Friday, December 24, 2010

Watch Out for Bees on Hart Route

The bees on Hart Route attacked some climbers in November, something I noted in Valley Fever a few days after it happened. Yeah, I couldn't help but wonder again what I'd have done back in April if the hive had been aggravated by my free-solo climb.

All's well that ends well, of course. The climbers in the November attack weren't badly hurt, and I got a blog post out of it in which I published two of my own pictures, including one of the beehive. Sure, it's a crappy photo, but who else got that shot? No one!

On the day of the incident, as I mentioned in my NT post, I'd been climbing up on the Headwall and talked to climbers near the Monk. I put the picture I took there through a new iPhone app that mimics a "tilt shift" effect. I love how it turned out, and, to be honest, it's the real reason for this post tonight.

But, as long I'm here, why not show you a couple more photos:

Camelback Rainbow -- shot in my driver's side rear view.

Finally, here's a shot of a whole bunch of hikers on the summit. Seems to me that this fall (now winter) has been more crowded than usual, and I snapped this a few weeks ago.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Camelback Livens the Spirit

The weird thing is that it really looks like this sometimes.

The shot was "Posted by Julie ... at 2:56 AM" according to the Web site One of the commenters notes that it looks like Mars, which I think is true. Reason No. 1,000,001 why I love Camelback: The way the pink rock of the Headwall turns into a glowing, reddish orange at sunset. No other mountain in Phoenix compares, as far as I can tell. Papago appears to have the same geologic mass of red, and it looks beautiful during some sunsets, too. I just don't recall this same effect -- though perhaps I've not as observant of the rolling lumps of conglomerate that make up Papago.

Next up we have a shot by "Bill," who writes a blog called Endurance Event Training:

The perfect shadow of a pyramid-shaped mountain captured in this picture tickled my fancy. But I also like how Bill, an accomplished athlete who rode 1,700 miles on a bike in 30 days this past summer, praises Camelback for its ability to give him a good workout on a 110-degree day.

Bill made the hike on September 10. Five days before, members of the "Galat Family" tried to slog to the top in weather that was nearly as hot. The family was on a furlough from their work in Africa as missionary doctors. It's so fascinating to see life through the eyes of people like Dr. Galat, thanks to the Internet. Especially interesting to me is to see how physical struggles in the context of a quasi-wilderness setting can be spiritually enlightening to people in a way that sitting on the couch watching the boob tube isn't. Yes, deep thought occurs during workouts in the gym -- there's a certain boredom, or rather, a lack of the constant over-stimulation of modern society, that is inherent in exercise regimens -- but combined with the natural ouevre of a mountain hike, seems to bring out a deep-seated, ancient survival mechanism in people. Especially when it's over 100 and hiking Camelback isn't something you do often. I've seen some of these religiously oriented bloggers take the same tack as Galat, translating their perceived risk of this hike into a confirmation of their particular faith. I mean, here we have a father and health care worker taking something one of his kids said about the strength of their family on the hike and he ends up quoting Corinthians and immersing himself in "truths" like "for when I am weak, then I am strong." Camelback has the power to grab hold of your soul, at least metaphorically speaking, and I think that holds true no matter what your beliefs -- or lack of belief.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Camelback Hikers Brave the Summer Heat, but Not Always Successfully

Camelback's been in the news and mentioned in blogs quite a bit in the last few days, so I thought I'd catch up.

First off, several notable mountain rescues occurred due to the heat. This enabled me to mix business and pleasure by publishing a blog post in Valley Fever about the incidents, and a follow-up making fun of a local TV reporter. (Sorry, Kevin!) The news coverage of the rescues also spurred message threads like this one. I'm hoping the 13-year-old kid whose parents took him up the mountain without enough water is okay.

Seeing these incidents and the community's response to them, as heart-breaking as it may be to see anyone hurt, gives me confidence that liberty still rules the day. For all this talk about the feminization, wimpification, or whatever you want to call it, of modern society, the freedom to roam on our local mountains -- up its steep cliffs and in all conditions -- trumps notions of perceived, relative safety. It's 105 degrees and you're 73, from much-cooler Wisconsin, and aren't packing enough water? Nobody's going to stop you at the trailhead and tell you not to do it.

