Thread the Eye of the Needle
The Magnificent Natural Arch Loop
My first entrance into the Eagletail Wilderness came around 1993 with my climbing partner and his wife. Our goal that day was to climb to the top of the mountain and stand foot on each of the summit feathers. I first learned about this backcountry climb when I accidentally stumble upon an old issue of Arizona Highways and read an article about the climb. I did my research, came up with a plan of action and Lisa, Don and I were off to see if we could accomplish our goals. To gain the summit ridge, we had to rope up and ascend an easy 5th class pitch. From there, an easy stroll put us at the base of the summit feather, the most difficult to climb. Rated at 5.6, Don and I concurred a more realistic rating would be 5.8. Don led the single pitch to the summit, I followed and we rappelled off. We then decided to save the Middle and South feathers for another day, seeing we were short on time.
In climbing circles, the first ascent (FA) of Eagletail summit is known to have fallen into the hands of “Kachina Members” in 1976. First free ascent (FFA) came to Larry Trieber, Bruce Grubbs and Chris Beal, a year later. Larry, Bruce and Chris climbed the summit pinnacle using rope and protection placed in cracks, as safety in the event of a fall. Progress was made with hands and feet on edges, ledges and hands, feet or fingers inside cracks. The Kachina Members used protection, both for safety and to make upward progress.
I would return to the wilderness, many times over the following years with various climbing partners. For a desert mountaineer, the Eagletail Mountains have a siren call that beckons me back. A view that grabbed my attention on that first summit attempt and subsequent trips to the summit ridge was a labyrinth of tortured rocks off to the southeast. To each of my partners, I would point into those rocks and say “we need to check that out.” The trips to the summit continued as well as climbs up Courthouse Rock but I never kept my promise to explore the Labyrinth.
In 2012 I turned my attention back to the Eagletail Wilderness, this time with a focus on exploring the areas I had neglected. Steve, Ozzie and I drove out to the north side of the wilderness and began walking due south. The goal was to get a close up view of the feather pedestal and walk around the Labyrinth. Reconnaissance of this rock island would lead to further, deeper investigations into its center. The maps of the Eagletails disclose several “natural arches” but no indication as to their possible magnificence. Possible extra credit for us on this day was to get up close to one or more of these landmarks. From this day of exploration, this hike was born.
Gateway to the Labyrinth
From your car, look southwest and locate the feathers on top of Eagletail mountain. Follow the ridgeline left and into an indistinct saddle with two pinnacles. Everything left of these pinnacles is the Labyrinth. Between you and Eagletail mountain is a small, granite ridge about 1.5 miles away. Use the east end of this ridge as a landmark, as well as the two pinnacles. Head south and slightly west passing the east end of the granite ridge and head for the pinnacles. Stay in the flats, eventually passing around the two, pinnacles on their east and into the valley between the Eagletail feather pedestal and the Labyrinth. Head up this drainage and into High Point saddle at 33.3887 -113.3006.
As you draw closer to the two pinnacles the route becomes more obvious with great views of the rocks that create the Eagletail feather pedestal and Labyrinth. When the Labyrinth starts to dominate your eastern view, look for a fin of rock that anchors the labyrinth on its NE side, to the valley floor. This fin is where you’ll find the Magnificent Natural Arch (MNA). If not now, in a few more feet you will notice The Fin has, near it’s top (south side) a smaller fin and below is a prominent saddle, Fin Saddle. These are landmarks you will be using on your return.
Getting Around the Labyrinth
From High Point saddle, stay west of the drainage and work your way around to the south side of the small peak in front of you. Follow our route or make your own, and continue down into the valley to intersect with the Ben Avery trail. Follow this trail to the eastern trailhead and prepare to thread the needle, tie up loose ends and head home.
We took our lunch break here, isolated and remote, not a sign of another human. Just minutes before we would depart a truck slowly rolled towards us from the east and parked. Out popped a man, woman two children and a very tall greyhound with plush sweater. I took one look at the man and had a feeling that I knew him. A few questions and answers later, we pieced together the fact we had met the previous summer in Colorado where he was a campground host. My family and I had rolled into his full campground and he helped us fill our water tank and offered advice on where we could camp.
Head northeast and bite off the east end of the ridge that blocks your view to the north. On the north side of this ridge, walk northwest around the tip of the next ridge and step into the large cirque. Facing NW, the ridge in front of you, is the goal. On the east end of this ridge is The Fin and Fin Saddle, landmarks you viewed earlier in the day from the NW side of the Labyrinth. Head for Fin Saddle at 33.3887 -113.2802. As you approach, the smaller fin appears and what might resemble a shadow, is actually the larger of the three, arches, The Magnificent Natural Arch. As we approached the drainage that empties Fin Saddle, we chose a line which I would describe as the direct fall line of the MNA. We ascended a tongue of exposed bedrock, traversing right (NE) into a small drainage, past a large black chockstone and straight up. Small Palo Verdes provide grip as the footing is loose and what isn’t loose is crappy, ready to crumble under pressure. Stay close together or out of each other’s fall line, the potential for rock fall, is high.
Thread the Eye of the Needle and Head Home
Enjoy your time sitting in the saddle of the Magnificent Natural Arch, take in the view and consider a scramble up to Fin Saddle for view to the west. Look up higher on the small fin and you’ll see two, smaller arches. Climb through the MNA, threading the eye of the needle and descend the slope, north. Not as bad as the ascent but not near as good as that valley floor you can see ahead. Again, stay close together or out of each other’s fall line. This side has/had several large boulders delicately perched and ready to create a disaster with little effort needed to set them off. Once on the valley floor, head north and a tad west and if you are lucky or just really good, you will intersect your outbound route right at your car. If you have a border collie like my Ozzie, as soon as you get close to your outbound line, he/she will push/pull you to that path and once again confirm a dog is not just a companion but can be a contributing member to your adventure.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.