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Walking Softly in Cochise Stronghold

by Emily Gindle » on Sep 23, 2010 0

There’s something intrinsically powerful about the desert. Things survive here despite the blistering heat, the lack of water, the dusty soil that blows away in storms so thick they look like orange rain. A day lost in the desert will kill you. Still, a number of species grow here that are found nowhere else, and when I first moved to southern Arizona I was fascinated by the names: palo verde, which has chlorophyll in its bark to make up for its tiny leaves; manzanita, which dies as it grows, the old grey bark unwrapping shining red wood beneath; gila monsters, which are surprisingly small for their name but can move very quickly to deliver a poisonous bite. This environment seems like the last place to forgo any protection you can handle, but it’s the first place I walked around in Fivefingers.

We used to take them along in our packs, to use on the descent trail after climbing routes on the Sheepshead dome in Cochise Stronghold. We would hike the steep 90 minute approach in our boots, switch to our climbing shoes for the wall, and upon reaching the summit pull out the compact Fivefingers for the trail back. Now we’ve ditched the boots, and even with 30 pound packs on rugged terrain, I’m much more surefooted in Fivefingers. Maybe sometime I’ll ditch the climbing shoes, too.

Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains is a rare beauty of exposed rock domes jutting up from the desert grassland. It’s named after the Chiricahua Apache chief Cochise, who hid his tribe here in the last years of the Indian wars. They evaded the U.S. Cavalry for fifteen years, snaking into hidden crevices among the rocks. The topography that was so helpful to the Apaches is now a boon to modern rock climbers, who have developed an area of multipitch trad climbing on much of the Dragoons. Even after 40 years of climbing development, many domes remain untouched. It’s a vast granite maze.

I already have a deep connection with this place, but learning to use Fivefingers here, conditioning my feet to support themselves on this particular ground has deepened that connection. One of my favorite days, we didn’t get to climb; we got to the base of a long climb and saw a storm rolling in on the other side of the mountain range. We didn’t want to slip on wet rock and compromise a wet rope, so instead we dropped our packs and explored the domes before the storm came, weaving into crevices, crawling up ramps. The ability to spread our feet in the Fivefingers was crucial for climbing around on the rock slabs; we could get more surface area and grip with our toes.

We slipped into a tunnel and came out on the other side of the domes to see a sheer rock face falling away below us. It’s easy to see how the Apaches hid away; you could never bring a horse through here, or scramble this in heavy boots. You could get lost among the spires. As we looked out of the keyhole it began to rain. We made our way back to our packs on the dry side of the mountain, and raced the storm back down.

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