The endless allure of Arizona's Cochise Stronghold
The tip of my ring finger, cleaved of a particularly vascular chunk, has been leaving abstract paintings on the mottled peach and grey granite for the last four pitches. The arterial red contrasts nicely with the neon yellow of the lichen. Chalk was evidently not the best poultice after a cheese-grating slide down a slab as featureless as the cloudless spring sky above me.
Cloudless, yes; windless—don’t I wish. That famous Cochise Stronghold wind has been trying to crowbar us off Westworld Dome all morning. It raced in off the Arizona desert during our approach to Warpaint, a five-pitch 5.10c classic.
Warpaint’s slabs form a fickle equilibrium of texture and angle, a tipping point of miraculous friction or startling decoupling. I have expected a fall at almost every move, a sensation that is both humbling and nerve-wracking, and my eyes sting from staring at the rock, trying to manifest holds from the homogeny of its scabby matrix.
Even seconding keeps you honest here. Palming across a run-out traverse, I reach Alexis at the belay. Her puffy is molded to her body like the flapping cheeks of a skydiver. She’s smiling, sort of. As a climber, Alexis is rarely ruffled. Me, well I’ve probably shed more tears on climbs than I have on boys.
“I’m a little freaked!” I yell over the wind.
“I know! This wind is crazy!” she shouts. “What do you want to do?”
I look up at the final pitch. Voids in the once-molten rock now form gaping jaws full of jagged quartz teeth, promising novel climbing. It looks fun. “I’ll take it,” I tell Alexis.
Ignoring the wind’s invisible, maddening bullying, I feel my raw fingers catch on canine crystal tips. The rubber beneath my toes grips magnetically on the granite’s tiny facets.
I round the summit corner, and as if I had stepped inside and shut the door, the wind dies and the world goes still. My first time in the Stronghold was a decade ago, in the company of an ex-boyfriend and his geriatric Westfalia. My memory of the place comes in shreds: an almost lawless feeling of space; complicated, prickly approaches to soaring granite domes; and a childlike desire to lose myself in a forest of rock.
My husband, Allen, and I had initially planned on a midwinter trip for two. But some ears pricked up at the mention of “Cochise” and “granite” and “warm.” Our friends Kennan and Alexis threw in their lot with us at the last minute.
By the time we neared the mountains after the 12-hour drive from Colorado, we had stripped down to T-shirts. Leaden clouds were tangled up in the ranges to the east, and a perky desert sun washed over the wintry white of our skin as we hung out the windows to ogle the chaos of granite resolving in the distance.
Cochise Stronghold is a convoluted granite warren ringed by a complex skirt of much older schist, limestone, and other rocks, collectively comprising the Dragoon Mountains in southeastern Arizona. The Dragoons are quite literally an island in a desert archipelago, part of a sequence of indigo ranges aligned north to south and separated by vast expanses of baking desert, like a herd of caterpillars out for a stroll. Termed a “sky island,” it is part of the Basin and Range, a geologic province stretching from Oregon deep into interior Mexico. Basin and Range geology is the result of a pulling apart of the Earth’s crust, causing immense blocks to drop, or subside, leaving other blocks relatively elevated.
Stronghold granite, dating from an era when mammals were becoming power players on the world scene, is diced into a network of horizontal and vertical joints. Water trickles into these joints and freezes, expanding as it does, and pries the crack ever wider, a process called “frost wedging.” The result, after 25 million years or so, is a made-to-order climber’s playground: 50 square miles of ramping monolithic domes, massive stegosaurus fins, spheroidal boulders, and towers of cubic blocks stacked like avant-garde snowmen.
The granite is solid, sharp, and varied. A diminution in difficulty is often offset by long gaps between protection. Routes here run the gamut, from steep, blank slabs to ladder rungs of chickenheads, and to brutal laybacks, offwidths, and crimps.
Passing through the one-horse town of Sunsites, we found Middlemarch Pass Road, a dusty artery that skirts the bulk of the granite to the south. It winds through rolling foothills blanketed by sinewy manzanita, whose bell-shaped blooms bend in springtime to give the air a demure pink kiss. The pass provides quick access to the west side of the mountain range when approaching from the east. An added bonus to this route? Circumventing a Border Patrol checkpoint on the state highway between I-10 and Tombstone. Thinking our subversion watertight, I doled out road beers from the case between my feet in the backseat. As we crested the top of the pass, PBRs in hand, we almost collided with a Border Patrol truck. Instinctively, our hands dropped en masse into our laps, and we proffered our most law-abiding smiles to the aviator-clad officers as we passed. We held a collective breath, but apparently four dirty climbers are small potatoes on the border. The big white Ford bumped out of the rear view and down the other side of the pass.
