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A Story About Climbing
Loosely Based on the Real Life Adventures
of Amy and Sandy in Cochise Stronghold, Arizona


Author: Amy Hoeptner, Chairperson, NMMC Climbing Section

There is no historical evidence that the legendary Apache Chief Cochise was a rock climber, but I have my suspicions after spending a weekend in his one-time southern Arizona hideout. The area is characterized by clean, granite domes, reminiscent of a certain California valley that starts with "Y", in their quality. By cloaking this comparison in anonymity I hope to forestall accusations of heresy that could result from such observations. "Are you now or have you ever compared a certain Arizona climbing area with Y·?" But I digress. Our trip included only two climbs due to inclement weather, but what it lacked in quantity it made up for in quality of climbing and life in general.

We had heard good things about this area, both from friends and from a suspiciously-enthusiastic guidebook which frequently referred to climbs or pitches as "the best 5.(insert grade) in the state." As we prepared for the trip, we began to ponder the difference between an "ultra-classic" a "mega-classic" and a "must-do mega classic." Anyway, we intended to find out for ourselves.

We left our own Albuquerque stronghold on Thursday, January 30, ready for some wilderness adventure climbing after weeks of holiday madness and sport climbing. Armed with a car full of climbing gear, leftover Christmas chocolates and a brand new GPS unit, we got out of town. Our first stop was Hatch, where upon inquiring about where one could get a good Mexican dinner, the gas station attendant proceeded to pick up the phone and call a friend/restaurant owner down the street who kept her place open for two chile-starved gringos from the big city. By the way, in Hatch they serve rellenos flacos y leche con hielo (flat rellenos and milk on the rocks).

Ever the diligent navigator, my co-pilot carefully entered a GPS waypoint upon our return to the car. With impending millenial concerns, we felt we could not be too careful in tracking our course, should we have to navigate back through a world we no longer recognized. Certainly major urban centers such as Hatch, Benson and Sunsites would be targets for any sort of Y2K terrorist activity.

On the road again, we headed east toward Wilcox and Cochise Stronghold. Just before we arrived in the stronghold proper we were stopped by a patrolling INS official on one of the nicest dirt roads I have ever had the pleasure of driving on. After a brief conversation during which we ascertained that he was also a climber, we drove on into the park. After a couple of detours through some neighboring campsites (oops!) we pulled into our campsite around 1:00am, erected our temporary habitation, and hit the hay.

I was awakened, rudely, at 6:00am by stomach cramps. Not one to be put off by some minor discomfort (I'm a trad climber!) I closed my eyes and prepared to fall back to sleep. Okay, so much for that plan. I was up and fully engaged in my fledgling illness by 6:30 am. That's alright! An alpine start is always a good idea. By 7:00, Sandy was up, preparing coffee and instant mashed potatoes for me. I choked down what I could and resolved, quietly, to climb today no matter what. By 8:00 we were ready to head down the trail to our chosen climb: Moby Dick.

Now as anyone who's spent any time navigating through nature knows, the world is full of rock formations that bear little resemblance to their moniker. Needles that look like thumbs, wolf's heads that look like armadillos, and rocks that just look like, well, rocks, abound. Let's face it, the human need to name sometimes requires an active imagination on the part of the beholder; not in the case of Whale Dome (Moby Dick's home). Ahab himself might have contemplated running back to camp for his harpoon upon encountering this marine-flavored monolith.

We encountered a number of other parties at the climb (that number being 3). One was almost done when we arrived, one was just getting ready to start, and another arrived just after we did. In my brief experience a crowded crag often provides the backdrop for interesting interchanges. Though strangers, we are united by a hobby that we typically feel passionate about, and that provides fodder for interactions ranging from unembellished anecdotes to all-out brag fests, or a combination of the two÷sort of the humble pie approach to braggadocio: "I was so scared, I mean, I usually only lead 5.9 at altitude with a broken ankle÷I was in way over my head." It's all in good fun.

In this instance, I struck up a conversation with the male of the pair who had just finished the route. It became apparent that they were from California and had both lived in Yosemite at some point. Intrigued, I inquired into his liveliehood while there which revealed that he had worked with YOSAR, the prestigious Yosemite search and rescue team. Seeing a connection I mentioned that I had participated in search and rescue, albeit briefly, in Albuquerque. The subtlest lip curl and eyebrow crook accompanied his next query: "You weren't the 'V' word, were you?" I responded, baffled, "the 'V' word?" wondering if he suspected a) I was from another planet; or b) something much more personal that one would rarely expect of a 32 year old woman not wearing a habit. "You know," he continued conspiratorially, "a volunteer." I can't remember what my response was at the time, but since then the creative retorts to his snide comment have come without number. Ah, hindsight.

