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    From harsh rituals to hard-earned play, legends grow in this Colorado canyon

    By Seth Boster,


    SAGUACHE COUNTY • Fields of crops and sage sprawl toward the Sangre de Cristo peaks in one direction, the San Juans in another, their wonders seemingly far away on this lonely, dusty stretch of U.S. 285.

    But here in the San Luis Valley, wonders tend to appear out of nowhere.

    There was Bob D’Antonio in the summer of 1984, following suggested directions of a rock climbing friend.

    “I was like, man, I’ve driven by there, there’s nothing there,” D’Antonio recalls. “Then we went into Penitente. And I’m like, holy (expletive), this place is amazing.”

    A side road turns to dirt and narrows where the fields fade and the place of pinon and juniper emerges — and a cathedral of rock suddenly rises.

    Penitente Canyon is a place of low-lying cliffs, buttresses, boulders and cracked walls. The jumbled, soaring tuff is the result of the planet’s most violent volcanic episodes that erupted in the vicinity 20 million to 30 million years ago, blasting ash and debris that weather and time warped and solidified.

    It is a place of more ancient curiosities. Of tribes that roamed here over thousands of years, leaving marks and pictographs seen today on the rock.

    Later came the Spanish, erecting crosses throughout the valley. Those splintered remains are said to still be found around the canyon. They recall a persecuted sect of Catholic men, Los Hermanos Penitentes, who chose the hidden canyon as a place to practice brutal rituals in secret — reenactments of the crucifixion.

    Another reminder of the brotherhood is in plain view: the Madonna painted high on a wall. Beside the mural are several, drilled-in bolts. Those are reminders of the recreation scene D’Antonio helped establish some 40 years ago.

    The climber who grew his first-ascensionist reputation around Colorado Springs now lives in Taos, N.M. Age has not stopped him from frequent returns to the stout lines he bolted in Penitente Canyon, now known by the sport climbing masses.

    “It’s one of those special places,” D’Antonio says. “One of those really special places on Earth.”

    It’s not something easily described, says a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management.

    “It’s something a little more soulful,” Levi Spellman says. “Throughout the ages people have consistently been drawn to Penitente Canyon. ... So, it’s no surprise that it has the same effect on people today.

    Estimates place annual visitation between 40,000 and 60,000. An overflow parking lot is known to fill on weekends. The campground is similarly known to fill.

    And it’s not just the climbing that draws people. Mountain bikers have spread the word on the trail network weaving 20 miles. The singletrack is a more recent development through the BLM’s partnership with San Luis Valley Great Outdoors.

    “It still feels like a hidden area,” says Logan Hjelmstad, a project coordinator with that nonprofit. “You don’t really know this place exists until you get up in here.”

    Penitente Canyon was hardly known back in D’Antonio’s day.

    Stewart Green was a friend of his in Colorado Springs, another member of a ragtag bunch on the frontier of sport climbing — a style that favored strength, footwork and sheer will over classic, hefty mountaineering equipment.

    Now a trusted source of climbing history, Green regards Penitente as among the nation’s first areas of its kind to be developed. “It’s significant in that it was really the second sport climbing area in Colorado,” he says.

    D’Antonio had watched Shelf Road near Cañon City gain fast notoriety. He came to see Penitente as a blank slate, blank as the surrounding, silent desert. Penitente was “one of those backwater areas,” he says — away from the drama of many crags where climbers threw fists to stake their claims.

    “Not like Eldorado or Boulder Canyon or Yosemite,” D’Antonio recalls of Penitente. “You could just go about your business.”

    That pioneering business is chronicled in a new guidebook by Nate Liles, “Penitente.” This was serious business back in the ‘80s. Routes here pushed common grades and demanded “razor-sharp crimps” and “complex, technical problems,” Liles writes.

    He notes the cliffs as short and short on “fluff.” They boast the intense likes of Not my Cross to Bear, a route beside the Madonna. It’s but one harsh, full-body ascent D’Antonio established.

    The limits have been pushed even further lately by a mighty few. Penitente “may represent the greatest concentration of extreme climbs of their genre in Colorado, perhaps in the country,” Liles writes.

    But however widely discovered now, he writes, “things have not changed too much in those beautiful little canyons tucked back in the pinon and juniper.”

    It still feels ancient, hidden, Hjelmstad says.

    Along with San Luis Valley Great Outdoors, he sits on the board of San Luis Valley Climbers Alliance. It’s another nonprofit that has risen in recent years, which have marked something of an advocacy renaissance in the valley.

    Along with trail expansions, rusted bolts have been replaced for safety and special events have come to Penitente. The focus on the canyon makes sense, says Curt Howell, a local educator and guide. “Just because in a sense it’s the epicenter of outdoor recreation in the valley.”

    The idea is for the canyon to be “the standard,” Hjelmstad says — an example of what can be achieved through stewardship and land manager partnerships.

    But there might be consequences to increased attention. That might be symbolized by the Madonna.

    The figure was recently painted over, to the surprise and concern of onlookers. They see something lost, something old and aesthetic, by the new blob of color.

    “We want to share this place with folks, but as we do, we want to make sure we’re taking care of it,” Howell says. “A lot of places didn’t get out in front of that wave, it was too fast. We know it’s coming, and we’re seeing it.”

    The new wave is fine by D’Antonio. “I think it’s good,” he says.

    The place was never meant to be his alone, after all, and he sounds pleased by more climbers experiencing it.

    Young climbers like Joey Yonkoff. He’s taking on Not My Cross to Bear now, struggling high on the route, every limb burning. Blood has been drawn.

    With victory comes the feeling of every generation here: “A little defeated,” Yonkoff says, “but also happy.”

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