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The Man Who Carved the Mountain and Me

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I don’t think I really slept that night after Richard Manning’s writing workshop. I walked out of the classroom fuming. Pissed, really, is what I was. But I had poured too much into that essay over the last weeks just to take Manning’s feedback on the chin. What did he know about climbing, anyways? What did he know about my Black Hills? What did he know about me?

Let me back up and explain. During graduate school, I had the chance to take a semester-long writing workshop with Richard Manning, a giant in environmental journalism in the West. Manning writes on topics ranging from fracking to bison reintroduction to wildfire management. I once taught a course centered almost exclusively around his seminal work, Rewilding the West.

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I was the first student to offer up a piece of writing and place it on Manning’s butcher block, and I was nervous. Despite being in his late 60’s, Manning has lost none of the salt and vinegar that continues to win him awards in investigative journalism. He made it apparent on day one of the workshop that there would be no kiddy gloves in his classroom, no glancing blows, and certainly no pulled punches. Manning would be throwing haymakers, and we had better be ready to get knocked to the duff if we failed to take the job of writing seriously.

I took an idea for an essay centered around my climbing in the Wrinkled Rock Climbing Area on the backside of Mount Rushmore and ran with it. I put in the hours. I was not going to get knocked to the duff.

Mt. Rushmore. Photo: Luke Wenker.

In the essay, I held myself up against Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor charged with the carving of Mount Rushmore, in order to bring to light the ways in which my relationship with the land as a rock climber had an intimacy and fidelity that Borglum’s as a carver of mountains lacked. I wrote with pathos about my revulsion towards the tourist horde that clogs the roadways and shatters the silence of the Hills just for a look at four dead super patriots chiseled into the side of a sacred Lakota mountain and a taste of Benjamin Franklin’s ice cream. I wrote about how the act of climbing is akin to a loving embrace. I wrote about how the Great Spirit—a figure of great importance in Lakota cosmology—felt present to me in this place, and how it certainly must have smiled upon my exploits.

It embarrasses me now to even summarize this piece of my writing.

Manning waited patiently for the other students in the class to take their turns criticizing my work. And then he knocked me to the duff.

He asked me how the Oglala-Lakota on the reservations feel about my climbing in the Black Hills. He asked me whether those who climb with me tend also to be young, straight, white men. He asked me how I can afford my expensive gear and to take time away from work. He asked me how I reconcile the damage inflicted on the granite by the hammering of pitons, the drilling of bolts and anchors, and the pulling off of loose rocks with the notion that climbing is akin to a loving embrace.

And then he hit me with this final haunting line: “This story is not about how you and Gutzon Borglum are different. It’s about how you and him are more alike than you’re willing to admit.”

Photo: Luke Wenker.

It has taken me the better part of a year to come to grips with what Manning did to and for me. Humiliation is like a puncture wound, healing on the surface far more quickly than in the deep tissue, and highly prone to infection. I think I have managed to treat my wound appropriately over this last year, checking on it often and occasionally cleaning out any traces of necrosis that I detect. I feel better now, not quite intact but more acutely aware of my own composition. And so I’ve come to regard Manning’s haymaker as something of a gift, one I seek to pay forward.

We as climbers—and as recreationists more broadly—need to do better. I have attended climber coalition gatherings in western Montana and South Dakota hoping to find a space for airing some of the questions Manning asked me during that workshop, and I have been disappointed. I even prepared a presentation concerning what it might mean to adopt a climbing ethic for a coalition in Missoula in hopes of sparking a discussion. The conversation quickly degraded to an airing of grievances about how the “cronies in the Forest Service” are discriminating against local climbers in favor of supporting other interest groups. Most of the time, these groups conflate ethics with laws and regulations, and therefore adroitly overlook or ignore the many defects embedded in our community’s unexamined ethos.

We as climbers need to be willing to ask ourselves and each other some hard questions about our sport and the set of statements we make when we climb. We need to take on the responsibility of becoming familiar with the deep history of the crags we frequent, acknowledging that the majority of them were and remain sacred sites to indigenous peoples around the world. We need to learn to read our crags like palimpsests—as layered landscapes expressing many stories written over and around one another at once. As climbers we must be willing to interrogate our relationships with these places that we visit for a complex set of reasons, and to be wary of how much of our sense of self is constructed upon shaky foundations. If we fail to think and to act in light of the immense social and historical forces still at work among the spires, then we are no better than the man who carved the mountain.

I say all of this not as one who knows the answers to many of these questions, but as one who thought I knew and was made to realize I do not. I harbor no illusions about our capacity as a community to “solve” these questions and these very real problems of enduring privilege and colonialism, but I do believe we can climb in better faith having asked the questions at all.

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