Camelback Mountain Combines Beauty, History, and Adventure in One Fragile Phoenix Park

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It was a fine morning on the day after Christmas, crumpled gift wrap still lying in the sleepy Paradise Valley homes below as a 17-year-old climber clung desperately to a sheer rock face at Camelback Mountain.

Getting to the top of this freestanding 100-foot finger of pink rock on the northern slope of the mountain was more than a little crazy. He was heels-to-the-air with scant protection -- one slip away from a possible death fall.

See Also: Hiking Camelback Mountain's Cholla Trail in Phoenix (Slideshow)

To Valley residents, the scenario sounds familiar: Dramatic rescues caught by TV news choppers occur routinely at the popular Phoenix mountain park, and they often involve young men who climbed themselves into trouble.

Like most people who visit the mountain's famous Echo Canyon, young Gary Driggs and his climbing partner, Guy Mehl, had come for more than a pretty view and mere exercise. They'd come for adventure.

As Driggs climbed higher and put himself in greater danger, what had started as a lark turned into a quest for glory. He was close to a prestigious first ascent of a spectacular climbing route. Phoenicians long had admired the prominent rock tower, which resembles a human figure kneeling in prayer. But it was believed that no human had ever stood on top.

The year was 1951. The route: the east face of Praying Monk, now considered one of America's most classic short climbs.

Slightly more than 100,000 people lived in Phoenix proper back then, but new development was booming after World War II. Residents and newcomers had seen something special in Camelback, northeast of the city's center, since Phoenix was founded. In the early 1950s, homes surrounded the base of the mountain. Hikers made the steep march to its 2,704-foot summit regularly on meandering versions of what became Echo Canyon and Cholla trails.

Driggs was a Boy Scout who'd started climbing the year before with the Kachinas, an Arizona-based, Scouts-affiliated climbing club. They were a daring bunch of kids, and Camelback was one of the Kachinas' primary hangouts. Club members such as Ben Pedrick, Robert Owens, and Dick Hart had established several other routes still used by climbers today, including Pedrick's Chimney, Suicide Direct, and Hart's Route.

"But the assumption was that Praying Monk was unclimbable," says Driggs, now 79, from the comfort of his Scottsdale business office.

The Monk's face stands at nearly 80 degrees and has several relatively smooth sections. Footholds are scarce. Instead of climbing shoes coated with sticky rubber, which weren't in wide use until the 1960s, Driggs and his partner wore hiking boots.

Today's climbers find the Monk's face studded with several bolts placed solidly into drilled holes in the rock. Without getting into the esoteric procedures of climbing, suffice it to say that these bolts make climbing the Monk relatively safe these days. Tall, exposed, and well-bolted, it's a superb tryout for any beginning lead climber.

Driggs was tied into one end of the rope, and Mehl was belaying him from the ground in a setup that would be familiar to today's climbers. But with clumsy shoes and no bolts, the Monk's face was a scary, blank wall.

Driggs and Mehl decided that day just to "see how far we could get," he says.

The climb's typical start is easy, up some boulders and into the shade of a shallow cave. Once climbers step back into the sunlight and onto the relatively smooth east face, they're exposed to an airy drop of at least 30 feet and must continue more or less straight up from there.

Driggs placed three pitons in the first half of the climb, knowing they were unlikely to hold him in a fall because they weren't embedded deeply enough. After climbing above his last piton, when he was about 50 or 60 feet up, he encountered a section with no easy-to-reach handhold. Just above was a concave depression in the rock that would provide a great place to stand, if he could get there. He'd have to lunge for it. Driggs nailed the move. The last few feet were a piece of cake.

"At 12:30, I gazed on the summit of the Monk, the prize of Camelback, the impossible Monk," the teen wrote in his journal a few days later.

As it is now, the best way off the top of the Monk was to rappel. Driggs and Mehl saw no anchors or other evidence that anyone had been there before. They sunk some pitons into the summit to create their own anchor, then rappelled down.

