear terribly.

Summit "offerings"
Summit “offerings”
Above the ladder, the route continues right through a notch, then down between some bushes and a cliff face, before scrambling left up a ravine to the sloping summit plateau. The fire, which apparently engulfed the entire upper mountain, has eliminated much of the brush, making the route easier than before. I topped out around 4 hours from the car, probably about an hour slower than if I had stayed on-route the whole time. The summit features bolts and brackets for an old lookout, a large cairn, and various offerings to the resident deity.

Summit view north
Summit view north
After relaxing on top for a few minutes, I retraced my route. Downclimbing the ladder pitch was somewhat tricky in my running shoes, and I lost the faint trail once below the saddle, but the return was mostly uneventful, and I reached the van well before dark and with a mouthful of water to spare. Despite the wrong turns, this is one of the better desert outings I have done, and I would gladly return for the southeast ridge if I again find myself in the area.

Chiricahua

Summit view east
Summit view east
It is desert season, time to drive through empty land in the long nights, then spend the short days fending off spines. I don’t particularly enjoy solo desert trips, so I was thankful that Mike was willing to humor me and tag along for a few southern Arizona peaks. I had chosen a grab-bag of ultra-prominence peaks and scrambly desert peaks; first up was Chiricahua, an unremarkable “ultra” near the more remarkable Chiricahua National Monument, southeast of Tucson.

We got a dawn start, taking Mike’s van because it is capable of reaching highway speeds even on flats and uphills. The drive south was moderately scenic in its southwestern desert way, with high grassy plains, piñon and ponderosa forests, large mesas, and the occasional crag or cliff-lined cañon. We passed through the redneck backwoods of southwestern New Mexico, descended to the wastelands of the Sonoran desert, and crossed I-10 into the broad and semi-militarized border with Mexico, eventually reaching the trailhead for Chiricahua around mid-afternoon. The “trailhead” is actually a trail sign along a dirt road just wide enough to park a car without blocking traffic.

"Trailhead"
“Trailhead”
Much of the area apparently burned in the last 5-10 years, and the trail has seen little work since, so it is often faint and occasionally blocked by deadfall. (This is the trail starting below Sycamore Campground. The Mormon Canyon trail shown on the USGS 7.5′ topos seems no longer to exist.) We followed it up a broad ridge toward the spine of the Chiricahua Mountains, briefly losing it where it switchbacks right around some cliffs on the ridge, then found it again and followed it to where it joined the crest trail.

Trying to beat dusk
Trying to beat dusk
From here, we followed the crest trail north to Junction Saddle, then the signed trail to Chiricahua’s summit. This trail was usable, but not robust; the other trails shown on the topo seem to have disappeared, perhaps because of the fire. After signing the register and admiring some rock formations to the east, we hurried down to minimize headlamp time, reaching the car less than an hour after dark. Even so far south, daylight is scarce.

Christmas part 4: More Stronghold West

Muttonhead (Mystery of the Desert, 5.9), Sheepshead (Ewephoria, 5.7)

Sheepshead (r) and Muttonhead (l of Sheepshead) from approach
Sheepshead (r) and Muttonhead (l of Sheepshead) from approach

Muttonhead and Sheepshead are two large, adjacent formations west of the main part of the Stronghold. Neither looks even vaguely like an Ovine head. On the advice of some friendly locals, we started off climbing Mystery of the Desert on Muttonhead, then finished with Ewephoria on Sheepshead. Both were fun climbs, with Ewephoria standing out as a fun, well-bolted romp with fun face climbing and an exciting, exposed finish.

Mystery’s first pitch follows a left-facing dihedral between two of the many bolted lines on the left-hand side of Muttonhead. I clipped the first bolt to the right, and was glad that I did so when I slipped on the next move. Trying again, I made a few more tricky moves in the dihedral, then found easier and better-protected climbing up to a bolted anchor.

The next pitch featured some delicate climbing up to an easier-than-it-looks roof, then various options to go over, around, or through the “wedge”. Jen thankfully chose “over”, sparing me a narrow grovel. Easy bolted slab climbing around a nasty bushwhack led to a sunny belay below the crux lieback, which started easy but became steeper and more off-balance toward the end. After an easier face traverse to the next anchor, the final pitch followed bolts up a steeper face to a tree-filled grotto below the summit.

