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Shiprock's East Face

Shiprock’s East Face

Cameron M. Burns

IN THE LATE 1980s, LUKE LAESER and I began collecting information, stories and even perceptions about climbing on the Navajo Reservation. We were surprised with what we learned.

My first experience on Navajolands had been photographing Shiprock in 1989. A young Navajo in a Thriftway, the local convenience store, told me it was no problem camping out near the enormous stone. He even said I could climb the spire if I wanted, noting that several climbers had been spotted on the tower that day. I bought a can of beans and said, “No thanks.” After all, I didn’t have a partner. I didn’t think any Navajo could offer me the use of land like that, but I wasn’t sure. I returned to my campsite and quietly went to bed, but I didn’t sleep a wink.

Over the next few years, Luke and I made a handful of non-climbing visits to the reservation (as well as one climbing trip). In general, none of the Navajos whom Luke and I talked to minded us visiting the reservation and recreating. Recreating tourists are the least of their problems.

In 1992, we made an automobile tour of the reservation and stopped in Todilto Park, near Window Rock. We stopped the car for a few minutes to admire Venus Needle, one of the better known towers of the desert. Luke Laeser and I knew—at least we thought we knew—that climbing was “off-limits” on the reservation. So, when a Navajo gentleman who lived at the base of the tower asked us from his front porch if we'd like to climb the shaft, we nearly flipped. The man’s name—we later learned—was Leo Watchman. He died in 1993. He had been a highly respected Navajo politician and was the former director of the Navajo Health Care Services. He lived in Todilto Wash and his family held the “grazing permit” to the area.

Watchman told us he could let us do the climb. More importantly, the Watchmans were simply happy that we’d talked to them. Many climbers had come to their land over the years, ignored them and climbed the tower. No polite “hellos.” No “may I”s. Not even a thank you—just a lot of climbers showing how rude they could be. Leo and his son, Leo Jr., also explained how tribal lands were set up, and that climbing was OK if climbers got the local landowners’ permission.

Before long, Luke and I had completed a new route on Venus Needle (AAJ, 1993, page 153), staying in one of the Watchmans’ houses and parking our two cars in the family compound.

Even though Leo Watchman was high up in the government and well respected by his people, I decided to call around and find out if what we had been told was correct. In an interview Nathaniel Boyd, a right-of-way agent with the Navajo Tribal Parks and Recreation Department, told me that while climbing is prohibited in certain places, such as Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley, it is not prohibited elsewhere. If a person is interested in visiting the reservation for climbing, Boyd recommended the official route, which is to ask for permission from the grazing-permit holders wherever the climbing objective is located, exactly what the Watchmans had told us. “A permittee,” said Boyd, “has domain over that land and is the person to ask for permission when seeking a climbing objective.”

After that, Luke and I went all over the reservation. We asked for and won permission from grazing-permit holders to climb a spectrum of virgin towers, including The Tombstone, an untouched pinnacle as tall as Moses Tower in Canyonlands National Park (AAJ, 1994, pages 61-3).

On May 7, 1994, Luke and I found ourselves at the base of Tse-Bit-Tai (Shiprock) itself and looked up a stunning, natural line on the east face. We went to work on the enormous buttress which lies just left of the Honeycomb Gully. The route had been attempted by Colorado Springs climbers Art Howells, Don Doucette and Steve Wilman in 1969, when they climbed five pitches before being blown off by a storm.

We were certain that Shiprock couldn’t be part of any Navajo’s grazing permit as there are no houses for miles around it, and the Parks and Recreation Department’s Boyd had never said anything about Shiprock. It was my blunder not to press him—or someone else—further.

Luke and I whacked pitons for four days. On May 10, while Luke was tapping bird-beaks into Pitch 6, a man rode up on a horse, a Navajo. “We have the resolution,” he called. “You're not supposed to be up there.”

“The grazing permit?” I called down.


We asked the rider if he wanted us to descend and leave. For a few tense minutes, he didn’t answer. He seemed angry. “Just meet me here at seven o’clock tonight,” he said. “We’ll talk.”

Luke and I descended, embarrassed that we hadn’t investigated the ownership of the monolith further. We felt truly ashamed. Luke suggested that we drive to the rider’s home. “This is the formal way to do it,” Luke said. “Let’s do it right.”

We arrived as he was putting his horse away. He squinted, trying to recognize the car. I stopped the engine and we got out. Then we apologized. We apologized and we apologized and we apologized. I must have said “I’m sorry” twenty times. The Navajo gentleman, Brandon Paul, was surprised. People climb Shiprock all the time and no one asks permission, and certainly no one apologizes either. Brandon accepted our apology and, after a few more minutes of discussion, gave us the go ahead to complete the route. We invited him along on the climb, but he didn’t want to go. His biggest concern was that we should be off Shiprock before May 14, when his family was hosting a peyote ceremony. He feared any noise we might inadvertently create.

