Sunday, February 24, 2013

Cochise Stronghold - Arizona

Photos by Dane Scott
Ideas, Blood and Hydration Management by Kurt Krueger

Story by Michael Moore

It sounded perfect. A trip to sunny southern Arizona to climb in the renowned Cochise Stronghold, where Cochise hid from his military pursuers and spent considerable time putting up multi-pitch slab routes.

A contingent of Mill Creek developers -- Dane Scott, Kurt Krueger and yours truly, Michael Moore -- headed south on Feb. 8, flying into Mesa, AZ., where they were picked up by Michael's auxiliary daughter, Gabriela DeFrancisci, who hails from San Diego but is soon moving to Seattle to work for Boeing. They arrived to 70-degree temps, lofty numbers they wouldn't see again til the day they left. In Gabby's Mom Mobile -- a 1992 Subaru -- the crew headed south to the Stronghold, where they had the good fortune to have shelter in a house owned by fellow Mill Creeker Olin Martin's parents, Wayne and Tanner, who can't be thanked enough. The house is a gorgeous stucco-and-tile manse located just a few miles from the Stronghold. In fact, there's only a couple of places closer to the area, and none better.

The house paid off not just in location, but by the fact that it offered shelter from the elements, which turned pretty burly rather quickly; the climbers had snow on two of their four days in the Stronghold. In fact, the first day was cold enough that we headed back toward Tucson for some sport climbing in Milagrossa Canyon, a well-traveled crag characterized by steep rock and pumpy crimps. We had a low-grade struggle finding the crag, but eventually made our way to the rock, where we quickly encountered Geir Hundal, a well-known local who runs a website that features area climbing topos drawn by a dog named TooFast, including about 20 that we had in our packs. It was another reminder that even the national climbing community is small enough that you ought not feel surprised if Chris Sharma himself walked up and doled out some route beta.

We climbed pretty well, then headed back to the Stronghold and our home on the 18,000-acre Dragoon Mountain Ranch that abuts the Stronghold. Literally. In fact, it's the most direct route into the Stronghold, so our luck in staying there was pretty much beyond belief.

Now, the house has no furniture, by which we mean none, nada, zip. We had our sleeping pads and bags, and that was the essence of the furnishings. Gabby did a stellar job of bringing a kitchen, so we had all the essentials for cooking up some good grub. Kurt, of course, cooked his own food, which consisted solely of meat and cheese and the occasional banana in the mornings. He's SO Wisconsin.

Sunday brought us some sun, some wind and a five-pitch climb up the 5.8 slab of Moby Dick, appropriately located on Whale Dome, There's really nothing like routes like this in western Montana. Low angle slab, sometimes devoid of holds, sometimes rich with chickenhead plates just waiting to be slung. In fact, the third pitch anchor was all chickenheads! Boffo!

Kurt and Dane climbed first, with Gabby and I following up. Each team switched leads and we cruised to the summit with ease. The last pitch featured awesome climbing on plates, with two ancient bolts in about 170 feet. Yep, two bolts in 170 feet, and neither of them would have held a fall. We scoffed and climbed on. The rap off Whale Dome occurred in a festering gale, and for a short minute, we had the rope stuck in a tree. But crisis was averted, as it came free with ease. It must be noted that I found a red Camalot just above the start of this climb, a find that precipitated a lengthy and still ongoing discussion with Kurt about how I "prevented" him from finding what was rightfully his, although of course it belonged to neither of us.

The next two days found us at the Muttonhead formation and the Stronghold "sport" destination known as the Isle of You, which was both slabby and steep. More about the Muttonhead, but first news from the Isle of You, which features a sport crag called Trad Rock. Get it? Slowly, we got a little more comfortable pushing ourselves up routes that didn't really have much of what we generally view as holds. Dane burled up a hard 11, while Gabby and I tick-tacked our way up some 10a and 10c routes. Kurt began talking to himself as he negotiated the routes, noting the location, or lack thereof, of hand and foot holds, and his strategy for negotiating them while also spouting out a number string that may have been associated with Pi. Despite that, he climbed well. It took a couple of days for Gabby to learn the ways of Kurt, but by week's end she was calling him Uncle Kurt and knew better than to offer to carry his climbing pack.

