Dolt Photos - First Ascent of the Totem Pole


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Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Jun 19, 2013 - 02:02am PT
"sacred" is often not a permanent concept, actually.

Shiprock was called "sacred" at one time, but it really got closed initially because too many noobs were trying to climb it and kept needing rescues.
Later, Cameron Burns asked around and it turns out the people who had the grazing rights to the Shiprock area would permit climber access if you gave them something useful in return (like cleaning up broken glass at the base).

Cave Rock is another example - nobody paid attention for a long time, then somebody noticed climbers were having fun there and started complaining....

Social climber
An Oil Field
Jun 19, 2013 - 09:30am PT
Correct any incorrect info here, but I do know that the Navajos were extremely pissed off over Spider Rock being climbed in Canyon de Chelley. They have always had a story about the Spider Woman coming down and nabbing unruly children. I talked about it with a Chinle local once, and climbing Spider Rock pretty much destroyed the Spider Woman myth, and it is a myth that all of the locals have known for centuries.

Sure, the Navajo are modern, in the sense that this was a bedtime story to make sure the kids behaved, kind of like the bogey man.

I remember when Tom Cosgriff did Spider Rock. He told me that as they were climbing out of the Canyon, some locals were pushing rocks down on them, and they had to wait for them to leave. So I say that the problem with climbers all started with Spider Rock. I know for a fact that this was a huge abuse. To this day a non-Navajo can't go in there without a Navajo guide, which we were careful to use. We brought no alcohol in there either.

A weird but true fact:

We used to BASE jump in Canyon de Chelly totally legally. A white or non-Navajo can't go down into the two Canyons without a guide. Since Carl Boenish and friends did the first jumps in there, from the start they took a guide, as did all parties afterwards.

We would go out there and jump for a week straight, with our guide picking us up and driving us back to the exit point, even long after dark. One Thanksgiving, we were treated to a huge dinner of frybread and other good stuff in one of those little hovels in Chinle. The house had a whole bunch of BASE pictures on the walls, and they insisted that us 3 sit at the only table, while the women, kids, and old people sat on the floor to eat. It was very cool. So they liked jumpers.

We scouted the area thoroughly, and found one really nice spot, that probably hasn't been jumped since. We had to get the permission of a 90 year old woman who owned the little farm plot in the canyon floor. When we did the jumps, her kids put a big recliner in the back of a truck and came out to watch from below. It was cold, so they built a big fire and put the old woman, who didn't speak English, down by the fire in her recliner. She thought it was cool, or at least she was smiling about it.

They loved it.

We would go get our permits from the local park service, which was a small office, because the Navajo ran the place despite it being a national monument. Eventually the district ranger found out about the jumping and it was shut down. The main exit point still gets jumped, but now the locals make no money from us. The people are so poor there. We paid the old woman for the privilege of landing on her field, for example. So we were tight with the Chinle locals.

We asked permission and were very respectful. We wouldn't set foot on the valley floor without a guide. This is no longer possible due to the park service jack offs as far as BASE goes.

The Navajo were pretty cool. There is a lot of alcoholism on the res, but not among the ones we hung out with.

That went on for quite a while, and we kept it secret from all other jumpers, lest somebody go in there and blow it for everyone, which eventually happened.

Here is a pic of a group of us in Chinle with our guide. We always used this one guy. His name was Dan Staley, and he was super cool and explained all sorts of things about the canyons and their history, indluding when Kit Carson ran a whole bunch of Navajos up Canyon del Muerto and slaughtered them:

Don Lauria

Trad climber
Bishop, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Jun 19, 2013 - 11:36am PT
On our way to or on our way back from a San Juan river trip, Bill Russell and I visited Monument Valley.

All you had to do was tell Billy that driving to the base of the Totem Pole was prohibited and before you could blink we were there at the base. That's it! Then we went home.

Social climber
Jun 19, 2013 - 12:01pm PT
Nice story, Base104

The Navajos originally gave permission to climbers to climb Spider Rock and the Totem Pole. Climbers (and base jumpers, by the sound of it) were welcome.

