Robert L. Peters

28 December 2010

Climbing on the shoulders… of legends.

Devils Tower, Wyoming

Several Native American legends exist regarding the origin of Devils Tower. One of the most popular involves seven young Kiowa girls who are chased by giant bears. In an effort to escape the bears, the girls climbed atop a rock, fell to their knees, and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. Hearing their prayers, the Great Spirit caused the rock to rise from the ground towards the heavens so that the bears could not reach the girls. The bears, in an effort to climb the rock, left deep claw marks in the sides which had become too steep to climb. (Those are the marks which appear today on the sides of Devils Tower). When the seven girls reached the sky, they were turned into the star constellation the Pleiades.

In another version of the legend (depicted in the painting above), a group of Natives are chased by a giant magic bear. Again, the Great Spirit raises them up on a rock tower where they are able to fight back and defeat the bear as it tries unsuccessfully to climb the tower—no explanation of how the bear loses its long tail… (it’s also worth noting that the bear shown in the image above is about 100 times actual size, while the warriors on top are about 10 x actual size).*

Devils Tower (Mato Tipila in Lakota, which means “Great Bear Lodge,” though named by surveyors after another Native name, “The Bad God’s Tower”) is a monolithic igneous intrusion located in the Black Hills of northeastern Wyoming, rising dramatically 1,267 feet (386 m) above the surrounding terrain with a summit 5,112 feet (1,558 m) above sea level. A most improbable mountain comprised of sharp, near-vertical cliffs with regular furrows, it sticks up like some giant, prehistoric tree-stump. Devils Tower was the first declared United States National Monument, established in 1906 by president Theodore Roosevelt. Stephen Spielberg used it as a backdrop to his 1977 blockbuster movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind (remember the mashed potato carving?). Yearly, some 400,000 tourists come to gawk at its unusual shape, and it is still a favorite “test-piece” for trad rock climbers (statistically, about 1% of visitors are climbers).

Most of the evidence suggests that the strangely-shaped mountain is a laccolith, an intrusion of hot magma from deep within the earth that never reaches the surface. It pushes up a bulge of sedimentary rock but without forming a caldera or crater (as a volcano would have). As the molten rock cools and the soft sedimentary rock of the bulge is worn away, the harder igneous rock is exposed (in the case of Devils Tower this would have resulted in the top of the tower becoming visible between one and two million years ago… with continuous erosion ever since). As the hot rock cooled, eight-sided vertical columns formed. As these columns continued to cool they shrank and pulled away from each other, making the furrow marks that run vertically down the tower from the top. The tower’s rock is phonolite porphyry, a gray or greenish igneous rock with crystals of feldspar embedded within it.

I’ve had the pleasure (and great privilege, I would say) of climbing Devils Tower several times over the years. Although forced off the tower just several pitches up by an afternoon lightning storm on my first attempt, I was able to lead the Durrance Route (one of the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America) the next day—including the famous “jump traverse” which involves an airy leap across a gap between two columns nearly 200 meters above terra firma. On a later trip, I climbed the classic Wiessner Route (led by good friend Gregor Brandt, with his lovely partner Janice Liwanag seconding, and me cleaning). The top of the tower is about the size of a soccer pitch, and as the sun goes down you can watch a rapidly-elongating shadow race out across the surrounding terrain—truly magical.

*Note that Devils Tower is sacred to several Native American Plains tribes, including the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Kiowa. In response to a concern about climbing the monument being considered a desecration, a compromise was reached in recent years involving a voluntary climbing ban during the month of June, when the tribes are conducting ceremonies around the monument. Most climbers honor this ban and voluntarily choose not to climb the Tower during the month of June.

The image at the top is by an unknown artist. The image below is a photograph taken in 1900 by Nathaniel H. Darton of the U.S. Geological Survey (the broken column which constitutes the first pitch of the Durrance Route lies along the left edge of the shadow vertically dissecting the tower).



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