Facts About Baboquivari Peak

Sacred Tohono O’odham Mountain in Arizona

Baboquivari mountaintop crested by clouds.
Mark Newman / Getty Images

Baboquivari Peak is a granite monolith located about 60 miles west of Tucson in southern Arizona. Baboquivari, the high point of the north-south, 30-mile-long Baboquivari Range, is one of the few mountain summits in Arizona that is reached only by technical rock climbing. Part of the peak lies in the 2,900,000-acre Tohono O'odham Reservation, the second largest Indian reservation in the United States, while most of it lies in the Baboquivari Mountains Wilderness Area.

Elevation: 7,730 feet (2,356 meters)
Prominence: 1,583 feet (482 meters)
Location: Navajo Nation, San Juan County, Arizona.
Coordinates: 31.77110° N / 111.595° W
First Ascent: First recorded ascent in 1898 by Montoya, R.H. Forbes. Climbed previously by Native Americans.

Baboquivari is Sacred to Tohono O'odham Tribe

Baboquivari is the most sacred place and mountain to the Tohono O'odham people. The tall rock mountain is the center of Tohono O'odham cosmology and the home of I'itoli, their Creator and Elder Brother. The Tohono O'odham tribe, formerly called the Pagago or "Bean Eaters," still occupy their ancestral homeland in southern Arizona. Their religious traditions are based on this stark desert landscape, which is dominated by monolithic Baboquivari.

I'itoli or Elder Brother Lives Inside Baboquivari

The rock god I'itoli, also spelled I'itoi, lives in a cave on the northwest side of the mountain that he enters by a maze of passages. Legend says he came into Earth from a world on the other side, leading his people, whom he had turned into ants, through an ant hole. He then changed them back into the Tohono O'odham people.

The Tohono O'odham still regularly make pilgrimages to the cave, leaving offerings and prayers for I'itoli. I'itoli often appears in basketry as a male figure above a maze (Man in the Maze symbol) teaching the people that life is a maze of obstacles that must be overcome along life's path or himdag.

Baboquivari Not Included in Tohono O'odham Reservation

Baboquivari Peak was the center of the Tohono O'odham homeland until 1853 when conflict over its ownership began after the Mexican-American War with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and then the Gadsden Purchase in 1853. The Treaty divided the Tohono O'odham lands, allowing American settlers to homestead on it.

After Arizona became a state in 1912, the boundaries of the Tohono O'odham reservation were established in 1916, omitting much of the peak from the reservation. In 1990 Baboquivari Peak became part of the 2,065-acre Baboquivari Peak Wilderness Area administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Since 1998, the Tohono O'odham Nation has attempted to have the sacred peak returned to their custody.

Arguments For and Against Inclusion in Reservation

Baboquivari Peak remains as part of the wilderness area and not the Tohono O'odham Reservation. Opponents to turning the land back to the tribe cite a variety of reasons: it would be closed to recreation; climbing would be banned. It's believed that the tribe would overgraze and mismanage the land or build a casino below the peak. The Tohono O'odham Nation begs to differ, saying it is sacred ground, they have a plan to manage the area, and that they have no desire to commercialize their sacred mountain.

Native Americans First Climbed Babo

While Baboquivari was undoubtedly first climbed by early Native Americans, possibly thousands of years ago, no trace remains of any ascents. In the past, Tohono O'odham men climbed to the summit of Baboquivari in search of visions. The summit is a powerful place where the Earth meets the Sky and the world of People meets the world of Spirits. A Tohono O'odham elder says that if you are atop Baboquivari, "You must remember I'itoli and do good for the People."

Spanish Captain Called It Noah's Ark

Spanish Captain Juan Mateo Manje first recorded the peak in 1699, writing in his diary about "a high square rock that[…] looks like a high castle." He named it Noah's Ark.

First Ascent of Baboquivari

The first recorded ascent of Baboquivari was by University of Arizona professor, R.H. Forbes, and Jesus Montoya. Professor Forbes attempted Babo four times, beginning in 1894, before finally succeeding on the route on the peak's northeast side on July 12, 1898. The key to Forbes' ascent was a "grappling hook" which allowed him to extend his reach on the crux 5.6 section of the route. The men built a huge bonfire on the summit to signal their success to friends; the fire could be seen from 100 miles away. Forbes continued climbing Babo, doing his sixth and final ascent on his 82nd birthday in 1949.​

Two Easier Routes to the Summit

The typical climbing route up Baboquivari Peak is the Standard Route, a hike with a bit of Class 4 scrambling (a medium rating for climbing, though a fall from a Class 4 could be fatal) below the summit, on the peak's west flank. The other route usually climbed is the Forbes-Montoya Route up the opposite side of Babo. The route includes two climbing pitches, including the famous Cliff Hanger or Ladder Pitch. A suspended stairway made of metal and wood once allowed access to this slabby pitch. Now the climber edges up the face, tying off the old ladder anchors for protection, to an unprotected 5.6 move, the route's crux.

First Ascent of the Southeast Arête

The III 5.6 was Baboquivari's first technical rock climbing route. Five Arizona climbers-Dave Ganci, Rick Tedrick, Tom Wale, Don Morris, and Joanna McComb-climbed the exposed ridge in 11 pitches on March 31, 1957. The route became an instant classic and is the peak's most popular technical route. Read more about the route in the Rock Climbing Arizona guidebook.

First Ascent of the East Face

Baboquivari's overhanging East Face was unclimbed until 1968. Gary Garbert first showed Colorado climber Bill Forrest the wall in 1966. The pair glassed the route with binoculars and found a thin crack system up the middle of the imposing wall, offering a possible direct climbing route. They carried loads of climbing gear up to a large ledge below the wall. When they spotted a mountain lion on it, they named it Lion's Ledge. After aid climbing 75 feet up a thin crack in five hours, Forrest and Garbert bailed on the route. In April 1968, Forrest returned with George Hurley and the pair began climbing. They aided up four pitches on the first day, nailing rotten, discontinuous cracks, with tied-off angle pitons banged into holes to avoid placing bolts. After three more days of hard aid climbing, Forrest and Hurley finished up what they called The Spring Route and stood on the summit. Forrest wrote,

"We felt a pulsating sense of accomplishment and elation-the route, once improbable was now a reality…we could not have been more thankful for life, for once again it was unquestionably ours."

Kitt Peak

Kitt Peak, another sacred mountain on the Tohono O'odham Reservation north of Baboquivari, hosts the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the mountain's top 200 acres. The Tohono O'odham, like other Native Americans, charted the stars, planets, and moon, which were important in their mythology. When the University of Arizona approached the tribe for permission to build an observatory, they invited the tribal council to observe the universe through a 36-inch telescope at Steward Observatory in Tucson. Duly impressed, the council approved the request, allowing it to remain "as long as only astronomy research was conducted."

Edward Abbey on Baboquivari

Edward Abbey (1927-1989), a famed essayist and writer who lived in southern Arizona, wrote about Babo:

"The very name is like a dream; a hard place to get to--jeeps might do it but will be unwelcome; best come on horseback or like Christ astride a donkey--way past the end of the pavement, beyond the farthest smallest sleepiest town, beyond the barbed wire, beyond the Papagoan hogans, beyond the last of the windmills, hoving always in the direction of the beautiful mountain."