Climbing with Scott

On July 2, 2003, I went climbing with Scott Ayers in the Cochise Stronghold. I took several digital photos during the day, and I wanted to make these available to Scott. I was going to make a simple webpage with the photos so that he could easily download them, but I thought I might as well add some extra verbage and create a webpage that might be of interest to the general climbing audience (Note that all of the photos contain links to the full-sized photos).

Climbing with Scott is a full day event. He picked me up at 5:00 am and dropped me off at 10:00 pm. We decided to climb in the West Stronghold since the Aspen Fire was blazing on Mt. Lemmon. Scott also had a couple of projects that he wanted to finish in the Stronghold. The Stronghold elevation is lower than Mt. Lemmon, the temperatures are hotter, but at least we would be climbing.

The early hike into the Sheep's Head area was pleasant with Sheep's Head providing shade during the strenuous uphill hike. We unloaded the packs beneath the first project of the day. Scott had put up the first pitch (5.9+) of a future two pitch route with Joe Dalmas during the previous week - a beautiful 160' climb that started up an arete and then headed out onto a face. He wanted to finish the second pitch and complete the climb. He estimated that the second pitch would be shorter, about 50 feet, and probably would require no more than five bolts.

He geared up and took off on the first pitch just before 8:00 am. I followed him and had a great time climbing the first pitch. When I got to the belay, I changed into my approach shoes and settled in, preparing for some heavy drilling and belaying. Scott took off and began his work - drilling holes and installing bolts. After about an hour of bolt and anchor placement, it became apparent that Scott had underestimated the height of the second pitch. Rather than being about 50' tall, it topped out at about 110'. A consequence of this underestimate was that Scott didn't bring enough bolts.

After he got the anchors set on the second pitch, he rappelled down, drilling the additional bolt holes that would be required. He then rappelled off the first set of anchors, drilling extra holes on the way down. He had decided to add about four extra bolts to the first pitch.

All the while, I was hanging at the first belay. It was a fairly good belay stance, but after a while my feet started to get sore. There were plenty of nub and bumps, so I could move the position of my feet. But with time, the soreness accumulated, and I was moving my feet quite frequently - almost doing a little dance. When Scott started doing the drilling on rappel, I was able to sink into the harness and just hang there. The warm morning sun and the fantastic view were very soothing, lulling me into a trance-like state. However, after several minutes, the pain of the harness digging into my waist brought me back to reality. It was time to start dancing again...

When we took off initially, the rock was in the shade, and it appeared that it was going to be in the shade for a long time. After a couple of hours, the sun came over the top of the rock, straight over the route. I had no sunglasses, no sunscreen, and was looking directly into the sun while I was belaying Scott. Besides toasting me and Scott, it was heating up the rock...

Scott climbed back up the first pitch on top rope, bringing the needed bolts. When he arrived at the first belay, he hung there in his harness. His feet were killing him, and he needed to get the weight off his feet for a moment. He broke his left ankle in January while he was free-soloing Community Service at Milagrosa, and his ankle hadn't fully recovered (note the mis-matched shoes in the photos - the left one has a cut-out heel). After a brief break, he took off, adding the final bolts to the route. When he finished all the bolting, he returned to the belay and prepared for the red-point and first ascent of the route. He was concerned that with the heat and being tired, he might not make it on the first attempt, and he didn't want to have to try more than once...

He fired the route cleanly and was delighted. I followed. I did well but did come off at the crux. I put too much force on a small crease, and it crumbled under my fingers - and off I came. The route was slab the entire way, and it put a tremendous amount of pressure on the feet. When combined with the heat, my feet were smoking when I got to the top - but I had a blast on the climb anyway. It is incredibly fun climbing on Stronghold slab. Scott estimated the difficulty of the second pitch at 5.10B.

We rappelled from the second belay to the first belay (a two rope rappel - about 110'), and then I rappelled to the ground (another two rope rappel - about 160'). Scott rappelled along the first pitch and added the new bolts. The climb was finished. We left the ground at about 8:00 and returned to the base at about 1:00 - five hours on the climb in the July sun. Physically, I felt good having climbed only two pitches, but mentally, I was drained. I'd spent too much time in the sun and heat. It didn't seem to bother Scott much though...

Scott on the first ascent of the second pitch

Scott leading the second pitch. Note the mismatched shoes and the cut-out heel on the left one.

At the top of the second pitch

Scott at the top of the second pitch.

Adding bolts to the first pitch

Adding bolts to the first pitch on rappel.

