Adventure #4: Climbing the Navel of the World

*This is Adventure #4 of my Top 10 Adventures Countdown*

I’m not much interested in popular deities, but I’m a sucker for ancient mythologies. I loved studying Roman and especially Greek mythology in Mrs. Longhenry’s class in high school, I like the bizarre modern mythologies Neil Gaiman cobbles together in his novels (I get to meet him at an author event on Wednesday!), and I suspect I’ll do a bit more digging into Norse mythology during our upcoming Iceland trip. So, when I learned that my friends would be leading a group to Baboquivari, the Mount Olympus of Tohono O’odham mythology, I signed up post-haste.

Granted, I knew nothing of the mythology at the time, and I know little more now. Nonetheless, I liked the idea of climbing a “sacred” peak, which is also the most technically challenging peak in Arizona (not that it’s terribly challenging; the easy route has only a single pitch of 5.6 climbing).

According to the Tohono O’odham (which means “Desert People”) Native American tribe, Baboquivari is the home of I’itoi, the creator god. I’itoi is said to live in a cave at the base of the mountain, and visitors are supposed to bring a gift to ensure their safe return. Somehow this has translated into the common practice among climbers of leaving a token at the top of the peak at a makeshift altar.

The Tohono O'odham symbol for I'itoi in his labyrinth under Baboquivari

The Tohono O’odham symbol for I’itoi in his labyrinth under Baboquivari

Baboquivari is also considered the “navel of the world” in Tohono O’odham mythology. My visit there was not my first visit to one of the world’s belly buttons. I’ve also been to the belly button of the world according to Greek mythology, which is located at Delphi, and the Incan belly button of the world, which is located at Cusco. All this navel-gazing just reminds me of how egocentric we humans are. In man-made religions, the center of the world always just happens to be right where we are. How convenient.

Mythological commentary aside, Baboquivari is an impressive feature in the landscape of southern Arizona. You can see it from miles away, dramatically jutting out into the sky. It just screams “Climb me!” For this reason, in addition to its religious significance for the Tohono O’odham, Baboquivari served as a testing grounds. Climbing the mountain was a rite of passage, and once a young man had done so, he became a Tohono O’odham warrior.

In March 2013, Mike and I went with a group of 18 others on a 2-day adventure to summit Babo. The first day we hiked up several thousand feet and set up camp. We got a late start due to some car troubles on the way in (Nathan’s truck blew both rear tires simultaneously), but most of us made it to the campsite by dark. Nathan and Josh had to drive several hours to pick up some new tires and then had to change out the flat ones before heading up, but they still made it to the campsite by about 10:00.

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On day two, our large group set out in smaller waves in order to stagger our arrival at the technical climbing pitch. There we took turns roping up and climbing the one, easy, 5.6 pitch. After the climbing section, there was just a little more terrain to cover to reach the top.

Once we reached the 7,730-foot peak (about 4,500 feet of elevation gain from the desert floor), we had a 360-degree view of the area. Since Babo is right on the border, we could see miles into both Arizona and Mexico. When our entire group of 20 was on top, we took some pictures and held a small ceremony so everyone could talk about what they were donating to the mountain. Some left trinkets that carried personal significance, while others scrounged for something random from their packs. One common practice is to leave something that may help other hikers in need, so some members of our group left first aid items. Mike and I tend toward irreverence when it comes to religion, so we sacrificed figurines of babies and virgins to the mountain god. After a little more time on the peak, we all headed down.

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Although Mike and I frequently adventure with others, it’s rare that our groups are so large. The overnight trip with such a big cohort gave a sense of camaraderie that I don’t always associate with adventure, but that’s one of the reasons this trip stood out for me. Not only was the group dynamic interesting, but the trip itself had a little bit of everything: physical strain, spiritual gain, yada yada.

Baboquivari definitely has an energy of its own, so it’s no wonder the Tohono O’odham viewed it as sacred. It’s a place I would certainly visit again.

End Note: The photos in this blog (and not just this post) are courtesy of Mike Zysman, unless otherwise noted. Since we only brought our point-and-shoot on this adventure, while Ethan Holshouser brought his SLR, I asked Ethan if I could use a few of his photos. He generously agreed. Thanks, Ethan!

2 Responses to “Adventure #4: Climbing the Navel of the World”
  1. JM Simpson says:

    I love your posts! How many days til Iceland?

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