Category Archives: climbing

The Mace

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We finally got around to climbing the Mace. Well, we got around to mostly climbing it. We skipped the step between the spires, the scramble to the summit register, and the jump back across. The last section just didn’t add to the meaning of the climb. Plus, we left our water at the base, and we were getting thirsty.

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We put off the Mace in anticipation of the right weather conditions. The route ducks in and out of the morning shadows, so it needed to be warm, but not hot.

Spring finally came around, and after several false starts due to damp conditions, we made our way to the foot of the spire.

The first pitch started up a chimney, then broke left to pass a small roof.

The second pitch began as a steep hand crack. After a few feet, the angle relented and the crack branched into an easy offwidth to the left.

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A traverse left came next, followed by a bit more chimney.

At the top of the chimney, the route got weird. The way lead through a gap between a trio of towers, to a steep corner with a finger/hand crack in the back of it. But one did not need to stay in the corner. The three pillars allowed a ping-pong ascent, with steps back and forth from the corner to the other pillars. At one point, I was able to stand on top of the rear tower and take a break while reading the chalk-marks on the opposite face.

The clever options ended in a pod which tapered upwards to the critical 15 feet of the route. At the crux, the crack became a leaning, chicken-wing offwidth, made even more insecure by a bolt which proved awkward to clip and showed an unseemly amount of thread peeking over the edge of the hanger.

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A few more feet led to the top of the penultimate spire.

My son plopped down at the anchor and said, “Never again.”

Obviously, he didn’t care to lean across to the ultimate spire and jump back across the gap on the way down (the draw for most who climb the Mace).

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Neither did I, but not because I thought that the route was worthless. I thought that the route was interesting, if not good. It deserved to stand on its own merit, rather than on a circus trick at the top.

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Looking Down on Elitism

“Look at those assholes. Ordinary fucking people. I hate ’em.”

– Bud, Repo Man

 

img_1201I dodge between the two ant-lines of hikers, one ascending and one descending the gravel path. About one in five says hello. I don’t respond. I am not here to socialize. I am not part of their program. There are few solo travelers, like me. Most hikers walk in groups of two or three, chatting about their jobs or mortgages. The majority of the loners are not really alone, either. They are on their Bluetooth devices, conversing with insubstantial partners on the trail.

The only socially isolated walkers come by it naturally. They are the elderly. Bent over their trekking poles with grim determination, getting their exercise as prescribed.

I pass them all and turn off on a steep trail to the peak. Without breaking stride, I scramble up a little chimney and across an exposed traverse to a ledge. There, I set up the rope for my training climb.

Crouched like a gargoyle, I take a moment to glower upon the crawling lines of walkers, now far below. The feeling of the moment is familiar. I had it just a week before in Ouray.

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There were no walkers in the ice park, with one exception: an elderly lady walking her Papillion. The lady smiled and waved to my son and myself as we trudged up the snow packed road. She was wearing shearling slippers and mismatched halves of a pair of tracksuits. She did not look out of place.

The narrow gorge teemed with climbers on top rope.  Belayers chatted amongst themselves about technique and equipment. Downstream, a group waiting in line to climb, fired up a hibachi. Charbroil smoke wafted up the streambed.

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I really don’t begrudge the outdoor recreationalist his or her fun. He or she belongs to other things: careers, classes, religions, cultures. I understand. Belonging puts climbing and everything associated with climbing in perspective. It justifies the ice park atmosphere and bidirectional queues in the desert.

I understand because, as I crouch on the little ledge, a strong sense of belonging comes over me. I look down over the ant lines, the obscene Scottsdale compounds, and the roads leading off toward the ice park. I lean back on the rough desert granite, one hand on the rope, and it all comes into perspective.

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I Ought to Be Climbing

Today was a climbing day, and I woke up tired. This happens with some regularity, and I have learned not to put too much stock in feelings of early morning fatigue. Like delayed-onset muscle soreness, tiredness is part of life’s Muzak.

I have learned to just get up, move around a bit, and turn off the thought process until the first 8 oz. of coffee get into the moving parts. Then, I can take a breath and figure out what I ought to do. Sometimes, I figure I ought to go climbing, less frequently, I figure I ought not.

I did not go today. There were traffic issues, household chores, homework for the kids, and an empty fridge, all weighing on me. But I could ignore those trivialities if the day looked promising from a climbing standpoint. If I had a good day out, I would return with motivation to spare for shopping, vacuuming, and glaring at a teenager while he did everything in his power to avoid completing an English research project on time.