Over the following two days and nights, as we worked on the route, Brandon hung out with us at the base of the wall. During that time, Brandon told us all about trespassing onto his land. He said that his own attempts to block off the access road to Shiprock had been stymied by tourists in trucks, pushing the boulders aside. He said he’d placed signs on the road, warning people away. Nothing had worked. Then he told about Ted Danson’s then-unreleased film, Pontiac Moon, shot at the base of Shiprock. According to Brandon, his family signed a contract with the company making the film for a sum to be paid for the use of the land. The company shot the film, packed up and left. The Pauls never saw a dime. At the time we were there, Brandon’s family was trying to bring a lawsuit against the company that produced the film. “The lawsuit,” he said, “was going nowhere.”

In return for letting us climb, we gave him five cans of beans, a can of motor oil (so he could start his generator and power his television) and $20 to let him drive to Flagstaff, Arizona to pick up his four children who would spend the summer with him. Luke and I decided Brandon’s shopping list of goods wasn’t enough. We suggested in return for letting us do the route, we clean up the hundreds of broken bottles smashed against the rocks at the base of the east face by beer drinkers and that we paint over sexist and racist grafitti. The worst eyesore was “Sheila,” a 20-foot by 20-foot nude, spread-eagled woman. Brandon laughed at the nickname and liked the idea.

We finished the route over the next three days, rappelling to the ground each night when electrical storms began drifting around the rock. Watching lightning hit the prairie 1000 feet below us from a belay ledge is one of the scariest things I’ve seen in a dozen years of climbing. From the haven of my sleeping bag at the base of the rock, I watched one lightning bolt blast the south summit, then arc across and blast the main summit, with red light scorching the tips of the pinnacles between.

Luke and I topped out on Friday, May 13. We had placed no bolts on leads and drilled only 18 holes, all of which were for bolts at the belay/rappel stations. About a dozen bolts had been placed by Howells, Doucette and Wilman, mostly on the first pitch.

Saturday was spent driving around Farmington, buying paint and garbage bags. My parents drove four hours from Los Alamos to help with the clean-up. After four hours’ trash pick-up, we left Shiprock the most satisfied we’ve ever felt after a climbing trip.

As far as climbing on the reservation goes, getting local grazing-permit holder permission is the key. In the late 1980s, Gallup climber Bob Rosebrough began undertaking a search that Luke and I had only recently heard about, but which paralleled our own research for the true regulations. Rosebrough, a lawyer, dug into Navajo annals to find that the basis for a “ban” on climbing on the reservation was a letter written by Charles Damon, director of Navajo Parks and Recreation Department in the early 1970s. Damon suggested a ban after the death of two climbers on Shiprock in 1970. However, Damon’s directive was only that, a suggestion expressing “it is the policy of the tribe to prohibit anyone from climbing any … monoliths.” Rosebrough conducted several interviews with lawyers in the Navajo Department of Justice only to learn that the letter was never backed up by any kind of legislation and that no ban officially exists, or ever has existed.

Indeed, in an interview with Damon himself, Rosebrough learned what Luke and I had found out through our own investigations. Damon suggested to Rosebrough that if he wanted to pursue climbing on the reservation, he seek permission at a local level, rather than the central tribal government.

And even if no ban exists officially, there is a court higher than any code books sitting on the shelves in either the white man’s or the Navajo Indians’ halls of power: it is the law of diplomacy and basic human interaction. Too many climbers go to the reservation, climb and leave, without so much as asking if they may. Some don’t even acknowledge the existence of the Dineh, or people, living there. Some climbers try to hide (always unsuccessfully) from their curious hosts.

Our philosophy follows that which dozens of Navajos have suggested to us, both on the reservation and off: if you go there, show respect, be polite and ask permission through appropriate channels. Talk to them, visit with them. You’ll find our two worlds aren’t so far apart.

At a journalism conference an 1993, the renowned Navajo journalist Valerie Taliman pointed out the obvious to me: that the Navajos are as curious about us as we are about them and that they hold many of the same values as the whites, including respect and common courtesy. “Treat us,” she said, “as you hope to be treated.”

Summary of Statistics:

Area: New Mexico.

New Route: Shiprock, “Friggin’ in the Riggin’ ”, VI, 5.9, A3+, 13 pitches to join the normal route, May 7-13, 1994 (Cameron Burns, Luke Laeser).