Sunday, October 21, 2012

Copenhaver Castle: Going Medieval on Camelback Mountain

The castle protected Hohokam royalty from attack by conquistadors until the infamous Siege of 1312...

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Camelback Mountain Rescues Steady in 2012; Included One for Tim Hightower, Former Arizona Cardinals Player

Tim Hightower's March 2012 Camelback rescue.

At least nine people have been rescued in six incidents so far this year at Camelback Mountain. Most were treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration.

The two primary hiking trails of Camelback, Echo Canyon and Cholla Trails, are both just over a mile long. That little number, "1," has sure fooled a lot of people. The rocky trails rise more than 1,000 feet in that mile-plus walk, and both are not only steep, they've got places where the use of hands is mandatory. The effects of a heat illness can set in within minutes of a scorching summer hike up Camelback Mountain under full sunlight. Even in the morning and evening, or in spring or fall, when the sun's rays are less intense, susceptible people with too little water can die in as little as two to four hours on any mountain trail in Phoenix. I'd estimate at least one hiker per year has died from the heat in the last few years, though the average went up a little with the deaths of three aging gold-seekers from Utah who died in the Supes a couple of summers ago.

Besides the deaths and heat-related rescues on Camelback, no doubt many more hikers have suffered a miserable outing because they brought too too little water. On a very hot day, 110-plus, I (generally) don't hike between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Outside of those hours is fine, even if it's 111 or slightly higher, though if the air's too thick with humidity -- not uncommon in cumulonimbus-heavy monsoon season -- even 105 can be oppressive enough to make me wish I was at the gym. If you're not very acclimated to the heat, go with the temperature you're comfortable in.

In the heat at Camelback, the pale red landscape becomes like magma. The cicadas providing a sizzling soundtrack. Mini-canyons are brick ovens. The heat zaps strength from your legs and fries your brain. If sunlight has lit up a rock formation for very long, forget about climbing. The stone feels like an electric stove-top on high. Except for those cicadas, it's lonely. Very few people are out here with you. No need to worry about rattlesnakes on super-hot days -- they're in their cool burrows, not being Crockpotted by the air-temperature.

I take about a liter of water for every hour I expect to be at Camelback in temperatures over 95-100. I pack a Nalgene bottle with ice, then fill the spaces with water. Doing this ensures I'll still have at least some ice, and therefore really cold water, by the time I get to the top. On the hottest days, I'll take an additional small water bottle or even another ice-packed Nalgene. I move slower in extreme heat, adding to the total time out there. It's also good to dump icewater over my head or body at times. Getting lost or going too slow on a hot day can turn into a nightmare if you don't have a similar quantity of water on you. One rescue two years ago involved a couple of women who were on one of the main trails for five hours before authorities were called. After writing about that one for Valley Fever, I also published "Ten Tips for Avoiding Heat Stroke."

Here's what the National Park Service's Grand Canyon site has to say:

During the summer months, your fluid/electrolyte loss can exceed two quarts per hour if you hike uphill in direct sunlight during the hottest part of the day.

If you've never done Echo Canyon or Cholla Trail before and you're not with anyone who has, it will probably take about 45 minutes or more to get to the top. That means you should take at least one liter. Taking another liter or even two might be wise, because you'll want that much water if you spend three hours up there.

Heat-related illnesses are probably the most common reason for mountain rescues on Camelback. But as I've documented previously, a surprising variety of problems can happen up there.

Besides not bringing enough water on a hot day, I see a lot of hikers on the trail near sunset without flashlights. They end up having to pick their way down the boulders in the near-dark. A scary experience for some. Fortunately, I've found that it never gets completely dark at Camelback. On a Grand Canyon trail below the rim on a moonless night, the darkness envelopes you like a liquid if you shut off flashlight. It's like the darkness inside a cave except for the canopy of stars. Camelback trails, by contrast, are always bathed in a faint, eerie glow of reflected city lights. I've intentionally hiked Echo Canyon at night without a headlamp, but I know the trail quite well. Most visitors caught after dark without a light are in a for a struggle and an adventure. Sometimes they go off the main trails, making things worse. In March, that's what happened to former Arizona Cardinals player Tim Hightower.
Hightower and friend in the media spotlight before rescue.

Press accounts say Hightower and a female friend were hiking the mountain when they got off trail in the dark and phoned for a rescue. Channel 10 News showed the burly player with his head hung low, hopping into an SUV without talking to a camera crew. The announcer notes with glee that he seems embarrassed.

I find the incident ironic not just because a burly he-man pro football player needed the rescue, but because in the latter two years of Hightower's time with the Cards, John Lott, the team's strength and conditioning coach, was having players march up and down Echo Canyon trail to supplement their exercise routines. In other words, you'd think Hightower would have known what he was doing on Camelback. This rescue, though, brings up other issues -- overzealous rescue and the overreliance on cell phones to save our butts. These people were nowhere near death's door. I'm quite sure that Hightower and his friend would have figured out a way down and out of the 400-plus-acre park, which is surrounded by city lights. Either they would have done it that night and ended up scratched and bruised, or would have suffered a miserable night on the hill and walked out in the morning. But odds are they would have been fine, and unless their cell phone battery was low, there was no life-or-death reason to call in the cavalry. Not then, anyway.

Another way to look at it: The city of Phoenix has the helicopter and all of those firefighters sitting around, probably with nothing better to do, so why not use that phone? Perhaps Hightower would have sucked it up and rescued himself if he'd been alone, but he had the woman to think of. Then again, maybe I'm being sexist -- maybe she's the bigger outdoorsperson and he insisted on calling in the rescue. Either way, one or both made the decision to call, and they likely knew the TV crew would show up. They always do.

Here's the roundup, as best I could find on the Internet:

* In January, ABC-15 broadcast a story about how 10 people had been rescued from Camelback Mountain in a two-week period.

*  The Tim Hightower Camelback Debacle came in March.

* June: A woman in flip-flips and little water is overcome by the heat at Camelback.

* July: Two men suffer heat problems on Echo Canyon Trail. One is cramping up so bad, firefighters decide to airlift him out.

