In The Chuska Mountains

Our little college was located in the foothills of the Chuska Mountains, three miles to the east. These north/south mountains bisect the reservation; they are the headwaters of the watershed that creates Canyon de Chelly. The Chuskas figure prominently in the culture and medicine of the Navajo People.

In the fall, we drove into the pine forests and cut firewood. Some of my friends were four-wheel drive fanatics, and I enjoyed several pulse-raising off-road excursions, bouncing along the edge of some dramatic red rock canyon precipice, powering our way up the mountainside, only occasionally needing to rescue ourselves with winch, shovel, and effort.

One spectacular drive took us to Roof Butte, highest peak in the Chuskas. The road climbed up the side of the sandstone Lukachukai Cliffs, into high subalpine forests. It was grassy and well-watered. In summer, many Navajo move herds of sheep and goats up into this high country, to ’sheep camp’. Sideroads crisscross the forests, access for woodcutters and loggers. The road reaches a pass, then descends into New Mexico. From the pass, spectacular views are had of the eastern reservation, majestic Shiprock, Chaco Canyon area, and the snowy peaks of southern Colorado.

In the early 1980’s, satellite television arrived on the reservation, in select places. The college put up a satellite dish to receive signals from a system of repeating stations established at high points across Navajoland. One such station had been installed on top of Roof Butte. When satellite transmissions suddenly ceased, the college sent technicians up on Roof Butte to troubleshoot the antenna. The entire antenna station was gone, literally gone. Clearly, some people had objected strenuously to the desecration of Roof Butte; it must have taken a lot of people working very hard to remove antenna, building, and the ferroconcrete foundations of that installation. The communications company behind the network got the hint, and relocated their repeating station elsewhere.

In places all along the slopes of the Chuskas, volcanic cones and towers popped up, like giant sentinels. The most impressive of these was Tsaile Peak, a squat rampart of extruded magma that loomed over the college to the east. The flattened top was a perched tableland that looked out over the college, the canyons and the Chinle valley, all the way to Monument Valley. The peak had been the scene of a massacre. In the 1860’s, American soldiers, under the command of Kit Carson, had driven Navajo resisters onto the peak. The soldiers fought their way up to the top, and killed everyone; many Navajo leaped to their deaths, or were driven over the edge at bayonet point. Local people considered the place haunted.

Some college faculty had climbed Tsaile Peak, and described the route to me. One day, unaware of the history of the peak, I drove into the mountains and found my way up to the base. On the east side was a natural staircase to the top, which required little real effort, and I climbed quickly. Near the top of the peak, the easy rock ladder took a turn to the right; a traverse was needed here, which exposed a climber to some danger of a long fall, if one slipped. I crossed over the traverse with ease, and soon, walked out onto the top of Tsaile Peak.

On top of this ‘island in the sky’ was a craggy world of rock, bright sun, pinon and juniper trees, and pothole water. I spent an hour slowly walking the perimeter, taking in the vast landscapes in all directions, then I sat down and ate my lunch. I lay down in some shade, pulled my hat down, and fell asleep.

I must have slept for an hour when I was awakened by thunder. Sitting up, I looked to the east, where dark storm clouds were rushing over the top of the Chuskas, bearing straight down on Tsaile Peak. In the time it took me to pack up my gear and walk back to the trailhead, the wind blew up and a sheet of rain washed over me. When I started down the now wet trail and arrived at the traverse that I had crossed so easily on my ascent, it was drenched and slippery, and the wind was driving mist and rain straight up the side of the cliffs. When I started onto the traverse, I froze, and couldn’t go forward. After considering the situation, I decided to retreat back on top, and wait the storm out.

The tableland on top was fissured everywhere with deep cracks that formed shallow caves; I climbed into a spacious one, found a dry spot, and sat down to wait. Over the next hour, torrential rains fell, and lightning struck around me. I stayed put, with my back up against the rock wall, and calmed myself down as best I could. When the rain and lightning stopped, the sun came out. I stayed another hour, and then ventured down the trail. The rock was now dry, the wind gone, and I carefully picked my way across the traverse; on the other side, greatly relieved, I bounded down the ledges and stairs, and finished my climb without incident.

On Monday, I told a Navajo elder at the college about my adventure, leaving out the part about my cowering in the cave, during the storm. He looked at me with concern, and asked, only half-jokingly, if I’d seen any ghosts. When I told him I hadn’t, he related to me the tales of the massacre, and said that there were human bones at the base of the cliffs; no Navajo would go near the place, and if any did, bad luck usually followed.

I’d climbed up Tsaile Peak on a hot, clear day, not a cloud in the sky. While on top, a sudden and violent storm rose up, which seemed to be aimed right at the peak, right at me. In retrospect, I think maybe I did meet ghosts on top of Tsaile Peak. They gave me a warning, shook and rattled me a little, then let me pass, since I was, after all, naïve and harmless, just a foolish young white man, and no real threat to their rest.