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Sonoran Gem: The Overlooked Cragging Paradise of Mount Lemmon, Arizona

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Claire Bukowski on Holey Moley (5.11d), New Wave Wall, Windy Point. The route features powerful, elegant sequences on small but positive crimps—classic Lemmon climbing.Jim Thornburg

What if I told you that deep in the Desert Southwest, a 28-mile road winds up through five ecosystems and provides access to more than 2,500 routes, year-round, on steep, featured granite? Would you be able to set aside your stereotypical image of the Southwest as desolate, flat, hot, and devoid of anything to do besides watch tumbleweeds roll by? Nestled in Southern Arizona, amongst the towering saguaros, blistering heat, and creepy crawlies, lies just such a gem: Mount Lemmon (9,159 feet), just north of Tucson and flush with routes and boulder problems both new-school and historical alike.

When I was growing up in Tucson, Mount Lemmon always served as an oasis, an escape from city life and Arizona’s oppressive heat. I spent sweet summer nights camping up there as a child, and took countless classic teenage drives with friends up the Catalina Highway to where it ends near the summit. I even learned how to ski and fish on the mountain. However, when I turned 18 and discovered climbing at the local gym, my appreciation for just how special Mount Lemmon is would forever solidify. My hands met its fine-grained granite; I learned to use my feet, and experienced dangling in space and seeing the ground from differing, addictive perspectives. As my knowledge of climbing expanded through various trips, jobs, and relationships, I grew to understand the treasure at my doorstep. It is now my pleasure to reintroduce the often-overlooked Mount Lemmon with the respect and recognition it merits.

The drive begins in the Sonoran desert at 2,000 feet on the northwest side of town and ends at just over 9,000 feet near the summit. In the late 1800s, Sarah Lemmon became the first known non-native woman to summit the Santa Catalinas’ highest peak. So impressed was her guide that he suggested the mountain take her name, making it one of the few North American peaks named for a woman. On April 28, 1995, Catalina Highway became a National Scenic Byway, and today an estimated 1 million visitors per year drive to the summit. The journey has been compared to driving from Baja, Mexico, up to the Canadian Rockies, but with all this landscape diversity compressed into a 28-mile stretch of tarmac encompassing three major sectors: lower, mid, and high. (Squeezing the Lemmon—the area’s climbing guidebook—breaks these down into sub-sectors, including Bear Canyon, Windy Point, Windy Ridge, Upper Highway, and the Summit.) Mount Lemmon’s granite varies in texture and style between its lower, middle, and upper canyons. The primary rock type is banded gneiss, aptly named for its alternating darker- and lighter-colored bands broken by wide vertical joints. As you travel higher, the texture shifts from smooth to sharp to blocky. Yet while you can find a bit of every style, crimping remains the primary name of the game.

William Butierez on (or rather, off) Orifice Politics (5.12c), a wildly exposed king line at the Orifice, the Fortress, Summit Crags.Jim Thornburg

* * *

Climbing in the Catalinas has a rich history dating back to the 1960s, including some of the earliest recorded ascents from the local pioneers Jon and Ila Rupley. The Rupleys climbed for climbing’s sake alone. When Jon was considering moving to Tucson for work, access to Mount Lemmon became the deciding factor: He saw it as an opportune training ground for bigger mountaineering objectives in Canada. The Rupleys put up some of the mountain’s first routes, following aesthetic cracks at now-notable areas including the Fortress, the Ravens, Rappel Rock, and Windy Point. They neither named nor graded many of their FAs, though future climbers would inevitably do that for them—e.g., The Rupley Route, Lost Rupley Route, and so on. The Rupleys generally sought out the longest objectives (up to 450 feet) they could find, with most of the climbs being 5.7 to 5.9.

