Isle of You

Ben putting up 'Rabbit's Feat'

Lately, since Mt. Lemmon is closed, I have been doing a lot of climbing at the Isle of You. It is close to Tucson, has a short approach, and a batch of good climbs over a wide range of grades. What surprises me is the general lack of climbers. Scott Ayers has hypothesized that most Tucson climbers don't want to get out into the heat and would rather climb at the gym than climb when it is hot - and he may be right. However, I wonder if many Tucson climbers don't know what they are missing in the Stronghold. Anyway, I thought I would do a feature article on the Isle of You in case anyone is looking for a great place to climb but is unfamiliar with the area.

[When I originally wrote this web page, I didn't know the name of the climb next to Baby Jr. get Spanked - so I referred to it as Baby Sr. Since then, I have received an e-mail from Mike Strassman (who put up most of the climbs at the Isle of You) clarifying the name along with other information about the area: "Baby Sr at the Isle of You is called Big Nosed Kate after the famous madam in Tombstone. It was ascended by myself and Jackie Carroll in the spring of 2000. The credit for the name 'Isle of You' goes to Elizabeth Ayres who borrowed the 'I love You' = 'Isle of You' concept from a Pretenders song."]

The first concern with climbing at the Stronghold in the summer is the heat - and it can get hot. However, the sun doesn't come over the walls at the Isle of You until about 11:30 in the morning. Before the sun hits, the air temperature is reasonable for climbing. Even in the sun, on most days the temperature is about ten degrees cooler than Tucson. There have been moderate days this summer where it is pleasant to climb, even after the sun has appeared.

The second concern with climbing at the Stronghold is the distance to the rocks. Although it sounds far, in reality, once you get to Interstate 10 you can really cover the distance to the Stronghold in a short period of time. It only takes about an hour and a half to get to the Isle of You from southeast Tucson. The speed limit on I-10 to Benson is 75 MPH, the speed limit on Highway 80 from Benson to Tombstone is 65 MPH, and I like to keep it at about 55 MPH for the 10 miles on Middle March Road. I have been leaving the house at 6:00 AM and I am climbing before 8:00 AM. That gives me about 3 hours and 30 minutes of climbing before things start heating up.

Bob Kerry, in his guidebook "Backcountry Rockclimbing in Southern Arizona" covers the Isle of You and gives directions on how to get there. I am not going to cover the material that Bob has in his guidebook - buy his book if you want all of the details on the Isle of You. I am going to provide supplemental information that is not contained in his guidebook - such as the two climbs that have been put up since the guidebook was published.

The Isle of You has several moderate and many difficult climbs. There are five climbs on the north wall that are truly under 5.10:

  1. O.K Corral - 5.7 hard
  2. Baby Jr. - 5.8
  3. Baby Jr. Gets Spanked - 5.6
  4. Big Nosed Kate - 5.8
  5. Rabbit's Feat - 5.9

The first three climbs are in Bob Kerry's guidebook and the last two climbs are new. Baby Jr. Gets Spanked is the rightmost climb in Bob Kerry's topo of the Isle of You. It ascends a black, water-worn streak on the right side of the wall right above a clump of trees (see the photos below). Big Nosed Kate is the first climb on the right of Baby Jr. Gets Spanked. It is fairly easy for the most part but does have a couple of tricky spots. It is on the order of 5.7 to 5.8.

Rabbit's Feat is to the right of Big Nosed Kate and is the rightmost climb on the north wall. It was put up on August 2, 2003 by Ben Burnham and is a nice climb. He found a partially decayed rabbit's foot at the top of the climb (see photo below) and thus the name. It starts out easy but gets more difficult as you ascend the wall. It has slabby Stronghold climbing on the top section and gets pretty thin. It is on the order of 5.8 to 5.9. The main criticism that I have of the climb is that it is too tall. If you belay from below the first bolt, the climb is about 8 feet too tall for a 60 meter rope. Be careful and watch the end of your rope on this climb. You can start the climb and belay from near the trees and have enough rope, but the natural tendency is to belay from below the first bolt.

