Climbing and Birding in Arizona

I guess it is only human nature to dwell on now faded, but warm and fuzzy memories of rock climbing, instead of focusing entirely on all of our wonderful winter activities revolving around our famous “white smoke” here in Jackson Hole. Such thoughts should be banned since we are currently in one of the best winters for backcountry skiing that we have seen in several years (the winter of 03-04). Thoughts of warm rock and sunny days, as well as snow free hiking and birding for something other than chickadees and goldeneye ducks, are strong incentives to look southward. I have made variations of this trip before, and will undoubtedly do it many more times in the future. In summary, I blast out of Jackson on a good day; hoping for a minimal distance of nasty roads, and pleasant drive to Zion National Park. Zion offers an attractive campground and there are a number of trails or climbing routes that can be used as therapy to overcome the effects of the previous day in the car.

 

The next dash southward is towards Arizona’s Sonoran Desert with its promises of warmth and sunshine. Depending on the total time of the planned trip I can find places along the way to waste minutes, hours, or days; but my real goal is Tucson and beyond. Tucson’s Mt. Lemmon has always drawn me in for at least several days of climbing. However, last year’s fire there may have caused some problems and I will have to investigate. Mt Lemmon is an area near Tucson offering many, many climbs, both traditional and sport, on a good granitic rock. Expect to spend some time being lost at first, as there are a bewildering number of separate crags crowded together on steep slopes. When climbing there, opportunities abound to visit with other local climbers, since I am forever asking others about where I am versus where I think I am. It is usually a very humbling interaction, but I manage to make it worthwhile by getting updates on the popular Mexican eateries and such local tidbits. One thing about these pleasantries which constantly amazes me: when asked the “what and where” of my trip I always mentioned Cochise Stronghold and Baboquivari Peak and am surprised by the universality of their response, which is essentially “Oh, I have always wanted to go to those places.” Hell, they live in Arizona and I have to come a thousand miles and will continue to do so.

 

Baboquivari Peak is about 60 miles SW of Tucson. Although I am not one to wax poetic about spirituality, I can understand why the Tohono O’odham Indians hold the mountain to be sacred. Even without a climbing motive, I find the surrounding countryside beckoning. Although the mountain offers a number of Grade VI climbs on its east face, I find a couple of routes more compelling (and they certainly are more in my ability range): They are the classic 5.6 SE Arête and the 5.8 Don’s Crack. They are 7 and 10 pitches long, respectively, and should be considered adventure climbing as opposed to sport climbing. Don’s Crack hosts a lovely poison ivy plant, which can be bypassed via a delicate stem; but because the rope will go through the bush, people who are very sensitive to this plant should consider not doing this route or making sure they are adequately protected when handling the rope afterwards. If not, you may have intimate knowledge about where you put your fingers that day. Such lessons seldom come cheaply. Nonetheless, it really is a great climb and well worth doing. These climbs can be approached on either side. The east side has a road that may require a more rugged vehicle, but one can get much of the altitude out of the way with a car. The rest of the approach is relatively non-trailed and one risks bleeding to death by cactus. The west side has a trail that starts in a rather dirty and ill-maintained campground, but it has the advantage of being a quick trail to the base of the mountain. Also, in spite of the trash, it has good birding habitat. I don’t think that I have ever gone anywhere up on the mountain without getting a little bit disoriented, not knowing exactly where I want to go, and having to poke around for a good route or the right direction.

 

Cochise Stronghold is in the Dragoon Mountains and consists of two areas the East Stronghold and the West Stronghold. The areas are flanked by the towns of Willcox and Tombstone, AZ. The west area is much wilder that the east side, but more routes seem to exist on the east side and the approaches certainly seem tamer there also. Innocent climbers need to beware of the Arizona boys (and perhaps girls) who climbed there first. They set high standards and must have climbed in a very confident manner, considering the dearth of protection on some of their climbs. Both short climbs and multi-pitched ones abound, although I prefer the longer multi-pitched climbs as they seem more in character with the place and its history. Another warning should be entered, one pertaining to birds. The authorities close seasonally the area around Rockfellow Dome and the area around What’s My Line because of nesting falcons in the spring.

