Devils Tower: Why I Can’t Write About the Voluntary Closure

NGS Picture ID:1728004

all photos by Aaron Huey

Last night, after reading Devils Tower: Why We Don’t Climb in June, I turned to my friend Dylan, another guide here at Devils Tower Lodge, and for probably the 15th time in the last few weeks, said, “I don’t know what I think.”

“I certainly know I couldn’t write a piece entitled Devils Tower: Why We Climb in June, and that concerns me, because I’m climbing,” I continued.

He nodded, paused, said, “Yeah, I hear ya. But could you write what we just read? Obviously not. The issue is just so nuanced.”

He’s right. As someone who calls myself a writer, I’ve found myself on the scene of a hot topic issue within the climbing community, and I can’t write about it. I don’t know what to say: I simply do not have enough information. And while folks halfway across the country, climbers and non-climbers alike, many of which have never even been to Devils Tower, seem to know exactly what they think, I somehow see everything less clearly. I can’t write Devils Tower: Why We Don’t Climb in June. I can’t write Devils Tower: Why We Climb in June.

I can’t write about the voluntary closure, and here’s why.


Pick something across the room to look at, right now. Develop an opinion on it, a strong one. That couch cushion: its black and red and has a triangular design in the middle. That lamp shade has vertical folds that expand from top to bottom. That wood bookshelf has uniformly flat shelves. Now, put down your computer, get up, and walk over to whatever you’re looking at. Look closely, and see if your opinion holds.

I was here at Devils Tower last June too, guiding and climbing, and heard the voluntary closure mentioned maybe once in the entire month. Whether good or bad, right or wrong, it just wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t a thing until one of the local climbing rangers, Lucas Barth, put it on Supertopo and Mountain Project this year.

I’m not criticizing Lucas at all, not in the least. We’re friends, we’ve climbed side-by-side on the Tower, projected the same routes, and I think he’s doing his job very well. In my opinion, it was a smart move to put the issue on Mountain Project, to get the climbing community talking about it. He’s done more for the voluntary closure in the last month than anyone has done in the last 22 years.

What I’m criticizing however—and that’s even a strong word—is what I’ve been observing in our culture for awhile now. I’m talking about our tendency as humans, and more specifically, as educated Americans, to, with little information, choose a side of an issue and defend it to the death, even when it means divisiveness, judgement, and negativity.

It concerns me that it’s become all too easy to, without barely stopping to think, take a stand for issues very distant and impersonal. Not only easy, it’s become trendy. We all, myself included, know where we stand on every hot topic item. Native issues? We owe them everything. Black lives matter? Of course. Philando Castile? A ridiculous display of racial profiling and injustice. Keystone Pipeline? Bears Ears? The repeal of the Affordable Care Act? And we will take these opinions to the grave with us, and jump on anyone who sees things differently. Look where this is getting us: our nation has never, at least in our lifetime, been so divided.

It concerns me that, if I didn’t live here at Devils Tower for the summer, I too would be vehemently on the side of those supporting the voluntary closure, labeling all those who climbed or defended climbing here in June as horrible, racist, privileged, entitled and bad.

It concerns me that we can read a few sentences in a forum online, and know where we stand. It concerns me that people are only now talking about the voluntary June closure at Devils Tower because one person, a climbing ranger, started talking about it, and it became the next best forum to read and contribute to.

It concerns me that people can say a few words on Mountain Project, or choose to go to Tensleep instead of Devils Tower (because they’re sport climbers anyway), and then feel good about themselves, like they’ve done something. In reality, no one is thinking about this in a way that does any good for our human race; no one is affected to their core.