However, today did not look promising. When I thought about the plan, I could not get my motivation to gel around the climbing which lay in store. Of course, a sort of meta-motivation was there, driving the self-assessment process.

Meta-motivation is part of the Muzak too, and is the explanation for why I actually get up when the alarm goes off, instead of following my tiredness back to sleep.

I can climb on the meta-motivation. I have climbed on the meta-motivation. It depletes itself, though. It relies on ambitions and creates them – getting to the next level of difficulty, getting payback on the route that thwarted me, keeping up or catching up with partners. Leaning on the meta-motives fails to reconcile the day’s motives with their sources in one’s emotional state, severity of muscle fatigue, metabolic state, etc. It works for a while, but the sources will not be ignored forever, and come back around to bite in the form of injuries and burn-out, neither of which can be overcome by ambition.

The day’s motive is the real thing, not the desire to realize plans and ambitions. Too bad it is so slippery. It can be reconciled with its sources in principle, but understanding the depth and relevance of the various sources is tricky.

The climbing-day ritual, in which motives get explored and reconciled with current affairs, is a moral endeavor, of sorts. Through it, I learn what I ought to do, and in a way which cannot be attributed to a calculation of debits and credits, or simple puzzle-solving, in which I just match up pieces of motive and facts at hand.

I think maybe that’s the way it is with all moral endeavors. They aren’t problem-solving with moral facts. All moral evaluations seem to suffer from the troubles of theodicy, if they are factual. The explanation for the existence of evil in a world ruled absolutely by a good God eventually defaults to the relevance of evil in light of God’s (infinite) magnitude. But all things go to zero along that asymptote. So it is with the determination of moral facts. One moral fact may always supersede the next, looking forward, and the qualifications proliferate endlessly in retrospect.

If that’s the case with the pursuit of moral fact, then pursuing moral fact is much like climbing on meta-motivation. The chase will lead to diminishing returns and, finally, to contradictions.

 

 

 

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Better and Better

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“I didn’t bring my gear because they said there was no climbing in Sedona. Because it is sandstone. Like Las Vegas.”

– Anonymous climber, sadly hiking by the base of The Pirate

 

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The Pirate

 

Who would lie so viciously? Most sandstone is climbable. Maybe you have to approach it like a mixed ice-climb; you know, distribute the weight, climb statically, don’t pull out.

 

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Tenacious Calculus, the best

 

And some of the climbs are apocryphal, or protected by hostile vegetation more nasty than anything the North Cascades could dream up (yes, worse than Devil’s Club).

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Book of Friends

But there is so much that is so good.

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No Other Reason

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I looked at the anchor. There was a lot to it, but it was all small. Still, it showed no sign of motion when I bounced on it. Bouncing on it was my job, and that was OK, even if the anchor failed its test. I hadn’t called ‘off belay’ yet. If the whole thing blew out of the crack in the Apache sandstone, I would fall about thirty feet.

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It wouldn’t be pretty, but everyone would survive, because I had done the same thing at the last anchor. Having tested the set-up, I did the usual thing and stopped worrying about it. I would check it a couple more times as part of the process, but those would be dispassionate inspections and a matter of course.

I felt a twinge of pride in my hard-earned discipline because, from a certain perspective, I was in the process of engineering m own Armageddon. I had both of my teenage children 500 feet up a technical climb with no fixed anchors. If things went wrong, everybody could end up dead. Sure, the climbing was far from a red-zone effort for me, but the possibility remained. From a certain perspective, our trip up the route was irresponsible, if not abusive on my part.

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The perspective in question had been on public display over the past couple of weeks. Just before our climb, two alpinists were given up for dead on a mountain in Pakistan. The typical mewling followed.

“Darwinism in action.”

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“Stupid.”

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“Irresponsible.”

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“High price for a cheap thrill.”

As always, the simpering pieces of shit making those comments were … well, to be fair, they were simply unqualified to comment. They were the kind of weak which makes me ashamed to be classified in the same species as them.

They were Nietzsche’s vision of the last man, realized.

I believe the term-of-art is, “punk-ass bitches”.

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Anyone who has climbed knows why the two men were on that mountain in Pakistan. They were there because it moved them – the mountain, the climbing, the commitment, the whole thing. While they were climbing, they were living by a pure aesthetic, and anyone who has not lived that, cannot understand it.

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Frogland, 5.8, 6-7 pitches, 700 feet, Red Rocks, Nevada

Those who have lived it know: There is no other reason.

 

 

 

 

 

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Bees and Sech

A Louisiana man died in Arizona after he was stung more than 1,000 times by bees….was hiking with friends in a Mesa park when a swarm of bees attacked…Park employees and a Good Samaritan tried to help … was lying on the ground still covered with bees. They couldn’t get close enough to him because of the large, aggressive swarm..

