Category Archives: Arizona

Coronado, Sinking Ship, Escalante

Sinking Ship and Coronado from rim


One way or the other, my last day in the Canyon would be spent near its eastern end, along the Tanner and New Hance trails. There are a number of greater and lesser summits in the area, ranging from the interesting but not prominent Sinking Ship to the prominent but not interesting Grandview Benchmark. The ambitious plan would be to connect the New Hance and Tanner trails via the Escalante Route on bottom and a hitch-hike on top. (I was traveling without a bike for the first time in awhile.) This would allow me to get in a nice long run and tag Coronado, Cardenas, and Escalante Buttes via short side-trips along the way. But it would also require ambition, which I once again found lacking. Not wanting to waste the day, I opted instead to make three short outings from the rim to tag Coronado, Escalante, and the Sinking Ship.

Coronado summit

New Hance seems to be the most obscure and least maintained official trail on the South Rim, with nothing but a couple of “No Parking” signs indicating the trailhead. I parked at one of the dirt pullouts west the signs, threw some food and water in my pack, and started off hiking in my down jacket, barely warm enough thanks to the wind and shade. Coronado is close to the rim and only class 3, so it unsurprisingly sees a fair amount of traffic. I bumbled down the trail to just below the Coronado-Rim saddle, then left it to follow intermittent use trails toward the butte.

“Exposed” ledge

All options eventually converged on a traverse around the right side of the butte, and the use trail predictably improved, with even a cairn here and there. I had skimmed a trip report about Coronado, so I knew the route went up a steep gully, then traversed to another via an exposed ledge. Unlike on the less popular Pattie and Lyell, there was no guesswork involved, and the “exposed” ledge was tame by climbing standards, broad enough for a faint trail. In short order I was on the summit plateau, where a little scrambling got me to the highpoint. The copper register box contained many entries, some recent, and even a few historical curiosities, though it only went back to the mid-80s.

Sinking Ship from New Hance

I sat on the summit for awhile, debating whether I wanted to continue down the trail and around to the Tanner, but the Sinking Ship had drawn my eye all morning, perfectly lit by the low morning sun, and I had already seen the Tanner and Escalante. I meandered back down Coronado, picked up the New Hance, and hiked back to the car to drive a mile in the wrong direction to park at another random pullout. There was no trail here, but the woods were open, and it was only about a mile to point along the rim closest to the Ship. I crunched through the intermittent snow on this highest part of the South Rim, listening to a podcast and occasionally checking my phone to make sure I was headed to the right place.

Nice box

There were bits of use trail leading through the oakbrush off the rim, and enough lingering snow on the north slope to make the ground slick. I picked my way down to the saddle, then up to the Ship’s bow, knowing only that the route went more or less up the front. It turned out to be the day’s most engaging scramble, starting up a corner to the right, then tunneling left to a steep, chossy gully with a tricky chockstone to surmount near the top. I looked to the right again, then scrambled up and around left, arriving at what I suppose was the fo’c’sle. I saw that, though the ship was going down, the poop deck was still highest, so I continued through a breach, crossed the main deck, and headed left to what seemed the likeliest way to the summit. This proved surprisingly challenging, with a wide stem to get around a large chockstone. Beyond, I continued up easy ground to the summit cairn, which was for a change not on the highest point. I signed in, impressed but not surprised that Bob had beaten me to it by a month, then tagged the highest point. I briefly looked for an easier way off the back side but, finding nothing appealing, retraced my route to the car.

Cardenas from Escalante

I still had daylight to burn, and felt that driving up Grandview Benchmark would be too lame, so I drove over to Lipan Point, put a mostly-empty jar of peanut butter in my pack (my only remaining trail food), and took off jogging. The Tanner was high and shaded enough to hold snow, and popular enough for that to have been packed to ice in places, so I could not make very good time up high. I followed the trail to the saddle with Escalante Butte, admired the peculiar Seventyfive-Mile Creek, which runs west into the Colorado where it makes a 90-degree bend, then picked my way up the Supai to Escalante. The summit area consisted of several large Coconino blocks, of which the northern two proved to be the highest. Reaching the actual summit requires a scramble to the left block, then an easy but heady step across to the right.

Birds of any season

It seemed like I could continue along the ridge to Cardenas, nabbing another unnamed butte along the way, but I felt that sufficient unto the day was the effort thereof, and I took thought for the morrow’s long drive. So to the rim I returned, mingling briefly with the tourists before driving out of the park to camp at another frigid place with cell service. The Grand Canyon wears you down like so many deserts: the plants scrape and tear at you, the rock wears your skin, the day-night temperature swings leave you dehydrated or shivering, and the sand gets everywhere. But my to-do list is longer than it was before I came, so I will lick my wounds and return.

Pattie and Lyell Buttes

Newton from the rim


The route straight off Shoshone Point was one of the lines on Harvey Butchart’s maps that interested me before this trip, and Pete’s recommendation made it a top priority. It is an ancient route, as evidenced by some Moki steps, and the most direct access to three Supai buttes: Newton, Pattie, and Lyell. Pattie and Lyell are moderate scrambles with short low-fifth-class cruxes, while Newton apparently involves some more serious 5.7 face climbing. But this outing is interesting at least as much for the route down to the Hermit Shale as for the minor plateau bumps. As it turned out, Newton’s crux was more than I felt up for, Pattie and Lyell were more my speed, and the whole thing was a good education in Canyon cross-country travel.

Ridge from Shoshone

I drove into the park early again, then parked at the small, unsigned Shoshone Point lot, spent some time preparing, and hiked the old dirt road to the picnic area. It is a surprisingly popular area for being out of sight of the road, and there was a gaggle of tourists milling around taking photos. I wanted to see the point, and was not sure where the route began, so I waded through them to scramble down the ridge crest. I was eventually stopped by a taller cliff band which seemed to have no easy route through, so I waded back through the tourists and started down the gully southeast of the point, following some game and social trails.

The terrain was classic Canyon: loose, steep, and slightly brushy, with occasional small cliff bands. I picked my way through these, at one point using a conveniently placed small dead tree, then traversed back toward the ridge when doing so looked reasonable. I followed a game trail through some slightly less pleasant brush, finding recent dot-rubber tracks suggesting that I was on course. These tracks continued along a flatter stretch of the ridge crest, then confused me at another larger cliff band. There may be a sneaky way directly through this, or some Moki steps, but I instead traversed right again to pick my way down a lower section of the earlier gully before returning to the crest, this time on a more obvious use trail.

Scrambly bits below Shoshone

From here the route stayed near the crest, weaving back and forth to traverse ledges and descend slots through the Coconino. I found some cairns in this section, which were reassuring but not particularly helpful. At the top of the Hermit, I followed the approach shoe tracks back left, then along the ridge toward Newton Butte. There were some mildly annoying blocks and cliffs in this section, but it was mostly easy walking. Once I reached the plateau before the butte, I headed right and made a gradually-ascending traverse, aiming for the most likely place for a route to exist on this side, a slightly-broken area near a large detached block.

Newton crux

An old piton told me I was in the right place, though I found it odd that it was well left of the big block. Later I learned that the route climbs the short face past the piton to traverse left along a ledge 10-15 feet off the ground. But I though the other direction looked better, so I chimneyed up between the block and the butte, then headed right to inspect some steep parallel cracks. They looked like they might lead to easier ground above, and go at about 5.7, but my head was not in the right place, whether because of the cold or my unfamiliarity with the Canyon’s style of scrambling. I backed off, retraced my steps, and headed for Pattie.

Pattie Butte

The first order of business was getting down to the top of the Redwall, which usually offers a low-angle and friendly bench to travel along the Canyon. Following the Butchart map, I backtracked a bit to get down a mostly-undercut cliff band, then continued descending to near the Redwall rim. Pete had claimed there was a “good trail” in this section, but I would characterize what I found as an “intermittent and faint game trail.” The ground was littered with the usual twiggy brush and spiky plants, and the route wandered in and out of many shallow washes, but it was still efficient travel by Grand Canyon standards.