The firefighter interviewed in the Channel 10 report on the rescues, Captain Tony Mure, (they spelled his name wrong in their caption), says "I don't care what kind of shape you're in -- the human body cannot tolerate this kind of heat and this kind of exertion." That's simply not true and plenty of people who work outside prove him wrong every day. (Tony's a good guy -- the authorities often take a scolding tone with the public when it comes to these things, to try and warn people away).

I've hiked Camelback dozens of times in temperatures of 110 degrees or higher and only once did I feel like I'd made a mistake -- (4 p.m. hike, 117 degrees). The trick is to sweat a lot, which results in a "wind chill" (ha!) factor of much less than the air temp. This is difficult to achieve when the sun is directly above, so most of my 110-plus hikes have NOT taken place between, say, 10 and 3. Most often, those hikes were in the evening -- after 6.

Hiking in the sun, (even outside the hours of 10-3) requires extra precautions, like packing 2 bottles of icewater instead of one and wetting my shirt before heading up. Sunscreen is mandatory, naturally. Some people wear long-sleeved shirts. Once, while hiking at about 4pm on a 110-degree day, I ran into a guy coming down in full camo gear, long pants and long-sleeved shirt, with undershirt, calf-high boots and a backpack stuffed with unknown gear. This guy has the audacity to stop me and say, "Excuse me, can I ask you a question? Are you wearing sunscreen?" I told him I was, and asked him why he was dressed up like that. He said he was training for officer candidate school.

Meanwhile, plenty of people besides me made it to the top this summer without nearly dying. My next featured post is from a blog called "Daily Nuggets." The picture is of the blogger's "cousin Rob" making it to the top; my screen capture includes their text as well.

I also like this one from "DaSmith Foursome" blog. They met for their Father's Day hike at 4:15 a.m. (that's their picture below). Whoa! That's early. You go, girls. They all made it to the top.

I failed to summit the first time I hiked Camelback, I must admit. I was 18 and unfamiliar with mountains back then, though I was in better shape than I am now. The defeat was 100 percent mental.

I'd been by myself, huffing and puffing up the steep trail for a while, thinking I was getting somewhere. After I cleared the headwall area, the summit still looked very far, far away. I went a little further, and it still looked far away. I realized the only thing holding me back from cool comfort was a decision. And I made the wrong decision -- I decided to turn back. It had been warm, but not that bad. I'm pretty sure I'd brought a water bottle, but I forget what my water situation was that day. Probably not good. Still, I have no doubt now that I could have made it.

Anyway, my search this morning for mountain rescue photos led to a cool January report by Channel 3 I hadn't seen about rescues. The anchor keeps referring to dramatic scenes of firemen climbing the Headwall and of a helicopter as similar to a Hollywood stunt. I hadn't heard about the accident, in which a climber on the Monk fell 25-30 while rappelling, fracturing both legs. Holy ouch, Batman! I took this screen-grab of the shot of a helicopter next to the Monk.

One last note today: As the oppressive heat of July wears on, much as I love it, the green hills of the "other" Camelback Mountain featured in many Internet sites this summer makes me wish for a vacation there. I found a "SummitPost" posting from 2006 recently in which somebody crowed about the "great-tasting blueberries and rasberries" they picked, as well as the "amazing views." That sounds pretty good.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Jersey Girl Gets Sweaty

The pickings have been slim lately for good Camelback-related blog posts, at least for the type I enjoy.

I'm sick to death of the typical "all about hiking at Camelback Mountain" posts, which sometimes try to describe every step of Echo Canyon or Cholla in mind-numbing, technical detail.

"The Spicy Lens," is an example of my favorite type of post -- newbies exploring the pleasure and pain of Camelback terrain. (I also love posts about kids making it to the top for the first time). Spicy Lens hiked Echo Canyon trail in February, but published this post in late June.

People like Ms. Spicy Lens write about their experience because they need to -- because they had an adventure. And, of course, adventure is what I seek, either direct or vicarious.

She writes:

This was no easy hike, there are no fences or guard rails. If you lose your footing, it could easily become your last hike.