* August: Steve Amren of San Antonio got lost while hiking Echo Canyon. Somehow, he became "stuck in a ravine" and also became seriously dehydrated. Here's his quote from that story: "I just got up on the wrong path, and I got into an area where I couldn't get out because I was too tired."

* September: Two teens start hiking Camelback at about 1 p.m. Three hours later, they're off the main trail, lost and suffering from severe dehydration. This one shows clearly just how fast these symptoms can appear in some people.

Having too little water is a big factor in these kinds of stories, but it's also true that some people are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses than others, for different reasons.

Yet to have a great adventure, certainly one of my goals, it's necessary to push your physical limits. As long as this is done with forethought to what sort of experience you're about to have, a trip to Camelback is safe and fun. Except when it's not. Which is the point of this adventure blog.

It may be somewhat macabre to keep returning to the subject of rescues, injuries and other serious human calamities at Camelback. But the thrills and spills help make up the mystique of this place. The potential danger is a reason to respect the mountain. As a vehicle for excitement, the risk is also a reason to go there. So I'll pushing myself right up to -- but, with luck, never surpassing -- the point that results in the arrival of the Phoenix Fire Department and local news media.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Camelback Mountain: Suicide Direct -- Serious, But (Probably) Not Suicidal

A few months after I experienced the ridiculous "hanging rappel" misadventure, I led Suicide Direct (left).

Doing stuff you previously thought was impossible or too scary is one reason I have always loved rock climbing. My lead of this 5.8 Phoenix testpiece remains one of my most treasured times in my 23 years of on-and-off climbing.

The achievement was ironic, considering how badly I'd flailed on the route on toprope. Worse, I'd cracked a heelbone after falling on a boulder problem at Camelback Mountain the very weekend after Mike and I had climbed it. About three weeks later, my foot in a walking cast, I used crutches to hike up the trail to the base of Suicide Direct and photographed another friend, Kent, who had chosen this 5.8 as his first lead. I managed to snap a killer picture of him flying through the air. He'd slipped on relatively easy terrain above the bulging-overhang crux. He took a 20-25 lead fall that day. Very impressive. Then he slithered back up the overhang like it was nothing to finish the route.

Suicide Direct was first climbed in the late 40s or early 50s -- or maybe the 60s. I don't have firsthand info on the history of the route, but one looks at the bolts in it during my late-80s climb revealed that it was a classic. Greg Opland's Phoenix Rock II suggests it was climbed within five years of 1947 by the Kachinas, that hardcore group of Boy Scouts who pioneered many Valley routes not too long after WWII ended. Rock Climbing Arizona by Stewart M. Green, on the other hand, says the route's first ascent was completed in the 1960s by Lance and Dane Daugherty. Waugh's original Phoenix Rock says the Daugherty boys climbed it in '49. I'd go with that. Either way, as a 2008 report on the route on states, "Those old boys sure could climb hard in tennis shoes!" (Although if it was in the 1960s, it was possible they were wearing EBs.) (CORRECTION: The info from Waugh and Green's books is not correct. The Daughertys did not climb it in '49. They were too young then. According to Opland, "Suicide Direct FA was Ralph Patement and Bob Owens in 1949. 
Suicide Direct FFA was Lance and Dane Daugherty, date unknown.")

Waugh's scripture states that Suicide, the fun, three-pitch, 5.5 route left of Direct, suffered some infamous falls some years ago. I don't know the details on those. But I did find one old news story about a death on Suicide Direct in January of 1987. Andre Dauvergne fell after climbing the route with a partner, fellow ASU student Doug Loveday. According to the newspaper article I found, which quoted a volunteer rescuer, the climbers "had no climbing equipment and were wearing only tennis shoes ... to attempt an assault that is considered difficult even for experienced mountaineers." As Waugh's book says, climbers must "surmount the difficult overhang."

The overhang is not terribly difficult if you're a solid 5.10 leader, but even then it'll likely cause you to reflect on life and other important things. The spooky reputation of Camelback rock calls for that sort of perspective. If you're in over your head by leading a runout, exposed 5.8, the route's name doesn't seem far-fetched.

My obsessive hiking at Camelback frequently takes me past Suicide and Suicide Direct; I've never seen anyone climbing the latter, (because it's no ladder, hee-hee). Twice, I've seen people on Suicide. Once it was a pair of competent-looking climbers. The other time, which was a few years ago, it was a pair of yahoos using a 50-foot static line as a lead rope. I have no idea if they made it past the first pitch, which they had split into two pitches.
(Suicide Direct from Echo Canyon pkng lot.)

I know S.D. must get a few ascents a year, but it sure isn't a commonly climbed route. Which is all the better, if you want to do something special. It's for experts and foolhardy souls only, obvi-frickin-ously. Extremely satisfying when you nail it, for sure, and it puts you in an interesting spot on the western side of August Canyon. I don't know if the bees are still there. It's been quite a while since I've climbed it. Only did one other time after my lead. That was with Kent, who wanted me to belay him on a clean lead of the route about a year after his fall there. Although he finished the lead the day he fell, and flashed it when I belayed him his second time, that fall bugged him for years. Sometime around 99 or 00, he decided to put all his Suicide Direct fears behind him and complete a solo ascent of the route. At night. He's improved his climbing skills considerably since then. Last month, he free-soloed the Matterhorn.

I digress.

While I don't recall hearing about the '87 incident, I do remember one high-profile rescue at Suicide Direct from 10 years later. This was the case of a teenage resident of a now-closed juvenile boot camp on a group outing to Camelback. He snuck away from his group and freed the climb up to the bolted overhang. At the rest-stop just below the overhang, he realized he could neither go nor back down without killing himself. So he took off his T-shirt, pulled it through a bolt hangar, and tied a knot in it for a handy hold. Then he waited for the expensive technical rescue. I still think that was a fairly smart move on his part, to use the shirt like that. Going up the 5.8 without experience or rock shoes wasn't too swift. But I do appreciate the boldness. He probably didn't know the name of the route or its Yosemite Decimal System rating, but he knew it was a great line up a sweet cliff.

Suicide Direct isn't highlighted on the ClimbPhx Web site's Camel-page, so I assume the author hasn't climbed it. I thought I saw an in-depth route report, but it got lost in cyberspace and I've been unable to locate the site again. The above-mentioned report refers to the "stiff overhang," while a commenter notes the long runout. Those are actually just two of the challenges.

The first challenge climbers must confront is the 90-foot, "class-four" first pitch. Perhaps because this route gets so few ascents, or maybe it's just a geological quirk, this pitch does contain a fair amount of Camelback choss. It's easy to become lost in this asteroid field, so depending on how you do it, the first pitch might be an honest 5.0-5.2. And you'll be wearing a pack with your gear. So be wary of that class-four designation. When I climbed this with Kent, a rattlesnake was coiled in the shade at the top of the first pitch. I scrambled past it before seeing it, realizing it could have bitten me in the face. Kent used it as a handhold for a brief second, until his brain understood the skin on his fingertips had touched something alive. He pulled his hand back. "What was that?" "A rattlesnake," I answered. The snake shook its head and went back to sleep. The sun hadn't yet hit the crag, and it must enjoy sleeping in almost as much as I do.

(Photo of Suicide, 5.5, ripped from

You'll forget the excitement of the first pitch once you begin the second. Although it starts off fairly easy, you're instantly launched into the stratosphere. Lots of exposure, real soon -- thanks to that steep first pitch. I was sure happy when I reached that first bolt, but I had to leave it behind all too quickly. I recall only two bolts between the ground and the bolted overhang; another one may have been installed in recent years.

I'm cranking the overhang in the picture. I'd been doing a decent amount of climbing back then, so I found it rather fun, though strenuous. Funny, but on lead I remember that the handhold on the top-side of the overhang, which had some stiff grass growing in it, felt incredibly positive. When I later seconded it with Kent, it felt more angled and tricky. Could have just been conditioning. But both times, it required strength and nailing the footholds to get on top of it. After that, it's a tricky cat-walk left and up. I was well aware of Kent's fall when I led it and was extra cautious. Tired and a bit freaked out, the climax of my lead was yet to come.

The last move of Suicide Direct, unless it's been retro-bolted, is a sketchy pull in a gravelly slot with almost nothing for footholds. Scared the bejesus out of me. I placed a .5 Camelot in a flaring pocket a couple of feet under the move, knowing it wouldn't hold if I slipped. It would be as if the rock spit that cam out as I screamed past it, taking a lead fall of -- I don't know -- forty feet? Maybe more? Bouncing all the way. Of course, I didn't have a helmet, as the picture shows. So this climb might have been the death of me. Instead of flying off, though, I gritted my teeth, clenched everything else, and made that last pull, where I found -- and grabbed -- the chains attached to two or three bolts. This was one of the many experiences that make visiting Camelback an almost religious experience for me.

So, if you go, (and I hope you do, 'cause I'd love to see someone leading it...):

* Take two ropes, or;

* Brave the maze of August Canyon and find Pedrick's Chimney on its east side;

*Watch your step on that first pitch;

* Keep your head after the overhang.

* Watch out for poisonous reptiles and take a spare battery if you do it at night!

(Suicide Direct route at Camelback Mountain. Yellow dots indicate path, not bolts. There aren't many bolts.)

UPDATE: Just wanted to bring attention to and repeat some of the historical context here. As I mentioned in another blog post, Bob Owens of the Kachinas contacted me to report his climb of "Suicide Cliff" in 1947. Then there's the comment below about Lance and Dane Daugherty, legends of Phoenix climbing:

Climbing brothers said...
Just to clarify some information.
Lance and Dane Daugherty were my older 1/2 brothers. We moved out to Phoenix Az in the Fall of 1963. They began climbing in 1965.
Lance was born in 1947 and Dane in 1949.
Lance was killed in 1968 on his motorcycle coming back from a climb in Carefree. Dane quit climbing altogether in 1969.
Ironically, Dane was also killed on a motorcycle in 1978.
If the first climb of Suicide was in 1949 it could not have been my brothers.
Hope this clears up some confusion.
Von Wagner

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Camelback Mountain Chuckwalla - the Sonoran Desert's Iguana

Hey, big fella. Enjoying the view?

This one's wife was joining him for an afternoon basking session.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Camelback Mountain Rattlesnake Video

Shot this yesterday out on Cholla Trail. Quite a handsome little fellow. A small crowd gathered around the rock he was hiding under. One onlooker suggested he was a timber rattler. I don't think so. The markings aren't correct and timber rattlers aren't western U.S. snakes. I believe he was probably a speckled rattlesnake.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Camelback Phoenix: The Blog About Camelback Mountain Hiking, Climbing and Exploring

This is the 50th post for this blog. I don't really consider it a blog. The older posts -- most of them, anyway -- shouldn't be considered "old news." The site is a collection of stories, information, news, photos, links and other tidbits about my favorite mountain. It's a place for the outside world to better know Camelback Mountain, and the adventures I and other people have had there. On Camelback Phoenix, you can find info about hiking, rock climbing, the wildlife, the visitors and their trip reports, parking and anything else Camelback Mountain that I can think of. Some of this info you'll find in the provided links. For instance, sites are listed in my blogroll that give you precise directions to Echo Canyon and Cholla Trail, including the city of Phoenix Parks and Recreation site. The blogroll is automatically prioritized by Google Blogger depending on how often those other sites are updates. Summitpost is an example of a great site that pulls in trip reports and climbing info from uncountable cyber-commenters.

This site is mainly about spreading the Camelback love.

Another interest is to get a larger variety of info out there about Camelback Mountain as possible. No single site or book exists that compiles everything on it. Even Gary Driggs' famous coffee-table book, Camelback, (which I intend to jabber on about in some future post), doesn't offer as many details as I'd like to see, especially as a climber. Camelback's history deserves to be preserved, and I'd like to help do that.

As I continue to post here, feel free to comment and share links or other information. Years ago, I met a guy at Headwall named Ken who told me there are at least 70 climbing routes at Camelback -- far more than you'll find in any guidebook. There is much left for me to learn within these rugged 400-plus acres.

Okay, now it's time to update some of the Camelback stories, pictures and videos I've seen on the Internet...