From the top, we spied another party partway up Ewephoria, a mostly-bolted line on the neighboring Sheepshead. Descending around the back and down the gully between the two formations, we chose to quickly run up Ewephoria in the afternoon.

The first pitch, up a crack/dihedral, was okay climbing all on gear; after that, the route was sport-bolted as if someone had just found a bolt kit in his Christmas stocking. Someone had even helpfully attached a stuffed sheep to the anchor at the top of P3, which would otherwise be hidden behind a huge rock plate. As is common, we opted for the harder finish straight up the arete. This requires a delicate mantle onto an outward-sloping ledge, followed by another mantle onto the arete itself, but both moves are well-protected.

We topped out at sunset, racing darkness back down the descent gully. After briefly losing the trail in the brush below, we found it again and made it to the car headlamp-free.

Cochise Dome (What’s my line, 5.6 A0)

Cochise Dome from approach
Cochise Dome from approach

On our final day in the west Stronghold, we climbed the classic “What’s my line,” an easy route up an amazing chickenhead highway on Cochise Dome. The dome can evidently be approached from the east side, but the western approach seems easier. The tricky part is reaching the chickenheads, which don’t quite reach the ground. The standard approach takes a tricky slot up to a ledge left of the route, from which one pendulums across the nearly-blank face to reach the easier climbing. Both the route and its approach a must-do if you visit Cochise.

After much wandering, we finally found the slot, making our way to the ledge with the bolted anchor for the pendulum. I led this move, trying several running pendulums as Jen gradually paid out more rope until, with maybe 20-25 feet out, I managed to grab a big chickenhead and haul myself onto the highway. Climbing in an arc at this radius, I found a large, secure plate about even with the anchor and ledge, and carefully slung it to serve as a pivot for Jen to follow the pendulum. The climbing above this took some getting used to: there were many possible moderate lines, so my choice was determined by which features looked most sling-able.

Reaching the bolted anchor near the end of our rope, I clipped in, then took in as much slack as I could before Jen launched herself off the ledge with a barbaric yawp. The big slung plate held fine, but she got a bit more of a swing than anticipated when one of the higher-up chickenheads became un-slung when pulled sideways by the straightening rope. Another pitch of the same type of climbing led to an awesome triple-sling anchor, from which easier, traversing climbing led to the top. Two raps off the back and a short scramble got us to the base of the dome for the hike out and the dirt road drive around to the other side of the Stronghold.

Christmas part 3: Cochise Stronghold, Whale Dome (Moby Dick, II 5.8)

Cochise panorama
Cochise panorama

Cochise Stronghold is a large area of National Forest land southeast of Tucson. It features mild temperatures, ample free camping, good granite, moderate approaches, and a large number of established (and, probably, unclimbed) multi-pitch trad lines. Though it is in the middle of nowhere, it should be far more popular than it is. Climbers driving or flying long distances for winter climbing in Joshua Tree, for example, might have a better time flying into Tucson to spend a week at Cochise.
Whale Dome
Whale Dome

After miles of driving on mostly-good dirt roads, we pulled in late to what was hopefully the end of the correct road in Cochise Stronghold. After breakfast the next morning, some locals helpfully pointed out Whale Dome and the classic line “Moby Dick,” our first objective. The approach was straightforward, mostly following a rocky wash and avoiding unpleasant desert flora. The climb was fun, but not exceptional.

The first two pitches both ended in run-out, moderate face climbing, which somewhat intimidating, and not entirely to Jen’s liking. The third pitch featured easier climbing and more opportunities for protection, including the first of the slung-chickenhead belays common in Cochise. The fourth pitch continued over easier terrain past several bolts to a comfortable “stegosaurus” ledge. Another pitch of steeper climbing on “alligator skin” led to the summit.

Having lugged a second rope all the way up the climb, we finally put it to use for the free-hanging 40m (35m with a bit of scrambling) rappel off the back. After an easy scramble and hike back to the car — headlamp-free, for a change! — we found a pleasant campsite and amused ourselves lighting things on fire.

