Following in Otto’s footsteps on Independence Monument

A couple of weeks ago, I climbed Independence Monument. It was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done.

I will admit that climbing “Otto’s Tower” was a thrill. I’m a dummy for doing it, but I’m not sure you ever feel as alive as you do when you believe your life is in jeopardy.

I came away, too, feeling a closeness and awe for John Otto, the man who first ascended the iconic spire a hundred years ago.

I’m not a climber. I haven’t climbed anything since that giant dead elm tree in my parents’ yard when I was 9. I’m not even a risk-taker. I have no interest in jumping out of airplanes or crossing raging rivers.

This is how I found myself standing atop that towering, narrow hunk of rock. A week or so earlier, my cousin, Stewart Huntington, called to tell me that he would be in the area and wanted to climb Independence Monument. He needed me to go along.

Not thinking, I said yes. I learned later that Stewart was an experienced climber, but I didn’t even know enough to ask that question. Besides, I had heard that loads of seemingly normal people climbed it every Fourth of July.

From a technical standpoint, Independence Monument is considered a “moderate” climb — not particularly challenging for an experienced climber, but still requiring proper equipment to scale it.

It’s approximately 500 feet high. The climb is made up of four “pitches” to reach the summit.

During the 2.5-mile hike in, Stewart described a lot of climbing terminology like “belay” and “carabiner.” I didn’t pay much attention, assuming (foolishly) that it would all make sense when I got there.

As we neared the tower, the reality of this endeavor started to dawn on me. I had worked in a 42-story building in Kansas City. I thought I was pretty darn high up there. This thing was eight stories higher than that. Sheesh.

I started paying attention to what Stewart was telling me, but it was too late.

I spent the next 30 minutes flopping off the top of a boulder at the base of the climb to learn how to rappel, so my first experience with it would not come dangling 500 feet off the side of a cliff.

Before I really knew what was happening, Stewart was climbing and I was belaying, meaning that he was counting on me to secure the rope in case he fell.

He had reached the top of the first pitch. Suddenly, it was my turn to climb. How did I get myself into this?

It’s important to note here that I was never in actual danger throughout this climb. I had a fixed rope attached to a harness secured around my waist and thighs. Stewart was on the other end, himself anchored. I was safe as a kitten, but actual security is little comfort to a raging sense of fear when you are scaling the side of a tower.

It’s an intimidating experience to face a wall of rock and decide that you are going to climb it. Momentum forced my hand, and soon I was working my way up the first face. Before too long, I had joined Stewart on a small porch. I was shaking and freaked out, but I made it this far.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of the experience is that, when you really feel you need a handhold or a toehold, you find that John Otto has carved one for you.

Otto climbed Independence Monument with no ropes, belay equipment or anchors. He pounded handholds and stakes into the sandstone over the course of years in order to make it. The stakes are long gone, but the holes are there — just the right size for two fingers or a toe.

Throughout the climb, one persistent thought dominated my mind (aside from sheer terror): what an absolute nut John Otto must have been.

Yet, I found myself thanking him throughout the climb. Thank you, John Otto, you nut, for that handhold, seemingly perfectly placed. Thank you for that step right where I needed it.

We had reached the final pitch. It’s completely exposed, like climbing a tilted grain silo suspended 400 feet off the ground. I couldn’t allow myself to look down or even think about what was below me. I focused solely on that next Otto hold.

The last heave is an overhang. From below, it’s incredibly intimidating. I watched Stewart attempt it from a few angles, his anchor 10 or so feet below him. He was careful and ultimately pulled himself over the lip.

I was mighty impressed. I turned off all the parts of my brain that were telling me not to go and started up. When I reached the overhang, I was so terrified, I just monkeyed up and over. High fives.

We walked around the summit for 10 minutes and took some (shaky) pictures. The summit is bigger than you might think — about the size of a tennis court.

The rappel down is a leap of faith for the first-timer. After some time screwing up my courage and quadruple-checking ropes and anchors, I eased off the side. As soon as you realize you’re safe, this becomes the fun part. Whizzing down the side of a cliff face, after such an ascent, is pure ecstasy.

As we hiked out of the canyon, I marveled again at Otto’s courage. He wanted that tower, and after years of working on it, he conquered it. I got to climb — literally — in his footsteps.

When I walked into my house and plunked myself in front of a screen of emails, at that very moment a new message popped up. It was announcing that Sen. Mark Udall and Rep. Scott Tipton would declare the next day that they were appointing members of the community to draft legislation to confer park status on Colorado National Monument.

I somehow knew John Otto was smiling.

Jay Seaton is the publisher of The Daily Sentinel.


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