From July 12-July 30 2018, I was part of a climbing expedition to the Arrigetch Peaks in the Brooks Range of Alaska. This is the Part 1 of a series of essays I am writing about the trip. These essays combine details from my journal, photographs I took, and research about the area. I hope you enjoy!
Moments after a smooth touchdown on the black water of Circle Lake, our Beaver pilot urges us off the plane so that he can unload our gear. He seems like he’s in a hurry to get going. From my vantage point standing on the plane’s pontoon float, I can see that there is no getting off this plane without walking through mud and water.
Not wanting to look like just another tourist, unprepared for the north Alaskan bush and afraid to get his feet wet, I shoulder my 90lb pack and confidently step off the pontoon with my shoes on. My foot sinks ankle deep into the mud and the water rises up my calf. “I guess I’ll have wet feet today,” I think to myself as I plod through the mud to drop my pack on a slight rise 10 yards from the bank. I quickly return to the plane to help unload more gear.
Once all of our gear was unloaded, the pilot quickly restarted the engine, maneuvered the fifty-year-old plane away from the bank and took-off. No goodbye, a terse “meet you back here on the 30th,” and suddenly we are alone in a seemingly infinite expanse of wilderness, more than 100 miles from the nearest road.
A few minutes later, we can no longer hear the distinct, low-pitch drone of the Beaver’s engine. All we hear now are our own voices and the constant buzz of flies and mosquitoes. Our climbing trip to the Arrigetch Peaks in the Brooks Range of Alaska has quickly become so real that it’s palpable. We’re in it now.
The Arrigetch Peaks form one of the most visually striking regions of the Brooks Range. Sixty miles north of the Arctic Circle, these steep, sharp granite spires, clustered tightly together in an area encompassing only 20 square miles, contrast dramatically with the more gentle-sloped mountains surrounding the region.
The tallest peaks in the region are a mere 7000 feet above sea level, but the harsh Arctic climate makes these peaks truly alpine. But we cannot see any of this. Our views are blocked by dense vegetation and a long, low angle slope, rising over 3000 feet, that we must walk around.
Slender Black Spruce trees dominate the taiga forest. Dark winters and extreme cold slow their growth; saplings only a few feet tall can be upwards of 30 years old and the biggest trees, reaching 50 feet, were saplings when Captain Vitus Bering, namesake of the Bering Strait, became the first European to see Alaska. Where there are no spruce, willow and alder bushes tangle the landscape with long, flexible branches growing more horizontally than up, making travel through the taiga slow and tedious.
Circle Lake is a long, semicircular oxbow in the Alatna River valley. It is less than 1000 feet above sea level and the terrain here looks more like a jungle than I imagined the Arctic to be. It is hot, humid, and wet. To access the Arrigetch, we must bushwhack through a dozen trail-less miles of wet taiga. After half an hour of repacking and edgy debate over who isn’t carrying their fair share of gear, we get to work.
Each step feels like walking on a giant sponge. My foot sinks a few inches into the thick moss and lichen. Water pools around the base of my foot as if I just wrung out the sponge. After removing my foot, the pith slowly rebounds and reabsorbs the water. No footprint left behind.
Sometimes the moss and lichen covered ground gives way to grass tussocks and mud. A tussock looks like a basketball sized tuft of grass growing in a dense clump a foot or two above the surrounding mud. Stepping on one is like stepping on a balance board blindfolded. The tussock will roll over if you don’t step on it just right, sending your foot into the mud, possibly twisting an ankle, or worse, in the process. Tussocks dominate the terrain for hundreds of yards in some areas. I opt to avoid potentially ending our trip with a broken ankle and step in the mud. My feet are already wet and muddy anyway.
For over 6 hours we thrash through willow and alder thickets, occasionally passing through densely packed lanes of aspen, following drainages down the hillside. In that time, we walked less than 3 miles. On a trail, we could easily cover more than 10 miles in that time.
Eventually, we begin rounding the broad hillside to walk up Arrigetch Valley. Through its center runs Arrigetch Creek, more akin to a raging river than a gentle stream. Water melting from the last remaining glaciers in the area, combined with a recent deluge of rain from a tropical storm, feed Arrigetch Creek. The creek has carved a deep gorge and although we cannot see it, we hear the sound of water thundering down, on its way to the ocean.
I continue thrashing through an especially dense area of willow, alder, and spruce when I unexpectedly find a use-trail heading in our intended direction. Oh the joy! The incredible elation and relief I felt finding a path after hours of bushwhacking is nearly indescribable.
This path is not an official trail and is not maintained by anything other than human and animal traffic. Its presence is a testament to the growing popularity of this area. Walking along this narrow path, whose tread is no wider than a 6 inches, is tremendously easier than bushwhacking, but still requires one to constantly duck and weave through branches. As I walk along, I feel a tinge of ambivalence, elated to know that walking will now be easier, but disappointed that this area may not be as wild as I once thought.
Soon, I see a small ridge outcropping with a flat top that will make a suitable campsite. We trudge the remaining distance, exhausted from a long day with heavy packs. Now the camp chores begin: fetching water, unpacking, setting up the tent, and cooking consume the next 3 hours. We eat dinner under full sunlight at 10pm and enjoy our first views of the Arrigetch Peaks, their jagged spires forming the skyline up valley.
