Text and pictures © 2001-2023 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2021/11/05
"Climbing is the only cure for gravity."
One more U.S. state and one more classic climb.
Left: The tower of The Mace, Sedona, Arizona
Right: Jenny at the end of the chimney and the start of the offwidth.
Our Xmas trip to Red Rocks, Nevada was faster than expected. We climbed 2 hard routes the first two days, including the famous Levitation 29 that Jenny'd been drooling over for a while. After that if we wanted to stay on the sun it was either really easy classics or unknown territory. We did a few of the former but trying the later reminded us that the days were short in late december and the rangers are always on time to give you a fine if you are back late... And the weather forecast was not so good said the fortune cookie. So let's go play tourists and discover a new US state: Arizona. Specialties: indian reservations and rattlesnakes, or so I thought.
Left: Jenny finishing off the offwidth of the 2nd pitch of the Mace.
Right: The airy but fairly easy traverse of the 3rd pitch.
So we left Vegas after Xmas while everyone was driving towards it to go loose money there for the vacation. Some things I'll never understand, like people stopping their cars in the middle of the Hoover dam to go take a look below while there's a 4 mile line behind them (and they've been waiting in it for quite a while, probably swearing: "What is going on ?"). Oooops, we left Vegas with less than half a tank of gas, no worry, we'll fill up at the next gas station... Which we found after doing 50 miles with a blinking low gas dashboard light. OK, so maybe there isn't all that much people in Arizona... At least there's not too much traffic.
Were shall we sleep ? The guidebook says there's a nice dirt road next to Sedona. OK, but the bran new sign on it says: "No camping". OK, let's compromise: we'll sleep in the car and we won't call it camping, OK ? Jenny wasn't entirely satisfied by my rhetoric as she tried to remind me that I already got two tickets this month ("But, officer, there's never any cop on that road, that's why I was going 60 in a 35mph zone...") but I was tired of all that driving on snow and we crashed on the convenient crash pad.
Left: Gigantic boulders balancing on sandstone columns up the fourth pitch of the Mace.
In the morning we discovered a touristic city in a magic setup of red spires all around. Looks like Utah with trees and people. Although the weather was bleak, the tiny parking lot at the base of the Mace filled up while we racked up. The hike up was muddy but we got a better view of the tower, like a huge cup-and-ball game for Star Wars monster. Oblivious of the dark clouds above we left our packs and shoes unsheltered at the base and started the route.
Right: The long step to get onto the highest tower (summit) of the Mace. Only one step, but you still have to do it...
Is the first pitch a crack or a ramp ? No big deal, it was easy enough as a crack in a ramp... till I got to the limestone overhang. It almost felt like climbing back home, except now we are wired to crack climbing and don't remember how to pull big roofs... There's only one bolt at the belay but it's a big one. As we looked at the 5.9 hand crack above we were reminded of the Three Gossips in Utah and the overhanging start looked fiercely similar. But in practice I did get out of it stemming far and wide while Jenny came out beaming that it was the first 5.9 hand jam that she really appreciated... The rest of the pitch was supposed to be an offwidth but I climb happily in an easy chimney... no, wait, it turns into an offwidth higher up ! Hmmm, lets look at the guidebooks: "Gear up to #5 Camelot". Yikes ! My mistake for not reading the guidebook before starting the route... OK, the #4.5 did fit almost completely extended, but that damn offwidth looked long, so I decided to keep it for later...
Left: Jenny in the rain, back at the base of the Mace
Later: "Damn it won't fit anymore !". We are december 29th 2002; another look at the guidebook reminds me that 45 years minus a day ago, a team of legendary climbers did the first ascent. They didn't have any #5, or any cams for that matter, so I quit my whining and finish the pitch.
The next pitch is given by some as the hardest part: a airy traverse, but it's only a short face climbing move protected by a bolt. I was more wary of the 2nd half of the pitch: a 5.8 chimney that proved pleasant as rarely chimneys can be, and protectable too. So far so good. The next pitch is the crux and looks more complicated: basically it's a bunch of towers leaning against or near each others. You don't know weather you want to stem A and B, or crack climb B and C or offwidth C and D. The problem solved itself higher up as all options disappeared except for the 5.9 offwidth. OK, there's a bolt, but it's far up. So I was worming my way up that offwidth with eyes fixed on that bolt: 10m, 5m, 2m... Hey, what's going on ? I ended up at the same height but it was out of reach on the left: I actually had to place the #4.5 and hang on it in order to clip the bolt. Hey, how's that for an excuse at aiding ? As I went a little higher, I also wondered why there were two big bolts on top of the screw itself... "because it makes a nice foothold !" came the answer.
