My boot skidded across the muddy slope and I lurched sideways, narrowly avoiding a yucca that would’ve punched a good-sized hole in my calf. Right hand clinging to a stout manzanita branch, I stopped the slide and hauled myself another foot or two upward. My left foot found purchase on a tiny foothold that snapped off a second later; once again I found myself slipping downward, all weight hanging from my right arm. Lunging up, I managed to grab another branch – crunching noises came as pieces of it stabbed into my arm and snapped off. I pulled up again, wet boots sketching over the slickrock. Made a clumsy mantle to the top of the ledge. Rested for a second and gazed up at the wall in front of me.
This is what climbing in Sedona is like.
If it weren’t so absolutely incredible, Sedona would be one of the worst places to climb in the world. Hell, it IS one of the worst places to climb in the world. If you’re only talking about the quality of the rock, I mean. But when you’re running it out on some disgusting offwidth, twenty feet above your last piece (which would probably tear out if you fell on it anyway), I can’t think of a more beautiful spot to be in trouble.
Which doesn’t necessarily make things any better when you ARE in trouble.
But it certainly helps out when you’re not.
It was a bright, sunny winter day and I was heading for the summit of an imposing butte marked on the map only as 6634. There are many unnamed spires and peaks in Seonda like this; the steepness and abruptness of the cliffs here means that you can often find several separate summits within an area that’s only three miles square. 6634’s own summit is within a few miles of a trail (as the proverbial crow flies), but so protected by sheer cliffs that there’s no evident way to reach it.
I’d reached the base of the first set of cliffs. 6634 has two such walls, stacked on top of each other. You can see it in the picture: the first sandstone cliff is a couple hundred feet high; above that is a sloping area with vegetation and more redrock – sort of a plateau atop the first level. And above that, the second wall, much higher than the first and towering imposingly above it. I guessed that this one would present me with the biggest problem.
For a while, it seemed I wouldn’t even solve the challenge of the first wall. For an hour or so I circumnavigated the butte, looking in vain for a way up. But the walls stayed sheer, and the few cracks and breaks in the cliff always seemed to be overhanging or holdless. I found what looked to be a site with an Indian ruin, but there wasn’t much there and it could easily have been constructed by modern-day Americans rather than ancient natives. Not far past this spot, I got cliffed out and had to turn around. I’d try the other side of the butte.
Here, there was a way up; a break in the cliffs. It was choked with nasty, spiky, hard cacti and other vegetation that Sedona is legendary for, but it went. A huge agave opened a bloody gash in my left arm, but other than that I was able to struggle to the top of the break unscathed. It went at 3rd/4th class or so, and I marked the spot with a cairn.
Hiking over the sloping plateau was fairly easy, although I did have to backtrack once or twice when I ran into cllifs. Here I found a second ruin site, built under a sandstone overhang like the first. Most of the ruins here are Sinagua – a native people who lived in the area some eight or nine hundred years ago and left a number of cliff dwellings. The name comes from the Spanish “sin agua,” due to these people’s ability to live in an area where there was often little or no water.
When I first hiked in Sedona, you could still find relics in the ruins – pottery, ancient corn, and even spearpoints or arrowheads. But all of the accessible ruins have long since been looted, and you rarely see anything in them anymore. Even petroglyphs have sometimes been chopped out of the rock.
Like the first site, this one had been heavily visited. No artifacts remained, and it looked like the walls had been built up by someone else much later; there was no mortar between the stones. And no smoke marks darkened the overhang – perhaps the Sinagua hadn’t even built this place.
I headed around the butte to the west again; it was obvious that there was no weakness in the walls above me. For another hour or so I moved around the butte with huge cliffs towering over me. It didn’t look good.
But persistence paid off; on the other side of 6634 a weakness appeared – a steep gully that slanted upward between sandstone walls. It was high-angle, but far more doable than the cliffs. And of course, like everything else here it was so full of trees and vegetation that I couldn’t see more than twenty or thirty feet into it. It looked to stop short of the summit, but I couldn’t tell much more from here. So up I went, hauling myself upward as much by yarding on trees and bushes as by any hold on the rock.
I pried a branch out of my path and it lashed back, slapping my face. Iron-hard manzanita branches clawed at my denim-covered legs, delivering solid blows to well scarred shins. I always wear jeans to climb in Sedona; nothing else I’ve owned has ever been strong enough to withstand the vegetation there. Once, on an excruciating climb of Bear Mountain, I made the mistake of wearing my venerable Gramiccis. While they served with distinction on rockclimbs in the Tetons, the Gramiccis were no match for the Sedona backcountry. By the time I got back to a trail they were hanging in rags from my waist. A passing hiker stared wide-eyed at me and asked, “Dude, what happened
Head ducked, eyes practically squeezed shut, I forced my way through another dense thicket and suddenly stumbled into a tiny clearing along the northern wall. Just ahead of me was a smoke-blackened overhang with a low wall directly under it and another behind. Sinagua ruins!
There wasn’t much here – a few walls squeezed into a pocket in the cliff, and they'd been overgrown through the years. But it was a genuine ruin, and certainly one that very few people knew about. Normally I would’ve loved to check the site out, look for artifacts and that kind of thing (I don’t ever keep them, but they’re fun to find). Unfortunately, the late start, difficult climb, and continual traversing around the butte had conspired to use up most of my time, and the sun was sinking toward the west wall of the canyon. In fact, if I didn’t make the summit soon I’d have to turn back. Promising to return, I fought back up the accursed gully.
I was only bleeding in about three more places by the time I reached the top – not bad at all. And the only painful one was a place where a catclaw had sunk into my right forearm near the elbow joint and snapped off. I could feel it in there but didn’t have the tools or the time to take it out right then. Worse yet was the view… in front of me, the gully abruptly dead-ended in a ledge just below an overhang which looked to go at about 5.12 or so. I doubted I could have climbed it trad, much less soloed it.
Still, things weren’t hopeless. The ledge ran on both to the right and left, following the walls which framed the gully. On the left side it petered out and disappeared in the immense cliff on the north side, but on my right the ledge kept running, getting higher and higher above the gully as it went. Exposed, but not terribly technical. I followed along it, looking for a better way up.
For a while it appeared promising; the rock above the ledge got easier and the wall got shorter. I passed a few mid-fifth class sections as I headed further out. But then the ledge abruptly ended and I was looking a thousand feet down the west face of the butte into the canyon. Little dots that were hikers moved far below me. So I turned and picked one of the shorter fifth class sections. It was pretty vertical but a decent crack snaked up it.
Twenty feet of 5.5 or so and then it eased off. I went up the wall without incident and found to my delight that I was now over most of the cliffs that had been so intimidating from below. There was some steep ground between me and the summit, but it looked to be less technical than what I'd just come up.
This proved to be the case. The last few hundred feet to the summit was a totally enjoyable scramble over rock that never got harder than easy fifth. And then I was on the summit, a narrow limestone ridge topping the sandstone (if you climb high enough in Sedona, you'll climb out of the redrock and into the limestone above it). And here there were, of course, incredible views of Sedona….
Nothing too thrilling to mention about the way down; it all went fairly smoothly. The 5.5 part proved a bit funky from above so I took off my heavy pack and dropped it to await me; unfortunately it bounced smack into a pricky pear, and I ended up picking spines out of the pack and myself for much of the rest of the day. But the way down was also quicker, since I knew exactly where I had to go this time. I alit at the bottom of the first cliff less than two hours later; the sun had disappeared behind the canyon walls and it was getting chilly. But I was off the hard part of the climb, and all that remained was a nice sunset stroll back to the truck.