We would see Border Patrol agents five times in as many days. Following the installation of a checkpoint on nearby Highway 80, the Stronghold’s network of dirt roads has become a commonly used bypass by illegal border crossers, climbers concealing road beers, and perhaps those with more illicit cargo. An ominous black Suburban with darkly tinted windows had a semi-permanent stakeout on the way into Tombstone (of OK Corral fame), the nearest access town to the Stronghold.
Tales of encounters with border crossers freshly deposited in these mountains by their coyotes are not uncommon. Daryl Kling, the founder of Friends of Cochise, a climbers’ advocacy group that works to address access and safety issues in the Dragoons, was once approached by a guy asking how far Phoenix was. Kling, who spoke no Spanish, scratched out “100” in the dirt. The man’s face fell; his coyote had told him it was a two-minute walk. Kling gave him a Clif bar and some water, and then the guy walked off into the desert.
As we hiked up to the Isle of You, a popular westside crag, the usual pre-climb butterflies found fertile ground in my belly amid the caustic mingling of cheap lager and adrenaline from our game of chicken with Border Patrol. We racked up at the base of the curiously named Trad Rock, a leaning iron of west-facing granite that holds a dozen or so single-pitch bolted routes. It is one of a triad of cliffs, the others being Rad and Glad rocks.
The Isle of You was the first line put up in the area. Feeling stouter than the purported 5.9, the slab moves to the first couple of clips made me grateful for the virgin rubber on the pre-trip impulse buy of my new shoes. Kennan, belaying Alexis on Jizzneyland, a commonly photographed 5.10c with a stellar backdrop that reaches into Mexico, yelled over at me.
“Stick your butt out! Put your heels down!”
I did, shakily, and gained a semblance of security. As we perched on a granite bench that evening at the base of Trad Rock, our view to the west was one not of this continent. The Serengeti itself unfolded below us. A golden savanna of hip-high grasses undulated in the lazy evening breeze, and proud, statuesque oaks held court in the sandy meandering of a dry wash. Cobbles and boulders lay everywhere, strewn about like the crumbs from the meal of some messy giant.
The sun finally set behind an indigo skyline. The sky held on tight to the light of the dying day, yielding reluctantly, long after the planets blinked open their cyclopean eyes for their nocturnal vigil on a bedded-down world.
The species diversity here is off the charts. Over half the bird species of North America make use of the region, as do mountain lions, black bears, and javelina. The Stronghold’s wet and shady canyons harbor rare strands of Arizona cypress, a stately giant that dwarfs its hardwood companions. The white-nosed coati, a distant cousin of the raccoon, seems more suited to a tropical rainforest, but is a common sight in the Dragoons. The Stronghold is also home to some 14 threatened or endangered species, including the peregrine falcon, for which seasonal rock climbing closures around Rockfellow Dome are imposed in the spring.
Mexican gray wolves, ocelots, and jaguars once prowled the rocky crags of the Stronghold. In fact, jaguars still might. Just last year, a man’s pack of hunting dogs treed a jaguar in an undisclosed mountain range in Cochise County. He recalled that it was twice the size of a mountain lion. Despite the Dragoons’ delicate and influential role in a biological community that spans a continent, the West Stronghold is an unregulated free-for-all of roads and campsites, with everyone from Boy Scouts to off-roaders to rock climbers all driving, camping, hiking, bolting, and pooping wherever they please. One night, we shared a campsite with 27 Scouts and an outdoor recreation group from the University of Arizona, for a grand total of about 50 people. The site does not have a bathroom. You do the math.
Plans to protect the mountains are in the works, though, including a proposed permit system for rock climbers, regulations on new routing, and a visitor cap enforced by a locked gate on the access road. Several conservation groups are even seeking an official wilderness designation for the Dragoons.
While a locked gate is a little hard to stomach on public lands, the need for management is scratched out in the dusty capillaries of willy-nilly two-tracks and prolific pullouts. At the decidedly user-friendly Isle of You, Kennan had to bag up a pair of soiled whitey-tighties that a nervous Boy Scout had stashed behind a rock, accompanied by the soundtrack of a predawn car alarm. Ten years earlier, the golden savannas and tumbling alleys of rock had felt like a lost and private paradise. To be fair, though, the byzantine approaches to the Stronghold’s interior still keep the masses at bay, and true serenity can still be found there.
The Stronghold is famous for the seas of chickenheads that cover many of its sweeping domes. Entire routes depend on these little guys for holds, pro, and hanging belay anchors. They form as a byproduct of “case hardening,” in which minerals dissolved in rainwater are deposited on the rock’s surface, creating a thin armor more resistant to weathering than the underlying rock. It then cracks into polygons, eroding the unadulterated granite behind the resulting plates. Eventually, these pedestaled scales earn their namesake as chickenheads—the neck a spindly stem and the plate a rounded, squawking yard bird.
