A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.

- John James Audubon



Jun 12, 2018

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

This article was originally published in June 2017.


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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Adventure Travel

Jul 31, 2018

Kayaking’s Elite Return to India at the Malabar River Festival

During the week of July 18th to 22nd, the Malabar River Festival returned to Kerala, India with one of the biggest cash prizes in whitewater kayaking in the world.



Brooke Hess

A $20,000 purse attracted some of the world’s best kayakers to the region for an epic week battling it out on some of India’s best whitewater.

The kayaking events at Malabar River Festival were held on the Kuttiyadi River, Chalippuzha River, and the Iruvajippuzha River, in South India on the Malabar Coast. The festival was founded and organized by Manik Taneja and Jacopo Nordera of GoodWave Adventures, the first whitewater kayaking school in South India.

Photo: Akash Sharma

“Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there”

One of the goals of the festival is to promote whitewater kayaking in the state of Kerala and encourage locals to get into the sport. One of the event organizers, Vaijayanthi Bhat, feels that the festival plays a large part in promoting the sport within the community.  “The kayak community is building up through the Malabar Festival. Quite a few people are picking up kayaking… It starts with people watching the event and getting curious.  GoodWave Adventures are teaching the locals.”

Photo: Akash Sharma

Vaijayanthi is not lying when she says the kayak community is starting to build up.  In addition to the pro category, this year’s Malabar Festival hosted an intermediate competition specifically designed for local kayakers. The intermediate competition saw a huge turnout of 22 competitors in the men’s category and 9 competitors in the women’s category. Even the professional kayakers who traveled across the world to compete at the festival were impressed with the talent shown by the local kayakers. Mike Dawson of New Zealand, and the winner of the men’s pro competition had nothing but good things to say about the local kayakers. “I have so much respect for the local kayakers. I was stoked to see huge improvements from these guys since I met them in 2015. It was cool to see them ripping up the rivers and also just trying to hang out and ask as many questions about how to improve their paddling. It was awesome to watch them racing and making it through the rounds. Look out for these guys in the future because there are some future stars there.”

Photo: Akash Sharma


“It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake”

Vaijayanthi says the festival has future goals of being named a world championship.  In order to do this, they have to attract world class kayakers to the event.  With names like Dane Jackson, Nouria Newman, Nicole Mansfield, Mike Dawson, and Gerd Serrasolses coming out for the pro competition, it already seems like they are doing a good job of working toward that goal! The pro competition was composed of four different kayaking events- boatercross, freestyle, slalom, and a superfinal race down a technical rapid. “The Finals of the extreme racing held on the Malabar Express was the favourite event for me. It was an epic rapid to race down. 90 seconds of continuous whitewater with a decent flow. It was awesome because you had such a great field of racers so you had to push it and be on your game without making a mistake.” says Dawson.

Photo: Akash Sharma

The impressive amount of prize money wasn’t the only thing that lured these big name kayakers to Kerala for the festival. Many of the kayakers have stayed in South India after the event ended to explore the rivers in the region. With numerous unexplored jungle rivers, the possibilities for exploratory kayaking are seemingly endless. Dawson knows the exploratory nature of the region well.  “I’ve been to the Malabar River Fest in 2015. I loved it then, and that’s why I’ve been so keen to come back. Kerala is an amazing region for kayaking. In the rainy season there is so much water, and because the state has tons of mountains close to the sea it means that there’s a lot of exploring and sections that are around. It’s a unique kind of paddling, with the rivers taking you through some really jungly inaccessible terrain. Looking forward to coming back to Kerala and also exploring the other regions of India in the future.”


For more information on the festival, visit: http://www.malabarfest.com/

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