The ascent meant more to the future of Phoenix than a notable deed in the annals of climbing, which it was. Driggs' connection to Camelback would become instrumental in preserving the public's ability not only to gaze upon the scenic wonders of the mountain, but also to play among them.

For Camelback lovers, 2013 was a tough year.

The mountain was a holy place to the ancient Native Americans who lived in the Salt River Valley, and it's worshiped in modern times by legions of hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. Camelback is one of the most-climbed mountains in the country, with more than 700,000 ascents each year on Cholla and Echo Canyon trails combined. Hiking to the summit practically is a rite of passage for anyone with two strong legs and a few days to kill in Phoenix. The number of visitors has swelled in recent years, leading to severe parking and traffic problems and more erosion, especially for the heavily used Echo Canyon trail.

Last January 28, the Echo Canyon Recreation Area and the Echo Canyon trailhead, the primary gateway to the mountain and the most popular hiking route to its principle summit, were closed for renovations. Regular visitors and casual hikers were forced to ascend using either Cholla Trail, the narrower, somewhat less scenic summit route just off Invergordon and 64th streets on the mountain's east side, which has no established parking lot or other facilities, or to simply find another peak to climb.

The long wait was scheduled, as this edition went to press, to end January 15 with the reopening of the trailhead and park at 4925 East McDonald Drive, just east of Tatum Boulevard. Several changes make the new Echo Canyon trail and parking area more user-friendly.

The main difference is the expansion of the parking lot at the end of Echo Canyon Parkway, a small street leading south from McDonald. The lot has doubled in size, from 66 spaces to 135. That'll help -- though it still won't be easy to get a parking spot there on nice days. Some people will continue to park as far away as the Paradise Valley Town Hall lot, more than two miles away, and walk or bike to the trailhead.

Where the city's premier urban-hiking area previously sported only porta-potties, permanent restrooms have been installed. Residents of the small housing development just west of the parking lot now have their own access road; the traffic and frequent blocking of Echo Canyon Parkway by fire trucks responding to rescue calls had frustrated homeowners for years.

Finally, the much-loved Echo Canyon summit trail has been altered to control erosion. The beginning is mellowed slightly, taking a winding half-mile to reach the first saddle (which affords views to the east), a spot that before was reached after an extremely strenuous quarter-mile. The more direct path had allowed more water to rush down the trail, adding to the punishing effects of millions of yearly footsteps. The rest of the trail remains the same. That is, it's still a butt-kicker.

Achieving Camelback's summit requires a lot of energy, as Echo Canyon Trail features a vertical gain of 1,264 feet in less than 1.5 miles. First-time visitors and the physically unprepared find themselves in awe of its difficulty, having figured nothing that short could be so tough. True, Camelback hardly is in the same class as, say, Kilimanjaro, Fuji, or K2, but it's a special and unique mountain park right in the heart of the sixth-largest city of the United States. Factoring in convenience, natural beauty, exercise, thrills, people-watching, and potential for solitude, Camelback arguably is one of the best mountains in the world.

Even in metro Phoenix, by definition a valley because it's ringed by mountains, Camelback is notable for its distinct beauty. It's shaped like a prone camel with its head resting on the ground. Its geology is interesting and varied. The pyramid-like main section (the hump of the beast) is a reddish, soft granite. Its head, to the west, displays awe-inspiring cliffs and domes. This area is a collection of bubbly conglomerate studded with small, jutting rocks and holes and crevices where some of the rocks have fallen out over eons. Almost all the climbing routes in the mountain preserve, which encompasses 385 acres total, are on the head.

The mountain's most eye-pleasing feature, perhaps, is its color: Unlike most of the gray mountains that surround it, Camelback is red, orange, or pink. It's like a slice of Sedona just a few miles from downtown Phoenix.

