Religiously good climbing awaits in San Juans
SAGUACHE COUNTY – Hidden in a canyon in a remote corner of the San Luis Valley is a dramatic piece of wall art. About 40 feet off the ground in Penitente Canyon, a painting of the Virgin Mary adorns a rock wall.
Local lore has it that somewhere between 1920 and 1960, two brothers who were part of a devout Catholic sect settled in the area near the canyon. One brother lowered the other off the lip of the canyon in a car tire where he sat and painted the icon.
Located just a few miles off of Highway 285, about 220 miles south of Summit County, Penitente Canyon holds more than a painting of a religious figure. It holds hundreds of the best sport climbing routes in the Colorado. The canyon is hidden in the foothills of the La Garita Mountains, a sub-range of the San Juans.
The rock in Penitente is solid, borne of the same volcanic eruptions that created the entire San Juan Range. No flakes or loose rubble will ruin this extraordinarily pleasant climbing experience.
The best guidebook for the entire region is “Rock Climbing the San Luis Valley” by Bob D’Antonio, who pioneered many of the routes in the valley during the mid-eighties.
It includes detailed directions to Penitente (as well as six other San Luis crags), a rundown of the cultural, geologic, and climbing history of the valley, and a few words on treading lightly on Bureau of Land Management and National Forest land. Penitente lies on BLM land.
The climbs in Penitente range from the 5.2 Mr. Breeze, a great route for beginners or someone on his or her first lead, to the 5.13b/c Sitting in Limbo, described by D’Antonio in his book as “the hardest technical route in the area.”
Several routes in the canyon can be top-roped, and plenty of 5.6 and 5.7 routes await for the burgeoning lead climber.
A great place to start is Mr. Wind, a 5.7 route that is next door to Mr. Breeze. A small group can get warmed up on these two routes.
Then try May-B-Nueve, a 5.8 route littered with hidden two-finger holds that feels suspiciously like a 5.9, hence the name.
When you’re ready, try 7-11, a route hidden up a small side canyon beyond May-B-Nueve. If it turns out the 5.11 moves are too hard, just move to the other side of the bolts and suddenly it’s 5.7.
Deeper in the canyon is Hueco Wall, a long face chopped up like Swiss cheese by fist sized huecos. Hueco Mania, rated at 5.8, is an excellent route on this wall.
Or simply find your own adventure. Routes like Stemmorrhoids (5.12d), Alien in My Underpants (5.11b) and How the West Was Won (5.9) are all waiting.
“Rock Climbing the San Luis Valley” is available in most climbing stores in Summit County and the information is well worth the $15 cover price.
Three and a half hours is the average drive time from Frisco to Penitente, with the most direct route being over Fremont Pass, before picking up Highway 285 just south of Buena Vista.
As you drive south through the San Luis Valley, keep your eyes open and off of the amazing views of the Sangre De Christo Mountains for a small green sign on the right that says “Penitente Canyon.”
Plenty of campgrounds litter the road leading to the canyon’s trailhead, which is found on the right of 36 Road just past the small community of La Garita. Amenities are available at the La Garita Cash Store, as well as in the towns of Center and Del Norte.
And last but not least, be sure to take a mountain bike. While mountain biking is off-limits for obvious reasons in the canyon itself, plenty of other trails abound.
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