Local uber-hikers can scoff at such a warning, but she's right. I remember a story about a guy who fell off a cliff a few years ago at Camelback after sneaking up there at night to do the wild thing with his girl. As I recall, the story was that when they were done, he got up to stretch or something and stepped off into oblivion.

Spicy also worries about snakes:

I have trouble chewing gum and walking at the same time. Let alone knowing where to place my foot and how to look for snakes at the same time.

I've seen a half-dozen rattlesnakes at Camelback over the years, yet have never heard of someone being bitten there. It's a remote possibility. Out-of-towners fret about rattlesnakes, scorpions or even tarantulas on Camelback. The biggest dangers, though, are heat stroke, falling and killer bees.

The Spicy Lens blog typically focuses on photography. She's pretty good with close-ups of food and plants.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Heat Hike

At noon on July 5, you can always get a good parking spot at Camelback Mountain. It was 98, according to my iPhone.

Ninety-eight isn't so hot for a summer hiker around here. It was like a warm, spring day, (I'm talking about a normal spring, which it wasn't this year). I've certainly hiked Camelback in far worse conditions, in terms of temp, humidity and lack of wind.

Yet the sun was strong -- the temp later topped out at 105. To be sure, it was a hot hike. The incredible June we've just had lulled me into the delusion that the summer might not include a hellacious heat wave. I knew all along it would, of course, and when the normal weather finally arrived I figured there was no use fighting it. I needed a mid-day hike to set the tone for the next few weeks.

A few short years ago, almost no one would be on the mountain at this time, but the recession is keeping a lot of people in town. More Phoenix residents than ever in the last couple of years have discovered that Camelback -- and Piestewa, South Mountain and other mountain parks -- are wonderful diversions if you can't afford San Diego, Flagstaff or elsewhere. That's meant more people in nice weather and "bad."

I sweated my butt off and was grateful for the breeze that whipped up every few minutes. My pace is always slower in the heat -- so is everyone else's. Today, maybe half the folks seemed to be suffering. I didn't do too badly, but I took two water breaks.

For some reason, I often get passed at least once when it's warm, though usually not at all during un-hot days. Why is this?

Well, as I've mentioned before, it seems like the heat brings out the more hardcore people. These are folks who, like me, enjoy the challenge of the intense Phoenix heat. Perhaps it's the higher ratio of hardcore hikers that explains why I get passed more often. Or maybe it's that I almost never stop on the way to the summit, but on hot days I'm willing to take a break or two and not push myself. (That makes sense to me, because when the air temperature is higher than your body temperature and you're working out in direct sunlight, ignoring what your body tells you can be dangerous. Heat exhaustion can come on suddenly. When I know the weather will be extreme, I take at least one water bottle packed with ice-water, with lots of ice -- enough to have a couple of pieces of ice still floating in the water when I reach the summit. I also wear a hat. Noticed a few people today without one. I don't know how they do it).

The final possibility is that I hike more during the cooler seasons and, therefore, I'm in better shape.

Whatever it is, it's just one of those things I think about as I'm hiking. I don't mean to imply I feel I'm in a race, though I'll admit to a sense of competition among other hikers. If passed, I don't put on speed and try to retake the lead. I suppose on occasion I've increased speed, slightly, when it's clear the person who passed me is a poseur who isn't able to hold the pace. Then, when the poseur stops because he's overestimated his abilities and gets pooped, I'll have a solid pass. The mental competition helps me move up the slope and measure my climbing shape against others. (There is a prize for great performances, though -- I get to hike even tougher mountains!) Most of the time, if you started after me and you pass me, you win. I never attempt to race anyone. That would be lame. And since my cruising speed is a fairly high RPM for me, I'm unlikely to redline for very long.

Going down, I never worry about these things and can be passed by some of the folks I passed on the way up. I've gotten hurt falling while running down Camelback as if I was on a ski run, and I've also seen a guy break his arm doing it. I'll come back to those stories some other time.