Pattie summit

From the base of Pattie Butte I started up more or less straight toward the summit, dodging the first cliffs left before returning to the ridge. I found the crux through a short white cliff-band on the right, a sort of chimney followed by a cramped step left on a ledge to another short slot. The chimney felt awkward and grovel-y, but as I was learning, this is typical for Canyon scrambling, and fairly secure. Above, a bit more easy wandering led to the summit plateau, where I found a metal post, a set of deer antlers, and the usual copper register box. Looking back the way I had come, I could see one of Harvey’s Redwall breaks, a steep slot near a pillar leading into upper Cremation Canyon. I debated taking that and returning via the Tonto and Kaibab with a possible side-trip to O’Neill Butte, but I had just ascended the Kaibab a couple of days before, and was not confident that I could handle it with my current attitude.

Pattie from traverse

I instead retraced my route to the plateau, then continued around the other side of Newton near the top of the Redwall. The best path seems to stay close to the rim, where it is less steep and brushy, with occasional detours higher to avoid some gullies. It is only a couple miles in a straight line from Pattie to Lyell, but the meandering way along the rim is far longer and frustratingly slow. I was getting a bit worried about my return time when I finally reached Lyell’s base, and almost considered skipping it, but that would be too pathetic, so I headed up toward the summit.

Lyell crux

Lyell’s main challenge is getting through its obvious large cliff band, but there are several smaller ones below and above that require a bit of meandering. I headed right, briefly considering a steep-ish route through the main cliffs before continuing to find the obvious route, which was… you guessed it, another chimney. I scraped and scrapped my way up with a mixture of stemming, chimneying, and a couple hand jams, eventually reaching the top to find a cairn. From there I continued traversing up and right, finally breaking through onto the summit plateau via a tumbledown slot. From the slot I hopped through spiky rock and agaves back to the summit cairn. I took in the afternoon view of Brahma and Wotan across the way, shook my head at Newton, then retraced my route to the plateau.

Return to Shoshone

Continuing my tour, I traversed along the Supai back toward Shoshone Point, aiming for the gully leading to the saddle between it and the unnamed butte west of Lyell. This part was again frustratingly slow, but became more pleasant once finally in the gully, where periodic flash floods wash away the loose dirt and keep the plant life in check. I enjoyed the hike and scramble up the gully, then tolerated the final climb from where it faded to the ridge, where I eventually picked up faint bits of trail joining my morning route at the base of the Coconino. I halfheartedly looked for a more direct route up the ridge, but mostly retraced my descent, finally taking a more direct route left of the ridge through the Kaibab.

It was still some time before sunset, but the sun is low enough this time of year to offer good picture-taking light by mid-afternoon, so I jogged past quite a few people hiking the road out to Shoshone Point. I also found a herd of musty-smelling cow elk, utterly indifferent to the tourists taking their photos. The icy water jugs left on my dashboard had mostly melted, so I would have easy water for dinner after I once again drove out of the park to the convenient National Forest. I had one more day in the Canyon, and had to decide between more- and less-ambitious ways to use it.

Lookout and Cope Points

Cope from Cathedral Stairs


Cope Point is a Redwall fin just off the Hermit Trail, a minor and uninteresting thing compared to a major butte like Isis or Brahma, but supposedly a worthy scramble. I had only been to the Hermit area of the Park once, many years ago, so it was a good excuse to return. I hoped to do a more ambitious loop down the Hermit and up the Boucher Trail, but between the cold and short days, the mandatory shuttle system, and my feeling lazy and preoccupied, a trip down the Hermit to Cope proved enough for the day.

It was dark when I woke up, and my gallon water jugs were about one third frozen, so getting moving was a challenge. But I needed to get past the entrance station before it was manned, which I guessed happened around 7:00 AM, so I warmed up the car, scraped the ice off my windshield inside and out, and made my way into the Park along with a handful of sunrise photographers. I had planned to drive to Hermit’s Rest, but these days the road west of Grand Canyon Village is permanently gated and shuttle-only. As I later learned, overnight permits for that part of the park come with a gate code, but that was not an option for me. Fortunately it was too cold for the Village to be crowded, so I found roadside parking next to the shuttle stop, packed my backpack, and was soon on my slow, meandering way to the end of the road with some cold tourists and a burnt-out bus driver.

Santa Maria Spring

The upper Hermit trail is mostly well-built, with sections of the labor-intensive vertical sandstone paving found on the Grandview, but rough and steep enough not to be much fun to run first thing in the morning, especially with treacherously slippery frost on the log steps. It follows a collapsed section through the Coconino to a junction with the Waldron trail and, soon thereafter, the Dripping Spring and Boucher. Had I known better, I could have taken Forest Road 328 to the Waldron trailhead and avoided the entrance gate and shuttle entirely.

Lookout Point

From the Boucher junction, the Hermit trail makes an endless, rolling, but generally downhill traverse through the Supai to Lookout Point, a minor bump a short distance off the trail. I passed a surprising number of backpackers on this stretch, and unlike on the main trails, both they and I were open to conversation. To my surprise, none were doing the Boucher-Hermit loop, instead opting for either an out-and-back or a shuttle loop from the Bright Angel. Someone had added Lookout Point to Peakbagger, so I went over to tag it and turn a red dot green, finding it class 3-4 on the front and class 2-3 on the back.

Cope crest from the saddle

Back on the trail, I continued to the top of the Redwall, then descended the “Cathedral Stairs,” a section of tight switchbacks through a north-facing break. I left the trail just past them, following faint game and/or use trails to the saddle with Cope Point. The crest looked serrated and steep, and the west side looked tricky as well, but I assumed I would find cairns or at least a viable route once I got closer. The east side was far too sheer to consider, but I found a cairn a short distance up the crest, and a faint route traversing along the west face. I learned later that the crest goes as well, but I was in the mood for a sure thing.

Horus, Isis, and Granite Rapids

I traversed along rubble and poky plants until they gave out, then eyed a likely rib. Climbing it directly seemed like a bad idea given the exposure and untrustworthy limestone, but the chimney/corner to its right felt safe. I climbed this for awhile, traversed on another rubble bench, then wound my way through short cliff bands to the crest. From there it was an easy walk to the summit, where the copper register canister held a couple of surprises. First, despite being a class 4 scramble to a minor summit, Cope sees a surprising amount of traffic, perhaps a half-dozen people per year. Second, an original Butchart register is still hanging on, in which Harvey notes that his was not the first ascent.

Monument

The summit is a better lookout than Lookout Point, and I wasted quite a bit of time there, admiring the Granite and Hermit Rapids, the Monument in Monument Creek, and the Hindu Amphitheater across the way. I also studied my intended route down to the Tonto, around to Boucher Creek, and up the Boucher Trail with a side-trip to White’s Butte. The endless Tonto meandering and the Boucher’s long Supai traverse ate at my will, so after eating most of my food, I returned the way I had come. With only a daypack, I caught several of the backpackers I had met on the way down, and even felt the energy to jog a few flat stretches. The shuttle driver on the way back was much better at his job, singing to himself and telling stories about himself and the Canyon. I lack the temperament to drive the same short route over and over for years, but it was a pleasure to watch someone doing a miserable-seeming job well.

Isis Temple, Cheops Butte

[I will hopefully circle back to finish writing about Europe, but I have actually been doing things here lately. — ed.]

