Courthouse Butte is a 5,451-foot (1,661-meter) formation located roughly midway between the villages of Oak Creek and Sedona, Arizona. It is a very prominent feature from all angles, a massive pedestal held skyward by 1,300-foot cliffs of radiant red sandstone. It happens to stand above and just east of the iconic Bell Rock, which is the purported site of one of Sedona’s four main energy vortexes.
The continuous, forbidding nature of its sheer walls serves to guard the summit of Courthouse Butte against non-technical ascents; the easiest route carries a YDS grade of 5.6. Yet arguably the highest-quality line on the formation is the Flip Wilson Route, which ascends the southwest arête in three exciting and diverse pitches. The first pitch uses traditional protection on blocky 5.7 terrain. The second pitch is the most difficult at 5.10c, but is protected with bolts, while the third and final pitch follows an arc of twelve bolts across an exposed 5.10a slab. From the top of the arête, two double-rope rappels are required to return to flat ground.
SUMMARY: I climbed Courthouse Butte with Giselle on Halloween of the year 2015. We drove 45 minutes south from our home in Flagstaff, arriving to the Bell Rock trailhead in the early afternoon. The approach involved one mile of trail walking followed by a good deal of class-3/4 scrambling to reach the base of the Flip Wilson Route. I led all three pitches (one trad, two sport) to the top, then at sunset we rappelled the route, returning to the trailhead long past nightfall.
31 OCTOBER 2015
After a lazy morning at home, Giselle and I pack our gear into Misti and drive 45 minutes south to the Bell Rock trailhead, which is located roughly midway between the villages of Sedona and Oak Creek. The Bell Rock Pathway is very popular among the New Age folk of the region, who argue for the presence of an energy vortex centered on Bell Rock itself. Hippies gawk at the sight of our steel climbing gear clanking against the sides of our rucksacks as we skip down the wide path toward the ominous 1,300-foot south face of Courthouse Butte.
We follow the trail for approximately one mile to the base of the formation. From here we weave our way towards the base of the southwest arête through ledges and cliff-bands. There’s no question which tower is the objective – it absolutely pleads to be climbed, and Giselle and I can hardly wait to be scratching fingernails desperately on the flaky sandstone 1,000 feet off the valley floor.
The two of us scramble up a series of class-3 ledges (including one short class-4 section) in order to gain entrance to a shaded slot canyon that leads directly to the base of the route. The walls radiate brilliant copper hues as we punch our way through dense thickets of thornbushes and prickly-pear cactus.
The start of the route is rather obvious in the sense that it is the only viable option for ascending the continuous cliffs on this side of the formation. The first 40 feet (!) of the route offer zero options for traditional gear placements, beginning with low-angle 5.4 terrain and progressing to a 5.7 corner.
Finally I find an opportunity to place my first piece of protection: a #2 cam wedged between a chockstone and the main wall. Good thing, because the crux move is right at this spot. I have to turn to the right and mantle the overhanging chockstone onto a safe ledge. From there, some 40 feet of easy 5.5 slabs (also unprotected, but nothing to be concerned about) brings me to the bolted anchor station at the top of the pitch.
I belay Giselle up to join me on the first ledge, which offers a radical perspective on the nearly unbroken sandstone cliffs of Courthouse Butte. I get the sensation of being wonderfully lost amid a sea of vertical Supai slickrock.
The crux of the entire route comes immediately on the second pitch. A diagonal line of bolts leads me across a blank slab, around an intimidating bulge, and back across to another, slightly less perplexing slab. The crimp holds are almost nonexistent to the naked eye, meaning that it takes a great deal of trust to move confidently through this section.
Giselle admits that this 5.10c pitch “kicks her butt”, but she perseveres and somehow muscles her way to the top. At the time of writing, this is the most difficult pitch of technical climbing yet conquered by Giselle.
The third pitch is the highlight of the route. Twelve well-spaced bolts trace an aesthetic arc up 120 feet of vertical sandstone slab. It’s hard to identify the crux because the movements are pretty sustained at a grade of 5.10a. Tourists circle our tower in obnoxious helicopters as I try earnestly to focus on the task at hand, partially terrified of suddenly losing friction or worse: pulling off a loose flake.
Several lengthy reaches make this climb significantly more difficult for Giselle than for myself. “Scariest Halloween ever,” she comments poignantly while desperately grasping thin crimper holds 1,000 feet off the valley floor. Finally, a sequence of insecure, exposed movements across the upper slab ensures that we earn our summit prize.
The two of us look triumphantly out from the top of the butte, scanning our eyes across the dramatic cliffs lining the Mogollon Rim, finding not a single one of these cliffs to be more impressive than the one on which we stand. Several hundred feet below us stands Bell Rock, and it’s easy to see from this perspective why New Age folk have designated it as the center of an energy vortex… whatever that means. Picturesque formation, nonetheless.
The sun dips swiftly below the western skyline, and suddenly we’re left to rappel the route in the dark of night. I won’t go into too much gory detail here, but a series of minor blunders results in us taking almost two hours to complete one double-rope rappel and two single-rope rappels. It’s nearly 7:30pm when at last we return to the trailhead and begin heading back to Flagstaff to join in the Halloween festivities.