It wasn’t until the early 1970s that Mount Lemmon experienced its “Golden Age.” It was then that a ragtag group of friends led by Dave Baker peppered the mountain with lines. Born and raised in Tucson, Baker had spent a lot of time exploring the Catalinas. While inspired to climb, he found himself stymied by the lack of available gear. In 1970/’71, a friend jokingly suggested they open a shop, and thus the Summit Hut was born. (Today, it has two locations.) “The Hut” at last outfitted local climbers, who took to the hills with gusto to cherry-pick the Lemmon’s endless granite lines.

Many routes established then were bold, ground-up affairs. Consider the 5.9+ R Chaboni, put up by Mike McEwen and Dave Baker in 1971 with just one pin and two bolts to protect 90 feet of tenuous friction. In an interview from 2002 on the website with the local legend Steve Grossman, Grossman recounted the story of another bold FA from the McEwen/Baker duo: Helms Deep (5.10+) on Rappel Rock, climbed in 1971. As Grossman recalled, “[…] The second pitch is pretty much a flat, steep face. Mike climbed up and drilled the first bolt. It was sticking kind of halfway out. A typical kind of thing, he says, ‘Aw, I can’t screw around with this anymore. I am just going to go climb it.’” Wearing what Grossman figured were the blue, hard-soled Royal Robbins shoes, McEwen cast off into 5.10 above his iffy bolt; higher, the climb offered continuous 5.9 slab. Continued Grossman, “Rather than stop and put another bolt in, he just did what Mike always did, which is run it out. At that point, he just kept running it out and running it out and running it out. Dave, sitting at the belay, kept looking down, wondering whether he was going to end up on the ground if [McEwen] fell and pulled the first bolt out [.…] ”

Bukowski roses through on Honker (5.12+), an old Hidetaka Suzuki/Ray Ringle route at Windy Point.Jim Thornburg

Mount Lemmon was also one of America’s early sport areas. As rappel-bolted cliffs emerged in the States, so too did the ethical debates, including at Lemmon where bolts were chopped, reinstalled, and chopped again. But as the area drew more interest, change was inevitable. In 1981, Devils Tower crack-master Eric Fazio-Rhicard (EFR) left his previous stomping grounds for Arizona. He initially characterized the Catalinas as a runout trad chosspile, but in 1986, EFR received his first Bosch drill as a Christmas present from his wife, and his perspective shifted. With this new tool and a fresh eye, EFR suddenly saw the mountain’s sport potential. He and others pushed development, and opened hundreds of bolted routes. Beyond being on the lookout for interesting features, EFR has brought an eye for connections and lithic subtext. Arizona Flyways (5.11+) and Raven Maniac (5.12-) are classics of the style—crimpy, complex, sustained. Despite traditional pushback, as the dust settled amongst the sport-trad debates, the bolts remained—and proliferated. Munchkinland was one of the first fully bolted cliffs, and today houses over 100 routes. For a period, the Lemmon boasted one of the West’s highest concentrations of difficult sport climbs at crags including the famed Beaver Wall, stacked with crimpy 5.12s and 5.13s—and itself a victim of bolt wars, after its rapbolted climbs were chopped then reinstalled.

Mount Lemmon quickly earned a reputation as a place of try-hard, crimp-tastic, technical face movement—though the reality is that 5.13 and 5.12 face climbs are rare compared to the more plentiful 5.11 terrain, which has earned Mount Lemmon the nickname “5.11 heaven,” with must-dos at the grade including Steve’s Arête (5.11b), Arizona Flyways (5.11+), Just Do It (5.11a), and Histoplasmosis (5.11+). EFR continues to be active in local development and has remained a fixture in the Tucson scene. He recently released his latest edition of the guidebook, Squeezing the Lemmon III, which includes 2,500 routes within 30 minutes of the highway, more than 600 of which EFR helped author himself.