As Clint suggest, one of the reasons for the climbing ban is the threat of a constant stream of climbers, every weekend. The Navajos could see how allowing access to all would depersonalize and cheapen the experience, destroy the ambience that surrounds the Totem Pole and Shiprock. It would destroy exactly what climbers came looking for (some of the Sherpas who live around Everest may now be regretting the circus they have enabled).

The Totem Pole, for instance, just three pitches, an easy guiding objective, would today be the same mob scene as Ancient Arts in the Fishers.

Not sure what the solution is. How about a requirement for all who want to climb Standing Rock, in addition to paying some kind of peak fee, to do what would effectively be a number of hours (20?) of community service on the rez, before climbing?

Social climber
An Oil Field
Jun 19, 2013 - 12:26pm PT
Yeah. Some of us have been happy that certain areas are illegal to jump.

It helps to keep away the riff raff for the hard cores who know how to do them on the down low. I can think of a number of objects like that, including El Cap, which I used to have dialed and was never even chased or seen, other than by climbers who I used to fly by under canopy. I would say hi to them if I knew them.

Climbers would never rat out a jumper back then. Now with cellphones and crowded El Cap, I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't call 911 on you.

That sucks. I hosted many of the biggest jumpers on the planet in the SAR site. Rangers never walked inside of the SAR site boundary. They would see things that forced them to fire everyone!

By the way, who did Troy Johnson climb Iron Hawk with?
Camster (Rhymes with Hamster)

Social climber
Jul 1, 2013 - 09:31am PT
Later, Cameron Burns asked around and it turns out the people who had the grazing rights to the Shiprock area would permit climber access if you gave them something useful in return (like cleaning up broken glass at the base).

What Brandon, the grazing permit holder, wanted was $20 and some motor oil so he could drive his car to visit his kids in Arizona. I suggested cleaning up the 6 garbage bags' worth of broken beer bottles and the awful graffiti on the boulders. He hadn't thought of that and probably couldn't have cared less. He said, "okay, good idea." Brandon ended up visiting us nearly every day we were on the route and ate dinner (pizza) with us each night. The weather at that point was really strange. Every day at about 3 pm the storms would roll in and lightning would blast down onto the prairie around Shiprock. So we'd bail, and go get Little Caesar's pizza in Shiprock. Fun times.
Slabby D

Trad climber
B'ham WA
May 16, 2014 - 12:17pm PT
Bump for awesome thread

Mountain climber
Tustin, CA
May 16, 2014 - 04:29pm PT
Great stuff - been reading Crusher's book about all the Spires (history) out that way!

Mountain climber
May 16, 2014 - 04:42pm PT
Enormocast podcast #55 is an interview with Eric Bjornstad including a discussion of the Totem Pole ascent and The Eiger Sanction filming.
the Fet

Feb 27, 2015 - 10:49pm PT
Bada BUMP!

How much more awesome could this thread be? The answer is none. None more awesome.
Todd Gordon

Trad climber
Joshua Tree, Cal
Feb 27, 2015 - 11:47pm PT

Totem Pole

Totem Pole
Mark Powell, who first climbed the Totem Pole back in 1956, described it as a "fearsome red shaft." Millions saw Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy "scale" the Pole in the Eiger Sanction, and millions more have seen it in many picture books and advertisements on the desert southwest. Bottom line is that it is probably the tallest, skinniest spire in the world. Looking up at it from the base will make you dizzy, and for a sandstone addict, it's the Mt. Everest...the El Cap of desert spires.

To say we were psyched for the climb is an understatement; we were definitely pumped up and had our climb planned to the smallest detail. The fact that the Pole is "sacred" to the Navajo and therefore off limits to climbers didn't hold any weight with us; for whenever $$$ was offered to the tribe for some commercial venture on the Pole, the spire instantly became "unsacred" and a sellable quantity. Remember Eiger Sanction? The IBM commercial with the secretary at the desk on top of the Pole? Hell, McGuiver even landed a hang-glider on the summit. Sacred...yeah, right.

Totem Pole

Our plan was to have Jim as designated driver, for his leg was in a cast from a nasty fall, so he wouldn't be joining us to climb anyways. Jim would drop our gear and us at the Pole parking area in the late afternoon, when no one was around, and we would sprint across the sand dunes to the base and fix a pitch. The next day we would get an alpine start, summit, and rap down all before 11:00 AM when the tribal loop starts to see traffic.

