Saturday, September 15, 2012

Camelback Mountain: Suicide Direct -- Serious, But (Probably) Not Suicidal


A few months after I experienced the ridiculous "hanging rappel" misadventure, I led Suicide Direct (left).

Doing stuff you previously thought was impossible or too scary is one reason I have always loved rock climbing. My lead of this 5.8 Phoenix testpiece remains one of my most treasured times in my 23 years of on-and-off climbing.

The achievement was ironic, considering how badly I'd flailed on the route on toprope. Worse, I'd cracked a heelbone after falling on a boulder problem at Camelback Mountain the very weekend after Mike and I had climbed it. About three weeks later, my foot in a walking cast, I used crutches to hike up the trail to the base of Suicide Direct and photographed another friend, Kent, who had chosen this 5.8 as his first lead. I managed to snap a killer picture of him flying through the air. He'd slipped on relatively easy terrain above the bulging-overhang crux. He took a 20-25 lead fall that day. Very impressive. Then he slithered back up the overhang like it was nothing to finish the route.

Suicide Direct was first climbed in the late 40s or early 50s -- or maybe the 60s. I don't have firsthand info on the history of the route, but one looks at the bolts in it during my late-80s climb revealed that it was a classic. Greg Opland's Phoenix Rock II suggests it was climbed within five years of 1947 by the Kachinas, that hardcore group of Boy Scouts who pioneered many Valley routes not too long after WWII ended. Rock Climbing Arizona by Stewart M. Green, on the other hand, says the route's first ascent was completed in the 1960s by Lance and Dane Daugherty. Waugh's original Phoenix Rock says the Daugherty boys climbed it in '49. I'd go with that. Either way, as a 2008 report on the route on rockclimbing.com states, "Those old boys sure could climb hard in tennis shoes!" (Although if it was in the 1960s, it was possible they were wearing EBs.)

Waugh's scripture states that Suicide, the fun, three-pitch, 5.5 route left of Direct, suffered some infamous falls some years ago. I don't know the details on those. But I did find one old news story about a death on Suicide Direct in January of 1987. Andre Dauvergne fell after climbing the route with a partner, fellow ASU student Doug Loveday. According to the newspaper article I found, which quoted a volunteer rescuer, the climbers "had no climbing equipment and were wearing only tennis shoes ... to attempt an assault that is considered difficult even for experienced mountaineers." As Waugh's book says, climbers must "surmount the difficult overhang."

The overhang is not terribly difficult if you're a solid 5.10 leader, but even then it'll likely cause you to reflect on life and other important things. The spooky reputation of Camelback rock calls for that sort of perspective. If you're in over your head by leading a runout, exposed 5.8, the route's name doesn't seem far-fetched.


My obsessive hiking at Camelback frequently takes me past Suicide and Suicide Direct; I've never seen anyone climbing the latter, (because it's no ladder, hee-hee). Twice, I've seen people on Suicide. Once it was a pair of competent-looking climbers. The other time, which was a few years ago, it was a pair of yahoos using a 50-foot static line as a lead rope. I have no idea if they made it past the first pitch, which they had split into two pitches.
(Suicide Direct from Echo Canyon pkng lot.)



I know S.D. must get a few ascents a year, but it sure isn't a commonly climbed route. Which is all the better, if you want to do something special. It's for experts and foolhardy souls only, obvi-frickin-ously. Extremely satisfying when you nail it, for sure, and it puts you in an interesting spot on the western side of August Canyon. I don't know if the bees are still there. It's been quite a while since I've climbed it. Only did one other time after my lead. That was with Kent, who wanted me to belay him on a clean lead of the route about a year after his fall there. Although he finished the lead the day he fell, and flashed it when I belayed him his second time, that fall bugged him for years. Sometime around 99 or 00, he decided to put all his Suicide Direct fears behind him and complete a solo ascent of the route. At night. He's improved his climbing skills considerably since then. Last month, he free-soloed the Matterhorn.

I digress.

While I don't recall hearing about the '87 incident, I do remember one high-profile rescue at Suicide Direct from 10 years later. This was the case of a teenage resident of a now-closed juvenile boot camp on a group outing to Camelback. He snuck away from his group and freed the climb up to the bolted overhang. At the rest-stop just below the overhang, he realized he could neither go nor back down without killing himself. So he took off his T-shirt, pulled it through a bolt hangar, and tied a knot in it for a handy hold. Then he waited for the expensive technical rescue. I still think that was a fairly smart move on his part, to use the shirt like that. Going up the 5.8 without experience or rock shoes wasn't too swift. But I do appreciate the boldness. He probably didn't know the name of the route or its Yosemite Decimal System rating, but he knew it was a great line up a sweet cliff.

Suicide Direct isn't highlighted on the ClimbPhx Web site's Camel-page, so I assume the author hasn't climbed it. I thought I saw an in-depth route report, but it got lost in cyberspace and I've been unable to locate the site again. The above-mentioned rockclimbing.com report refers to the "stiff overhang," while a commenter notes the long runout. Those are actually just two of the challenges.

