Courthouse Butte 5451′ and Bell Rock 4919′
Total Time: 9 hours
Roundtrip Mileage: 6.0
Elevation Gain: 2300′
Crux: 5.6 on Courthouse Butte (South Bowl Route) and 5.8 and Bell Rock (Kamps Route)
Trailhead: Bell Rock Vista- full services except water, Red Rocks Pass required
Companions: Alex Wallace
Sedona features some of the most impressive desert spires and summits in the entire state of Arizona. I had been intimidated by technical climbing in Sedona for a long time, with users on summitpost warning of the crumbly and soft rock, with seemingly bomb proof protection being ripped easily from the soft sandstone. On top of that, the majority of the lines in Sedona were above my abilities, with only a handful of routes rated 5.9 or less. So as my climbing skills developed, I focused my attention to the solid granite of the McDowells and more forgiving rock of the Superstitions, and largely ignored Red Rock country, aside from a class 4 climb up Morning Glory Spire, which I had climbed free the year prior. But with temperatures in Phoenix heating up quickly, I needed to find some options north to practice some rope work, and decided to revisit some of the routes in Sedona. While many of the off-the-beaten path routes are loose and sketchy, there are actually a good number of classic lines that are climbed fairly regularly and relatively ‘safe’. So memorial day weekend with the temperatures breaking 100 in the Valley, Alex and I headed up to Sedona to test ourselves on some of the more well traveled lines, with plans to try Courthouse Butte and Bell Rock, and hopes for Queen Victoria in the afternoon if time allowed. Courthouse Butte and Bell Rock are two adjacent summits sitting in the center of the small town of Oak Creek just outside of Sedona city limits. After the fourth class route on Morning Glory Spire, Courthouse Butte is the next technically easiest climb in the area, rated 5.6 via the South Bowl Route. We decided to start there first to get an idea of if the Sedona ratings were sandbagged… and by how much.
Leaving the Bell Rock Vista Trailhead, we started along the easy to follow trail as it made more or less of a bee-line towards the South Bowl of Courthouse Butte. There was a fairly obvious use trail that left the main trail at the base of the drainage, we started up some easy cross-country above the first, lower cliff bands. The route would prove to be an exercise in route-finding ability from the beginning, and we quickly hit the first bit of scrambling for the day up about 15′ of class 3 rock to the next tier.
We quickly lost the trail as we cut to the east reaching the base of a 4th-5.easy arete, matching the beta I had found online beforehand. We climbed the steep route probably about 80′, with a deep drainage immediately to the right. While there were plenty of holds and small ledges, each move felt a bit suspect on the fractured sandstone and we tested each hold before committing ourselves further up the mountain. Near the top of the arete were two old pitons hammered into the rock, a means to rappel what would otherwise be a short but tedious downclimb.
Above this first pitch of borderline climbing, the route became momentarily easier, and we hiked up gentle sandstone slabs in the major drainage of the south bowl, again slowly ascending above the next major set of cliff bands. At this point, we could see the technical pitch about 100-150′ above us, separated by a deep, brushy bowl that stood in our way. The bowl is split by several small rock fins, and we kept left of the fin just below the technical pitch, trying to follow the cliffs as we angled up the drainage. While I had expected to find a use trail between the brush and the rock, I was surprised to find the thick Holly brush closing us in as we fought up the bowl, clearly off route.
We abandoned this tactic quickly, using game trails to cut back to the west, and rejoined a well defined use trail going directly up the base of the drainage. Gaining the last set of cliff bands before the technical pitch, I thought we were in the clear. But the traverse back east to reach the pitch was still brushy, and Alex impaled himself on a Banana Yucca hidden in the brush. I felt bad dragging Alex along on these long, tedious adventure climbs, suspecting he was starting to prefer routes with minimal approach as he tried to stopped the surprising amount of bleeding from his cactus wound. Once hemostasis was achieved with a combination of sand and dirt, we found a small ledge above the last bit of brush in the bowl to reach the 50′ pitch.
I hadn’t read much about the pitch aside from it having a tough mantle finish, and didn’t know what to expect in terms of the rest of the route. A fixed line was actually recently left behind, and we hiked up 20′ of low angled third class slabs to the bottom of the fixed line and racked up.
The first 20′ of the route was pretty fun and easy climbing- huge holds with several options up, basically more 5.easy. There were a number of cracks to use for protection and I placed a cam (it was either a BD 0.4 or 0.5) before reaching a large ledge halfway up the pitch. The second half of the pitch was definitely more challenging, with smaller features on the lower half of the rock face, and a bolt just above a nice lip and handhold.
I used the fixed line to steady myself as I reached up to clip the bolt, then pulled myself up to the narrow lip to reach the mantle. I clipped an old piton just below the mantle and pulled myself the rest of the way up to reach the large two bolt anchor at the top of the pitch. The higher mantle move was definitely not the hardest part, but more-so gaining the lower lip just below the bolt. I set up a belay off the anchor and brought Alex up the pitch. We ditched our gear (we brought way too much, the entire pitch can be done with two quickdraws and a small cam) and started up the remaining distance to the summit. The upper route was a little longer than we expected, and required 400′ of ascending slabs in tight rock shoes to reach the sandstone summit block, with small caves tucked just below.
We ripped off our rock shoes to give them a momentary break and signed into the summit register, the first party in 4 months. I pointed out the various Sedona features- Capitol Butte and Twin Buttes to the north, Cathedral Rocks and the Cockscomb to the NW and Oak Creek Spire to the east. A fire near Lake Mary southwest of Flagstaff made the views a bit hazy, but nonetheless impressive.
