Montezuma Head P1K

Thu, Apr 16, 2009

With: Matthew Holliman
Rick Kent

Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile


Montezuma Head is an easily recognized pinnacle in the Ajo Mountains, in the NE part of Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It resides on none of the popular peak lists, has no significant prominence, and is not the highpoint of a county or other geographic entity. I hadn't even heard of the peak until a couple of days earlier. My only interest in climbing it was that Matthew had read it was a cool peak to climb as described in a trip report he got somewhere. I had already climbed all the DPS peaks in this part of the state, which was the original motivation for the trip to Arizona, so the rationale seemed good enough.

While Matthew and Rick had spent the night at a motel in nearby Ajo, I slept in the back of the van just outside the north entrance of the monument. I was visited by the Border Patrol some time before midnight. As I lay in my sleeping bag, now awake, I saw headlights from the vehicle, voices outside, flashlights probing around my van. One voice said, somewhat anticipatory, "Is it a couple?" A light flashed inside the van and then another voice, "Nah, just some old guy." And then they got back in their truck and left. Man, that one hurt.

In the morning I was up while still dark outside and ready before the others drove up in Matthew's car. With only one NP pass between us, we left Matthew's car and drove with the day's gear in my van into the monument. We went to the exact same parking spot (between mileage posts 62 and 63) we'd been at the previous morning for our climb of Kino Peak, and by 5:45a had set out across the parking lot and the highway heading east.

After the previous three days, this was expected to be a relatively easy one. There would be some technical climbing as on Weavers Needle and Baboquivari, but the distance was relatively short, only about four miles, one way. As we plied our way across the desert floor, the sun came up over the hills to the east at 6:30a. For the most part the hiking was easy (there was even a nice use trail as part of an illegal migration route), but there were the ever-present cactus, particularly the cholla variety that we had to watch out for. Today was it my turn to be negligent with at least three incidences that caused me to scream out and then try to calmly remove the damage, wincing with each hook-like needle plucked from a foot or hand. Rick and Matthew found this bit of a turn humorous after they'd had their share of the cacti needles the previous days.

Rick led us up the lower portion of Montezuma Head's NW side through a break in the cliffs just west of its lower, northern pinnacle. This wasn't the easiest route as described in the TR, but it seemed the shortest way to reach the higher south pinnacle. The rock, volcanic in nature, was sharply pointed, but not altogether solid. This made for good traction when the rock didn't crumble. I enjoyed this bit of scrambling with some class 3 sections, though Matthew seemed to feel it was somewhat harder. An old sling around a squat little tree suggested others coming this same way had felt likewise. It was 7:40a when we reached the saddle between the two main pinnacles, where we followed a series of ledges up to the deep cleft on the northwest side of the south pinnacle marking the start of the technical section.

Looking up the rock face, it was clear that we had a tougher problem than Baboquivari. Rick climbed up on the rock a short ways before backing down, but not before spotting the rusty piton driven into the rock ten feet up. The scrambing here was harder than it had looked. Like we found lower down, the rock is not solid and could come down in chunks if one isn't careful. Regular scrambling techniques where one might pull up on embedded boulders to gain ground did not seem safe as I explored the first few moves of the route while the others took off their packs for a short break before getting to work. Stemming moves, where pressure is applied pushing in on the rock was a much safer strategy. I used these to get myself up to the first ledge about 15 feet above the start. A pair of old slings with a rap ring were found here. I looked further up the route but did not try climbing higher - I had reached my limit for soloing it.

I unpacked the rope, tied in to the slings, and tossed the rope down to Rick. In this way I could belay him with a top rope for the start, then let him continue leading up the rest of this long, crux pitch. It took nearly an hour for Rick to find his way to the top of the pitch, moving carefully to test each hold. He struggled to find suitable protection placements, eventually getting a few pieces in higher up where I couldn't see him around the corner. We used the same technique to get Matthew and I up that we used previously, once Rick was safely above and had us on belay. Matthew went first, tied in to the rope where it hung down, myself tied in to the end of the rope. In this manner Matthew went up while I waited about 20 minutes for him to run out the length of rope between us, I then collected my gear and followed up.

