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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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May 21, 2019

Field Notes: Solo Ultra-Running the High Himalaya

Peter Van Geit, wilderness explorer, ultra-runner, Founder of the Chennai Trekking Club, shares the field notes from his 1500 km alpine-style run across 40 high altitude passes the Himalaya.



Peter Van Geit

During the summer of 2018, I completed a three-month journey across 40 high altitude passes in Spiti, Pangi, Chamba, Kinnaur, Shimla and Kangra districts of Himachal, in the Himalaya. As always, I ran alpine style, which means self-navigated and with minimal gear through forests, alpine meadows, moraines, glaciers, snow and wild streams. Although I did meet up with a few friends for portions of the journey, my mostly solo exploration took me to many lesser known passes only used by shepherds including Chobia, Chaini, Kugti, Pratap Jot, Thamsar, Kaliheni, Lar La, Padang La and Buran to name a few.

In the following collection of photos and captions, I jumped districts and valleys across the Pir Panjal, Dauladhar and Baspa ranges traversing through the picturesque valleys of Pangi, Saichu, Sural, Miyar, Hudan, Chandra, Tsarap, Zanskar, Lingthi, Lugnak, Lug, Barot, Ravi, Pin, Parbati, Baspa, Chenab, Buddhil Nai, Pabbar, Chamba and Spiti.

The journey was one of stunning natural beauty, hospitality beyond words and overwhelming vastness of remote out-of-this-world landscapes.

Several weeks went into planning the route, analyzing maps including OSM (Open Street Maps), SOI (Survey of India), Google Earth, Olizane and various reference blogs. Credit goes to Sathya Narayanan who inspired me through his solo trekking explorations and wonderful blog before he went missing last August. Also thanks to my close friend Maniraj who identified many trails. Navigation (and photography) was done with my OnePlus 6 mobile and offline OpenTopoMaps. A total elevation gain of 200,000 meters with seven passes above 5,000 meters and 21 passes above 4,000 meters. Being an ultra runner and minimalist, carrying only 6kg luggage, most of the pass crossings were done in just one to two days after initial acclimatization, covering 30-40 km every day. The remaining time I traveled on HPRTC buses in between sections. The journey went across colorful alpine meadows, high altitude desert, vast glaciers, wild stream crossings, huge moraines, steep landslide-prone valley slopes, a few technical climbs and wilderness navigation near a few unused trails.

On many nights, I overnight camped in the tent I carried with me, but many times I stayed in shelters with shepherds and mountain tribes and in many welcoming homes at remote, hospitable villages. My food packing was kept basic with no cooking tools to reduce weight. No technical gear was carried except for a pair of hiking poles to assist in crossing streams, ice slopes, and landslides. The journey was one of stunning natural beauty, hospitality beyond words and overwhelming vastness of remote out-of-this-world landscapes. I indulged in lip-smacking local cuisine, encountered hikers and wildlife in the remotest corners of the Himalaya, and listened to beautiful music on local instruments. More details on passes, route, preparation, photos, and videos of my journey can be found at ultrajourneys.org.

Saichu Valley Apline Meadow, Pangi

Traversing beautiful alpine meadows dotted with pink and yellow flowers in the remote Saichu Valley in Pangi beyond the last village of Tuan. These higher altitude meadows of Saichu are grazed by many herds of the shepherds who migrate each summer from Chamba valley through one of the many passes across the Pir Panjal range. Here on the way to explore an unknown jot (5,260 m) trying to cross over from Saichu to Miyar valley.

Shepherd descending from the Kugti pass (5,040 m)

Descending from the Kugti pass (5,040 m) with a shepherd guiding his 500 sheep into the beautiful cloud indulged Chamba valley below. Kugti is one of the several passes across the Pir Panjal range used by shepherds for their annual migration to graze the high altitude meadows. Here we are crossing over from Rapay village along the Chenab river in Lahaul to the picturesque Kugti village in Bharmour, Chamba. The Kugti pass requires traversing of moraines and landslide-prone slopes on either side of the pass.

High altitude meadows of the Miyar valley

Bright red alpine flowers in the high altitude meadows (4200m) of the Miyar valley while descending the Pratap Jot (5,100 m) pass onto the moraines of the Kang La glacier. Pratap Jot is one of the several passes across the Pir Panjal range separating the Miyar and Saichu valleys. Around 10 shepherds and their 3000+ sheep graze the beautiful meadows of Saichu valley every year crossing one of these passes. The 25km long Kang La glacier seen here connects Lahual/Pangi with Zanskar, Ladakh – walking across this vast moraines landscape of huge boulders and rocks on top of melting ice is quite challenging.

Best friends in the mountains

“The warmest hospitality can be found in the most remote corners of our planet.”

Your best friends in the mountains – the gaddi’s! Here preparing hot chai, fluffy roti and yummy aloo gravy for two starved (and half frozen) travelers after an icy crossing of the Rupin pass with heavy snowfall and hazel during mid-September 2018. The shepherds leave home at the start of summer in May and cross several high altitude passes to graze their large herds of 300 to 600 sheep and goats in the remotest corners of the Himalaya returning only six months later in Sep-Oct. Every few weeks they descend to the nearest village to resupply rice, atta and other food items. They use home woven blankets and clothing to stay warm in their temporary shelters in the alpine meadows between 3,000 to 4,000 meters altitude. The warmest hospitality can be found in the most remote corners of our planet.