The elaborate route had taken us longer than expected and it was already 11AM. As we put on our rock shoes and dropped down 400′, I started to sincerely doubt a summit attempt on Queen Victoria later that day. We used my rope to rappel off the anchors, a doubled 60 meter ending about 5′ above the bottom of the class 3 slabs below the technical pitch.
We quickly coiled the rope and repacked our gear, diving back into the brush at the top of the south bowl. I found the best line to be hugging the cliffs to the east on the traverse to the headwall of the bowl, then utilizing a use trail at the base of the bowl for the descent. This went significantly more smoothly than the ascent, and we were back above the low fifth class arete quickly. I wanted to utilize the pitons for another rappel, and we pulled the rope back out and I hooked a quicklink and old carabiner to the two antique anchors. I backed up the anchor while Alex gingerly went first (pun intended). The natural line of the rappel didn’t follow the arete but dropped into the drainage just east resulting in about 40′ of free hang. The pitons seem to hold well and I took down the back up and started the rappel myself, unfortunately landing nearly on top of a sharp locust bush.
We put the rope back in and started along the use trail, bumping into some well preserved Native American ruins in the cliff face that we had blew past on the ascent.
From there, it was a bit more class 3 to descend before following the use trail the remaining distance to the maintained trails below. While the descent went quicker than expected, it was still after noon, and I had no idea how long Bell Rock would take. Following the trail, Alex bumped into some old friends who were headed to town for Margaritas, which was starting like a much better plan after all the brush we had dealt with that morning. But we continued along the trail to the western slopes of Bell Rock and began ascending slabs up the major west drainage of the sandstone spire.
Compared to the brush on Courthouse Butte, the approach was clean sandstone slabs and was downright pleasant. The lower half of the route was easy class 2-3 slabs, and is a well traveled route for those looking to get to the ‘Top of Bell Rock,’ although not actually ascending the extra 100′ of technical climbing to the true summit. The upper half of the approach became a little more difficult, and we took the climber’s right branch of the drainage up stiffer class 3 to reach the ledge system just below the summit spires.
An easy traverse across some 3′ ledges to the northeast of the summit spires brought us to the base of the Kamps Route 5.8, the original route to the summit of Bell Rock first ascended by Bob Kamps in 1957! A mixed sport and trad route, the pitch is 82′ with a mix of hangered and hangerless bolts, along with plenty of spots to place pro along the way. We again racked up, Alex taking the lead with 5.8 being a little above my leading comfort zone.
He started up the first 10′, an easy ledge with nice holds to mantle. Above that was a bolt to clip with a fairly 15′ difficult crack tup to the small saddle between the two summit spires. Some parties will split the pitch in half with an intermediate belay at the saddle, but Alex pressed on, with a thin traverse right to gain a crack to climb the last 20-30′ to the crux mantle.
This was where Alex ran into some big issues for the first time on the climb. The route was a bit meandering, and between the handful of cams that were placed, the bolts clipped along the way, and the natural friction as the rope moved over corners on the route caused an incredible amount of rope drag. The mantle crux was a bit awkward, with a deep crack for you left arm and leg, but little to use for your right. It basically required a left sided pull up while the right smeared whatever it could to stay centered. The problem was, there was so much drag in the system, he was unable to pull himself over the mantle with the friction pulling him back down. He tried to work through the crux for a good 30 minutes, and I credit his stamina for not falling off the narrow holds while trying to work through the problem. After much debate and numerous attempts, Alex downclimbed a couple feet to a narrow ledge and built a quick anchor to belay me up to the saddle between the spires in an effort to reduce the drag. I started up the route, and was surprised by how tricky the moves below the saddle were, with a massive jug of a hold up to the left being key to working up the crack. Once at the saddle, I flaked the slack back towards my feet, and Alex quickly and easily climbed to the summit. Lesson learned.
Belaying me off the summit anchor, I cleaned the rest of the route, and rather ungracefully flopped onto the summit spire to our second Sedona summit of the day. Although 500′ shorter, the views of Bell Rock were even better than Courthouse Butte, with a perfect angle past Twin Buttes of Pointed Dome, Queen Victoria and Moose Butte. I had brought up a mini bottle of Scotch for the occasion (which I kept from breaking by letting it float around in the water bottle clipped to my harness) and we quickly polished it, and the water off while enjoying the challenging summit. By this time it was after 3, and with Queen Victoria realistically out of the picture for the day, we were in no rush to descend.
With our thoughts shifting towards burgers and beers in Sedona, I worked the rope through the rappel anchor to drop off the summit.The anchor was built by three different pieces of webbing of various ages (as was Courthouse Butte), and Alex backed it up while I rappelled back to the base and to our packs. Alex rappelled off the summit to join me, and we coiled the rope and quickly organized our gear for the scramble back down to the trail.
We made a brief stop at the summit register stashed on the ledge next to the spires for hikers to reach. The register notepad was labeled ‘Top of Bell Rock.’ Not quite….. We scrambled back down the class 3 route to reach the easier slabs below, then got back on the easy trail to hike out the remaining distance to the car.
Leaving the lot, we were already discussing the next climbs for the area, which unfortunately might need to wait until cooler temperatures in the fall. The low evening light gave us an awesome look at Courthouse Butte, and we pulled out of the lot and headed into Sedona for dinner.