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Climbing

Jun 12, 2018

Republished. Devils Tower: Why We Don’t Climb in June

This article was originally published in June 2017.

WRITTEN BY

Michael Levy

Devils Tower is an iconic mountain, world-famous for no small part through its presence in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But the mountain holds far greater importance for several groups beyond its cinematic history….

Mato Tipila, or Bear’s Lodge, a jaw-dropping igneous intrusion rising out of the plains of Wyoming, is a sacred site to a number of Native American tribes, including the Lakota, the Cheyenne, the Crow, the Arapahoe, the Shoshone and the Kiowa. Tribal groups and individuals hold religious ceremonies at Mato Tipila throughout the year and sacred sites pepper the mountain’s flanks.

Devils Tower is also a soaring igneous intrusion in Wyoming’s flatlands, and a world-renowned place for rock climbers. Declared a National Monument by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1906, Devils Tower has hundreds of climbing routes on its columned faces, many going all the way to the top.

The thing is, Mato Tipila and Devils Tower are one and the same. The reverence with which both groups treat the 867-foot-tall formation—a spiritual one by Native Americans, and a recreational one by climbers—has led to friction over the years. A voluntary June climbing ban, instituted in 1995, has been a sticking point for many in both communities as they try to make the best of a situation in which there will always be less-than-satisfied parties.

Devils Tower
Devils Tower. Photo: Lucas Barth.

Discussion and debate over the voluntary June closure flares up in online climbing forums like Mountain Project virtually every year. 2017 is no different. Complaints from climbers range from feeling unfairly targeted to not understanding why the ban isn’t simply mandatory. But disgruntled parties aside, the June closure represents a good faith effort on the climbing community to respect Native American traditions and cultural values.

In light of the public lands issues that have been in the news so far this year (in particular that concerning Bears Ears National Monument in Utah), it’s worthwhile to examine the complexity of access issues around another National Monument.

The origins of the tension between climbers and American Indian tribes at Devils Tower date back to at least the 1980s. Lucas Barth, a National Park Service (NPS) Climbing Ranger at Devils Tower, explains, “The National Park Service had received complaints from tribes about climbing since the 80s. They thought it was disrespectful to their sacred site.”

Devils Tower
Andrea Carlomagno climbs the classic El Matador (5.10d) on Devils Tower, while Rosa Tran gives a patient belay. Photo: Lucas Barth.

In 1990, driven by rock climbing becoming a mainstream and popular recreational activity, the NPS directed all park units with significant climbing activity to develop a climbing management plan. In 1995, after several years of contentious development, a final Climbing Management Plan (CMP) was published for Devils Tower.  The CMP was drafted with input from representatives of the National Park Service, two Native American Tribes, the Access Fund, and the Black Hills Climbers Coalition, and sought to present a compromise that would preserve climbing access and address the wholly legitimate grievances raised by the Native American tribes

Mato Tipila is an extremely sacred place for Native Americans, and the CMP addressed this directly:

Some American Indians perceive climbing on the tower and the proliferation of bolts, pitons, slings, and other climbing equipment on the tower as a desecration to their sacred site. It appears to many American Indians that climbers do not respect their culture by the very act of climbing on the tower. Climbing during traditional ceremonies and prayer times is a sensitive issue as well. Elders have commented that the spirits do not inhabit the area anymore because of all the visitors and use of the tower, thus it is not a good place to worship as before.

The CMP ultimately included elements such as no new fixed anchor installation and the permitted replacement of existing fixed anchors to limit resource impacts.  It also introduced the voluntary June closure for climbers, which was supported by the tribal and climbing representatives as a sign of respect for the cultural significance of the Tower to tribes, and to meet the climbing community’s request to self-regulate.

Devils Tower
Devils Tower. Photo: Lucas Barth.

The problem since then has been the inability to enforce a voluntary ban, precisely because of its optional nature. As such, despite a majority of the climbing community happily choosing to observe the climbing ban, the number of climbers in June has been trending upward in recent years.

The last year before the ban went into effect saw 1,225 climbers on the Tower in June. That number dropped precipitously to 167 in 1996, but has has slowly crept up since then, year by year. In 2016, 374 people climbed the Tower in June.

“From our point of view,” Barth says, “a successful June ban is one in which the number of climbers is equal to or less than the year before.”

Some of the more commonly cited sticking points by climbers that take issue with the June ban are that it only applies to them and not to other hikers, that having it occur in June—at the height of the climbing season—is arbitrary, and unnecessarily inconvenient.

Barth notes about the first: “I don’t know why people hang up on that. Hikers aren’t affected because American Indians don’t feel that hiking around the Tower is a desecration to its sacredness. They specifically feel that it is the act of climbing—including bolting, and pitons and webbing—that’s the desecration.”