Naturally, homes on Camelback or with a great view of it are some of the most desired and expensive places to live in the Valley. Camelback-focused resorts, such as Sanctuary, are world-famous. President Obama likes to stay at the Phoenician, and before him, President George W. Bush preferred the Royal Palms -- both resorts at the base of the regal mountain.

Plant and animal life are diverse for a mountain surrounded by busy multi-lane thoroughfares. Its high and crack-filled cliffs provide protection, shade, and natural water pockets for a variety of animals. Chuckwallas (big lizards related to iguanas) are a common sight on the rocks. Visitors can catch glimpses of foxes, coyotes, javelinas, raccoons, or bobcats. They also may encounter a rattlesnake or hive of Africanized bees. If you're not careful, Camelback will hurt -- or kill -- you.

Which is one of its most interesting aspects. It has been preserved as a place where you can test your limits. The summit trails are tough, no matter what your fitness level, especially in extreme summer heat. Climbers can seek higher cliffs, while the plain adventurous can scout "secret" trails to sublime, maze-like hideaways of rock.

The dark side of all this risky fun is that deaths occur at Camelback. The city couldn't provide an official tally of how many, but news reports register six between 2008 and 2012: three from falling, two from heart attacks, and a suspected suicide. No deaths were recorded in 2013, but rescues are common.

On Christmas Day recently, a 50-year-old woman fell and hit her head, needing a rescue flight off Cholla Trail, and on New Year's Day, an 11-year-old boy sustained a head injury in a 25-foot fall and was carried off the same trail on a stretcher.

Hikers blow out their knees, fall onto rocks, tumble off cliffs, or get lost in the dark. Even on mildly warm days, people collapse from heat exhaustion. Daredevils climb themselves into tight spots from which they can neither advance nor retreat.

The liability is all theirs. The city bears no legal responsibility for the natural elements of the preserve, and no push has been made to restrict places that may be too tempting for unprepared hikers. Neither has there been any effort to charge foolhardy victims for the cost of their rescues (an amount that is debatable, because firefighters and helicopter pilots get paid whether on an emergency call or not).

That's not to say there isn't official concern.

Possibly one of the park's most important new renovations is the addition of two large signs, one at the trailhead and another a half-mile into Echo Canyon Trail, that warn visitors that they're about to climb a vertical gain that's higher than the Empire State Building. The signs suggest that if hikers aren't ready for this challenge, they ought to turn back -- while they still can.

Public access to Camelback is taken for granted nowadays. But the entire mountain almost ended up closed to everyone but Camelback-area homeowners, whose dwellings could've sprawled all through Echo Canyon and higher up the camel's hump.

The mountain was formed about 25 million years ago with the uplifting of billion-year-old granite and newer bumpy sandstone. The Hohokam Indians, who abandoned the area in the mid-1400s, made use of the giant natural amphitheater now called the Ceremonial Grotto. They wouldn't have failed to notice the echo that gives the canyon its name.

Gary Driggs' 160-page coffee-table book, Camelback: Sacred Mountain of Phoenix, published in 1998 by the Arizona Historical Society, goes into the mountain's history in detail.

Interesting facts of the early period include: The first home on the side of Camelback, north of Camelback Road near 56th Street, was built in 1947 by Orme Lewis, founder of the venerable Phoenix law firm Lewis & Roca. Camelback Inn, which opened in 1936, was developed by Phoenix patriarch John C. Lincoln and 32-year-old North Dakota reporter John Stewart, who first came to town to investigate dismembering "Trunk Murderess" Winnie Ruth Judd. In 1950, consideration was given to building a hotel, restaurant, and swimming pool on Camelback's summit, which would've been accessible by a tram leaving from a station at 48th Street and Camelback Road.

