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Tales of Tricks by the God I'itoi on Baboquivari Peak, Arizona

Submitted by rocknroll on 2007-03-19

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by chossman of the desert

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It might seem strange that a white guy could befriend a Native American deity. But my long-standing friendship with the Tonono-O’odham creator, I’itoi, came out of necessity more than by choice. He is not very nice to anyone who enters his realm, Baboquivari Peak, (19 miles north of the Mexican border and about 90 miles southwest of Tucson). Around the campfire, Baboquivari climbers tell stories of epic descents, strange twists of fate and occurrences that befuddle logic. Most of these tales can certainly be attributed to the most common explanation for climber difficulties: human error. But when you suddenly lose the trail, retrace your steps and the trail isn’t there, you begin to wonder if it really was you who made the mistake. Or you spend the night assuredly bushwhacking down the eastside of the rock (there’s Tucson off glowing in the distance, Kitt Peak to your left) and you find yourself on the completely opposite side of the peak. Just the sheer number of epics that befall climbers on Baboqyuivari Peak tells you that some other force is at work. Not to mention that it seems to always happen to those delicate virgins who try and climb 'Babo' for the first time. It happened to me, but I kept coming back, until I’itoi and I had reached an agreement - no, more like a partnership. For finally I was able to utilize his power to create some of the finest rock climbs on Baboquivari Peak.

Baboquivari Peak is one of the few mountains in Arizona that requires a rope to attain its summit. It has the only Grade VI (multi-day) rock climbs in Arizona on its overhanging east face. But probably its most amazing feature is Lion’s Ledge. The ledge completely encircles the peak, tilting upward like Saturn’s rings. The ledge dips low enough to provide access on the north side and reaches a height of about 500 feet on the south side. A trail, (if you can call it that) follows the ledge for its entirety. At times the ledge is as big as a sports arena, and at other times it is so narrow that a slip would surely kill you. It has mandatory boulder moves, belly crawls and cactus crashing. It was named by Bill Forrest, the first guy to climb the East face. When he first found the ledge, a mountain lion appeared in front of the wary climbers and then disappeared. Realizing the lion would have no escape, they feared it might return since they planned to sleep on the ledge. But the mountain lion was not seen. Instead a beautiful year round spring adorned with columbines, greeted the thirsty climbers. They walked the length of the ledge to discover a large overhang big enough for a bivouacked troop of boy scouts. They scrambled further through the narrowest portions of the ledge to the tip of the Southeast arête and then re-traced their steps. Upon arriving at the overhang, the mountain lion appeared in front of them and then was gone. How did this animal pass them on such a narrow ledge? A visitation by I’itoi, perhaps? They named the overhang Cougar Cave.

I’itoi is the guy who whipped up the Tohono-O’odham people from the primordial ooze. He is on par with Zeus in Greek mythology and his Mount Olympus is Baboquivari. Throughout time, he has helped the Tohono-O’odham people thwart invading tribes, drought and disease and has been there for the Tohono-O’odham when things go wrong. But old I’itoi has a mischievous side, and his practical jokes and booby traps are legendary. He doesn’t just let you know you fucked up, he fucks with you until you realize that you fucked up so bad, you’re getting fucked over. The Tohono-O’odham people have built a shrine somewhere on the mountain, and their prayers and offerings keep I’itoi pleasantly satisfied. But enter his realm unaware that you are trespassing and watch out!

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A climber on the South East Arete
Dr. Michael J. Meitner
A climber on the South East Arete. Photo by Dr. Michael J. Meitner.

Remarkably, my first time to the summit of Baboquivari went without a hitch. We climbed the Southeast Arête, a knife blade of granite that provides a moderate yet airy route to the wooded summit plateau. The traditional descent is the easiest way up the peak, the Forbes Route, named after a professor from the University of Arizona who chose this small but steep face to conquer the mountain around the turn of the last century. Ropes were employed as well as spikes of steel driven into the rock. They spent the night on the summit, building a huge bonfire that (so they say) could be seen all the way to Tucson. Such was the spectacle that folks thought the mountain was actually a volcano and had erupted. It must have been one hell of a fire to be seen that far away...or perhaps I'itoi had a hand in the illusion?

