Best Scrambling 2013 | Papago Park | Sports & Recreation | Phoenix

Scrambling is sort of like bouldering, a rock-climbing activity that generally keeps the climber traversing low to the ground, in that it involves no ropes or safety gear beyond rock shoes and possibly powdered chalk for a drier grip. But with scrambling, you keep going up — if you can. Papago is possibly the most popular place in the Valley to do this, and we've seen people in flip-flops and tennies ascending ghastly faces of crumbly rock and gravel that we wouldn't climb in rock shoes. We don't aspire to such daredevil behavior — and neither should you. But the nice part about Papago is that with good judgment, there are many rocky areas that are good and steep for scrambling but so easy — in the right places — that nearly anyone can do it. Challenge your fears and the tread of your shoes on the friction slopes near Hole-in-the-Rock and the hills just east of the northern fairways of Papago Golf Course. For hikers and bikers in popular Papago Park, scrambling up the pink hills provides that extra thrill you crave on the trail.

One of the worst things about this year's closure of Camelback's west-side hiking trails, especially the über-popular Echo Canyon Trail, is that the west side is the location of all the best climbing. But it's expected to re-open near the end of the year, and it's the single best bouldering spot in the Valley proper, so we feel compelled to tout it. Camelback, known since the late '40s as a rock-climbing mini-mecca for the Phoenix area despite the many areas with loose rock, has not only several tall climbs ranging from 100 to more than 300 feet but dozens of excellent short bouldering routes that put calluses on your fingertips and muscles you didn't could exist had on your forearms. You'll want to pick up a copy of Marty Karabin's Rock Climber's Guide to Camelback Mountain, a fold-out map (price: $5) that shows all the main bouldering areas. The boulder we frequent the most is called the Pyramid, a little ways up from the parking lot. When we can round the northeast corner without setting a foot on the ground, we know our training is paying off.

Want to test out those fingertips on some real rock and stand atop a truly kick-ass pinnacle summit? For the beginning leader, you can do no better than the west corner of Tom's Thumb. This gorgeous piece of granite can be seen from miles away, sticking out like a ripe piece of fruit on the summit ridges of the McDowells. Two fun new trails that lead to Tom's Thumb opened in the past couple of years. Take the newer, shorter trail on the east side of the McDowells, since you'll be hauling a backpack with the requisite gear for this adventure. If you don't know what to bring for this traditional climb, you shouldn't be trying it. Consult a guidebook, regardless. Begin the route with an easy, ropeless scramble to a kitchen-table-size belay ledge. The first 20 feet or so is easy — then the fun begins. The Phoenix Rock Guidebook calls this a 5.1, but don't be fooled by the sandbagged rating. The two best parts: The shaded nook just under the smooth friction ramp you'll just about pee your pants on, and reaching the summit. We hope you like long rappels, too, because that's the only way you're getting down.

We almost lost Climbmax Climbing Gym two years ago when the owners shut it down, citing reasons beyond their control. But it's opened under new management, and we're ecstatic to still be cursing our shapeless arms as we cling to its 180 bouldering problems (along with a cave that climbs from the first to second floor), its 150 top-rope routes and 45 leads. When outside climbing is foolish or impossible because of the weather, Climbmax is the next best thing. Its walls are sculpted to imitate real rock face. You can lead climb a crack, an arch, and a 45-degree overhang. The top floor is filled with bouldering routes ranging from beginner to expert that the amiable staff changes every couple of months. Climbmax is 13,000 square feet of air-conditioned escape during the summer, and a good second option when you can't find a friend to pitch in for gas or belay you outdoors.

With a 7,500-square-foot weight room, two full-size basketball courts, lap pool and spa, indoor jogging track, and 35-foot climbing wall, the Virginia G. Piper Sports and Fitness Center isn't just the best gym in Phoenix for people with disabilities — we're pretty sure it's close to the best gym for anyone, anywhere. But the fact that this place is specifically designed to be universally accessible to people who use prosthetics, wheelchairs, and other assistance to get around is what makes it so special. And so necessary. Paralympians gather here. So do veterans learning to walk again and just about everyone in between. This facility — which has reasonable drop-in and long-term membership rates — is truly a treasure, smack dab in the middle of metro Phoenix.