I crawl into my sleeping bag at 11pm. The sky is remains fully illuminated, although the sun has sunk behind a ridge to our north. My shoulders and back ache from carrying the pack, but my knees and legs feel fresh. The soft terrain must be easy on the legs. I write in my journal, accounting for all the days trials, tribulations, and wonders. I fall asleep dreaming of the surprises tomorrow holds.
Let’s face it, taking photos while climbing and hiking requires effort. We all love to have epic-looking photos documenting our adventures, but the act of taking those photos can sometimes feel contrived and can take you out of the moment. However, if you set yourself up for success by keeping your camera handy and knowing how to operate it, you can be rewarded with great shots.
Below I will describe my photography kit and explain some of the reasons it works for me. I’m not a professional photographer by any means, but I found a paucity of quality information out there intended to help regular people get better photos while climbing and hiking, but without it actually interfering too much with the enjoyment of those activities.
My Camera and Lens
The best camera is the one you have with you.
I started out using a compact Fuji point-and-shoot. It’s small, quick and easy to use, relatively durable, and was inexpensive. I took some decent photos with it and handing it off to a partner was never a problem because of its small size and intuitive operation. But over time, I became disappointed with the image quality. Photos were never as sharp and colors not as bright as I remembered. Since I like to print my photos, I was somewhat limited in my enlargement size because of it. Nevertheless, this was my go-to camera for over 8 years.
I now use a Sony A6000 mirrorless camera body for virtually all of my shooting. I chose to go “mirrorless” because it offers a level of control and sensor size comparable to a DSLR, but in a much smaller and lighter package.
The lens choice was important to me. I could have gone with a stock zoom lens, but I wanted to have the best glass possible on a budget. Less expensive zoom lenses don’t usually produce crisp, vivid images like a fixed (no zoom) lens can. After reading reviews, I went with the Sigma Art 19mm f/2.8. It’s reasonably fast, produces a sharp image with only moderate distortion, and is an appropriate focal length for a the shots I take the most: climbing action shots, candids, and landscapes. Best of all, it’s affordable.
With this setup, I spend most of my time shooting in either Superior Auto or Aperture Priority mode. I always shoot in RAW (.ARW for Sony cameras) or RAW+JPG. That way I am in full control of processing when I get back home.
Superior Auto mode does a good job balancing the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture for when I’m taking photos while climbing or hiking. I don’t always have the time or desire to take the time to determine the most ideal exposure. Superior Auto makes shooting a lot of photos easy and I’m usually happy with the results. While composing the shot, if I feel it’s worth the effort, I’ll switch over to a mode allowing me more control.
When I’m trying to be a bit more artistic and meticulous with my shots, I most often use Aperture Priority so that I can control depth of field and ISO. I keep the ISO below 1000 when possible to reduce electronic noise in the image.
The aperture I choose is usually dependent on the subject. For landscapes, I most often use f/22 to get the largest depth of field. For group shots and shooting around camp, I’ll use something in the f/4.5-11 range so that I get some depth of field, allowing my focus to be a little bit off without much trouble. When shooting portraits and closeups where I have time to make sure the focus is perfect, I use the largest aperture possible for the given light conditions.
I utilize my camera’s advanced features in two simple ways that I find really helpful for creating the shots I want. Both are related to focusing.
The most important customization for me was changing the focus button from “Half Shutter” to the “AEL” button. When using the default “Half Shutter” focus button, anytime you release the shutter and press it again, the focusing process begins again. I noticed that when I composed climbing shots, I pressed the half shutter to focus on my subject, released the button to compose the shot, then pressed the shutter again to take the shot. Unfortunately, the act of releasing the shutter button and pressing it again causes the camera to refocus. More than a handful of times, the rock nearest my camera would be in focus rather than my subject. Frustrating!
Moving the focus button to “AEL” meant that I could focus on the subject, then worry about composition, and finally take the shot without worrying about the camera losing focus on the subject.
While not really a customization, this next feature saves me time and frustration when composing shots. When in Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual mode, you can select the “focus area” that works best for the style of shooting. My camera has 4 options: Wide, Zone, Center, and Flexible Spot.
When shooting a group of people, I typically use Wide or Zone because the camera’s software will automatically recognize peoples’ faces and focus on those. When composing a shot where I want only the subject in focus, I most often use Center. It works for me in this scenario because the AEL button controls focus on my camera. So I can simply center my subject on screen, press AEL to focus, then compose the shot without the camera changing the focus point. For macro shots and portraits, I use Flexible Spot so that I can control and be confident that the camera is focused exactly where I intend.
Camera Bag for Climbing
Climbing with a camera, especially a larger one, can be a pain. Keeping the camera in a backpack is easy, but usually means I take fewer shots. Wearing the camera unprotected on a strap slung across my chest is great for getting a lot of photos, but comes with added anxiety and worry about destroying my camera.
I decided on a compromise: keep the camera in a small, padded bag. Sling the camera bag across my chest so that it’s easily accessible and reasonably protected.
