A Magical Weekend - Cochise Stronghold

8th Feb 2013

It was raining. It had been raining off and on, since I arrived in Arizona last night.

Evidently it doesn’t rain very often in Arizona and it’s a talking point when I arrive at the airport!

The following morning we nose the car on to the freeway and head south.

Three hours later, somewhere South of Tucson, just before we hit the town of Tombstone we spot what we’re looking for, a small sandy track, snaking off left towards a range of jagged, tooth like peaks on the horizon, the Dragoon Mountains.

Twenty-five bumpy minutes later in between dodging the rain showers we were rewarded with this striking view of the Cochise Stronghold, as its known. Named after one of the Apache Indians most famous leaders, Cochise. He and his men were able to use the mountains for cover and as a base from which to continue attacks against the white settlements. Cochise managed to evade capture and continued his raids until 1872, when General Oliver O. Howard finally negotiated a treaty.

After making peace, Cochise retired to his new reservation, where he died in 1874. He was buried in the rocks above one of his favourite camps in Arizona's Dragoon Mountains, now called Cochise Stronghold. Only his people and Tom Jeffords knew the exact location of his resting place, and they took the secret to their graves.

I’d heard the “Stronghold” described as Magical by quite a number of people. Climbers, non-climbers, and at least one international magazine Editor, all chose the word “Magical” to describe the place. Now, I've climbed (and travelled) all over the world and I often hear words like “magical” and “mystical” to describe a location. More often than not I’m a little disappointed when I finally get there, beautiful it may be, magical it isn’t! But Cochise is without doubt one of the world’s magical places. It’s beautiful, but in an understated way. It’s a complicated landscape to take in, in a single visit. Peaceful and rugged are two words I’d use to describe this Cornucopia of a Granite wilderness.

The plan, if there was a plan, was to go climbing and take some photographs. Like most good plans executed in the outdoors we were at the mercy of the elements and right now that meant rain. It held off while we pitched camp, but while driving back from the evenings Pizza in Tombstone, the stars gradually succumbed to a thick blanket of cloud and big drops of rain bounced merrily off the windshield, we couldn’t dodge the rain for long it would seem! During the night the heavens opened and the staccato drumming on the tent kept me awake. By sun-up all those big, beautiful granite slabs were running with water. I went for an early-morning walk on my own up to the closest climbing area, “Trad Rock” as it’s known, the sandy path was still damp, the temperature cool. I revelled in the silence, just the odd birdcall and the scrunch under foot.

The idea, had been to climb a 5 pitch route called Ewephoria 5:8, up the biggest lump of Granite in the Stronghold, but given the fact it was a slab and it was wet, this didn’t seem particularly likely. So instead we chose to Hike up to the top of the Sheepshead (the largest of the cliff’s which Ewephoria climbs – it looks like a sheep’s head when you view it at a distance) and just breath in the magnificent view. A couple of hours later and we were happily sitting on what felt like the roof of the world, enjoying our front-row seats for a dramatic performance of “god-beams” projecting on to the distant landscape.

While I was in Arizona, I’d hoped to photograph a one person “Bivi” tent made by outdoor manufacturer Marmot (The Home alone Bivi). My idea was for a dramatic setting, somewhere off the beaten path, the sort of place I’d want to take a tent like this, after all it’s not designed for car camping. So here was my opportunity, we couldn’t climb but I could still take photographs. Janelle Pierce, local climber and my guide for the trip kindly carried the tent and agreed to be my model for the day. She fitted the part so well, some people are born to model outdoor gear and Janelle is one of them. Tall, long limbed and beautiful (I can see her blushing if she ever reads this) with her hair plaited neatly beneath her trendy, yet low key hat – she’s every outdoor photographers dream and she can climb, run and hike with the best of them.

Great location + Dramatic light + Great product + Beautiful model = fabulous photograph, or so it should, so it was up to me to produce some decent photographs.

We found a flat place to set the tent up with a great view overlooking the mountains, Janelle sat just in front of the tent and pretended to sort through her gear and backpack to hopefully add a little realism to the situation. The light came and went as the sun continuously disappeared and reappeared from behind the huge black storm clouds, which had been continually threatening to drench us all day. Finally, in an effort to combat the ever-changing light I set up a small, off-camera strobe (Nikon SB900) triggered by a Pocket Wizard and aimed it directly at Janelle with the hopes of bringing out some detail in her dark clothing, which after a few frames fiddling with settings we achieved.

See what you think, I hope you agree our effort was worth it.

I fell in love with the Cochise Stronghold the moment I saw it, one day I hope to return and climb some of the outstanding looking routes I saw.

I like to think the tear in my eye as we were driving out was caused by the wind whistling in through the open window – but then I remembered, the car had air conditioning and the window was closed – but that’s our little secret.

A very special thanks go out to Marmot for the Equipment – Home Alone Bivy, The Women’s Variant Top and the Centaur 38 Rucksack and to my Lovely Guide and companion Janelle Pierce – go girl.