 

On the approaches there, I entertain myself with trying to find some of the many examples of Indian art and, of course being a bird nerd, I am always stopping and whipping out my binos to look for unknown birds. This proclivity of mine really tests my partner’s patience, but the quality of the climbs seems to be worth it to them to put up with my idiosyncratic behaviors. Back to climbing: A list of climbs that I enjoy or climbs that I think I would enjoy would include the all time great What’s My Line(5.6, A0), The Wasteland (5.8), Beeline(5.9R), and Abracadaver (5.11)(this is the one that I think I would enjoy assuming that I can get past the 5.9 off-width which might well be the crux of the 5/11 climb). The rock where Abracadaver is, Rockfellow Dome, has a number of other climbs which look very nice. On the west side Moby Dick (5.8) and Warpaint (5.10c) are both outstanding routes. As I said before, this side is more remote, primitive, and the approaches can be adventures in themselves.

 

This short list really doesn’t do justice to Arizona climbing. Sedona and Oak Creek have quite a lot of climbing. If anyone is looking for an exciting climb, consider the original route on the Mace, near Sedona. It was done in 1957 by TM Herbert, Rearick, and Bob Kamps. While you are clambering over the poor quality rock, just imagine doing so with lesser shoes and without any of those huge cams! And if the bolt at the top crux falls out, as it did when we bypassed it, just stuff it back in its hole for the next party. And, of course, it is obligatory to try to get your partner to jump back down over the gap on the decent as was done on the first ascent, especially if you can get him to do it and you can avoid doing it yourself. Beware jumping the gap wearing tight climbing shoes. I have been told that it really hurts. And I can’t believe that he really did jump. Just looking at it scared me, and the thought of ….. Yikes!

 

May I digress here for a moment for a moral consideration? When I was clutching the afore-mentioned bolt, I was possessed by a need to possess that bolt. It had, if I remember correctly, a hanger made from an early Lost Arrow (?) and had T.M.’s initials stamped on it. Oh, how I wanted it for my collection. But reflecting on how much fun it was to happen upon it, I thought I had best leave it where it was – a living climbers’ museum where future climbers could happen upon it, feel the same joy and fear, and reflect how it was in the “old days” I only hope that the future climbers concur and act in a similar manner.

 

Below I listed a few of the area climbing guide books that might be of interest to climbers.

 

  • Rock Climber’s Guide to Sedona & Oak Creek Canyon
  • Castles in the Sand (another Sedona & Oak Creek guide)
  • A CheapWay do Die (also a Sedona area guide)
  • Rock Climbing Arizona – a Falcon Guide
  • Paradise Forks Rock Climbing (sort of a traditional sport climbing area, does that make sense?)
  • Jack’s Canyon Guide (a sport area, lots of short, well protected climbs)
  • Backcountry Climbing in Arizona by Bob Kerry
  • Squeezing the Lemmon II
  • Desert Rock-Rock Climbs in the National Parks (this is for Zion, just in case)

 

If more time, money, and energy still exists, consider a less direct trip back through back through Joshua Tree and Red Rocks at Las Vegas to experience a couple of other great climbing areas. Then, of course, the way back might include the Virgin Gorge, Snow Canyon; oh, the list seems endless. This might be the time to check out a climber’s traveling bible: “Rock N Road” just to make sure you do not accidentally go past a good climbing experience. This could turn into the ENDLESS CLIMBING ROAD TRIP!

 

If your interests include things other than climbing, such as hiking and/or birding; a little effort and research will reward you with many great areas for these activities. The American birding community views this general area of Arizona as one of the great birding areas because of the many Mexican species not seen elsewhere in the U.S. Now, just where did I leave my skis, shovel, and avalanche beacon? Even if I wasted the last of the winter powder, I still will have the corn.

  • Photo courtesy of summitpost.org

Too Cold for Mountaineering? How to Spend Your Winter

For most climbers, cold weather comes with the terrain—literally. Depending on personal experience, the length of the trip, and your general health, low temperatures may prove prohibitive for stretches of the winter season. While there is no consensus on “how cold is too cold,” many climbers won’t camp out if temperatures are lower than –10F. However, temperature isn’t the only factor to consider when deciding to head out on a cold day. Moisture, wind, and cloud cover are all essential to make smart, informed climbing decisions.

