Do it ’till you love it

My good friend Katie once referred to my hobby of backpacking and mountaineering as “Cosplaying Homelessness”. While funny, I think it accurately describes the almost transient lifestyle many people associate with thru-hikers, climbers, and those who willingly spend an exorbitant amount of their time outdoors. The almost romantic idea of the “Dirtbag” lifestyle sends visions, to most people in our modern society, of a person living on the cheap, in the back of their (let’s be honest it’s always an old Subaru) cars, and sustaining their full dietary needs on bags of skittles and homemade dehydrated food. So it is with this image in mind that I posed the question to myself:

 Do Thru-Hikers have an off-season training plan? 

In most sports, athletes spend their off-season hitting the weight room, expanding their work capacity for the sport, and becoming students of the game once again. In a sport that involves walking long distances for days and weeks on end, sometimes uphill, what should be the focus of my winter “off-season”? This past winter, reflecting on my goals for 2024, I found a weakness I had put off working on long enough; technical multi-pitch rock climbing.

Let’s Downclimb a Bit

I am afraid of heights. Shocking to most people considering my day job for the past decade has been flying helicopters into hurricanes, mountains, and the open ocean at night, oftentimes even in zero visibility. Despite being exposed to heights on an almost daily basis for the past decade my fear has never subsided, however, I have learned to manage it and pinpoint where the actual fear comes from. It is not the height itself, but the somatogravic feeling when free-falling.

Until the past few years, my fear of free-falling from a height has not entered into my risk consideration when heading to the outdoors. I had successfully climbed Mt. Shasta, Whitney, Rainier, and The Palisade Glacier all without trepidation. I had also been completing a decent amount of single-pitch climbs outdoors and had started lead climbing in the gym. However, when I looked at my goals for 2024 I knew I reached a crossroads where, if I wanted to successfully move into more difficult mountaineering pursuits, I had to face the next logical route, technical alpine climbing.

The Plan

“Master Your Strengths, Outsource your weaknesses” – R. Khan

As an average climber (on good days), I reached out to a friend I had climbed Mt. Rainier with the previous season for some suggestions on where to begin. He was currently guiding trips in Arizona and invited me to Tucson to climb with a local guiding company that specialized in multi-pitch rock climbing. The fear immediately set in so I decided to double down. I was already going to be way outside of my comfort zone so why not try and climb something I probably had no business even looking at; after all, if I wanted ever to make it to the Himalayas I had to face the fear eventually. I decided to head to Tucson for three days in January of 2024 with the mantra “Just do it ’till you love it”.

AZT, Anchors & Arêtes

My first morning in Tucson I met my guide Jake with two cups of coffee and a dream and headed to our first objective for the trip, Mt. Lemmon. Mt. Lemmon is the highest point of the Santa Catalina Mountains topping out at 9,159ft and is also one of the five mountain ranges surrounding the city of Tucson. I have always loved the high desert; the endless visibility, sprawling rock formations, and Saguaro cacti make even a modern traveler feel like they are in the middle of a John Wayne western. The start of the trail that day, unbeknownst to me, intertwined with the Arizona Trail. In case you were like me and had the misconception that the Arizona Trail, being in a high desert location would be flat, I can promise you it is anything but. The trail interconnects nine different ranges and peaks from the Mexico Border to Utah throughout 800 miles and over 100,000ft of elevation gain. Albeit short, I thoroughly enjoyed my day hike on the AZT and would go back in a heartbeat.

After a jaunt on the AZT, we reached the base of a few single-pitch climbs on Mt. Lemmon. Having only climbed in California, I immediately began a love affair with the sticky granite encapsulated on Mt. Lemmon. The snow from the approach on the AZT had spared the rock formation and we climbed to our heart’s content; climbing as many routes as possible taking breaks only so Jake could answer what probably seemed like an unyielding barrage of questions. After a full day at Mt. Lemmon, we departed back to Tucson for a night of rest and burrito therapy before attempting the main reason I had ventured to Arizona, The Cochise Dome.

Mt. Lemmon

Tombstone Revival

Deep inside the Coronado National Forest is the Cochise Stronghold. An area that was once used as the winter home of the Chiricahua Apache and the famous Native American Chief Cochise. From a modern perspective, it is easy to see why this natural fortress was a haven for the Apache from the U.S. Army; 22-28 million-year-old pink granite domes, covered in a light mist of lichen, tower above the surrounding base giving way to rich desert flora. The approach trail to the base of the Dome, a light class three scramble in some areas, still encapsulates indigenous art from a time long passed; a welcome reprieve from the rugged terrain while hiking in with a pack full of climbing gear.

As I stood at the base of the Dome and looked up, Jake laughed, “You know I love the difference in the reaction of people’s faces pre-climb and post-climb looking at the Dome” he said. I was transfixed, the towering rock stood there sprinkled with what the locals lovingly refer to as “chicken-heads” rock formations, almost saying, “Try it, I dare you”.

After a continued class three scramble through a maze of boulders and a hundred feet of class four body belays Jake and I arrived 200ft up the wall at the start of the climb.

“Where do we go from here” I asked.

“Well, ever heard of a pendulum start?” Jake smiled.

About 15 minutes later, one 50ft pendulum swing and a lot of self-talk later, we started the climb to the top.

A Long Way Down

About midway through the climb, at the second belay station, I clipped in and began getting set up to belay Jake up another pitch. The sun was high and despite it being January, I was warm. I took a moment while setting up to look around and, mistakenly, down. We had come a long way, eye level with the bisecting Dragoon Mountains, and high above the desert floor I had a brief moment of what my pilot brain told me was spatial disorientation. I turned back to the rock face, took a breath, and told myself, go one more. That became the mantra for the rest of the climb and, a few hours later, as the sun started to dip toward the horizon I stood atop the Cochise Dome. I stood alone for a moment, the awe-inspiring views stretched across the desert landscape and I attempted to take them all in, mesmerized like a moth to a flame. The solace of that place felt as though the drudgery and responsibilities of life lay below me and, for those few hours, I was above it, hesitant to descend back into it.


A few rappels down the backside and a long hike out of the Stronghold Jake and I arrived back to the car for the drive back to Tucson. Before leaving, I took one more look at the Dome, Jake laughed again and said,

“I know what you are thinking and it IS crazy that we just climbed that”.

After landing back in California and returning home I felt renewed. The desert and climbing were a force unto themselves but, I had a renewed vigor sparked by learning. Continual learning, especially as an adult, has a profound effect as I age; it brings me renewed vitality and boyhood wonder.

Off-seasons are important, even for dirtbags who spend their free time carrying their poop as they walk through the woods. Ride with the fear and learn; it’s more important than you may realize.


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