The first challenge climbers must confront is the 90-foot, "class-four" first pitch. Perhaps because this route gets so few ascents, or maybe it's just a geological quirk, this pitch does contain a fair amount of Camelback choss. It's easy to become lost in this asteroid field, so depending on how you do it, the first pitch might be an honest 5.0-5.2. And you'll be wearing a pack with your gear. So be wary of that class-four designation. When I climbed this with Kent, a rattlesnake was coiled in the shade at the top of the first pitch. I scrambled past it before seeing it, realizing it could have bitten me in the face. Kent used it as a handhold for a brief second, until his brain understood the skin on his fingertips had touched something alive. He pulled his hand back. "What was that?" "A rattlesnake," I answered. The snake shook its head and went back to sleep. The sun hadn't yet hit the crag, and it must enjoy sleeping in almost as much as I do.

(Photo of Suicide, 5.5, ripped from www.rockclimbing.com.)

You'll forget the excitement of the first pitch once you begin the second. Although it starts off fairly easy, you're instantly launched into the stratosphere. Lots of exposure, real soon -- thanks to that steep first pitch. I was sure happy when I reached that first bolt, but I had to leave it behind all too quickly. I recall only two bolts between the ground and the bolted overhang; another one may have been installed in recent years.

I'm cranking the overhang in the picture. I'd been doing a decent amount of climbing back then, so I found it rather fun, though strenuous. Funny, but on lead I remember that the handhold on the top-side of the overhang, which had some stiff grass growing in it, felt incredibly positive. When I later seconded it with Kent, it felt more angled and tricky. Could have just been conditioning. But both times, it required strength and nailing the footholds to get on top of it. After that, it's a tricky cat-walk left and up. I was well aware of Kent's fall when I led it and was extra cautious. Tired and a bit freaked out, the climax of my lead was yet to come.

The last move of Suicide Direct, unless it's been retro-bolted, is a sketchy pull in a gravelly slot with almost nothing for footholds. Scared the bejesus out of me. I placed a .5 Camelot in a flaring pocket a couple of feet under the move, knowing it wouldn't hold if I slipped. It would be as if the rock spit that cam out as I screamed past it, taking a lead fall of -- I don't know -- forty feet? Maybe more? Bouncing all the way. Of course, I didn't have a helmet, as the picture shows. So this climb might have been the death of me. Instead of flying off, though, I gritted my teeth, clenched everything else, and made that last pull, where I found -- and grabbed -- the chains attached to two or three bolts. This was one of the many experiences that make visiting Camelback an almost religious experience for me.

So, if you go, (and I hope you do, 'cause I'd love to see someone leading it...):

* Take two ropes, or;

* Brave the maze of August Canyon and find Pedrick's Chimney on its east side;

*Watch your step on that first pitch;

* Keep your head after the overhang.

* Watch out for poisonous reptiles and take a spare battery if you do it at night!

(Suicide Direct route at Camelback Mountain. Yellow dots indicate path, not bolts. There aren't many bolts.)

UPDATE: Just wanted to bring attention to and repeat some of the historical context here. As I mentioned in another blog post, Bob Owens of the Kachinas contacted me to report his climb of "Suicide Cliff" in 1947. Then there's the comment below about Lance and Dane Daugherty, legends of Phoenix climbing:

Climbing brothers said...
Just to clarify some information.
Lance and Dane Daugherty were my older 1/2 brothers. We moved out to Phoenix Az in the Fall of 1963. They began climbing in 1965.
Lance was born in 1947 and Dane in 1949.
Lance was killed in 1968 on his motorcycle coming back from a climb in Carefree. Dane quit climbing altogether in 1969.
Ironically, Dane was also killed on a motorcycle in 1978.
If the first climb of Suicide was in 1949 it could not have been my brothers.
Hope this clears up some confusion.
Sincerely,
Von Wagner

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

In 1969, When I was 18, I climbed a little bit with Dane Daugherty. He was only a couple of years older than me so he couldn't have put up the Suicide in the late '40or early '50s. When I climbed it with him he mentioned nothing about he and his brother first ascenting the route. Incidently, the Suicide scared me to death - too much exposure for this acrophopic rock climber. I wore Royal Robbin boots back then, I can't for the life of me remember what Dane was wearing. Roger Banan

Anonymous said...

I remember Andre Dauvergne. He was a great guy. His loss greatly saddened all of us.

The accident happened the same way as the stuck teenager. Doug & Andre got below the overhang & realized they couldn't go up anymore. Going down wasn't much of an option eithier & that's when the accident occured.

Doug & Andre had been free-climbing for about a year before the accident.

manny said...

Great information. The climb has become an issue because it has been retro bolted. I lead it yesterday. Now there are 8 bolts. A mix of new with some old Star Drives keeps it exciting.

I first lead it in late 80's when there were fewer bolts. It felt just as scary.

Climbing brothers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Climbing brothers said...

Just to clarify some information.
Lance and Dane Daugherty were my older 1/2 brothers. We moved out to Phoenix Az in the Fall of 1963. They began climbing in 1965.
Lance was born in 1947 and Dane in 1949.
Lance was killed in 1968 on his motorcycle coming back from a climb in Carefree. Dane quit climbing altogether in 1969.
Ironically, Dane was also killed on a motorcycle in 1978.
If the first climb of Suicide was in 1949 it could not have been my brothers.
Hope this clears up some confusion.
Sincerely,
Von Wagner