I want to bring attention to a few posts done on Mountain Project by a "clichtenberger," as well as the Camelback pages on MP's site in general.

I assume that's stands for C. Lichtenberger, but I'm not sure. Whatever his or her name is, I'm jealous of the quality time this climber spent with friends on various Camelback routes at the end of last year. "Clichtenberger" has new postings on routes that I've been wanting to climb, like (Aerial Combat and Chimera, both 5.9), as well as some I've done, like Hard Times and Beehive. (I wished for photos of the latter two, though, for nostalgia's sake.)

When I clicked on the photo above that Clichtenberger took of his buddy "Lauren" on the 3rd pitch of Hart Route (4th pitch, the way they climbed it), I had a visceral response and flashback to my 2010 freesolo of the route. Maybe that freesolo wasn't such a good idea.

Tons of videos

At this link, you'll find a collection of more than 100 videos about Camelback Mountain. A couple of examples:

This one's kind of cute and courteously short. Skateboarding, nice splicing and a great Beatles song.

Another video has a weird sky serpent and a song by Godsmack:


Want more info on a phenomenal, three-pitch adventure climb with the scary name of Suicide? (C'mon, it's only 5.5!) Click here.

Where was that rescue?

Last November, I read about a couple of kids who got lost while scrambling around. I'm fascinated by the tale of how they climbed down something they could not get back up. Usually, it's the other way around. Of course, the TV stations never nail down for the viewer the precise site. Check back for a future post that will have the GPS coordinates. I'm also trying to find the coordinates for the spot where a guy in his mid-50s was freesoloing and attacked by bees. He was stung 120 times. I think that's information you or I may need to know someday. Phoenix Fire is supposed to get back to me on that one.

Climbing routes

Next to Suicide Direct is a 5.10 I'd like to try someday called Black Direct.

Some routes at Camelback Mountain, however, are best done just once. Misgivings is one of those. This isn't one that I've led, and I vowed never to do so after watching one of my friends fall on a sketchy piece near the top. Had he not put that piece in, or had the piece popped out, he very well might have decked.

A place to have real adventures

In searching for other posts out there about Camelback, the ones I enjoy the most capture the thrill and seriousness of the park -- like this one, entitled "This is crazy."

This one by also captures the spirit I look for, though I think the type of pushy hikers he describes is more often found on Piestewa Peak.

Photos, paintings and other Camelback Mountain art

You paint it, I'll showcase it. (The above painting is by Michael J. Liebhaber.)

See you on the trail.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Hanging Rappel: A Misadventure

November 5, 1989

I woke up at about 10 a.m. and tried to get Mike out of bed for an hour and a half. He still didn't have a job and arising in the morning was a very bizarre experience for him. We had borrowed some of Dusty's gear the night before, including "Phoenix Rock," a book which described Camelback Mountain, the day's destination, in exquisite detail.

We figured out what to climb after we parked the car in the small lot. I looked up at a humongous and seemingly blank face to the south. Mike, book in hand, pointed to the face.

"See that little 'v' in the rock up towards the top, with that dark line running down it? That's it, a 5.8 called 'Suicide Direct.'"

I gasped. "You're going to lead that? You're nuts."

"No nuts involved," Mike explained. "Just five bolts up to the 5.8 part. The first pitch is a class 4. We'll just free that."

I took another look, my curiosity aroused. It just looked so damned impossible. "Let's go," I said, opening the car door.

One of us forgot the backpack, so we had to wear all of the gear during the hike to the first pitch. The protective equipment dangled from our harnesses, bouncing and clinking. Parts of the hike were steep, but it wasn't very long. Soon enough, the large rock formation towered directly over us as we scrambled up the first, ladder-like part of the class 4.

Fifty feet up, that class 4 somehow turned into a 5.1 or 5.2 With gear weighing me and my harness down, the dangerous moves became a matter of life and something else. I'd step up to a one-inch ledge with my left leg while grasping a decent hold, then find a spot -- fast -- for the right leg to go, preferably higher. I didn't want to think about the less-than-perfect sturdiness of the rock. All we could hope was that if a foothold gave out, our handholds would be good enough, and vice versa.

The climb ended in a big ledge which was the belay stance for the 5.8. Three solid-looking black bolts protruded from the cliff face four feet above the ledge, and there was a blue sling connected to them, already set up for action. Mike and I sorted gear and prepared to climb.

The face on which Mike embarked was not straight up, but close. Now that we were here, the face didn't look blank at all -- there were plenty of decent holds. It looked more possible than it did on the approach, although eighty feet up was a lump of an outcrop -- "surmount the difficult overhang," the book said of it. I was glad Mike had decided to lead. The distance between the bolts on the climb was hideous, and there were no pockets or cracks for hexes or cams. I'd led 5.4s, but leading such a poorly protected 5.8 was unthinkable for me. Mike had led a poorly protected, difficult 5.6 at Granite Mountain (3rd pitch of Classic), so that and his other recent successes made him cocky enough to try this. Up he went.

Fifteen minutes later, my neck was starting to ache badly as he reached the overhang. There had been two long runouts for Mike to worry about, I estimated them at twenty feet each. That meant very careful and methodical climbing. You move slowly in a situation like that, conserving balance and energy. You check holds vigorously and be wary if one should crumble beneath your feet... as it did for Mike right before reaching the overhang. Leading a 20-foot runout means no falls, period. Never mind if your foothold just disintegrated. A 40-foot fall could break limbs, or a head.

Mike paused for ten minutes at the overhang, muscles tense, standing on one-inch ledges. Luckily, a bolt beneath the outcropping meant he would only fall six or eight feet if his skill failed him, but the fall would be a bad one since he would swing under the rock when the rope pulled tight.

Patiently, he felt around for options, not happy with what the rock required him to do. A deep, six-inch pocket was about face height. It would have been an excellent hold except that it kept you off balance, and the bomber hold up above had to be grasped at an angle. So Mike tried his famous opposition hold on the pocket, both hands inside, pulling closer to the face, where he could then attain a precarious, temporary balance point to launch his left hand slowly up to grab the good hold. It must have been a great, awful few seconds to go for that hold, feeling his balance diminishing as the one hand remaining in the pocket tried to pull him off left, causing his feet to smear off their tiny ledges and maybe sending him screaming over the outcropping to swing violently into the cliff wall.

