Climbing Mount Rushmore
On any other day, my colleagues and I would have been arrested for what we were about to do. And we’ve been told, if we ever try it again, we will indeed face charges from the Department of Homeland Security.
But that bit of nastiness just added to the excitement of what we were getting ready to do.
It’s that so few have ever done, or ever will do, what we were being invited to do. It’s the curiosity so many people have about it, the physical stamina required and the sheer unknown. It’s that on our first family vacation when I was 12 years old, this is where we came, and I thought it was the most remarkable thing I had ever seen.
My friends and I stood at the base of Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota, gazing up at the four faces carved into the mountain that is so much a part of our national identity. George Washington. Teddy Roosevelt. Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln. In a few minutes, we would be standing on top of their heads.
On rare occasions, federal judges, U.S. Senators and other powerful big wigs who can influence the National Park Service budget have requested and received an escorted tour to the top. And on even more rare occasions, the NPS has taken journalists to the top to talk about the eco-system, the maintenance of the famous monument, and more recently, about security to protect this national icon. But it is certainly an experience that is unmistakably off limits to the general public, until and unless a plan goes through to allow more climbing opportunities on these famous faces.
Since I’m not a U.S. Senator or a powerful big wig, I fall into the category of journalist. The Black Hills of South Dakota are among my husband and mine’s favorite North American travel destination. Their peace and beauty, their Native American heritage, all speak to us. So when this opportunity came along, we would have moved mountains (pun intended) to see the Black Hills from this unique perspective.
Occasionally Hollywood also has access to the top of Mount Rushmore. Think Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in the 1959 Hitchcock classic North by Northwest. Seriously, you can’t do what they did. The mountain just isn’t made that way. And there’s no house anywhere near the top of Mount Rushmore.
Nor is there a lake, like Nicolas Cage and cast “discovered” in National Treasure: Book of Secrets.
But Nicolas Cage and the entire filming crew climbed to the top of Mount Rushmore, exactly the way we did. And, I learned, we did it exactly as the original workers did who helped carve this granite mountain.
A Bit of History
Discussion began as early as 1924 on a monument in the Black Hills that would honor the great leaders of the United States. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who was at work on Stone Mountain Georgia creating a relief of leaders of the Confederate States of America, was soon selected to carve the mountain.
A couple of years of fundraising and legislative maneuvering ensued. Finally, work officially began on October 4, 1927. Exactly two years and 25 days later, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began.
With the introduction of the Works Project Administration (WPA) work resumed on Mount Rushmore. Workers earned an impressive $8 a day running jackhammers, drills and other chores.
From 1927 until 1941, nearly 400 people worked on Mount Rushmore, climbing the same path that we were about to climb. We were told they had races to the top each morning because they didn’t get paid until they reached their work stations. Some of the hardier young men could scramble up the mountainside and 700 additional steps in less than 10 minutes. It took us about an hour and most of us were really huffing and puffing.
When we learned that we would be allowed to visit the top of Mount Rushmore, I assumed there was a road or something up the back of the monument that was simply not visible to the public from the visitor center. More than three million people a year visit Mount Rushmore and I’ll bet you most of them think the same thing I did.
But nooo! First we signed our lives away on multiple forms saying that we would not sue the federal government or any of its employees in the case we fell to our deaths or otherwise incurred bodily harm.
Then, we simply took a walk along the boardwalk at the base of the mountain. If you’ve never been there, there’s a scene in National Treasure: Book of Secrets when Ed Harris is holding a gun on Helen Mirren and leads the entire troop around the boardwalk. That’s a rare bit of reality in that movie.
Three National Park Service employees escorted us and waited until there were no other visitors in sight. Then they opened a secret gate in the fence, hurried us in and told us to climb.
Again, I’m looking for a trail or something, but nooo! We just started climbing up. We clamored over boulders and grabbed on to trees for support. I slipped a couple of times on the pine needles covering the ground, but we kept moving.
Finally we stopped at a point in the tree cover about 20 yards or so from Abraham Lincoln’s beard. Our next steps would make us visible to those observing the mountain from the visitor center below and our NPS escorts wanted to minimize the concern that our sighting would cause.
“Get out there and run,” she said. And we did, making a mad dash to a metal staircase that is mysteriously hidden near Mr. Lincoln’s nose.
This next sounds a bit like a spy novel, but I’m not at liberty so say much more. Among the forms we signed were those preventing us from revealing too many details of what we saw. National security and all of that. My husband was restricted from taking photos of certain things.
But we climbed stairs and witnessed several security measures designed to protect this national icon in the event of a terrorist attack or other hostile activity.
We also saw mountain goats. Yep, right there under Abraham Lincoln’s nose. Mountain goats are not indigenous to the Black Hills. These are descendants from a gift of six mountain goats to nearby Custer State Park who escaped their pens, procreated and now have the privilege of picnicking with the presidents.
I was delighted to see the Hall of Records that Borglum was carving. He got in trouble for it from Congress for devoting too much time and energy to that. His vision really was to bring our national treasures to his mountain for safe keeping.
There were a number of rusted hand-crank winches that lowered workers over the sides of the mountain during the 15 years of work on the mountain. We also saw enough to answer any questions about the potential for adding another head to the mountain. Nope, no way. Ain’t gonna happen. There’s just no room.
We took stairs as far as we could and then inched our way around boulders and over some slippery surfaces and then all of a sudden, we realized where we were – standing on George Washington’s head, looking down Thomas Jefferson’s nose. Unlike those who worked on this mountain, we didn’t have any ropes or bungee cords to hold us in place.
We were at such an angle we could not see the visitor center below, and they couldn’t see us. But we could see for miles, almost to the Badlands about 50 miles away.
True story: While we were standing around taking pictures of each other, our friend Katy’s cell phone rang. Yes, there’s good cell reception on top of George Washington’s head.
So we made it back down safely with only sore muscles and a few bumps and bruises to show for our efforts, marveling in our experience and that for 15 years, more than 400 people played with dynamite on this mountain. No one got seriously hurt then either.
The work that was accomplished here on this granite mountain top at such a difficult time in global history is indeed remarkable. More than ever, we love the Black Hills and the magnificence they inspire.
More information, www.nps.gov/moru
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