Kim Pfabe climbs The Golden Egg (5.9) on the Goosehead, Windy Point. Bolts and perfect patina edges get you up this short but airy spire.Jim Thornburg

* * *

Bouldering has been around Mount Lemmon for about as long as sport climbing thanks to Bob Murray, the retreating legend who pushed Southwest bouldering—and who often climbed solo and barefoot, leaving little trace. Murray moved west in the early 1980s from Delaware, and would go on to establish untold fierce problems at Lemmon, Hueco Tanks, and around Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Murray problems” like The Matterhorn (V9) on Lemmon’s Windy Ridge still remain testpieces. Tall, lanky, and steel fingered, Murray approached his climbs with an equal balance of finesse and power. The Matterhorn exemplifies this style, inviting climbers in with nail-biting crimps and then demanding a huge move to the lip, followed frequently by surprise at the miserly size of the target grip. The bloc did not see a second ascent until decades after its early 1980s FA.

While the boulders have somehow never gained the reputation that the cliffs have, in the last decade bouldering development on Mount Lemmon has skyrocketed thanks to local diehards. Classics can be found dispersed across the Catalinas’ foothills, but the Summit offers the highest concentration and quality lines. (Check for the latest—some 1,900-plus problems around Tucson, most V0–V7.)

Pfabe on Hydroponics (5.11c), Milagrosa Canyon, lower Mount Lemmon. The route starts from the bank of a deep pool that’s a great spot to swim and climb when the rest of Milagrosa is too hot.Jim Thornburg

Wilderness of Rocks and Aspen Trail Boulders are the prime summit areas. If time is short, hit up the Gulch and classics like The Brute (V6), Civil War (V6), Odin’s Revenge (V6 stand or V10 sit), or Lucky Goes for a Walk (V9). Bear Down SDS (V12), FA’ed by Matt Fowls in October 2014, is likely the mountain’s hardest problem. Wilderness of Rocks is out of the same parking lot but takes more effort to reach—imagine a playground of freestanding boulders, thousands of them. While not all are featured, the ones that are have problems tackling huecos, quartz veins, and slap moves up blank eggs. You’ll encounter the first boulders 45 minutes in, and they continue until you’re two hours deep—many folks hike out and bivy in order to boulder for two days. The potential, especially in the double-digit range, is staggering. Wilderness of Rocks is under constant development, with room for more. Bring a brush and an open mind if you’d like to add to the ever-growing list of new problems.

* * *

So why, given all this, has Mount Lemmon not made your list of must-visit areas? The routes are many, the access is free or nearly so (the mountain is owned by the USFS, with no entrance fee and free camping toward the summit—though some designated campgrounds and picnic areas have a day-use fee), and crowds are often minimal. But something seems to be keeping the masses away. Maybe it’s Mount Lemmon’s location in the desert and the temperature extremes: highs that swing to 120°F and lows that plummet to single digits. Yet with the elevation gain and the way most crags are orientated (both north and south facing), you can comfortably climb year-round.

Bukowski romps up the Eric Fazio-Rhicard, Scott Ayers, and Mike Head masterpiece Arizona Flyways (5.11+), Anduriel Tower, Windy Point.Jim Thornburg

Enter the lower canyons, and climbers can expect less-than-vertical to vertical walls across all disciplines. With flora including palo verdes, mesquite trees, saguaros, grass, and scrub brush, this is still very much the desert—with polished, sometimes chossy rock, and bees and snakes. Still, the climbing can be excellent, techy, and edgy, as found on must-climbs like Triangulate (5.10), Go Speed Racer (5.10+), Armed Robbery (5.11), Solar E-clips (5.11b/c), and Sentenced to Hang (5.12b). However, come summer, you’d be a fool to find yourself climbing in the lower third unless motivation is high and you like climbing by headlamp.

