I woke up freezing in Penitente Canyon. It was Easter Sunday. This was back when my philosophy toward camping equipment was in its experimental stages, but I guess equipping for the great outdoors always is.
[story by Luke Mehall, author of Climbing Out of Bed]
My assumption was that two average sleeping bags would equal one good bag. The spring weather in the high country of Colorado proved me wrong quickly.
At our campsite, just a couple minutes from the climbing inside the canyon, I decided to get the stove going for some hot water. It sputtered and failed to light. I looked to my climbing partner and we immediately decided breakfast in La Garita, a few minutes drive away, would be a good idea.
I was grumpy and in a sour mood from not sleeping, but it quickly got better in the old sweet cafe in La Garita, the only breakfast joint in the small town.
Penitente Canyon has drawn me back time and time again. Over the years I’ve heard stories of the Penitentes, a branch of Catholicism that used the canyon for religious ceremonies. One of the ceremonies I’d heard was on Easter Sunday they used to reenact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, actually hanging a member of the sect to a cross then walking him through the canyon, suffering leading to salvation.
In that cafe, I thought about the Penitentes, and my minimal suffering the night before. I thought about darkness coming from light.
Driving back to the canyon, full of hot food and caffeinated, I was excited, almost giddy. Temperatures were getting better, the sky was that blue that it only is in the mountains, and we were about to climb, which in good conditions always makes me pleasant.
That day we spent doing what climbers do. Climbing up, coming down, being happy, yelling silly things, making inappropriate jokes, testing ourselves, falling, getting back on the wall, trying again. We did the classic climb next to the Virgin Guadalupe mural (often mistaken to be the Virgin Mary). I wondered if fifty years ago on the same day, Easter Sunday, how the Penitentes might be using the canyon. Would they actually be reenacting the crucifixion? And, what would they think of climbers dangling off the walls of the canyon?
Near the end of the day we tried one last climb, that time of the day when a climber knows the sun will be leaving the rock shortly, and it is time to savor those last few moments before the cold Colorado air kicks back in.
On my turn, I tied in, went up, put the very tips of my fingers into pockets, later using those pockets for the centimeter of my climbing shoe that would fit in, as my fingers searched higher for more small holds. This particular climb was painful on my fingertips, but climbing is one of those sports where you have to endure some pain for success.
The climb ended, the light faded, we were full of adrenaline, we’d tried hard and it was time for beer. Salvation!
Penitente is one of many climbing areas in Colorado that hold a special place in my heart. To me it’s shrouded in mystery of what the Penitentes did all those years ago.
Most of all, it’s a place I remember for that Easter Sunday, when I woke up cold and miserable and left tired and happy. A place in the great outdoors where one can come out of the darkness, into the light.
This piece was originally published in Colorado Central Magazine, No. 193.