There are two climbs on the north wall that Bob Kerry lists as being 5.9 - but may be more difficult:

  1. Cochise Toecheese - 5.9 if you go left at the crux according to Bob.
  2. Isle of You - 5.9

I haven't climbed Cochise Toecheese, but I was belaying for Joe when he took a nasty whipper on it - right after he did a 5.10b on-sight lead on Now It's My Turn. He tried going left at the crux, as Bob Kerry describes, and all it got him was a bigger whipper.

The climb Isle of You is a 5.9 climb with a 5.10c start. It has a tricky spot about four feet off the deck. If you are leading, falling here isn't too bad - you drop about four or five feet to the deck and then you are ready to try again. The bad part is for the second climber. Since the climb is very tall, the belayer must belay from the anchors. In addition, the climb traverses to the right to the first bolt. The net of this is that if the second falls, the rope is virtually useless in protecting the fall. The only thing it can do is jerk them to the right as they fall. This confounds what would normally be a small fall and makes an ankle twist or break likely.

All of the photos were taken on August 2, 2003. Joe and I left my house at 6:00 AM and arrived at the Isle of You a little before 8:00 AM. Ben Burhan was already there with Gordon, Rich, Vince and his wife Sheila. Since Mt. Lemmon has closed, the Isle of You has become Ben's favorite climbing spot and it sounds like he is there early almost every weekend. He has fixed the anchors on Baby Jr. gets Spanked and Now It's My Turn which really needed some improvement.

[Note: The phrase "Isle of You" sounds very similar to "I love you". This makes for an endless volley of lame family jokes which confuse the two phrases. A typical variation would go something like this: "Where do you want to go climbing?" "Isle of You." "I love you too, but where would you like to climb?" "Duh?"]

O.K. Corral sign O.K. Corral sign - three miles north of Tombstone on Highway 80. Right before the Middle March Road turnoff to the West Stronghold.
Middle March Road sign The "Middle March Road" sign - three miles north of Tombstone on Highway 80.
Middle March Road Middle March Road. Bob Kerry, in his guidebook "Backcountry Rockclimbing in Southern Arizona" calls this the "autobahn of dirt roads."
West Stronghold Sign Drive about 10 miles east on Middle March Road and then turn left at the sign for the West Stronghold. Go about 2 miles north and then turn right just after a cattle guard. Keep your eye out for the Isle of You on the right.
Sheepshead View of Sheepshead from the Sheepshead parking area.
Sheepshead Parking Area The Sheepshead parking area. Note Joe's new white Toyota truck - it has about 325 miles on it.
Isle of YouThe Isle of You from the parking lot. It is just a hop, skip, and a jump to get to the rocks.
Isle of You parking area The Isle of You parking area from the north wall.
Baby Jr. Gets Spanked Vince is leading Baby Jr. Gets Spanked and Rich Johnson is belaying. Baby Jr. Gets Spanked heads up the black water stain on the right side of the North wall. Note that this is labeled as the right climb in Bob Kerry's guidebook "Backcountry Rockclimbing in Southern Arizona". Two new climbs have been added to the right of this climb since the guidebook has come out.
Joe and Ben Joe telling Ben he is not going to move to New Zealand - he is going to Prescott instead. Gordon is hiding behind the tree at the base of Baby Jr. Gets Spanked
Belayers Vince belaying on Baby Jr. gets Spanked and Gordon belaying on Big Nosed Kate.
Rabbits Foot The grizzly rabbit's foot that Ben found at the top of Rabbit's Feat.
Isle of You Left to right is Gordon on Stone Woman, Sheila on Big Nosed Kate and Ben on Rabbit's Feat.
Isle of You Sheila (left) is on Big Nosed Kate and Ben is on Rabbit's Feat. Note the black water stain to the left of Sheila. Baby Jr. gets Spanked goes up this stain.
Ben Ben working on Rabbit's Feat.
Rabbit's Feat This foots attached on Rabbit's Feat.

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Revised: August 5, 2002