The Sacred Mountain

I often muse about where a journey begins. This last weekend we summited Baboquivari (Babo), the sacred peak of the Tohono O’odam Nation in southern Arizona. This particular peak captured my attention five years ago as we crested over the rise on I-10, Tucson came into view, and I was immediately drawn to the pointy peak way out on the western horizon. Right there, that moment, it had me, I thought, this is why I moved here, I’m going to climb that peak.

As we settled into to our new desert lives and I researched climbing Babo, it became apparent that this was no ordinary peak, and not just because I had fallen in love with it, but because it has such meaning, stories, and mysteries woven into its presence and history. On top of that, accounts of climbing Babo were notoriously filled with stories of getting lost, bad rappels, and unintended bivies. Over the years it became a legend in my mind, something I wanted, needed in some way, but began to feel was too big and mysterious. Maybe it was too hard, maybe we should do more desert climbing first, maybe it wasn’t the right season… There were always lots of reasons why we didn’t climb it.

But then when I hurt my ankle a couple of months ago, I was staring out across the valley and I knew it was time to go, time to get a closer look at that beautiful peak. It was calling me. We went. I limped my way to the base of Babo. I left a small offering for I’itoli, the Tohono O’odam God that lives at the base of the peak, and said we would be back for the summit. I sat for a few minutes in the sun to rest my foot and soak in the moment when a little yellow butterfly flew down to my hurt ankle and then up to my face. I knew we would make the summit after that moment. I had such a collision of thoughts, chalked it all up to coincidence, but nevertheless, I’m sure that little yellow butterfly told me everything was going to be ok and the summit was ours if we wanted it. And the summit almost happened perfectly, or perhaps it did.

This last weekend we summited Babo. We decided to climb it in two days. The first afternoon we set up a base camp at the saddle. It was early, but it was sunny and beautiful and it was nice to enjoy a relaxing day under the spell of Babo. As the sun set the winds pick up, and up, and up. We cowboy camped that night, though I don’t think we slept much. The wind whipped across our camp all night long, continually filling our sleeping bags with so much air I thought we might take off like a hot air balloon into the night sky. I watched the clouds swirl with the winds, twisting in and out and back and forth across my view. There were so many stars. The stars are amazing in the clear skies of southern Arizona, but up here, there were more.

We woke groggy and cold. The clouds had moved in. They were so thick that we couldn’t see Babo anymore. Neon had packed a stove so we had hot coffee and pondered the dangers of climbing in high winds, misty fog, and on wet rock. The sunshine began to peek through the clouds and finally it was decided that we would hike to the base of the climb and then perhaps the weather would clear.

We made our way up the switchbacks, up the Great Ramp, through the oak thicket, and to the base of the climb. The clouds never cleared, but as we turned to the north side of the peak and to the base of the roped climb the winds slowed enough to be bearable. Neon decided the climb looked ok, though through the fog we couldn’t see the upper reaches of it. We set up the ropes, climbed, scrambled, and finally walked the rest of the way to the summit. Oddly, the winds were mild at the summit. There was no view through the clouds, but it is always sweet to see the summit cairn. We left our offerings. I said a silent thank you and we made our way off the summit with only one wrong turn.

The winds picked up again as we made our way back to the Great Ramp, but the air warmed as we made our way further down the mountainside. All in all it was a perfect summit and we felt triumphant. We camped that night near the petroglyphs at Picture Rocks, graced by the presence of a Cara Cara. We could see Babo, still in the clouds. My thoughts drifted to where this journey began… Was it the previous day, was it a couple of months ago when I felt the need to take a closer look, was it five years ago when we crested the rise on I-10 and I caught sight of Babo for the first time? Perhaps it was 10 years ago, in Italy, climbing for my very first time? Maybe it was when I was ten and Mt Rainier, in Washington state, called to me and I knew I would climb it some day, which I did. Or perhaps it was that hillside behind our house, when I was four, that always lured me up it to pick the apples from the trees that grew there. Everything often feels so tied together. One thing leads to another and I find myself unable to declare where it is the journey began or where it will take me next.

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Babo from near the saddle
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Sunset from our base camp at the saddle. Babo is behind us.
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Babo becoming visible through the clouds
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The Ladder Pitch – The roped part of our ascent.
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Me, Neon, and Tom feeling victorious at the summit.
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Babo summit cairn.
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Heading down the Great Ramp.
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Picture Rocks lit up in the setting sun. Babo, behind Picture Rocks, still in the clouds.
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A few of the petroglyphs at Picture rocks.

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