The next time I climbed the mountain I decided to up the odds. A buddy and I tried to climb the Southeast Arête in the moonlight. We thought we might be the first persons to ever attempt such a feat. Our plan was to gain Lion's Ledge, have a little dinner and spend the evening on the ridge. We had brought along a victory bottle of wine for when we returned. After that long hike in, we decided that we deserved the wine with dinner. Dangling our feet over the ledge, we pleasantly ate sardines and bagels as the long shadow of Baboquivari Peak stretched towards the eastern horizon and covered the land in darkness.

As the full moon rose, so did our enthusiasm. We began tossing rocks off the ledge listening for the crash in the forest below. As the remaining wine and heavable rocks became more scarce, our drunken vigor reached a climax. We found a huge Volkswagen sized boulder that was delicately balanced on the ledge. We used logs for levers and the strength of youth to trundle this ordinance into airtime. For a moment, all was quiet save for a faint whistle that rose into a roar of rushing air that was silenced by a ground-shaking CRACK. The bomb exploded into several washing machine sized rocks that began to tear at the forest below. All we could see were sparks accompanied by the sound of mature trees ripped from their roots as limbs sever. We heard birds scatter and saw airborne detritus fill the clear night with a hazy glow.

As the last rocks reached the streambed some 1000 feet below us, the echo from the impact was still reverberating around the canyon. We looked at each other and began to laugh. But no sound issued from our mouths as we were struck by the same simultaneous realization.

This is the land of I'itoi. We have been destructive to his homeland. Surely we will pay.

We immediately called off our plans for the moonlight ascent, doused the fire and sheepishly crawled into our sleeping bags. The ascent would wait for daylight.

Sleep came easily to our weary bones. However the threat of retaliation by Iitoi as a shape-shifted mountain lion preyed on my mind. After a few hours of imperfect sleep I was jolted from my daze by the realization that the entire ledge was on fire. I quickly jumped out of my bedroll and could now see that it wasn't the ledge that was on fire, but my clothes that were on fire. I had been using the clothes as a pillow and the flames so close to my face created the illusion. I jumped around like an Indian brave in a war dance. When the smoke cleared all that remained of my clothes was one leg of a pair of shorts and the corner of a five-dollar bill.

Instead of the first moonlight ascent of Baboquivari Peak, on the next day we achieved another 'first': the first underwear ascent of Baboquivari Peak.

Was our misfortune the will of the gods? Or is there a reasonable explanation? OK, a spark from the fire could have landed on my clothes and the ember slowly smoldered, finally erupting into flames long after we put the fire out. But subsequent experiences on the mountain would lead me to believe otherwise. For when I finally made contact with I'itoi and understood what he wanted, my luck changed.

But not so fast, I still needed to endure more trials first. My next time on the mountain, I chose a steeper and more demanding route, Don's Crack on the East Face. I'itoi dished it out but I showed him I could take it - water polished grooves, loose rock and a boost onto a mandatory mantle shelf covered in hedgehog cactus. The summit was reached after dark and the familiar Forbes route descent suddenly became elusive. I was at the rappel station, yet the iron rungs of the old Heliostation (built as a signaling device before the days of radio) were missing. Instinctively, I knew things did not feel right and I invoked the name of I'itoi to guide my way. Subsequent searching revealed the correct rappel station in a seemingly different location. Joyous to be back on the ground my girlfriend ran down to the saddle as I caught up from behind. We fell into a rhythm, jogging down the switchbacks to make up for lost time.

And then we lost the trail. We retraced our steps, did a grid pattern over an area of a few acres, yet the soltol, beargrass and yucca seemed all the same. Not willing to waste any more time, we headed for a steep gully that we knew would lead to the trail in the bottom of the canyon.

I'itoi was not going to let us off easy. Our headlamps dimmed and the terrain was rough. We scrambled down waterfalls, thrust our hands into a darkness of cactus thorns, and cut our shins on amole, also known as The Spanish Dagger. The rill seemed endless and hours passed since we had lost the trail.