Packing up the rope when I reached the others, there was some easy scrambling for a short distance until we reached a 15-foot class 3-4 section with much exposure. I felt secure on this section and ambled up it without much concern, but Rick and Matthew felt otherwise. It was easy enough to toss the rope down for added security, tying myself into another rap sling found here, and in quick succession both Rick and Matthew joined me.

More easy scrambling ensued up to the second set of significant cliffs that marked the final approach to the summit. We read our TR description several times, looking about the rock around us, before figuring it out. With some luck we spotted a piton described in the text, showing us where the route must go. A somewhat ill-defined ledge goes up and left around a corner before going near vertical to get over a bulge. There is a good deal of exposure on this short pitch and none of us was going to try it without a rope. Once again, Rick led, Matthew and I followed. This time, Matthew was able to climb all the way to Rick's belay ledge before I needed to follow, though I did have to start the first 10 feet or so of the pitch to keep from pulling the rope taunt on him.

Above this short exposed pitch was a last, even shorter pitch where we used the rope. Not so much exposure here, but the rock ran nearly vertical for the 20ft of so of the pitch. Finally, we were on easy ground, and the last bit to the summit was a short scramble. We topped out at 11a, elated. The register we found at the top did not date back very far, only to 2001, but ours was only the fourth entry since then - somewhat of a surprise considering the DPS has five TRs in its archive for this peak, usually indicating greater popularity.

We did not spend too much time at the summit, as usual. The views were quite nice, but being unfamilar with the area there were few points we could identify. We stayed long enough to have lunch and get a short rest break before heading back down.

We rapped the top two pitches in one long drop off a near vertical wall that Rick had spied just west of the ascent route. Part of it was overhanging which provided some cheap thrills as we dropped over, one by one. The long crux pitch would have been made easier if our rope was about ten feet longer (I'm not sure, but I think the rope we used was 50m). Rick went down first, stopping at the ledge 20ft up from the bottom. I came down second, but wanted to do it in one rappel despite the fact that the rope didn't reach all the way down. I figured I just needed to reach about halfway down from that lower ledge where I could then downclimb the remaining distance. Rick, watching me from the ledge and listening to me explain my plan, wasn't convinced. A bit of trouble was encountered when I found the fall line for the rappel did not take me down the main gully as I'd expected, but about 20ft to one side, leaving me hanging on the rope above a near vertical section without enough rope to reach the ground. The situation was not dire by any means, and I was laughing as I found myself in the awkward position. To remedy it, I started a series of pendulums, swinging left, then back to the right, then left again, eventually with enough momentum to get me over to the piton that I hooked with a finger of my left hand. I then let the rope run through my belay device and downclimbed the remaining distance. Neither of the others thought much of my manuevers, despite the amusement factor. Matthew rapped down to the ledge Rick was waiting at, they added some lengths of cord to one end of the rope to increase its length, then came down on one strand of the rope while I held the cord from below. Clearly Rick's months spent descending canyons in Death Valley and elsewhere had taught him some professional tricks of the trade, making my own effort look pretty amateurish. Oh well.

Our return to the desert floor was a slight modification of our ascent route to avoid the cliffy class 3 stuff we'd come up. We walked down to the saddle, skirted the north pinnacle on its west side, eventually dropping down to the desert floor on the northwest side. We got back to the highway and our vehicle just before 2:30p, somewhat longer than anticipated. Rick and Matthew were going to then head south to climb Mt. Ajo in the late afternoon, possibly racing darkness to get back. I was heading back to California, to meet up with Tom Becht the following day for some climbing in the Santa Rosas. No more climbing today, just a long drive. It would be well after dark before I got there, but the memories of four fine days of climbing in AZ and the satisfaction of a job well done helped fuel me along. The Starbucks I bought in Blythe on the way down I-10 didn't hurt any either...


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