It looked very smooth and professional from my vantage point. It had taken a while, but that seemed natural and necessary. A brief respite, and the rest of the climb took him only a few minutes.

"Major power moves, Ray!" he called to me, sounding relieved and proud. "It's just two or three power moves. You're going to love it!"

I wasn't destined to make those power move, as it turned out, although when it came to my turn to ascend the face, I did so with total readiness and confidence. Anything Mike could lead, I thought, I could sure as hell toprope. What happened next I can only make excuses about.

Maybe it was the 45-mile bike ride the day before, preceded by a few weeks of almost zero exercise. Come to think of it, I was heavily loaded down with the rest of the gear, including three full water bottles. Then again, maybe I just plain pussed out.

The route was challenging up to the overhang, but not 5.8 material. The overhang, on the other hand, seemed a lot like a 5.12 when I reached it.

Eight feet from my previous belay stance, a hundred-forty or so from the ground, I stood nervously balanced on one good foothold, a one-inch ledge, right hand in the aforementioned pocket, left hand further left on a two-finger balance hold, straining to keep my face away from the bulging overhang. I tried everything I could -- hugging the inverted face while stretching sloth-like for hand holds, tenuous laybacking, even an somewhat conservative lunge move. I looked to my left and right. The book, which I had dropped halfway up the first pitch and with which I could not have looked at then, anyway, told of 5.6 escape traverse to the right.

Far away in a world of relative peace and security, across a landscape of pale-green desert plants and orange rock, motorists cruised by on the busy roads bordering the mountain park. The scratchy hum of their vehicles wafted up on the breeze to my ears. Paradise Valley went on with life, its inhabitants totally oblivious to my problem. It was a constant reminder that the whole world was not -- as I was -- frazzled, frightened, frustrated and on the verge of exhaustion.

The last lunge move had decided it. "Forget it, Mike!" I shouted, unable to see him in his belay stance. "I can't surmount this difficult overhang!"

"Are you sure? Try putting both hands in that pocket."

"I can't! I keep pitching off to the right!" I noticed that trying to yell and stick to the face weren't mutually compatible actions. I had to do something soon or I would come off the face again.

"I thought that reach might be high for you. What are you going to do now?"

"Get ready. I'm going to weight the rope and try to get over to the left. The book said it was easier over there."

Never again will I climb a route without memorizing everything the book has to say about it.

"Left?" Mike questioned. "I thought it was to the right."

"No, it was left. There's nothing to the right."

Then came the awful task of weighting the rope. That wasn't a problem - just a matter of crouching down and hopping off my tiny ledge and putting all of my trust and life into a small bit of woven plastic. It was pretending I had no fear of dangling from the rope on a steep face. Then, while hanging uncomfortably, knowing this was killing Mike's guts as his harness bit down, I had to pedal my feet left and right, building up momentum to propel me far enough to grab something. As I swung, the rope chafed above me on rough, uneven rock. I made a desperate grab too soon and only pitched forward in my harness, losing precious inertia.

"Hurry up! What are you doing down there?" Mike sounded strained.

"Almost there!" I didn't sound too casual, either. I swung to the left, grabbed with one hand and stopped the motion with a foot. My arm shook with tension. The rope was pulling me sideways now that it angled so sharply to the right. "Slack!" I grunted.


"Slack, slack! About two-three inches!" The rope relaxed and so did I. The next handhold I grabbed crumbled, leaving me like I was before. I slipped half a foot and felt the strong tug of rope threatening to yank me off. "More slack!"

"Are you on something?"

"Yeah, but I need more slack!"

This time Mike let out a good foot or more, enough to start climbing again, but too much should I pop off the rock. The horizontal swing combined with a couple of feet of vertical falling might be all I needed to break something.

I was on explored terrain, and as I now know, anything unexplored at Camelback is unclean. I carefully went up, using cautious stemming on untrustworthy footholds. What creaked or moved when I tugged with my hand would certainly come out under my foot's weight. Eventually I was five feet below Mike and far left of him. I reached with my right hand to a large black rock, bigger than my head, and pulled myself up with it. It started to pull out. I moved rapidly, using pressure from my left hand to stand on a good foothold I'd found. The boulder tipped out of the cranny it had been living for the last 10,000 years, plopped onto my foot and crashed into the belay ledge 80 feet below with the roar of an atomic bomb. People all over Camelback Park strained their necks looking up at me, perhaps thinking another climber had fallen.

I shouted an expletive, then kept going with only one thing in mind: Get off this shitty rock.

Finally I saw Mike. Relief washed through me. I took one more step and that that rock disappeared under my foot, though when I had inspected it, there was no indication a boulder that size would not support me. Even bigger than the last, it crashed violently on the ledge, splintering off into thousands of pebbles. Again, people looked to see who was making all that racket.

Just me folks, cleaning a route. Just making it safer for the next guy, if there ever is a next guy.

Had someone been on the ledge below, there would have no escaping the 25-pound projectiles raining down like vicious, inanimate predators.

But no one was down there, and I was done with my climb. I soon found out that our problems had just gotten worse.

Standing close to the edge as I usually do, I noted the height. "I hope you remember where that walk-down was."

"I guess I have to now that the book is down there, don't I?"

"Yeah, well, it's got to be around here somewhere." As we coiled the rope and organized the gear, I looked at the short gully leading to the top. We were not on the summit. We were in a maze-like valley. It was then that I started to get nervous. "Are you absolutely sure that walk-down is reachable from here?"

"Oh, it's up here somewhere." He took a long, pensive drag on his Camel. "I don't know if it's on the left or right, though. We may be up here a while."

"You have any idea what time it is?"

"Nope. Didn't bring a watch."

"Oh." We were on the shady side of the mountain, and I had to look out towards Paradise Valley to get an idea how bright the sun was. The city was still shining like a TV in the dark to my slightly dilated eyes. It seemed very distant and unreal. My gaze fell again to the ledge far below. "We sure can't rappel down from here."