Mystery of the Desert

Mystery of the Desert

After a brief break for lunch and to organize the gear, Scott was ready to tackle Mystery of the Desert. Scott and Mike Strassman had put up the route about 18 years ago, and Scott had been making some improvements. At the end of the second pitch, there is a feature which is referred to as the Wedge. Previously, the second pitch was finished by squeezing through the wedge - more akin to spelunking than rock climbing. Scott has added a couple of bolts around the wedge, so now it is possible to get over the wedge via chimney-like climbing. It basically gives the climber a choice: climb or squeeze. He also added a new set of belay anchors on the other side of the Wedge.

The third pitch contained a section of scrambling upwards along a ledge that is filled with trees and vegegation - a section referred to as the Veg. Previously, the pitch was done by thrashing your way through the brush and vegetation. Scott added three bolts to the slab along the outside edge of the the Veg, making it possible to climb through this section. It is very exposed along the north side of this new section, making for very invigorating, airy climbing on low-angle slab.

Historically, the fourth pitch could be broken into three sections: 1. a fine jam crack that heads up a face for about thirty feet - at a 45 degree angle, 2. a thirty foot, unprotected horizontal traverse to a bolt with a Leeper hanger, and 3. a thirty foot vertical, unprotected slab climb to the summit. Essentially, there was sixty feet of climbing that was protected by a single bolt with a Leeper hanger. Mike Strassman originally led this pitch and he showed incredible nerve doing so. Scott and Mike originally rated the pitch 5.9. Scott thought that Mike struggled a little with the route at the end because of severe rope drag and Scott didn't find the easiest path when he followed, he just went straight up - thus the 5.9 rating. Upon further review, Scott thought the pitch is actually closer to 5.8 or 5.8+ and I would agree with him.

Scott has made several improvements to the fourth pitch. He started by putting a two-bolt belay at the location of the bolt with the Leeper hanger, breaking the old fourth pitch into two new pitches. On the new fourth pitch, he added a bolt at the start and added a bolt on the horizontal traverse (see the second photo below). This makes the horizontal traverse a lot less scary for both the leader and the follower. On the new fifth pitch, he added two bolts above the belay. This makes a nice, short slab climb to level terrain and the origianl finish of Mystery of the Desert.

When Scott was previously making the improvements to Mystery of the Desert as described above, he noticed another 80' wall behind the original finish of Mystery of the Desert. With his partner, they climbed this wall to the very summit of the Muttonhead formation. Scott wanted to add a two-bolt belay at the top of this wall and add some bolts to the route to make it safer. That was the final mission of the day - make Mystery of the Desert a six pitch climb.

We reached the base of the new sixth pitch about 5:20 pm. Scott scrambled around to the left and got to the summit. He drilled two holes and created a two-bolt belay and rappelled off the top. Next, he climbed the route on top-rope and marked where he wanted the bolts to be. Then he drilled the holes on rappel and installed four new bolts and bolt hangers. When he finished, it was about 6:20 pm - time to get off the rock. The entire time we were working on the sixth pitch, we were keeping an eye on the time. Scott asked me if I had brought a head-lamp with me and I answered, "No." He said, "Don't ever come to the Stronghold without bringing your head-lamp." I think he really meant, "Don't ever climb with me without bringing your head-lamp!"

The improvements Scott has made to Mystery of the Desert has made it into a very nice climb. Bob Kerry, in his guidebook Backcountry Rockclimbing in Southern Arizona, gave Mystery of the Desert a two star, 5.9 rating. With the new improvements, it looks like a three star, 5.8 to 5.8+ route to me. A stronghold classic for the moderate leader.

Anyway, we made it back to our packs about 7:20 pm and we loaded up and headed out... It was just getting dark as he made it back to Scott's Suburban. There were no wild west incidents on the way out and I got home about 10:00 at night. When I got home, I plopped down on the couch, took off my shoes, and put my feet up. I just sat there exhausted. My feet tingled... Another full day of climbing with Scott...

Working on anchors

Scott working on the anchors at the new belay at the top of the fourth pitch. If you click on the link above and expand the photo, you can clearly see the jam crack with the gear hanging out of it and the thirty foot horizontal traverse.

Scott at fourth belay

Scott at the new fourth belay. Note that the bolt in the foreground is new.

Adding bolts to the sixth pitch

Scott adding bolts to the new sixth pitch.

Scott at the top of alternate finish

If you climb straight up from the jam crack on the fourth pitch, you will come to a window in the rock - about thirty feet of unprotected 5.10 climbing from the top of the jam crack. Maybe Scott will add a belay and some bolts on this route so us ordinary humans can enjoy a spectacular finish to the fourth pitch...

View towards Tombstone

The view towards Tombstone from the sixth pitch. I believe the haze is from the Aspen Fire on Mt. Lemmon.

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Copyright ©: 2003, RAHutchins
Revised: July 4, 2003