Back to the hike:

At the summit, I took refuge under a palo verde I've used before for just such heat breaks and sipped the icy Gatorade I had brought. A bee began buzzing around my sweat-soaked shirt, so I poured a bit of ice and water on the ground to divert its attention. A minute later, a cute little fence lizard appeared out of nowhere and acted like it had been given a gift from heaven. I lingered in the semi-shade of the palo for a bit, watching it lick the ice and sit among the cubes like he was in a Palm Springs spa.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Arizona Cardinals Rookies Hike Camelback to Get Acclimated

Sports bloggers were passing a link around yesterday about Arizona Cardinals rookies hiking Camelback. It's been warm lately so it's not surprising to see some of these out-of-state guys appear sort of weak as they arrived at the summit. Judging by the pace of the group shown in the video, they probably got passed by quite a few regulars. If these burly rookies keep hitting the trail, though, it won't be long before they'll be bounding up and down like ibexes.

Here's the link to the video on, (which is where I ripped this still shot).

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The "Other" Camelback Mountain

Sometimes it seems like half the info on the Web about Camelback Mountain is about the "other" Camelback Mountain, also known as "Big Pocono."

In my former life as a Queens boy, I knew that my parents had their honeymoon somewhere in the Poconos, but that's about all I knew of the place.

Thanks to my obsession with our local rockpile, I now know that part of the Poconos includes the Camelback Mountain Resort in Tannersville, Pennsylvania. It's a popular ski area that's filled with folks from New Jersey and New York City every winter. It looks like a great place to have fun in the snow.

By Western standards, the other Camelback is what I'd call a cute, little bump of a ski hill. The vertical drop is only 800 feet. Sunrise has an elevation gain of 1,800 feet, Snowbowl more than 2,000. (Phoenix Camelback = 1,200.)

Poconos Camelback rises to 2,113 feet, says Wikipedia (other sources put the max elevation at 2,050). That's much shorter than Phoenix Camelback, which tops out at 2,706.

Of course, our Camelback is a good deal south of Pennsylvania, and it's in the middle of a desert. Snow that falls on Phoenix Camelback melts quickly (it happens once every few years), so the Poconos provide much better skiing conditions.

In the summer, the Poconos don't bake at 115 degrees or more, either, meaning you can go splashing through mud puddles on a Segway or run a zip line through the trees.

Summer or winter, the other Camelback looks like my kind of place.

(Pictures from

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Bee Attack Panics Man, Causes Knee Blow-Out and Mountain Rescue

Hiker Tom Tenkler made the news yesterday after blowing his knee out while running away from some bees.

Several media outlets picked up on this one, and as usual, most ticked me off by failing to include decent info. At least the local Fox affiliate reported that the incident happened on Cholla Trail, which even the so-called paper of record did not.

Firefighters from Phoenix's TRT and Tempe FD took the guy down some sections on a Big Wheel, with rope assist, before flying him out via helicopter on the Cholla side.

I'd rather get stung 50 times and limp with a broken leg off the mountain rather than suffer the indignity of a mountain rescue and the obligatory TV news coverage. But that's just me. Besides, Tenkler may not have summoned rescuers himself. I tried to find his phone number, but neither online White Pages nor Yahoo People Search have a listing for a Tenkler in AZ. Fox was the only outlet that reported the guy's name -- maybe they got it wrong.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Camelback Chuckwalla

Late-spring hiking at Camelback this year has been different: Fewer parking spaces because of the great weather, less time to hike with the new closing hour of 7 p.m. (Jeez, they've gotta to change that!)

One thing is the same: The annual appearance of the friendly chuckwalla.

These handsome, large Sonoran-desert lizards come out when the ground heats up. Last month, On a recent day, I saw what looked like two baby chuckwallas. A couple of weeks later, I spotted this bad boy.

Don't try to catch one or you might hurt it. To escape predators, chuckwallas slip between cracks in the rock and puff up their bodies, wedging themselves in tight. This may work for coyotes (who may just get a drumstick instead of the whole thing) but determined humans would have no problem messing with them.

Seeing a chuckwalla at Camelback is a special treat for nerds like me and out-of-town visitors, some of whom probably wonder if they're Gila monsters. Chuckwallas are much bigger then common fence lizards, more colorful and all-around cooler-looking. They blend in beautifully with Camelback's orange-red hue.