"No, we sure can't. Not with a single rope. But we'll find the climb down. I'm just hoping it won't be too much of a bitch with all this gear."

We decided to go right. Twenty- to forty-foot-tall hills rose up smoothly all around us. Most were unclimbable. The path we had chosen was overgrown with particularly hungry, dark-green sticker-bushes. We had to hug the wall to avoid bad scratches, but at least we seemed to be descending. As we came around a corner, the bright-green cityscape showed through a gap in the hills.

"That must be the downclimb," Mike said.

"I don't think so. It looks a lot like a drop-off," I replied. The closer we got, the steeper it seemed. I was within a couple of feet from the edge and still couldn't see where this supposed path continued. Too bad we didn't have the book. It would have explained about the easy walk-down one ridge over from where we stood.

Not realizing this, we turned around, retraced our path and explored the way to the left. The hills separated enough to make one large, natural corridor which was good at first but soon closed up. I looked at the vegetation-choked passageway and noted, "That's all sticker-bush."

"Yeah, it is," Mike said. "You going in there?"

"I guess so. If I climb up a little here, I shouldn't get it so bad."

I picked my way up carefully, trying to hold the spring-like branches back as others clawed my hand. Then I noticed the humming. It got louder as I went further right. The sound changed to a low, muted buzzing.

Bees, I thought.

I tried to see what I was about to encroach on. There they were, dozens of the little guys flying in and out of their comfy hole in the rock. Many were just milling around outside their hive, waiting maliciously for some dumb climber to piss them off. Retreat seemed like a good idea.

It dawned on me that I had no idea what we would do next. We had a vague feeling that somewhere there was a downclimb, but now we were facing an additional problem. The end of the afternoon was almost here.

The breeze that had been perfect an hour ago was now tinted with coolness, and the preserved bit of desert terrain and hills which made up Camelback Park were dull with shadows, the reddish rock looking rather orange.

That was when Mike cooked up an idea so maniacal, repulsive and horrifying, we both knew at once it had to be acted upon. We uncoiled the rope. Mike would be the first one down, we decided.

We put the rope through an expendable, anchored sling. Folded up, the rope ends went down 80 feet, nowhere near the rock-pummeled ledge that was the start of Suicide Direct's second pitch. The overhang Mike had led over was 25 feet below us. Just beneath it were three bolts, enough to make us feel somewhat safe. The general idea was to rappel down to there, run a sling through the bolt hangers, clip in, pull the rope down, (being certain one end is tied to something so we're not left stranded), and then rappel down from our hanging rappel stance.

Mike clipped his figure-8 to the locking carabiner on his harness and slowly rappelled down the cliff face, not worrying if it was going to be difficult. I also felt very confident, perhaps overly so. Nevertheless, it was like I had seen us do this before. I had no doubt we could do it.

Mike was under the overhang, out of sight. I looked around the area one last time, and it was more beautiful than it had been when I was still thinking I'd be stuck up here forever. The sounds were of the wind, the same cars in the distance, the faint clipping of carabiners. Being the last one to rappel is always a good experience. It gives a fantastic, welcome feeling of total isolation.

"Mr. Stern, come on down!" Mike called. "And don't forget to test the rope!"

I wasn't about to forget that. If I got down there and the rope wouldn't pull through, one of us would have to climb back up to free it. I grabbed both strands and worked them back and forth easily. The runner was long enough and there were no rope-eating cracks to worry about. I clipped in and rappelled out to space.

It was a straightforward descent, though the overhang demanded some tricky footwork. There was Mike, standing on one-inch ledges and secured to a good-looking sling system. I had stopped to his right, my chest even with his head.

"All right, you having fun yet?" he asked me.

"Sort of. Where do I get to stand?"

"There's a small foothold near your left foot."

I found it, holding the rope tightly with one hand and clawing a slight ridge with the other. On one foot, with the rope tight from rappelling, balancing was awkward. I was using hordes of energy to stay on the rock; my hands were draining of strength.

"Why don't you clip in?" Mike suggested.

"It's all I can do to stay on this rock! This is no good," I shot back.

"Just clip in and hang. You won't go anywhere."

"No, I want to stand on something. At least then I'll have some control."

"Well, okay. There's a good ledge on my left. Can you get over to it?"

I sure as hell did. I remembered it from the climb up. It was a decent little ledge, wider than the one Mike was standing on. I secured myself to the sling system.

Mike then tied one end of the rope off and I leaned out and tugged it. Nothing happened -- the rope didn't budge. With a second pull, it gave a smidgen and then stopped, this time for good.

For the first time, the stress began to get to Mike. "Why the hell is it stuck? You were supposed to check that!"

"I did, and it worked perfectly! Everything looked fine. What more could I do?"

Mike contemplated this. "Okay, give me the rope. Maybe I can it get it from a different angle."

I handed it over, now more scared than I had been all day. The wind felt even colder exposed like this on a naked rock face. I couldn't stand the prospect of standing there for another half-hour while Mike climbed back up. I'd have almost rather gone myself.

Mike pulled, succeeding only in stretching the rope.

"I don't believe this shit," I said. My ankles were stiffening up. A second didn't go by that I wasn't aware we were twenty stories off the ground.

The rope was moving. Whichever way Mike had pulled it had worked. Seconds later, it whipped through the air like a giant snake and I could breathe again. Everything would end safely, this time.

(Pictures of postcards ripped from the Internets...)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Clint McHale Memorial

Chelsey McHale met with me a few months ago at Solo Cafe and talked about the memorial sign she wants to put on Camelback about her brother.

Clint McHale died on May 4 after he slipped and fell while climbing a rock face with his friend. He had no experience at climbing and didn't own a pair of rock shoes, much less a rope. He was a frequent Camelback hiker who acted on a sudden impulse to climb. Can't say I blame him.

Chelsey contacted me by way of commenting on the blog post I wrote here last year about Clint.

We talked for a good hour and a half about life, death, the dangers of hiking and climbing, and her efforts to get the memorial sign put up on the mountain. I decided to write a short blog post for New Times about the sign. Although a Phoenix official told me the sign is likely to go up, the fund-raising seems to be going slowly, judging by the donation Web site. Last I checked, she's not yet to half her goal of $2,500. I hope she makes it.

I also added a safety blurb to the rail of this blog, just for posterity's sake. After almost 30 years of hiking and climbing at Camelback Mountain, I'm well aware of the need for caution. To name just one calamity I've seen there that didn't involve me, I once saw a guy running down the trail trip and break his arm. I'd been bouldering nearby when it happened and felt the ground shake from his impact. His screams were awful.

One of the running themes you'll find on this blog, though, is that risk equals fun. That being said, the risks need to be understood and respected. Going home at the end of a good day on the crag is the ultimate goal.

Chelsey and I discussed at length the possible reasons why Clint decided to climb a near-vertical face that day, and why he slipped. Those are two questions to which we'll never know the answers, apparently.

According to news stories, Clint's buddy suggested they climb and Clint went along with it. From my point of view, Clint decided he was going to have some extra fun while out for his routine hike. Climbing, he knew, is fun and exciting.

The decision to climb was a good one, but it was followed by wildly bad judgment. Had he climbed up five or ten feet, then down-climbed or done some traversing, it would have been a perfect introduction to the joys of bouldering. Depending on the type of climbing, no gear is necessary. Just common sense.

Clint didn't stop climbing when he got to unsafe height.

That's not to say he was lacking in common sense. Chelsey tells me he was a very bright, logical person. But sometimes -- and I know this feeling well -- you just want to go for it.

Without rock shoes, the ability to negotiate vertical terrain is diminished severely. I've likened it to climbing with rollerskates on. Clint was wearing light hikers or running shoes, neither of which are good for edging. True, the soft neoprene of the edge of a running shoe's sole molds to edges on a rock face -- but far too much, like marshmallows. The rubber of rock shoes is harder and conforms to the rock on a more micro level, retaining most of its shape in order to cling to the barest of fractures. I'm not sure of the physics involved. Security while edging can be found with some stiff-soled boots, too. My Danner Mountain Lites are an example of a hiking shoe that holds up very well on class three-to-four ground, especially when the soles are new. That sort of shoe could be used for fifth-class climbing -- anything could be used for climbing, you could climb barefoot -- but it would be far from ideal. While climbing, the foot shifts around too much inside bulky boots and running shoes -- most any shoes, really. There's no feel for the rock. (Barefoot climbing has excessive feel.) I've been told by running-store "experts" to choose jogging shoes that are a half-size too large. Whatever that does for running, the extra size makes climbing more difficult. Climbing shoes are typically tight, but not overly tight. Some climbers seem to take the ancient practice of foot-binding as a helpful guide to sizing shoes, but I prefer to give up some of the advantages of ultra-tight shoes for comfort. Especially on multi-pitch climbs, painful shoes can be a misery.

All this comes down to is that the type of footwear chosen by a climber may be better or worse for climbing. Had Clint McHale been wearing rock shoes, he still could have slipped. Shoe-ing up for a climb, (putting rock shoes on), implies a more thoughtful approach to the process. It would likely mean experience, at least in a climbing gym or the bouldering areas around Camelback. Falling is always a possibility in climbing, so a climber with experience develops criteria to make the judgment calls required for the activity.

The lack of experience was a much larger contributor to the fall than the choice of footwear. A more experienced climber gauges the problems of the terrain in way that adjust for whatever happens to be on his or her feet at the time. If the climbing becomes sketchy, you either back down or accept the greater state of risk and go on.

I know from past screw-ups that it's easy to push well into that heightened state of risk without fully understanding how crazy things are getting. At that point, it can be too late to turn back. Worse, a few neutrinos of good or bad luck can tip the scale, perhaps so drastically as to mean life or death. Chelsey and I talked about this. We swapped a couple of stories about close calls we've each had.

Chelsey also told me she wouldn't think of hiking Camelback, at least for now, or going to other mountains.

I believe that walking in the hills is good for the soul. Not just good, but great. The mountains are a source of a higher quality of life. Looking at mountains or the ocean, things that are so much bigger than us but are still things, is humbling and awe-inspiring. And, of course, vertical relief offers a challenging and interesting workout for hikers, a world of adventure for climbers, platforms for hang-gliding and BASE jumping, slopes for skiers and often a relatively undeveloped habitat for plants and animals. Mountains, like parks or lakes, are the antidote for the concrete beehive of modern civilization.

At least some of the satisfaction comes from risk. Even standing in a level, vast plain, you are exposed. The statistics of how, or whether, risk of bodily injury increases once you step outside your home -- that's just not something I want to Google right now. But I'm sure that hiking Camelback is riskier than sitting on one's couch. Deciding to climb a rock face pushes up the risk factor considerably.

Young men are most likely to engage in behavior like recklessly climbing a rock face. I've heard of several cases similar to Clint's over the past 25 years or so, a few of which also resulted in fatalities. Typically, the inexperienced impulse climber finds a spot to rest and waits for a rescue. In one case from the late 80s or early 90s, a teenager free-soloed up Suicide Direct, pushing into the second pitch before becoming scared out of his mind at what the old Phoenix Rock book calls the "difficult overhang." That section, about a hundred and fifty feet or more off the deck, has a few bolts with hangers on them, and the teen managed to pull his T-shirt through one of the hangers and tied one end to his wrist to prevent himself from falling. He was rescued.

Clint was 24. Chelsey doesn't know why her brother decided to climb a cliff face with his friend, when all he had done before at Camelback was hike.

Perhaps Clint was looking for a quick thrill. Maybe his friend was looking for the thrill, and Clint only reluctantly followed along. Either way, he made the choice to climb high enough to hurt himself. Which, by the way, is about six feet high or less. Finding the beginning easy enough, he went up to the point at which you're likely to get hurt massively if you fall -- about 15 feet.

