Building a DreamDriving through the darkness of the south Arizona desert my heart suddenly races as I see movement in the beam light from the headlights of our vehicle. What the…? Illegal migrants, their belongings slung over their backs in makeshift bags, dashing off the side of the road into the brush. This, I thought to myself, is going to be an adventure.
I first came to know Baboquivari doing a search on SP for Tucson area hikes for our annual visit to see my parents in their “wintering grounds”. I discerned right away, based on the mountain profile page, that this was not a peak to pull my parents away from their golf game to casually summit. No, Babo would be a special undertaking. I became somewhat fascinated with this peak.
In the spring of 2008 I kept my eye peeled on the southwestern horizon during Tucson area hikes for Babo…and there he was. He stood proudly above the desert. I was spellbound. One could say it was love at first site. Boarding the plane in Tucson to return to Colorado, I promised myself I would someday – soon – set my feet on the summit of Baboquivari.
This mountain would regularly interrupt my frequent daydreams of Colorado peaks, like a persistent suitor from the other side of the tracks. I would think most often of Babo in the morning, while preparing breakfast…which brings me back to the dark, cool February morning in southern Arizona.
Stepping Up to the ChallengeA rather pathetic rock climber with no partners in Tucson, I knew I would need to hire someone to get me up Babo. I made arrangements with Jeff Fasset of Arizona Climbing Guides and, here we were, bumping over a rutted, chug-holed dirt road toward our goal. Babo was glowing in the early morning light, simultaneously beckoning and threatening. The day was dawning on my 35th birthday. I was a very happy woman to be where I was.
After a final gear check and a few final chugs of Gatorade, we shouldered our packs and began the grueling march to the saddle. The path moves faintly through grass and scrub, climbing steeply to reach the saddle to the north of Baboquivari.
I was a very happy woman to be where I was."
We reached the saddle and were amazed at the sudden depth of the snow. We knew there would be snow on Babo in February, but the amount of snow was more than either of us anticipated. In the quiet of the high desert wilderness, we began preparing for the summit push, jettisoning excess gear and gorging on trail food.
After snacking at the saddle, we pulled on our harnesses and strapped on our helmets. I had the butterflies in my stomach looking up at the seriously imposing heap of rock above the saddle, contemplating the icy, rocky challenges that lie ahead. On the one hand I was thrilled to be starting this climb; on the other hand a nagging doubt kept nibbling at the edges of my thoughts, telling me that reaching the summit today was a long shot.
Long shot be damned. Let’s get going.
Getting Schooled in the Desert WinterWe started off from the saddle through deep snow, small trees and shrubs. After shrub-whacking through deep snow, sometimes taking an assist from the branch of a Manzanita, we reached a portion of the climb that looked a lot less like “the desert” and a lot more like a Colorado couloir. In areas the snow was thigh-deep. In other areas the snow was crust and icy and offered little to no purchase. Already we were sharing our mutual concerns that the snow and the postholing and the overall hard-going were putting us at potential risk in terms of energy outlay and time allowance. The sunny warmth of the desert seemed a very, very long way away.
We reached the first pitch and, given the conditions we had just climbed, were not surprised to find the standard route full of snow and ice. Jeff lead us deep into the crack to the left where he free-climbed the pitch, squeeze under a chockstone, and set up a belay. Following his moves, protected, I vacillated between admiring his climbing skills and bravery…and wondering if I had not chosen to climb Baboquivari with a madman.
After some more “desert couloir” action we reached the base of the second pitch. My heart began to sink. Water, of course, follows the path of least resistance. And it is up these least resistant paths where an unprotected lead climber and his much less-skilled but stout-hearted client needed to go.
With the best routes covered in a thin shell of verglas, it took Jeff a little while to forge a path up this pitch to the belay station. My heart nearly skipped a beat, I was so happy when I heard him yell, hidden and far above me: Ok, Sarah, CLIMB!
I was surprised by the total lack of holds. Yes, I realize this is called a “friction pitch” and one expects little by way of holds on a friction pitch. Still, the paths of least resistance blocked by ice and my luggy hiking stompers cold and stiff from kicking steps in snow, there was little friction to be had. Paying too much attention to my immediate next moves and not enough on my strategy, I soon found myself stuck behind a grotto.
HeartacheI had nowhere to go. I could not climb higher, nor could I climb to my right or my left. Too bull-headed to try to downclimb, I kept trying to go upward. But it was time to face reality: I had climbed myself into a spot I could not climb myself out of. My heart sank. After what seemed like an eternity of battling with myself mentally and physically, Jeff yelled “Sarah, I’m going to lower you down…slowly. Ready?”
When I reached the ground I felt so many emotions and sensations: Anger. Frustration. Defeat. Foolishness. I knew in advance the pitches on this mountain iced-over in winter. Jeff already warned me our likelihood of success would be low due to conditions. But I wanted this summit badly. And today was my birthday, dammit. Who was I to think I could pull this off? I felt cold and pathetic and disappointed.
Jeff repelled down next to me. “You’ve given up on a summit before, right?” Of course I have. We all have. Today would be no different. Like a lot of us in the mountain community, I am goal-oriented to an obsessive fault. This makes retreating a painful and difficult decision. But as any of us in this mountain community know, sometimes turning you back on a summit is the only (wise and prudent) option.
We began our downclimb, gingerly rappelling the icy “desert coulior” sections we had so cavalierly charged up not long before. After stomping and postholing through the snow and bushes, we reached our gear stash at the saddle, chatting about a “Babo redux” in October, when the summer heat had blasted every last bit of ice from the summit, then retreated to the cooler days of autumn. Deal.
A Regal Desert Sentinel
During the steep descent from the saddle in the desert sun, my disappointment at missing the summit and my anger at myself for being a quitter began to evaporate. I took in the vistas of the dry expanse before me. I inhaled the sweet smells of the desert scrub in the warm afternoon sun. I looked over my right shoulder to see the imposing face of Baboquivari. And I thought to myself how lucky a person I am to have spent my birthday in this very special place, getting as close as I did to the summit of a very special mountain.
Despite my disappointment, I enjoyed a fantastic journey to visit this quiet, magical desert sentinel. This regal desert peak sang a sweet song to my heart, once I quieted my foolish frustrations and opened my humble ears enough to listen.
And I made a promise to myself: I will return. Humble but happy and open to the joys and lessons of the journey, I will return.
Epilogue - Persistence Pays OffMy persistence paid off on a beautiful October day in Arizona. With the help of Jeff at Arizona Climbing, Candace and I reached the summit right at noon on 25th October 2009. In many places the bushwacking through holly, oak & brush was nearly as difficult and consuming as the technical climbing. The blue skies from the summit of the joy of finally being there made this a great day indeed.
I love happy endings!