 

If you decide to head out in subzero weather, you should take several safety precautions. First, you should check for avalanche warnings in your climbing area. The Bridger Teton Avalanche Center has updated information for those looking to plan winter and spring excursions. Second, you should provide several people with your itinerary. Though it is always smart to alert friends and family to your whereabouts, cold weather presents additional chances for danger. Finally, you must dress for the occasion, wearing several layers of moisture-wicking material, as well as the appropriate equipment.

 

While some might feel comfortable venturing out into the cold, others will want to seek out alternative activities. If you’re looking for substitutes to climbing on cold winter days, consider picking up a pair of skis and exploring the powder. In the Teton Range, you’ll have a couple of alpine options to choose from: resort skiing and backcountry skiing. Each presents its own benefits and disadvantages, but both are sure to provide an excellent time.

 

Resort Skiing—Regardless of weather, conditions, or skill, you’re nearly guaranteed a run or two at a ski resort. Resort skiing is a safe and popular option among winter sport enthusiasts. If the weather turns sour, you’re never more than a few minutes away from the safety and security of the lodge. Plus, the Teton Range has several impressive ski resorts to choose from. Though you won’t experience the thrill of discovery that you might while climbing, resort skiing can pack an adrenaline punch.

 

Backcountry Skiing—Similar to mountaineering, backcountry skiing incorporates aspects of other outdoor activities: hiking and climbing. Backcountry skiers explore unmarked and unpatrolled areas of the wilderness. However, backcountry skiing is significantly more dangerous than resort skiing; only experienced winter athletes should attempt this type of skiing in the Teton winters.

 

Discover a Love of Winter Sports

Whether you want a break from the wall or simply can’t justify heading out on a multi-day climb, the Teton range has additional winter sports options you may want to consider. Perfect for every ability level and preferred experience, skiing the Tetons is one of the best alternatives to climbing available.

 

Is There a Climbing Season?

Climbers and mountaineers are known for their ruggedness. Weather will rarely dissuade a passionate climber from scaling a wall, and even the coldest conditions are overcome by the most determined mountaineers. However, some seasons—especially in the United States—present better climbing conditions than others. Though mountaineering may not have a clear-cut season, there are months where visitors flock to parts of the world to climb famous peaks.

 

So, what does that season look like? In the Tetons, summer and fall are the most popular mountaineering seasons. Climbing the Grand Teton, a fourteen-mile trip, is most popular in late August and September. While July and early August present excellent climbing weather, these months experience severe afternoon thunderstorms; if mountaineers want to climb Grand Teton in July, they should plan to summit before 1:00PM, which will allow time to descend before lightning starts to hit the peak.

 

Though August and September are the most popular climbing months in the Tetons, nearly every season has something to offer. Winter Grand Teton ascents are difficult but popular, whereas springtime presents a felicitous opportunity for both climbing and skiing. Nearly every climb will present advantages and challenges in different seasons. That said, if you’re planning to visit the Tetons to climb, reflect on your personal experience and general climbing knowledge; if anything about a season’s weather makes you uncomfortable, opt for a different month. Luckily, the Tetons are an excellent place to visit regardles of season.

 

Explore Options Outside of the Tetons

If you’re a veteran mountaineer looking for an additional challenge, you might begin looking outside the United States for new opportunities. If you’ve grown tired of the Tetons (we’re skeptical of this claim), you’ll likely need to adapt to a new seasonal cycle. Check out this helpful mountaineering calendar to see when you should climb the world’s greatest mountains.

Top Three Best Teton Views

The Teton Range has some of the most beautiful landscape views in the country. As you plan your mountaineering trip, you’ll likely want to structure your climbs around ability and available views. However, you don’t need to be an expert mountaineer to experience a breathtaking glimpse of the Teton Range. Below, we have our three favorite, easy-access views of and within the Tetons.

 

Phelps Lake—The 1,106-acre Laurence S. Rockefeller Preserve is nestled on the shore of Phelps Lake, a stunningly clear body of water surrounded by forest and shrouded in mist. The 7.2-mile round-trip hike will bring you around the Lake itself, allowing hikers to catch some of the most beautiful views available of the Teton Range. The hike begins with a short walk to reach the Laurence S. Rockefeller Visitor Center, then leads through the dense, mixed forest. This is also an excellent spot for photographic the area’s beautiful wildflowers.

