Echo Canyon Trail Reopens to Even More Adventure-Seeking Visitors to Magnificent Camelback Mountain

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.

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.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern