Whose Rock Is It Anyway?

An Indian tribe wins the first round in a long fight with rock climbers

"There’s nowhere else in the United States with rock climbing like this," says Dave Schuller. "It would be a horrible loss not to be able to climb here anymore." The 30-year-old manager and part-owner of an indoor climbing gym in Reno, Nevada, stands inside a deep, natural alcove near the base of Cave Rock, a 250-foot-tall pillar of volcanic andesite that thrusts skyward on the southeast shore of Lake Tahoe.

The loss Schuller fears is a ban on all climbing at Cave Rock, which could go into effect when the Lake Tahoe Basin unit of the U.S. Forest Service makes a ruling later this spring. The possibility of a ban on climbing grew out of allegations by Washoe Indians, who say the area is their ancestral homeland and that Schuller and others commit sacrilege every time they touch Cave Rock.

The Washoe know the massive rock formation as De’ek wadapush, or Standing Gray Rock. And though white settlers and government agents drove them from the shores of Lake Tahoe more than a century ago and reduced their numbers to 200, the Indians insist De’ek wadapush remains a powerful, sacred site.

"For us, rock climbing trivializes the site for the sake of sport," says Washoe tribal chairman A. Brian Wallace, 45. The Washoe believe that only a few shamans, who have carefully prepared themselves, should ever visit the site.

Cave Rock is not exactly unspoiled, however. As Schuller starts to pull himself up the vertical rock face, the roar of car traffic muffles the sound of his exertions. Twin tunnels blasted through the heart of Cave Rock in 1931 and 1957 carry tourists to and from the casinos and hotels of South Lake Tahoe on four lanes of U.S. Highway 50.

The Washoe say that vehicles pass through Cave Rock so quickly that they have little effect on the inherent power of the site. "Climbing, on the other hand, provides an extended interface between individuals and the rock in which the power of the rock can be changed or altered," reads an October 2002 Forest Service environmental impact statement summation of the Washoe point of view. "Many Washoe view the placement of even a single climbing bolt as defacement."

Above Schuller’s head, like so many Christmas tree ornaments, dangle scores of "perma-draws," two-foot-long cables hung from bolts to assist climbers and provide safety. More than 300 bolts sprout from the overhanging walls, and the gray andesite is smeared with the white gymnast’s chalk climbers use on their hands.

Over the past 15 years, Cave Rock developed into one of the hottest sport-climbing locations in the country. Groups of climbers can be found here every summer weekend, virtually all of whom oppose the ban. "I would ask what [the Washoe] have done this century to demonstrate their respect for the site besides maintain a superstitious avoidance," the impact statement quoted one climber.

For the Washoe, who traditionally were warned to avoid the place, the rock’s dark power is potentially catastrophic. "We’re required to say a prayer before we even mention it," says Wallace. No women are allowed to visit Cave Rock; in days gone by, they were forbidden even to look upon it.

The Washoe believe that shamans who have undergone elaborate preparations lasting up to a month can absorb power from the rock. With this power they can deal with me’tsunge, frightening, troll-like creatures bent on wreaking evil. At the very sight of a me’tsunge, a Washoe might fall sick or become temporarily paralyzed. Only a shaman can turn the malevolent power into a protective force.

Today Washoe shamans still make the long pilgrimage to De’ek wadapush, although some have turned back at the sight of the rock face swarming with climbers. In 1999, the supervisor of the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin unit responded to the Washoe’s concern by outlining five alternatives, from prohibiting all non-Washoe from visiting Cave Rock to leaving it open to all. The Forest Service then held public meetings and invited written comments.

Climbers pointed out that they had cleaned up the site, which, by 1987, had become a hangout for teenagers. "It smelled like an outhouse," says Schuller, "full of beer cans, broken glass and campfire scars."

Following the hearings, the Forest Service recommended a compromise: climbers could continue to climb the rock but could not put in new bolts or establish new routes. The Forest Service would remove nonhistoric graffiti and ban all-terrain vehicles but permit hiking and picnicking. The Washoe refused to accept these terms. "In the long view, only the repatriation of Washoe homelands is acceptable," says Wallace.

In 2000, the appointment of a new Forest Service supervisor, Maribeth Gustafson, tipped the scales toward the Washoe. In the 2002 impact statement, she decreed a ban on climbing on grounds that it lessens the site’s historical value. Climbers responded predictably.

"We view a ban on climbing at Cave Rock as arbitrary, capricious and unconstitutional," says Jason Keith, policy director of the Access Fund, a Boulder, Colorado-based organization dedicated to keeping crags open to climbers. If the Forest Service finalizes the ban, as it’s expected to do, the fund plans to appeal the decision.

In the meantime, Brian Wallace and other Washoe cling to the belief they will someday repossess not only Cave Rock but all of Lake Tahoe. "Why not?" he says. "We’ve stared down extinction.

"We believe that eventually we’ll find our way home."

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