These are arbitrary numbers I'm throwing out here, based on my own gut feelings as I've free-soloed. At about 15 feet, it would be obvious to a climber of any experience level that things are getting zany. The ground appears noticeably diminished at that height, and you instinctively know it's too high to jump down from. There's no way to land "right" from a jump of that high; a severe sprain, blown ligament or broken leg are all likely under the best of circumstances. Exceptions exist for particularly talented fallers. In one article I read in Climbing a few years ago about tall boulder problems, some climbers were said to have taken falls of 20-25 feet onto the deck, but not gotten hurt. These stories make less sense to me than how 747s stay in the sky, and don't apply to the average or even above-average person.

But I could see how Clint might have been lulled into a false security during the first 25 feet because the slab he was climbing wasn't that vertical. He could have perceived a fall as involving a rough slide during which he would have caught himself. That feeling could have stuck with him up to the fifty-foot point, where he lost his footing.

Details from reports of the accident makes it seem as though Clint had gotten himself into a precipitous spot that, with his experience level and lack of gear, left him open to a strike of bad luck. Clint had climbed into an exposed area forty to fifty off the ground in which he could find no good holds for his hands or feet.

As long as you know you can downclimb something, you can climb up it with little worry. But downclimbing is trickier than climbing up, and so the tendency for beginners is to continue climbing up, thinking they'll reach an easier spot. Classic mistake. If you don't reach that easier spot, you're in worse shape.

Clint's friend reached down as Clint yelled that he was slipping.

Clint slipped out of his hand.

The Police Report

Below is a map of the accident area, borrowed from Google Maps. I've noted several landmarks, like the Praying Monk and August Canyon. And I've labeled the accident site (the red drop-in pin points to the GPS coordinates given in the police report.

The next two shots are from a Channel 10 News broadcast on May 5, 2011, the day after the accident. In the video clip, the reporter and pilot take you on a flight out to the scene in the station's helicopter and point out the spot (in the red box) where they say the two had been climbing just before Clint's slip.

The pictures show that this site is just around the corner from the class 4/5.1 that I free-soloed in 2008 as part of my quest to find the spot where two guys needed a mountain rescue. This is a fantastic climb that takes you all the way to August Canyon, as my 2008 blog post describes in detail.

The discussion between reporter Britt Moreno and Rick Crabbs about "rotten rock" is somewhat aggravating, since neither really know what they're talking about. The rock quality is generally poor, but in fact there are many spots on the Head with beautiful, solid holds. In places with mixed choss and solid stuff, it's often possible to see bad holds before you put weight on them. Low-angle, rolling sandstone slabs, fractured areas and boulders of all sizes allow stemming, smearing and other climbing moves that don't always resemble "holds" but are quite safe for upward movement, if you know what you're doing. Crabbs misidentifies the geology of the Head, calling it "decomposed granite." It's sandstone with embedded chunks of other kinds of rock, like granite.

What really bugs me, though, is the constant reference to this area as being "off-trail."

"(McHale) reportedly had walked off the marked trail," remarks this April 6 article in the Arizona Republic about a new trail rating system. The police report states the area is "well off the established trail."

"Marked trail," yes. But he wasn't exactly "off-trail," as Channel 10 says. A well-trodden trail does indeed take you out to where McHale fell, the near-vertical ramp to August Canyon and around to spots south of the Head. Google's satellite photo shows how the main trail comes out just past the Head -- from there, you head south over a rocky hill and hug the wall. Because the area is slightly more rugged than Echo Canyon trail and most people think it's "off-trail," it's isolated and peaceful. It's a terrific place to find solace in the city. As I discussed in my previous blog post about the ramp, it's also possible to envision how a solo climber might lie in that area for a long time after a fall without anyone hearing his or her cries.

The problem with the constant reference to "off-trail" is that it inadvertently conditions people to believe no one should go there. When they put up the fence, fewer people will complain. I don't think this is anyone's plan, but the litigious and risk-averse nature of greater society could give rise to ban on hiking and climbing in some area, and that would mean a great treasure will be lost for those who venture off the main trail. Better to put up a small memorial/sign like the one for McHale to warn people of the potential danger, yet leave them freedom to wander. So far, thankfully, there's been no talk of closing anything off. The Yosemite-like policy continues.

Officer Vincent Navarro interviewed Gustafson after firefighters took him off the mountain. According to Navarro's portion of the report:

"Jonathan stated that every Wednesday, he and Clint got together to do something. They had decided to hike Camelback Mountain to meditate. They did this often. They hiked to a location where they had to do some 'basic' rock climbing. As they were climbing, Clint became agitated and started yelling at Jonathan, saying he couldn't find a place to put his hand. He began to panic and told Jonathan, 'Grab me, I'm falling.'

"Jonathan stated he grabbed Clint's hand, but didn't have good footing and lost hold of Clint. Clint then fell approximately 40 feet. Jonathan climbed down to Clint and got there within five or six seconds."

Officer Laura Kaliszak also interviewed Gustafson:

"Both of them brought water or sports drinks but neither of the men brought climbing equipment because they were going to 'free climb.' (Jonathan) described this type of climbing as maintaining contact with the rocks with three points of contact at all times. Two feet and one hand or two hands and one foot at all times.

"Clint and Jonathan had hiked around this area on previous occasions but had not taken this exact route before. Jonathan and Clint decided on a flat cliff surface approximately 50 feet above the ground below.

"Both men agreed and began to hike and climb to this area. Jonathan described this area as a steep incline hike on one side with a flat wall face on the other side.

"Jonathan was climbing above Clint on the wall when Clint became upset because he could not find a place for his hand."

The exact route is unclear from these narratives. The portion of the crag they were on when Clint fell was apparently much more vertical. Officer Kaliszak says Jonathan told her that one point he was "slightly bent at the waist and reaching down between his legs holding onto Clint." Jonathan was able to reach Clint so quickly because he took the "incline side" down.

By comparison, from 40 or 50 feet up the 5.1 that's just north of accident hike, it would take me at least a couple of minutes to climb down, if not five or more minutes.

Did Clint and Jonathan's climb start off mellow, then get very serious? Or did they utilize the webbing "attached to the incline" about eight feet high to advance up the first section, then climb the whole way on the steeper wall next to the slab? I'm not sure. This makes me want to go out there and check it out, which I will do and report back.

Clearly, Camelback visitors can learn something from Clint's mistakes -- and his love for life and adventure.