From the town of Benson, AZ, the looming size of Cochise Stronghold strikes you in the face for the first time. And you’re still about 30 miles away. From then on, as you pummel down the highway, barely able to control your excitement to finally grip Southern Arizona granite with your fingertips and toes, the Stronghold draws you in slowly, like a moth attracted to the limelight of a headlamp.
Cochise Stronghold is located within the Dragoon Mountains at about 5,000 feet above sea level. It stands out from the rest of the mountain range with its impressive array of granite rock formations. Rock strikes out from the earth in a tantalizing arrangement of domes, sheer cliffs, pillars, and towers, all elegantly coated in an alluring sheen of lime green lichen.
The Stronghold gets its name from Chief Cochise, the proud leader of the last Chiricahua Apache Tribe to surrender to the brutal colonizing efforts of the U.S. Government. Chief Cochise and his band of about 250 warriors were able to withstand the efforts to subdue and displace his people by relying on his knowledge of the intricacies of the terrain of the Stronghold. After his death and burial in a secret location somewhere in the Stronghold itself, he was regarded as one of the most impressive wartime strategists of his time.
As you walk among the many meadows at the feet of the impressive rock structures and delve into the dense folds of the Stronghold, it begins to make sense why this place was such a vital component to Chochise’s survival. The irony of recreating in a location that was once fought over between colonizers and Native Americans, as a white man nonetheless, does not escape me. There is a certain amount of guilt involved in that reflection. However, it’s the reality of practically every unique location that rock climbers migrate to and from. I suppose all that can be done is to educate oneself on the history of the place and hold a certain amount of gratitude and reverence for Indigenous People that came before and for the sanctity that they imbued into the places we now enjoy.
Whitney and I stayed in Cochise Stronghold for an entire week. And we probably could have stayed much longer. The beauty of the place and the quality of the rock climbing kept us severely entertained. Each morning we took our time to wake up and enjoy the morning. We spent the afternoons rock climbing, napping in the van, and riding our bikes around the multitude of trails that formed a network around our campsite.
Our campsite was tucked in at the end of a dirt road and at the foot of a massive, house-sized boulder. To the West, we had golden meadows and cattle country. To the East, we had an endless amount of granite rock. And all around us was a seemingly infinite amount of cow shit (which was much less of a smelly problem than one might think).
The Stronghold offered us a series of really excellent climbing outings. A couple of which were some of Whitney’s first multi-pitch climbs post-surgery. And the tallest and longest she has done to boot (~800 feet). I was thrilled to have my favorite climbing partner back on belay and seconding the route, pitch after pitch, until we could celebrate on the summits.
Multi-pitch climbing is a style where a pair of climbers climb multiple rope lengths (aka “a pitch”) upwards until they reach the top. The leader climber goes first with one end of the rope, protecting themselves with gear as the second belays them. When the leader arrives at the next belay station, they put the second climber on belay, tied into the other end of the rope. Next, the leader brings up the second, and then the process is repeated until the pair reaches the top. Multi-pitch climbing tends to be a more full-on experience. It’s an endurance effort that requires a prolonged offering of mental fortitude and physical strength. It’s by far my favorite type of rock climbing.
Besides longer multi-pitch climbs, we also had a couple days of single-pitch climbing. Single pitch climbing is a style of climbing where a pair of climbers climb one rope length (sometimes less) to the top of a rock wall or cliff and then come back down to the ground. The pair takes turns climbing and belaying as they sample multiple climbs on a single cliff. Single pitch climbing is a much less committing endeavor and tends to be more relaxed. It’s fantastic for trying challenging routes and building strength. And for sitting in the warm sun in between efforts, conversing with other climbing parties, and drinking beer (but never too many beers). The combination of cold beer and climbing is akin to pizza and a good movie.
About halfway through our stay in Cochise, Whitney’s aunt and uncle, Eve and Steve, came down to pay us a visit. We met them on the East side of the Stronghold for a hike and picnic lunch. After a bumpy and fun ride through the mountains, we arrived at the Cochise Stronghold Campground. The mountains around us were socked in with clouds, and snow fell. We were really getting the whole enchilada when it came to winter weather in Southern AZ.
We picked out the Stronghold Divide as our goal for the day and struck out into the snow for a 6-mile round-trip hike. Luckily, the snow was not sticking to the ground, and we managed to stay warm. Dottie led the way, practically hiking the trail twice due to her incessant need to runway ahead on the trail and trackback to the group. By the time we were on the top, the sun had burst back through the clouds. After a very necessary shedding of layers, we made our way back down the trail to the car, enjoying conversation with family all the way down.
Aunt Eve packed a delicious lunch that we enjoyed at the campground with the company of Arizona Woodpeckers and something akin to a Blue Jay. We dried out in the sunshine, maybe getting a little sunburned, and slurped down sparkling waters. Soon Eve and Steve were on their way home, and we loaded up Sage to head back over to our campsite for the night.
During our stay at the Stronghold, Whitney and I were also able to have a multi-day visit with a friend and coworker named Brad. Brad and I met last summer while we guided rock climbing in Estes Park, CO. Brad and I got along quickly after we met and had numerous successful climbing outings in Rocky Mountain National Park. In fact, one of my favorite days in the alpine was with Brad.
Brad’s arrival was timed nicely with Whitney’s desire to have a rest day. So she was happy to pawn me off and let me have a “dude’s day” with Brad while she slept in, read her Harry Potter book in the sunshine, and took walks with Dottie.
Brad and I went after a 7 pitch climb called The Peacemaker. The Peacemaker, named after the nickname that the late Sheriff Wyatt Earp (of Tombstone, AZ) gave his pistol, is a classic rock climb for the area. It follows a 660-foot line from the base of the Sheepshead rock formation to the summit. The route is characterized by multiple pitches of moderate 5.10 rock climbing.
The pitches are all considered slabs, with some steeper sections of overhanging rock. Slab climbing is either less-than-vertical or perfectly vertical rock. Slab requires acute attention to detail and route finding, fluid and confident footwork, and unflinching trust in the friction between your shoe rubber and the rock. When climbing a slab, it’s common to not actually have any handholds. Instead, your feet and legs do all the work, pushing your body upwards as your fingertips clamp down to seemingly nonexistent credit card-sized edges. I’m a lousy dancer, I’ve been told. But when it comes to dancing up vertical rock, I am proud of the fluid movement I can perform.
Within 3 hours, Brad and I were having lunch on top. We moved and worked well together, spending only an average of 25 minutes on each pitch. The outing was a massive success with its excellent climbing, pristine winter-in-the-desert-weather, and good vibes. I was back at the van, fast asleep, napping next to Whitney and Dottie by about 2pm in the afternoon, content as could be.
After a few more sunsets and sunrise breakfasts in the meadow behind the van, it was time to leave Cochise Stronghold. Before routing north to Tuscon to visit Whitney’s Aunt Eve and Uncle Steve, we headed south in the direction of Bisbee, AZ, to get breakfast and explore the town. We were happy to have food cooked for us and play tourists for the day. After another drop-in to Tombstone, AZ, to pick up a 4-pack of delicious beer from the famous and award-winning Tombstone Brewery, we were back on the road headed for Tuscon and the next adventure (No, we did not open the beers whilst driving).