“Who shall call them from the grey twilight, the forgotten people? The heir of him to whom the oath they swore. From the North shall he come, need shall drive him: he shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.”
-Malbeth the Seer
In this passage, Tolkien was actually referring to the boulderer’s destiny of climbing at Priest Draw. You shall walk the paths of the dead, and the forgotten people will fulfill their oath: to let you cam your flesh into their bomber limestone pockets.
Walking through the Draw is a haunting experience. Behind the first boulder you’ll come to is a plaque commemorating Robert Drysdale, a pioneer of bouldering at Priest Draw, who died tragically in that exact spot. Continuing along the path brings you into a quiet aspen forest. The hundreds of lizards sneaking around you under the dry leaf-litter, and the signature dead-horizontal limestone roofs poking into the draw make for calm but eerie surroundings. Whether it’s the spooky setting, or the fact that there is no official guidebook, there aren’t crowds like there would be at other world class climbing destinations. However, there might be another reason for this absence: roof climbing is hard as balls.
It’s such a different style of climbing, that if you think about it for too long, the same way you can turn normal words into alien words, it seems like a completely separate sport from vertical climbing. Solving roof problems requires a different type of fitness, a new set of techniques, and radical creativity. Basically, you have to be a hulking core monster who loves lateral moves, groveling in rat turds, and finding the most tangly way to climb every problem. It’s almost like I have been roof climbing vertical problems my whole life, and now that I’ve found actual roofs, all the planets aligned, no one can call my beta applesauce anymore, and at the end of every day a mountain lion hands me a glass of chocolate milk.
After watching Julie DeJesus climb Stinky Ass in Rampage (Big UP Productions, 1999, best climbing film ever), I decided that roof was going to be my first v7. Turns out it’s only v6 in the credits of the movie, and she also climbs Anorexic, which is a better and more classic line, but Stinky Ass just called to me for some totally inexplicable mystery of a reason… It’s a great example of what to expect from the climbs in Priest Draw1, and one of my proudest sends.
If I haven’t convinced you to visit yet, then you can just quit reading and all of my Flagstaff friends can be slightly relieved. If I have, see below for some helpful tips on how to be a nice, thoughtful dirtbag in Priest Draw:
Directions/Where to Camp: Priest Draw itself is easy to find using google maps, but there are some useful things to know about camping near there. There is a designated camping area, it’s just a left turn before the parking lot, and there are signs directing you to it. Any normal car should be able to access it, although last year when we were there, that road had really deep ruts that were still passable, if a bit stressful. We could not actually get the Rampage off of Forest Rd 132 because it drops off dramatically at the intersection with 235 and our hitch don’t bend that way. Our strategy was to flag a Ranger down on Lake Mary Rd. and get a map that lists all of the legal dispersed camping options in the area, which are plentiful. I couldn’t make the virtual files show me the dispersed camping dots, but you can go to the office and get the physical one which is very clear.
Groceries & Water: If you are going to camp out by Priest Draw, the closest grocery store is Walmart, but since you already drove into town, just keep going up the road to Sprouts or Natural Grocers. Sprouts has a totally insane bulk section where you can make your own trail mix (we put chocolate covered espresso beans in ours in order to maintain ferocity), awesome muffins, and decent, affordable produce. Natural Grocers has nice food if you have ridiculous standards and need to purchase things like Epic bars. Flagstaff relies on reclaimed water, and though I am pretty sure that is potable, many of the spigots around town are locked. The Chevron on Lake Mary Rd. has an unlocked spigot and a single parking spot next to it that we found very convenient for attaching our hose and filling up 8 five gallon jugs without having to remove them from the bed of our truck. We also bought diesel there, so it was only barely freeloading.
Climbing Resources2: As mentioned, there is no guidebook. The best way to learn your way around is to make a friend who knows the area. If you haven’t met any other climbers yet, Mountain Project is a good way to get started. The weather is almost always perfect in Flagstaff, but if it happens to turn sour, there are a few gyms in town. Ironically, the one time the weather was bad, we had already planned on going to the Beta Bouldering Gym for their annual Beta Boulder Blast, but it snowed about a foot overnight. To get out of our camp spot we somehow laid rubber in that Arizona snow and made it to the comp, where I miraculously got Middleth place and everyone lived happily ever after. The terrain at Beta is exciting, the routes were set well and super fun, and the people were awesome. Would climb again.