Driggs' second book in 2008, Camelback Mountain, part of Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series, describes how in January 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes granted about a million acres of land that centered on Camelback Mountain to the Pima and Maricopa Indians. Under pressure from about 5,000 residents of the 18-year-old town of Phoenix, Hayes reversed the order six months later and reduced the reservation in size, forming what is known today as the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

Camelback wouldn't have another brush with preservation until the second half of the 20th century.

By the time of Driggs' Monk climb, almost all the land around the mountain had been sold off by the state to private interests, some of it for as little as $100 an acre. As homes and bulldozer scars climbed higher up its slopes, angst among Valley residents grew. But saving the mountain would take more than a decade of hard work and persistence. A group of concerned affluent residents formed in 1954 and filed petitions to save the upper part of Camelback.

The motivation of many of the preservationists had nothing to do with public access. "The original impetus to save the mountain was from rich people who lived there and didn't want their views encumbered," Driggs says.

The county ruled in 1956 that nothing could be built on Camelback higher than 1,600 feet above sea level, but the limit wasn't legally enforceable. After several construction sites were established higher than the suggested limit, Phoenix women from 30 garden clubs led an effort to save Camelback that eventually included prominent state residents, according to a 2001 article by Josh Protas published in the University of Arizona's Journal of the Southwest.

The mid-1960s saw several groups clamor for preservation of the upper part of the mountain. Twenty-six area schools created "Save Camelback Mountain" chapters. Teens held fundraisers culminating in a December 1965 dance where former U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater made a guest appearance wearing a Beatles wig and entertaining the crowd with a rendition of "Silent Night" on trombone.

Goldwater had exited his job in 1964 (after losing the presidential election) and put his time and money into saving Camelback. Following a $300,000 fundraising effort spearheaded by Goldwater and a $211,250 federal grant, owners of more than 350 acres around the hump were paid off in the late 1960s and the upper flanks and summit of Camelback Mountain were saved.

But clear access to the mountaintop hadn't been part of the preservation deal, nor was Echo Canyon part of it. Armed guards occasionally turned back hikers who strayed onto private property.

But then a stroke of luck for hikers and climbers occurred: Driggs' brother, John, was elected mayor of Phoenix. Gary, with his emotional ties to Camelback climbing, long had been an advocate for continued public access to the mountain. Suddenly, the push for a public mountain park at Camelback had a powerful ally.

The Driggs family was famous in Phoenix even before Gary's ascent of the Praying Monk and John's mayoral reign. In 1929, the family founded what would become Western Savings and Loan, which 50 years later became the largest S&L in the state. The Driggs' name forever will be tainted by the colossal failure in the 1980s of Western Savings, which ultimately was taken over by the federal Resolution Trust Corporation.

Long before that happened, though, came a second stroke of luck involving Gary Driggs and the creation of the Echo Canyon Recreation Area. Driggs was a vice president at Western in 1970 when developer John Lort approached him with a financing plan to develop a 129-acre Camelback parcel that included Echo Canyon. Lort didn't know that such a development was the last thing Driggs wanted to see happen on the land, even if the project might be profitable for both men.

Alarmed, Driggs called his brother, the mayor, for a meeting.

"I said, we have to act now!" Driggs recalls.

The rock-climbing banker took staff members of the city's Parks and Recreation Department on a Camelback climbing tour of Echo Canyon.

"They had no idea how cool it was," he says. "They [wanted to] put ball fields and tennis courts in there."

The majority of city council members agreed that Camelback's preservation was important. They voted on December 15, 1970, to acquire 91 acres of the parcel owned by Lort's company. Lort agreed to do a higher-density development on the remaining acres just west of what would become the Echo Canyon parking area. These are the homes that now will be served by the park's new separate entrance road, which runs parallel to the renovated road leading to the parking lot.

(One well-used climbing cliff on the west side of the mountain's head, a spot called the Bolus, didn't make it into park boundaries. Though still shown on some climbing maps, it's now private property, and visitors may be subject to trespassing tickets.)

