The Mace, East Face
By: Gary Clark | Climbers: Gary & Lynn Clark, Greg Opland, Felicia Terry |Trip Dates: April 18, 1999
Photo: Gary Clark
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Bridging the Void
Chapter 1: First Computer Date
Greg Opland was one of the first and eventually one of the most prolific contributors to the North American Classics project. He enjoys gathering and sharing information about climbs and climbing, and has authored a couple of excellent guidebooks in addition to the numerous trip reports and route topos that are now part of the NAC collection. I had exchanged many e-mails with him over the past year, but to date had never laid eyes on the lad, much less climbed with him.
Several people had responded to my request for classic route nominations with a climb I had never heard of. Simply called "The Mace", it is located near Sedona, Arizona. Knowing that Greg lives in Phoenix, I dropped an e-mail asking if he thought the climb measures up to the rigorous criteria established for inclusion in the continent's best classic climb list. He responded that it unquestionably measures up, and that he had already climbed it eleven times! Not only that, he volunteered to drag me up it! At my age and condition, which might be best termed "chronically and vertically challenged", this is not an invitation I am likely to pass up.
My wife and I finished the long drive from New Mexico around noon on Saturday, several hours before Greg & Felicia would arrive. We spent the afternoon scoping the climb; taking photos, doing the approach hike, and even climbing a couple of pitches to get a feeling for the ratings and the rock. We found the first pitch stimulating but non-threatening at 5.7+, but the second started right off the ledge with solid 5.9 jamming and chimneying. We both found this challenging after a long winter in hibernation, but quite enjoyable. About 60 feet up, the route turns left, and it was not clear that we would be able to rappel cleanly from the 2nd official anchor. I decided to plug in a gear anchor instead and lower down to the stance. We had plenty of time, so Lynn was able to rehearse the crux on top rope before we rapped down to the base to find a shower before meeting our new acquaintances. We found showers at a local RV park - $3 apiece, all the hot water you can eat.
Thus it was that we arrived at the parking lot late on a Saturday, both trying to recognize the other from the photos on the web. Not a big problem - my license plate reads "NACLSCS", and Greg's pickup had enough climbing stickers to erase any doubt. The four of us quickly retired to the cheapest local restaurant that serves decent beer in order to plan the ascent for the morrow.
The tourist scene in Sedona is almost overwhelming. Main Street would fit in nicely in Disneyland, traffic is intense, every other shop advertises Jeep tours, T-shirts, or real estate, and the air is full of light planes and helicopters on sight-seeing junkets. I have never seen anything even remotely like it. This very impressive natural area somehow missed being preserved as a park, and the contrast between preservation and rampant commercialism is dramatic. Rather than even attempt to camp in one of the smoke-, kid-, and dog-choked official campgrounds, we drove all the way back up out of Oak Creek Canyon to the mesa above to find some Forest Service back roads. Apparently even these are at capacity in peak season. Too many people, too little resource. We were motivated for an early start by the fact that the regular route on the Mace is well known as the best in the area, and that I had left about $120 worth of gear in the crack that might turn into booty for the earliest party. We were back in town ready to go by about 8:00am, noting with satisfaction that none of the cars in the trail head parking lot could possibly belong to climbers (too new, too pricey, too clean, no climbing junk in the back).
Chapter 2: Off the couch, into the off-width
The approach is only about 20 minutes, and we were ready for the first pitch before the morning cool was completely gone. The climbing arrangements had been discussed the night before - I wanted to lead as much as possible, particularly the first crux, the dramatic hand traverse, and the unique summit pitch. Greg had done them all many times, so he didn't care. I said "Great, you can pull the 5.9+ offwidth". We would climb as a "train" - all roped together as a party of four. Time-wise, this is the same as a party of three, since a leader can be climbing while the fourth is being belayed up.
The first two pitches went routinely after yesterday's rehearsal, our gear was still in the crack, and we were soon ready for number three. It starts with a pure hand traverse - big shelves for the hands, but almost nothing for the feet. Unfortunately, the fun lasts for no more than 15 feet until the off-width starts again. The bugs were not out of my climbing yet, and I thrutched a bit on lead; no-one else seemed to have any trouble with it. Now it was time for number 4, and I was happy to hand the rack to Greg. He stemmed up into an impressive open chimney; one of those convoluted free-form rock sculptures that make sandstone climbing unique. Knowing the route so well, he went improbably high via very exposed stemming before dropping the first cam into a crack on the right, and then finally swung onto that wall to continue up a crack toward the crux high above. Watching this from below was a real palm-sweat inducer. This is one of the special pitches on the route; the others being #3 and #5 (gee, that's a majority). The indirect sunlight bouncing off the light sandstone walls, the sky showing through the slot, and finally the climber emerging onto the impressively steep headwall crack left an indelible impression. I burned a lot of film trying to capture it while still doing a credible job of belaying.
