Tom’s Thumb 3925′
Total Time: 8 hours
Roundtrip Mileage: 4.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 1450′
Crux: West Corner- 5.2, Kreuser’s Route- 5.4
Companions: Alex Wallace
Trailhead: Tom’s Thumb TH- trash, toilets, no water
Before moving to Phoenix, my sister bought me the popular book “60 Hikes in 60 Miles from Phoenix.” As I thumbed through the pages, planning future adventures, I was struck by a picture of Tom’s Thumb in the McDowell Mountains. The book describes the hike to the base of the granite dome, declaring the summit off limits to mortal hikers, and available on to those with trad climbing expertise. So began a mild obsession with the small summit. Perched on the ridgeline directly above Scottsdale, this white granite dome looks like it was plucked out of the Sierras or Joshua Tree and dropped into Arizona. It’s resemblance to one of the many granite domes in Yosemite NP is part of why I was so drawn to Tom’s Thumb, which ultimately led (at least in part) to a multi-week course through the Arizona Mountaineering Club to learn how to actually climb it. So after months of learning from other climbers and spending way too much money on gear, I was finally ready to try and lead climb it myself.
So on a beautiful Saturday morning, I met Alex, a fellow resident at Mayo and relatively more experienced climber, at the Tom’s Thumb trailhead to make our summit attempt. The plan was to climb the West Corner, the easiest route on the dome at 5.2, and work our way up to some of the more challenging routes. The temperatures were in the high 60s starting out, and we hiked through the shade up the switchbacks to the ridgeline leading to Tom’s Thumb.
As we neared the base, we started to scout out some of the other routes including the classic Treiber’s Deception 5.7 on the SW corner, Garbanzo Bean 5.7 and Kreuser’s Route 5.4 on the NE side, and The Settlement 5.7 on the W Face. The routes looked clean and fun, it seemed we would have a good day of climbing ahead of us. We organized our gear and racked up, having way too many cams for the short route between the two of us. Working up the short, brushy ramp, we reached the start of the West Corner climb.
The start was easy enough to find, but I had read the upper route was confusing and I worried about getting too far off route. But I started up the obvious crack, using a tree to start up the fractured face. About 20′ up, I made my first wrong turn, following a low angled slab to the right, which dead ended at Fat Man’s Delight 5.6. With some careful downclimbing, I started up the correct crack to the left, past another tree and leading to the dual crack system, the crux of the climb. While the lower section was easy, the rock splitting the two cracks seemed to want to push you off the rock. Furthermore, the right side of the crack, the one that seemed easier to climb, was borderline off-width, and I did not have a cam large enough to protect it. This was starting to seem harder than a 5.2…. Wedging myself in the crack, I was able to reach a volleyball sized chockstone and wrapped a sling around it for protection, a key placement for the climb. With the crux now protected, I stemmed up the crack reaching a fractured ledge above, about 20′ below the summit. There was a small overhang that you must traverse under, and the granite was unusually slippery in this particular spot.
Cam placement was easy in a crack above, and some ungraceful squirming and new helmet scratches brought me to a short low-angled crack to reach the summit. Pulling up the rope from Alex, the rope drag was incredible. I probably had only placed 6-7 pieces, but the meandering route up multiple cracks and beneath the small roof made trying to feel him on the other end impossible. He joined me at the summit after cleaning the route, and we signed into the summit register, enjoying our first success of the day. While most of the route was easy class 4-5.easy, we both commented that the short crux definitely felt tougher than 5.2.
We set up for a rappel of the West Face, essentially down The Settlement 5.7, our 60m rope easily making it to the base with about 10′ to spare. Alex headed down first and I followed, enjoying the rappel down multiple tiers to the base. Now it was Alex’s turn to lead. He had wanted to try Garbanzo Bean 5.7 and we scrambled around to the NE side. We stayed a bit too high and instead found ourselves at the start of Kreuser’s Route 5.4. From below, it looked more than challenging enough. I handed all the trad gear to Alex and he started up the route. This route was more straight forward- basically climb the crack up. But the lower sections had some decent exposure with chossy ledges and bird-shit covered rocks, and we were beginning to understand why the McDowell’s have a history of routes being sandbagged, some of them put up in the 1940s!
As I started up second, there were at three sections that gave me pause even on top-rope, including the final move to get above an overhanging rock that required some broad stemming. This brought us to the ledge near the top of the West Corner route, and we repeated the awkward slippery traverse back to the summit, this time with Alex in the lead. Back on the summit, we set up the rappel immediately, ready for another route. The main question was which one. From a mental standpoint, neither of us was looking to lead anything too much harder on this sandbagged dome. We eventually decided to give Fat Man’s Delight 5.6 a try. The crux was short, only 15-20′, with low angled slabs and cracks above the off-width to bring you the rest of the way up. I suggested we swing lead, I would get us to the base of the crux, and Alex would lead the rest of the way up. So after swapping gear, I started back up the West Corner route, this time purposefully cutting right towards the offwidth crack. I built a quick anchor around a scraggly tree and brought Alex up. As we sized up the route in front of us, there was one obvious problem- we didn’t have any protection large enough for the off width. It probably requires some BD #5 or #6s, or even a Trango Big Bro, but we had none of it. There were few other cracks in the rock to use, and we quickly decided this was a bad plan. Alex scouted a different crack just to the left of the tree finding it equally difficult to protect. So growing tired from a day of climbing and baking in afternoon sun, we switched plans and decided to finish out reclimbing the West Corner route, this time with Alex leading.
I admit I was a little pleased to see he struggled to protect the crux as well, making me feel a little better about my own inexperience. We decided to split it into another short pitch traversing beneath the overhang to reduce rope drag, and I would highly recommend it to anyone else climbing the west side routes to do the same. With our last time at the summit, we lingered a bit longer and taking in the views before one final rappel off the West Face.
Packing up our gear, we hiked along the trail back to the trailhead, already discussing future climbs. I pointed out Gardner’s Wall and the classic Hanging Gardens 5.5 route, as well as Glass Dome, a smaller version of Tom’s Thumb to the south. This would hopefully be the first of many trad climbing adventures to come in this small but rugged range…