The mid-mountain brings a shift to more vertical to gently overhanging, consolidated granite. Here, the foliage cedes to manzanita, juniper, and scrub oak. Now 5,000 to 6,500 feet above the desert floor, the crags offer dramatic views of the lower canyons and Tucson Mountains. Here is the classic Windy Point, which was a big draw in the 1980s and is thin and crimpy in the “classic” old-school way. Unfortunately, as was often the case in the era, many developers employed tools like chipping and gluing, with oddities like drilled pockets appearing up blank headwalls and arêtes. Nonetheless, there are plenty of natural or “natural enough” classics to cut your teeth on, including the perpetually photographed Steve’s Arête (5.11-), Arizona Flyways (5.11+), Tsunami (5.12), Honker (5.12+), Lessons in Yorkshire (5.13-), and the seldom-repeated Hebe (5.13+). Mid-mountain is also home to some of Mount Lemmon’s headiest trad climbs, including Lizard Marmalade (5.10+), Credibility Gap (5.10+), Mean Mistreater (5.10+), and Cripple Creek (5.10-). The gear-protected routes aren’t like splitters at the Creek. Instead, they necessitate bold climbing above small cams and wires, runouts between weaknesses, and fussy placements—bring offset cams.

Butierez on Lizard Marmalade Direct (5.10+), Punch & Judy Towers, Windy Point. The line combines tricky placements with cerebral, insecure moves.Jim Thornburg

Farther up the winding road, past Windy Point and through Windy Ridge, a big, sweeping left turn brings you into forest. Now pine trees and aspens line the road, and the rock becomes blockier and more featured. In this author’s opinion, the upper third of Mount Lemmon hosts the crème de la crème of crags known collectively as the Upper Mountain, home to the widest range of climbing, from sport cragging to adventure trad. Multiple, new single-pitch sport crags have popped up over the last decade—some radically overhanging like Raycreation, Mariposita, the Steep, Southpark, and the Orifice, allowing for athletic climbing amongst a lush forest.

Finally, the last stop on the tour is the Summit Crags; at nearly 9,000 feet, these cliffs offer traditional multi- and single-pitch routes as well as sport climbing. Shortly after the Mount Lemmon Ski Valley (the United States’ southernmost ski resort), you encounter a small pullout for the aptly named Reef of Rocks, with its splitter cracks, routes up to six pitches, and hard sport climbing. Farther up the road is the summit. Here, you’ll find classic sandbagged, multi-pitch trad routes from the 1970s heading up Rappel Rock. If bolts are what you seek, adjacent formations the Ravens and the Fortress host multi-pitch sport climbing, but the main bolted attraction, located in the middle of the Fortress and 100-plus feet off the ground, is the Orifice.

The Orifice is Tucson’s steepest venue—you’ve probably seen the epic photos on Mountain Project. The dizzying exposure is ameliorated by pillow-soft falls into space. Here, the stylistic Lemmon edginess breaks and the holds get … bigger, with 20 routes ranging from 5.11- to 5.13-. The classic Orifice Politics (5.12c), better known as OP, is the glory line, featuring 105 feet of enduro jug-hauling with boulder problems broken up by kneebars and scums. Fight the pump or enjoy the ride. If the grade is out of reach or you need a cool-down, Murray Wall (en route to the Orifice) hosts 5.10s and 5.11s.

Pfabe sampling the perfect incuts of The Golden Egg (5.9), the Goosehead.Jim Thornburg

Whether you’re after sport climbing, trad climbing, or bouldering, Mount Lemmon has it all—and is under constant new development. The local climbing organization, Climbers Association of Southern Arizona, has made incredible efforts in fostering and maintaining a healthy relationship with the forest service through their cleanups and trail work, and the Catalinas remain the biggest recreational area for Tucson, hosting mountain bikers, runners, fishers, hikers, skiers, canyoneers, lake-goers, and, of course, climbers. This oasis has hidden in plain sight for long enough: Her doors are open, she left you the key, and it’s time to plan a visit. 

William Butierez, a Tucson native, moved away in 2012 and has since climbed at over 50 venues in the States. He frequently returns home to visit family, friends—and Mount Lemmon. Every trip up the mountain leaves him wide-eyed and drooling.