Vivacious beams of sunlight pierce through a layer of thin clouds listlessly drifting across the vivid blue sky, illuminating a seemingly hidden canyon nestled 30 miles north of Winslow, Ariz. Within its depths reside numerous chalk-stained, 70-foot limestone cliffs plastered with strategically placed stainless-steel bolts that establish nearly 300 sport climbing routes. This is Jacks Canyon, and it’s known as one of the best rock climbing places in Ariz. — for some, the entire country.
My latest trip to the canyon occurred with an Arizona State University organization, The Arizona Outdoors Club, on the weekend of June 16 — mere weeks prior to wildfires erupting throughout Arizona and tearing through the destination, scarring its lush green scenery with blackened trees and brush. My four-person group departed Phoenix at 7:15 p.m. and arrived at the dispersed campground shortly after 9 p.m. Getting to the camping area an hour before we did, the other six members of our entourage relaxed around a fireless fire pit, eating chili and joking about previous adventures. After preparing our tents and socializing for an hour, everyone departs to their respective areas and retires for the evening. I would have, too — if it wasn’t for the rambunctious wind and a very vocal owl.
From my previous trip to Jacks, I knew the nightly wind buffets across the canyon’s rim and vowed to bring ear plugs on this trip. Naturally, I forgot them. After listening to the wind slamming itself against my tent every five minutes or so, an owl, residing in the tree I established my base under, decided to join the vocal chorus of distant coyotes. Its hoots and hollers seemed to taunt me; whenever the wind settled enough for sleep’s dark embrace to approach, a loud screech would emit above my head, jolting my senses into an alert position. The night seemed to last forever, but eventually the sun peaked over the trees, and the excitement began.
Jacks Canyon, Mental Block Party, Photo: Ethan Holshouser
People began stirring out of their slumbering state around 6 a.m. and stumbled into the bitter-cold morning air. After a breakfast of peanut butter and Cliff Bars, I grabbed my climbing gear, two pairs of climbing shoes, an ATC belay device and a harness, and descended into the shade infested canyon. Soon three others joined me, and we embarked upon the 10-minute hike to “Cracker Jack Cliffs.” Upon our arrival, we glanced up at the 40-foot wall in front of us. Three warm-ups greet our gaze, “Betty Cracker,” “You Don’t Know Jack” and “Step Right Up.” Each of these climbs is 5.9, as rated by the Yosemite Decimal System. (The higher the numerical rating, the harder the climb; after 5.9+, the letters “a” through “d” are assigned to the rating to establish slight differences in difficulty.) Putting on my harness and grabbing eight quickdraws (safety slings with carabiners on both ends), I tied myself into the rope with a figure-eight-knot, checked with my belayer and began the morning’s first ascent.
The climb went smoothly, although I could feel the lack of sleep already taking its toll. I belayed the other climbers and begin to study my next conquest, a 50-foot 5.11a named “Mental Block Party.” The sun illuminated the wall 20 yards to my left, but this route is draped in shade, and the rock is bitter cold. Deciding upon the path I anticipated taking up the cliff’s vertical face, I checked my equipment, made sure I’m on belay and began.
My hands felt frozen, but right at home in a sharp, two-finger pocket and small crimped starting holds. Finding a dime-sized toe hold, I pushed myself off the ground. After two more moves, I’m about eight feet off the ground and at my first bolt. Unclipping a quickdraw from my harness’s gear loop, I slid one of the carabiners through the bolt, listened for the satisfying click, and attached the remaining carabiner to the rope. My left hand resided comfortably inside a large, three-inch pocket, and I dipped my right hand behind my back, grabbed a fistful of magnesium chalk to eliminate sweat and improved my grip, repeated the process with my left hand and continued upwards. Eleven feet higher, I ran into my first snag. The hold I anticipated using while scoping out the route on the ground was terrible. Sighing, I searched for nearby holds but found nothing within reaching distance. My only hope was an extremely thin side-pull seven feet diagonally from my fully extended arms. Glancing down at my feet, I slid my toes into a quarter-sized pocket, and stood up for what I believed in.
Jacks Canyon, Crosstown Traffic
My fingers barely brushed up against the target hold, but not enough to get an acceptable grip. Returning to my previous position, I chalked up and kept searching. My legs began to violently shake from fatigue, but I still didn’t see salvation. Upon reaching my stamina’s limit, I knew it was time to move now or face a 10-foot fall to my last bolt, losing my on-sight attempt. A tiny, one-finger pocket, the size of a popped popcorn kernel, is between the hold I needed to get to and where I stood. I stood up and stuck the tip of my pinky finger into the hold; using it to gain momentum, I strained against the cold limestone, let go of my current hold and finally reached the target. Four movements higher, and I reached feet holds large enough to rest on without holding onto the rock, giving my fingers a well-needed rest.
Feeling rejuvenated, I continued up the route, with only 20 feet to go. The route has reached its crux — three moves between crimp holds with smaller than an inch and virtually no feet. Preparing myself for the movements, I began the transition and weighted the first hold, then moved onto the second and finally the last. My forearms were pumped and tense from fatigue, and in consequence my grip weakened, but I made it. Five more moves, and the route was complete. Panting from tiredness, I clipped my final two quickdraws in to the anchors and lowered down the route. Victory is mine.
Worn out, I spend most of the day belaying and coaching others, doing a few easier climbs and falling at the anchors on another 5.11a, “Crosstown Traffic.” Despite the exhausting sleepless night, the trip turned out to be an enjoyable and successful adventure.