Climbing

DESERT RUSTLE

The sun’s last rays light the dome as if from within. Above us tower 300 feet of deep-orange granite painted green with lichen. Below, three pitches down, the desert surrounding Cochise Stronghold stretches into a blue haze. Long shadows reach across the wall, pulling us into darkness. We four—Krista, a journalist; Len, a professor and climbing advocate; the guide Aaron Mike; and the photographer Gabriel Ellison-Scowcroft—don headlamps and keep climbing. As we gain the ledge on the fourth pitch of Sheepshead dome’s five-pitch Ewephoria (5.8) where we’ll bivy, the stars brighten. The long moo of a cow echoes off the rock.

Cochise Stronghold’s domes tower above a seemingly inhospitable landscape in southern Arizona. The cacti, agave, and yucca are what’s left after millions of years of evolution, the most resilient species of the bunch. But the only human footprints are from visitors; the original inhabitants—the ancestors of the O’odham peoples who lived here for thousands of years, and more recently the Chiricahua Apache—are now displaced across reservations. The great Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise took refuge here as both the US and Mexican armies hunted his people. In 1886, his fellow tribe members would become the last Native Americans to surrender and end the “Indian Wars”—systemic efforts by the US government to subdue and forcibly displace indigenous people in the West.

From a distance, Cochise Stronghold appears two-dimensional. The rounded domes rise from spotty forest cover as if in a painting. But up close the scene unfolds into a mind-bending display of angles, textures, and shadows. It’s easy to imagine why the Chiricahua took refuge here. “A better natural fortress would be difficult to find,” says a 1956 report by the US Geological Survey. The Stronghold provided water, shade, and shelter for the Chiricahua deep in its hidden valleys for more than six decades of armed conflict between Apache bands and the US Army. This period, the Apache Wars (1849–1886), proceeded the cession of territory from Mexico after the Mexican-American War. This had led to the building of US Army forts and a significant influx of American settlers who saw opportunities for livestock, agriculture, and mining once the Apaches were removed. In 1886, the US Army implemented a surge of 5,000 infantry to wear down the Apache, resulting in the surrender of Geronimo, who led the Chiricahua after Cochise’s death in 1874, and around 40 of his followers after the Chiricahua finally departed the Stronghold.

Before the Apache Wars, the desert “sky islands” served as waypoints and settlements

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