By: Rich Henke
Baboquivari dominates the western skyline from Tucson, Arizona. Besides being religiously significant for the O’odham Native Americans, the distinctive shape can be seen for miles. Years ago, Rena and I attempted Babo from the west but had to turn back when we found ice covering the crux 5th class friction pitch high on the north side of the mountain (it is 5th class, not 4th class as stated in some guides!). In February 2001, while visiting Southern Arizona, we decided to try a different route from the east side.
We drove from Tucson to the eastern trailhead and loaded our backpacks for a 3-hour hike to a saddle located on the north side of the mountain at an elevation of 6400 ft. After negotiating the trail through some serious cactus, we set up camp in a good position to attempt the summit the following day. The normal route on the north side can also be climbed from here, although two 5th class pitches must be negotiated to get to the base of the friction pitch. But we had a different route in mind. We would traverse along the east side of the mountain via the narrow Lions Ledge and then climb a 7-pitch, 5.5 route on the southeast ridge. Once on the summit, we planned to rappel the friction pitch on the upper part of the normal route and then descend/rappell back to our camp. But things often do not go exactly as planned.
The following day, we started out at daybreak and managed to follow Lions Ledge to near the start of the climbing route with just a few wrong turns. We weren’t exactly sure where the route began because I accidentally dropped and lost the climbing topo from my shirt pocket on the approach. But the ridge to be climbed was fairly obvious, so we started up. The climbing was not difficult but route finding turned out to be time consuming. It was 4 pm by the time we stood on the summit. On this beautiful calm day we could see for hundreds of miles from this isolated peak. However, it was obvious that we were going to have trouble descending. The north side of the mountain was blanketed with deep unbroken snow obliterating the trail on the upper part of the mountain. Since we had never been there before, we didn’t know how to find the descent route. The terrain was steep enough in most places to make descending over snow-covered rocks dangerous, so we had to repel often and do steep traverses in order to find small bushes and trees to use as anchors. Having only a single rope slowed us down considerably. It took a couple of hours until we found the top of the friction pitch. Two rappels got us down but it was getting dark and we could not find the route back to our camp on the north saddle. There was still cliffy terrain to negotiate. I ran ahead trying to identify landmarks before it got too dark. But it was too late. We would have to spend the night where we were.
Luckily, considering all the snow, the location was good. We were on a large wooded ledge with no worries about falling off the cliffs. We followed a trail into the woods and found an old fire pit in a small clearing that was free of snow. After building a fire, we inventoried our gear and put on whatever clothing we had. We melted water by placing our snow filled plastic water bottles close to the fire. Later that night, the wind picked up blowing our fire around. I searched through the trees for a better site and found a small protected clearing next to a rock wall, noting that we were not the first to have used this spot. After moving our burning fire, the rest of the night was spent feeding the fire, huddling around it to stay warm, and watching the imagined animal shapes form in the flames. We also took turns trying to sleep, using our daypacks as insulation against the cold ground.
After a very long night, dawn finally arrived. We packed up and easily found the correct route toward our camp. We still had to do many rappels in the snow, but we could see the north saddle below us. Finally we reached camp at noon. Our first priority was food, as we were famished after having only leftover lunch crumbs the previous night. After eating, we took a short nap, broke camp, and hiked back to our car. It was Rena’s first unplanned bivouac. All in all, we survived the epic with no negative effects. But once again, Rena told me from now on she would watch all future adventures on The Discovery Channel.
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