By AUSTIN SOBOTKA
Arizona Sonora News
To the west, the shade of mesquite trees punctuates fields of tall beige grass. To the east, the fields flow into hills, and, suddenly, mountains: a labyrinth of granite domes cleft by ravines of boulders, manzanita and scrub oak. The Arizona sun ravages the landscape, and green and yellow swaths of lichen adorn the rock like war paint. Vultures totter in long, slow circles; coatimundi sneak, like long-snouted ghosts, through the brush and boulders. High in the mountains, peregrines dive swiftly past sheer granite cliffs.
Cochise Stronghold is quiet and rugged. Once home to a band of Chiricahua Apaches, this maze of rock, slashed east to west through the Dragoon Mountains, and part of the Coronado National Forest, is now a refuge for hikers, climbers and birders. It is not Tombstone, 60 miles away, beckoning visitors with Old West gunfight reenactments. Nor is it a Yosemite Valley or a Grand Canyon or a Yellowstone. It does not welcome you with paved roads and concession stands and well-groomed trails, but that’s an essential part of the allure.
If you want to experience the Stronghold, you need to earn your stay.
In the winter of 1861, Chiricahua Apache Chief Cochise and his family were captured by U.S. Army Lt. George Bascom under suspicion that he had kidnapped the 12 year-old stepson of a local rancher. Cochise escaped and took his own hostages – his first violent act against Americans. He offered to trade them for the release of his family. Bascom was uncooperative, according to Tim Price, a Benson native and retired archaeologist.
“When Bascom executed Cochise’s family, Cochise tied his captives to the wheels of a capsized wagon and set fires under their heads. He literally boiled their brains in their skulls,” he said.
Price has been exploring the Dragoons since he was 10 years old. Now, he sits behind his desk in the Arizona State History Museum gift shop. He wears glasses, a name tag, and khakis. His right hand bears scars from the Stronghold’s rasp-like rock.
“The Apaches believed that you would enter the afterlife in whatever form your body had when you died, so mutilation wasn’t common,” he said. Rather, he said, “it was an act of retribution.”
What is now known as the “Bascom affair” precipitated a full-blown war between Apaches and settlers. . Cochise and his group, though greatly outnumbered, used the terrain to their advantage: after launching raids on unsuspecting westerners they would vanish back into the labyrinthine mountains, their impenetrable stronghold. The Apache raids were so devastating that not more than a year later, when Army forces were diverted for the American Civil War, Arizona was almost entirely abandoned by settlers.
Apaches no longer live in their Stronghold, and have left virtually no signs of their inhabitation.
“The metates and mortar holes and pictographs there all belonged to Sobaipuri Indians, who inhabited the place about 800 years ago,” Price said.
Just as they would disappear back into the hills after their raids, the Apaches managed to disappear entirely from the area. Still if you listen closely, and if you believe in such things, you’ll hear the whisper of the a spirit they instilled in this place.
Dave Baker, a third generation Tucson native and the founder of Summit Hut, was among the first to develop the sport of climbing in Cochise Stronghold, back in the 70’s. His eyes glow at the recollection in a way that most peoples’ never will: a testament to the Stronghold. He was the first person to summit most of the 500-foot domes in the Rockfellow Group, a collection of granite monoliths in the heart of the Stronghold. Perched atop the saddle between the east and west sides, the domes of the Rockfellow group are arguably the most visually striking in Cochise — and also the most technically demanding for a climber.
Though others had attempted to reach the summit of Rockfellow dome, the principal formation of the Rockfellow group, it wasn’t until Baker showed up that the puzzle was unlocked. Others had come tantalizingly close to the top of the formation, but weren’t able to negotiate the maze of caverns, crevices and boulders that guards the final bit of climbing.
The climbing in the Dragoons, much of which Baker pioneered, fittingly reflects the nature of the Stronghold. Most of the routes there offer very little protection, and require climbers to accept situations where a fall would result in extreme injury or even death.