There is a nice big bolt at the crux of the pitch, but Greg knew from experience that to clip it would cause problems - the rope would now be exactly where you wanted your feet. He bypassed it and plugged a big Camalot in a little higher, then made the "boulder" moves onto the summit terrace. Now it was my turn to try to emulate the performance. I enjoyed the stemming immensely - chortling nonsense like "awesome!" and "Way cool, wait till you see this!" down to the rest of the team. It was truly a spectacular situation, and the exposure added to the intrinsic difficulty enough to have me scraping and scratching a bit on the crux. I got up without a fall, but it was not a totally pretty sight. One of the toughest parts was backclipping my trailing rope so Lynn and Felicia could have full benefit of the pro if they needed it. Turns out this was a mistake - Lynn practically burned herself out trying to reach the cam in the crack, since her arms are short and her helmet would not allow getting any closer to it. I should have pulled the piece. She finally got it back-clipped, then it became Felicia's problem. Although taller, Felicia worked long and hard to remove it while coming up last.
Now we were on top of the first tower - the climb was almost in the bag, but another unique bit waited. The true summit is on an almost totally separate tower just to the north, and although the notch separating them is on the order of 300' deep, the horizontal separation at the top is only about 3'. I was told I had to walk over to the edge of the lower tower, and then abandon all reason to fall forward until my hands contact the wall on the other side. OK, now I'm spanning a gut-wrenching chasm with my body. I clip the welcome bolt, then shuffle 6 or 8 feet to the right to the only obvious feature on the wall. Stepping across with one foot, I'm now fully committed. Reaching high, I get the edge of a small vertical flake with one hand, then two, and then finally make the commitment to a full layback with feet pressed against the thankfully high-friction rock. A few moves upward and I'm back in balance. I had made a deliberate decision not to look down into the chasm during all of this - just concentrate on the rock directly in front of me; it matters not what is below. Soon I'm encouraging Lynn from the summit.
There is a big difference between the difficulty of this exercise for a 6' person and one who is only 5' 2". Lynn did the forward lean OK and unclipped the bolt, but when it came to reaching the flake, all bets were off. She stood in an impressive display of the splits for a long period (all that cheerleader and ballet training finally paying off) until she could inch her fingers gradually up toward the flake. When she finally got a couple of fingers around the flake, only the tip of her outstretched toe contacted the lower tower. She quickly pulled the layback and joined me on top to enjoy the very fine view. Felicia, even having done the climb before, was a bit unnerved by watching Lynn's exertions. It took a couple of approaches and retreats from the edge before she was ready to commit to the moves. Once in the routine, she quickly dispatched it. Now only Greg was left, and he took about two minutes to scamper up the well-rehearsed terrain.
The anchors lower on the route are impressive eyebolts. Although they are single at the stances, we didn't bother to back them up, since they are so beefy that only the largest carabiners can even clip them. Instead, we just girth-hitched slings through them for everyone to clip to. However, these can't compete with the summit anchor - a squat stainless-steel cylinder held at the base by four 3/4-inch bolts! Now that's a beefy anchor! It holds the summit register, and doubles as the rappel anchor - just pass the rope around it and go. Before this summit appurtenance was added, the initial part of the descent was frequently done by jumping the chasm! This would certainly be exciting, but stories of bruised and injured feet made us quickly reject this option. The remaining two rappels off the west side were both from double anchor rings. I regretted not saving enough film for the rappels, which were some of the most spectacular I've ever done.
On the ground we were among a big pack of dogs belonging to a party already established on the climb after a "crack of noon" start. We headed back to town for another meal at the Coffee Pot Cafe (recommended), and then said our good-byes to our new friends and began the long drive home. A terrific climb, one which I have no reservations adding to the list of North American Classics. (Well, maybe one teensy one - it is a bit short at grade II+; although 5 pitches, all are about 80-100 feet long, so the climb could be done in a couple of hours by a small motivated party). However, to paraphrase Roper and Steck in justifying inclusion of one of the shorter routes on their list "It's just too wonderful not to include."
Beta: Double cams from #0.5 to #4 Camalot, plus a #3 Big Bro (7.5"); two 50m ropes mandatory for rappels. Climb it in Spring or Fall; too hot in summer, but mostly in shade after midday if this is your only option. A local climbing shop has the guidebook: Tim Toula's A Better Way to Die.
Editor's Note: Greg Opland is a Major Contributor to the North American Classics project.