Climbers: Honor the June Closure at Devils Tower

Devils Tower rises like something otherworldly from the high plains of Wyoming’s Black Hills. Beautiful and striking, it has drawn generations of Indigenous Plains peoples for thousands of years, and now it also draws tourists and climbers. Known as Bear Lodge by the Lakota, the phonolite tower figures prominently in the traditional stories and spirituality of a multitude of Plains tribes.

Devils Tower is located on Lakota/Sioux, Cheyenne, Crow, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Kiowa, Shoshone, and Arapahoe territories. Photo: © Jon Glassberg

The first recorded technical ascent was in 1937, and today it is considered one of the finest crack climbing destinations in the country. The popularity of Devils Tower National Monument, as both a tourist and climbing destination, has boomed over the past two decades. In 2018 alone, the National Park Service reported nearly 500,000 visitors to the site (including climbers).

A Voluntary Closure: An Opportunity to Show Respect

In 1995, the National Park Service instituted a voluntary climbing closure of Devils Tower during the month of June, the most sacred month for Native ceremonies. The closure was enacted to set aside time for Tribes to conduct ceremonies without interruption from climbers. It was instituted after extensive collaboration with the Tribes and the climbing community, and it reflects a compromise intended to balance the needs of both communities. The closure was purposefully designed to be voluntary, in part to allow climbers the opportunity to show their respect to the Native Americans who hold the tower sacred.

While the closure has been impactful, resulting in about a 75% reduction in climber traffic in June, the fact remains that people are still climbing Devils Tower during the month-long voluntary closure. This small group of climbers continues to disrespect the wishes of more than 20 Plains tribes, as well as the majority of the climbing community that supports the closure.

Access Fund fully endorses this voluntary closure, and we encourage all climbers to respect it and take the time to understand its significance. The June ceremonies that the Plains tribes hold at Devils Tower, such as the Lakota Sun Dance, are among these tribes’ most important spiritual practices. According to the National Park Service, “The Sun Dance is a ceremony of fasting and sacrifice that leads to the renewal of the individual and the group as a whole. [It] takes away the pain of the universe or damage to Nature. The Sun Dance is ‘...the supreme rite of sacrifice for the society as a whole [and] a declaration of individual bravery and fortitude…’”

The Cost of Ignoring the Voluntary Closure

Practices like the Sun Dance are existential for those who engage in them. To wilfully ignore the importance of these practices by climbing on Devils Tower in June is selfish and only serves to damage relationships between climbers and Indigenous communities. Sacred spaces have special and elevated norms of conduct. No one would think it is acceptable to climb on or otherwise recreate within a church, mosque, synagogue, or other place of worship during services. The Indigenous community views Bears Lodge as a place of worship, and the climbing community should respect and honor Indigenous peoples’ connection to the land and their traditional practices.

There are other outstanding crags—like Rushmore, Tensleep, Vedauwoo, and Spearfish Canyon—a short drive away that provide plenty of opportunities for high-quality summer climbing in the region.

In the past, the climbing community—including Access Fund—have made mistakes regarding respect for Indigenous sites and culture. We are learning and growing, and we have a long path ahead. Access Fund is working hard to collaborate with Native American tribes, and to fund research that benefits Indigenous people. We also are committed to sharing information with the climbing community on best practices for recreating on sacred lands.

We have a choice: Access Fund is asking the climbing community to step up and make an intentional decision to refrain from climbing on Devils Tower during the month of June to show respect for Native Tribes.

    Webinar: Climbing On Sacred Land

    An in-depth discussion with Indigenous climbers and thought leaders about respecting Indigenous culture and protecting cultural sites.

    Read more about different perspectives on the June closure: