It’s June at the Tower. This month is a designated time for reflection and choice, brought to us by the NPS, the Constitution, and the former exclusive residents of the Black Hills. A decade or so ago, the Park Service did what Solomon could not, it divided the baby. Climbers wanted to climb the Tower without restrictions. Tourists wanted to see the Tower unadorned with climbing anchors. Native people wanted the Tower back, and if they couldn’t have that, they wanted climbers off the Mato Tipila altogether as climbing was felt to profane this sacred place.
In a brilliant compromise – by definition, a deal everybody hated but nobody felt that they could reject – climbing continued with some restrictions. No new bolts were allowed. Anchors were standardized to a low profile set-up. This kept the tourists happy. Signs directed the tourists and climbers to stay on the trails around the base and climbers were asked to stay off the Tower in June, the time of the solstice, when the Sun Dance occurs. This didn’t make the Lakota happy, but it tamped down their indignation enough that they signed on to the agreement.
Some of the climbers sued. This response was predictable and predicted. Political philosophy is circular, with the poles af any creed resembling each other in practice. So it is with anarchism and libertarianism, two vigorous traditions in the climbing community. Followers of those traditions were obligated to oppose restrictions on principle. Fortunately, traditions based on opposition to law don’t often fare well in court. For one thing, they have a problem with consistency, since that, too is a sort of limitation on personal freedom. In this case, the plaintiffs even made the dangerous assertion that restrictions on climbing violated the constitution’s ban on restriction of religious practice, as climbing was a spiritual pursuit. The assertion was dangerous because the suit was based on the accusation that the June ban on climbing amounted to a government agency promoting a religious practice. The court chose not to engage on that front, and in the end, the voluntary closure and the climbing management plan survived.
The status quo is not entirely healthy though. Native rites get respect thereby, but it’s the kind of respect given a dead relative disliked by the family in life. Despite the sad eyes and solemn words, if the deceased stood up and spoke again, no one would cheer. Native people deserve space, not just allowances.
The voluntary ban confirms climbing as profanity. Nobody can stop you from swearing, it implies, so we ask that you lower your voices and keep it away from the children. Climbing may not be religion, but it isn’t profanity. It is closer to art and I’ll be bold enough to say, art on the Death of a Salesman rather than the musical theatre end of the spectrum. Art deserves space too.
The missing piece is, of course, the Tourons. Climbers calling “On belay,” 200 feet off the deck are intolerably disruptive. Revving Harleys in the visitors center parking lot apparently are not. Of course those RV, motorcycle, and charter bus pilgrims don’t mean to intrude, they just don’t know any better. They constitute the majority of the voting public, and like the song says, this land is their land and the NPS doesn’t dare make any demands of them.
The NPS anticipated all this. It plans to educate its way out of the Yugoslavia it has created. I wish it luck, but a resolution will take more than the passive approach pursued so far. The NPS has focused on the tourists, who aren’t mad at anybody. The indians and the climbers have been left in their respective corners. Maybe Sarajevo felt a bit like this in the Tito era. Maybe it won’t blow up again during my climbing lifetime. I’m not sure whether to hope for that or not.