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Climbing Out of the Darkness and Into the Light

by Luke Mehall

I woke up freezing in Penitente Canyon on Easter Sunday, back when my philosophy toward camping equipment was still in its experimental stages.

I was convinced that two average sleeping bags would equal one good bag. Spring weather in the high country of Colorado quickly proved me wrong.

At our campsite, just a few minutes from the climbing walls in the canyon, I decided to get the stove going for some hot water. It sputtered and failed to ignite. My climbing partner and I immediately decided that breakfast in La Garita, a few-minutes drive away, would be a good idea.

Grumpy and in a sour mood from lack of sleep, I was quickly revived in the old sweet café in La Garita, the only breakfast joint in the small town.

Penitente Canyon has always lured me back. Over the years I’d heard stories of the Penitentes, a branch of Catholicism that once used the canyon for religious ceremonies. One of the ceremonies I’d heard about was how they used to reenact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday, actually binding a member of the sect to a cross then walking him through the canyon; suffering leading to salvation.

In the café I thought about the Penitentes, and my comparatively minimal suffering the night before. I thought about darkness coming from light

Driving back to the canyon, full of hot food and fully caffeinated, I was excited, almost giddy; the temperature was improving, the sky was a deep mountain blue, and we were about to climb, which in good conditions always makes me feel 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 of Guadalupe mural, (often mistaken to be the Virgin Mary). I wondered how, fifty years ago on the same day, Easter Sunday, the Penitentes might have used the canyon, and what they would have thought if someone told them about the current popular use of the canyon, rock climbing, and how they would react.

Towards the end of the day we tried one last climb, that time of the day when a climber knows the sun will soon be leaving the rock — time to savor those last few moments before the cold Colorado air kicks back in.

On my turn, I tied in, went up putting the tips of my fingers into small pockets in the rock which I would soon use for a mere centimeter of my climbing shoe, 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 must endure some pain for success.

The climb ended with the fading light and we were still full of adrenaline. We worked hard and it was time for a beer. Salvation!

Climbing in Penitente Canyon is primarily short compared with other Colorado areas; climbs are about thirty to sixty feet tall. It’s also easily accessible; a short five-minute hike from the parking area leads to the climbs. The canyon is both friendly to beginning climbers (numerous easy-moderate routes exist) and challenging to the most advanced.
Perhaps the most famous female climber of all-time, Lynn Hill was recently featured in Climbing Magazine on a popular Penitente route, “Bullet the Blue Sky,” located just a few feet from the Virgin mural. The climb is one of many that was established by Bob D’Antonio, a pioneer of the canyon who spent countless hours establishing routes in the 1980s. D’Antonio is also the author of the guidebook for the canyon, Rock Climbing the San Luis Valley.
The rock is volcanic and features huecos (an “o” shaped formation), pockets, and some cracks. The rock is extremely solid with very few loose features. The climbs at the introductory level have big holds and are at low angles. Even a climber with the highest standards would enjoy the quality of rock in the canyon. In spring and fall, climbers from all over Colorado and the U.S. enjoy the offerings of the canyon, and perfect temperatures for climbing.
The canyon has a spiritual feel to it. The Sangre de Christo mountain range towers above the San Luis Valley to the west. Large boulders that fell years ago are scattered about, with the occasional mark of chalk from climbers. Hikers often stroll leisurely through the canyon to watch climbers. A variety of birds can be spotted including bald eagles. Pigeons often nest in the rocks, and can be quite noisy in certain areas.
Penitente Canyon is located on Bureau of Land Management Land (BLM) and is managed by the Saguache Field Office. Camping is available for a moderate fee and group sites are available.
The canyon 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 actually did there.
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.

Luke Mehall has been climbing in Penitente Canyon for 10 years, often to escape the winter temperatures of Gunnison where he resides. He is an alumnus of Western State College, where is currently employed in the office of public relations and communications. To visit his blog go to