18 Days in the Arrigetch: Part 1

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.

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Stepping off the pontoon and into the wilderness. 

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.

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The de Havilland Beaver takes off from Circle Lake in the Alatna River Valley.

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.

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An unnamed river winds through the taiga in Gates of the Arctic National Park. 

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.

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Bushwhacking through the taiga. 

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.

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The Alatna River Valley. 

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.

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Our first night’s camp. The sun is still bright at 9pm. The Arrigetch Peaks form our skyline to the west. 

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.

Climbing Cochise West

 

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.

Area History

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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.

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Lichen and incipient cracks on the upper portion of the south face of the Sheepshead.

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.

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Checking topos with the rock on the approach.

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.

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A tiny cactus atop a hill near the approach trail to 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.

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Getting ready to climb Mystery of the Desert.

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.

 

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Stemming through the crux on Dark Horse.

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.

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Scoping out the next pitch.

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.

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Thin face climbing on Ghosts of the Past on Mt. Chaktar.
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The beginning of some wide climbing on Ides of Middlemarch.

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.

Sheepshead Camping

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.

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These three horses came by every late afternoon to scour the area for fresh grass.

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.

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A horned lizard greeted us on our walk back on the last day of climbing.

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.

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Hanging out with a view at camp in the afternoons.

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.

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Surreal climbing terrain on Ewephoria.

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.

Last Impressions

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Sunset on the approach trail.

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.

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Awesome position on the last pitch of Ghosts of the Past on Mt. Chaktar.

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!

Trip Overview

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It’s your lead!

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.

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Another gorgeous sunset.