Thursday, August 18, 2011


Hiking at Camelback is an adventure every time. One doesn’t hike Camelback as much as climb it. The rock-steps on Echo Canyon trail are of varying height and shape, and sometimes loose. The trail includes slick-rock and gravel and high-steps and steep drop-offs and shortcuts and tree-grabs and semi-vertical faces and boulder fields and railroad ties that are fun to bound down and handrails (I have personal rules about when they can be used). Cholla’s not bad, either, with its scrambly top. Both trails have some of what I would consider Class Three terrain.

I notice sometimes that the technique I'm using when I go down Camelback is the same monkey-careful gait that I employ on more-serious mountain hikes. It’s hard to describe, and it doesn’t look all that different from mere hiking down a steep slope, but it is different. It’s more like climbing down with my feet. I’m more centered in my gravity, more balanced in the arms, more ready in case I slip than when hiking down an easier trail.

I'm not one to usually say "I'm going to climb Camelback today" when I mean I'm going to hike to the top. For me, climbing at Camelback means rock-climbing. But to hike Camelback is, in many pleasurable ways, to climb it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Yosemites in Our Backyard

This guy at the summit recently told me he was going to Yosemite in a few days and we chatted for a moment about the waterfall deaths. That was in mid-July. Since then, the total number of fatalities has increased to 14 this summer, with a woman plummeting 600 feet after slipping on the cable route. That's the park service number. Another person, a teen, slipped on Mist Trail and suffered a fatal injury, but he didn't make the official tally because he died at a hospital outside the park.

I’ve ascended the cables twice and descended three times, (once following my ascent of the Snake Dike route). Those cables can get crazy-slippery. Each time I made some use of the gloves that pile up on the top and bottom of the cable route, and each time realized that the gloves may help the hands in terms of endurance on the thick twists of metal and soak up some sweat, they aren’t all that grippier. In ’91, my friend Kent and I descended the Dike in a thunderstorm. We topped out on Half Dome in a white-out. It hailed, then poured. Most of the hikers caught at the top were under-prepared, a few in nothing but shorts and a T-shirt. What the heck, it was July. Kent and I wore Gore-tex rainjackets (and our backpacks with all the climbing gear, including an extra rope we hadn’t needed), and would have been fine except for one of the hikers ahead of us was not only freezing-cold, but near-frozen in terror. A man, perhaps he was with her, had to resort to moving her hands down the cable for her – for a few tense moments, she could not do it on her own. We and others trying to get down the 400-foot cable-and-wood-slat ladder grumbled in frustration. The longer we lingered, it seemed, the greater the chance of losing concentration or getting struck by lightning. I had to remove the gloves at one point, worried that their surface had grown too slick. I’ll never forget the feel of that wet cable as I gripped it, hard, that sense that I wasn't grasping it hard enough and applying more power to my hands. It took serious effort, and my fingers were stiff with the cold. All the while, I was more than aware of the steep grade and how we were still very high up, above the tips of the tallest redwoods near the base of the cable route.

Spooky. But overall, a fantastic time.

The reaction of the Yosemite park rangers to the record number of fatalities this year is just what I prefer to hear from local officials – and so far, thankfully, have been hearing – every time someone gets hurt or killed at Camelback and other mountain parks. Their message: Risk, yes -- restrictions, no.

I find that refreshing.

Despite tragic deaths like that of Clint McHale’s, an even greater tragedy would be to try to clamp down on adventuring in wild places. Camelback is one of those wild places. It’s in the middle of the 5th largest city in the United States, but that fact means absolutely nothing when you’re leading, soloing or free-soloing a climbing route there. I’ve had adventures at Camelback that rival those I’ve had in Yosemite, and more of them, since it’s only 10 miles from my home. Some of these adventures were had when rock-climbing was new to me and my friends and I practiced a form of it that focused, in an amateurish and unathletic way, on the sheer thrill, exploration and independence from any authority. When winding through one of the maze-like slots of August Canyon, battling thorny Palo Verdes, mesquite and various cacti, searching for the rap-down on Pedrick’s Chimney after having just ascended a multi-pitch route like Suicide Direct -- I’ve felt downright astronautic. As in, I’m walking on the moon. Mind, body and soul are brought together by wilderness, risk and achievement.

Camelback is one of our local Yosemites. So are the Supes. A few words about the Superstition Mountains: If they weren't so darn far away from the central Valley, I'd love to live in the shadows of the western cliffs of the Superstition Mountains, the little community over by the Mining Camp restaurant. Older homes, lots of variation, zoning free-for-all on county land, some properties requiring water to be trucked in. A somewhat weird place, just east of Apache Junction. But the ability to walk out of my home and into the Supes, a federal wilderness area... Wow. I mean, this is a place where I've seen whole herds of javelina. The trails are tough and rewarding, and going back just a few miles leaves 99 percent of the people behind. The walls there are humbling because even when you're really high up, they go even higher. Unfortunately, the rock quality isn't Yosemite-like: Instead of miracle-granite, you get so-so volcanic. Some spots are solid, others crumbly. Many of the biggest walls on the western flanks of the Supes contain unclimbable coffee-cake-like rock. Whenever I hike up Siphon Draw Gully trail, I stare up in awe at the Spiderwalk wall, that behemoth, conical mass of beige stone the size of a 50-story building that I and a friend climbed one day long ago. The stunning view from the saddle of Weaver's Needle at the end of Peralta Trail is also Yosemite-esque in its grandeur. The preserve is so big and rugged that two years ago, a guy looking for gold disappeared in there without a trace, and last year, the same thing happened to three other guys.

No question: Yosemite’s beauty and climate far surpasses Camelback’s or the Superstitions. But for outdoor adventure, it sure is great to have a couple of little Yosemites in our backyard.

Sunday, August 7, 2011