Because It’s Sacred
Why climb America's most spectacularand controversialnatural landmark? For the same reason you shouldn't.
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SEATED IN SILENCE ATOP A BROKEN COLUMN, halfway up the stone cathedral called Devils Tower, my feet dangling over 400 feet of air, I’m entranced. Two tiny white-throated swifts are chasing each other, deftly cutting left and right, up and down, along the vertical walls of rock. Their agility is astonishing. They buttonhook and corkscrew, wheel and reel in the sky.
Screeching jee-jee-jee-jee, the swifts buzz me from below, passing so close their feathers nearly brush my cheeks. They shoot straight up into the air, almost disappearing, then drop, twirling together, copulating, falling in a 100-mile-per-hour death spiral, separating at the last possible second.
The white-throated swift, Aeronautes saxatalis, is my favorite bird. One-ounce bullets, they are nature’s miniature fighter pilots, masters of aerial acrobatics and one of the fastest birds in North America. They nest in remote cliffs, like here at Devils Tower, but spend most of their lives in flight.
My eyes follow the swifts skimming down the curtain of lichen-green granite, before spotting a kestrel floating just above the treetops. Beyond the kestrel I watch three Canada geese gliding along the surface of the muddy Belle Fourche River and a great blue heron flapping onto a nest.
At dawn, quietly hiking to the base of this monolith, I saw three wild turkeys bounding through the underbrush, a dozen hightailing whitetail deer, and one mountain bluebird flickering limb to limb. I felt as if I were entering a sanctuary. I couldn’t believe it had been 30 years since I was last here.
Somewhere directly below me, hidden beneath an overhang, my climbing partner, Patrick Fleming, inches his way up the 200-foot 5.9 crack called Waterfall. Whenever I hear grunting, I instinctively take in rope, but my mind is engaged in the gestalt of this place.
A shadow rakes across my head and I peer up at the sun. A solitary turkey vulture is circling on the updrafts rising from the south face. Devils Tower has drawn all these different birds to its walls, sharing the same air space and nesting in the same sawed-off mountain.
It occurs to me that I have the same aerial perspective they have, and it feels like a gift. From this vantage, the lay of the land is evidentthe path of the past as circuitous as the Belle Fourche, the present as ephemeral as the wind, the view so clear I might almost see into the future.
THIS SUMMER MARKS the hundredth anniversary of Devils Tower National Monument, a 60-million-year-old stump of intruded magma in the northeastern corner of Wyoming. (The nearest town is Hulettfeed store, lumber mill, bar, population 408.) Although it tops out at only 5,112 feet above sea level, Devils Tower rises 1,267 feet from the valley floor, like a lighthouse above an ocean of prairie. In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt, making quick use of the recently passed Antiquities Actwhich gave the president power to grant national-monument status to areas possessing significant historical, scenic, or cultural valueproclaimed Devils Tower America’s first such monument. These days it’s one of the most identifiable natural landmarks in the country, with some 400,000 visitors a year, and an enduring symbol of the conflicting nuances of the sacred and the profane.
Its name alone is controversial. Lieutenant Colonel Richard Dodge called the butte “Bad God’s Tower” in an 1875 geological survey; by the time Dodge returned east later that same year, it had become known as Devils Tower. Despite numerous protests, the name stuck. Various Native American tribes have their own names for the formation, although the most common is Mato Tipila, or “Bear Lodge.”
To Native Americans, the Tower has been a holy place for millennia. What the Wailing Wall is to Jews, Mecca is to Muslims, and Lhasa’s Drepung Loseling Monastery is to Tibetan Buddhists, Bear Lodge is to the northern Plains Indian tribes. According to anthropologists, Paleo-Indians, the ancestors of present-day Native Americans, were living in the Devils Tower region almost 10,000 years before the advent of Christianity.
“We look upon the land as female, a mother that nourishes us,” explains Dr. Henrietta Mann, 72, special assistant to the president at Montana State University, in Bozeman. Mann is a Cheyenne and has a Ph.D. in American studies.
“We believe we come from the land, belong to the land, and that we are the caretakers of this land,” says Mann. “For uncountable generations we went to Bear Lodgewe do not call it Devils Tower; even the use of that term is disrespectful for such a holy placeto pray, to seek guidance for the heart and spirit, and to maintain our sacred relationship to the land.”
In the spring of 1868 at Fort Laramie, on behalf of the United States government, Civil War hero Lieutenant General William Tecumseh Sherman and three other generals signed a 17-article treaty with more than 100 Sioux chiefs. The treaty ceded all of South Dakota west of the Missouri to the Sioux and designated those parts of Wyoming and Montana north of the Platte River and east of the Bighorn Mountains as Sioux hunting grounds that “no white person shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy” without Indian consent. Both the Black Hills and Devils Tower, the two most sacred places for the Sioux, became officially and permanently part of their homeland.
