Fifty feet up the deceptively named Carefree Rockpile, I gazed out at the view. To my left I could see Four Peaks, like the backdrop of a John Ford film. To my right stood Black Mountain, sacred site of the long-extinct Hohokam tribe. And over my shoulder, snaking into the distance, lay the elegant south golf course of the Boulders resort. But I had more immediate concerns. I was stuck.
This was my last chance to scale the granite mass that towers above the Boulders (and gives the resort its name). Over two days I'd learned to navigate some of the easier climbs. Now, with 90 vertical feet ahead of me, I was determined to finish with a flourish. I had chosen a direct route up the tough crystallized granite and positively skipped my way to the halfway mark. These rocks may be more than a billion years old, but age doesn't guarantee respect.
The route above was obstructed by a large overhanging rock. I had three choices: go left around the overhang (easy); pull myself up over it (harder); head right and negotiate a 30-foot section of smooth, vertical rock (hardest). Hubris became my new best friend.
"Give me more slack!" I yelled down to John Shumaker, my instructor. "I'm going right!" He looked up silently, a wry smile on his face, while tending to the safety rope that he had guaranteed would break my fall. I started my move, hopping one foot over the other while my fingers molded around a sharp ledge a quarter-inch thick. I'd envisioned this route a few hours ago, lying in bed as dawn broke.
With my hands hooked onto just a hint of a hold, I swung my right leg onto a micro-ledge above my hip. Still John said nothing--a good sign. I shifted my left hand for a better, wider grip and adopted a picture-perfect Spiderman pose. That's when I realized I was stuck. I'd broken one of the main rules of climbing: Always take the easy route. My legs started to shake, less from physical exhaustion than acute fear. I saw one tiny hold two feet above my head and reached for it. Not enough. Sharp crystals of granite punched little holes in my fingers as I lost my footing and embarrassedly dropped into the clutches of my safety harness.
When it comes to nursing wounded pride, you could do worse than the Boulders. On 1,300 acres in the foothills of the Sonoran Desert's Bradshaw Mountains, some 20 miles north of Phoenix, the Boulders is considered one of the country's premier golf resorts. It recently expanded its horizons to offer hiking, mountain biking, and, of course, rock climbing.
The 160 casitas were designed to follow the colors and contours of the land. Desert residents, in turn, have made the resort their home: quail, cottontail rabbits, and the odd javelina wander the grounds. On my first afternoon, as I settled into my room (stretching out at every angle on the king-size bed and making a mental note to avoid the $3.50 Snickers in the mini-bar), a pair of cardinals sat chirping on my patio. Half an hour later a desert wren strutted into the room, and wasn't the least bit concerned by my attempts to shoo it out.
My initial climbing lesson, a private one, started at 9 a.m. the next day. Though I'd had some experience on indoor walls, this was to be my first outdoor climb, so I was glad for the one-on-one instruction. Guiding me was John, an easygoing, exceptionally healthy-looking 29-year-old. He began climbing almost nine years ago in order to conquer a fear of heights.
As he showed me how to attach the safety harness and double-check all the knots, he explained how this group of boulders was ideal for first-timers and old hands alike. It had always been a favorite of locals-when planning the program he came across an old book called Phoenix Rock, which laid out the routes. To avoid bogging his students down in technicalities, John focuses on two particular routes-a 90-foot face climb (meaning the rock is flat and sheer) called Renunciation, and an 85-foot crack climb (where climbers negotiate their way up a small crevasse) called Steps. While the latter is somewhat easier, John starts everyone off with Renunciation. "To make it," he says, "you have to use good technique."
I understood immediately. It's no use trying to pull yourself up a mountain; you have to walk it, even if that walk is vertical. The key is to conserve energy by making your legs--not your arms--do the work.
I checked my rope, heard John say "Belay on" (the term used for securing your partner with the safety rope), and began to climb. From that moment I was both thrilled and paralyzed with fear. At first glance, there was no route. Then, as I found one small foothold, another appeared, and another. Before I knew it I was 40 feet up.
"The oldest guy we've had here was seventy-six," John told me the next morning as we hiked to the foot of Renunciation. "He'd been part of the Tenth Mountain Division of the U.S. Army, and he hadn't climbed in forty years. He scared me because he was so comfortable with the mountain, even though he'd never used any of the new equipment before. Once he reached the top, he bounced all the way down, like a kid at Christmas."
After three long vertical hours, I dragged my aching limbs over to the resort's spa, looking forward to a hot-rock massage--a Boulders specialty. Devised by a Tucson massage therapist, it mixes traditional Swedish technique with the therapeutic powers of local smooth volcanic stones, heated in water and placed on key muscle zones.
Jean, my masseuse, had me lie faceup on a sheet placed over a row of hot black pebbles, neatly aligned to target the now screaming muscles alongside my spine. As I melted into the rocks, Jean placed some warm, thin, palm-size stones under my neck and between my fingers and toes. She went to work on my triceps, first using aromatherapy oil, then a gentle massage with a hot rock up and down my arms. I slipped back to infancy, gurgling happily.
She flipped me onto my stomach, a fresh pebble placed under my belly button. The heat permeated my entire midriff. With the help of more oil, a soft ambient sound track, and more stones placed strategically in my palms, I gave myself up to one of the most relaxing and sensuous half-hours of my life.
The evening passed in a haze. I retired to the Discovery Lounge in the main lodge to take stock--I'd reached the pinnacle of exhilaration and relaxation all in half a day. A cocktail was in order. I ordered a Patrón margarita. "Would you like ice, sir?" asked the bartender. "Straight up," I replied. I'd had enough rocks for one day.
Matthew Yeomans has written for Details, GQ, and Salon.
Casitas at the Boulders (800/553-1717 or 602/488-9009) range from $205 to $495, depending on the season. A three-hour group rock climbing class costs $90. Private lessons are also available at $155 for three hours (and $90 for each additional person). Equipment is provided; all levels of experience are welcome. A 80-minute hot-rock massage is $175.
$205-49580 min. hot rock massage $1753 hour group climbing $90Private lessons $155 pp/3 hours$90 additional person, equipment provided