About ten feet away in the brush we heard a branch breaking under the weight of a very large animal. I immediately thought 'Bear' since only a hefty creature could have produced that sound. But then I remembered that bears don't sneak through the brush, they crash through it. Mountain Lion! I started yelling at the top of my lungs and outstretched my arms to make myself appear as large as possible. For I realized that my companion was crouched into a crab-crawl, an inferior body position that cougars will take advantage of in those rare attacks on humans. Noisily we made our way to the canyon bottom without incident.

When we were well onto the trail, we laughed about our adventure and commented on our superiority over I'itoi's attempts at mischief. Then our chuckles were broken by a SNAP! The cat (or I'itoi) had stealthily tailed us the entire way.

But that is not all. A week later my companion broke out in severe poison ivy rash that covered 98% of her body that resulted in high fevers and scars that are with her today.

Don't fuck with I'itoi.

Reason with him. Show him some reverence. Tough out his trials. Earn his respect.

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It was so plainly obvious what needed to be done to appease this deity who treats men like Chinese checkers. Become his friend. But how to win him over? One thing was for sure, he respected those who successfully summited his mountain. For the rock climber was not the eco-tourist looking at pretty flowers. They were folks who by their own sweat and bravery kept right on going no matter how much I'itoi bloodied their knees or bruised their knuckles. So I planned an ascent on the unknown west face of Baboquivari Peak. This route would take every ounce of strength and fortitude to conquer the 1200' slab of granite. Surely a feat of this magnitude would win my friendship with I'itoi. I decided that I would also approach the peak from the West side, on the Tohono-O’odham Reservation. A small tribal park at the end of the road would serve as our jumping off spot. From there a seven mile trail wound to the point on Lion's Ledge that touched the base of the monolith. Although longer than the three-mile eastside approach, we welcomed the lower angle that this route provided for we would be carrying very heavy loads, about 100 pounds.. Along with the usual sleeping bags, ropes, and climbing gear, we carried a sixteen pound electric drill, two five pound batteries and forty expansion bolts for when the going got tough.

For all we knew about this face was from a scribbled entry in the old climber's logbook at the Tucson climbing shop The Summit Hut. It told of a route ascended on the west face by a party whose members are mostly dead or lost into the fabric of Life. Just the name of the route 'Times Lost' spoke of its mystical textures and illusion. Descriptions of the route went something like this,” Follow incipient seams past cactus to a ledge with no anchor." No anchor? We brought the bolts to be sure that we would live though the ascent.

My partner was Marcus T. Colby, a believer and a heyoka. A heyoka is the Hopi village clown. His wit and laughter would assure a fun time and keep things on par with I'itois mischievous ways.

As we obtained our provisions, it was Mark who made the realization of the perfect way to garner I'itoi's favor. An offering. As we passed a stack of Halloween candy, Mark suggested that I'itoi might like a King-size Snicker's Bar as an offering. He was correct.

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The Western approach to Baboquivari on the tohono-o'odham reservation
The Western approach to Baboquivari on the tohono-o'odham reservation.

We stayed up all night on border-cheap cocaine and set off like Peruvian mountaineers. Two golden eagles greeted us as we rose into the pinyon-juniper scrub and left the drugs behind for good. As we wound into the pines, Mark realized he had lost his camera. Upon re-tracing his steps, he found that I’itoi had neatly hung it from a branch in the middle of the trail. We found an excellent water source and bedded down foe the night.

Morning did not come soon enough as temperatures dropped below freezing. The summit of Babo was swaddled in swirling mists. Mark, an insulin diabetic, would surely be taxed with the cold. We found our proposed line and there at the base was a log leaning against the rock. An invitation, perhaps?

The clouds disappeared as Mark led with the electric drill for the very first time. He seemed to be handling it great and we made steady progress towards an ominous headwall. I took this lead, drilling a bolt ladder with some free moves in-between. We planned on the possibility of freeing this pitch the next day.

Safe in camp by sunset, Mark realized he had neglected to bring a pan for the steaks. “No problem, we’ll use the Pittsburgh method.” he says and lays the raw meat right on the burning coals. “Forty-five seconds a side, that’s how they do it when they lay them on the hot ingots coming out of the steel mills!”

As we chewed our steaks with our hands (since Mark also forgot the cutlery), we remarked how excellent everything seemed to be going. It had to be the offering. And tomorrow in a solemn ceremony, I’itoi would receive his gift.