Year in and year out, Larry Fitzgerald's labeled the best wide receiver in pro football. But he's really been the best wide receiver in the National Football League with nobody to throw the ball to him. Well, not nobody, but the list of dismal quarterbacks since Kurt Warner's retirement is stifling. Can anyone say Kevin Kolb? (Don't worry, nobody can — the last name's pronounced Cobb.) The Cardinals paid a lot of money for this dud, only to have to give up on the dream that the former Philadelphia Eagles starter (briefly) could take the Cardinals to the promised land.

But, hey, now there's hope: In the off-season, the team signed Carson Palmer, who had good years with the Cincinnati Bengals, and before that, the University of Southern California. Sure, he played for the Oakland Raiders last year and didn't impress. Nobody does with the horrible Raiders. But we think he's just the medicine that Larry Fitzgerald needs to return to the dominance he showed when Warner was slinging passes to him. (Full disclosure: We said nearly the same thing a couple of years ago about Kolb — but Palmer's a proven commodity who hasn't spent his pro career on injured reserve).

Okay, let's forget about last year's disastrous Cards season and quote stats from Fitz's glory years: In the post-season leading up to the Cardinals berth in the 2008 Super Bowl, he had a record-breaking 30 receptions for 544 yards. The lanky former Minnesota Vikings ballboy (his dad was a sportswriter for the local daily) and perennial Pro Bowl selection can do it all, especially jump way above defenders and pull down passes in double-coverage. And when he's not doing that, he's got a passel of defenders devoted to him, and the other guys get hit for big plays. Pray we're right this time, and he and Palmer take the team to greatness.

Brittney Griner's a monster! She's a 6-foot-8, 207-pound chick taken first in the WNBA draft by the Phoenix Mercury who could play in an NBA front court. She's one hell of a basketball player, natch, because professional teams don't consider you the best college basketball player in the nation unless you can deliver. And deliver she did for Baylor University in Texas, which she led to the women's college Division I national championship in 2012, scoring 26 points, hauling in 13 rebounds, and blocking five shots to trounce Notre Dame by almost 20 points. To say she was the most dominant player in college is a huge understatement — her 2,000 points and 500 blocked shots are unmatched in NCAA history.

In her first game for the Mercury, Griner dunked the ball twice for an WNBA record. Hell, this is women's basketball — her two dunks made her just the third pro woman ever to dunk! Which means Griner may be the lady who puts the women's game on the freakin' map. It's hard to fathom nowadays, but there was a time when the NBA prohibited dunking. When the rule changed, the men's game took off in popularity — there's nothing more exciting than a slam. And Griner will be rattling rims with regularity if she can stay healthy. A sprained knee in early July kept her out of the Mercury lineup and made a trip to the league All-Star game impossible. Griner may be a game-changer in more ways than just on the court: Gigantic firms are talking to her about endorsement deals, a rarity among female athletes, especially in team sports. We just wish the Suns had drafted her, which isn't farfetched at all: Before she went with the pro gals, Mark Cuban said he'd consider giving Griner a go in the NBA with his Dallas Mavericks. Apparently, the excitable owner thought her size-17 shoe could kick ass in either league.

The rap on Todd Graham is that he's a disloyal climber. But this will be his second season as Arizona State University's football coach, and we have hope that he'll stick it out and take the Sun Devils to postseason glory for seasons to come. Since we've been in Phoenix, ASU's been mediocre to bad, with a couple of mediocre-to-bad head coaches. Graham's 8-5 campaign in 2012 was a promising beginning, the first winning season for the team since 2007. And it got them an actual bowl bid, albeit the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (huh?) in San Francisco, which ASU won 62-28 over, um, little ol' Navy. It'll be a challenge to turn Tempe U into a football power, but Graham is used to challenges. He took doormat Rice University in Texas to a 7-6 season, including a minor bowl game, in his first and only year there in 2006 (the team had gone 1-10 the season before). Despite a contract extension at Rice, he bolted (to much hatred from Rice alumni and students) for the University of Tulsa, where he amassed a 36-17 record over four seasons. Next stop: the University of Pittsburgh and one 6-6 season, after which he again scrammed, this time to ASU. When he announced his departure, shocked Pitt players felt betrayed, with one saying, "Everything he's told us has been a lie."