Chobia pass glacier

A heavily crevassed glacier as seen from the top of the Chobia pass (4,966 m), shepherd gateway across the Pir Panjal range separating the valleys of Lahaul/Pangi and Chamba. As per shepherds, the Chobia pass is the second most treacherous pass (after Kalicho) to cross the Pir Panjal range leaving around 20 out of 500 sheep dead during the annual crossing of this pass. From the Pangi side at Arat village along the Chenab river, one has to traverse steep landslide-prone valley slopes, a vast section of moraines and negotiate deep crevasses in the glacier (following a trail of sheep poop) before ascending a final steep rock to reach the narrow pass. On the Chamba side on the way to Seri Kao village, all bridges were washed away during flash floods in August 2018 requiring scaling steep trail-less slopes on one side of the valley unable to cross the forceful stream currents.

Fresh glacial snow near the Pin Parbati pass (5,300 m)

Fresh snow on top of the glacier near the Pin Parbati pass (5,300 m) in September 2018. The pass was first crossed in 1884 by Sir Louis Dane in search for an alternate route to the Spiti valley. The pass connects the fertile and lush green Parbati valley on the Kullu side with the barren high altitude desert of Spiti near Mud village. At the Parbati valley side, one encounters many shepherds and hikers on the way to the Mantalai lake and one can indulge in the scenic hot springs of Keerghanga. On the Pin valley side, the eye gets treated by the mesmerizing color shades of the valley slopes of the Spiti rock desert.

Tso Mesik ghost town

“Was survival of the harsh life in this barren high altitude desert too tough?”

Tso Mesik, one of the many ghost towns one encounters along the remote Tsarap river valley while hiking from the Gata loops (Manali-Leh highway) in Lahaul towards Phuktal gompa in Zanskar, Ladakh. What appears to be once thriving settlements with beautifully constructed homes, surrounded by fertile farming fields have been abandoned for many years. Residents seem to have left in a hurry leaving everything behind. Was survival of the harsh life in this barren high altitude desert too tough, did a natural calamity (2014 floods) force them to leave, did the comforts of the city life tempt them to migrate or did their lifelines (water streams) dry up due to global warming and melting glaciers?

Ibex skull found on the Lar La pass (4,670 m)

An ibex skull on the Lar La pass (4,670 m) deep inside the Zanskarian mountains in Ladakh on the way from Phuktal to Zangla. The entire journey involves crossing two other passes including Rotang La (4,900 m) and Padang La (5,170 m). On the way one passes through Shade village, one of the most remote settlements in Zanskar, being two days away from the nearest road head. Between Lar La and Padang La, I encountered yak herders grazing remote alpine meadows in this barren desert, producing 100 liters of milk from as many domesticated yaks every day, also producing butter and cheese. The same is transported using donkeys, horses and yaks to Shade village to survive the six months of total isolation during winter. All animals are carefully kept in enclosures at night, safe from nocturnal attacks by the elusive snow leopard.

Beneath the milky way at the base of the Phirtse La pass (5,560 m)

Dreaming beneath the milky way at the base of the Phirtse La pass (5,560 m), the highest of the 40 passes crossed in this trans-Himalayan journey, the Phirtse La connects Tangze village in Zanskar with Sarchu in Lahaul. The starlit skies were captured on my OnePlus 6 phone with 30 seconds exposure trying hard not to freeze off my butt in that very cold night at 4,700 m. The pass connects the Southern most section of the Zanskar valley which is dotted with many beautiful small settlements like Testa, Kuru, Tangze, Kargyak, small fertile patches in the barren desert of Ladakh. On the other side, one descends into the beautiful Lingthi valley encountering shepherds and wild yaks on the way to Sarchu where it joins the Tsarap river.

Menthosa peak, 6,443 meters

Menthosa peak, at 6,443 m, the second highest peak in Lahaul and Spiti, as seen from an unknown pass (5,300 m) while crossing over the Pir Panjal range from Saichu to Miyar valley in Pangi. Menthosa is situated in the Urgos Nallah, a tributary of the exceptionally beautiful Miyar Nallah. Here climbing up steeply from the beautiful alpine meadows of the Saichu Nallah beyond the last settlement of Tuan across vast stretches of moraines towards Great Himalayan Range to enter Miyar valley.

Trapped in a fog whiteout

“I got trapped in a sudden dense fog whiteout in the late afternoon at 4,100 meters and lost the trail.”

One of the most intense experiences during my journey. While descending from the Chobia pass, the most dangerous in the 40 crossed, I got trapped in a sudden dense fog whiteout in the late afternoon at 4,100 meters and lost the trail used by shepherds. Further descent was impossible being blocked by steep rock faces on all sides. Having lost my tent the previous day in the beautiful Miyar valley, I spend that night wrapped up beneath a small tarpaulin sheet braving the cold rains, while trying not to slide down from the inclined slope. Next morning the sunrise cleared up the fog and I was treated to a stunning view of the green Chamba valley below. One hour later and 500 meters lower I was enjoying a hot cup of chai and alloo roti in the first shepherd shelter on my way out.

Award-winning documentary

Upon returning, I shared all of the footage from my journey that I took with my OnePlus 6 and shared it with my friend Neil D’Souza, who compiled it into a short film which won the Best Mountain Exploration Film Award at the IMF Mountain film festival.

For more information on Peter’s journeys, visit ultrajourneys.org.

Instagram: @petervangeit
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit

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