Introduction to the Devils Tower
The Devils Tower, also known as the Bear Lodge Butte, is a laccolithic butte composed mainly of igneous rock and is located in the Bear Lodge Ranger District of the Black Hills in Crook County, North-eastern Wyoming, in the United States of America. The height of this monument is 867 feet from base to summit with its summit rising to a height of
5,112 feet above sea level. The Devils Tower was the first US national monument established by President Theodore Roosevelt on the 24th of September 1906.
In 1875, Colonel Richard Irving Dodge led an expedition for geologist Walter P. Jenney through the Black Hills region. They were there to confirm claims of gold, first initiated by General George Armstrong Custer. Upon reaching the site Colonel Dodge was mesmerised by the rock formation describing it as “one of the most remarkable peaks in this or any country”. He recorded the name as ‘Devils Tower’ because his interpreter misinterpreted, the native name to mean “Bad God’s Tower”. That is how the name “Devils Tower” came into being.
The Native American names for the monolith include “Bear’s House” or “Bear’s Lodge”.
Formation of the Devils Tower
In the late 19th century, geologists Carpenter and Russell studied the Devils Tower and concluded that it was formed by the intrusion of igneous material but were unsure about how the process took place. In 1907 geologists Nelson Horatio Darton and C.C. O’Hara theorized that the Devils Tower must be the eroded remnant of a laccolith. A laccolith is a mass of igneous rock intruded through beds of sedimentary rock and never reaching the surface, but instead leaves a rounded bump in the sedimentary layers above. The igneous rock that forms the Devils Tower is porphyritic phonolite that was intruded about 40.5 million years ago. As the magma cooled, hexagonal columns formed each about six feet in the diameter. As the magma cooled further the width of the columns shrank and cracks occurred at the angles of 120 degrees, forming compact 6-sided columns. The Devils Tower did not visibly protrude out of the ground till the sedimentary rocks surrounding the landscape eroded away. Rain and ice continue to erode the sedimentary rocks surrounding the base of the Devils Tower and over a period more of the Devils Tower will be exposed.
Roots Beneath Devils Tower
In July 2017, a Facebook page claimed that the Devils Tower was actually the remnants of a giant tree. The article was posted by ‘Casper Planet’, claiming that the Wyoming State Parks Department had discovered a large network of roots beneath the base of the Devils Tower. The article went on to say that the parks department released a statement saying, “We have discovered, what looks like a giant root system stemming from the base of the Devils Tower. The root system has been measured at 4 miles deep by 7 miles wide. We are currently conducting studies and tests to confirm that this is actually a root system and not a coincidence.” The following picture was posted by the page along with this post:
The Facebook page ‘Casper Planet’ is an entertainment page and it was later revealed that there is no truth behind the article. The diagram of the root system used by the Facebook page was of a sweet corn root system with a label mentioning a depth of 4 feet into the ground. This label had been edited to read, 4 miles. Wyoming State Parks addressed the claim in August 2017, in a Facebook post that read as, “Wyoming State Parks did not, does not, has not and will not be participating in any kind of scientific study as claimed by this website, which is a fake account and has no basis in reality. Thanks for letting us know this was out there, we’ll handle it from here!”
Culture Coupled With the Devils Tower
The Devils Tower is held sacred by many Native American Indian tribes and there are many fables surrounding the formation of this gigantic rock. Two of them are mentioned below:
- According to the Kiowa and Lakota tribes, a group of girls were playing when they were spotted by several giant bears who began to chase them. The girls climbed atop a huge rock and got down on their knees to pray to the Great Spirit to save them. The Great Spirit heard their prayers and made the rock rise from the ground and towards the heavens so the bears could not reach them. The bears tried to climb the rock and left deep claw marks in the sides of the rock, which today are the marks that appear on the sides of the Devils Tower. Upon reaching the sky the girls were turned into the stars of Pleiades.
- The Sioux tribe tells a similar story of two boys who wandered from their village when Mato the bear, a huge creature with claws the size of tipi poles, spotted them and wanted to eat them. The boys prayed to Wakan Tanka, the Creator, to help them. They rose up on a huge rock which Mato tried to climb from each side leaving huge scratch marks as he did. Finally, the bear gave up, disappointed and came to rest east of the Black Hills at a spot that is today known as Bear Butte. Wanblee the eagle helped the boys off the rock and back to their village. This legend is depicted in a painting by the artist Herbert A. Collins and it hangs above the fireplace at the visitor’s centre of Devils Tower.
Climbing the Devils Tower
About 4000 of the 400,000 annual visitors amounting to only about 1% of the total have climbed the Devils Tower using only traditional climbing techniques. Climbing the tower has become more and more popular in recent years. But the initial attempts of the climbers to reach the summit were as difficult as they were engrossing:
- The first known ascent of the tower dates back to 1893 and is accredited to two local ranchers of the area, William Rogers and William Ripley. This ascent was accomplished by the two men by constructing a ladder of wooden pegs that they drove into the cracks in the rock face. A few of these wooden pegs are still visible to this date. Many climbers used these pegs over the next thirty years to climb Devils Tower till they fell into disrepair.
- Fritz Wiessner, William P. house and Lawrence Coveney achieved the first ascent of Devils Tower using modern climbing techniques. The entire ascent, led by Wiessner was free climbed, except for a single piton he placed which he later regretted deeming it unnecessary.
- In 1941, George Hopkins parachuted onto the Devils Tower as a publicity stunt because of a bet. He had intended to descend the Tower using a 300-metre rope, but the package which contained the rope, a sledgehammer and a car axle that was to be driven into the rock as an anchor point slid over the edge. A second attempt to drop equipment was attempted but due to deteriorating weather the rope became snarled and frozen and Hopkins deemed it unstable to descend. Hopkins was stranded on the Devils Tower for 6 days in the cold rain and 80km/h winds, till a mountain rescue team led by Jack Durrance, who had successfully climbed Devils Tower in 1938, reached him and brought him down. George Hopkins entrapment and subsequent rescue were widely covered by the media at the time.
Today hundreds of climbers scale the steep rock walls of Devils Tower every summer. There are many established and documented routes, the most common and popular amongst them being the Durrance route, established in 1938. All climbers are required to register with a park ranger before and after attempting a climb and no overnight camping at the summit is allowed.
Interesting Facts About the Devils Tower
- Devils Tower National Monument protects many species of wildlife such as white-tailed deer, prairie dogs and bald eagles.
- The Devils Tower was famously featured in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, which ended in a scene with an alien spaceship that descends upon the
the summit of the Tower.
- Devils Tower is sacred to many Northern Plains Indian tribes.
- Many believe Devils Tower to be an old volcano which is not true.