Christmas part 2: Table Mountain (Cherry Jam, IV 5.8+)

Table Mountain (l)
Table Mountain (l)

Rolling into Tucson sometime around midnight, we crashed at a pseudo-trailhead in a residential section at the base of Table Mountain, then got a semi-early start on what seemed like a reasonable day: Cherry Jam, “6 pitches of wonderful climbing” with a 2-1/2 hour approach. Fortunately we both brought headlamps this time, since Cherry Jam turned out to be a mediocre climb with a long approach and a hideous descent involving multiple wet rappels and a steep desert bushwhack. There is doubtless some great climbing in the Mount Lemmon area, but Cherry Jam ain’t it.

The approach, taking about the advertised 2-1/2 hours, started on a well-ducked and -used trail through a saguaro forest. It eventually deteriorated into a not-entirely-horrible bushwhack through various desert vegetation. Jen got a bit too friendly with some cactus, but it mostly painless. I led the first pitch, most of a rope-length spent tunneling through oak-brush to a belay below a short cruxy section. The rock was solid, though often lichen-y or polished, which took a bit of getting used to.

Jen led the second pitch, including the move for which the climb is named: a short, chest-width traverse well-protected by a huge angle piton. She left her pack and helmet behind in the process, and ended up doing a short pendulum off the angle piton to bypass the jam. I collected her pack and helmet, then had to leave the gear behind and haul it to execute the move. I managed to pull it off — barely — by inserting myself horizontally head-first, taking a deep breath to wedge my chest, then pivoting to gain purchase on the left wall.

There were, I think, three more pitches, two with some steep climbing on big, positive holds, and one more of easy scrambling to the summit. We topped out a bit before sunset, and regretted not bringing more food and gear to take advantage of the well-built fireplace on the summit. There are at least two steep gullies southwest of the summit. We chose the second, and found brush, water, and several bolted rap anchors. The gully opened up shortly after we donned headlamps, but the terrain only got worse, with a loose, steep mixture of oak-brush, cactus, and various species of yucca. There’s a reason it’s called “alpinism” and not “desertism”.

We eventually reached the car, re-stocked on food and water, picked up some bad drive-through burritos, and got the hell away from Mount Lemmon.

Christmas part 1: Little Picacho

Little Picacho
Little Picacho

With my winter work not starting until the new year, and Jen having two weeks’ vacation around Christmas, the obvious course of action was to take an extended road trip. So we loaded all kinds of gear into the back of my car and headed east on a big loop around the desert southwest and southern Rockies. In addition to much driving through empty country, the plan included a bit of everything from desert tourism to ice climbing.

To break up the first long drive, we climbed Little Picacho, a funky pile of garbage rock near Yuma. The climb involves two fixed ladders and a rappel on the way up, and either a short, steep 5th class climb or reascending the rope on the way down. Arriving sometime in the afternoon, we had a late lunch, then tossed harnesses and my 20m rope in our packs and set of across the desert. There are actually several petrified mud-piles around Little Picacho, so it took us a bit of wandering to find the right one, and to locate the gully for the standard route.

Once we found the start, the route was easy to follow, with ducks and even some painted arrows leading us up a slightly complicated series of connected ledges. I managed to stem my way around the first, shorter ladder, but was unable to find a climbable-by-me way up the overhang behind the second. After looking at a supposed 4th-class bypass on exposed, rotten rock, We made the rappel, then left the rope for the short walk to the summit. After checking out a mystery anchor on the other side of the peak, we pulled the register from its cemented-in cylinder, noted the familiar names, and hurried back out of the wind.

Having rigged the rope to toprope the rappel, we both managed to free-climb the short, overhanging step. Being tall enough to reach a large handhold, I found the climb to be maybe 5.6-5.7 on better-than-it-looks rock; being just a bit too short, Jen found the first moves off the deck somewhat more challenging.

Returning to the saddle between Little Picacho and its two unnamed subpeaks, we were tempted despite the late hour to try climbing one of them. While Little Picacho’s standard route is well-traveled enough for the rock to be relatively clean, we encountered much more loose or brittle rock on the seldom-climbed subpeak. After some interesting route-finding, 4th class climbing on dubious rock, and a bit of direct aid (a hand-boost, a foot stirrup in a fixed line, and a shoulder stand), we reached the summit at sunset, where we found and improved a small cairn.

We managed to get off the tricky stuff before full dark, then shared a headlamp on the way back until the moon rose. I was fortunately not by myself, since my sense of direction was off by 90 degrees or so. I would have hit a road eventually, but going straight back to the car was probably more fun, and even pleasant once we reached flatter and less cactus-infested ground.