Although it was the climbers’ ethos back in Baker’s youth to install as few bolts as possible, one wonders whether the spirit of Cochise also influenced him and his predecessors.
He and a select few find the stakes of climbing in Cochise acceptable. Baker, who will be 65 in February, explains:
“When you’re really young you often get absorbed, lost, in small places – maybe a patch of sand. You go down the rabbit hole. That happens in climbing, especially in the Dragoons. You disappear from the planet for prolonged stretches of time, multiple times a day.”
Equally important to him is the experience of nature. He reflects on a particular day when he was 300 feet high on the side of Rockfellow’s End Pinnacle.
“I actually haven’t told this to anyone, but there’s this magnificent view and you’re compelled to just look out. As I was watching, this raptor was riding an updraft. It stopped when it was level with me. It was about 15 feet away and we just stared at each other for minutes.”
Baker spearheaded the development of climbing in Cochise Stronghold, others soon followed.
Any climber who has spent time in Cochise has heard Dave DesChamps’s name, but most will never meet the man himself. DesChamps, elusive and mysterious as the Apaches who once lived there, was one of Baker’s early predecessors. For the last 20 years he has been climbing exclusively in Cochise. He climbs all year, and never climbs a route more than once. He has established hundreds, perhaps thousands, of climbs. He knows every wash and canyon and dome, but he keeps his knowledge to himself.
“Here’s my rules: if we’re going to climb together you can’t post any pictures of the climbs we do online, or any information about where they are,” he told a reporter. “If you’re going to share the information with someone else, ask me about it first.”
After a quick breakfast of cold chili, Dave and this reporter turn headlamps towards the dark wall of rock and vegetation, and enter it. Dave leads. It’s July, and though it’s 2 in the morning, the air is still hot.
The black outlines of the massive domes silhouetted against the night sky.
This is not a normal Sunday for most people. It is for Dave.
Eventually, just as the morning light begins to define the world around them, they drop their packs and begin sorting gear. Why does Dave endure so much discomfort, when he could simply drive up Mount Lemmon and be in comfortable weather all day?
He replies, “What I want is adventure, and this is the last place to find it. I’ve been everywhere else, and there’s nothing else like the Stronghold.”
The climbers start up the virgin rock that Dave has brought them to. Six hours later they are back in his car, exhausted and sunburned, flying down the dirt roads at a dangerous pace. Dave stops briefly in Benson, now driving the speed limit, to buy strawberry milkshakes, and offers some advice:
“I recommend not writing about the Stronghold. Writing about it just brings more people there, which is not good.”
The term peregrine, peregrines, in Latin, translates as “stranger”, or “foreigner”. The Apaches, originally a nomadic tribe, were foreigners to the Dragoons. Western settlers were also foreigners to the Dragoons.
In Cochise, everyone is a foreigner.
Once endangered, the peregrine falcon has made an astounding recovery since the use of DDT as a pesticide was banned in the 1970s, but is still protected under federal law. In Cochise Stronghold, this entails seasonal closure of the Rockfellow domes. The closure, which lasts from March 1 to June 30, ensures that the wandering peregrine may successfully inhabit the heart of this wild landscape.
The inaccessibility of the Stronghold imbues it with a sort of autonomy, and is essential to the reverence people feel towards it; it is undoubtedly not our place. If we wanted to pave a road and put in concession stands and well-groomed trails, we could. But, if we did, we would kill the Stronghold, just as we would kill the peregrines if we did not cordon off their breeding grounds. We are foreigners there because we choose to be, or, at least, because we haven’t chosen not to be.
A common sentiment is shared by those who have immersed themselves in Cochise Stronghold:
“I wouldn’t like to see the Stronghold made more accessible,” Price said. “It’s nice to have some places where the people who really want to go, go. It’s hard because you want people to experience this beautiful place, but you don’t want it to be ruined.”
Download high resolution images here.