Dawn brought us the same clouds, but they burned off quick. We made it to the bolt ladder, which I quickly freed at 5.10c. The next pitch led to I’itoi’s Patio, a large ledge. Here with heads bowed we left the King Sized snickers. “Mark,” I added after he had placed the offering, “Don’t you think you should unwrap it. Deities like I’itoi don’t have tiny fingers to open it. Besides leaving a wrapper on it would be littering.”

The rest of the climb was like a dream – except for the dropped electric drill battery and the sudden hailstorm as Mark followed the last pitch. Born of Water, named for the legends surrounding I’itoi’s creation, was the first of many routes to go on the more free-climbable west face. Wonderful climbs, all of them. Each went without a hitch, except the three days in the snow and rain I spent in Cougar Cave waiting to ask my girlfriend if she wanted to get hitched. (She said yes), And I’itoi said yes. As long as he got that King Sized Snickers.

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Southwest face of Baboquivari
Southwest face of Baboquivari.
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21 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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nice article :)
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Nice job Mike. Great writing as ever and sure sounds like much potential.
See you soon. Tuttle April 7/8.
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Really sweet tail Mike. I too have been twarted by I'itoi and hope to someday return for another summit bit.
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5 out of 5 stars Fantastic article! I've been putting off reading it, since it looked kinda large, but it certainly held me the whole way. I've never even heard of this place, but after reading about it, I want to go. Thanks a lot!
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I always wanted to get up that guy when I lived in Tucson. I never got around to it. I know that when I do, I am definitely bringing at least one king size snickers. :)

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The Tohono O'odham really have no patience with Anglo assholes like the writer who, like other obsessive "conquerors" of nature, have no place in the wilderness or on sacred land. That he brags about it all is truly amazing and incredibly insensitive. I doubt he really learned anything, but a large rock to the head might have taught him something.
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Great story! Babo is awesome! I have had my one and only epic on that mountain. Maybe there is something to the "I'itoi" after all.
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4 out of 5 stars Lived in Tucson for 4 years and and always wanted to climb it but it never happened. Its reached cult status in my head. Excellent narrative.
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1 out of 5 stars I was involved in a first ascent on the East face of Baboquivari in the late 80’s (Moonscapes, 11c). My partner and I climbed the route during a full moon and we were the only two people on the mountain at the time. The solitude and quietness around us as we spied the landscapes on the moon through a pair of binoculars was one of the high points of the climbing adventures we had together. It was truly a reverent experience.

The writer’s depiction of his experiences on Baboquivari, despite his invocation of reverence, is anything but reverent. His remarks are in fact insensitive and offensive, and display a wanton disregard for the mountain, the environment, the Tohono O’odham Nation, and anyone else who may have had the misfortune to be near him.

Access to climbing at Baboquivari is, and always has been, tentative at best. I have always considered climbing at Babo a privilege, such privilege to be revoked by disrespectful behavior. The events that the writer records of drunken or drug addled crazies trundling Volkswagen-sized boulders off the mountain (without regard to who or what may have been below), or having open fires on Lion’s Ledge (not to mention letting them get out of control), are not images that will warm the hearts of those who would seek to deny us the right to climb where we want to.
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1 out of 5 stars Agreed, the authors of these pictures and topos deserve proper credit as well
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If there is a diety out there his anger is understandable.
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Let me guess? You never were young before? The boulder trundling experience was done at age 19. And did you not get the immediate guilt that played upon our conscience and the karmic retribution of the fire burning up my clothes? If there is anyone who will threaten access to this area it is those politically correct climbers who must take every anamolly and turn it into a capital offense. Publicizing your negativity only makes all climbers look bad. This story is about lessons learned. We learned from these experiences how to better conduct ourselves as we grow older. The cougar following us down the canyon was at age 31. Born of Water was climbed when I was 35. I proposed to my wife on the mountain when I was 41. I'm now 47. I don't drink or do drugs anymore, but I still trundle boulders. However, I yell down below me before I let them go.

