I was fifteen years old in 1969. Full of life, teenage exuberance, and boundless expectation. So, when the invitation came to climb Mount Baboquivari on New Year’s Day, I was more than excited.
Mount Baboquivari is a unique mountain peak about 50 miles from Tucson, Arizona. It rises to over 7,700 feet in elevation, and it is highly revered by the Papago (now called Tohono O’odham) Indians who live in that part of the Sonoran Desert. In the winter it is often snow covered. And it was especially so on New Year’s Day 1969.
I had neighbors who were an integral part of SARA (the Southern Arizona Rescue Association), a volunteer rescue organization that saved numerous persons lost or injured in the desert and surrounding mountainous areas of southern Arizona. They were to be the guides on our trek up the mountain on this cold, snowy, winter day.
We loaded the cars with all of our gear that cold winter morning in Tucson, and made the hour long drive to our starting point. When we arrived we were approached by a Native American man wearing only blue jeans and a denim shirt; his hands were tucked into his pants pockets to keep them warm, but his large belly was protruding under his shirt tail. I was still freezing with my goose down coat, so I couldn’t imagine how he could stand to come out and chat with us in his meager attire.
We applied snow seal to our climbing boots, put packs on our backs, and began. The first part of the journey involved passage through a snow covered desert area that led to the base of the mountain. I wasn’t far into the journey when I slipped into a snow drift and drenched my right leg almost to the hip. It was so cold. And I hadn’t even begun the climb.
One of the special features of this hike was the climb itself. The side that we had chosen to ascend involved an 80 foot vertical rock face that never saw the light of the winter sun; it was sheer ice. And we had come with some experienced rock climbers, one (Scott) who climbed the face, pick axe in hand, and created hand and foot holds for the rest of us. Bless you, Scott.
After hiking up the trail that led to this mountain face, we assembled and watched Scott pave the way for us. It was fun to see him work his magic on the icy wall. Finally, his preliminary work was done, and he positioned himself with a belay rope for those of us who would follow him. I was one of the first to attempt the ascent. But I was not prepared for the instructions I was given.
I had spent some time in preparing for this event, you understand. I was excited to finally be using the black ski gloves I had purchased, along with the wool liners I combined with them for extra warmth. Even with all of that, my fingers were cold from my fall into the snowdrift earlier. Nevertheless, I was ready for the challenge ahead. I had never climbed a wall of ice.
But I was not prepared for the words I heard next. “Take off your gloves,” I was instructed. I laughed out loud. Having been kidded and lovingly harassed by these older friends before, I was not about to be bamboozled and made fun of in this situation. But they were serious. And when they saw I was not about to comply they repeated the charge. Then they supplied an explanation: “You can’t feel the handholds with your thick gloves on. You must do this bare handed.”
Reluctantly, I complied. I can’t give you much detail about the ice climb that day, except to say that it was excruciatingly cold and challenging. But I made it to the top without incident, along with the help and encouragement of my friends. And I am here to tell you about it today. Once we had hiked a bit further to the actual summit of Mount Baboquivari we celebrated with some red wine (yes, I was given a smidgen of wine to drink that day) that my friend Thomas had carried clandestinely in his pack.
I don’t recall how long the hike and climb took, but I know it must have been a lengthy venture, since our descent (I distinctly recall) was at sunset. I recall the hike back over to the edge of that ice face, preparing for the rappel down the side of the mountain. And what I saw was astounding. There before me was a 180 degree sunset (the only time I’ve ever experienced that sight). The snow all around me was tinted a deep orange from the glow of the setting sun. It was breathtaking. And unforgettable.
As darkness enveloped the desert landscape that winter day in southern Arizona, and we came down the long trail that had led us to that memorable peak, there was one more surprise in store for me. One more once-in-a-lifetime experience, the description of which can never do justice to the majestic scene I witnessed.
There, descending the trail with carbide lights on our heads to guide us through the thick darkness, we saw above us a part of the Milky Way galaxy. And for the first time in my life I saw stars so thick they were almost a cloud. It took a word from my guides to tell me what I was seeing; it was that incomprehensible to me. Never since that night have I seen stars that thick, except in professional photographs of the night sky in Arizona (which is reputed to be seven times more dense with visible starlight than much of the rest of the country).
There is a favorite movie of mine (Field of Dreams) where the actor, James Earl Jones, says “the memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.” New Year’s Day 1969 is like that for me. It is ever before me. The majestic Mount Baboquivari stands in the foreground of my psyche, a sentinel reminding me that great obstacles are not insurmountable.
In subsequent years since 1969 I have learned that mountain climbing is not the only scenario where one must take off their gloves in order to survive. In order to feel the handholds necessary not only to survive the climb, but to enjoy the journey itself. If my chief goal in life is self protection then I will keep the gloves on; I will do nothing bare handed, exposing myself to injury or discomfort.
But the truth is, the peaks of life cannot be climbed with gloves on. There are feelings that must be felt. Pain that must be endured. Delights that cannot be experienced apart from risk.
I don’t believe The Creator lies under the base of Mount Baboquivari, as is asserted in Tohono O’odham cosmic history. Or, for that matter, that this was the site (the “navel” they call it) from whence man emerged after the Great Flood. But I can confirm that in my life this mountain serves as the reminder that life is best lived unprotected, with the gloves off; that one must take risks if relationships are to thrive.
God give me the strength to live in this way.