As for the June timing, it is far from an arbitrarily chosen month. While they are held throughout the year, the highest concentration of ceremonies occurs in June. This is because of the Sun Dance Ceremony and the summer solstice, according to Barth. Furthermore, it is easier to encourage a ban in a single month versus scattered periods of time throughout the year.

Devils Tower
Andrea Carlomagno handjams her way up Belle Fourche Buttress (5.10b) at Devils Tower, again belayed by Rosa Tran. Photo: Lucas Barth.

In an email to The Outdoor Journal, Tim Reid, Superintendent of Devils Tower National Monument, explains the thinking behind the voluntary closure:

The ‘voluntary’ aspect can seem awkward and abstract. But it actually embodies a code of honor, conduct and intent: The tribes wanted climbers to want to ‘voluntarily’ respect June as a set-aside month, and climbers vocally wanted the chance to show that they can self-regulate.  The self-regulation component was the sole reason that the Access Fund supported, and continues to support, the June voluntary closure.

Ultimately, refraining from climbing for one month out of respect for those who first inhabited the area is beyond reasonable. It is important to note, again, that most climbers willingly abide by the ban. Most comments on the Mountain Project forum are fully in favor of it.

One poster on the Mountain Project thread wrote something noteworthy.

“I’m fully in support of making the [June] closure mandatory and punishable with a fine.  Seriously, we close climbing in some areas for half the year for birds, but we can’t close this thing down for one month?  And if we did close it down, who’s being affected?…300 people…”

But those 300 people, at least for now, besmirch all those trying to do right. Some of those who climb in June are guided parties; some are unaware of the voluntary ban; some simply don’t care, and perhaps just feel the need to be contrarian and assert their disregard for authority. Regardless of the reasons, malicious or not, climbing the Tower in June is disrespectful to the beliefs of American Indians. It also puts future climbing access at the Tower in jeopardy.

Though voluntary, the ban should be treated as mandatory for all intents and purposes for both of these reasons. 

Devils Tower
Devils Tower silhouetted against the night sky. Photo: Lucas Barth.

To learn more about Mato Tipila/Devils Tower and the June closure, visit https://www.nps.gov/deto/index.htm.

 

Feature image: Devils Tower. Photo: Lucas Barth.

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Events

Sep 21, 2018

Suru Fest: India’s Growing Climbing Festival

Two weeks of sending in the remote Suru Valley: From 300 boulder problems to alpine rock climbing in the uncharted Himalayan giants.

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I don’t usually attend festivals, but the Suru Fest had been on my list for as long as I had heard of it. So in late August this year, I spent a week and a half in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, climbing and bouldering with some of India’s best climbers, as well as a host of international adventurers. This year’s event was the third, and possibly most successful instalment since its inception in 2016.

The festival is the brainchild of Suhail Kakpori and Jamyang “Jammy” Tenzing, ‘Indian Climbing’s Exploring Boulderer’ previously covered by The Outdoor Journal. Jammy organized the first Suru Fest with a small crew of dedicated and passionate Ladakh-based rock climbers, which has now grown into a sustainable, sponsored event attracting climbers from all over the world.

While the idea is to unite the climbers from all across the globe, it is a festival premised on celebrating the power of youth and adventure. It’s held annually from late August until the first week of September and is a force that brings both athletes and creatives together to create inspiring content.

This year’s festival was sponsored by Tata Motors, an Indian multinational conglomerate with hundreds of well-known brands and properties, including Jaguar Land Rover. Eight 2018 Tata Hexa SUVs were made available to move climbers around from place to place, in this remote and wild part of the world. One of the Hexas also waited for us in Leh, but we were waiting for our dog Maurice – we’d flown in, but Maurice was being driven up to Leh from Delhi (about 48 hours by road). We had to wait for him and delay our early morning departure, and eventually get one of the many shared cabs that ply these mountain roads – pretty much the de facto method of getting around in Ladakh.

It was late in the day by the time Maurice arrived in Leh, and Tenzing got us a shared cab for Suru, near Kargil, several hours west of Leh. We then drove through one of the most picturesque landscapes in India. The road is very well paved for the most part of the journey, which isn’t usually the case in and around the Himalayas. The thought of being at the Suru Fest hadn’t quite settled in yet – perhaps I simply didn’t know what to expect. This was my first climbing festival and all I knew was that I was going to spend a week climbing and exploring the valley.

Unlike Leh and its location on the trans-Himalayan plateau, which comprises of high altitude arid desert, Suru is green, with agricultural activity. We reached Barsoo, a small village in Suru close to midnight. Upon entering the campsite, I was shown my way to a 3-man GIPFEL tent – a new, Indian outdoor gear make and the 2018 Suru Fest’s climbing equipment partner. In the morning I woke up to a sweeping view of the scenic valley that surrounded our campground. We had a pre-bouldering yoga session scheduled first thing in the morning, before breakfast… Talk about a flying start to the adventure! Following the session, we had breakfast and went exploring the climbing areas. “Most of the rocks here have been climbed, graded and documented. The topography to this area is also well underway” Jamyang told us. There are about 6 dedicated climbing areas in Suru and 300 problems with grades varying from 5C to 8A+.  The Suru tribe has and is fully invested in expanding the scope of climbing in Ladakh and also across India.