It took some trial and error to get this method perfected, but it works well for my needs. I purchased a LowePro Adventura SH100 bag to hold my camera/lens kit. The bag is barely large enough to hold it, but the padding is substantial enough that my camera is protected from minor impacts. This bag is not waterproof; I keep a quart sized Ziploc in the camera bag so that I can protect my camera if it rains. All together, this camera bag is no larger than my climbing chalk bag and smaller than a pair of shoes.
I sling the camera bag strap across my chest so that the camera stays on one side of my body. I then take the camera strap itself and sling it over my head, that way the camera is protected from being dropped in two ways, by the bag strap and the camera strap. This setup works well for hiking and easy climbing.
When the climbing becomes more difficult, I add a waist strap to the camera bag (I took waist strap from an old chalk bag). This allows me to keep the camera more or less fixed on my side or back without it swinging around and otherwise interfering with climbing movement.
This setup keeps the camera conspicuously accessible and is tolerable to wear while lead climbing. It constantly reminds me to take photos because the camera is right there at my side. Taking lots of photos increases my odds of getting a shot I’m happy with.
When lead climbing at my limit where the risk of falling is real, I either keep the camera in a small backpack or give it to my follower. I’m not prepared yet to shatter my camera in a fall!
I don’t use too many other accessories, but I do occasionally use a small tripod and a polarizing filter when shooting certain shots. The polarizing filter is good for removing unwanted glare from rock slabs and adding contrast to bright, partly cloudy skies.
For a tripod, I use the Joby Gorillapod 3K. It’s on the heavier side, but it durable and rock solid on a variety of terrains. I use it mostly for shooting landscapes when the light is low and I wish to use a long exposure. An unexpected use I found for the Gorillapod was as a pseudo camera cage/holder when shooting video. With the camera mounted on the tripod, I can hold a leg in each hand, almost like a steering wheel. With this setup, I can keep the camera rock solid for video.
I am obsessed with maps. I love how they can display huge amounts of geographic, cultural, and political information in a way that is both understandable and aesthetically pleasing. Visually scanning a map takes me on a mini-adventure. I discover where I want to go, recall places I’ve been, and attempt to visualize what the area may look like.
I often thought about making my own maps, and had even attempted making a few using Adobe Illustrator and Inkscape (an open sourced vector graphics application). But I was always disappointed with the results and frustrated with the process.
In July 2018, I was fortunate enough to go on a climbing expedition to the Brooks Range in Northern Alaska. This far-off mountain range is one of the most remote in North America and it encompasses more than 100,000 square miles of terrain, about the size of Colorado. The total number of visitors to the area each year is unknown, the region is likely visited by a few hundred tourists and adventurers every year and is inhabited year-round by Athabascan, Inupiaq, and other Inuit peoples in small settlements. The Dalton Highway, a lonesome unpaved road, is the only road traversing this rugged terrain.
Our expedition focused on the Arrigetch Peaks region of the Brooks Range, located in Gates of the Arctic National Park. When researching the area, I sought out topographic maps that would suit our needs.
The 7.5’x7.5′ USGS “Quad” maps are readily available, but it would take at least 4 separate maps to cover the terrain we were interested in. In addition, these maps had few features labeled, which would make them less user-friendly in the field.
The Trails Illustrated produces a map encompassing all of Gates of the Arctic National Park, but the scale was much too small to be useful for climbing. While beautifully made, it’s hard for me to imagine this map being useful for anything other than river rafting.
Faced with this predicament, I decided to make my own maps that would include the information we needed for our trip at a useful scale and manageable size. I knew doing this would require a level of precision not possible using normal vector graphics software. I would need a dedicated cartography application and the skills to use it effectively.
GIS software, short for Geographic Information System, allows one to view, create, edit, and analyze geographic data for cartography. A quick search for GIS mapping software came up with two choices: ArcGIS and QGIS.
ArcGIS is a paid software used by most professional organizations involved in cartography, including the USGS. Unfortunately, it costs $100/year for the basic personal use license. I was not prepared to spend money on software just yet.
QGIS, an acronym for Quantum Geographic Information System, is a free, open source application designed to accomplish the same tasks as ArcGIS. Open sourced applications are often not as user-friendly as paid analogs, but in this case, there are many tutorials and troubleshooting information available online for QGIS. Even better, many of the “advanced” features available with QGIS are blocked by paywalls with ArcGIS.
Over the course of 3 weeks in June 2018, I watched innumerable tutorial videos, visited Stack Exchange (a technical question/answer site with a dedicated GIS section), and read much of the QGIS Training Manual. I also learned how to access and use much of the freely accessible geographic data available from the USGS.
Amalgamating research on approaching the Arrigetch Peaks with my nascent GIS skills, I was able to create two customized maps I hoped would be useful for our expedition. It required maybe 30-40 hours of work from start to finish, including time spent searching for data and learning the software. Not too bad for a novice!
The first map encompassed the entire region we could possibly visit, from bush plane drop-off to every peak in the region. When scaled to fit on a 24″x36″ poster, 1.5 inches on the map was equivalent to 1 mile. Through a local commercial printer, I was able to print this map for $0.29/each in black and white using their “Blueprint” printing service.
