Penitente Canyon

The painting is finished. Any more would be a mixture of OCD and gilding the lily. This is Penitente Canyon, the place my friend Alex (whose paints I inherited) loved most. I felt that the first painting I did with his paints should be of this place. I will be hanging it in the Holiday Show at the Rio Grande County Museum and then giving it to Louise, his wife, afterward.

I know I’ve written a lot about the ancient lake bed, a fraction of which is the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge where the cranes come and the dogs and I walk, but the western edge of the San Luis Valley is part of a giant caldera, one of the largest volcanoes ever to explode on Earth. Penitente canyon is maybe 20 miles from Monte Vista.

La Garita’s eruption was so impressive that it can’t even be ranked on the modern Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). This ranking system, created by the U.S. Geological Survey, is largely based on the volume of material ejected, which geologists estimate by mapping the extent of volcanic rock outcrops in the field. To put it in perspective, the infamous 1980 eruption of Washington’s Mount St. Helens, which ejected about 0.25 cubic miles of material, barely rated a five on the VEI. The eruption that caused La Garita to form discharged more than 1,200 cubic miles of material—so much that volcanologists have suggested that the explosivity index, which increases by a factor of 10 with each whole-number step, needs to be expanded to accommodate its estimated 9.2 ranking.


The canyon is famous all over the world for its climbing routes that you can learn more about here: penitente-canyon The rock is a very hard volcanic tuff, Fish Canyon Tuff described by geologists as an “ignimbrite” — a word I had to look up, but in a very very basic sense means a volcanic rock that emerges in flows and cools slowly so it has time to harden. These rocks are 5 on Mohs Scale (which I actually DO remember from college geology). That and the numerous sheer walls, cracks, fissures and holes easily explain the 300 climbing routes. 🙂 The main photo on my blog is another formation from the La Garita geologic episode.

The canyon has an intriguing human history, too, one that fascinated me long, long ago before I ever realized where this was. It was the home of the Penitentes, a Roman Catholic brotherhood that was seriously into acts of self-penitence. On one of the rock walls, these brothers painted a Virgin of Guadalupe. They accomplished this by lowering the artist on a tire tied to two ropes. It’s interesting that during the flu epidemic of 1918, the Penitentes were the only people willing to bury the dead. In this canyon are also some Native American pictographs.

It’s a stunning place with beautiful hiking trails. I’ve been there a few times and would go back any time.

Alex was a climber and taught people how to climb. Louise said today that if Alex could have lived in the canyon, he would have. I get that.

16 thoughts on “Penitente Canyon

  1. Lovely and so hard to know when a creative project is done. It’s clear to me that you’ve made the right choice

  2. Louise is lucky. Your comment about hardness made me look up Baraboo pink quartzite (the rock in the Baraboo Hills that I wrote about the other day). Its a 7. Look – I’m learning because of you!

    • Without even considering the sentimental meaning of my inheritance which is beyond measure, that turned out be several hundred dollars worth of very, very, very good paint and excellent brushes, many of the paints and brushes brand new. We’d probably all rather have Alex around and in good health, but (as my mom said) “None of us get out alive,” and the paints are getting used which would make Alex happy.

  3. Martha–that is such a special gift you are giving to Louise. I can well imagine she was happy/sad/thrilled.

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