Six years later, in 1874, General George Custer led a large, illegal reconnaissance expedition into the Black Hills. It set off a gold rush, and the region was soon mobbed by miners and homesteaders. In 1876 Custer was killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the U.S. government retaliated with ten years of genocide, methodically massacring or removing to reservations virtually all Native Americans.
“Even after we have lost everything, Bear Lodge is still there,” says Mann, who participated in her last sun dance there in the nineties. “It is a powerful, sacred site, and we have a deep reverence for the place.”
DEVILS TOWER WAS FIRST “climbed” in 1893 by two enterprising Wyoming cowboys, William Rogers and Willard Ripley. The handbill for the event declared that there would be “plenty to eat and drink,” hay and grain for the horses, and “dancing day and night.” Over the course of a month, Rogers and Ripley drove two-foot wooden pegs into a crack on the south face, constructing a 350-foot ladder up the most difficult section. On July 4, to the roar of hundreds of picnicking ranchers and farmers, Rogers climbed the ladder to the top and planted the American flag.
The first free ascent of Devils Tower was put up by Fritz Wiessner in 1937. Wiessner, who’d pioneered
As a mountaineer’s tribute to the Devils Tower centennial, our first day here Pat and I climbed a direct variation of the Wiessner Route. We swapped leads for four pitches. The climbing was simply spectacular. It was as though this hulking, fractured obeliskwith its splitting cracks pulling me upwardwas made to be climbed. For a moment I felt ashamed. Here was this gorgeous, world-class pinnacle right in my backyard, and I’d all but ignored it.
Clambering onto the top, Pat and I hiked across the circular plot of prairie to the summit cairn.
“The sign’s gone,” I said.
“Has been for years,” replied Pat.
The only other time I’d climbed Devils Tower was in 1976, when I was 17. I remember a wooden sign sticking out of the cairn that read no climbing beyond this point.
We were a group of rowdy high school athletestwo state-champion swimmers, a state-champion gymnast, a nationally ranked downhill skier, all novice climbersled by our swim coach, Layne Kopishka, a regular Clint Eastwood. The night before our big ascent, we camped at the Devils Tower campground, gorged on hot dogs around the campfire, and engaged in typical adolescent hijinks.
In the morning, to cool my jets, Coach had me carry the unwarrantedly heavy backpack. We climbed the Durrance route, the Tower’s easiest, and I struggled mightily in the chimney.
Beneath a hot, cobalt-blue sky, lacking any refinement whatsoever, shouting encouragement to one another, we muscled our way to the top.
On the summit we were exuberant and parched.
“I feel like an ice-cold soda,” said Coach.
We all agreed, assuming he meant we should start descending. “Jenkins!” he bellowed. “Drinks on the house!”
I looked at him blankly.
“Open the pack,” he instructed.
It was a scene straight out of The Eiger Sanction. Beneath the extra rope and spare jackets and clump of metal climbing gear was a plastic sack the size and weight of a bowling ball; inside was a six-pack of root beer packed in ice.
As we rappelled from the summit, helicopters were buzzing around the Tower with cameramen hanging out the sides. Far below we could see Hollywood sets and crowds of extras. Steven Spielberg was filming Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Typical Hollywood, the plot of this sci-fi thriller is lame, but Richard Dreyfuss does a superb job portraying Roy Neary, an ordinary dad who has an encounter with UFOs and is subsequently driven bonkers by an inexplicable idée fixe. He sculpts mountainlike forms out of shaving cream, mashed potatoes, and a giant pile of earth in the middle of his living room. (At which point his wife removes herself and the kids to her sister’s.) Finally, Neary recognizes what has telepathically possessed him and madly drives the family station wagon right up to the base of Devils Tower, where he is eventually, triumphantly, taken away by the aliens.
Naturally, we all went to the movie as soon as it came out, absurdly hoping to see ourselves hanging off the Tower in one of the shots. We loved it anywayan excuse for getting into the backseat at the drive-in.
For us, the climbing trip to the Tower had been a grand little adventure, nothing more. We came, we camped, we climbed, we scooted. Influenced more by Hollywood than history, we had no knowledge of the magnetic spirituality of the place. That Devils Tower might actually be sacred didn’t occur to us in 1977. It was a rock, not a church.
IT DID, HOWEVER, occur to the federal government. In 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. AIRFA acknowledged previous infringements on the rights of Native Americans to practice their religions and visit their sacred sites, stating, “It shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right to freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions.”
Sites sacred to Native Americans exist all over the nation, but only a fewsuch as Shiprock, a 1,969-foot spire on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, and Spider Rock, in Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Park, also on Navajo landwere off-limits to climbers. With AIRFA, government agencies were required to review their policies in consultation with Native American leaders. This mandate eventually forced Devils Tower National Monument to revise its management plan.
“Some Native Americans wanted climbing completely banned, and some climbers were offended by certain Native American rituals,” says Deborah Liggett, Tower superintendent from 1994 through ’97. “Devils Tower was unique, in that it was the only park in the system that had recreational use in conflict with cultural use.”
