It’s 5:30 a.m. as I set foot on the Monument Canyon Trail in Colorado National Monument. Here, on the Western Slope, the Uncompahgre Plateau drops away in an abrupt series of cliffs and canyons that spill down to the Colorado River. The Book Cliffs sit in the distance to the north, silhouetted against the brightening sky. Tiny specks of light flicker awake as residents begin to stir in the Grand Valley town of Fruita. My destination is Independence Monument on what couldn’t be a more fitting morning: July 4, 2008.
I’ve come to meet up with Mesa County Search and Rescue’s 12-member Technical Rescue Team and 20 or so other people whose collective goal is to climb the monument—a soaring, 450-foot-tall monolith of sandstone, the surrounding national monument’s tallest freestanding spire—and raise an American flag atop it in honor of our nation’s birthday. Our route to the top is one of the classics of sandstone spire climbing in the American West: Otto’s Route. It rates a moderate 5.9 on the Yosemite Decimal System. It was once a 5.8, but weathering—and numerous climbers—have eroded some of the holds in the soft sandstone, increasing the route’s difficulty.
We begin our hike in the relative cool of twilight for two important reasons. Today’s high temperature is forecast to exceed 100 degrees, and none of us wants to be on top of the rock baking in the sun in that kind of heat. More important, we have a tight schedule to keep. Later this morning, hundreds of spectators will gather to watch us from the overlooks on Rim Rock Drive, which parallels the edge of the plateau. At 11 a.m., a pair of buglers on the “mainland” canyon rim will play the “Star-Spangled Banner” as we raise an enormous flag, in essence turning Independence Monument into the world’s tallest flagpole. It’s an annual ritual that has played itself out here for almost 100 years.
Colorado National Monument, the flag-raising tradition, and my presence here are all thanks to one man: John Otto, the climbing route’s namesake. Otto settled in Monument Canyon in 1907 and lived there in a tent for about 20 years. He was many things—climber, civilization-averse outdoorsman, trail builder, and, notably, patriot. Otto named many Colorado landscape features, such as Liberty Cap and Independence Monument, in honor of the old U.S. of A. And he had an interesting compulsion to raise the Stars and Stripes.
Otto raised one of his first flags on Liberty Cap—a whitish rock formation that resembles a Hershey’s Kiss—in 1909. But he had grander ambitions—particularly an ascent of the still-unclimbed Independence Monument. Employing tactics that would horrify today’s climbers, he chopped, chiseled, and drilled his way upward, cutting steps in the soft sandstone and anchoring steel pipes to aid his ascent. In 1911, Old Glory flew atop Independence Monument for the first time. That same year, the rugged country surrounding the spire was preserved as a national monument, thanks largely to Otto’s efforts to have it protected.
Otto served as the new Colorado National Monument’s first superintendent, accepting the position for $1 per month. His flag-raising tradition atop Independence continued for nearly 20 years, until he was fired from his post as superintendent in 1927 (the eccentric Otto reportedly didn’t take direction from Washington, D.C., very well) and moved west to California to live out the remaining 20 years of his life. The practice of hoisting the flag then lapsed for many decades, until Grand Junction-area climbers resurrected the tradition in 1990. Many of those same climbers went on to form the foundation of the Technical Rescue Team, which in 2006 began hosting the flag-flying climb as its annual fund-raiser, escorting paying members of the public up the monument.
Today I’m at the base of Independence, staring up at its sheer sandstone heights, ready to climb. The first pitches of the route pass with relative ease, and soon our army of climbers is a continuous string of ants inching its way upward. The final pitch is the real payoff. We clamber up a series of steps cut by Otto into the sandstone and grasp the drilled holes that once held Otto’s pipes. Then there’s the crux: I surmount the overhanging caprock with nearly 450 feet of air pulling at my heels. Looking up, I realize I have nowhere higher to go.
Other climbers soon join me. There’s Linda, a rescue team member who got married atop this spire years ago. And there’s Ray Farrell and his son. Farrell’s grandparents, John and Carolyn Peach, climbed the monument in the 1930s, making Farrell and his son the third and fourth generations of the family to complete the climb. There are hearty high fives and cheers as each person reaches the top. In the midst of the revelry, one person, referring to John Otto, says, “That guy had cojones.” Indeed. Imagining him up here with his comparatively primitive equipment, I can’t help but feel a mixture of awe and respect. And a sense that maybe he was a little crazy.
With everyone on the summit, we erect the flagpole, and then unfurl and raise the flag. It waves majestically in the scorching sun and hot breeze. The distant sound of horns playing the national anthem spans the void between our rocky foothold and those watching us from afar. And just like that, our mission is complete.
A series of rapid-fire rappels brings us back to terra firma. As I slide down the ropes, admiring the route we’ve just climbed, I can’t help but note that on Otto’s Route I touched the holds that Otto once touched, thus linking us across nearly a century.
Hightailing it down the trail en route to the car, I’m anxious to get out of the oppressive heat. But just before I reach the mouth of Monument Canyon, where Independence Monument recedes from view, I look back. The red, white, and blue flies high on the summit while ominous black thunderclouds roll in. There’s a bright flash of lightning, and then a strong crackle and rumble—nature’s own fireworks to complement this Independence Day celebration.
Peter Bronski is an avid rock climber and frequent contributor to 5280. His book, Powder Ghost Towns, was published in late 2008 (Wilderness Press). E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.