“I just wanted to bring it to your attention,” the younger boy said in his most weary tone, “that there are bees flying in and out of the hole in the rock up there.”

“I’ve been watching them for a few minutes,” he added.

Damn, it looked like we would just have to climb Dr. Rubo’s Wild Ride again.

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The bees’ nest sat above the first pitch belay for Quiet Storm. It appeared to be a good route, but maybe we were better off leaving it for another day anyway. For “a few minutes”, I had been scoping the route. The line was enticing, but the belay at the top of the first pitch was a little cramped, and I wasn’t exactly sure that I could see where the second pitch traverse started. Dr. Rubo’s  rated a fair bit easier, but it made up in aesthetics what it lacked in difficulty.

We quickly packed up our gear and moved around to the SW side of the sandstone tower. The bees paid us no mind; the heat had yet to stir them to an irritable state.

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I started up the little corner with the  subconscious expectation of cruising it. But like a good, smoky scotch, the route demanded slow sips. It was all there, but it was often behind, or on the arête, or wedged in the flaring crack. The technique shifted continuously through the little roof above the first set of fixed anchors. Then, came the 30 feet of perfect hand-crack.

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One more small roof marked a transition to an easier slab above, and the anchors.

Pitch 3 was the notorious traverse. Compared to some routes in the Black Hills (Three Rings comes to mind), the hazard level was low. A fall would have been inconvenient, but probably not injurious.

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From the gear anchor, it was a short jaunt across to the other half of the tower, past a bolt-protected boulder problem, and up to the top. The top was no anticlimax either. A platform the size of a large dining table, it was flanked by the looming Coffee Pot formation on one side, and the valley south of Sedona on the other.

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A free-hanging, 190 ft. rappel topped it all off.

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We skirted wide of the beehive to retrieve our packs, as the traffic in and out of the hole had picked up, and a few of the little bugs on the way to nearby cactus flowers, detoured to buzz around our heads.

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We would come back. It was easy to justify having a look with a such nice consolation prize in hand.

 

 

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The edge

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One hundred degrees feels hotter in the desert than it does in town. The relentlessness of the sun is part of the difference. Running in the Sonoran desert, in Summer, is unwise, but I don’t claim to be wise. It is just a few miles, after all, on good trails.

The sun is rising high by the time I get going. The first three or four miles remain comfortable, but I can feel the heat building in the air and in my blood. I have to slow down. Still, it gets hotter.

Half way around the pile of granite blocks which passes for a mountain in these parts, I feel a little adrenergic twinge. Those who have pushed themselves will understand what I mean. It is the thing that comes after a second wind in the form of a slightly panicky, angry feeling accompanied by a tightening of the skin and a little nausea.

The feeling marks a reserve opening up, but at a price. Blood goes to the muscles and away from the viscera, but also away from the skin, where it is needed to exchange heat with the air. I slow down some more, but the heat keeps building.

I am getting close now. I can see the power lines which cross the trail just a half mile from the trailhead, with its shade-shelter and water. I think I know just how much I can allow myself to speed up, and I do.

The last quarter mile feels a little desperate, but I trot into the shade in good form, with a little left. I walk back and forth for a long time, cooling down. A cop patrolling the trailhead gives me a hard look. I understand; I don’t like the idea of getting sucked into a rescue either.

I was close to the edge. How close, I don’t know. That’s the thing. You can’t know where the edge is until you are over it.

Or rather, there isn’t really an edge. Sure, there’s a last step and an end to all efforts, but that last step is in a different spot every day. You can get pretty good at knowing when you’re close to the last step, but you can never know just exactly where and when you will collapse. The uncertainty keeps things interesting. The uncertainty is motivating.

And, the uncertainty is everywhere. The same run is not the same run. Feet land in different spots, the wind shifts, the sandy dirt is soft or packed.

So it is with all defined entities and their instances. Identities hold for instances. This desert is this desert, where I run this close to the edge, but not over. That is true. This desert is also the Sonoran Desert – practically, but not really. Accepting the latter sort of identity gets me to the trailhead, but no more. It doesn’t get to the truth, any more than talk of the edge informs me where the edge really is.

But now I recall; it is not true that there is an edge, only a retrospective, last step. I’m always thinking about the edge, because it helps keep me off the last step. Knowing about the last step does nothing for me, even though it is the truth.

Or rather, it does nothing because it is the truth. It is local and transparent. I can’t pack it up in a box and take it away to inform me elsewhere and in the future. But because it is local and transparent, I must move by it. And because I must move by it, the truth is inextricable from my motivation.

I think that’s why all of us remain enamored with the truth, even though it is useless in its own right. I know that’s why I will continue to run in the desert – the uncertainty of the true, last step and the very deficiency of my edge-theory – even though it may not be the most useful thing for my health in the end, mental or otherwise.

 

 

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More

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Damn, why won’t the rope move? Instinctively, I blame the belayer. Instinctively, but also because I know him as the kid who has a D in English because he’s bored with English and so doesn’t try to do well in English. He has already told me that he’s bored with belaying today.

I yell down, “Slack!”

“There is slack!” comes the answer.

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Uh-oh. I pull on the rope again, and flip the cord hard a couple of times, all to no avail.

The hell if I’m going to spoil the clean lead. I place a pair of cams and clip in without weighting them. I tie a clove in the rope through a carabiner  clipped to my belay loop, and then I carefully climb back down, past one piece, to the little roof. There, I find the source of the problem.

It’s a splitter problem, and one I’ve never encountered before. As I moved above the roof, the rope slipped into the crack and behind the cam I’d placed at the lip. With some tension coming from the GriGri, the rope had pushed the cam farther into the narrowing crack and gotten itself stuck behind the gradually closing, upper lobe of the cam.

At this point I must note, that the tension from the GriGri is not the older boy’s fault. The last thing I say to him before I leave the ground is, “No Euro-loops.”

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God help him; he listens to me. I am subsequently tugging on the rope all the time. Until this moment, it has seemed harmless, or even helpful, as resistance training.

Now, to free up the rope, I really should lower myself below the roof, not stand at the lip, where I am. But, that would mean hanging on the anchors.

Instead, I reach down below my feet and commence to jiggling. I’ll admit, I am still learning how to place  clean cams in sandstone. I have a tendency to over-cam them a little, and a little is all it takes to makes the device’s hold on the soft, grippy rock, tenacious.

The hold for my left hand is good, but I’m stretched out completely and off-balance, so my feet offer little more than moral support. The clock begins to tick. I can feel my fingers start to slide off their sandy perch. But I can also feel the cam shifting slightly, so I keep fighting the losing battle: re-adjust, slip a little faster, re-adjust, etc.

Just before I melt off the hold completely, the cam gives. I can turn it upside down and retract the lobes. I step up and settle into the jams above the roof for a rest.

Once I catch my breath, I trudge back up to the anchor and tie in to the end of the rope once more.

“Back on,” I yell, and as an afterthought, “This still counts!”

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There is no response from the belay. It’s OK; that’s why the GriGri and the parent/child relationship were invented. Both allow us to learn sympathy for ridiculous people.

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A second crux awaits just before the anchors. I don’t pass it quite as gracefully, now that I’m tired, but it goes. I can’t convince the kids to follow the route. They offer the excuse that they are too tired from climbing Andy Kauffman Crack.

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I don’t believe them for a second, but at least they indulge me (and vice versa). If that’s all they get from the experience, it’s enough.


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They did come back to climb Rusty Cage. The pair of climbs – Rusty Cage and Andy Kauffman Crack – are on the back side of North Mesa. Just walk up the Cathedral
Rocks trail off Back O’ Beyond road. Where the trail passes a little cliff band on the right, keep going on a right branch instead of continuing up and left with the hikers who are headed for a saddle between the two major sets of formations which constitute the Cathedral Rocks. Keep walking all the way around the corner at the far end of the North Mesa. When it looks like you are about to come to the end of the road, look uphill to the left. You will see a shady grotto formed by a pair of towers nestled close against the main formation. You will recognize Rusty Cage as the clean splitter on the right. Andy Kauffman Crack is hidden on the left.

Rusty Cage is .10 c and takes a red tricam, a # 2 Camalot, and then  as many or as few # 3 Camalots as you feel comfortable placing. Six of them keep you looking at no more than a 20-footer at any time.

Andy Kauffman is a corner and then a roof. It is well protected, but takes a # 5 Camalot or a bit of alpine run-out skill in the section just before the roof. Multiples of 1’s, 2’s and 3’s help if you are getting used to sandstone .10 a.

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The Time Has Come

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The oldest child will begin to lead. I’ll admit, I’m a little nervous. Leading is for real, or at least a little more for real than following on a toprope. Still, the transition to leading is as much a shift in psychological reality as it is in physical reality.

You lose control of the short fall, but gain some control over the big one. Tying in to a rope through someone else’s anchor never feels quite the same after you start leading. It is better and worse at once, since you know how many ways their set-up could be defective, and you commit to trust it nonetheless.

I don’t want him to fall. I sure don’t want him to get hurt. I suppose I could turn around and tell him to hoard his life. He wouldn’t abide the dysfunction that goes along with hoarding, though. Ambition turned toward more and more security for its own sake. Money to buy security. Prayers to beg security. Saturdays at work and Sundays listening to some chump explaining how nice it would be to live forever, and how penis-mechanics somehow preoccupy the Almighty. He knows better than all that; he’s watched the swifts.

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Trying to be attractive? Pretty sure they know shit about attractive.

White-bellied swifts fly around our crags. I have seen them fly through a crack narrower than their wingspan and reverse course almost within their own body-length. They happen to feed on bugs loitering around the cliffs. What they do, however, is fly. The bugs are incidental.

Once you see that arrangement of motivations and necessities, you can’t see it back the other way. So, I don’t think I could stop him from leading, even if I really wanted to.

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It’s OK. I can live with the nervousness. It is an incidental. It will get its due and no more.

 

 

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Schnebly Hill Road

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Getting a feel for the rock

 

Sedona is not quite as hard to negotiate as the Needles. The sandstone canyons and pinnacles sprawl across a true Western landscape. The sense of the place suggests reference to heavenly fairytales, rather than middle-earthly ones. Still, you can get skunked. The routes and the approaches are often not as they appear from afar, and bushwhacking through a sea of prickly pear and wrap leaf bursage is not a viable alternative to hitting the right approach, right.
But, there is a sure thing: the Roadside Crag on Schnebly Hill Road. It isn’t a total gimme, but anyone should be able to get there and do some climbing with a little diligence.

The road itself takes off uphill at about 2 o’clock (if the roundabout is oriented North-South) from the last roundabout on highway 179 before it meets up with highway 89. This is the traffic circle right where the road crosses Oak Creek.

Schnebly Hill Road goes on for about 1/2 mile as rough pavement before it turns to rough dirt at the Marg’s Draw trailhead. If you have a low clearance vehicle, park it there. Although there is always some low-rider van parked improbably beyond the array of ruts, drops and boulders between the end of the pavement and the first picnic area, the sane will not want to subject themselves or their vehicle to the rigors of two-wheeling this 4WD track.

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Looks easy. Look closer.

 

If you have a high-clearance vehicle, pull in behind one of the pink tour jeeps and bounce your way to a small pull off about 1.8 miles up the road, on the left side. If you aren’t riding, you’re walking. But it is a pleasant walk, largely in the shade on a gentle grade. Mind you don’t get run over by a pink jeep – you don’t want your kinfolk passing that tale down the generations.

The right spot is where the creek suddenly gets wider and the road looks like it is about to pass left around the end of the Teapot formation which has been on your left for the last mile (yes, it really does look like a teapot in the process of being carved from the rock ridge).

Cross the creek on the trail and find a climbers’ trail branching off to the right as you go up the hill towards the end of the sandstone wall which flanks the far side of the little valley. The whole walk should take no more than 5-10 minutes, and you should be able to see the anchor bolts above the routes from the road.

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The creek crossing

 

There are 3 routes to lead here, and a top-rope in between, if you can figure out how to get to the anchor. The farthest climb to climber’s left, and just up and left from one of two very nice shade trees (the crag gets sun for most of the day), is Tourist Trap. It is hands and off-width. Bring gear from finger-sized to # 5 Camalot. You don’t have to get into the wide crack if you do not want to; lie-backs will get you through.

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Tourist Trap

 

Just right of Tourist Trap is Steal Your Face/Crack. It starts with four, generously spaced bolts on easy climbing, then goes up a short, steep section of pockets (red tricam is very useful) before transitioning into a featured hand crack. Take gear to #4 Camalot.

Lastly, above the finest shade tree on the right side of the crag, is Roadside Attraction. Steeper than the other two routes, this one is a nice mix of finger locks, hand jams and face holds. It takes gear to #2 Camalot, mostly on the smaller side, with multiple good stopper placements in the first half.

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Roadside Attraction

 

These routes are safe, have solid fixed anchors, and can be done with a single, 60 meter rope. The ratings are 5.9-5.10 and not sandbagged. All in all, a good place to go to get a feel for the rock, and to get a pleasant day of climbing under your belt before venturing off to face spiteful vegetation and frightening exposure on one of the local towers.

But, it is not the only cragging destination in Sedona, just maybe the kindest. If you want more, there is more to come…

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Rusty Cage

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