If you ever had to carry a bucket of paint to the top of a water tower to defend your sister’s honor….you might be a redneck blared Jeff Foxworthy on the subcompact’s substandard audio system. We were speeding down I15 in southern Utah – the subcompact seemingly rattling itself apart. Straining to maintain the 85 mph my lead foot was imposing on it. Its trunk filled with 300 pounds of climbing gear including some heavy metal aid junk. Shirley sleeping in the passenger seat next to me and me… I was laughing my ass off listening to the cd we picked up at the last gas stop. Every once in a while I would glance up through the windshield looking at the black sky – straining to see some stars. Nothing. Just milky clouds.
Just this morning as we were packing up for the evening flight to Salt Lake City we had no idea where we would head to from there. The NOAA forecast was just shitty for the entire southwestern US. The weatherman pointed to a fluke of nature – a 50 degree contour crossing the far eastern South Dakota a day before New Year’s Eve. “Let’s go back to Devils Tower” I hollered to Shirley getting ready for work. “It’s hot there!!” I kept on checking the weather website throughout the day at work. Rapid City temperatures for the following day did not look quite so promising – low 20’s. Moab – our “plan A” destination had 70-90 % chance of precipitation for the foreseeable future; Vegas and Red Rocks sucked too. It looked grim. Just five days ago over the 4-day Christmas weekend we had the most incredible stretch of two days – two unexpected days – in Moab. It was our first trip there. 28 hours of round trip driving from Portland for two full days of climbing – a bargain! Two cold but sunny days; two classic routes. I even forgot how pissed off we were after our trusty digicam refused service two pitches up Stolen Chimney route thus denying us the oh-so classic shot atop the summit spire (I had the whole summit pose set up in my mind – nudity, umbrella and all). We topped out but no pictures!
Mad rush down the muddy formation and back to town to find a camera store on the afternoon of Christmas Eve ensued. I blocked the door with my foot as they guy was closing down the Radio Shack. Being able to get a decent digicam on the evening of Christmas Eve in Moab, Utah could almost make me a believer!! Castleton Tower via Kor-Ingalls route was probably the greatest way that we could think of to end the year.
And it happened the following day!
Two days in Moab that spoiled us with incredible climbing. And we were supposed to get four more days the following weekend! The climbing possibilities were endless.
These thoughts flowed through my sleepy head as I sped out of Vegas heading for the tourist trap known as Hoover Dam. It was my goal to cross this barrier at night -late at night to avoid the damn traffic jams. Driving through the night after a full day of work is easy – anything under 400 miles is almost trivial; 800 miles is doable. Driving through the night after an evening flight is just hard for me. Five hundred miles from Salt Lake I pulled into a Shell station in Kingman, Arizona at about 4am. It’s not that I couldn’t drive further – it’s just that I did not see the point of it. We would not be climbing today anyway. Might as well sleep.
The sound of the station attendant tossing out garbage woke us up at about 7am. We grabbed a cup of coffee from a local mom-and-pop place (I’m all for supporting these charming little businesses but I have yet to find one that can brew a semi decent cup of coffee) and headed for Phoenix. NPR provided the local forecasts: Sedona – no good; Grand Canyon – no good. “Shit!!” We pressed on further south. The sky brightened up just north of Tucson. Our gamble and our long drive investment seemed to be paying off. We were heading for our “plan G” (or was it “H”) destination: Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains of southeastern Arizona. A mere 920 mile drive from Salt Lake. None of this mattered. According to our estimates we would have 3 days of climbing. And looking up at the sky I thought to myself that those would be SUNNY days of climbing!!
We shot the breeze with a local climber at the shop in Tucson. He gave us good beta and whetted our appetites for granite domes with his tales of climbing in the Stronghold. Got a cheap motel room in Benson. After a night of hearing the neighbors making the most out of their call girl deal, we woke up and headed for the West Stronghold.
Easy approach with just a touch of head scratching near the base of Whale Dome put us at the start of Moby Dick – a 6 pitch area classic rated 5.8 that we thought would be a good break-in route for us…. as apparently did a party of three already relaxing at the base when we got there.
In a gesture of generosity we have not previously experienced, these guys offered to let us go first (many thanks!) claiming that they’ve never done a multi-pitch climb with a party of 3 before. As we were rushing to gear up, a party of four arrived at the base. Seven pairs of eyes were now on me as I started up the first (and crux) pitch of the route. A couple of grunts later I was above a bolt and moving past the short crux with no hint of gracefulness.
Upper pitches went quickly.
We ended up doing the route in four pitches with some simulclimbing (could be easily done in three stretched out pitches). The climbing was mostly easy and secure. The rock was warm, the sun was shining and the sky was blue.
We forgot the pains it took to get down here. We were back at the base at about noon socializing with the climbers of the party of four.
With a more ambitious plan for day 2, we headed back to the car to check out the trailhead (and the dome) for our next climb.
The following morning as I swung open the motel room door at 4:30 in the morning I saw a grizzly sight: rain! Steady, hopeless rain! We actually made the 45 minute drive to the trailhead hoping for a miracle. Rain got harder. The sky was densely overcast in every direction. Our luck had run out. NOAA website showed no more windows. Desperate to get at least one more day of climbing, we took the 60% odds for bad weather and headed back towards Red Rocks. The clear evening sky over Vegas suckered us in further. We geared up and went to sleep. Morning was dry but severely overcast. 60%-expected snow followed by rain hit us half an hour into the approach hike. The climbing was over. Four days, 1400 miles by air, and 2000 miles by car to do 6-…no wait…4-pitch Moby Dick. Was it worth it?