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a Not your standard-looking climber. John Otto poses with two burros in the early 1900s. AAC Library

John Otto

Most of the obvious, classic mountains and summits of the West were easily climbed. But a few appeared frighteningly unclimbable. In a country where ropes were used for lassoing livestock, not ascending steep cliffs, an enterprising Scot ascended California’s Half Dome in 1875 by drilling large holes and installing hefty bolts and fixed cables. A few years later, a pair of Wyoming ranchers erected a spindly wooden ladder, anchored with wooden dowels hammered into cracks, up the flanks of Devils Tower. In the same spirit of Western self-reliance, John Otto, in 1911, climbed a sandstone desert tower, using techniques he had learned as a hard-rock miner. He would cut steps in the rock and—when it got really steep—drill a large hole, insert a long, heavy iron pipe, sit on the pipe and drill another hole. He continued upward and upward, for 400 vertical feet. He summited a couple days into July, which suggested a name for the formation: Independence Monument.