Echo Canyon Park opened with a dedication ceremony in 1973. Work on a well-defined summit trail began after that. Boy Scout troops, members of the Arizona Mountaineering Club, and other outdoor enthusiasts took part in the effort.

Cholla Trail, on the mountain's east side, had been an unofficial route to the summit since the 1920s but was closed in the '90s because of complaints from homeowners and reopened in 1998.

If not for Goldwater, the Driggs brothers, and a legion of preservation zealots in the 1950s through the early '70s, the mountain would've become a regional landmark to reckless development instead of the beautiful mountain park it is today.

The Phoenix Fire Department responded to about 50 calls per year for assistance from hikers and climbers at Camelback Mountain from 2009 to 2012.

"[Often] if the rescue isn't completely heat-related, there's an element of heat to the call," fire Captain Bobby Dubnow says.

Dehydrated hikers can succumb quickly. In the past three years, a young man and a teenager died of dehydration at Phoenix's South Mountain, in each case after about four hours. Camelback hasn't had a heat-related death in recent times but has had its share of hyperthermic hikers: On a day in mid-July 2010, firefighters rescued eight people suffering from heat problems on the Echo Canyon Trail. Among them were a couple from Missouri and their three young kids, who were in visible distress after nearly three hours on the trail in late morning. As firefighters helped them down, a boy began having leg cramps and a 10-year-old girl was vomiting, both signs of heat exhaustion.

The fire department recorded only five calls to Camelback in 2013, which suggests that Echo Canyon Trail, as opposed to Cholla Trail, is responsible for 90 percent of the rescues, even though Cholla has nearly as many hikers.

Overall, the fire department is busiest when the weather is nicer, simply because more people are on the mountain. Slips and falls, heart attacks, allergic reactions, and bee stings are common.

Off Echo Canyon Trail, a less-used path leads up a short rise and then down a mild incline along an east-facing wall. From near a corner block of rock the size of a 10-story building, there's a phenomenal view of the Southeast Valley out to the San Tan Mountains and, below, some of the mansions on the mountain's flanks.

This is roughly where Clint McHale, a 25-year-old Phoenix bank employee, landed after falling about 50 feet during a climb on May 4, 2011. His body shattered beyond repair, McHale died shortly after arriving by rescue helicopter at Scottsdale Osborn Hospital.

His younger sister, Chelsey, embarked on a media crusade to warn the public that Camelback can be deadly. In addition to the aforementioned signage, officials plan to add another sign a half-mile up Echo Canyon Trail, at Echo Saddle, which incorporates McHale's story, says David Urbinato, spokesman for the city Parks and Recreation Department.

"It's not a memorial, it's a warning," Urbinato says. "If you leave the main trail, you're taking a risk."

There's little question that McHale and his friend, Jonathan Gustafson, 21, knew they were flirting with danger.

McHale and Gustafson had no rock-climbing shoes, harnesses, or ropes that day. Fifty feet up from where they'd started, McHale's grip weakened.

"I am falling. Grab my hand!" he yelled in a panic to Gustafson, who was above him, a police report details. McHale slipped from the rock into space.

More than a year after his death, Chelsey found videos on her brother's computer of him at Camelback. His climb wasn't impulsive, she learned. It was routine. He'd previously done the nameless route and tackled challenging rock faces elsewhere in the park.

"To Clint, I know that gave him a sense of accomplishment, and he [strived] to reach every goal he set," Chelsey tells New Times. "He enjoyed the physical challenge and the sense of peace he received when he was at the top."

Similar tragedies have occurred regularly over the years. In 1989, ASU student Andre Dauvergne took a fatal plunge after climbing Suicide Direct, considered difficult for trained mountaineers, with neither safety gear nor climbing shoes.

Technical rescues, those from high-angle terrain, usually happen around dusk, after people have exhausted efforts to reach safety on their own, says Dubnow, whose fire station employs a team that responds to the most difficult hiker/climber misadventures. Unexpected dangers may arise on Camelback.