Energizer Bunny Graham's sketchy past aside, he put a fast offense and a hugely aggressive defense on the field last year, averaging a milestone nine tackles for losing yardage a game. Hey, ASU came within two points of winning the Pac-12 South. And imagine how much better things could get if (miracle of miracles!) Todd gives it, say, five seasons in Tempe (one more than his successful stint at Tulsa). Graham ambition could turn into a good thing for ASU — if he channels it to his football team. Makes them reach out for more, as he's done during his coaching career. We're thinking Rose Bowl this season and national championship down the line. Don't disappear on us, Graham. We'll hunt you down if you do.

We loved Alvin Gentry, but he never was a head coach who could deliver a consistently winning team, much less a champion. He was put out of his misery by the team with the most miserable record in the NBA's Western Conference last season, the Phoenix Suns. After searching high and low, Suns honchos brought in Jeff Hornacek from the Utah Jazz, where he'd toiled as a player and a "special coach" under the legendary Jerry Sloan and later as a full-time Jazz assistant. Hornacek was an outstanding player! Originally drafted by the Suns, he terrified opposing players with his intensity. He became the Suns' third option in an offense dominated by Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers. Coached by Cotton Fitzsimmons, the combo took the previously hapless franchise to three playoff appearances in a row. Hornacek became the Suns' most prolific scorer in the 1991-92 season with 20 points per game. Despite all that, his claim to fame in Phoenix then was as the guy who got traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for Charles Barkley. He was a Sixer for a season before he landed in Utah, playing under Sloan and with two greats, John Stockton and Karl "Mailman" Malone. The trio led the Jazz to the NBA Finals twice, losing both times to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in '97 and '98. Hornacek had the unenviable task of guarding the greatest basketball player ever in those losses. Winner of the NBA three-point competition twice, Hornacek once hit 11 threes in a row to tie the then-NBA record.

One of the most fundamentally sound players ever, he hit 67 free throws in a row in the '99 season. But can he excel as a head coach? Star players rarely make great coaches, but Hornacek — despite his athletic accolades — never was a star. He had to fit in with dazzling players wherever he went, even moving from shooting guard to point guard in Philly. He had to take advantage of what was offered him. He was the greatest player most fans never heard of. He'll fit in and excel as a head coach, too — or die trying!

Not that long ago, one of the biggest arguments in sports was over who the worst owner was. It was a close race between Donald Sterling of the Los Angeles Clippers and the Bidwills (daddy Bill and son Michael). Our money always was on the owners of the Arizona Cardinals because they were notoriously cheap when it came to acquiring top players, though the same thing could be said about Sterling. Nowadays, all that's changed. The Clippers are one of the elite teams in the NBA, with Sterling forking over multi-millions to acquire the likes of point guard Chris Paul and former Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers. And the Bidwills haven't been far behind, though their recruiting prowess hasn't panned out in past years with the acquisitions of coach Ken Whisenhunt, who (despite our endorsement) turned out to be a dismal failure, quarterback Kevin Kolb, and perennially injured Beanie Wells.

Now, though, we must award the Bidwills the coveted Best Owners in Valley Sports award. In the off-season, Michael Bidwill, who runs the team now that his pop's all but retired, has gone out and gotten what we believe will be the best coach in team history, Bruce Arians. He's also gotten a veteran quarterback in the Kurt Warner mold in Carson Palmer. Plus, he whacked Whisenhunt and traded Kolb and Wells. And he's had the good sense to cherish the great Larry Fitzgerald, whose eight-year, $120 million contract is one of the largest in the NFL. Gone are the days when the Bidwills were best known for low-balling. Nowadays, they're in it to win it.

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