On our expedition, we found this map most useful when we were bushwhacking to and from the peaks from our drop-off site. I also used it to plot our courses and points of interest for later reference. I liked that it gave a grand, top-down view of the whole region and allowed us to see where we hoped to go, where we had been, and where we were all on the same map.
The second map went through several iterations before printing. I wanted a map that could be folded small enough to fit in my pocket, encompassed all the peaks in the region, was of useful scale, and could be printed affordably in color. After speaking with the printing service, I learned that 11″x17″ full color prints would be the best bet, costing about $1.50/each.
Once the print size was settled, my work was just a matter of scaling the map data to fit in a way that was legible and useful. I also wanted to make an attractive title block to include the area name, distance scale, magnetic declination, and projection information.
Overall, we were very happy using the 11″x17″ color map in the field. Our base camp and all other possible camps within the Arrigetch Peaks are within its boundaries. The small size made it easy to handle and color graphics made it easy to read.
We wished that there were more contour elevation labels because we often had to tediously search the map to find an appropriate contour elevation. I also should have included summit elevations and lake elevations to make it more convenient to use. Stylistically, I thought the peak name label and contour label font sizes were a point or two over-sized. I also thought the contour lines were slightly too thick, causing them to run together too much on steep slopes. Now that I am back home, I’ve edited the maps to reflect those critiques.
This was a great introduction to GIS for me. The project was personally relevant and important, which made the learning process much more enjoyable. I think the project was complex enough to teach me a variety of GIS mapping skills that I can apply to other projects.
This project taught me how to find and download GIS data from the USGS, add vector and raster layers to my project from that data, manipulate the visibility of different layers and attributes, create labels, and produce a finished product for printing. Most importantly, it was fun! I found this kind of work challenging and enjoyable.
“Falling!” I yell. A pathetic fall more indicative of giving up than giving your all. My waist was barely above the piece and a bolt only a body length higher, but I was pumped out. I spent too much time hanging out on small holds, trying to make it more secure than necessary, rather than just going for it. After hanging for a few minutes, I committed, moved up, clipped the bolt, and completed another challenging sequence before the climbing eased. Rather than proud, I felt defeated. Why didn’t I just commit to doing the moves the first time?
I hate the giving up style of failure when I attempt routes at my limit, but I do it more than I should admit. It’s frustrating to know that you can climb better than your performance suggests, and even more frustrating to know you just gave up. I sought to find out why I was struggling and work to fix the problem.
It’s been a problem for years. I’ve seen little to no improvement in leading difficult routes, all the while knowing I could climb harder. Looking for answers is harder than chalking it up to the vague “I just not strong enough” excuse. Rather than make yet another commitment to get stronger, I sought to identify the real problem
I made a list of my hardest redpoints and onsights. It soon became obvious that I could lead slab and face climbs at a greater difficulty than I was willing to attempt with crack climbs.
I’m a proficient slab climber, but I prefer crack climbing. I could cleanly toprope cracks 3-4 letter grades harder than I was willing to attempt on lead. But with slab climbing, I could lead within a letter grade or two of what I could toprope, if the protection was adequate. And it wasn’t simply that I’m a better face climber. In fact, I could cleanly toprope cracks at a harder grade than slab and face climbs. Why was there there such a disparity in my leading ability?
For me, it boiled down to that slab climbs have fixed gear and almost no options for pro anywhere else. I don’t enjoy long runouts, but I’m not overly fearful of them or of falling. Runouts force me to focus solely on climbing. This singularly focused mindset was missing from my crack climbing leads and is the missing piece of the puzzle.
I realized that on traditionally protected routes, I rarely focused solely on climbing moves. Most of the time, my mind fluttered rapidly between climbing and thinking about placing pro or the quality of protection. An unfocused mind cannot climb hard.
I reflected more deeply on that problem. I discovered I actually spent way more time thinking about when and how I could put that gear in, and comparatively little time focusing on the actual climbing moves. It was like climbing was an afterthought to placing gear.
I took the mantra “place early and often” too far. I placed gear too early, too frequently, and from poor stances, often when a better stance was just a move away. This approach, while safe, was not conducive for me improving my lead ability beyond easy 5.10s. It made climbing harder more stressful and way more tiring than necessary. The too early and too often approach wasn’t making me a better climber, it just made me better at placing gear.
The answer to my leading woes was deceptively simple: climb continuously between rests and place pro during those rests. Make a conscious effort to focus on the one task that is appropriate at that specific time: climbing, resting, or placing pro. Pick one and give it 100%.
But the mindset needed for doing just that doesn’t come easily, it takes work.
Consistent, positive self-talk and visualization have been the key. At the base before leading a challenging route, whether I have climbed it before or not, I visualization the climb. I plan out where rest stances may be, where I must place gear to keep risk to a minimum, and how I might approach certain sequences. I don’t stop visualizing until I reach the end of the pitch successfully.
When it’s time to start climbing, I focus purely on movement until I reach the next rest stance. During the rest, I look up at the next moves and visualize how I will climb to the next stance. As I move up, I place enough protection to keep my mind at ease and to keep me as safe as possible. I consciously reject over-placing gear out of unreasonable fear or just to delay committing.