Isis from Cheops


Isis Temple is one of the larger buttes off the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, a few miles west of Bright Angel Creek. While I had dayhiked Brahma Temple this past spring, I had little experience scrambling in the Canyon, having mostly hiked on its more- and less-maintained trails. While there is not a lot of information about Isis online, it seemed slightly harder than I would like to scramble. So when my friend Dan, whom I had not seen in a year or two, proposed climbing it with ropes and such, I jumped at the opportunity. November is a bit later than prime Canyon season, with short days, but still fairly comfortable below the rim.

I drove out the day before, sleeping off one of the forest roads outside the park, then drove in to the South Kaibab trailhead before the entrance station opened. (The National Parks are one of the best things our government does, so I am usually happy to support them with an $80 annual pass, but I won’t need one again until next Spring.) This being a holiday weekend at the Canyon, the picnic ground across from the gated road to the Kaibab trailhead was already full, and cars were already filling the shoulders of the rim road in both directions. The park has instituted a sometimes-mandatory shuttle system in the past decade, which I support, but the rules of parking are still odd. There is a central lot at the main shuttle terminal, but parking is also legal in most places where you can pull completely off the pavement without getting stuck. And while the road to Hermit’s Rest is shuttle-only, those with overnight permits receive the gate code, and can park at its end. It all works for now, but I doubt it will last.

Day 1

Sunrise Kaibab start


Since the picnic area was full, I continued to meet Dan and Paul at the main lot, where we gathered gear before shuttling back to the Kaibab. I had been busy and distracted of late, so my packing was rushed and haphazard. I remembered all of my camping gear plus a 60-meter rope, and brought adequate breakfast and dinner, but badly underpacked my daytime food, with only four sandwiches and ten granola bars (now down to 160 calories each thanks to shrink-flation) for three days.

Entering the Inner Gorge

The initial shady switchbacks through the Kaibab were cold, but pleasantly free of snow and ice, and temperatures became fairly comfortable by the time we reached the Hermit Shale rest area. However the entire Southwest was experiencing a cold snap, with highs on the Rim little above 40, so I was still wearing a fleece and gloves until much farther down. We met a number of people backpacking to or from Bright Angel or Phantom Ranch, and even a few runners going rim-to-river, but were there at the wrong time for the likely rim-to-rim hordes, who would have started at or before dawn.

Climbing through Tapeats

I had not, for once, been responsible for doing the research for this trip, so other than downloading some maps and knowing which rock we were supposed to climb, I had no idea where we were going, but fortunately Paul had been out to neighboring Cheops. After refilling on water at the Bright Angel campground, he led us directly to the somewhat obscure trail up out of the canyon to Utah Flats on the Tonto Plateau. The trail was fainter than any of the official trails other than parts of the New Hance, but mostly easy to follow, thanks to canyoneers who come this way to descend the narrow lower Phantom Creek. Other than a bit of boulder-hopping climbing through the Tapeats, it was a straightforward walk.

Verdant cactus meadows

The trail faded on the Tonto, and the best route likely continues along the wash until it is easy to exit. However I bravely took the lead, promptly leading us straight up some more challenging sandstone scrambling. Sandstone seems to get worse as one heads east: Red Rocks’ is compact and often varnished; Zion’s is often gritty, and scary when wet or snowy; the Grand Canyon’s seems one step worse. After a slight delay while the others groveled up a sloping corner, we continued along the plateau, soon finding cairns and bits of trail. The trail led northwest toward the upper, open part of Phantom Creek, passing through a lush cactus-meadow and past Cheops Butte before descending to a healthy creek lined by cottonwoods.

Nice part of Phantom Creek

We were aiming for something called “Hippie Camp” (remember, I had done no research), so we continued upstream as the short day faded. The canyoneers’ trail had given out, and while we found occasional cairns, we mostly rock-hopped up the streambed, sometimes following faint game trails along either side or thrashing through grass and brush. The stream disappeared and reappeared, but generally became weaker the higher we went. We were therefore questioning the wisdom of continuing when we finally reached Hippie Camp, a flat, sandy spot big enough for a few tents, marked by a small collection of antlers and unusual rocks on a boulder. We collected water to filter from a sorry trickle nearby, then set up camp and cooked dinner just before headlamp time. There would be a lot of that at this time of year, but we at least had a bright moon in the morning to help prepare for our dawn start.

Day 2

Approaching Isis summit


After a night of surprisingly good sleep for me, and little for Dan, we got started around 7:00, picking our way up the wash a bit farther, then climbing a steep dirt-slope to the necessary Redwall break. The route climbs some ledge-y terrain left of a dryfall, then traverses back into the upper streambed. While most of the canyon is gritty sandstone, the Redwall is sticky limestone. However it is no more reassuring, as it is usually fractured and untrustworthy. The climb starts out with some steep, exposed fourth class, which I found somewhat heady being out of practice and on unfamiliar rock. A bit of cautious and exploratory climbing got me through, and Paul did fine as well, but Dan didn’t have the head and/or heart for it. He passed up his harness for me to use (we had two among the three of us), then headed down to poke around the side-canyons.

Isis from Supai traverse

Above the Redwall, the route makes an endless traverse along the lower Supai, eventually crossing a saddle between Isis and Shiva Temples before beginning the climb. While the route up the Redwall from Phantom Creek was tricky, the route down into Trinity Creek on the other side looked straightforward. I believe the normal route to Trinity crosses the Isis-Cheops saddle, but this looks like a viable alternative. Like Brahma, Isis is a Coconino butte, but the crux is actually getting through the lower Supai group, which is a mix of hard and soft, i.e. steep and flat, layers. The route meanders up the west side, surmounting the steep bands through various shenanigans; I was impressed by the first ascenscionists’ persistence and ingenuity.

The crux is a large band lower down, climbed via about 20 meters of arete. Most of the climbing is low fifth class, but the crux move, pulling on a flake while smearing on a gritty slab, feels a bit more serious. There is a piton to protect it, but I was glad not to be soloing it in trail runners. Paul had brought rock shoes, so we dressed up as Real Climbers and he led it ably, pausing for a minute and clipping the old pin before pulling the crux. I followed cleanly, hauling his pack in two stages as I went.

Chimney/chockstone above crux

Above, we scrambled another short, steep step, then climbed a wide chimney and tunneled behind a giant chockstone to get up the next band. Above, the route wandered back and forth, finding varied weaknesses in the bands. One was a squeeze slot narrow enough to force removing our packs; another was a steep crack/chimney ending in an inconvenient bush. A third was the so-called “belly crawl,” which required climbing a gray arete, traversing a ledge under a bulge, groveling up a short chimney, then making a mantel or wide step-across. Unlike the more famous “belly crawl” on the Owen-Spalding route, this one involved actual crawling, pushing or dragging our packs.

We finally ditched the climbing gear on a broad bench near the top of the Supai, enjoying finally carrying normal day-hiking weight as we traversed around left of the Coconino summit knob. This section was supposed to involve some sketchy hard-packed side-hilling, but recent precipitation had softened the dirt enough to make most of it much easier. After trying one route through the Coconino and backing off, we found our way up another, probably fourth or low fifth class, to reach the summit ridge. From a notch, it was a meandering but easy scramble to the summit.

Return from Isis

Despite being near midday, it was chilly in the breeze, so we both found ourselves putting on our down jackets as we hung out. The views were predictably grand, from nearby Shiva and Buddha Temples, to Brahma and Zoroaster across Bright Angel Creek and, farther away, Wotan’s Throne and Angel’s Window. As I later found on other Canyon summits, a local has been placing well-made copper register boxes with good Ziploc bags, pencils, and even pencil sharpeners. The Isis register only went back to 2008, showing 1-2 parties per year. We added our names, snacked, then headed back for camp.

