At dawn, the photographer sees an opportunity. As the first rays of light illuminate the striated patterns in the protruding butte before her, she positions her camera on a tripod, sets the timer and dashes into the foreground before the shutter opens and closes. She calls her picture “Rock and Awe.”
Fifty million years ago, the butte was formed when molten magma was forced into sedimentary rock above it. As the magma cooled, it contracted and fractured into columns. Since that time, erosion of the sedimentary rock has exposed today’s butte, which rises 867 feet from its base and stands 5,112 feet above sea level. Geologists call this type of formation an igneous intrusion.
A different story of the butte’s creation is told by the Kiowa people, who first looked upon it thousands of years ago: “One day, seven little girls were playing at a distance from their village and were chased by some bears. The girls ran toward the village, and the bears were just about to catch them when the girls jumped on a low rock, about 3 feet high. One of the girls prayed to the rock, ‘Rock, take pity on us, rock, save us!’ The rock heard them and began to grow upwards, pushing the girls higher and higher. When the bears jumped to reach the girls, they scratched the rock, broke their claws and fell on the ground. The rock rose higher and higher, the bears still jumped at the girls until they were pushed up into the sky, where they now are, seven little stars in a group (The Pleiades). In the winter, in the middle of the night, the seven stars are right over this high rock. When the people came to look, they found the bears’ claws, turned to stone, all around the base.” The Kiowa call this rock Tso-aa, which translates to “Tree Rock.” Other Native tribes in the region call it “Bear Lodge,” “Bear’s Tipi” and “Bear’s Home.” More than two dozen American Indian tribes, including the Kiowa, Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, Lakota and Shoshone, call the rock a sacred site.
When Colonel Richard Dodge was sent to the Black Hills region in 1875 to confirm reports of gold and to survey the area, he saw the butte and called it Devils Tower. White settlers followed, and on July 4, 1893, William Rogers and Willard Ripley climbed the tower with the aid of a simple stake ladder and raised the United States flag as more than 1,000 onlookers cheered from below. Thirteen years later, President Theodore Roosevelt called Devils Tower a national monument. In so doing, the state of Wyoming became home to both the nation’s first national park—Yellowstone in 1872—and the first national monument in 1906.
A few decades later, Fritz Wiessner of the American Alpine Club led a team of three in the first recorded free climb of Devils Tower in 1937. Since then, rock climbing has gained in popularity as a sport. The large hexagonal columns created by hundreds of parallel cracks make Devils Tower one of the finest crack climbing areas in North America. Today, some 5,000 climbers a year from all over the world come to scale the Tower.
This rock of many names holds different meanings for different people. Depending on one’s point of view, it’s a unique geological formation, a sacred site, a monument, a physical challenge and even a photographic pursuit. These varying points of view can overlap, and they also can clash. Those who consider it sacred, for example, view climbing on the rock as disrespectful and a desecration of the site. Those who climb intend no harm in what is an allowed activity on public land.
As the photographer explores this unusual landscape, she sees that her perspective of this prominent butte changes when viewing it from its base, from afar or while standing in someone else’s shoes. Perhaps, she muses, the rock teaches all who view it to see the multitude of meanings found not only here but also everywhere in the world.