When reaching the crux, I find the closest rest and place a solid piece of protection. I study the rux and the surrounding terrain. I take special care to consider any dangers for falling during that crux. After assessing potential fall danger, I look for additional gear placements if necessary. Many times, I can place that protection by making a few moves into the crux, then downclimbing back to my rest stance. Other times, I see that I may need to place a piece from a tenuous stance during, or shortly after the crux. Regardless of the scenario, I make a plan, take a breath, and fully commit.
When it’s time to climb, all energy and focus must go towards moving up. I want my hand and foot placements to be as good as they can be, but I resist the temptation to fiddle around. Good enough is good enough. Now is not the time to make sure everything feels bomber.
When the climbing is hard, I must push myself to keep climbing. Fear tries to take over and cause panic, but if I have appropriately chosen the route to my ability and am protecting it adequately, it is reasonable and necessary to push that fear out. If I do end up in no-fall territory, I better just keep on climbing until I can rest or place gear. Losing focus is the worst thing you can do if you’re in no-fall territory, especially on difficult terrain.
If pro is needed mid-crux, I commit to placing it quickly and keep going. If I find a decent stance I did not anticipate, I may rest and place gear, otherwise I continue climbing until the difficulties are over.
While the answer to my problems was simple, practicing this mentality requires conscious thought and constant reinforcement. I’m not always successful and I fall back into comfortable patterns. Old habits are tough to break, but with consistent practice I’m seeing improvement. When I do fail, I avoid negative self-talk as much as possible. Instead, I redirect my focus on specifically what I should do right the next time.
Becoming a better climber is hard and is different for everybody, but the challenge is part of the reason we love climbing. When frustrated, I try to remember that climbing is a process and I’m doing it for fun, so there is no need to stress out over minor failures. I learn from my successes whenever they come; I try learn even more from my failures. Most importantly, I remember how fortunate I am to be climbing and I try enjoy the process as much as possible, success or not.
I’m no speed climber, but I enjoy moving quickly on multipitch routes. I can’t always climb faster, especially on challenging terrain, and climbing faster sometimes opens me up to more risk than I’m willing to take, with bigger runouts and hastily placed protection. However, I can almost always save time at the anchor.
Many of the multipitch routes I climb have bolted anchors, even on traditionally protected routes. This offers a huge advantage for moving quickly if done right. The methods below can be applied to traditional gear anchors, but you must be cautious! There is significantly more risk when doing this! I use these methods mostly for bolted anchors, and occasionally for absolutely bomber cam anchors when I’m on a ledge with little to no risk of falling off of the belay stance. Below I describe how to work more efficiently with bolted anchors.
Use this information at your own risk! You must judge when it is reasonable to use these tactics and when you must be more conservative. Never accept more risk than you are willing to take and always err on the side of caution.
For the Leader
Don’t use a cordelette. They require more fiddling to equalize and tie and are usually much longer than needed for a 2 bolt anchor.
If swinging leads, use the rope:
Clove hitch into the bolt furthest from the line your partner will climb. Give yourself enough slack so that you can comfortably belay. Use a locking carabiner for this attachment point.
Clove hitch into the second bolt with about 3 feet of slack between it and the first bolt. Any carabiner will do; I usually use an extra non-locker taken from a sling. Go off-belay.
Tie an overhand or figure 8 on a bight to create an equalized master point between the two bolts.
Belay off the master point using an appropriate device, such as the ATC Guide or Petzl Reverso. It makes rope management easier while belaying.
Coil the rope across your tie in point as you belay, use really long coils that become progressively shorter as your second climbs.
If leading in blocks (i.e. you are leading the next pitch), use a double-length sling:
Clip the sling into two bolts using at least one locking carabiner. Create a master point.
Clove into a locking carabiner and clip it to one of the bolts or to the other locking carabiner holding your sling. Tie a backup knot (overhand or figure 8 on a bight) and clip it to the other bolt or master point.
Belay off the master point using an appropriate device.
Coil the rope across your tie in point as you belay, use short coils the become progressively longer as you second climbs. When s/he gets to the belay, you can flip the pile of coils and the rope is ready for you to continue leading.
Tips for the Follower:
When the leader goes off belay, immediately start organizing any loose equipment and clip it to you harness or put it a pack.
As the leader pulls up rope, remove your master point. At this time, you should still be connected to two points.
OPTIONAL: If you are at a good stance (i.e. NOT a hanging belay), you may want to go ahead and un-clove from the bolt you are not directly attached to. Only do this if you are certain that you will not fall and are okay with the slight increase in risk.
When the leader has pulled in all the slack and put you on belay, un-clove from the bolt(s) you are clipped to and start climbing.
If you won’t be leading the next pitch, clip the gear to a sling around your shoulder. That way you can hand over all the gear back to the leader at once. It makes for a faster transfer than handing pieces over one by one.
When you reach the next belay anchor, clove into the master point as soon as you arrive. Back the clove up with an overhand on a bight clipped to one of the bolts. You can adjust the length of the clove hitch as needed while off belay.