Rappel around crux

We had both hoped to get back in time to move camp, to be closer to both water and the trailhead (Dan and Paul had to drive back to Phoenix the next night), but the descent proved almost as time-consuming as the climb. We — or mostly I — repeatedly overshot the subtle breaks in the Supai bands, wasting time looking. I at least partly redeemed myself by quickly locating the correct tree to rappel the crux. The sizable juniper had two old slings, which we replaced with a fresh cord, and an ancient locking biner, which we reused. One free-hanging 20-meter rappel later we were back below the crux, putting away the climbing gear for the long hike back to the Redwall. This dragged on far longer than either of us remembered, and the shadows were long by the time we finally reached the scrambly part of the break. We were both comfortable downclimbing the thing, but there was a fresh piece of cord above the upper part, so we rappeled that before stashing the gear for the last time.

Water vs. limestone

The lower downclimb was heads-up in a couple of places, but I was noticeably more comfortable on steep Canyon rock after a day of practice, or at least desensitization. We dragged into camp a bit before dusk to find Dan in his sleeping bag, trying to catch up from the sleepless night before. There was still daylight left, but not enough to make it downstream to a better campsite without a fair helping of headlamp time, so we decided to stay where we were. My dinner was basically the same — a packet of instant potatoes and a tin of sardines — but I had the excitement of “Louisiana hot sauce” flavor instead of “oily jalapeño.” I was briefly grateful for my lack of daytime food, which made me hungry enough to enjoy this.

Just as we were getting ready for our sleeping bags, we saw a couple of headlamps coming up the wash, and met some poor backpackers who were hoping to sleep at Hippie Camp. They could have squeezed in, but I think all of us wanted and expected solitude in this obscure canyon, so they found another spot a short distance up a side-canyon. Their plan for the next day was to climb the Redwall breach we had used, then descend to Trinity Creek and return via the Isis-Cheops saddle. That seemed like a long grind to me, but they were carrying small overnight packs and appeared to know what they were doing.

Day 3

Cheops Pyramid from Butte


We woke early again, more because we had to pee and were sick of lying in our bags than because we expected a long day. After the usual morning nutrient glop for me — oats, protein powder, and trail mix — we headed back down Phantom Creek. The others were heading straight out, but had convinced me to make a side-trip to Cheops Butte. It was a short and moderate scramble, but Paul had already done it, and Dan had no interest.

Handline into lower Phantom

At the point where the route leaves the creek, we took a short side-trip to see the start of the slot canyon. There is a waterfall blocking further easy progress, but I found a handline on the right side anchored to a bolt leading down a near-vertical face. It looked old and faded, but was doubled over with regular knots, so I could have easily descended it and perhaps climbed it unaided. We had slings and a 60m rope, but knew nothing about the canyon, and it was probably too cold this time of year anyways. Dan generously gave me some of his food — pop-tarts and potato chips — then we climbed out of the canyon together before parting ways where I would take my side-trip to Cheops.

Cheops from base

I tanked up on water, shoved my remaining granola bars in a pocket, then took off light and fast up the steep, loose, prickly hillside toward the base of Cheops’ north ridge. I found no trail on this part, but there was an unnecessary cairn at the base of the ridge, and the route was obvious from there. It was mostly short stretches of walking separated by short class 3 steps, and not particularly exposed, but the crux was a bit harder and steeper, and very exposed. Above that, the route crossed a small natural arch to the summit plateau.

Super-benchmark

I checked in at the register, again in a copper box, noted a bit more traffic than Isis, then spent some time exploring the plateau. I found an odd survey marker farther on, embedded in a large steel cylinder filled with and planted in concrete. Clearly someone with a lot of money and helicopter time had had some fun in the Canyon. I continued to the south end, wanting to see the connecting ridge to the lesser Cheops Pyramid. I had faint hopes of traversing it to make a loop, but a quick look convinced me otherwise. The initial downclimb may have been reasonable, and the middle part was frighteningly narrow but doable à cheval, but the final climb looked steep, rotten, and highly exposed. I was not in the mood.

West from Cheops

Returning to the north ridge, I was surprised by a man just reaching the top. He was wearing shorts, a windbreaker, and approach shoes, and clearly knew what he was doing. In our half-hour conversation I learned that he was one of the people I had seen in Isis’ summit register, and that he had been exploring Isis’ supposedly doable-but-scary southeast ridge, a much more direct route than the standard one we had taken. We parted ways, and I returned to my pack in a bit of a hurry, expecting him to catch me on the long trudge across Utah Flats. However he must have been dawdling, because he did not catch me until I was just about to leave Bright Angel campground.

Snow to the north

I was carrying an overnight pack with a rope at this point, while he had just a daypack, and I expected him to take off jogging on the grind out, but we ended up hiking together and talking the whole way out. He turned out to be a 20-year local, and to know the Canyon well enough that to me he seemed like a modern-day Harvey Butchart. He had plenty of suggestions for my remaining time in the Canyon, some of which proved excellent, while others I recognized immediately as far too ambitious for the season and my current mindset. As we climbed, I watched a snowstorm descend on the North Rim and upper Phantom Creek. The clouds eventually reached the South Rim, and we felt a few flurries passing through the Supai, but nothing serious enough to stick.

As it turns out, we reached the rim only a few minute after Dan and Paul, so while Pete took off jogging back to his car, I caught up with my companions. After an early dinner at a Mexican place in Tusayan, they began their long drive home, while I drove into the National Forest to sleep. I unpacked as best I could without spreading Canyon sand all over my car, then settled in for a night forecast to reach 20 degrees on the rim. I had the gear to be warm enough, but the long, cold night would sap my ambition for the next day.

Brahma Temple

Temples from South Kaibab


Grinding out the South Kaibab climb, jogging some flatter sections but not wanting to put in maximum effort, I reflected on the fact that it will be 40 years this fall since I first hiked down that trail. The Grand Canyon is therefore a special place for me, so while I prefer mountains and generally dislike deserts, I always find excuses to return. I will never be a Canyon obsessive like Harvey Butchart, who sussed out all the Redwall breaks allowing passage from Rim to River, but the place has enough intrinsic interest outside the nostalgia.

In this case, I realized that several of the buttes are climbable at grades I can manage without a rope, including Brahma Temple, Zoroaster (“ZOE-roast-er”) Temple’s easier, higher, and less popular neighbor. While it may be approachable directly from the North Rim, the most common route takes the Zoroaster approach from the Clear Creek Trail. A couple of people I follow on Strava had recently done it in a day from the South Rim, confirming my belief that doing so was reasonable, and I even found a decent map on a blog I had run across before.

Sunrise on O’Neill Butte

Not knowing how long it would take me, but also not wanting to waste time running the initial descent by headlamp, I decided to start around dawn and bring a headlamp just in case. I camped off one of the Forest roads just outside the east entrance, then drove into the park around 6:00. Given the popularity of Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, I expected the picnic area parking lot across from the Kaibab trailhead to be full, but there were only a half-dozen cars. I took my time getting ready, then set off in a light overshirt, with 2500 calories and a cup of water in my pack. I passed the expected backpackers at the trailhead, then took some guy’s birthday photo before starting down.

Tipoff Rock

I had jogged the road to the trailhead, and felt good taking the descent at something like a genuine run, though the average grade of about 13% makes it a bit too steep to be comfortable. While some of the surface is pleasantly smooth, much is either rocky and chewed by mules, or split by endless equally-spaced steps. Because every man and beast falls into the same rhythm on these steps, they quickly develop hollows filled with dust behind them. This means that the best way to run without tripping is to land on the wooden retaining logs themselves, placing extra strain on one’s calves. While the trail no doubt sees more traffic than ever, there was less (mule) urine and feces than I remembered, a pleasant surprise.