The mountain's infamous killer bees attacked two rock climbers in 2004 on Hart Route, listed in one guidebook as an "easy, old classic" trail.

High up on the route, Peoria schoolteacher Keith Abbe had swatted at a few bees buzzing around his face. The insects swarmed the two men, covering them in stings. Jeff Passage told his friend, who had only indoor-climbing experience, to untie from their rope -- which didn't reach all the way down -- and climb back to the ground. Abbe made it down a few feet before slipping and falling to his death.

On a different part of the mountain's head in October 2012, near Icebox Canyon and the old George Route, bees struck three young men climbing without ropes or rock shoes.

Joshua Ruzsa, 19, was seen swatting at the bees just before taking his fatal plunge. His two companions curled up in fetal positions in a shallow rock cave on the side of the cliff. A rescue chopper used a winch to lower a firefighter wearing a bee suit to rescue them. Despite these deaths, the city will remove only beehives near main hiking trails.

Rescuers note that parachuting off a 500-foot face of the mountain has become popular.

Though legal, the activity is foolhardy because of the limited skydiving distance, they say. Dubnow relates that, last year, "two guys came out of a bar, had their gear in the trunk of their car, and thought it would be a good idea to do a quick jump on the way home." One of the men's parachutes collapsed after he accidentally hit the wall of the mountain, causing him to land hard on rocks below. He was seriously injured but survived.

Most Camelback Mountain visitors don't get hurt, but they all leave an impact on the mountain. There's no way such a fragile ecosystem can sustain the hundreds of thousands of hikers, climbers, and amateur explorers who visit each year, says Kathi Reichert, a Phoenix Parks and Recreation manager who retired last year.

Looking to the far future, Reichert envisions permits for hikers and climbers, such as those required at California's Mt. Whitney and other extremely popular and sensitive areas. That is, fees for parking and climbing might have to be imposed. And, realistically, any path that receives so much traffic has to be paved, she says.

As it is, both Echo Canyon and Cholla trails become just a little bit wider and deeper every year.

"The trails will continue to deteriorate," Reichert predicts.

Adding concrete and steps, as was done at nearby Piestewa Peak, is a solution few people want, because the additions mar the natural beauty of the place. And although Reichert isn't a fan of steps either, she warns that without those measures, "there'll be no vegetation, and the wildlife will go away."

Reichert once noticed that Southwest Airlines' in-flight magazine advised that hiking to Camelback's summit was a must for any visitor to Phoenix. She contacted the airline and asked it to remove the suggestion from future issues because Camelback couldn't tolerate far more visitors than it already was getting. Southwest complied.

Before Camelback's renovation, parking was intolerable at Echo Canyon. Until rangers stopped the practice, cars idled on Echo Canyon Parkway, their drivers waiting for a parking spot.

Even with the renovation and 135 spaces, parking still will be insufficient for hordes of visitors. "We obviously would've preferred a larger parking area," says Paradise Valley Town Manager Jim Bacon. "I think it needs to be another 50 to 100 spaces." People still will be allowed to park at PV's Town Hall, he says.

There's no question, Bacon says, that the parking addition was sorely needed and that residents just west of Echo Canyon Recreation Area will benefit from the new private roadway separating them from the visitor area. PV is contributing $450,000 toward the $4.3 million Phoenix renovation project at Echo Canyon.

Maybe it's lucky for park users that Phoenix decided to increase Echo Canyon parking at all. It was suggested at public meetings on the project that all parking be eliminated.

Though hikers and climbers would've been annoyed to always have to schlep into the area from miles away, the move would've meant less foot traffic on Camelback's most popular trail -- and been a blessing to the fragile ecosystem that Reichert describes.

But as it is, with the promise of increased access that 69 new parking spaces brings, we can expect more visitors than ever to the magnificent mountain.

E-mail ray.stern@newtimes.com.

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