And meanwhile, the people of the Pine Ridge Reservation, the closest reservation to the Tower, still live in the second poorest county in the country. The infant mortality rate is still five times the national average; the average life expectancy is still lower than countries such as Sudan and Somalia. Eighty percent of residents are still unemployed, and a few years ago when the reservation was still dry, 12,500 cans of beer were still sold every day in the town just outside the boundaries. The two rehab centers promised when the res transitioned from being dry have still not been built. Sixty-one percent of residents under the age of 18 still live below the poverty line, and the people of the Oglala Sioux Tribe still continue to battle for their voice and rights under a mixed-blood, non-Lakota speaking leadership that fails to distribute government funds, instead earning comfortable salaries and enjoying lush business trips. It makes me question whether all of these people even have time to think about the renaming of Devils Tower or the June voluntary closure when they’re worried about their health and safety.

It concerns me that we in our forums with our climber-centric views care about debating over a tower of stone while an entire reservation sits nearby, forgotten. It concerns me that with our trendy hashtags and social movements, we might be always missing the forest for the trees.


I’m just like the rest of you. I stood with Standing Rock, and raised awareness for Bears Ears, and did so knowing that my association with those areas pales in comparison to that of the native people who call them home. I couldn’t sleep last Friday night, enraged at the injustice of Philando Castile. I supported the women’s march, and went to my local precinct meetings, and know the right hashtags and the meaning of white privilege and probably have experienced mansplaining too.

Yet all of a sudden, I find myself on the scene in one of these hot topic debates, and lo and beyond, I’m on the other side of things. I’m in Devils Tower in June, and I’m guiding, and I’m climbing.

And I’ve started to see that every issue is far more nuanced the closer you get to it. Just like anything, the more involved you are, the more detail you see. You might look at photos of the Tower and think it’s a uniform plug of vertical cracks. You’ll come here and realize that the South side is more varied and less vertical, that the North Face ramps up to a few hundred feet of vertical terrain before the rock turns chossy. That there’s an area on the east side called the Window, where a series of about ten columns broke off, leaving a roof system and insanely thin cracks underneath. You’ll realize that pigeon shit lies in many crevices, that cracks are often lined with grass. That the summit actually isn’t flat at all.

You’ll come and you’ll sit down with rangers, and you’ll listen to the origins of the June closure. You’ll hear what they have to say, and the tone of voice in which they say it. You’ll see the native presence, and come to understand of the greater issues—at least a little. You’ll meet with a local chief and hear him talk about respect, and climbers, and the sacred Tower you’re sitting under together, and you’ll learn what he cares about. You’ll see the tourists come and go in their RVs and Harleys. You’ll see van loads of children from the Pine Ridge Reservation roll up, and they’ll run up to you brimming with questions, pulling the cams off your harnesses, begging to carry your pack down the hill. You’ll meet Frank Sanders, who has been here for longer than anyone in recent history. You’ll see the prayer bundles tied to trees at the base of the Tower; you’ll watch as young tourists scamper up and down the boulder field under the towering west face.

And then, you’ll have a say. Maybe you’ll grow even more vehemently opposed to climbing in June, and that’s totally fine. Maybe you’ll change your mind. Maybe, like me, you’ll get even more confused. But at least you’ll have a right to your opinion, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll develop more grace, and tolerance, and perspective in the process. Hopefully you’ll be inspired toward less protest, and more action.

I realize this doesn’t answer any questions. I realize that I’m still climbing on the Tower in June. I realize that you might be judging me. And to that I say: my point exactly. Can we cease from taking sides, at least for a moment, and stop to listen? Can we try to not have the answer; to instead be people with grace, with a desire to learn, with an openness to know both sides? Can we practice saying, “Hmmmm, I don’t know. Let me think about that. Let me grow to know that place, to know those people.”

And then, I’d absolutely love to hear what you have to say.

12 thoughts on “Devils Tower: Why I Can’t Write About the Voluntary Closure

  1. Many of the issues you sited have two sides. We have given up the idea that everything is complicated, hence compromise, in a civilized nation. Thoughtful writing; your experience with this issue will lead you to seeing the two sides to others. It’s growing… good job.

  2. It is good to see shades of gray rather than black/white, good/bad. I have climbed the Tower several times, once in June. For me it came down to this: I live a moral life, but every day I do or say something that could be offensive to some religious or spiritual belief somewhere. I own a car: need I apologize to the Amish? I will live according to my ethics, my beliefs, not l the religious beliefs of others.