Crossing the bridge

I made the descent from Rim to River in about an hour, mostly enjoying the descent, then was hit with a concentrated dose of my least favorite parts of the canyon. First, I got off the bridge to find a mule train stopped at the Bright Angel ruins while a Navajo-looking guide talked at length about the former inhabitants. Since they were stopped in the middle of a narrow part of the trail between a cliff and the ruins, I could not pass. The cowboy at the other end said they would be moving on in “a minute,” but it was more like ten before the two guides and their line of soft, bored-looking dumplings trundled past. I ate a sandwich and stewed about the oblivious entitlement shown by packers everywhere as they harm the vast majority of trail users. Shortly after finally starting, I passed a fat, sullen ranger packing a pistol. I was initially irritated at her, but soon transferred my ire to a system that takes caring for one of the world’s most beautiful places, and turns it into a soul-crushing menial job attracting and creating the attitude of boredom and petty authority found in mall cops.

South Rim from above Clear Creek

Stopping at Phantom Ranch, I drank as much as I could, then filled up my two-liter bladder for the dry, hot part of the day before jogging up-canyon to the Clear Creek trail. I was tired of the trodden and familiar corridor trails, so it was pleasant to head out into the Park’s less-traveled regions. I passed a surprising number of backpackers (as in “three”), who had taken in enough solitude to be cheerful meeting a stranger. Near where the trail crosses the first major wash below Zoroaster Temple, I left it to follow the west branch toward what I thought was the correct break in the Redwall.

Zoroaster and Brahma from approach

I found enough cairns and footprints to reassure me that I was on the right track, but it was still essentially cross-country desert travel, either in the rocky wash, or up the mixture of limestone choss and thorny plants to either side. It turns out that a trail emerges left of the wash as it steepens near the gap, but I missed it on the way up, instead slogging up the loose slope. The route’s first difficulty is a dryfall in the Redwall gap, avoided by third class climbing to the right. To my irritation, I found a rap anchor above this detour, nylon trash left by Real Climbers too incompetent or lazy to scramble down easy terrain they had previously ascended. Oddly, I found no similar detritus above the more difficult terrain above, a bit of class 4 on the left wall bypassing a second step.

Two large cairns marked the top of the break, at a saddle between an unnamed butte and Zoroaster’s long west ridge. Here I found an intermittent use trail, as climbers approaching the butte were forced onto a single feasible path. I also found two well-used tent platforms, though I would have preferred starting earlier from Phantom Ranch to carrying gallons of water to this dry camp. The trail disappeared above the platforms, but the terrain suggested trending left to get around the first Supai cliff bands. While it is not one of the Canyon’s steeper sections, the Supai has enough hard layers to force one to weave back and forth looking for weaknesses. Most of these seemed to be on the left/north side of the ridge, requiring much side-hilling on packed dirt.

Top of Supai slot

I eventually found some cairns leading to the first break, two low fifth class corners leading back and up to the ridge crest. Not having done any climbing in awhile, I was hesitant on the gritty sandstone, but eventually found my groove. Above this cliff band, I looked again to the left, then found cairns leading right to an improbable slot leading through the next. From there, a long stretch of easy walking on the crest led to the base of the main obstacle, a tall layer of cliffs below the Hermit Shale and Coconino of upper Zoroaster Temple.

First handline

Here there was a single, clear path, boot-prints in the dirt and mud leading on a long left traverse to an amphitheater where the single high cliff was eroded into smaller, manageable sections. The route weaves back and forth to find their weaknesses, with two permanent hand-lines on the most difficult ones. I first tried to climb both without touching the lines, but quickly realized that the necessary smearing on gritty sandstone in running shoes was beyond my current skill and confidence. With the knotted ropes to grab, neither pitch presented much difficulty.

Above, I followed the main trail up loose garbage, then descended to the saddle with Brahma Temple, where I found only a single set of old prints. While the summit register suggested that 5-10 people per year climb Brahma, but it is far less popular than Zoroaster, which holds a destination route for Real Climbers. The near side of Brahma is too steep to climb, forcing another long side-hill on steep red dirt around its left side. Once the Coconino became more broken, another convoluted route with some class 4 bits led to the summit ridge, where some walking and a couple of short steps led to the summit.

Zoroaster from Brahma

Brahma Temple is about as high as the South Rim, so it commands a fine view of Zoroaster nearby and below, Wotan’s Throne to the east, and the Gorge in both directions. It also has cell service, so I texted a couple friends as I huddled away from the wind and perused the summit register. It had taken me a bit over five hours from the South Rim, but nearby NAU is a strong running school, so I was not surprised to read that someone had done it in 4h07 a couple years earlier. I ate about half of my Mexican calorie puck (La Molienda Mazapan), then got tired of the wind and began retracing my steps.

Most of route from Brahma

The off-trail portion was only slightly faster on the way down, as the loose desert ground, particularly the limestone, somehow manages to simultaneously grab at your shoes, remain unstable, and be dangerous to fall on. I had some minor trouble retracing my route down the Coconino, having to backtrack and take a slightly harder line in a couple places, then got back into the groove. I tried side-hilling around Zoroaster rather than climbing to the trail, though I doubt it saved me much time. I followed the trail below the notch, hiked the wash, then jogged what I felt like of Clear Creek on the way back to Phantom Ranch.

O’Neill Butte and temples

I lingered in the shade near the canteen, drinking a liter o water and filling up another two, then eating one of my last two bars while listening to the resting hikers. I suppose I could have tried to put in a fast time, but it didn’t seem worth the effort, so while I jogged the descent to the Colorado and parts of the climb, I mostly just walked. Two more mule trains passed me near the bridge, but I saw almost no people between there and the Redwall hut, giving my mind time to wander as I rhythmically climbed the endless steps. Above the hut I encountered the tourist hordes come to watch the sunset. The final switchbacks were a disgusting traffic jam, with the trailhead crowded enough that I did not feel like lingering. Instead I strolled back to my car, where I ate continuously for an hour before driving out of the park again in search of a place to camp.

Signal Mountain

Sunset on Castle Dome


[Thanks again to Leonie for an early draft of parts of this. — ed.]

The Kofa Mountains are a remote desert range east of Highway 95 in southwest Arizona, surrounded by an eponymous BLM wilderness area created to protect bighorn sheep, and a proving ground created to blow stuff up. “Kofa” is not a native word, but a contraction of “King of Arizona,” the name of a briefly successful gold mine. The area is mainly a popular refuge for winter RVers, but it also includes two of the better summits on the DPS list, Signal and Castle Dome Peaks. Since it is roughly on the way between Organ Pipe and the Owens Valley, we decided to pay it a visit.

The original plan was to put in several hours’ drive, visit the mining museum, then camp at the Castle Dome trailhead before climbing it the next morning. We drove a mix of desert roads and Interstate 8, then turned north before Yuma on 95, which rivals 50 for the title of “Loneliest Road in the US.” Upon turning toward Castle Dome, we were met with signs saying “NO STOPPING NEXT 5 MILES,” with the clear but unstated implication that those who stop might end up on the wrong end of a live fire exercise. The road was as washboarded as expected, but otherwise fine, and the ten miles to the museum passed painlessly.

Sunset ocotillos

Land ownership is unfortunately complicated in the valley: in addition to the Yuma Proving Ground in the south, there are many private parcels within the BLM land, including the mining museum and its environs. Going back as far as the 1990, and as recently as early 2019, one could drive past the museum on a good dirt road to Castle Dome’s base, through three unlocked gates. However sometime between February 2019 and January 2020, the unfriendly owners of the mining museum blocked this access route, locking the gates, rolling large rocks across the road, and adding signs threatening even pedestrians. Their stated reason is that people were stealing mining junk from the abandoned claims. It was not clear to me whether it was legal to block this access to federal land, or whether the road should have remained a right-of-way, but I am not a lawyer, and the lady at the museum office talked about calling the nearby feds on people. Given that said feds have both serious guns and a surveillance blimp, it seemed like a bad idea to try poaching the peak. (I later found a trip report describing the new, longer, and rougher access route.) So instead we went for a walk until it got dark, then went to sleep under the blimp’s watchful gaze.

The palms

With our late and messed-up start, we salvaged the day by heading over to Signal, the Kofa Range’s other DPS peak. Both it and Castle Dome are impressive, as are a number of the peaks in between, though the latter is both more dramatic and less difficult, at least from the west. There is an easier trail up Signal’s east side, but it involves more dirt road driving, so we followed Bob and took the west route via Palm Canyon. This requires a small amount of low-fifth-class climbing, though much less than one would expect given the peak’s sheer aspect. The canyon is named for its small grove of California fan palms, the only one in Arizona.

Upper cliffs

Though we started late around 10:00, it was still cold and shady for our approach, so I was hiking in my down jacket. We met three guys hanging out near the palms, which are nestled a couple hundred yards up a side-canyon, but decided to see them on the way down, since we had an unknown amount of climbing and desert thorn-whacking ahead of us, and standing on top of piles of rock is always more important than seeing unique flora. The official trail gradually fades into a faint and intermittently-cairned use trail, then further decays into braided game trails made by the apparently abundant but shy sheep.

Kofa Valley and approach road

The canyon is filled with all manner of unpleasant desert plants; in addition to the usual cacti and yuccas, there are woody and prickly oak-brush, and some other plant, much greener, with actual spines on its leaves. Clearly neither plant wants to be eaten, and both go to extravagant lengths to make this desire clear — such is the desert. The trail climbs one ravine to where it ends at the peak’s west cliffs, then climbs into its neighbor to the right. Where the second ravine is choked with impenetrable brush, a fourth class wash leads out to the left. I scrambled up, unsure whether this was the correct route, and Leonie leerily followed. Where this branch ends, I spotted a thin and slabby traverse leading right around the difficulties, which felt low fifth class to me. I pulled out the rope in a frigid alcove, then trailed it around the corner and up 30 feet to an old anchor, from which I belayed Leonie. A few minutes higher, we finally reached our first sun of the day and were able to stop for a sort-of lunch.

Summit

From our lunch spot, we followed a mixture of class 2-3 rock and desert thrashing up what turned out to be a side-ridge, then descended to a narrow saddle before climbing again to the summit plateau. The Kofa Range seems to have confusing topography, with confusing branching gullies and unexpected cliffs, so I was glad to have a clear track to follow, and to be doing this part during the day. We summited at 2:50, painfully aware of the limited remaining daylight, but still took some time to enjoy our surroundings. Castle Dome looked every bit as impressive from this direction, and the rest of the range looked interesting as well. Nearby Ten Ewe seemed straightforward from its saddle with Signal, with its high east face suggesting long technical routes. A dramatic pinnacle to the south turned out to be Squaw Peak, about which I could find nothing online, and which looks technical from all sides.

Squaw peak

But we were running out of daylight, and soon deployed into hustle mode — in the wrong direction. Heading east following Bob’s route, we hoped to skirt the cliffs of the summit block and return to the car via Four Palms Canyon, sparing us tedious rope-work on the descent. After a decent trail devolved into chossy steep slopes we abandoned this plan, retracing our steps, forfeiting 45 minutes of precious daylight and dooming ourselves to some hard headlamp hours. The return trip involved scrambling, loose slopes, circuitous route finding, encounters with spiky shrubbery, a rappel, lowering Leonie down a sketchy clifflet and ferocious wind. We stumbled like drunken teens as fatigue set in hours after our headlamps came out. Despite a 20 pound rock rolling into her calf and a yucca drawing blood below her knee, Leonie maintained good humor, reciting poetry, telling jokes and singing an improvised song to the tune of “Both Hands” by Ani DiFranco:

I am ‘shwacking all through the night
And I am crawling over boulders by a very dim head light
And I am getting no closer to the car
I keep on moving, but it seems so far….

Ten Ewe Peak

After I offered her my brighter headlamp I led the way by her fading one and the flashlight from my phone. Intermittent GPS and occasional cairns guided us down the boulder strewn wash sprinkled with bloodthirsty desert flora. After a reckless backtrack and the determined application of my will and cellular data, I found a trail whose quality improved as we moved closer to the trailhead. We consumed our last calories and rejoiced in our ability to walk unhindered for the final hundred yards, reaching our twin Honda Elements at 8:30, thoroughly exhausted.

I mashed canned chicken into stale sandwich bread for dinner, while Leonie chewed on a red bell pepper and listened to Nordic folk music. We squirmed into bed in Leonie’s pop-top camper at 9:30 and were tormented by the wind until dawn. Aaah, Signal mountain… winter desert peaks with a start time after 11 AM. We sure ain’t never gonna learn.

Pinkley Peak

Smaller arch


Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is about as far south and down as Arizona goes, so it was perhaps inevitable that we would end up there eventually. It was established during Prohibition, when the state donated the land to the federal government so they would pave the road, making it easier for bootleggers to smuggle booze up from Mexico. Since then, it has gone on to protect the far northern reaches of the Sonoran desert, which lies mostly in eastern Baja and north-central Mexico. Though the most distinctive species is the organ pipe cactus, a bundle of five- to fifteen-foot-tall stalks several inches in diameter, the park’s lowlands are most notable for their dense forests of saguaros. Most of the park lacks roads and trails, but there are two scenic loops on either side of Highway 85, each with several short tourist trails, a few well-worn use trails to some landmarks, and some migrant trails with the usual detritus of Mexican tuna cans and candy wrappers.

Organ Pipe is known among peak-baggers for its two DPS peaks, Ajo and Kino, both of which seem to be the typical desert fare: a long march across an alluvial plain followed by a slog up rotten volcanic rock covered in spiky plants. Fortunately there are other things to see, including the flora and fauna (e.g. javelinas, occasional desert bighorns), some cool volcanic features and, arguably, an interesting visitor center. We checked out the latter, then headed across the street to the eastern scenic loop, intending to tag Ajo Peak.

Arch from TH

Partway around the loop, we were distracted by a striking pair of natural arches, one on top of the other. Unlike those in Arches National Park, which are carved from sandstone by wind erosion, these seem have formed from volcanic rhyolite and breccia (a.k.a. “choss”) via the universe’s natural trend toward greater entropy. The lower arch is around twenty feet high and fifty long, while the upper is twenty long, less than ten high, and only a foot or so thick at its thinnest point. Given the nature of the rock, this may become a single arch within my lifetime, but fortunately the upper arch is too difficult for most tourists to reach. There is an official trail up the wash toward the two, then a well-used social trail to the base of the lower one.

Sunset at campground

Since the sign said that the lower arch was only a mile or so away, we left our packs in the car in anticipation of a quick hike. We followed the official trail to its end at a sign warning about illegal immigrants, with graffiti urging people to “give them water!” There is a tension along this part of the border between enforcement — two checkpoints along Highway 85, and 500 Border Patrol agents since a ranger was killed in 2003 — and aid — official emergency call boxes topped by flashing blue lights, water stations, and no doubt volunteer water caches. With summer air temperatures well over 110 degrees, rugged terrain, and a long hike to civilization at Ajo, the crossing near Sonoyta seems dangerous, but it also seems popular judging by the empty water jugs and camp remnants.

Larger arch

The arch trail was steep but easy to follow, and we met another couple on their way down. The trail climbs abruptly to the ridge, then traverses and descends to the arch’s base, but peak-bagger that I am, I of course wanted to stand on top. We briefly explored the near end, but could not tell where the main arch began or ended from there, so after draining a fresh tinaja, we continued to the inside of the arch, then took a look at the far end. The south side looked unwise to climb, even with rock shoes, so I went around to explore the north side, sparing Leonie a probable waste of time.