What’s My Line Direct is a classic Cochise line that almost exclusively follows chickenheads. The four-pitch route, cited as anything from 5.8+ to 5.10 R, picks its way up east-facing Cochise Dome, the East Stronghold sister of Rockfellow Dome. At a distance, climbing Cochise Dome looks improbable, but the intimidating blank face slowly resolves on the approach into scabby alligator skin. Once below the route, we saw that the manky quarter-inch bolt protecting the first pitch had a shiny new buddy right next to it.
Alexis crept up the immaculate slab, inch by inch, her movements humming with the charged focus of a kid playing Operation. Ten, 15, 20 feet off the deck, the route was earning its “R” addendum.
“Slaberoo!” she muttered. Alexis has an endearing habit of making up words like these to suit the situation. She spiders up most routes with élan, but you know she’s having a hard time when she vents a cheery piece of gibberish.
With the fingers of one hand spread wide on the rock, gecko-like, she reached down with the same snail pace and unclipped a draw from her harness. Keeping a rapt vigil on the sturdy bolt, reassuringly robust next to its aging predecessor, she clipped the draw to it and pulled up the rope. With the resounding click, we both gave in to nervous giggling.
Meanwhile, the wind picked up, suddenly, as if a fan had been switched on. Stout junipers in the valley below pitched back and forth like headbangers in a mosh pit. The spring wind here is something of a perfect storm, a combination of icy jet stream and a sort of pressure tug-of-war between mountain and desert. Up on the wall, duped by the temperate morning, we pressed ourselves against the sun-baked rock, gleaning its warmth and lamenting our earlier decision to forgo jackets.
Numbly clutching my way up the second pitch, I quickly figured out how not to protect a chickenhead. The girth hitch, turns out, is not a good idea. At one point I looked down to see a heap of slings, all lifted off the rock by the wind, sliding down the rope toward Alexis. Some climbers suggest hanging a cam on the sling to keep it in place, but it seems silly to carry a rack just for weight.
"Clove hitch!” Allen suggested. “Then clip a draw to that. Worked great.”
We topped out with that strange combination of sweaty palms and wooden fingers. Across the ravine was an enticing centerfold of routes on End Pinnacle, a semi-detached buttress on the northwest end of Rockfellow Dome. It holds several quality multi-pitch lines, including the classic Endgame, recognizable by its skin of reptilian scales and fluorescent yellow lichen. The approach followed the same sandy wash we had just negotiated that morning, before veering up a water-worn ramp of bedrock. Tantalized by the dome’s exquisite aesthetics, we returned a few days later.
The hike that morning was wholly peaceful: the give of sand beneath our feet, the sifting of the breeze through the stiff scrub of oaks. It took a stretch to imagine what this place must have been like in the days of Cochise, the days of the Apache Wars.
The legendary warrior-chief of the Chiricahua Apache, Cochise famously used the Dragoons as a hideout in the late 1800s, incessantly raiding and terrorizing mail routes, supply trains, and settlers, only to disappear up an easily defendable side canyon.
After a botched hostage negotiation resulted in the hanging of his brother and nephews at the hands of the U.S. Army, Cochise spent a decade inflicting various horrific methods of torture on anyone unlucky enough to cross his path. Victims were hung upside down and roasted over a campfire, poked with the tip of a lance a hundred times before finally succumbing to a fatal stab, or thrown naked into a nest of prickly pear and bound by wet rawhide, which would slowly contract in the sun.
In the winter of 1872, Cochise met with an Army general at a cluster of boulders in the West Stronghold now dubbed Council Rocks. There he signed a peace treaty establishing the Chiricahua Reservation, which included the Dragoons. Two years later, suffering from what is believed to be stomach cancer, the old chief, who had lived a life of war, died in peace in the East Stronghold.
Two years after his death, the reservation was abolished. Unrest and marauding continued under the helm of Cochise’s successor, Geronimo, until his eventual surrender in 1886, whereupon all the free Chiricahua were relocated to reservations in the east. Today, only about 1,000 direct descendants of the Chiricahua are alive, and few, if any, live in their ancestral homelands.
Cochise’s body is buried here, in his place of sanctuary, although all who knew where took the secret to their graves. It is bewitching to think about those bones, the bones of a giant, scattered somewhere so close. Traipsing our merry way up to a big rock just to climb it, our biggest concern a little wind, it is impossible not to compare the peace of our environs with the savagery borne out on the same landscape in a bygone era.
Endgame starts beneath a mammoth leaning boulder, necessitating a shady and extremely chilly belay. The very well protected first pitch sports 17 bolts in about 150 feet, beginning with an arching, slabby traverse to gain the face.
