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a The actual “Tribal Ban Letter.” The declaration would mark a veritable end to the go-go days of first ascents in Monument Valley and within the Navajo Nation. AAC Library

Tribal Ban

The finest (arguably) and most historic (certainly) desert towers are situated on the Navajo Nation. Jerry Gallwas was given permission for climbing Spider Rock and the Totem Pole. During the 1960s, as more climbers visited, banging pitons, drilling holes and leaving shiny bolts, the Navajos became increasingly disenchanted with these visitors, particularly around the busy Monument Valley area. In particular, as its aura of difficulty vanished, Shiprock became a very popular climb. With popularity came, inevitably, accidents and rescues, with which the local Navajo police were not properly equipped to deal with. In 1971 came the official letter, shown here. It was sent to Steve Roper, editor of the magazine Ascent and, at a time long before the existence of the Access Fund, de facto one-man climbing access negotiator.

The Navajo Nation allowed one final ascent of the Totem Pole, by Eric Bjornstad and Ken Wyrick, as part of the filming of The Eiger Sanction. The climbers had to remove every bit of hardware on the tower—bolts, pitons, slings, register and even the tiny summit cairn—as a condition of being allowed to climb. Universal Studios also paid several thousand dollars for the privilege of climbing the Totem Pole.

The prohibition drove would-be ascensionists of the Totem Pole elsewhere, or underground. For better or worse, a tradition of occasional stealth ascents of Navajo Reservation desert towers (by the semi-mythical Banditos, and others) have become an intrinsic part of the desert-climbing story.