Another neat thing about chuckwallas is their name. Though it sounds like something a hayseed from the Midwest might have thunk up, Wikipedia says it's derived from a Spanish bastardization of a couple of words for the lizard used by two Native American tribes.

The Hohokam, (the group of Native Americans who lived in the Phoenix area for about 1,000 years before leaving a few decades before Columbus' arrival) probably considered chuckwallas a delicious treat -- the Hohokam also ate cholla.

The Wiki article told me something I always suspected: that chuckwallas are basically desert iguanas. No wonder I like them so much: I used to have a pet iguana as a kid. Its name was Whiplash, because it liked to whip people with its tail so hard that it would leave a mark. It also bit me on the nose once. I sold it back to the pet shop I'd bought it from a year later, and found it had gone up in price like a rare coin. I was happy to have the extra money instead of the iguana. But I can't get those sweet little lizard faces out of my head. They're so cute!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hart Route Freesolo Pt. 2 -- The Ascent

This was to be a grand day of adventure. The weather was outstanding -- high 60s rising to low 70s. (This was in mid-April, if you'll recall from Pt. 1). I had all morning and then some -- more than enough time. And I had a new rope and harness, something I'd been planning on buying for the last few years. In the back of my head, thoughts lurked of turning back. No matter what, I promised myself, I would climb with caution and reversibly -- I would back down all the way or rappel down if need be. At no time did I want to find myself on super-sketchy terrain. Yet I was also 100 percent committed to the attempt.

I took my small backpack, cleared out of all work stuff and loaded with icewater, an apple and a banana, the A630, some slings and a couple of small cams. At the base of Hart Route, I attached the climbing gear to my new BD harness and tied into the new rope. The rope would be in a coil at the base as I climbed, which is much easier than hauling the whole thing up at once. Doing that presents a small risk of a rope-stuck situation, but the first pitch is fairly vertical and has no rope-eating cracks.

The beginning went well, and soon I was at that nasty little crux before the ledge. As before, on the recon trip, I didn't like the looks of that last couple of meters, which require sort of pulling into vegetation, feet in a stemming-type position that heightens the exposure and potential for falling all the way to the deck. The right was more of a series of face moves. I decided the rock quality was decent enough to attempt it. A minute later I was finished with the first pitch, feeling like I'd discovered the easy topout I'd hoped would be there the week before. My beautiful, new, green 9.8 mil rope (Petzl Nomad) pulled up easily behind me. As I made my butterfly coil, my lack of companionship seemed acute -- nobody was at the other end of the rope.

Despite the bitchin' weather, Echo Canyon wasn't as crowded as I would have expected. It seemed quieter than usual -- or maybe my mind was just making it seem like that way. No other climbers were out on Gargoyle Wall, which Hart Route is part of, and no one was on the Monk. I had everything above the Headwall to myself. Which was just fine, for this trip, anyway.

The first pitch felt like solid 5.2 to me, especially compared to the 5.0 that I usually freesolo to get the top of the Headwall. That's the route just north of the class 4 section which is also freesoloable. The 5.0 is the one with the palo verde about 3/4 of the way up. It has a slightly sketchy top-out, but there are plenty of footholds, unlike the top of p1 of Hart Route. That makes a huge difference when you're unroped.

After topping out on p1 during the recon, a glance at the beginning of p2 caused more doubts to enter my mind. Those doubts were still with me as I prepared to go higher on the freesolo. If you zoom into the picture from Pt. 1, you'll see the bloke I pictured leading the start of p2. The section just under him is tougher than it looks, and I found the spot where's he's at in the picture a bit exciting, too. Plenty of handholds but it keep you off balance in places. Halfway up is a traverse to a left-facing fracture -- all good. Some rests requires an awkward foot stuck in the crack, but the rests were mainly to get my bearings and prepare the next few feet of slow, static freesoloing -- not the desperate rests needed during an intense lead. Still, adrenaline leaked into my veins as if from an IV drip.

From the top of pitch 2, you need to go up and right to access the start of p3. As I began to do this, I heard what I hoped I wouldn't hear: Buzzing. The hive was nearby, for sure. I tried to walk on the sloping ledge as quietly as possible, holding the heavy, coiled rope in one hand. Then I could see the hive -- it was about 40 feet away, up and left, in the same spot where it had been some years ago, when I climbed Hart Route with Scott. The hive thrummed with activity; in fact, the bees seemed a bit agitated and not just simply flying back and forth on pollen runs. Every few seconds, a small, black streak would zip by me, coming or going to the hive.

The bees hadn't noticed me -- yet. My apprehension was higher than it had been since I started the climb 45 minutes earlier. The rope was coiled neatly -- but could I set up an emergency rappel if the bees began stinging me? One reason Abbe and his partner, Jeff Passage, couldn't get the rappel going was that the rope was somewhat tangled. But if I was under attack, would my rope be tangled, too, thanks to Murphy's Law? Sure it would. I became convinced that if a swarm attack began, it would be a miracle if I could get the rope anchored and thrown down without tangles as stingers were plunging into my eyes and face. As on George Route, my guts fluttered as I imagined a full-on killer-bee attack, how I'd be stuck on the crag and praying for death to come sooner rather than later.

My fear level shifted into high gear. Fear is a requirement on a climb like this -- but managed fear, a useful tool to keep my senses as sharp as possible. Now I was re-thinking the whole endeavor. I stepped back to the false safety of the p2 ledge, where I couldn't see the bees. I started visualizing the two rappels it would take to descend the pitches I had just climbed, planning to bail. Dammit, I thought, who's the dominant species here!

I was on a mission. After a few minutes of pondering, I decided that I would risk the bees to complete what I had started. I was very much looking forward to the p3 face and successful summit. As quiet as a gecko, I tip-toed up and right, keeping my eye on the hive and trying to gauge the bees' mood. They didn't seem to notice. Without hesitation, I began pulling up the start of p3, which is a face but has plenty of fractures and cracks to hold on to.

Having led and seconded Hart Route a few times, I remembered the 3rd pitch quite well -- it's all sweet and fun, compared to most face routes. It's a relatively low-angle friction pitch, with lots of Camelback pinchers and finger holds and very little dicey rock (as long as you're on-route). The first 25 feet went very quickly; my tinge of panic made it feel like my climbing shoes had rocket thrusters attached. But as I got higher, I grew less concerned that I might piss off the bees. If they respond only to threats, they would have known when I was halfway up the pitch that I had no way of messing with them, even if I wanted to. After a while I forgot about them and concentrated on the somewhat nutty task at hand.

The first half of p3 is really easy, definitely 5.0 or less. I thought the whole thing might be a 5.0. But to my chagrin, the very last couple of moves of Hart Route are the crux of the whole climb. The third pitch is rated 5.2, but I didn't know that at the time. I thought the first pitch had the 5.2 and the last pitch was 5.0. That's what I get for not properly researching the beta.

(Above, P3 with crux marked. Below, the Monk.)

One last bolt before the crux tempted me enough to throw a sling on it. I thought maybe I could hold onto the sling if I fell as I made the last couple of moves. But my sling was much too short. I could not hold on to it and make the moves to gain more height. Plus, I knew that falling on static webbing -- compared to a dynamic climbing rope -- could easily generate enough force to rip the bolt out. Embarrassed with myself for wasting time, I took the sling off and steeled myself to do the last moves. They're easy, but it's Camelback face -- the poor rock quality adds significantly more risk.

I reached as high as I could and found something to pinch. I caressed the rock as I settled into the strongest handhold I could muster, looking for positive edges and the right directional pull. Once I found them, all I needed to do with get my feet up. This was a long way up and p3 had turned spooky, getting steeper and harder. I brought a left foot up higher and tried to move my right foot. Suddenly, my right leg decided to stop working that well. I tried to place my right foot in an adequate, though marginal hold - and felt a spasm in my thigh. Whoa, I thought, realizing that a fall here would probably mean death. Get it together. Calm down. Fear can make your worst nightmare come true -- or it can be channeled into action. I chose the latter.

I calmed my mind but could not completely convince my right leg that everyone was going to be fine. Still, everything worked nicely and a minute later I was done. Success!

I was ecstatic I had decided to ignore the bees. I had just done something I'd thought about doing since I was 23. Now, 20 years later, I have the experience and confidence to pull it off, so I did. It feels good.

