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

Categories: Outdoors

Andrew Pielage
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.

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TommyCollins topcommenter

Nicely done, Mr. Stern. I enjoyed reading about the history of Camelback Mountain. Other than shutting down close-in parking there isn't much that can be done to control the number of visitors. That likely isn't going to happen. People will continue to love it to death, just as they are doing at South Mountain, as you are aware.

Amy Politsky
Amy Politsky

I still want to try this hike but maybe I need to take a trail not so challenging. Maybe I could go part of the way. Thanks for posting this, very insightful.

Brian Pedersen
Brian Pedersen

On my list every time I visit Phoenix for work. Awesome hike.

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