American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Unclimbable Summits?

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1984

The Unclimbable Summits?

David Kozak

RECENTLY AS I WAS READING through the Base Camp section of Climbing magazine I came across a bit of information that distressed me. The following paragraph appears word for word from the magazine:

“The Four Comers desert area sees very little climbing traffic, and those with a taste for the bizarre, virgin rock and no crowds might find the area attractive. However, it is still illegal to climb anywhere on the Navajo Reservation, so discretion is encouraged.”

A luring proposition which is quite literally true. Lots of virgin rock out there, but as the paragraph says, it is still illegal to climb. This isn’t the first and I speculate won’t be the last time we read or hear about this attitude towards climbing on the Reservation. The attitude of get-away-with-what-you-can prevails.

This part of the desert has always been an area known for its early climbing history, on such spires as the Totem Pole, Spider Rock and Shiprock. Not only were the stories of the climbs exciting, but the run-ins with the locals were also quite colorful. After the major sandstone features had been climbed, climbing has been more sporadic until recently, when more and more reports of illegal, clandestine ascents have been made.

This makes me wonder: isn’t it common knowledge that climbing on the Reservation is “off limits?” I realistically feel anyone competent enough to climb out there would “know” this. So this brings me to two concepts: either the person knows he or she is trespassing and doesn’t realize the nature of what that trespassing means; or they know and just don’t give a damn.

I think that most people are in the first category. (At least I hope so.) Since being uninformed is a state of non-awareness, one can become aware if the reasons to change are significant enough. For those who don’t give a damn, well, all I can say is “open your eyes!” This isn’t being written to say “don’t climb,” but more to raise one’s awareness of why climbing on the Reservation is in the state it is at this time.

I have climbed on the Reservation, and there are still many classic routes I would like to do, and until recently all that was important to me was the desire I had to climb them. It didn’t occur to me that there was a philosophy behind the ban on climbing. I didn’t want to know since in my own selfish desire to climb I had forgotten about those people whose land I was treading on. This brings me to my first point. In our society we are encouraged to freely express ourselves and be individuals. For a lot of us, climbing is a large part of our self-expression. Why, then, can’t we pursue our sport on the Reservation? Isn’t it part of the United States? And so when we are told “No Climbing,” a somewhat rebellious reaction is to go ahead and defy the request. For some it is hard to take no for an answer, especially when it comes to the subject of climbing.

When it comes to dealing with a group of people such as the Navajo tribe who think in more esoteric and abstract ways, it may be rather difficult to understand their wishes. Dealing with the National Park Service on such topics as access or use permits would be infinitely more productive than trying to obtain permission to climb on the Reservation since our society thinks in systematic and logical facts-and-figures ways; the more traditional1 Navajo thinks more in a “mystical” sense. These patterns of thought are based on an animistic religion which is beyond the comprehension of most of us. That means, “to understand them we would have to follow a different set of mental processes from those which we are familiar with in our society.” 2 For example: Shiprock, the most popular climb on the Reservation, has a very significant religious meaning to all Navajo. In their belief this is how the tribe arrived at its present location. It is said to have been a giant winged bird that carried their ancestors to the Four Comers area.

This is a small portion of the Navajo “Creation Story” which is an integral part of their life and history. Treading upon this feature (Shiprock) is sacrilegious to them, as I suspect nailing up a “House of Worship” in our society would be unacceptable. More importantly, though, is the Navajos’ traditional fear of death. A large majority associate death with climbing and they basically can’t understand why anyone would want to climb anything. Putting Shiprock and death in the same sentence means that they, the Navajo, would not want to and could not visit the area because of the “evil spirits” of the dead which would be lurking in the area. Even though you and I know rock climbing is relatively safe, they don’t think so and thus they keep the Reservation off limits just in case. These concepts cannot be fully understood by a facts-and-figures approach. Respect for their wishes and religion should be considered before doing a climb there.

During an interview in Shiprock, New Mexico, I was once told, “You white men can’t even live by your own laws, how can we expect you to live by ours!” Lastly, getting back to the paragraph from the magazine—is it discretion that we need, or maybe sensitivity? Until the Navajo Nation decides differently, as rock climbers do we have the right to be on the Indian land, climbing on their monuments?

Special thanks to Daniel Nez Martin and his Navajo Culture class at Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado, and Elayne Smith of Shiprock, New Mexico, for insight into their unique culture; and the Navajo Tribal Council, Window Rock, Arizona.

1Traditional Navajo—An Indian person who follows the ways of his ancestors. Traditional religion.

2 A quote from a book, Culture and Conduct, page 130. What is meant is a statement of “Cultural Relativism;” in effect you try to understand another culture without judging by your own cultural rules.

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