In 1994 Liggett joined a work group that included local Native Americans and representatives from two Native American advocacy groups, local climbers, and representatives from the Access Fund and the Sierra Club. Because so many of the Native American ritualsvision quests, sweat lodges, sun dances, the pipe ceremony, and other tribal and personal ritesare performed around the summer solstice, the Park Service proposed banning climbing each June. Hundreds of Indians make their pilgrimage to Devils Tower every year at this time. Ironically, this offer was rejected by the Native American elders. Instead, they asked that the Park Service develop, and educate visitors about, a voluntary climbing closure for that month.
“The elders felt that making it voluntary would get climbers to think about their behavior,” says Liggett, who instituted this request as part of the new climbing guidelines issued in the spring of 1995. That first year, 84 percent of climbers chose not to climb in the month of June.
Pat and I climbed the Tower in May and stayed inside the monument at the Devils Tower Lodge, a homey place owned and operated by Frank Sanders. Sanders, a Washington, D.C., transplant, is an active climber who helped put up dozens of new routes on the Tower in the seventies. He bought the lodge in ’99 and has been running it and guiding on the Tower ever since.
Devils Tower fills the picture window in the lodge’s dining room, and every night at dinner guests hold hands and are encouraged to share what they’re grateful for. Sanders, seated at the head of the table with his long silver hair, Fu Manchu mustache, and slow, solemn voice, ends the blessing with a soliloquy, which always includes a thanks to “that indescribably beautiful tower of rock behind me.”
Sanders loves Devils Tower. Before he bought the lodge, it drew him back every year, just like it did Roy Neary and Henrietta Mann.
“To me, it’s a sacred place. To climb it is to practice my religion,” he says. Sanders intentionally disregards the no-climb request and climbs and guides on the Tower in June. “June is a sacred month to me. It contains the summer solstice, a full moon, and my sobriety date,” declares the former alcoholic. “Climbing is one of the things that makes me feel very close to my creator. In June, I climb on Devils Tower in even a more worshipful way than I do all the other months of the year. And unlike the Native Americans, I openly invite others to come and worship with me.”
But Sanders is in the minority. According to Scott Brown, chief ranger of Devils Tower, of the 4,000 climbers who come to the Tower every year, only 8 percent climb in June. Of those, more than half are guided by climbers like Frank Sanders.”We live in a country where freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution,” says Mann, a former director of the AIRFA coalition. “In the context of how and where we live today, the Devils Tower policy is a respectful attempt to recognize the rights of Indian spirituality.”
Just in time for the centennial, the path of the Tower’s guardianship has come full circle: In May, Dorothy FireCloud, a 50-year-old Rosebud Sioux with a law degree and a long history with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was appointed the new superintendent of Devils Tower National Monument.
IN THE AFTERNOON of our last day on the Tower, Pat and I climb three classic finger cracks in a row: Carol’s Crack, Rain Dance, and One-Way Sunset. My friends, the white-throated swifts, are nowhere to be found. Instead, two prairie falcons, the first we’ve seen, sail above us in a sky fading to lavender.
We hoped to climb a famous route called El Matador, but the entire west face is closed due to nesting prairie falcons. It’s part of Devils Tower policy to protect the falcon and its mating rituals, and every year some 40 routes are off-limits all summer.
The irony isn’t lost on the Native Americans, but they’re remarkably realistic. For a hundred years, Devils Tower has been an emblem of both the spiritual and the secular, neither of which are absolutes: They’re constantly overlapping, subject to personal interpretation and, ultimately, compromise.
On the hike back down through the tall ponderosa pines, I spy a faded blue prayer cloth dangling from a limb. When I first climbed Devils Tower 30 years ago, there might have been prayer cloths in the trees, but I was too self-absorbed to notice. This time is different. Hidden in the branches like Easter eggs, the tiny bundles remind me of the Tibetan prayer flags I’ve seen in high sacred places across the Himalayas of Nepal, Tibet, and, Bhutan, where I’ve climbed during all these intervening years.
“Prayer cloths are pieces of calico of different colorswhite, red, yellow, or bluethat carry our hopes and dreams, our sorrows and our misfortunes into the sky,” Elaine Quick Bear Quiver, 71, tells me later by phone.
Quiver is from the Burnt Thigh clan of the Rosebud Sioux. Her entire life, every June, she and her family have walked to Devils Tower from their home on the Pine Ridge Reservation, in South Dakota. She made her last pilgrimage in 2005, at 70.
“It takes us five days of walking. We go there to pray. My ancestors are buried in the caves beneath the rocks there. I go to give thanks to the Almighty Mystery for helping us through another year.”
Quiver was the interpreter for the Native American elders in Liggett’s Devils Tower group that suggested the voluntary June closure. Most of these elders are now dead. She and her relatives camp at the Tower, worship on its flanks for four days, and then walk home.
“Bear Lodge is a place to sit and think, to reevaluate your life,” she says. “To look at the past and the future. What can I do to make myself better? You sit quietly and ask for help. When you’re isolated and alone, you just listen, and the wind will tell you.”