I lingered a very long time in August Canyon, checking out its mysteries. I'd like to spend much more time there and maybe even spend the night. Then I rapped down Pedrick's and -- with much relief -- took off my climbing shoes and put my hiking shoes back on. My legs and feet felt strained from the few tense stances on the way up. Yet I still had plenty of energy, so I decided to summit Camelback. Hauling the backpack (with the rope inside) was more weight than I usually carry up the Echo Canyon trail; after that, I was finally tired.

So what's next for freesoloing at C-back, if anything? Well, there's always the Monk, if I want to scare the bejesus out of myself. It's got at least one kind of blank section for the feet that requires a friction smear -- the problem is, friction smears and freesololing don't go along - not in my book, anyway. One slip could mean curtains. But I would consider pushing up the first half of the Monk without a belay, then backing down at the smear foothold. Then there's... let's see -- how about Hanging Gardens in the McDowells? Probably not -- that's a solid 5.5 and has some very sketchy granite face moves that would be be terrifying. The good thing about doing Hart Route is that I now don't feel compelled to freesolo anything for the time being!

All in all, this was a day to remember. I would consider freesoloing Hart Route again before leading it. It's too easy on rope!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Piestewa Break

I hit the trail at Piestewa Peak after work today – truth be told, I left a bit early following completion of my next cover story. I was jonesing for a hike-workout and summit after the unsuccessful Humphreys Peak bid on Saturday. But it was really the weather that made me do it. Right now is so beautiful I can hardly believe it. Seems like February or March. And tomorrow’s supposed to be eighty-four, tops. Amazing.

I crushed Piestewa (still want to call it Squaw), as usual. Because there are more people, I’m always happier when no one can pass me here. My time up was excellent today – 25-30 minutes, I think. Should have timed it.

The sunset in the Phoenix Mountain Preserves always captures my eye – in a way, it’s that typical Sonoran desert look I love so much. The rock here has a brown hue that absorbs the sunlight in a warm way pleasing to the eye. (This doesn’t apply in the summer, obviously, when you could almost fry a steak on that rock). Vegetation is plentiful with lots of green from all the rain we’ve had this year. The wind is blowing well – a good day for sailing. No water here, but the palo verde trees and creosote branches are waving back and forth.

Perhaps the best thing of all about hiking Piestewa: The view of the western flanks of Camelback Mountain. Especially at sunset. Then, the magical pink-orange Camelback rock glows, while the dark shadows of the folds and crevices of the Head provide rich context. The greenbelt of the western edge of August Canyon extends across the Headwall like a terraced, though haphazard, ancient garden. The giant, whitened half-bowl beneath the crux of the George Route is like a fingernail. Homes worth millions of dollars apiece lie nestled in hyper-luxurious Sonoran flora, the ones on the PV side surrounded by acres of buffering land.

Hiking down Piestewa, like hiking up it, isn’t as tough as Camelback. When I choose to leap forward in speed, running down the flatter parts and bounding down some of the stair-like sections, I find there’s far less gravel where I’m stepping. The only problem is that the trail is narrow in places – it may even have more narrow spots than either Echo Canyon summit trail or Cholla. That wasn’t a big deal today, but it does on the nicest days, when the place turns into an anthill.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Hart Route Freesolo Pt. 1 -- Recon

Six-and-a-half hours of pure, kickass adventure in Camelback last weekend. I freesoloed Hart Route -- something I've been thinking about doing since the first time I climbed it back in 1989. (Click on picture for close-up, with dotted route-line). I went on a recon mission to the place a few weeks ago, climbing up the first pitch after being invited to climb through by some folks who'd gotten up earlier than me. The pitch is rated 5.0 in some guide books, but it's really a 5.2 by today's standards. It's hard to know what to compare Hart Route to -- there are relatively few climbs out there rated 5.0 to 5.4, and they're usually underrated instead of overrated. Unlike a gym climb, it's not sustained, and it's not always vertical. But each of the three pitches on Hart Route has moves that would be rated 5.2-5.7 in the gym. Add in the diceyness of Camelback rock and the quality exposure of each pitch, up to the top-out at 150 feet or so, and this climb becomes something quite unlike any gym or shorty sport climb. It gives me the same feeling I get while on trad lead, or even trad seconding -- an hours-long rush of adrenaline, fear, happiness, mental control and physical satisfaction. Freesoloing anything allows me to reclaim my human-animal roots, the need for excitement missing in daily modern life. And Hart Route is a good freesolo for me -- not too hard, nothing to keep me up at night when I'm done. It's extreme, by the average Camelback hiker's standard, but not too extreme for people who feel comfortable running out a lead in the 5.6-5.8 range, which includes me.

Spending time like this at Camelback is a fantastic mountain escape.

But I digress.

The first pitch of Hart Route is quite easy, to the big hole 3/4s of the way up. After that, footholds on the left become trickier at the same time the handholds get thinner. On the recon day, at that section, I angled left to a spot with bushes and a moderate overhang. Climbing in full static mode, as I do sometimes when I freesolo so that I can reverse the moves without much thought, I pulled myself into the final moves after a bit of leg shake. I'd initially felt like a total badass after the guy in the picture told me to come up -- another guy and a woman were waiting to top rope and I figured my unroped ascent looked kind of impressive. Then I ran into that muck at the top and looked like a wanker. Truth be told, I only topped out on that shite because, in the back of my head, I figured I would ask the guy for a lower-down so I didn't have to down-climb that last part with my ass 50 feet above the deck. I hate down-climbing overhangs on freesolo and try to avoid climbing up them in the first place, ever since my hardest all-unroped climb -- my freesolo of Rappel Gully (5.4) back in the 90s. That one has a nasty little overhang right at the top, about 70 feet up. It wouldn't have been a big deal -- except I'm too familiar with Camelback to think I can safely trust my life to any one hold. When I talk about climbs that keep me up at night, that's one of them. On Hart Route, had the bloke with the belay not been there, I'm sure I could have downclimbed the upper part of the first pitch, but it would have been scary.

I snapped this picture of the guy, then asked him if he'd lower me. It turned out that a purple biner I'd found at the base of the headwall was his, and I gave it back to him when he asked if I'd seen it, so you could say he owed me one. (I never would have used it, anyway. You don't know where found biners have been -- if found at the base of a crag, like this one, I assume it probably fell and might be damaged, even if I can't see any evidence of a crack, scratch or dent). I forgot to mention that for the recon mission, I only had my rock shoes and chalk -- no rope or harness. The guy asked me how I wanted to do the lower. I tied a figure eight on a bight in his rope, clipped a biner on it for a handhold, then asked him to lower me down to the easy part at the big hole, which he did.

In spite of the assisted downclimb, the whole experience got me thinking seriously about freesoloing the whole thing. I'd been playing around with the notion in my head in the days before the recon mission. Of course, I'd have to bring a rope with me in case I needed to bail, and for the convenient rappel down Pedrick's Chimney when I was done. Now I knew the top of the first pitch was sketchier than I really wanted, but having climbed it without a rope made me confident I could do so again. I stuck around awhile, trying to learn something from the blokes belaying up Hart Route, but they took so long to move I had to bail off the headwall area before they reached the top of the second pitch. That meant I'd be doing the freesolo without beta on the second biggest objective danger (the first being gravity) for any climbers on Hart Route: the deadly beehive. I only wish the adjective was an exaggeration. A few years ago, a guy named Keith Abbe  died on Hart Route after he and his partner were attacked by the bees that live on top of the second pitch. Abbe didn't die from the stings, though he was stung about 100 times, if memory serves. He died because he and his partner were not skilled enough to set up an emergency rappel while under the insect bombardment. I have no idea whether I am, for that matter, and I hope I never need to find out. The partner, whom I interviewed for an article in the East Valley Tribune about the tragedy, told me that he made a command decision as the leader of their expedition that they should untie the knots from their harnesses and downclimb as fast as possible. Abbe apparently didn't get very far before he slipped and fell at least 50 feet to his death.

Three weeks after freesoloing p1, I found myself at the base of Hart Route again, ready to push as high as I felt safe in doing.

Click here for Part Two: The Ascent