 

Snake River Overlook—The Snake River Overlook is one of the best places to catch a sunrise or a sunset. Made famous by Ansel Adams, this view has everything you want in a wildlife photo—regardless of season or time of day. The dramatic overlook provides views of the Snake River flowing along the Teton Mountains, allowing visitors to better grasp their size and height. After the sunset hike and photograph session, spend the rest of your day floating down the river.

 

Mormon Row—Mormon Row is home to the famous Moulton Barn, one of the most photographed structures in the Teton Range. The Barn, built in the early 20th century, has become an unofficial symbol of Jackson Hole. The man-made structure contrasted with the towering mountains in the background makes for one of the most memorable views of the Tetons available.

Teton Mountaineering Safety List

Most adventure sports come with a bit of danger, but mountaineering presents a new level of threat—especially in the Teton Range. As a result, even the most experienced mountaineers should double- and triple-check their gear packs. If you’re preparing for a big Teton Trip, you may even want to upgrade some of your equipment. Below, we have listed the ten essential pieces of safety gear along with some of our favorite products on the market.

 

Navigation—Even if you’ve climbed a certain trail before, you should never be without a map, compass, and/or GPS. Area maps are available at visitor centers and in trail books throughout the range, and your phone will be able to provide a compass and GPS. However, you should also carry a manual compass in the event of an emergency. We like this simple wrist compass from Suunto.

 

Sun Protection—The Tetons are known for their bald faces and treeless walls. No matter where you’re hiking or climbing, you’ll need some form of sun protection. Keep sunscreen and sunglasses with you at all times.

 

Insulation—When day turns to night in the Teton Range, temperatures plummet into dangerous territory. If you’re out on the trail, you need to be prepared. We like this Patagonia Puff Hoody—it’s ultralightweight, water-resistant, and provides down-like warmth.

 

First-Aid Supplies—Mountaineers should always be prepared for an emergency. As a result, you should always keep a basic first-aid kit in your pack. We like this Medical Kit from Adventure Medical Kits. Equipped with trauma pads, elastic bandages, medications for allergic reactions, pain, and fever, and hospital-quality shears and precision forceps, this small kit has everything you need to mitigate a dangerous situation.

 

Hydration—Hydration is of utmost importance while climbing in the Teton Range. Opt for an insulated hydration system to ensure temperature-controlled water. We like the Skarab 24 Hydration Pack from Osprey; the 2.5 liter reservoir features an extra-wide clip for easy access, cleaning, and refills. If you’re embarking on an extended trip, consider bringing along a Water Filter Kit or Purification Tablets.

 

Don’t Take Safety for Granted

While the novice mountaineer may risk getting in over their heads, veteran mountaineers also have a risk of growing overconfident and over-learning lessons that may backfire in unusual situations. We’re not about judging, and there’s no way to be 100% safe, but stay diligent and mindful while exploring the Tetons or other mountain ranges.

Five Can’t-Miss Locations in the Teton Range

Most of you are reading this because you love mountaineering. Sure, the Teton Range has some of the best climbing and hiking in the country—but that’s not all this beautiful landscape has to offer. The Range has hidden waterfalls, stunning lakes, and one-of-a-kind places to spot wildlife. Below, we have detailed our five favorite off-the-beaten-path destinations for when you want a break from scrambling up the rock face.

 

  1. Antelope Flats Road—This is one of the best places to spot wildlife. Antelope Flats Road leads to Mormon Row, the famous location of the Moulton Barn. Most of the path is gravel and dirt, but drivers can find several parking areas to take pictures as they traverse the plains. The most commonly-spotted animal is buffalo, but if you see one, don’t get out of your car; take as many pictures as you’d like, but do your best to keep the animal calm. Though the buffalo in this area may be more accustomed to people, they may still charge if they feel threatened.

 

  1. Taggart Lake—If you’re new to the Range, this is an excellent first hike. The easy trail will take you through some of the best lakes and views the Teton Range has to offer. Additionally, hikers often spot moose and bears along the trail. Though this is a relatively busy hiking area, the lake itself is huge; you’ll be able to spread out and enjoy the solitude once you reach water. At just three miles round-trip, this is a family-friendly loop—and perfect for cross-country skiing in the winter.

 

  1. String Lake—This lake offers some of the most stunning views of the Teton Range. The water is shallow and warm while the bottom is sandy and safe. If you’re looking for a break from the high-adrenaline thrills of mountaineering, rent a kayak or paddleboard and spend the day up here. The best lounging spots are on the trail up toward Leigh Lake—generally around a half of a mile away from the parking area.