  3. Even though your asking us not to pick a side I will always side with grace and tolerance. Intelligent and well written. Not sure if you remember me but we climbed a few routes together in Cochamó and crossed paths in Frey. Keep writing and climbing…
    Jim Taylor

  4. Thank you Jenny for taking your time to help me to take my first steps towards understanding this issue. Your article allowed me to know you more clearly as well. Earlier this week, I only saw your surface features from a distance. And as pleasant as that was, I realize now that I had not the faintest idea of the depth of your character or thoughtfulness.
    Please keep up the good work!
    Also, give Frank a hug for me.

  5. I would say that despite the sentiment it still comes down to choosing to either climb or not climb in June and choosing to climb in the end is not really a case of “an openness to know both sides”…

  6. I appreciate the conversation and it helps me to start to understand why people climb on the Bear Lodge (Tower) in June. I offer a few thoughts in the spirit of continuing the conversation and to push back on some of the ideas that you shared. I’ll also call it Bear Lodge in deference to the tribes who are advocating for a name change because having the word Devil associated with a highly sacred place is offensive to them.

    One of the many things that I read from your post is that there are bigger problems facing tribal members on Pine Ridge than whether climbers respect the voluntary closure. I’d ask whether it is possible that things like ceremonies – ceremonies that could go undisturbed if the voluntary closure was respected – form a foundation for healing and strength that allow leaders to help their communities address the problematic social issues that you discuss? By climbing on the Tower in June, climbers are making a choice that deprives tribal members of an undisturbed physical and spiritual space to have ceremonies – ceremonies that help both individuals and communities heal from historic and current trauma.

    Many of the social issues that have developed at places like Pine Ridge are caused by colonization, which includes the actions of majority society disregarding tribal cultural ties to land, to ceremony, and to places like the Bear Lodge. Climbing on the Bear Lodge in June, despite a clear official position on that issue from the tribes that is today articulated in the management plan, furthers disregard of sacred sites and tribal values. Climbers who make that choice are moving the needle toward perpetuating the injustices of the past rather than making a choice that would put us on a path toward reconciliation, healing, and respect.

    As the outdoor industry rises as an ever more powerful voice around public lands, the voices and choices of companies, athletes, and ambassadors become more visible. The outdoor industry’s prominence and financial weight gives our community the opportunity to advance and realize a vision for America’s public lands. There is a choice of whether to move toward a new vision of public land management that includes and elevates Native American voices – the sovereign governments, people, and cultures who have lived and stewarded these lands for the longest – or whether to perpetuate historic injustices by ignoring or marginalizing these and other non-white users of our public lands.

    The Bears Ears shows that the former approach has the game-changing potential to protect public lands, waters, communities, and climbing areas while bringing new visionaries into the stale public land management discourse. Both at the Bear Lodge and beyond, I hope that the outdoor industry, its athletes, and its ambassadors carry the Bears Ears momentum forward to advance a broad and inclusive vision of public land management that respects and elevates the voices of tribal nations – and that vision mandates respecting the June closure at the Bear Lodge.

    Finally, because this is a climbing blog and read by climbers, I figured it was worth sharing that I too am a climber. Like all of us, I’ve traveled across North America (also in a series of beloved Astro Vans) and have put in a lot of time rambling around the mountains and deserts with friends and projecting things that are hard for me, both on gear and bolts. I’m also an environmental lawyer and have been working for tribes, non-profits, and foundations around western public lands and tribal sovereignty issues for a handful of years.

    I responded to this blog at length because I care about this issue on a lot of levels and felt the conversation could be broadened. I also responded because I think that these discussions are timely and worth having, and that it is better for everyone when different perspectives are included in the discussion.

    Anne Mariah

    1. Hi Anne Mariah,

      Thank you SO much for your thoughtful comment. I’m so happy to be involved in this dialogue; the more information I collect from intelligent, researched sources, the more I begin to develop my own opinion. Your comments here strike a cord with me and I really appreciate you taking the time to jot them down!!


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