December 23-30, 2023
Winter in the Rocky Mountain West has been lackluster this year, not just in comparison to our record breaking year in 2022-23, but in general. Depending on the SNOTEL station, we are sitting around 75% of median, not terrible, but we also haven’t gotten appreciable snow in about three weeks. Not the most inspiring ski conditions and the ice has been almost nonexistent in Utah thus far. Around this time in previous years we’ve done a trip to Ouray for some ice climbing. Colorado is in a similar situation and the ice park there didn’t open until the Dec. 29th. What’s that leave us to do? We’ll we were able to head south to Tucson, AZ for a week.
Some friends have an Air BnB in Tucson that wasn’t being used Dec. 23-30th and said we could base out of there. I had some airline miles and Carly rented a dirt cheap car to round out a last minute rock climbing trip in the sun.
Neither of us had been to Tucson before. It is a short 1.5 hr flight from SLC, made all the better by our First Class bump on the trip down. After arriving around 10am we grabbed our little Nissan Sentra and headed to the Kasi and Andreas’ casita. Their place is a cute studio behind a main rental property and is a comfortable place to explore the area from.
Saturday was still a little cloudy, breezy and showery so we stocked up on groceries for the week and went for a hike near Saguaro (sa-WAH-row) National Park. While Utah and other areas we often visit are desert they are of a different kind, with different plants and animals. The most striking difference between Utah and Tucson area is the saguaros. These tall, anthropomorphic cacti are everywhere—in town as well as in the hills and mountains around town. These are the tallest naturally growing plants in the area and can vary from straight without arms to having many arms and nearly 40 ft tall.
Our five mile hike brought us along a path with many other types of cacti as well—I tried to get a shot of one of every kind we saw. One thing that was apparent in the landscape is that everything seems to be aggressive, the plants, the insects and other animals. However, given it was mid-winter and the highs didn’t get above 60F the worst of the reptiles and insects were dormant and we didn’t have to contend with the gila monsters, scorpions, and numerous snakes.
For a couple days we climbed around Tucson, the best spot being in La Milagrosa Canyon. The rock reminded me of Connecticut traprock, vertical, thin and technical. Much of the other popular climbing zones on the Catalina Hwy was too cold to consider on this trip.
The day after Christmas we headed to Cochise (co-CHEESE) to camp for three nights. Our first two nights on the east side. Cochise is an impressive zone and reminded us of the City of Rocks, but everything was bigger. There’s lots of multipitch climbing, much of it with some longer approaches. There are some newer sport climbing zones as well which we checked out too. On the first day we ran into a climber we’d met in Milagrosa a couple days prior, Baxter, and his dog, though we never did understand how to spell her name.
Cochise is a zone filled with granite domes and often is scary runout traditional climbing. However for the first day we did some sport climbing, though even that turned out to be difficult. One of the first routes we did was a tricky 5.8+ slab, which stumped me. Most of our climbing this year has been well bolted and not slabby. Its been a while since I’ve had to trust my feet as much. By the last day I was trusting my feet much more given the rock does have really good friction.
We flew to AZ with only backpacking camping gear so we stayed in the Cochise Campground so we’d have a picnic table and toilet. While this worked out as intended it was a bit colder in the campground because of the additional trees. With the sunrise at 7:25 and sunset at 5:20, it made for some long and chilly evenings. Mornings were also tough to motivate since the sun was not really reaching us until nearly 10am.
For Day 2 we decided on a classic moderate multipitch called What’s My Line (5.6 A0). It is a three pitch route up on of the highest domes in the area. The approach is surprisingly long, about 60 minutes on the trail and then another 30 minutes of off-trail/scrambling. Of course doing it on-sight is slower so I bet we could shave 30 minutes off everything doing it again.
The line starts about 1/3 of the way up a clean face. The feature has a cleft in the face which allows some chimneying/canyoneering type travel to the one third height. From there a committing step onto some chickenhead features allows clipping some chains which then the leader is lowered 20 ft or so and traverses right to gain more featured climbing. For the remainder of the pitch and the next there’s only chickenhead slinging for protection. The climbing is easy, but required thought since it is so runout. At the end of the first pitch is a bolted anchor, but the end of P2 is just chickenheads for slinging. I definitely haven’t climbed two whole pitches before without placing a cam or clipping another fixed piece of protection. P3 traverses a seam with one bolt, but a good bit of other pro before topping out on a sub-summit of the dome. It was quite a fun route and thought provoking! While technically not very difficult it was well worth the time doing, especially since it was in the sun.
While there’s tons of multipitch climbing in the Cochise our tank was a little low for another big day, especially since most of the other routes are more difficult. We opted for more sport climbing near the campground instead. This proved to be quite fun and we found some great routes.
At the end of the day we headed around to the west side of Cochise to check out the climbing there. This requires either a bumpy dirt road of unknown repair or a little bit longer drive to Tombstone, AZ. We went with the Tombstone option. The west side is just as impressive, if not more so since there’s better visibility of all of the massive amount of rock in the area. Getting out there is more primitive since there’s 10 miles of washboarded dirt roads and no established campgrounds. While we were able to get basically everywhere we needed with the Sentra, we did bottom out in one spot which dislodged the plastic tray under the car. This required a little patching with some zipties I happened to have before we brought it back 😀.
For our third evening we didn’t have the luxury of a campground, but we did have the unfettered views of the night sky. The moon was near full during our trip, but before it poked its face around the mountains we had beautiful stars. With the clear skies we also had our coldest night too though, but it wasn’t too bad.
We did some more sport climbing at the little crag called Sweet Rock, near where we camped. This had some fun routes on it, but we were only able to get on four before we needed to head back to Tucson so we could organize our stuff as well as tidy up the casita.
This was such a fun trip we will back for sure. Hopefully with some friends, but definitely when the days are a bit longer and the temps are just a little bit warmer. Thanks Kasi and Andreas for loaning us the casita!