In my opinion, saving time at the anchor is much more cost effective than climbing fast and is less risky than pushing yourself to move too quickly on lead. When on lead, go off belay as soon as possible, and when following, climb as soon as possible. Depending on the anchoring method you currently use and your proficiency with it, the methods described above save me 5-10 minutes on every pitch. More time to climb and more time for beer at the end of the day!
As always, don’t do anything you are not comfortable with. Every situation is different and every climber is different. You are ultimately responsible for your safety! You should discuss and agree on anchoring methods and how you will go on and off belay anytime you consider speed climbing. Good communication with your partner before and during the climb are essential parts of safe, efficient climbing.
A cold wind gusts, threatening to push me off thin smears as I climb the final pitch of Absinthe of Mallet. In between 40 mph gusts, I quickly paddle up the granite face, spotted with vivid lime-green lichen. I reach a rest stance, clip another bolt, and look around for an easier way off, as the final 30 feet of slabby buttress climbing don’t look too appealing in these conditions. A group of climbers hanging out on the nearby summit howl enthusiastically as another gust of wind rips through. Walt yells at me to “hurry up!” so he can get out of the wind at his hanging belay. To my right, I see an escape onto easier terrain and take it. Glad to be on off the narrow buttress, I quickly set a belay on a nearby 2 bolt anchor and bring up Walt. “This is insane!” I yell at him, grinning as we jog off the summit, eager to get out of the wind and back to our packs.
I recently returned from a week-long trip to the west side of the Cochise Stronghold in Arizona. Fun multipitch routes, awesome setting, excellent free camping, perfect weather (aside from the wind), and a great friend made this one of the best climbing trips I’ve ever done.
The Cochise Stronghold forms a portion of the Dragoon Mountains in southeastern Arizona, just north of Tombstone. The Dragoon Mountains were named after the 3rd US Cavalry, dubbed “Dragoons” for the fire and smoke breathing carbine rifles they carried. The Dragoon Cavalry pursued the Chiricahua Apache and Chief Cochise into their final stronghold in this region. Allegedly, Chief Cochise’s final resting place is somewhere in these mountains.
The Dragoon Mountains were formed by the uplift of granite plutons, large blobs of molten rock, that pushed up into the crust about 180 million years ago. When the overlaying earth gradually eroded away, the large granite monoliths and boulders we now climb became exposed. The granite here is rich in quartz and feldspar, similar to the rock found in Joshua Tree, but the rock in Cochise has smaller crystallization and is generally less grainy.
Once exposed to the environment, the formations were subjected to erosion and weathering for millions of years. Water running down the slabs polished some areas and created new features in others. Slight differences in the durability of the rock’s surface to running water over time created the Stronghold’s distinctive chickenheads and “alligator skin” plates. There are few long, continuous crack systems in the Sheepshead area to provide obvious natural lines. But the rock is highly featured and not too steep, making just about all the faces free climbable. The vivid lime-green and yellow lichen makes it a surreal place to climb.
The Not-So-Wild West: Climbing in the Sheepshead Area
During our one week trip, we climbed for five days and completed seven routes, all on the Sheepshead and neighboring formations. The Sheepshead Area forms a mountain and ridgeline roughly running east-west. Its main summit, Sheepshead dome, is about 1000 feet above the trailhead. The domes look similar to Tahquitz or to Saddle Rock in Joshua Tree. The largest dome with the longest routes is the Sheepshead, and the domes protruding from the ridge to the west of the Sheepshead are slightly shorter by a few hundred feet.
Most days, we started the 45 minute approach around 9 am or shortly thereafter. The approach is mostly flat for the first 20 minutes or so, before rapidly becoming much steeper as it approaches the base of Sheepshead. The steep part felt slightly more inclined than the Lunch Rock approach trail to Tahquitz, but was not as long. Much of it is scrambling over stable talus and along low angle slabs, which made for more enjoyable movement than a steep, dusty slog. There is little shade until you reach the base of Sheepshead and the entire approach receives full Sun all day. The trail was really easy to follow and frequent cairns kept confusion to a minimum.
From the base of the rock, we found it to be another 5 minutes to get to Ewephoria, 10-15 minutes of easy hiking to the Muttonhead, and about 20-25 minutes of easy hiking to Mt. Chaktar. Essentially, once you’ve reached the base of the Sheephead, the difficult hiking is over. For us, that was a major plus when visiting the other formations west of the Sheepshead.
Before visiting, neither Walt nor I spent much time planning routes to climb or reading descriptions. We preferred to keep plans loose and the spirit adventurous. Each morning, we would choose a route from Walt’s guidebook after a leisurely breakfast. We’d take a quick (often incomplete) photo of the topo to keep with us on the route and we only read the pitch descriptions after returning to camp. We both enjoyed not knowing which pitches were supposed to be the crux and it made us climb all the pitches with equal attention and seriousness. Personally, when I know the crux pitch is coming, I spend most of the climb getting nervous and wondering if I’ll be good enough to do it. Staying in the dark about the crux helps me to just focus on the climbing and leads to more fun!
