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Penitente Canyon: A Climbing Ghost Story

Photograph: Ian Green climbing the route A Virgin No More next to the Virgin Mary folk painting in Penitente Canyon in southern Colorado in 1998. Photo © Stewart M. Green

What is our pagan holiday Samhain without a good spook story? This is the time of year, after the harvest and before the deathly chill of winter, that the veil between this world and the next grows thin and the spirits leak into our human reality.

Climbers spend a lot of time outside at strange and weird places with names like Devil’s Lake, Devil’s Den, Ghost River Valley, Witch’s Canyon, and Spook Canyon. Some live up to their name with odd events randomly occurring. Of course, climbers die out there on mountains and cliffs and some probably haunt the site of their demise, their spirits bound to the earth with climbing rope, chains of slings, and clanking nuts on their spectral harnesses.

I’ve had a few bizarre and unexplained encounters on climbing trips: devil winds in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, a UFO sighting near Hueco Tanks, a shaman’s apparition at a remote pictograph panel near the Grand Canyon, a bundle of willow sticks bound with twine outside my tent near Stonehenge, and an eerie encounter with a twilight dweller in Penitente Canyon, an old place on the western edge of the San Luis Valley that was home for millennia to early paleo-hunters.

These early Americans lived among the volcanic cliffs on the edge of a huge lake, hunting plentiful game and catching fish. Evidence of their passage remains in white flint projectile points found in hollows above the cliffs and buried charcoal from ancient campfires. The canyon was undoubtedly a sacred place to those native peoples.

The canyon was also holy to a group of Penitente brothers, a Catholic sect that practices self-flagellation or whipping and a mock crucifixion of a member every Easter, who established a Morada or meeting house in the canyon. On one clean wall, a member painted the visage of the Virgin Mary.

The San Luis Valley itself is renowned as one of Colorado’s most haunted places with glimpses of ghostly cowboys occasionally seen on sagebrush plains, strange and baffling cattle mutilations, and regular UFO and Bigfoot sightings.

My Penitente nocturnal event occurred in early November 1992, a few days after Halloween. I was camping alone at the Penitente campground, then at the canyon mouth, waiting to meet up with a couple friends to climb the next day.

That evening after sunset, I walked up the canyon trail to the Virgin painting, decorating the cliff 40 feet above the ground, and climbed onto a high sloping boulder below it. I sat for a long time watching the painting in the faint glint of light from a crescent moon hanging above the western canyon rim.

After the sliver of the moon set behind the inky canyon walls,

I started to climb down the boulder but stopped when I heard a distant shrill cry like a wounded animal. Immediately the hair on the nape of my neck stood on end and gooseflesh shivered my arm. Thickets of scrub oak just up the canyon began shaking like a large animal was pushing through them. I stood still, senses alert, unmoving. The movement stopped and the world was again still and silent. I shined a light up the canyon and saw nothing but bare scrub oak branches. It’s just your imagination, I thought. Get a grip.

Suddenly a wind rushed down the canyon and what felt like a cold hand grasped my shoulder. I twisted and jumped from the boulder and fled down the trail. Not stopping. Not looking back. At the campsite, I opened my truck door, climbed inside, and locked the door. The wind shook the truck, lecherously rocking it back and forth.

An hour later the gale briefly subsided so I turned on my headlamp and crept from the truck to grab my sleeping bag from the tent. I locked myself back in the cab and slept fitfully until daybreak.


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