If you've been to the Southwest, you've probably seen the Man in the Maze motif, which depicts a small figure standing at the entrance to a labyrinth, on baskets and jewelry. According to the mythology of the Tohono O'odham, the small man at the entrance is I'itoi, the creator of the tribe. The labyrinth around him is a map to the cave where he lives beneath Baboquivari, a massive 7,730-foot granite mountain near the Mexican border that is home to some of Arizona's longest climbs.
In March 2013, we set out to climb Baboquivari and ended up in a maze of our own—one with wrong turns, drug smugglers, and spiky plants galore along the way. —Adam Roy
The simplest way to approach Baboquivari is from the Tohono O'odham-maintained Baboquivari camp, about 70 miles southeast of Tucson. From the camp, you pick up a maintained, well-marked trail which goes all the way to the peak. It takes about two hours to hike and is almost impossible to lose.
That's not what we did. Instead, after making a wrong turn just before sunrise, we got onto what looked like a promising trail, followed it into a brushy canyon, and promptly got lost.
The moon hovers over a group of saguaros in a canyon below Baboquivari.
A fishhook barrel cactus. The pineapple-shaped fruits on top are edible, though too dry and bitter to be palatable. Of more concern to hikers are the vicious, curved spines that give the cactus its name.
We soon figured out that we were on a trail after all. Just not a climbers' trail. From time to time we'd pass camps littered with trash—bottles of electrolyte fluid, tortillas, canned food—all Mexican brands. If we were unsure that migrants and drug smugglers had passed through the canyon, our doubts were erased when we rounded a bend and met two very wary men, each of them carrying a stack of burlap-wrapped bales on his back.
I wish I could tell you that I used my passable knowledge of Spanish to suavely defuse the tension, and that soon everyone was laughing and joking with each other. Instead, I asked them for directions. We were very lost.
The west face of Baboquivari, framed by the afternoon sun.
Isaac Dority sits in a burned-out area below the peak. In 2007, tribal police responding to a fire at nearby Kitt Peak discovered the bodies of four people who had apparently perished while crossing the border. With its rugged terrain and harsh temperatures, the Baboquivari Mountains and the rest of the Tohono O'odham nation are one of the most dangerous entry points for undocumented immigrants attempting to slip into the U.S. Between 2002 and 2006, 342 people died while crossing through the area.
To access the routes on Baboquivari's sheer east face, climbers have to traverse Lion's Ledge, a catwalk hundreds of feet above the desert floor which runs the length of the mountainside and varies between 20 and just a few feet wide.
Despite the 80-plus-degree temperatures, there were waist-deep snowdrifts on parts of the ledge, forcing us to kick steps in our approach shoes, or else tiptoe along the edge of the cliff. Isaac and I agreed that this was the hardest we had ever worked for a 5.6.
Approaching the base of the Southeast Arete.
Isaac Dority drinks his coffee after a bivy on one of Baboquivari's sub-peaks as the morning sun illuminates the summit slabs.
The early-morning light throws Baboquivari's shadow across the desert.
Sticks and strands of tattered cord mark Baboquivari's summit cairn.
It's customary for climbers to leave a gift at the summit for I'itoi. While most people bring gear that might help a climber in trouble, like survival blankets, food, water, or extra carabiners, we also found seashells, crystals, and a miniature bottle of wine.
Looking out toward Mexico from Baboquivari's summit.