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.

17 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!!


  7. I read about both sides, and I firmly disagree with climbers’ decision to climb, and particularly to guide clients, at Bear Lodge during the month of June.

  8. On the general point of a (seemingly) increasing lack of nuances in public debate, your are making good points and have very valid concerns, which I share.

    However, I’m not sure that it really ties into your stance of climbing at the Towers in June all that well. I’m also not so sure that the state of things in the nearby reserve really does factor in that decision all that much.

    It does sound to me like you want to climb (and or guide) there in June for XYZ reasons. The rest of the discussion and the arguments sounds like they are rational to justify (to yourself and/or others) to be doing so in a bit of an oblique way.

    As another mentioned, at the end of the day, it really comes down to : do you observer the voluntary closure or do you not. It’s a pretty binary choice, which you can of course make for a variety of nuanced reason of course, but still.

    It’s not all that much different, in terms of dilemma, from various wildlife related closures that affect cliffs all around the country. Some stakeholders see value in some steps being taken regarding a specific site (e.g. not disturb it at some point in time) while others would rather climb it at that point in time. You can’t both have your cake and eat it, so either the party who doesn’t want the site disturbed looses to climbers climbing it, or climbers refrain from climbing it (because of penalties or voluntarily).

    As with wildlife closure, climbing association will try to see common sense prevail over hard & fast blanket rules which may often not make much sense in practice. E.g. “if falcons are observed to be nesting at a cliff, climbers should refrain from climbing at that cliff and immediately move to a different cliff”. If there’s no hard rule/enforcement, then as a climber you have 2 choices: you either comply and move on, or you justify to yourself why you could still climb there (e.g. the cliff is currently empty saved for us, yes the falcons are at that cliff but it’s quite a few routes away from where we actually are, well are these really falcons or crows I can’t tell, to routes stop well below nest locations, etc.).

    But then, of course, if you don’t comply the other party is likely to seek harsher terms to see its perspective taken into account. Then enters blanket closure from/to a given date, for entire areas, regardless of actual presence of birds.

    It’s the same thing about DT really. From other stakeholders perspective, what your opinions about the reserve system and how the government treats native Americans issues are is not THAT relevant to whether or not you decide to show respect for their perspective about climbing the tower, or whether you decide to prioritize your interests and climb/guide it anyways. I do understand you’re framing this as a bit of a personal reflection/consideration of various factors and I do like that you’re highlighting the importance of conducting that thinking from a personal perspective.

    However, in the case of DT at least, the fact is that the issue to too large and there are too many people involved so that the individual perspectives about subtleties of the issue matter much. Like it or not, you’re seen as part of the climbing community and your personal action on that will be perceived as those of the climbing community and will reflect on how the climbing community is perceived. In other words, you are in imo wrongly framing this on personal moral/ethics perspective while it has already grown to a bigger frame of different stakeholders.

    If you are that concern about well-being of the nearby reserve, you should consider trying to act on it. Or better yet, try to get the climbing community to be more engaged with the native Americans or link both communities. Who knows, maybe it’s change perspective about climbing there in June.

  9. It is unconstitutional to close climbing at Devils Tower Wyoming either for commercial or recreational reasons.

    Dennis, Hollis, and Paul were helpful in the initial stages of fighting the tyranny of the feds trying to manipulate the Indians once again, but they were not around at all for the multiple gun fights in Federal Court, and neither was Frank Sanders – He was to busy trying to secure his blood money inheritance from his Father and Mother so he could procure Devils Tower Lodge and finally move back to Devils Tower.

    The true Cowboys in this Story are the few local individuals that signed on as plaintiffs in the case and stayed the course.

    The Supreme Court would not hear the Voluntary Closure Complaint based on Standing. It’s VOLUNTARY!!! you stupid sheeple.

    Case in point here is Chris Hedges challenge to the NDAA which was also was thrown out of the Supreme Court for standing reasons, but a far more serious issue than a bunch of well endowed trust funded war mongering assholes trying to climb Devils Tower in June. NDAA = no Habeas Corpus and unlimited detention.

    Read George Orwell for christ sake or Manufacturing of Consent.

    The Government does not give a shit about you or the Indians. Wake the hell up!

    Ponder the Words of the late Russel Means whom was at the Indian Encampment at Devils Tower that was shot at along with many other Indians by local inbreed hillbillies!

    Published on Jan 20, 2011

    The United States is one big reservation, and we are all in it. So says Russell Means, legendary actor, political activist and leader for the American Indian Movement. Means led the 1972 seizure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., and in 1973 led a standoff at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a response to the massacre of at least 150 Lakotah men, women, and children by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry at a camp near Wounded Knee Creek.