Like most climbers new to the area, we decided to climb the highly-regarded Ewephoria (5.8) as our first route. We thought it’d be a good route to gauge our ability against this new area. However on that day, we found ourselves the third party in line for the route, with two parties already climbing. So we quickly moved on to a different route and returned to Ewephoria later in the trip. During our visit in late March, we observed that about 2 parties climbed Ewephoria each day, and even more on weekends. Starting the hike before 8 am would likely put you first in line, or you could wait to until late afternoon to climb if you are confident. Most climbers we saw started the approach between 8 and 9 am.
Instead, the classic seven pitch Absinthe of Mallet (5.10-) became our first route. We found it to have an enjoyable variety of climbing movement, including juggy overhangs, friction slab, edging, and even a few jams. What was notably absent from this route were the famous chicken heads and plates that we had come to associate with Cochise through rumors and campfire tales overheard at other southwestern climbing locales. Regardless, this was an excellent route with great protection.
We climbed six other routes in the following 5 days, four on the Sheepshead, one on the Muttonhead, and one on Mt. Chaktar and all are considered area classics in the guidebook. We found the rock on all of these routes to be mostly excellent. It was rare for smears to feel grainy or a hold to be questionable. To our delight, the friction was excellent even when the rock appeared glassy smooth. Confidence in foot placements grew with each route we climbed and made for enjoyable, quick ascents.
It was always windy while we climbed and was something that we got used to. If you have never climbed in windy conditions, it could be challenging to handle at first, but the temperatures were warm enough that it didn’t feel like suffering. We climbed in t-shirts, pants, and sometimes with a light pullover. On sunny routes, the wind was a nice reprieve from the heat. A couple of the routes we climbed were on the western side of the formations and did not receive sunlight until afternoon. We were only cold when climbing those shady routes in the mornings.
We were surprised by the high number of bolts on the routes we climbed. Again, word-of-mouth before the trip had us believe that the climbing would often be runout and that we’d frequently be slinging of chickenheads for pro. That was almost never the case. The routes we did rarely needed even a single rack and we only slung a few chickenheads, mostly for the novelty of it. Maybe other areas in Cochise are more traditionally bolted, but that was not the case for the Sheepshead area.
In many cases, we found that routes were indistinct and some of the bolted lines were too close together. Occasionally, there were bolts placed right next to easily protectable cracks. On The Peacemaker (5.10-), the bolts appeared to be placed at pre-set distances, most likely on rappel, along a plumb line that did not always follow the climbing. We often found ourselves well left or right of the bolted line. While that route was really fun, the bolting detracted from its quality, especially since the stances were good enough to protect the route nearly as well while drilling on lead.
Due to the high number of bolts and minimal time spent fiddling with gear, we were able to climb routes quickly. On two of our five climbing days, we comfortably completed two routes in a day, on different formations, with many hours of daylight to spare. A motivated and fit climbing party could probably complete 3 or 4 routes in a day if they so desired. We never encountered crowds on any route, other than Ewephoria, although the classics up to 5.10- seem to get done frequently. The Peacemaker was probably the second most popular route on the formation while we were there, seeing an ascent nearly once every day. Absinthe of Mallet and Mystery of the Desert were also popular.
The nearby terrain surrounding the Dragoon Mountains is much less dramatically featured. From the summit of Sheepshead, it appears mostly flat and is composed primarily of alluvial deposits, snaked with drainages. The land is vegetated mostly by tall grasses, live oaks, and the occasional cactus. We saw a few different species of bird, most notably the beautiful Vermillion Flycatcher, which is only transient in this area according to my Peterson’s Field Guide. We also saw a few small deer, some exceptionally large jackrabbits, skunks, a horned frog, and a rattlesnake.
The Sheepshead Trailhead camping area is in this flat, grassy terrain with a few groves of live oak and other small trees we weren’t able to identify. There two main dirt parking areas close to the trailhead at Sheepshead in which to camp, both are lined with oaks, and most spots are flat enough for those sleeping in a vehicle. The area seems like it can comfortably hold up 10 vehicles for camping without too much crowding. We saw 5 established fire pits in the immediate area of the Sheepshead Trailhead, but there could have been more that we did not notice. The left-most parking area, closest to the trailhead, had the two most secluded campsites, while the right parking area was significantly larger and more open.
We camped at the site closest to the trailhead for seven consecutive nights. The first few nights were over Beanfest weekend and we shared the immediate area with other climbers, but during the weekday, we had the site to ourselves. In our opinion, this is the best campsite in the area. There are several oaks that form a canopy over the kitchen and firepit. We were pleased that there were few, if any, rodents inhabiting the area. We kept our food and trash in storage bins and there were no issues with animals trying to get at it. Additionally, the site was backed by a larger grove of trees to the west, which helped weaken the prevailing westerly wind. We also had the opportunity to talk to climbers passing through on the way to the trailhead, which was nice for socializing and hearing about others’ experiences in Cochise.
We spent late afternoons and evenings relaxing in lounge chairs under the low oak canopy of our campsite. We’d rehydrate, eat, and stare back up at the Sheepshead and surrounding formations. Just about every evening, while sitting around the campfire, one or both of us commented on how beautiful this place was or how lucky we were to have such an awesome campsite.