As to the Muttonhead, well, we hit it in the worst of conditions -- low 40s, howling winds and sputtering snow. We'd planned to do the classic four-pitch trad route, Mystery of the Desert, but the wind kept us as the base. We did climb the first pitch of Mystery, as well as another climb to the left. Depending on which guide or website or topo you looked at, it was 10d to 11-. I'll say this: it was really hard slab, steep and featureless for several bolts at a time. It was the essence of climbing on your feet and faith, as there was nothing else to hold on to. Still, we got up it, though not without the route exacting a toll. Kurt paid dearly with his blood, which now serves as a perfect locator device for the few holds that are actually available. In true Montana style, we comforted ourselves with a world-class fire.

The trip to the Muttonhead was useful for two reasons: We realized we could get up hard slab, and we found our way to the adjacent Sheepshead, a 1,000-foot formation that is home to some of the Stronghold's most classic routes. We chose the Peacemaker, 7 pitches, 10b, which we returned to on Wednesday, which was our best weather day. With temps in the upper 50s and the winds at bay, conditions were perfect. Both teams climbed superbly, and we topped out on the route in less than five hours. The climbing was rich and varied, with slab, crimps, the occasional steep jug and a few small roofs. The Peacemaker gave us a day we'll all remember.

Part of what we'll remember is the descent, which is a walkoff on the north side, down into a vegetation-strewn gully between the Sheepshead and the Muttonhead. We'd been told by our friends Jeff and Janel Caton, who joined us for a few days, that the walkoff could be negotiated in climbing shoes. I suppose that's true, but that advice was not handed down by anyone who found the conditions we encountered. Which was snow, verglas and wet rock for about 200 feet, down the steepest part of the descent.

photo: Michael Moore

We worked hard to find another way down, but ended up actually kicking snow steps with climbing shoes -- not recommended! -- hanging onto prickly bushes and scooting down on our rumps. It was an ugly bit of business, but we made it. Our affection for our approach shoes had deepened considerably by the time we got back to the route's start. By the way, we added a sit-start to this 1,000-foot route, so expect it to be re-rated by Kurt in the near future.

Our last day -- it was actually hot -- was at a sport crag on Tucson's Mount Lemmon called Sun Spots. It was one of those days where you go climbing because it's your last day, not because you're really burning to climb. Our efforts were less than stellar, though Gabby flashed a hard 11 that left us boys either puzzled or just plain beaten. The crag was nothing to write home about, but the sultry temps were what we'd been looking for all week.

We highly recommend the Stronghold. It's fantastic climbing on sublime granite domes. We didn't talk about it much, but there's a sense of history that lingers in the place; you can see why Cochise picked it as a place to hide from the American military. It's labyrinth of stone no doubt made a great place to secret oneself, but it also bestows that sense of holiness only found in temples of native rock. We were blessed to be there, blessed to be together and fortunate to be part of the tribe known as climbers.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Trailhead Presents Glacier Mountaineering

Brian Kennedy and Don Arthur of the Glacier Mountaineering Society will be presenting at the Trailhead, February 12th, 7pm. Info here.

Kurt wanted to let everyone know he'll be climbing in southern Arizona on the 12th, and encourages everyone to attend this event to make up for his absence.

As you wish, Kurt...

Saturday, February 2, 2013

John Roskelley Nanda Devi Talk

Celebrated climber John Roskelley will give a free talk on campus in the University Center Theater on Wednesday, February 6 at 7:00pm. This is a great opportunity to hear firsthand accounts from a prominent figure in big mountain alpinism.
More info here.