Climbing and Cultural Resources: A Tough Balance, A Tougher Conversation

Devils TowerAccording to Crow legend, some members of the tribe were camped near the Belle Fourche River when a massive bear tried to eat two little girls who were playing among some large rocks. The bear was about to pounce on the girls when they spotted him and scrambled to safety on top of one of the nearby rocks. The Great Spirit, seeing that the bear could still reach the girls, caused the rock to grow higher out of the ground. As the girls were raised up, the bear stretched to snag them, scratching the rock with his claws until he fell to the ground. According to the 1930s oral tradition of Rides the White Hip Horse, the girls remain atop the rock, which is scarred with the bear’s desperate claw marks.

Most of us know the rock that saved the little Crow girls as Devils Tower, a bizarrely geometric, 600-foot sentinel of igneous rock that watches over the high plains of northeastern Wyoming. The tower, a collection of hexagonal columns, is a must-climb destination for crack climbing enthusiasts—and it’s sacred to at least six Plains tribes, including the Crow, Arapaho, Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Shoshone.

Although it’s a shorter history than the Native Americans’, the climbing community’s relationship with Devils Tower reaches back to the first recorded technical ascent in 1937. As the decades have passed and the sport of climbing has exploded, the popularity of the activity at Devils Tower has boomed. Climbers were reaching the summit by climbing over sacred ground, representing an undefined level of encroachment.

Land managers across the nation have been grappling to an increasing degree with how to protect cultural resources—which range from historic cabins to sites where ancient pottery shards have been found—and allow climbing. When these issues arise, the Access Fund advocates for a balanced solution that allows for climbing, but negotiating a cultural resource closure can be some of the trickiest and most difficult advocacy work the organization does.

“This is one of the most politically loaded issues we deal with,” says Access Fund Executive Director Brady Robinson. “It’s often complex, emotionally charged, and thus hard to talk about.”

But it’s an important discussion. Keep reading on page 8 of the Vertical Times, as climber and writer Laura Snider outlines sides of this issue.