 

  1. Schwabacher’s Landing—Another favorite among wildlife viewers, Schwabacher’s Landing offers incomparable views, a gorgeous body of water, and opportunities to see beaver, moose, and bear. A tiny trail, just past the US-191 turnoff for Moose/Jenny Lake, will bring you down to the water. From there, follow the river to a large beaver pond. Don’t forget your camera!

 

  1. Jenny Lake Scenic Drive—Sometimes, you want to take a break from the climbing, jump in the car, and drive around with the windows down. For those days, there’s the Jenny Lake Scenic Drive–a one-way road snaking around Jenny Lake. This is the best place to snap photos of Jenny Lake with mountains in the background. The scenic road is accessible from the Moose Entrance Station; about ten miles north, you’ll see a road to North Jenny Lake.

 

The Holocene History of the Teton Range

Climbing and mountaineering foster a sense of love and appreciation for nature. Understanding the history of this titanic range is part of its lure; knowing where these towering peaks come from is necessary for a wholly fulfilling climbing experience.

 

Humans have inhabited the Tetons for more than 11,000 years. The first humans were migratory hunter-gatherers who spent summer months in Jackson Hole and winter months in valleys west of the Teton Range. White American explorers first entered the region in the very early 19th century. They encountered the Shoshone people, who lived in the mountains of the greater Yellowstone region. At the same time, the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed well north of the Grand Teton region, bringing fur trade as they travelled to the Pacific Ocean. One map suggests the expedition entered the Teton Range from the northeast, crossing the Continental Divide at Togwotee Pass or Union Pass.

 

John Coulter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, broke off early from the group in order to engage in fur trading. He is widely considered to be the first “mountain man,” and he stayed in the area for the profitable fur trapping. The region was known for its high number of beavers and other fur-bearing animals. This industry formed the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in the mid-1802s, which was overseen by David Edward “Davey” Jackson—one of the area’s many namesakes.

 

The first U.S. Government-sponsored expedition was the Raynolds Expedition of 1860. They were charged with exploring the Yellowstone region, but encountered difficulties in crossing mountain passes due to snow. Shortly thereafter, Yellowstone National Park was established (1872), and by the close of the 19th century, conservationists were advocating to expand the boundaries to include the Teton Range. After congressional approval, President Calvin Coolidge signed the executive order establishing Grand Teton National Park in February of 1929.

 

Mountaineering Terminology 101

As with most adventure sports, mountaineering comes with its own language. From essential gear names to types of terrain, it is imperative to have your fundamental terms memorized before embarking on a trip—especially if that trip is in the Tetons. Below are a few important terms to prepare for your first few days on the wall.

 

Anchor—This is the point at which the rope is secured to snow, ice, or rock, providing protection against a fall. Any individual anchor point must be able to hold a fall.

 

Approach—The nontechnical section of a climb that leads to the technical part.

 

Belay—A safety technique wherein a stationary climber provides protection by means of ropes, anchors, and breaking devices or techniques. This is meant to help and stabilize the ascending or descending partner.

 

Boulder—A climb on a difficult but short rock pitch. A potential fall is of minimal consequence.

 

Cairn—A pile of rock or wood used to mark a particular route.

 

Carabiner—An aluminum device (of various shapes) with a spring-loaded gate. Climbers must thread the climbing rope through the carabiner to connect to protection or to provide connections with an anchor.

 

Edging—A climbing technique wherein the edges of the climbing shoes are used to stand on small footholds.

 

Free climb—A climb using only one’s hands and feet; without artificial aids.

 

Free solo—A free climb without a belay rope.

 

Headwall—The upper section of a mountain where the terrain is steeper.

 

Pitch—A section of climbing between two belay points.

 

Scramble—Easy, unprotected climbing.

 

Scree—Small, loose rocks. This is difficult to ascend.

 

Mountaineering vs. Rock Climbing Terminology

Given that mountaineering includes navigating and surviving mountainous conditions–as well as rock climbing–it’s no surprise that this is an incomplete list. Our glossary of mountaineering terminology is still a work in progress. Looking for more information specifically about the terminology of rock climbing? Here’s a good video you can watch: