2017-06-15 / Front Page

Climber Dies During “Voluntary Closure” At Devil’s Tower


DEVIL’S TOWER NATIONAL MONUMENT --A Wyoming resident fell to his death during the voluntary closure period at the nation’s first national monument. The annual abstinence from scaling the 1200-foot butte during the month of June is requested out of respect for Native American ceremonies that take place at the site. The incident has reignited concern by Native Americans about who should access the area at this time of year.

The Devil’s Tower voluntary climbing closure is part of the final 1995 Climbing Management Plan established at the National Monument by a working group that included representatives from Native American tribes and climbing organizations. The National Park Service considers it a way to balance the cultural and spiritual importance of the site to Native Americans with the butte’s history as a unique and world class rock climbing destination.

Since more than 20 tribes consider the location a sacred site where many conduct ceremonies during the month of June climbers are strongly encouraged to voluntarily refrain from scaling the butte at this time out of respect for the spiritual and cultural significance of the site to the tribes. Locations such as Mt. Rushmore Needles and Spearfish Canyon in South Dakota, and Tensleep Canyon and Tongue River Canyon in Wyoming are recommended as alternative climbing sites.

And though the National Park Service reports that most climbers observe the voluntary ban…not everyone does.

On June 2 a climber died after falling from Devil’s Tower – called Mato Tipila by the Lakota.

Russell Eagle Bear is the Historic Preservation Officer for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

“For thousands of years our people have been going there for ceremony,” explains Eagle Bear. “And it is a very sacred site as indicated by our oral stories. I don’t want to get into that now because it’s too lengthy. But it is significant to us because of the story it tells and how it was created. And our people have been going there and doing their ceremonies.

“I know over the years they came to a consensus because people wanted to climb it,” Eagle Bear observed. “And for us the month of June is very significant because some of our people go into that area and either do their Vision Quest…hambleceya, or Sun Dance. Whatever it may be. Just to be there to pray. They didn’t want any kind of distractions. And it’s a voluntary ban on climbing. And I’m assuming people honor that. And I expect people to honor that.

“But just recently I hear that there was a fatality out there,” remarked Eagle Bear with a sigh. “So…you know… that should be a strong message to people that they should have respect for the place…and the wishes of the tribes.”

The fatality is the sixth incident of a climber falling from the butte since the monument was designated in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The National Park Service reports some 4000 people climb Mato Tiplia each year. More than 90 percent adhere to the voluntary abstinence from scaling the butte during June.

A climbing closure is also in effect after peregrine falcons were observed in nesting behavior on the southeast face of the butte. The closure includes 31 routes and is being mandated for the safety of the climbers as well as to protect the nesting birds. Falcons are known to dive in order to defend their nests. A climber’s presence near or above falcon nests can be distressing to parent birds, and disturbance from climbing activities may force falcons to abandon their eggs or chicks.

National Park Service biologists will monitor falcon activity and the closure will remain in effect until the falcons are no longer dependent on the nest site. The falcon nesting closure will be actively patrolled and strictly enforced by park rangers.

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