At first, I caught myself staring at my feet, willing them to stick to the rock. Remembering to stick my butt out, I felt like a goof, but that small shift in balance means extra rubber on rock, an asset sorely needed on the balding heads of Cochise’s domes.
Finally clearing the icy shadow of the huge boulder, I started up the steep, sun-drenched face of densely packed polygonal plates, like the back of a turtle. Bomber finger jams between the chickenheads gave some reprieve to my painfully splitting fingertips, which had been sucked dry by day after day of cold crimps. It was the steep, sunny climbing I had come for. A giddy perma-grin planted itself on my face, and I reached the anchors high as a kite.
Later, on the summit, all four of us piled into the shelter of a bowl scoured out by an age of exposure. On top, the wind was again outrageous, and we took turns poking our heads over the lip of the bowl, our faces buffeted as if standing in a speeding convertible. After a novel descent featuring a rappel into a narrows reminiscent of the trash compactor scene in Star Wars, we settled into the rhythm of the hour-long hike back to camp under a sky darkening in haste.
A few days later, after listening to graupel pelt the tents all night, we woke to a fairy-tale world of snowy granite turrets, cloaked in shreds of water-laden clouds. The preceding nights had been cold, requiring a campfire every morning, but they were dry. Now the wood was soaked and the rock was frozen. It was time to go.
Driving out of the Stronghold under the steel lid of a storm, anticipating the coming hot shower, I thought back to the day we did Endgame. On the twilit hike bake to camp, I remember feeling a pull from behind, like a satellite to Earth. I turned to see Rockfellow’s amber granite afire against the blackened sky, as if the last refuge of light itself.
Perhaps that is what this place is, has always been: a sanctuary for the hardened, the rare, or the castoff. For the cypress, the coati, and the jaguar. For the Apache, the immigrant, and the climber. For the light, and for the wind.
Getting there: Cochise Stronghold is about two hours’ drive from Tucson, Arizona. East Stronghold: From Tucson, head east on I-10 and take exit 318 for Dragoon Road. Head east on Dragoon Road for about 11 miles, passing through the town of Dragoon, then turn right onto Cochise Stronghold Road. Go six miles, and then take another right onto Ironwood Road. The road ends at the USFS Cochise Stronghold Campground and the east trailhead for Cochise Trail, a five-mile trail that bisects the range and ends at the West Stronghold. If coming from the east on I-10, take exit 331 for Hwy. 191. Drive south for about 17 miles, then turn right onto Ironwood Road. West Stronghold: From Tucson, head east on I-10 and take exit 303 for Hwy. 80. Head south for about 24 miles, then turn left onto Middlemarch Road, about a mile north of Tombstone. Follow this good gravel road for 10 miles to its intersection with FS-687. (Middlemarch Road continues over Middlemarch Pass, and provides relatively quick access to the east side of the Dragoons from the west, and vice versa.) To get to the West Stronghold, follow FS-687 for a winding seven miles to FS- 688, and take a right. The road ends at the trailhead after a couple of miles.
Seasons: Spring and fall are most comfortable, although winter can offer up many mild days on sunny aspects.
Restrictions: Rockfellow Dome and Cochise Dome (aka What’s My Line Dome) are closed to climbing and camping for peregrine falcon nesting from March 1 to June 30. Check with the Coronado National Forest for current fire restrictions.
Guidebooks: Backcountry Rockclimbing in Southern Arizona, by Bob Kerry. This book is out of print, but can be found in its entirety online at climbaz.com. Rockclimbing Arizona, by Stewart M. Green (falcon.com).
Camping: The Cochise Stronghold Campground (fee sites) is located in the East Stronghold and is open September 1 to May 31; no water. Many free, dispersed campsites are located on the west side of the Dragoons, and some sites can be found near the entrance to the East Stronghold near Owl Rock.
Showers and Beer: Find showers and laundry services at a collection of RV parks in Tombstone on Hwy. 80. There is a tiny grocery store at the east end of town, or hit the gas station in the dusty community of Sunsites on Hwy. 191 for ice and other supplies.
- Inner Passage, 5.3
- What’s My Line, 5.6 A0 or 5.10
- Ewephoria, 5.7
- Moby Dick, 5.8
- The Wasteland, 5.8
- Isle of You (Ewe), 5.9
- Absinthe of Mallet, 5.9+
- Forest Lawn, 5.9+
- The Peacemaker, 5.10a
- Endgame, 5.10a
- Days of Future Passed, 5.10b
- Fire in the Hole, 5.10
- Warpaint, 5.10c
- Stiletto, 5.10+
- Stampede, 5.11a
- Abracadaver, 5.11a
- Coati Corner, 5.11a
- Sheep Thrills, 5.11