Blame it on Cary Grant. The climactic chase in Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest, in which he and Eva Marie Saint are pursued by foreign spies around the faces of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, is what fixed the idea in tourists’ imaginations. Today the first question out of many visitors’ mouths is not why, or even how, Mount Rushmore was carved, but can they climb it. Actually, it’s not such a far-fetched question. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s 1935 conception for the monument called for a grand public stairway leading from the base of the mountain to a hall of records, behind the presidential heads. But when the artist ran out of quality granite, and the project ran out of money, the plan was shelved. Climbing on the memorial has been officially prohibited since work ended there in 1941. In fact, even Hitchcock had to shoot his famous chase scene on a replica built in a Hollywood studio.
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Which is why a special invitation from the park superintendent to “summit” Mount Rushmore is not something one can easily turn down. Early one morning, I and several other lucky hikers silently followed park ranger Darrin Oestmann on a trail through a sweetly scented ponderosa forest in the Black Hills of South Dakota, listening to birdsong and the cracking of twigs from passing goats. Scattered along the path were rusting nails, wires and lengths of air compression pipes, all left by the 400 or so local laborers who from 1927 to 1941 followed this very route, by wooden stairs, on their Promethean task.
Oestmann paused to point out a rarely glimpsed view of George Washington’s profile, gleaming in the morning light. Mount Rushmore has not looked so good in more than six decades. This past summer, the four presidents were given a high-tech face-lift; they were blasted with 150-degree water under high pressure. Sixty-four years’ worth of dirt and lichens fell from the memorial. “Now the faces are whiter and a lot shinier,” said Oestmann, who helped clean “about three quarters of the first president. You see that dot in Washington’s left eyelid?” He pointed to a broken drill bit stuck in the stone. “You could hardly see that before.”
About ten minutes later, we scrambled up a few steep boulders and squeezed through pine branches, then passed beyond a high-security fence. Near-vertical metal steps took us into a granite crevice that runs behind the presidential heads—an oblong sliver, looking like the secret entrance to a pharaoh’s tomb. This, we are told, is the Hall of Records, the vault Borglum envisioned. The hall was to be a repository for the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Worried that generations from now people might find Mount Rushmore as enigmatic as Stonehenge, the sculptor also wanted to store information about the four presidents, as well as a record of American history and an explanation of, as he put it, “how the memorial was built and frankly, why.”
The vault was never finished. Today, it’s an ever-narrowing passage, honeycombed with drill marks, that stretches about 80 feet into the rock. Still, in 1998, Borglum’s wish was partly fulfilled when the park service placed a teak box in a titanium cast in a hole they drilled at the hall’s entrance. The box contained 16 porcelain panels covered with historical data, including a biography of the artist and his struggles to carve the memorial.
But the highpoint of the climb was yet to come. As Oestmann led us up the last steep stairway, we burst from the shadows into brilliant sunshine—on top of George Washington’s head, 500 feet above the visitor center and 5,725 feet above sea level. As I wandered jelly-kneed over to Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s white pates—thankfully, their tops are relatively flat—the exhilarating view across the craggy, pine-covered Black Hills seemed never-ending.
Gutzon Borglum first stood on this spot in August 1925, when the memorial was still a half-formed dream. The idea for a titanic public sculpture came from South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson, who hoped it would lure more tourists—and their dollars—to the remote and impoverished state. The Black Hills, which boasted some of South Dakota’s most spectacular scenery, were the obvious location, and in mid-1924 Robinson invited Borglum, one of America’s leading sculptors, to create it. It was a fortuitous choice: he was an obsessive artist and consummate showman, by turns inspired, energetic, egotistical and abrasive, who despite his success (he was one of the first American sculptors to have work—two pieces—purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) still yearned for a project that would earn him immortality.
Dismissing Robinson’s idea that the sculpture should feature Western heroes such as Lewis and Clark, Chief Red Cloud and Buffalo Bill, Borglum decided to carve the presidents, and he arrived in Rapid City with great fanfare that summer to search the rugged landscape for the optimal site. The cliff-face of Mount Rushmore seemed to offer the best granite and the best setting: a sunny, eastern exposure. In mid-August 1925, the sculptor, his 13-year-old son, Lincoln, and Robinson traveled with a local guide on horseback to the mountain to climb it to get a closer look. Standing on the summit, Borglum gazed out on the Black Hills and seemed—if only for a moment—humbled by the undertaking.
“I was conscious we were in another world...,” Borglum later wrote. “And there a new thought seized me...the scale of that mountain peak.... It came over me in an almost terrifying manner that I had never sensed what I was planning.” At age 58 the artist was contemplating a work nearly as ambitious as the ancient Colossus of Rhodes without any secure source of funding in a location unreachable by road. Its creation would be an epic battle, not only against nature, but against government agencies controlling the purse strings.
Oestmann calls our attention to red plotting points around Lincoln’s eyes and green numbers along his hairline—revealed during preparation for the memorial’s cleaning. He offers to take my photograph perched on Jefferson. “Don’t go any farther back,” he warns, as I maneuver cautiously into position.