As I was belaying Jenny up that pitch, I heard a woman scream... no wait it was only a singer trying out the acoustics of the place. Is that the summit yet ? Well, kind of: it's the summit of this tower, but there's another higher tower just one step away... One big step with a foothold on the other side and 50m of void underneath. Clipped the bolt and traversed 3 meters to the right with hands on one side of the gap and feet on the other while Jenny was taking pictures. On the summit I looked around for a belay only to conclude that the toilet seat shaped summit register must be it... But by that time it was raining and we skipped on the lyrics in the register and rappelled down on a wet rope to our wet shoes at the base.
A few days later I would learn on rec.climbing the origin of the many plugged bolt holes we saw on the route. I'm certainly glad of the 2 bolts I found on the route (although they are not strictly necessary), but adding bolt on a 45 year old route done without a single cam at the time, WTF !?!
Right: Sandstone towers erupting from the clouds in Monument Valley.
Left: The roads that leads straight up to Monument Valley, between Utah and Arizona.
The next day we finished the trip by driving to Monument Valley in 10cm of snow. We paid the entrance... and got no further because the gate was closed because of the snow ! Too bad, we wanted to drool on the Totem Pole. The park leaflet says in BIG: "No Rock Climbing". Bah, we'll just watch Clint Eastwood climb it in The Eiger Sanction...
Left: A stack of delicious (but dangerous) prickly pear cactus with Granite Mountain in the back.
Our time in Utah over with the arrival of the first winter storm we drive down to Arizona, barely able to follow the road hidden in dust clouds and rolling bushes, the car shaking in all directions. We climb for a day at the Pit in Flagstaff, our first limestone in 6 months, while the wind screeches above the canyon trees. Then the drive through Sedona with a beautiful sunset before we get to Prescott and the campground under Granite mountain. We've already been here last year, but Jenny was only able to hike to the summit with both arms in a cast while I soloed a nice but easy icicle covered route. This time we want to do one of the many 5.10 routes in the center of the wall but with the cold wind in the morning we get up very late and start the hike in at 12:30. After an hour wandering through the bushes and cacti towards to base, not counting the time it took to carefully eat some of the many prickly pear cactus fruits ripening everywhere, we begin the climb after 2pm. Knowing that it gets dark at 5pm and the route is 4 pitches long... We choose more or less at random Waterstreak Delight, a route that starts with 2 pitches of face climbing on thin flakes (5.10) before getting under a huge roof where many other routes merge. The hand traverse with smeared feet underneath is mighty impressive and doesn't protect all that well either. Jenny takes a few pictures before I disappear around the corner. I hear her being very nervous before she removes the first cam committing 5 meters of unprotected traverse to a bolt, very arm pumping, particularly as she's the one carrying the pack. The wind is gone and the sun setting when we get to the summit and quickly coil the rope before running down the trail, afraid that they might close the gate on us.
Right: Great roof where several routes of Granite Mountain converge before exiting.
Left: A happy Jenny in the sunset on the last move of the route.
But the day is not over. We have neighbors: a huge RV of rednecks with an additional trailer full of dirt bikes, ATVs and other such wonderful 'wilderness exploration tools'. The bad part is that they also have a very noisy generator going. It's okay while we eat and read in bed, but then I walk there to be greeted by a big haired blond, half her teeth black, an unlit cigarette in her mouth and a cell phone against her ear. I ask demurely why they need to keep their engine running: "For heating! And light! And our BBQ!!!" But she assures me it's only going to be for a couple of hours. We are about to go to bed, so I'm not too thrilled at the prospect, but I don't want to think about how many guns they have in that pile of gear of theirs. At 3 in the morning we are still rolling in bed, eyes wide open, when I finally decide to sneak out and put and end to it. Sugar in the tank ? Maybe not, let's go take a look first. Without headlamp I fumble with the dials on their generator and just make it back to the tent before the damn thing sputters up and dies. A few minutes later we are fast asleep, nobody has been shot (yet?) and I've saved a few sugar cubes.
