Mission #2: 2007: Free the noses!

They said it shouldn't be done. Then the world went bonkers for Mount Rushmore National Climbing Park.

Jan 10, 2002
Outside Magazine

   Photo: Illustration by Drew Friedman

WILL "THE PREZ" PEREZ, 22, and climbing partner Anne May, 19, made history over Labor Day weekend when Perez red-pointed Ol' Nail Splitter (5.15c), the trickiest route posted to date at Mount Rushmore National Climbing Park. Nail Splitter—which follows a dicey Adam's-apple-to-forehead line up Lincoln's stony visage—was a grail long sought by climberati, but it had repeatedly stymied the world's best rock jocks, including Chris Sharma, Tommy Caldwell, and Beth Rodden. Hundreds gathered at the MRNCP to watch Perez's benchmark ascent, peeping through telescopes and gasping audibly at several near-falls as the wiry North Dakotan spidered into history.

"I had no idea what I was in for," Perez said later, still jittery about his achievement. "The crux is almost totally blank—the holds are the size of hen's teeth."
Mount Rushmore opened to fee-paying climbers on June 1, 2006, capping one of the unlikeliest sagas in the annals of the National Park Service. Originally denounced as a travesty by congressmen on both sides of the aisle, suspicious South Dakotans, and the angry heirs of Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the MRNCP became America's only federally sponsored climbing crag after studies showed that a multi-use approach (sightseeing, climbing, BASE jumping, and the hugely popular HedSplitter Music Festival, held every year "on top o' the skulls") would boost Rushmore revenues by a staggering 300 percent. "After that," says MRNCP superintendent Wally Prokop, "the only thing we heard out of Congress was, 'Rope up!'"

Since then, some 50 routes have been established, including a few sport-climbing classics. On June 12, 2006, free-climbing ace Dean Potter sent Jefferson Direct (5.13c), despite taking a 30-foot whipper on the notorious Stiff Upper Lip. Caldwell and Rodden red-pointed Big Wig (5.14d) on March 24, 2007, and then flashed the variation Executive Branch (5.12c) the next day. Later that year, speed-climbing phenom Chris McNamara on-sighted Mr. Ted's Wild Ride (5.12a).

With the final nose now picked, will climbers get bored?

"No way," says McNamara, who also runs Supertopo.com, producer of the official online climbing map to the park. "There's so much left to do here, especially if they carve another head. I'm hoping it's Reagan's." Because he was a great president? "Nah. Because that hairdo of his would be at least a 5.15."

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