Though a crowd usually lessens my personal enjoyment of adventure climbing, I let it slide in favor of concentrating on my still-rolling stomach, though after the YOSAR alum encounter, not from illness alone. We let the second in the party ahead of us get a good start, and Sandy started up the first pitch. I've sent many a short missive heavenward prior to climbing: "please don't let this be as hard as it looks," "if I can just make it up this pitch I'll never climb again," etc. At this belay, I implored the powers that be that for my own sake, and that of the un-helmeted climbers following me, that I could stave off the billowing waves of nausea, or at least acting on them. And due to the clean life that I lead, my prayer was answered. The first pitch was enjoyable climbing, featuring a large crack up to a blank face. Blank except for a bolt, that is. Another prayer answered. I reached Sandy at a lovely 2-bolt belay and we swapped gear in preparation for my lead, as my stomach seemed well under control at this time.

I started up the second pitch. The first move off the deck was definitely the crux of the matter. A tricky balance-y traverse to the right. After this it's chicken heads deluxe. I think I put my own unique spin on the end of the pitch (read: I was off route), but I arrived at the ledge of my desiring regardless, none the worse for wear. After building an anchor which I felt sure would hold body weight, I called Sandy up. He joined me soon after and was off on pitch number three, a short, pleasant do-si-do through the chickenhead ranch.

Pitch 4 was mine. Short and sweet. And then the fun began. Pitch 5 was a remarkable, though poorly protected, ascent up an alligator plate (big, flat chickenhead) covered, very vertical wall. This is followed by a 3rd class slab scramble up to the top of the rock where we were treated to beautiful views on the last day of the millenium. But if it's not over until the fat lady sings as they say, the rappel off this climb should be accompanied by a chorus of very generously proportioned damsels. A double-rope free-hanging rappel into a small grove of rope-eating trees awaited Sandy. After much grunting, swinging and shunt-assisted traversing, my hero was down and I was on my way. Our Moby experience ended with a nasty slog down the descent gully and back to our humble camp.

We decided, upon our return, to head for the East Stronghold area that evening in preparation for a climb there the next day. We headed out with good intentions to arrive at camp in a timely manner, but wait, it's New Year's Eve! Into the teeming metropolis of Sunsites, Arizona we go where we arrived in a timely manner at the Sunsites Bar and Grill. Highlights of the evening included an all country-western karaoke, free hors d'ouevres (including ambrosia salad and deviled eggs), Budweiser and 2 serious games of pool. After lulling me into complacency during the first game, which I won, Sandy proceeded to clear the table during the second game while I stared on, slack-jawed. It would be easy to dwell on the volume of polyester, pearl buttons and pomade in the establishment that evening, but these were genuinely nice people regardless of their fashion sense. We could have stayed much longer but we knew our climbing would have suffered, so nowhere near midnight we bid a fond farewell to our fellow revelers and tromped out into a tepid Arizona night.

Back on the road toward the East Stronghold we reviewed the day's and night's activities and settled the bets we had made on the pool games. All is fair in love and war, but when it comes to billiards it's best to keep your ducks in a row. Reality hit as we approached our destination and realized that we didn't really know where we were going to camp. Our initial foray into the formal Forest Service campground was discouraging to the tune of $10 a night and an army of generator-laden road hogs. We headed off again, and after some discussion approached what looked like a reasonable camping area÷it was flat, and close to the trailhead for the climb we wanted to do. We went so far as to begin setting up the tent before we realized that if this was indeed the trailhead, it might be a tad busy in the wee hours of the morn, and after a wild night in Sunsites, one needs one's rest. Again we headed off, this time up a winding road to its terminus where we identified what seemed to be a good campsite and pitched our tent. For whatever reason, my sleep was fitful that night. When I awoke at 4:00am and glimpsed the lights of Sunsites in the valley below, I realized that the world, and electricity as we know it, were continuing into the new millenium. I heaved a sigh of relief and went back to sleep.

We awoke in earnest around 7:00am and crawled out of the tent to a wonderful surprise. Our campsite was situated on the crest of a hill from which we had an incredible view of both the rocks, and the valley below. Our late-night wanderings had paid off in this beautiful, free, campsite. Coffee and an a.m. calorie injection were in order after which we climbed in the trusty Trooper and headed down the road to the trailhead. After strapping on our gear and packs, we headed down the trail, armed with 3 or 4 different route descriptions of the climb we confidently had chosen as our day's entertainment: The Wasteland.

As we began our solitary trek to the base of the climb, we couldn't help but notice that whatever attraction was drawing droves of climbers to the West Stronghold was definitely not in evidence in the east. My enthusiasm for solitary climbing experiences in nature began to wane somewhat as I contemplated what lay before us: our first experience with a climb of this magnitude all alone. Though I didn't know it at the time, Sandy shared my unverbalized lack of confidence in our ability to climb a 6-pitch 5.8 route as a solo pair, without even a sign of other climbers or hikers in the area. Eventually he broke the silence and summed it up succinctly if enigmatically: "I wish I had a couple of Jims right now." I knew he was referring, of course, to the many climbs we had done in the company of our experienced comrades, a preponderance of whom seemed to be named Jim.