All went as planned except when we arrived at the base and started racking for the climb, Dave didn't have his etriers. Seems he'd used them as a leash to tie up his dog, and spaced them out completely for the climb. Oh well, we can share aiders, I suppose.

The first pitch started out with fairly straightforward aid climbing on small friends in a very overhanging dihedral. The next section was the dreaded wide section, and I had done my homework and was equipped with over-sized friends, which I stacked with small pieces of cut 2 by 4s of wood. First a big friend and one piece of wood...stand up on it easy...then a big friend and two pieces of wood; Damn, it's working! Soon we were up pitch one, and we rapped to the ground to bivy.

That night the wind picked up and blew so hard that our chances of climbing the next day seemed shattered. Wild and powerful gusts were actually pealing our sleeping bags out from under us, and sand flew like spindrift snow in violent churning blasts. Everything we owned had to be tied down like cargo on a ship in an angry sea, and the constant flapping of every fabric of our bivy gear lent to little sleep for our worried minds.

Totem Pole

At 4:30 AM, the wind was sub-gale force, so we decided to go for the gold. Jumaring in the dark, we were ready for pitch two at first light. Dave leap-frogged 2 ˝ friends for miles up a super-crack like hand slammer. It was amazing to see him work his way up this beautiful crack, three friends always close together inching up the crack, leaving many feet below him completely unprotected.

I led the last pitch up a very long bolt ladder. Two of the bolts were missing, so I tipped out pitons in the holes and held my breath. The position of the bolt ladder was so exposed and the sandstone rock soft enough that I felt that if one bolt failed, or one of the tipped pins ripped, the whole ladder would zipper and I'd surely die of fright. I was nervous and jittery and felt as if I was amped like a man who had consumed 50 cups of strong coffee.

Once on the summit, which is festooned with bolts from various escapades, we lay flat so as not to be seen and enjoyed our euphoric feelings of being on top of the Pole.

When it came time to descent, Dave could tell by just looking at my panicked face that he would have to go first. I'll admit that I actually begged him to go first and fortunately he took pity on me and my sincere terror. Dave must free rappel most of the pitch off the summit, then pull himself to the hanging belay by our fixed line. When Dave starts to rappel, the wind begins to blow him away from the spire, and at one point he was probably 40 feet away from the rock, like a kite on a string. Even with Dave controlling the rappel for me and pulling me into the stance, I don't believe I've ever been more horrified in all my life.

We had taken a bit longer than anticipated on the climb, and car loads of gawking tourists and Navajo guided tour buses were already cruising the loop, but we were oblivious to it all. We had just climbed The Pole. We knew it would be good, and we weren't disappointed. Dashing across the dunes, there was Jim in our get-away car.

Trad climber
Portland, Oregon
Feb 28, 2015 - 12:24am PT
Nothing has changed about the Navajo Nation's policy on the matter from the last time this came up when a guide cut a deal with a tribal member who didn't have authority to speak for the tribe.

Nov 8, 2006 - 03:37pm PT

March 7, 2006 Martin L. Begaye, 928/871-6647


Recent stories have disseminated information that Monument Valley will soon be opened to rock climbing. The provider of this information states that they are working with the Navajo Nation to negotiate an agreement that will allow them to start rock climbing expeditions in conjunction with a local Navajo Tour Operator.

As of this date, the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department, the resource manager of Monument Valley Tribal Park, is not negotiating with any company with the intent of authorizing rock climbing in Monument Valley. There had been a similar proposal about two years ago from The Access Fund, a national rock climbing organization, but this proposal was not favorably received by the local residents. Ray Russell, Department Manager, stated that “this proposal will likely meet the same fate and we would not be open to any activity that would desecrate the sacred significance of the rock formations under our charge.” The company promoting this proposal was informed of this earlier attempt and they were advised that getting the residents’ support was a first step but the final decision lies with the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department.

It is possible that the company may be working with the tour operator to promote this venture but the Parks and Recreation Department has not been formally approached with a written proposal. It is unlikely that authorization will be given in light of the unfavorable publicity already generated by the premature announcement.
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