"Like the autumn leaves, that pair of underwear I've been wearing every day this summer begins to change to golden browns and yellows."
Left: Saguaro Cactus in front of Tucson, Arizona, 2003
Ever since Zion the bad weather has been behind or sometimes ahead of us. Decided to put an end to all this cold, we go as far south as our Visa will allow: Tucson, near the Mexican border, and its famed Mt Lemon. Since it's in all the climbing mags, it must be good to climb, right ? The weather is nice and warm when we arrive, but apparently the area is under heavy construction, the fee system undecipherable, most of the campground closed, the road closed and being blasted off during the day by a heap of construction workers and, last but not least, the weather threatening in the morning, with a few rain drops. The main climbing areas are off limits so we just take a rest day, typing this for me and doing Yoga and drinking a couple bathtubs of tea for Jenny. With my cough I still need a break anyway. The next day we manage to find a spot that's still open and do several good single pitch routes on large-grain granite.
After this short Arizona trip, we headed to California again for some climbing at Tahquiz, Suicide and Joshua Tree before coming back for Cochise Stronghold.
Left: Crux of Welcome to the Machine (5.10).
Now that's a nice place. We are coming from Joshua Tree, and as we drive the last few miles the rocks look to us like the California Needles, except that the lichen is bright green instead of bright yellow. We are surprised to find that there are no parking spots (with ugly No Parking signs all along the forest road), the only one being in the campsite where you have to pay a fee... The first day we go for the short approach on a classic 5.9 route that proves to be quite a sandbag as I can't get my finger in the crack, and neither can Jenny, so it's a really tight crack. The routes next to it are interesting also, a great 5.10 that seems easier than the previous 5.9 and a bitch hard totally smooth 5.11d slab.
Right: Jenny at the belay on the last pitch of Welcome to the Machine.
We camp right at the entrance of the National Forest but the sun disappear so early that by 6 we are snuggled inside the sleeping bags, having had dinner, wine, sweets and all. It's a good time for 12 hour nights. We liked the place so we decide to go for a second day, with a longer approach that the guidebook forecasts as long and strenuous. It's not that bad but one hour later we are surprised to find our south face target in the shade. It's cold and windy. The route, Welcome to the Machine, starts inside a narrow chimney but immediately moves on a rounded ridge on the left of it. I have a full rack but do not place a single piece on the first pitch; or on the 2nd for that matter. As indicated by the guidebook I link pitch one and two, but they must have got their measurements wrong as I run out of rope and Jenny has to follow me for 10 meters before I can reach the belay. By that time she's complaining about the cold and we stop to put an additional layer on. The next pitch is supposed to be the crux at 5.10d, but after doing 20 meters of slightly overhanging good crimps with frozen fingers I'm surprised to already arrive at the belay without having seen any difficulty, or at least nothing above a super bolted 5.10a. The next pitch is even easier and, thankfully, in the sun. But the bolts stop halfway up and I place the only cam of the route in the sloping flared hand crack.
Left: Jenny on rappel at Cochise Stronghold.
Right: Rock spires at Cochise Stronghold.
We are on a good ledge with one final pitch but the wind is increasing. There are only two bolts on the next pitch, given as 5.8, but those small crumbly crimpers seem much harder when I'm 10 meters up and about to reach the first bolt with the wind trying to shake me loose. On the summit we marvel at the smoothness of the other rock facing us. Two other parties are on a south facing wall, way below, enjoying the sun and, undoubtedly, the protection from the wind. On the summit we hesitate for a long time between rappelling into an ugly chimney on the wrong side like the guidebook says, or rappelling straight down on the right of our route. We pick the latter and, after having to unravel the rope from the many chickenheads and dinnerplates, get safely down as the wind starts raging above, sending our rope horizontally. When we reach the backpack and our shoes left at the base, bad surprise, the backpack is open and I see the sandwich bad on the floor. As often happens, an animal must have looked around; the surprising part is that the sandwich is intact. A lot more surprising is that both of Jenny's thick socks are missing. We look around and laugh at the idea of a squirrel or other critter coming back to its burrow with a pair of smelly socks saying: "I got a warm bed for the winter !".
And winter it is, meaning we must head back home now, with just a few days left in the road trip. Maybe just enough time for a side trip in New Mexico.