Perspectives on Mount Lemmon climbing

Rising over the horizon east of Tucson, Arizona are the Santa Catalina Mountains, of which Mount Lemmon is the tallest. We had heard about climbing at Mount Lemmon (we later discovered that all the climbing in the Catalinas is collectively referred to as “Mount Lemmon”), and wanted to check it out. As our time in southern AZ was limited we decided that the best way to approach Mount Lemmon this time around was to do so as a scouting mission. We wanted to see and explore and learn as MUCH as possible about the area over a two day period, in order to decide if it would be worth it for us to go back. So here is our short-term evaluation of the climbing and the area – it has helped us and hopefully it will shed some light for a few others as well!
Overview
The Catalina Highway winds its way up to the top of Mount Lemmon over the course of 45-60 minutes, with plenty of climbing from mile 0 to the summit. The scenery is beyond stunning, with ecosystems shifting from the proud Saguaro Cacti of the Sonoran desert, through thick conifer forests, and into alpine areas. Beautiful orange and yellow rock is found in canyon after canyon, and many of the walls are decorated with green and black lichens. In our opinion, Mount Lemmon was worth the visit simply for the view.
View over the canyon from Windy Ridge

The Catalina Highway

Mount Lemmon is part of a National Forest, meaning you pay a fee to be there, but fortunately it is almost negligible. Five dollars a day or twenty dollars for a year pass, and during the off-season there are segments of the highway that don’t require any fee at all. There is also camping on the mountain (no amenities except pit toilets) and while some sites cost a small fee, other sites are free!  In the winter, at least Molino Basin Campground and Gordon Hirabayashi (Prison Camp) are open.
At the base of the mountain there are plenty of grocery stores to choose from. Directly on Catalina Highway is a Safeway, and next door you can find a small coffee shop called Le Buzz – a well-known climber hotspot with great food and coffee. Still on the east side of town but about 15-20 minutes from the bottom of the highway are a Trader Joes and a Sprouts, which offer some healthier/organic grocery options. Alternatively, if you’re already on the mountain and don’t wish to drive down, there is a small town called Summerhaven at the very top, where you can find a great restaurant called the Cookie Cabin that serves up delicious pizza and cookies. Unfortunately we can’t speak to where a good place to fill water might be, but we’ve contacted the visitor centre with hopes of hearing back.
From what we can tell, Mount Lemmon is suitable as a year round climbing destination, however dry spells of Spring and Fall may be best. In the summer, average temperatures in the high 20s (degrees Celsius) could restrict climbing to shady and/or high elevation crags. In our case, we were unable to reach the highly praised climbing at The Fortress due to snow, and on the lower mountain streams were high enough such that the landing zones around boulders were under water. Mid-mountain however, the January temperatures between 10 and 20 degrees Celsius made for great conditions. We would have still been more than busy over a couple weeks if we had the time. 
View from the top of Mount Lemmon
Road to The Fortress closed due to snow

Morning light hits the stream in which the Molino Basin Boulders sit

 
Route Climbing

Day one at Mount Lemmon was overcast and somewhat stormy with a few sprinklings of light rain. We spent this day visiting two of the crags at Windy Point West. The first crag was called North Fin, and boasts classics ranging in difficultly from 5.7 (trad) to 5.13c (sport). The crag is easily accessed, located in a beautiful corridor beyond which the canyon is visible. We climbed a couple mid tens here which were quite fun, and eyed up some other routes. When we return Graham is hoping to get on Tree Monsters (5.12d  3 stars) and Genevieve (5.13c 3 stars).

Kim raps off in the corridor at North Fin crag

In the afternoon we headed to Beaver Wall, a crag only five minutes away. This wall is tall and beautiful – a brilliant orange colour with large black streaks, and slightly overhanging with crimps and impressive linear features. Unlike North Fin crag, the Beaver Wall has much higher exposure with the openness of the canyon behind you. This wall has one of the hardest routes at Mount Lemmon, Hebe (5.14-  4 stars). Graham redpointed Right Tissue (5.12c), a technical but endurancy and sustained “warm-up” on the wall.

Graham climbs Right Tissue (5.12c) at Beaver Wall
The weather on our second day was spectacular, with clear blue skies, much lower humidity, and temperatures approaching 20 degrees. We climbed this afternoon at The Helmet crag in the Windy Ridge area. The Helmet includes a vertical wall and a small cave with four unique lines and a couple of fun extensions. Graham snagged the onsight of The Crossing (5.12b  3 stars) and Dwarf Toss (5.12c  3 stars). We would have given the rock a great rating if it weren’t for the glue-reinforced holds – but regardless of this the movement on steep terrain was very fun.
Looking out from the cave at The Helmet
Graham onsights The Crossing (5.12b) in The Helmet cave

There are several other classic routes that Graham is excited to get on when we return, including Heel-A Monster (5.13- 4 stars) at the Orifice, Poplar Mechanics (5.12+ 3 stars) at Beaver Wall and Free Loader (5.13- 4 stars) at the Helmet, to name a few.

Bouldering
The bouldering is fairly limited and leaves something to be desired. To be fair though, our judgment is limited to what we observed, as we didn’t actually DO any bouldering while there. There are two main areas to boulder…
At the lower highway, a few difficult problems at Hairpin Boulders are scattered in the wash.
 

Checking out the holds on Block Obama (V10)

Glue-reinforced holds on Block Obama (V10)
A little higher up the highway, the Molino Basin Boulders rise out of a creek bed. The setting is very beautiful and in the wintertime, we discovered the boulders literally sit in the water of the stream, making winter bouldering a no go. The rock is super smooth and river polished – akin to the glacier polish segments of “Incredible Journey” at Forgotten Wall in Squamish – with beautiful crystals and patterning throughout.
Checking out some problems on the Boxcar Boulder in Molino Basin
Smooth, smooth river polished holds  
 
***
 
Because we didn’t stay up at Mount Lemmon, we did not have a chance to experience the climbing culture in the area. We didn’t see a single other person climbing either, although this is likely because we were there mid-week in the middle of January, it had recently rained, and the number of crags in the area is expansive. There are two indoor gyms in Tucson, which we’ve heard are very popular and a great way to meet local climbers. We’re planning to spend 2-3 weeks at Mount Lemmon next winter and are stoked to get to know the community.

The area guidebook, “Squeezing The Lemmon II” came out in 2000, and is available at gear stores in town. Due to our brief stay we did not purchase the guidebook, but rather found the info we needed on the Mountain Project App. We were quite impressed with the app, however some routes (trad lines especially) were difficult to find. We plan to invest in the book when we return next year!

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