Category Archives: Arizona

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.

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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.