Old piton

After a false start, I continued around to find a route that was no more than class four, and seemed to reach the top. I scrambled up to an intermediate plateau, then called for Leonie to join me, assuming with my usual optimism that the rest of the way would be no harder. One more slightly exposed traverse and scramble got us to the top of the main arch, where we found a sidewalk in the sky leading to the tiny upper one. I was tempted to walk across the mini-arch, but it was only a bit over a foot wide and less than that deep; it had probaly held for thousands of years, but it likely saw little foot traffic, and I would have been crushed (and possibly injured) if it collapsed under my weight. Instead we took turns hanging from it, then completed the loop by scrambling back to the trail side, passing an old piton along the way. The area appears to have a lot of climbing potential, and seeing hardware on such a minor and not-too-difficult route made me think that someone from nearby Tucson had explored it.

Ajo from Pinkley

Organ Pipe is far away from anything else, so it made sense to spend multiple days there. The natural thing for me to do would be to climb Ajo, which we had not had time to do after the unexpected arch diversion, but that would involve repeating the same 20-mile dirt “scenic” drive, so we looked around for something else and settled on Pinkley Peak, in the opposite direction from the visitor center. The friendly ranger there had suggested a loop up the peak and along the ridge to Dripping Springs, returning along another one-way scenic road, advice that seemed to reflect her enthusiasm, overconfidence in our abilities, and lack of experience.

Arch on Pinkley

Pinkley rises like a constellation of spiny plants in the firmament of volcanic choss northwest of the visitor center. While a few dedicated peak-baggers climb it from the end of the two-way dirt road, not enough do so to create a use trail or even a line of cairns, so we parked at the picnic area, then took off on what seemed like a plausible line up a wash toward its summit ridge. The ranger had noted correctly that cross-country travel in the Sonoran desert is easy across flat ground, and rough in the washes, but all parts of the hillsides seem similarly difficult. The ravines are still brush-choked, but the ridges are often rotten, sometimes cliffy, and frequently covered in dense cholla and catclaw. They are also confusing, since the slow erosion seems to create complex and unintuitive topography.

Smuggler solar panel

Passing some interesting geode-like rocks embedded in breccia, we eventually reached the summit ridge, where we were met with more solid rock and some difficulties. We passed one step via class 3 terrain to the right, another via an angled chimney-ramp, then traversed left to avoid a false summit. In returning to the summit ridge, we found the day’s only solid rock, some dark class 3-4 slabs. To my surprise, we had continued to find occasional Mexican tuna cans along the way, and found a camping cave just below the summit, with some foul bedding, a solar panel, and an antenna attached to a yucca. With a clear line of sight to Sonoyta, and probably somewhere in Arizona, this peak seems to have at one point been an observation post for smugglers of people or contraband. There was of course no register, and no comfortable seat amidst the volcanic choss and desert flora, so we stayed only long enough to eat an avocado before descending.

I had downloaded a GPX track with my summit cell service, hoping it would lead us to a better route, but sadly this was not the case. The descent route was different in its particulars, but essentially the same as the ascent, a mixture of choss, short cliffs, and spiny plants. All sensible routes on Pinkley seem to be moderately unpleasant, and will remain so until the peak-baggers and smugglers get together to make a trail. Until then, this peak will never become a desert classic.

Queen Creek

Sunset on Atlantis


As winter advanced, we continued to retreat south and down. After finding that sport climbing in the Superstitions is limited, bad, and hard to reach, we continued to Queen Creek, an area between Superior and Globe along Highway 60 suggested by Leonie’s friend Liz. I had never heard of the place, but it turned out to have multiple areas with short approaches and plentiful sport routes on welded tuff and some granite. There is also — rarity of rarities! — free camping with pit toilets on nearby Forest Service land at Oak Flats. Most of the climbing is on Queen Mine land, and requires a liability waiver from the mine company, but this is a free and easy formality that can be taken care of online at the Queen Creek Coalition site. We ended up climbing there for three days, and could have stayed longer had the weather not turned.

Ali Cat

We spent our first day in Atlantis, a five-minute walk down a steep slope from the highway. Most of the climbs in this area are on either side of a slot canyon below a concrete check dam, and are too hard for me to lead. However there are enough moderate routes to stay busy for a day, and I even managed to lead a 5.10b by mistake. We arrived to find a family with a dog climbing on one of the easier crags below the main area, locals who helpfully oriented us in the confusion of crags and bolts. We started with Ali Cat, a long 5.7 going up a steep face with positive holds. It was a good place to become familiar with the area’s rock, with ample bolts and low-consequence falls. It was windy, and the guidebook recommended Atlantis for such days, but that suggestion seemed way off base, as the wind was fierce higher up on west-facing Ali Cat, and the main area was a wind tunnel.

After cleaning the first route, we dithered for a bit, then headed into Atlantis proper for First Born, a varied 5.8 involving face, crack, and chimney climbing. One of the other climbers came over to watch, remarking that it was her favorite moderate and that she had never seen anyone do the final chimney facing the way I was. Little did she know that I only faced that way because I had no idea where the anchors were, but fortunately there were plenty of holds to turn around and top out.

It would have blown away

Next we moved slightly downstream to attempt one of a couple of 5.9s. The guidebook and Mountain Project were both somewhat confusing, though, as the former is outdated, the latter lacks diagrams, and there has been continuous modern route development. I ended up by mistake climbing KGB, a 5.10b on which I had no business and which I had wanted to avoid. Though it felt more serious than the 5.9 I was expecting, I amazingly managed to climb it without falls, and was inordinately pleased with myself for pulling it off. We finished with some short moderates on a small west-facing section downstream, then hiked back to the car and took a spot at the popular but spacious Oak Flat campground.

The next day we hiked over to Upper Devil Canyon to check out the climbing there. We spent most of the day on a few climbs on Lost Wall, the only memorable one being Projectile, a 5.7 following an open book. We finished with a fun route that might have been Spanish Omelette (5.8) on Universe Wall, which pulled several well-protected bulges. It was fun climbing, and grippier rock than the stuff at Atlantis, but after being spoiled by five-minute approaches, it was somewhat of a disappointment.

The Pond

For our final day before the rain, we headed back to the roadside area to explore the Pond, an area around what is, in the Spring, a pleasant waterfall and swimming hole. Now it is a slimy mosquito breeding facility, but the climbing remains high-quality, and the approach under an overpass and up some rebar rungs is quick and fun. We started with three routes near the pool, Deadpool (5.8) and two others to its left, both supposedly rated 5.7. I led the middle one first, which felt unreasonably hard for its grade; later I learned that some holds had broken, making it closer to the 5.9 it felt. Leonie was not feeling particularly well or motivated, so she mostly hung out and did yoga, sometimes doing both in the middle of a climb.

Double heel-hook

A few other parties joined us as we climbed, starting from the left and working their way right as we did the opposite. There was plenty of room to keep socially distant, and even mostly out of earshot, so it never felt crowded. I eventually made it up Weak Sister (5.10a) after falling a few times on the well-protected crux bulge; my limited forearm strength was showing on this steep, crimpy climbing. Sufficiently humbled, we did a mediocre neighboring 5.8, then found a 5.6 far to the left. I led it, then Leonie toproped it a couple of times before leading it herself. Despite having climbed for many years, it was her first time on sport lead, and she handled it calmly.

Too late in the day, I decided to try Pocket Puzzle, a vertical west-facing 5.10a. Such a pumpy route would have been a stretch for me even when fresh, and it proved far too much for me at the end of the day. I made it a bit past the first bolt before admitting that I would never be able to top out, then managed to clean it and downclimb before scampering up neighboring Adventure Quest, a mediocre moderate involving brush and yucca, to finish the day. We both left feeling that we had left a lot of unfinished business at Queen Creek, but with two days of cold and rain in the forecast, it was time to once again move on.

Prescott climbing

Yours Truly climbing?!