Amongst the few known Indian athletes and some elite climbers, Suru also hosted three IFMGA guides, two of which were from Georgia and one from the United States. The Georgians rigged their first sports route on a highball near the shore of the boulder-choked Suru river; their first in the himalayas. Sunny Jamshedji was another important addition to the festival whose tryst with trad-climbing has taken him across 20 US states over 22 years. I had heard of him through Prerna, who went climbing with him in Dhauj. The festival certainly couldn’t have asked for more experienced company.

Meanwhile, I lucked out when Luke Smithwick, an IFMGA guide and a prolific American climber with over 50 unclimbed Himalayan six-thousanders to his name, lead me up on my first multi-pitch trad climb. We did three pitches and an FA of a 5.6 route we named, “The Windy Novice”. As an inexperienced climber who is just getting started, I couldn’t have been more stoked. There are inherent risks involved in trad; you often expect your partner to have some kind of real rock experience before taking him out on a big Himalayan slab climb. Nonetheless, this was something I had been looking forward to for some time and I am glad to have made the experience with Luke, who mentored and lead me up the wall.

Luke on top of the Windy Novice. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

“Alpine rock climbing (no snow/ice) in the Himalayas is like climbing alpine rock anywhere in the world with just one caveat. Everything is much bigger than you think! The approaches are longer. The areas are mostly virgins, so there is very little to no information on the approach, route or descent. One has to figure things out themselves on the go. Places like Suru and Miyar have thousands of feet of alpine granite to explore, so if you are willing to do this sort of climbing, then this is an alpine paradise…”,  said Sunny when I asked about his thoughts on climbing in Suru.

Suru Fest is the first of its kind in India. While it constitutes of a demographic representing only a fraction of the population, it is a catalyst in that it suggests a much-needed deviation from the norm. We have long awaited the arrival of a culture that collectively underlines individualism and vigorously captures the spirit of the times. Suru does just that and does it with grace.

“I was particularly happy to send two projects which I was not able to execute last time even though I tried really hard. This is a great measure of progress which one doesn’t get in the gym because the routes there are reset frequently. I was also content to push my personal limits on a 7m highball. Besides the superb quality of the rock and the lines as well as the great weather I love that Suru Fest brings together an amazing crowd of people who share the passion for the outdoors and climbing. Honestly, I first and foremost came to see my friends in India.”, said Svenja Von Jan, a climber and a friend from Germany who also attended the festival last year in 2016.

Svenja Von Jan. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Svenja and I had met a few years ago in Himachal Pradesh in this quiet little village called, Kalga. Back then, I was exploring Parvati Valley in the Kullu district and had become obsessed with this particular mountain, which I hope to climb some day. It was also in Kalga, where I had my first hands-on experience while climbing a highball. We had found this high mossy boulder and were able to put up a few lines. She was strong back then and has undeniably grown stronger since then. So watching her try some hard moves in Suru was inspiring to say the least.

The mountain range that I aspire to climb in Parvati Valley. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

When you’re surrounded with experienced climbers you will only improve. The novelty of Suru is that it exposed me to some fine climbing along with some fine climbers. I was particularly drawn to this rock with some interesting looking features, referred to as the Green Mamba, a 7C+ problem. It took Adarsh Singh, a professional athlete, two to three attempts before topping out. I also saw Viraj Sose, who’d climbed Ecstasy Tree, a sick bulging 7C highball in Hampi: a boulder high enough to send chills down your spine.

The Slab. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Looking back on that slab, I still remember the ease with which Luke loosened me up for the climb. “You know what this is?”, he asked me, while holding out a nut tool. “Mhm, I have used it once or twice”, I said with every ounce of confidence I could gather. On our first pitch, while sitting on a ledge, I heard him say “Off Belay”. “Belay off,” I said and started paying out the rope. I had well familiarized myself with the jargon before we started off. On the second pitch, we stood leaning back on the rope with the weight of our bodies distributed equally over a three point anchor system. It took me a while to register that. “This can hold the weight of a big truck”, said Luke reassuringly. Now, closer than ever to the last pitch, the wind had picked up a bit and I felt a wave of euphoria sweeping over me. I then turned to look in the other direction and immediately spotted the Georgians glued to a big vertical wall, it was cinematic! Shortly after topping out, I calmed myself down and caught hold of my breath. “So much to celebrate discomfort,” I sighed.

Now, as I write this from the flat, smoggy and hot environs of Delhi, having returned sooner than I had wanted, I’m looking forward to returning to the high mountains, attending the festival next year and further honing my skills.

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