Flagstaff Climbing has two gym locations which I did not visit. Another important climbing resource not to be overlooked is Paragon Athletics. They offer climbing-specific training and have punch passes you can buy in order to drop in. Paragon will teach you things like: what the word proprioception means, how to prevent injury, and that there exist, in this world, way more bizarre exercises than you have ever dreamed. Judging by the fact that I might have been the weakest climber in the room the day I went (and there were sport climbers there!), attending will probably improve your climbing. As far as gear goes, Peace Surplus is worth going to, but I don’t remember them having a huge climbing gear selection. Another option is to just click here3.
Showers: Unfortunately, the climbing gyms don’t have showers. The Flagstaff Aquaplex will let you in for $9.50 if you are a non-resident adult. I should probably quit doing a shower section, we just use our trailer because we are fancy. Get yourself a portable shower, or a cheaper portable shower, and one of these if you want to keep everyone from seeing your butts and junk.
Rest Days: Flagstaff isn’t exactly the middle of nowhere, so there are lots of things to do that cost money, and infinity things to do that are free.
Cost Money: Biff’s Bagels has wi-fi and legitimately good bagels. Wanderlust is a “nanobrewery” and their beer is delicious. The taproom is unbelievably social and friendly. They are only open Thursday and Friday 4-9pm, and Saturday 2-8pm, so plan accordingly.
Free Things: Climb vertical things? Go for a dirtbike ride! Go mountain biking in Sedona. Go on a nature walk. Walk like the nature you find. Visit Lake Mary? Set up a hammock, fail to nap in it on account of the sun is too bright, falling tree parts, and bird nuisances. Create a cardboard target or find some garbage, set it up far away from you, shoot at it. Explore the woods, find a hobo camp, make up stories to scare yourself and your friends about how the hobos were sitting around the campfire one night, roasting squirrels, but one of the rodents was possessed and passed the demon to its new host, causing him to turn on his companions. He grabs the hot pokers on which the other squirrels are still roasting and runs another man through, the smell of searing human flesh mingling with that of their abandoned meal. The others try to fight but are overcome by his supernatural strength, and he hangs them in the nearby trees, one by one, their limbs convulsing as their lives escape, seizing into shapes of eternal agony, while the murderous host’s parasite turns on him, exorcising itself from the weak human flesh by suffocating it with a trash bag and setting it on fire, leaving the remains in a heap on the forest floor to be buried and forgotten by the sediments of new histories. Steal one of their yellowed books. Pick up trash. Dig a deep hole, find a giant grub. Drink coffee outside every morning, and maybe the forest service will set up a pool of water and have a helicopter practice pulling buckets out of it to take to a fire. Use the pool as a pool.4
When Priest Draw stops being your one and only true love of a climbing area and you’ve sent The Receptionist and feel the need to move on, there are many other world class areas in and around Flagstaff, but I’m just not at that point yet. Perhaps I’ll never get there, but someday the fact that it is called roof climbing when you are actually climbing the ceiling will cause me to tear off all of my skin and burrow into the ground with my teeth until I become an animal of the dark and my eyeballs de-evolve out of my head leaving only soft gray spots of raw cellular material, and my fingers join together, becoming one finger, pointing at nothing, a mitt of hopelessness, curling so tight into itself that it implodes, catalyzing a black hole that everyone who has ever mixed up the top and bottom side of something will get sucked into and punished SO HARD for their sin. J/K I LOVE YOU DON’T LEAVE ME HERE I CAN’T SEE OR GRAB THINGS ANYMORE
1Stinky Ass is technically in Howard Draw.
2I am receiving no compensation from anyone for any of these comments. All of this is my own genuine opinion, and I hope you know you can never expect anything less from me. The purpose of all of this information is to explain why my time in Flagstaff was so memorable and help you all find the coolest shit there. However! If you would like to compensate me for these comments, or know a way that I can begin to make money for just expressing my opinions on the internet, please share! I know could just try harder, like today I called the gyms to ask if they had showers, and while I could have explained that I was doing research for the post I am writing, and would they like to link to it, I just wimped out and let them think I was another stinky climber living in a car. Full disclosure: I have half-assedly set up an affiliate program, so if you do click on one of my links to a product and order it from that site, using the same device, within like 30 days or something, I will collect approximately 8% of what you pay for it. Hopefully.
3I promise I’m making fun of myself, not you.
4Do not use the pool as a pool.