After Leonie and I took care of things in opposite directions — me closer to her home, and she closer to mine, ironically — we needed to meet somewhere in between, and chose Prescott because it was a roughly equal drive for both of us, not too far out of the way, and south-er, lower, and presumably warmer than the now-frigid southern Utah deserts. We met off I-40, then found a… perfectly adequate place to camp along Highway 89, in a National Forest mattress-dumping area. It reminded me a bit of the start of my 2016 road trip with Renee, though with only a handful of clean-picked cow carcasses in place of the dead sheep.

Granite Gardens map

In the morning we drove into town and stopped at the first likely climbing spot, Granite Gardens, an improbable collection of granite blobs nestled in a neighborhood north of downtown. Though we had come to central Arizona for warmth, it was too cold for climbing, so we decided to take a hike/scramble first to get an overview of the area. We were immediately surprised by the visitor-friendly signs at the trailhead and at intersections, which had both numbers and small maps. Unlike most places, where climbers are at most tolerated by the surrounding communities, they seem to be almost welcomed here, though one crazy neighbor lady apparently objects.

Playing on rocks

We started off along the outermost trails, then left to scramble up one of the easier formations to get a view. Though houses encroach in all directions, the granite formations hide enough to offer a pleasant view, and Granite Mountain and Thumb Butte, a basalt volcanic plug, beckoning to the west. We rejoined the loop with a bit of down-scrambling, and were making our way around the far side when I noticed some bolts on a wall. As I checked out the start of the route, which felt hard, a man with a limping dog hailed us and eventually introduced himself as Jared. He turned out to be not only a local climber, but one of the people active in local route development. He named the routes on the wall (including “Full Metal Corndog” and, of course, “Corndog Millionaire”), then took off for home to get his climbing gear while we returned to the parking lot for ours.

The Jump

We spent some time climbing a few progressively harder routes on the short Corndog Wall, then moved on to climb “Hop, Skip and a Jump,” a moderate but improbable route ascending a fin or arete with a gap crossed by a large and committing step or a short jump. I always enjoy jumping things, so I found the move fun, but Leonie did not especially enjoy it, taking five minutes or so to prepare herself and/or psych herself out before making what, with her flexibility and balance, was a straightforward move. Shenanigans complete, we finished up with some harder but more normal routes nearby, leading a 5.8 and toproping a 5.10d. The 5.8 felt reasonably serious to me, but I led it cleanly, and more-or-less cleanly toproped the 10d after Jared spent quite a bit of time working out the crux sequence.

We had planned to camp in some National Forest outside town, preferably somewhere with fewer shot-out TVs, but Jared kindly invited us for dinner and to use his spare bedroom and, crucially, shower. I do not expect such hospitality from strangers, even less now in our pandemic times, but traveling with an attractive and sociable woman does have its advantages. Jared turned out to be a fascinating guy, with interests ranging from Mary Oliver’s poetry, to guitar, to deer hunting with native bows he makes himself. We finally turned in after a folk sing-along, with plans to climb with Jared the next day.

Leonie on limestone

The next morning we piled into Jared’s Honda Element — the only one with enough room for three people — and drove back up Highway 89 to near where we had camped to visit some “secret” limestone sport crags. We drove an obscure dirt “road,” followed a faint cairned trail to a canyon, and descended through a band of basalt to the bottom. There limestone bluffs intermittently emerged from the otherwise volcanic walls, some hopelessly rotten, but others solid enough to climb, though apparently only after significant cleaning with a pry-bar.

Jared kindly allowed me to do the leading, while he and Leonie took turns following and belaying. Limestone is much different from the previous day’s granite or the sandstone I had climbed with Renee in Sedona. Because it features sharp-edged slots and pockets, and is rough and grippy, routes are steep for their grades. This means that falls at grades I can hope to climb are safer, but also that the rock tears up one’s fingertips, and that it is easy to exhaust one’s forearms. Proper technique requires using small footholds, subtly shifting one’s weight, and strategizing about how and when to spend limited forearm strength.

Granite Mountain climbing

I had climbed limestone before in the Dolomites and crags around the Tetons, so I took to it quickly and enjoyed the different style of movement. Leonie, just getting back into climbing and used to Sierra granite, was less comfortable, and took awhile to learn the best technique. For once her flexibility worked against her, as it is often best to make small upward movements with one’s hands and feet instead of big reaches and high steps. I led two routes on a wall downstream, then two more on one just across from the approach trail. On the second-to-last, I realized partway up that I had two too few draws, forcing me to choose a couple of bolts to skip and run it out. It was all thoroughly enjoyable climbing, and we were lucky to have met a local willing to share it.

We had only planned to stay for one night, but Jared insisted upon making curry for us, and it was hard to refuse another night of running water and heated space. We stayed up “late” again (where “late” for a winter dirtbag means several hours after dark), talking about life and even some politics, then turned in to enjoy a last night of civilization. Jared had to take off early the next morning, but kindly allowed us to depart at our leisure, so we enjoyed a final hike and shower before heading down and south in search of warmth.

Weavers Needle

Weavers from Lost Dutchman Saddle


[Thanks again to Leonie for significant contributions and help writing this quickly and promptly, and for photographic help. — ed.]

I had already climbed Weavers Needle, but a sunny mellow southern Arizona peak is just the ticket for taking a new girlfriend for a test climb. After a leisurely breakfast of bean tacos and avocado we hit the trail at the crack of nine. The parking lot was a snarl of shiny SUVs and the trail was infested with families and groups no doubt spraying Coronavirus on us as we passed.

Less than a mile in we found Bob, a 70 year old Forest Service volunteer, and Leonie paused to pick his brain about possible backpacking loops. We devoted the next hour to Bob’s recounting of feral apples at the Reavis Ranch and his extensive journeys into the back country of the Superstition wilderness. He and his family had seemingly lived in the area for decades, and I wanted to learn more from before Phoenix exploded, but we had a peak to climb.

Onward, up to the pass where the crowds thinned and we had the trail to ourselves. We cruised down to the use trail towards the Needle and I watched as Leonie picked her way up loose scrabble terrain. A fire since Mike and I had climbed the Needle in 2014 had greatly improved the area, eliminating the catclaw while leaving the cacti and yuccas intact, and simplifying the approach. We continued up the third and fourth class scrambling to a new intermediate anchor, replacing the old pipe, where we roped up. I trailed a rope as I stemmed up the steepening gully and thrashed around the crux chockstone; Leonie groveled even more and somehow landed on top sideways. Rumor has it that tunneling underneath is 5.1, while the lefthand side is around 5.4, but the tunnel looks awfully narrow.

More fourth and fifth class scrambling interspersed with gravelly steep slopes brought us to the summit, where we explored our underwear modeling careers before returning the way we had come. Leonie kept it together while the down climb challenged her preference for facing out (why do people do this?), and we returned to the chockstone and a mildly sickening overhanging rappel.

One of us managed to wedge the rope firmly into the pinch between the chockstone and the right wall, forcing me to climb back up to free it. While I was muttering and flailing the rope, we saw the first two people since leaving the pass — two guys planning to sleep on top. As I was rappelling the second pitch, two Frenchmen from the Bay Area showed up to join the summit sausage party. Leonie down climbed as I completed my rappel, then we flaked the rope and set off to race the fading daylight.

Down we went over more steep and unstable loose slopes through the burn area, flakes of burned cactus leaves and a saguaro bark remnant that resembled plastic corrugated roofing. I chose a different line of cairns, which left us thrashing through thorns and rounded boulders until we stumbled upon the trail. Clearly the work of fire here is not complete. Two hours or so of headlamp time later, we were back at the now mostly empty trailhead. I would have been faster without Leonie on the rocky trail, since headlamp jogging is what I do, but she kept me entertained with jokes and tales of bartering two silver rings for the use of a horse in rural Tibet many years ago. We whipped up some couscous-based nutrient glop back at the car and were sleeping by 9 PM.