    American Indian Russell Means gives an eye-opening 90 minute interview in which he explains how Native Americans and Americans in general are all imprisoned within one huge reservation. Means is a leader for the Republic of Lakotah, a movement that has declared its independence from the United States and refused to recognize the authority of presidents or governments, withdrawing from treaties it made with the federal government and defining its borders which cover thousands of square miles in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana.

    Means explains how American Indians have been enslaved within de facto prisoner of war camps as a result of the federal government’s restriction of their food supply and the application of colonial tactics, a process that has now also been inflicted on the United States as a whole which has turned into, “one huge Indian reservation,” according to Means.

    Means warns that Americans have lost the ability of critical though, and with each successive generation become more irresponsible and as a consequence less free, disregarding a near-perfect document, the Constitution, which was derived from Indian law. Means chronicles the loss of freedom from the 1840’s onwards, which marked the birth of the corporation, to Lincoln’s declaration of martial law, to the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th when Congress “started giving banks the right to rule,” and private banking interests began printing the money.

    Devils Tower and the Thermodynamics of Civilization.

    To the lost TRUST FUNDED SOULS try to get a AZIMUTH!! While you Fly & Drive all over the Country and World to go Climbing. Please take that one on Jenny while Syria is being bombed for no reason other than energy and world control. Climbing is an pathway to self discovery like many activities that humans do.

    The Boreal Forestes is on fire in Canada and Siberia, the jet steam is regularly crossing the equator. As an aware human, so you try to come across as, you cannot rationally ignore the impact of the Human Species ~ Anthropocene?

    Given the Record levels extinction of species both animal and plant, it is my point of view that trying to save the biosphere of the of land that encompasses Devils Tower National Monument is the equivalent of indicting Martha Steward for insider training while all of Wall Street went scot free during the 2008 collapse? And on and on….

    Humans are WAY WAY WAY WAY WAY WAY… out of Balance with the Biome, and for everyone on the planet to live like Americans you would need 4 Earths at this point ( or 4 more giant Parking Lots at the Visitors Center at DT to manage parking), Clean Earths that is, not gonna happen despite Elon Musk’s Bullshit.

    I enjoy philosophy as much you, but this is Science and Simple Awareness. Just look at the Madness of Baby Boomers at Devils Tower ~ All those extinct species that we depend upon in their gas tanks that have been eliminated so we can have the life style we believe is gonna work?

    At some point humans we be forced to reconcile with the reality of Biology and Ecology of Living Systems. Much like Eisenhower’s warning about the Military Industrial Complex. Not gonna happen.

    Well there you go! ~ Man Made Madness! Does Easter Island Ring a Bell?

    Enjoyed your writing Jenny, but you are not a Melville nor is Dylan. Good to see people looking though.

    Industrial Civilization is a Cancer and that is all the Indians were trying to tell the Imperialists. That is why the air you breath, and the water you drink, and food you eat is poison. Just ask the Yemen’s, Syrians, Iraq’s, and on and on that are being systematically going through civilized imperialistic genocide like the Indians so you can climb all over the world on cheap hydrocarbons with fake money.

    Enjoy the ride Jenny, but remember Nature Bats Last!!!


    A few links,

    Most Important Peer Reviewed Paper on Climate Change * Tim Garrett * Civilization is a Heat Engine

    Apocalypse, Man: Michael C. Ruppert on World’s End (Part 1)

  10. I stumbled upon this page a few years late, but as an analytical person coming into the world of climbing, I have observed a world of very egotistical people. For reference, I had the opportunity to hike up Uluru in Australia, and you know why I chose not to? Because the Aboriginals found in disrespectful. This was a rock that had much spiritual importance to them. They used it for thousands of years before some white guy came along and said “I wonder about the view from up there?”. They asked people not to climb it year around, and sure there were many thousands of non-Aboriginals climbing it. However, that doesn’t make it ok.

    To me, it’s like if someone wanted to free solo a church, a mosque, or a synagogue. Why climb it? Because I can. Well, it’s not going to do any damage to the building. But by the way, we are going to climb during the holiest of your religious months.

    I have run into numerous amounts of climbers who think that they can bend the rules to closures because of (insert any excuse that says you do not impact an area). “It’s just this one time”, “I never noticed saw any of that endangered species”, or “The nesting birds don’t seem to mind”. There are tons of places to climb, and in this case, a specific group is asking for one month of respect. Not that I am able to climb at Devil’s Tower, but if I had a chance to during June. I wouldn’t.

  11. Jenny, I hate to share with you, but to be blunt. You’re wrong. You shouldn’t climb Bears Lodge in June. It’s disrespectful. The native people who hold it sacred, it’s their history and the land is a part of their identity. To abstain from climbing for one month is not too much a burden to ask.

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