Bouldering the McDowell Mountains: Tom’s Thumb
By Iain Gordon
The sun was beating down triple digits as I stepped into the heat of the late Phoenician afternoon. I left behind the air-conditioned interior of my Tacoma and could feel myself wade through the heat, like the sensation of moving underwater. Dust settled lazily around the underbelly of the truck (despite the last few hundred yards of road being paved) and the shocks shrugged back upward as my passenger and I unloaded. I glanced at my father, he was facing south. Off in the distance, mountains rose up out of the desert landscape, towering over the saguaros and palo verdes. Beige with speckled pink and green, they looked down on us with a sense of solemnity. My arms and legs were itching for a climb. This was it. These were the McDowell Mountains.
The Locale and the Art Itself
When you say ‘bouldering’, most people think ‘California’ or ‘Colorado’, but the truth is, Arizona’s mountainous and desert rock formations are naturally tuned for scaling optimization. In other words, they’re sick for climbing. Bouldering especially.
And believe it or not, a long drive isn’t always necessary to get to these incredible sites. Some of the best bouldering in Arizona lies just past the cities’ backyards. The McDowell Mountains are located about 20 miles northeast of Scottsdale. Nested quietly to the side of the spotlight, just out of range of the big city, the McDowells have managed to maintain a fairly low profile (there is some small development around the edges here and there) despite the miraculous desert vistas, choice climbing and hiking trails they host.
But let’s rewind for a second.
For those who don’t yet know, the art of bouldering focuses on the two most prime elements of rock-climbing: man, and the rock. To boulder, you free climb. You find a natural rock face, boulder, or formation, and you go. No ropes, no fuss, no muss. All rush. Freedom.
Twenty feet up, it’s just you, the rock, and the chalk on your hands.
Now this isn’t done without a battle-plan, on the fly, and in a pair of Crocs. A good ascension route, shoes, and crash pad (mattress designed to cushion a potential fall) are necessary ingredients for a good climb. A friend to accompany you isn’t a bad idea either. Generally, only the most experienced climbers ascend more than 30 feet when bouldering, and let’s be honest here: they’re a little wacked out. A climber falling from 30 feet up hits the ground at around 30 miles-per-hour. So the crash pad is not to be taken lightly. But when done correctly, bouldering is exactly what it sounds like: a rush and a hell of a lot of fun.
The Trail and the Climb
We now stood at the base of the mountain. Just past the end of the road we could see a small structure standing man-made and awkward in the presence of the native mountains. The sign read ‘Tom’s Thumb Trailhead’.
A large shade-structure had also been erected as an information booth, but today there was no one the structure sat empty. The sun began to sag in the sky and slowly, the desert began to turn orange. We had about two hours till sunset. It was time to get going.
The wide, even dirt trail wound through the desert easily, with posts every few miles letting us know how far we’d traveled and that, yes, wewere still in fact on the Tom’s Thumb Trail. A rustling in the brush off to our sides gave way to darting jackrabbits. The blossoming prickly-pear cacti to the sides of the trail were fat with ripe fruit. Red and bulbous, they were ready to be picked. The long sabers protruding from the green cactus flesh said otherwise however.
So--Tom’s Thumb Trail. Let me just say: wow. The hike is a little over four miles roundtrip and gains a few hundred feet in elevation over the course of its journey. Is it challenging? Sure. The elevation change gives it just enough difficulty to break a sweat (bring water) here and there, but don’t let this deter you. The hike is easy on the ankles and hard on the calf muscles: perfect exercise for the legs.
If the high-quality of the trail isn’t enough to warrant a visit, let the views speak to you. On top of the McDowell Mountains you can drink in the sublime vistas and look off into the distance as the desert melts into shades of distant-mountain and sky blues. It will restore your zen. It will make you feel at home on this wonderful thing we call Earth.
We hadn’t been on the trail for five minutes when we saw it. A closer look was needed. It was time for a quick detour.
The spot we now stood at was the site of some ancient rockslide. Gigantic boulders were fixed in their cascaded positions all the way from the bottom to the peak of the nearest mountain. And at the top? Like a spike sticking right up out of the mountain was Tom’s Thumb.
Soon enough, we gazed up at the massive slab of granite called Tom’s Thumb. It was big. Man, was it big.
I put my hand on the surface of the rock, much to the protests of my dad. I began plotting points in my mind for the ascension, and with a slow breath, I began the climb upward.
Tom’s Thumb itself is a giant slab of granite that, well, looks like a giant thumb sticking up out of the mountain. Go figure. And in terms of a climb, it is not to be trifled with. It is a moderate climb at its easiest, and an expert climb at its most difficult, and the climb gets more difficult higher up! A crash pad is a must for this adventure. Now, with that said, there are multiple ascension routes that can be taken and as the climb starts out relatively simply, you won’t get in over your head too quickly. The rock is solid and the holds are established, so you won’t find much of the rock coming loose. Finally, there are places (flat, not jagged) to start the climb that lend themselves to a small spill or fall if it happens. But this is not a Cliffhanger moment. Be smart. Plan before you climb. Above all, enjoy the hell out of this climb. Because it’ll get your blood pumping.
Life has a way of moving by fast when your heart’s racing. The rock was soft sandpaper under my palms. Sweat made the long journey from my hairline down to my jaw. Wind pushed up against the side of my face. I was pushing upward. Five feet form the ground. Ten. Fifteen. Sandpaper under my palms. Twenty. Next hold is there. Wind. Twenty-five. Lactic acid. Thirty. Sandpaper. Heat. Will I make it? Wind. Sweat. Heat.
The sun had long since fallen below the horizon as I looked back up at Tom’s Thumb. Shadows had begun to creep up the mountains now. The last few rays of light began to scamper upward until only the granite slab I had been climbing earlier remained lit. I now stood at the base of the mountain once again, my father and I chatting casually as we walked back to the lone Tacoma. My body was one happy, tired sensation. No more itch in my arms. No more anxiety in my calves. I had climbed.
I was cured.
Getting to the McDowell Mountains is actually fairly easy from any position in the greater Phoenix area. A quick trip to google maps will suffice until you get within a few dozen miles of the trailhead. Click here for a map that I found particularly useful for getting to the Tom’s Thumb Trailhead once you get within it’s vicinity.
McDowell Sonoran Conservancy
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