Lighten up. Climbing is about fun. Life is about lessons learned. Communicationg your differences to other climbers is about understanding and compassion. And the wisdom of growing older comes from acceptance and forgiveness.
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I enjoyed reading this story; it was well written. However, the author gets drunk, takes cocaine, and pushes boulders off slopes in a climbing area.. I occasionally come across this type of frat-boy behavior in public parks, and read about rock fall victims in ANAM. I hope he and I never share a mountain.
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I am outraged! As an out door enthusiast I am usually never surprised at the stupidity of some people who try with all their might to ruin things for everyone else. However this article is the most horrendous disrespectful, insensitive and ignorant display regarding the beliefs and culture of others that I have directly experienced or heard of in 60 years. It is a social slap in the face to every Tohono O’odham, not to mention the impunity to the reputation of every person who enjoys out door recreation. By reading this article and imagining replacing the name Baboquivari Peak with the National Cathedral and the name I’itoi with Jesus Christ one might begin to get an idea how this article is being viewed by the Tohono O’odham Tribal leaders and don’t think for a moment they are not scrutinizing it carefully.
Also keep in mind that the Tohono O’odham Nation is a sovereign nation and trespassing on the reservation is a federal offence, and alcohol and other drugs are also illegal on the reservation (which is within the jurisdiction of the FBI) not to mention the irresponsible, reckless, destructive and possibly criminal behavior described in this article. A reasonable person should be ashamed and embarrassed to admit to such behavior and ought not allow such articles to be displayed on it’s web site it only encourages others with an immature sense of self to try to emulate such juvenal behavior.
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I thought it was well written
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I enjoyed the article and the journey it describes. All these anonymous cowards do is complain. At least the author was man enough to be honest. We go through life learning and changing. Mistakes happen, we go on.

What I don't do is pronounce judgement on another, especially from a third party's perspective. If any of you anonymous cowards are part of the Oodham community, I stand corrected. Otherwise, enjoy the read and keep your preaching in church.
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What a great article, nicely worded. I can totally relate.
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I really enjoyed your story. I felt dissapointed at the rock throwing, and drugs as did most folks I suppose, but as they say that's what learning is all about. It's just too bad you didn't learn these lessons earlier in life when they couldn't have caused as much damage to such a wonderful community and nation. I'm glad that you felt regret and hope that you continue to remember those things that you did on this mountain. I enjoyed reading about the stories you have gathered about this mountain and was delighted to hear about your repeated experience with mishaps and surprises. I belive that is what climbing is all about. The thing that appaled me the most was the bolts that you drilled into the wall to go where you pleased in safety. I can understand the drugs, and the rock throwing but I will never condone drilling new rock just to have the pleasure of putting up a new route especially withtout permission. I'm surprised that no one else commented on this. Do you all believe that anyone has the right to drill holes in whatever rock they choose? What age and level of maturity were you when you drilled the new route Rocknroll? Have you learned your lesson yet?
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The climber who wrote this article was Michael Strassman. He learned the ultimate lesson in June of 2007 when he died of a meth overdose. I am his sister. Although Mike had a reckless side to him (who doesn't?), he was a very caring and sensitive human being who lived to be in the mountains and on the rock. Babo was one of his favorite places. Mike was a very talented and creative rock climber, videographer, photographer and writer. Unfortunately, in his last years meth changed him completely and he spiraled down the dark hole of losing everything--his house, his business, all his money, his wife and his friends. But Mike's contribution to the climbing world was profound, and has earned him a memorial climbing route in the Sierra (Lone Pine Peak), and a place in the obituary section of the American Alpine Journal. And now you know the rest of the story. Climb on!
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Thats too bad. ^Yes, rock climbers are the kind of people who buy chanel purses.....
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You know.. I'm 55 and I feel pretty reverent about the crags and peaks now days. I also respect out native American cultures (I'm 1/8 Ojibwe) and environment more so than ever. But! There was a time that I too rolled giant rocks off cliffs and snorted a line or three. Until I grew older I didn't understand our responsibility's to our mother earth as I do now. This narrative is really a story of growing up. Unfortunately, for one of the cast, that act didn't get to go full circle. Or maybe it did. Maybe Michael has joined the spirits that preside over Baboquivari. There's many stories of lost souls finding solitude amongst those spirits that preceded them. I hope that this is one of them.

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