We found the whole experience, camping and climbing, to be relaxing and enjoyable. The lack of crowds and low-key vibe were a refreshing change from most of the more heavily trafficked climbing areas in the west.
Good Weather with No Crowds
The weather was very good all week; we only had one day that was cold, cloudy, and windy; we used it as a rest day. Most days started out sunny, calm, and clear. But sometime mid-morning, the wind would start to pick up and small cumulus clouds became increasingly prevalent as the day progressed. Wind seems like a given for the area. The wind can be strong, and was annoying at times, but it was never that bad. The relatively warm temperatures, ranging in the 50s to 70s, saved us again, making the wind tolerable when sitting around camp.
A few afternoons, the clouds built enough that we thought it might rain, but it never did during our visit. By sunset, the clouds usually cleared and the wind died down an hour or two after sunset. Most nights were partly cloudy or hazy, which, along with the waxing Moon, put a damper on my hopes of seeing the night sky in this remote corner of Arizona.
Even though we never had the area to ourselves, the area was significantly less populated than Joshua Tree or Red Rocks in season. Except for Ewephoria, most climbers seemed to spread out among a few classic routes and we never observed more than one party on a route at a time. Most parties also appeared to stay on the Sheepshead, with a few venturing over to the Muttonhead to do Mystery of the Desert (5.9). In our brief experience, the other formations were well worth exploring, they had great rock, only slightly shorter routes, and solitude. On my next trip here, I’ll spend more time on these other formations.
In all, we had a great experience in Cochise. It lived up to nearly everything we had hoped for: classic multipitch moderates, excellent camping, and few crowds. The rock was more beautiful and solid than I expected it would be. We did not find long runouts and frequent use of chickenheads for pro that were rumored, at least in this area. Instead we found most routes were generously bolted, bordering on over-bolted. Regardless of your stance on the bolting, the locals approve and it made for quick, stress free climbing.
A single rack of cams from Blue Metolius to a #4 C4, plus a set of nuts, was more than adequate for every route we did. We never ran out of gear or wished for doubles, but you may want extras in some sizes depending on the route. Some of the pitches required many slings and draws if you plan to clip every bolt, so I recommend showing up with 12-15. Most belays are bolted with two modern ⅜” expansion bolts with Metolius Rap Hangers, so depending on your preference, you can go light on anchor materials. We climbed with a 70 meter rope, but a 60 meter would have been fine. Some of the routes, especially on the formations west of the Sheepshead, recommend that you rappel to descend, so having two skinny ropes is a good idea. We were able to get off of Mt. Chaktar by rapping off the back with a single rope, but this is not recommended and required a long bushwhack back to the Sheepshead.
A visit to the Sheepshead area should be high on this list of any climber who can lead 5.9/5.10, as there are many classics to choose from. Having done 7 routes in the area, I think this area alone worth another week-long visit sometime in the future. The area could be especially good for newer 5.10 leaders and those just breaking into trad climbing because most of the routes we did were generously bolted and only required occasional gear placements, few of which were absolutely critical. The protection reminded me a lot of climbing in Red Rocks, with the frequent bolts supplementing gear placements. It could be a good place to build confidence and improve efficiency on multipitch routes.
I’m looking forward to visiting the area again, both to tick off more routes in the Sheepshead area and to check out other areas that were under raptor closures. I hear there is a lot of good stuff on the East side that is worth checking out. Climb on!
Day 1: Drive from Inland Empire; about 9 hours of travel time with stops for gas and food.
Day 2: Climbed Absinthe of Mallet (5.10-). An excellent route and my partner’s favorite of the trip. Mostly slab and face climbing with a few crack moves and some overhangs. A single rack up to #3 C4s protected the route well.
Day 3: Climbed Dark Horse (5.10-). Another excellent route and my favorite of the trip. Pitch 2 was probably the crux and had some awesome stemming and enjoyable chimney climbing. A single rack to #4 C4s protected the route well.
Day 4: Rest day.
Day 5: Climbed Ghosts of the Past (5.10-) and Ewephoria (5.8). Ghosts was fun and we topped out in 3 pitches by linking pitch 1 and 2. Ewephoria was also fun; pitches 1 and 4 were the best. We opted for the 5.10- finishing pitch, which was really fun. A single rack to #2 C4s protected both routes well. Started at 9am and back at camp by 5 pm. Stashed our gear between the Sheepshead and the Muttonhead. We do not recommend rapping off the back of Mt. Chaktar and walking back; it’s a bushwhack.
Day 6: Climbed Mystery of the Desert (5.9) and The Peacemaker (5.10-). We were not very impressed with Mystery of the Desert, but the crux pitch was pretty cool. The Peacemaker was another excellent climb with fun overhangs on pitch 2 and 4; highly recommended. A single rack to #2 C4s protected both routes well. Started at 9am and back at camp by 3 pm. Stashed our gear between the Sheepshead and the Muttonhead.
Day 7: Climbed Ides of Middlemarch (5.10-). This was an OK route; the rock was not as high quality as others, but was still pretty good. It felt more stout in a few places than the other 5.10- routes we did. Pitch 4 was the best on this route.
Day 8: Drive home. There seemed to be less traffic going this direction.
My partner, Walt, and I swung leads on every route.