When we bought our plane tickets to Arizona several months ago, promises of post wedding climbing was
just a pipe dream. From what I knew about Tuscon, things were fairly flat and
probably stifling hot by April; it did not sound ideal for climbing. Michelle
had convinced me to come to her best friend’s wedding and since it is hard to
not have fun when we are together, I assumed that if climbing really happened
it would be a bonus.
A few months out, I emailed a friend who lives in Flagstaff and got a quick response: “The must do if you are
limited on time is Moby Dick, or Wasteland is another ultra classic. Beware though - Cochise is run out and has stiff grades - it is a place that will challenge every bit of your soul.
There is plenty of info on Mtn Project to get you psyched and into
trouble - but let me know if you have questions.”
‘Psyched and into trouble’ sounded interesting. ‘1 hour and 17 minutes’ drive time
sounded even better.
Before the trip we reviewed info on the area, consolidated the MountainProject beta
onto a single document, and began packing 2 days of fancy wedding clothes and 2
days of desert dirtbag into one large 49 lb bag.
The wedding was great but not “run out on a sea of positive holds 700’ off the
ground” great…that would come later. We abstained from partying into the AM
hours after the wedding, packed the car, and were off the next morning after
some quick good-byes. The road took us south out of Tuscon and towards the town
of Tombstone. With the camping area being nothing more than a pull off on a dirt road we decided that the overkill
of 12 gallons of water for 2 days was sufficient but never thought we could be
We followed directions from MountainProject.com and Weekend Rock: Arizona into the backcountry. MountainProject.com says “Driving a passenger car all the way to [the camping area at] the end of forest road 687
is another matter and you will want to be skilled and/or not care especially
about your car.” We were skilled at clearing out the large boulders in the road
on the hour plus drive and our brand new Ford Fiesta rental did not seem to
Upon arriving we sought out the only other people staying in the valley and they told us they could not
find the sport climbs we had planned on warming up on that afternoon. After 40 minutes of searching (a supposed 15
min approach) we found them. Perhaps buying the more comprehensive guidebook
would have been wiser, but that extra money had been spent on the copious
volumes of water cached in our car. Below the climb I flaked the rope and
Michelle started up the 1 star 5.8 face. The crumbling granite rained down on
me in small crystals as the rock disintegrated every couple of moves. After Michelle spotted
at least 3 more bolts past this ‘7 bolt climb’ it was clear that the anchor had
been chopped and the climb extended, requiring a longer rope. Michelle left her
first bail piece of her climbing career and made her way down with some
creativity, realizing with defeat that the poor beta for this place could
really kick our asses if we were not careful. We returned by headlight,
hopscotching around a scorpion in our Chaco sandals, to try and get some sleep
for our 5 am alpine start.
Moby Dick is a grade III 5.8 that ascends the south face of the Whale Dome for 700
feet. We weaved in and out of the large wash, which dominates the approach
route, for an hour or so until we were below the large rock formation. We
navigated the steep approach gully and were flaking the rope just as the sun rose
above the rocks to welcome us to the shade-free route.
The first pitch began with an off-width that led to a high hand jam, onto a face,
and into some layback slab. But with a bolt to protect the 5.8 crux, the route was
seeming less run out than what I had read. In fact Michelle’s biggest challenge with this pitch was actually the
ballsy alligator lizards hanging out at the belay station that vehemently stood
their ground despite her chucking rocks at their heads.
Pitch two had an interesting start off of the bolted belay anchor: the route stepped
down and left for a move and then continued up an arête to the parallel cracks
mentioned in the book. The cracks only took a 0.3 blue C4 Camelot despite their
promising appearance. I moved up the slab and eventually was able to sling my first
‘chickenhead’, a door-knob-like feature common to Cochise area as an
alternative protection placement. At 5.7, I felt comfortable with the moderate
run-outs and did not question the rock features that were slung in every
picture I’d seen on the internet of the area. Small cams and stoppers in a
shallow corner crack allowed me to appreciate, but not fully trust, the
chickenheads. I opted for the standard belay on a small ledge rather than the
alternative hanging chickenhead belay 20’ further up.
We took a short break, marveling at the occasional dive-bombing of the swallows tending
to their nests in the adjacent cliffs and drinking water. It was a great place to be, yet we were still
in the blazing sun so I eventually got moving towards the prospect of shade in
a few hours. At 93 degrees, we definitely were thankful for the strong wind blowing
up the cliff.
Pitch 3 was the next step in the progression of longer run-outs and putting more
trust in slung chickenheads. The corner took some small gear and there was a
bolt on a particularly run out section. I was relieved to sling a marginal chickenhead
25’ above the only bolt but felt a bit of distress when, after 15’ of climbing I
spotted this last sling resting on the bolt 40’ below. Awesome. After a few
more moves I was at the hallmark point on the route: the ALL CHICKENHEAD
HANGING BELAY. Although these chickenheads were better than the ones below,
laying back on the anchor I’d constructed out of a bunch of slip knots and
shouting “off belay” was an uneasy feeling I will never forget.
Michelle came up and inspected the belay dubiously before actually committing to tying in
directly to what looked like a sport climber’s worse nightmare. A few minutes
of hanging in the awkward belay motivated Michelle to take the lead and get as
far away from that belay as possible.
Pitch 4 was an interesting series of excellent chickenheads that moved through a bolt
on a bulge and into the slab climbing that Michelle prefers (despite being run-out
over a goofy traverse). Another bolt led to a roof that she protected by
slinging a chickenhead-chockstone combo, bringing her to a comfy anchor on a
A memorable moment ensued when I reached the anchor. The end was temptingly in sight
and the route notes we’d brought with us indicated that this was the last
pitch. I ate a few of those energy jelly beans and was off.
Pitch 5 (and 6?!) had me feeling a bit more conservative at first with my pro. I
placed a decent #2 cam 10 feet up and a few feet later clipped the first of two
bolts on the pitch. I spied the next bolt another 20 feet up and continued to it.
The descriptor of ‘run-out’ set in as I moved over this weird surface of
chickenheads too stumpy to sling and cracks too wide or shallow to place pro
in. At 5.7+ the pitch was very sustained and I kept on moving when sticking
around to find a place to wedge a #1 stopper did not seem like the best use of
my time. I definitely could have done without the gale-force winds and swooping swallows I had enjoyed so much a few
pitches below. I don’t think I have ever climbed so fast as I did then until I
reached a slightly more positive section and a tiny chickenhead that would take
a sling. What I thought was an alternative belay looked too far out of the way
to place pro in if I wanted to make this all one pitch so I continued up on
what now was pleasant yet unprotectable 5.3 climbing to near the end of the
rope. I set the belay and relaxed after the longest sport climb of my life.
We enjoyed lunch in a nice ledge watching the other group from the campground
working on a climb across the valley. With
the sound of the wind looming stronger, we soon scrambled up to the summit and
over to look for the bolts for the long rappel off the tip of the mouth of this
With only one rappel from the summit to the top of the canyon, it would sound like
we had it in the bag, but this was definitely one of the most awkward and
‘exciting’ rappels of our lives. The whale is notorious for eating ropes and I got
a glimpse of another team’s misfortunes when the wind spun me and I spotted an
old cut rope hanging in the crack. Yet
we were lucky and our rope came free without a hitch. We hiked down, looked back to admire the
Whale Dome and made it to the car with just a kiss of sunburn on our noses. A
truly excellent adventure.