‘Thunderbird’ legend lures skiers into trap

As a boy, Seth Anderson always was curious about what looks to be a hieroglyphic depiction of a large bird on Grand Mesa. American Indians, including Ute Indians who lived on the slopes of Grand Mesa, had stories about the supernatural thunderbirds.

“It looked like somebody put that up there. Did the Indians put that up there?” Anderson wondered. No one had an answer, though, for the child’s questions about the bird.

Fast forward three decades to March 17, and Anderson, now an experienced outdoorsman, had climbed the thunderbird side of Grand Mesa for the second time. Lured by the thunderbird legends, he and his friend Ann Driggers planned to ski down the couloir, or a steep chute.

Anderson said he wanted to send a message to other local outdoors enthusiasts that there is good climbing in the Grand Valley. One didn’t need to travel hours into the Rockies to ascend a climb as challenging as any Fourteener and ski down its face.

Anderson’s adventure turned disastrous when snow beneath him gave way, sucking him into an avalanche that broke multiple bones in his body. Six months later, his recovery continues, and he remains intrigued by the myths.

According to Dave Bailey, curator of history at Grand Junction’s Museum of the West, he has found no evidence that the land formation that appears to be a bird is anything but naturally occurring.

There is a Ute legend about the creation of the lakes on Grand Mesa. Pairs of great eagles, or thunderbirds, flew the skies above the mesa and nested along its rim. The birds attacked a Ute village and carried off one of the chief’s sons.

In revenge, the chief disguised himself as a tree and climbed to the rim, throwing the eagles’ babies off the mesa for a serpent below to devour them. When the eagles returned to their nest, they blamed the serpent for eating their young and killed the serpent. The eagles then dropped pieces of the serpent on the mesa, creating deep holes that formed the lake beds. Fire flashed from the thunderbirds’ eyes, and their beating wings caused thunder as the birds created torrential rains to fill the lakes, according to the myth.

The rock depiction is visible when looking at the mesa from F Road. Some say it appears that a serpent is below the bird.

Bailey said he gets questions about the rock formation fairly often.

“It is really very prominent,” he said. “The shape is perfect if we look at other rock art (of thunderbirds). There’s no archeological evidence that it’s man-made. To my knowledge, no one’s really studied it.”


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