We proceeded to thoroughly check of our packs for any traces of Jims. After having once toted a 15 pound cobble around for half a day which had been placed in my pack unbeknownst to me by a disgruntled partner (so, I forgot to take my pack when I left that belay), I would never underestimate my ability to overlook something as trivial as a large man in my pack. Upon finding none, we were face to face with our trepidation about climbing alone, with only a surfeit of adventure lust to guide us. Then the bargaining began. "We'll hike to the base of the climb and see how we feel." "We can always rap off the top of the first pitch if we want to." These were the delusional mantras we recited as we moved inexorably toward our destiny on the Wasteland.

We eventually arrived at the climb and after hawing and hemming for as long as we could, decided at around 11:00 that we needed to fish or cut bait, so to speak. In a fit of ambivalence, I donned the lead rack and headed for the base of the first pitch. It looked slabby and pleasant, and decidedly non-vertical. This indeed proved to be the case, and I arrived at the belay feeling confident that we had made the right decision and we should push on. Sandy arrived soon after and continued up a lovely crack pitch (5.7ish) which I followed and planted myself at the belay next to him.

It was then that my great confidence began to unravel somewhat as I stared up into the gaping maw of a large chimney above Sandy's head. "Hmm. The guidebook describes this as an easy chimney with good protection in a crack system" Sandy said encouragingly. I think I grunted at him as he hefted the rack onto my narrow shoulders. He sent me off with a cheery, "lead forth with vigor, woman!" I rolled my eyes at him. For the first time in the year I had been climbing with it, I noted a distinct lack of the #20 Camelots I would need to protect the death chute above me. Oh the sorrow of the inept chimney climber! With my body wedged much too far into the chimney, I contorted, yogi-like, in order to reach out and lodge the tiny stoppers I was hanging my life on into a small crack, sight-unseen. Somehow I managed my way up to the top and stepped onto the top of the slab, regretting that I had never taken needlepoint or any of the other earth-based textile-related pursuits more seriously as a hobby. The remainder of the pitch, however, was spectacular and airy, and seemed to offer up a chicken head just when I needed it. Somewhat mollified, I reached the belay once again sure that my future lay on big rocks and not as a professional quilter. I summoned Sandy up and he soon joined me. We agreed that we had just experienced a remarkable pitch.

The next two pitches offered similarly enjoyable climbing, combining challenging verticality with reassuringly large holds. Minor route-finding issues slowed us once or twice, and I suffered from very cold hands, but otherwise it was pure pleasure. Sandy led the final short pitch to the summit, where I joined him in a brief celebration of our success, truncated by the realization that we now had to get down off this lithic behemoth. Seven rappels later we were back to our packs and enjoying the unique euphoria that accompanies the successful completion of a challenging alpine endeavor. We began down the trail toward the car in dwindling light, but were pleased that our headlamps remained safely ensconced in our packs the whole way back. Back at camp above the lights of Sunsites, over a big spaghetti dinner and a few slugs of Jim Beam we closed the day as we often have since we met, recounting our day's climbing adventure late into the night.

The next day broke with a beautiful cloudless sky. Arizona's skies seem uniquely blessed with an infinite tranquil blue liquidity. This particular morning we were grateful for what appeared to be another unseasonably warm day, as we planned to tackle another Cochise classic: What's My Line. This route was located in a small valley almost between the east and west parts of the park, and would require a substantial hike to reach. Shortly after finishing breakfast, however, clouds began to appear from behind the rocks to the west. Though not put off at first, by the time we drove the 2.5 miles to the trailhead, it was clear that something was brewing. By the time we were about halfway there, intermittent snow squalls had redefined our approach hike as a reconnaissance for future adventures. Disappointed, we nonetheless continued until we reached the climb. To stand in the valley where surrounded by the towering formations that host What's My Line, Interiors, and several other major Cochise climbs with gusting winds and threatening gray skies was worth the hike. Otherworldly is the description that comes most quickly to mind. After a brief circuit of the area, we headed back down the trail to the trusty vehicle. As we bid Cochise Stronghold adieu, we were already planning the tick list for our next visit.

I never did find any concrete evidence during my visit that Cochise was a rock climber. No leather harnesses or buckskin climbing tights. But it's hard to imagine that anyone with the capacity for adventure that I imagine he must have had, could ignore the possibilities for vertical exploration offered by this wonderland. I like to think that the ghosts of Cochise and his cronies are lurking somewhere in the area, maybe swapping leads on one of the many spectacular climbs in the area. And as we drove off I swear I heard the quiet whisper of the Athabaskan words for "on belay" echoing in the wind.


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