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Washoe Tribe, Climbers Clash Over Rock


LAKE TAHOE, Nev. — They hurl their questions aggressively, aiming to discomfort:

How would you feel if teenagers slung ropes over the Western Wall in Jerusalem to practice rappelling? Or rock climbers took to scaling the steeple of the National Cathedral in Washington? What if dirt bike racers rumbled each weekend through the somber fields of Gettysburg?

How would you feel?

Indignant, maybe? Appalled? Incensed?

Good. Then the Washoe Indians who posed those questions have made their point. They have forced you to consider how they feel watching rock climbers crawl over one of their most sacred sites--a towering plug known as Cave Rock that juts up from the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe.

But before you sign on with the Washoe cause, consider the climbers.

They, too, revere the rock. From around the globe, they come to worship it in their own way, through sweat and strain, by hauling themselves up its steep, forbidding crags. Cave Rock offers some of the most challenging climbs in the world, and the athletes have marked each one by drilling 300 bolts into the landmark's surface.

And so two cultures stake claims to this one rock.

The Washoe want the climbers out. The climbers refuse to abandon their routes. Both sides are angry. And it's up to the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the rock, to figure out a solution.

In deference to the Washoe--who view Cave Rock as a potent source of spiritual power--the Forest Service in February ordered climbers to keep off the rock for the rest of the year.

The climbers threatened a lawsuit, arguing that the government cannot shape its policies to bolster any one religion--including the Washoe creed. Taken aback, Forest Service administrators agreed to reconsider their decision.

In the meantime, the rock remains in limbo. The Washoe and the climbers remain antagonists, their conflict fanned by nasty letters to the local paper and acid comments about who really loves the rock most.

As Darriel Bender, a Washoe elder, put it: "There is no middle ground."

Bender remembers journeying to the rock as a child. But he never got close enough to touch its spiny cliff. Few Washoe do.

For according to Washoe tradition, Cave Rock is so charged with spiritual energy that only certain elders dare approach it. And even they must tread with care. Bender recalls that his uncle, a Washoe medicine man, would spend days working his way to the top of the rock, pausing often for spiritual renewal.

Once he reached the sacred upper alcove, Bender's uncle would commune with the resident water babies--powerful spirits that live in Lake Tahoe--to replenish his healing powers. Sometimes he would stay two weeks, sometimes a month, from one full moon to the next.

All the while, Bender would wait on the shore beneath, awed by the rock's magic and majesty.

Because most Washoe, like Bender, paid homage to Cave Rock by keeping a deferential distance from it, they were not around to chase away the teenagers who adopted it as a prime party spot years ago. Nor were they around to clean up the sour beer cans and crumpled cigarette cartons that piled up every weekend in the caves the Washoe consider sacred.

So when climbers discovered Cave Rock about 15 years ago, they found it, quite literally, a dump. "That area was completely neglected by the Washoe tribe," said climber Tom Addison of El Cerrito, Calif.

Returning weekend after weekend to trace new routes in the jagged cliff, the climbers organized clean-up brigades. They carted away the rocky rubble in the caves and paved them over with smooth concrete.

By their reasoning, the Washoe should be grateful for these improvements.

Instead, Washoe leaders are furious.

In their minds, the 300 bolts that climbers have punched into the rock to hold protective ropes desecrate a sacred site. They take offense as well at the paving job, which covered over the ceremonial ground where Washoe shaman of old communed with water baby spirits.

Even the idea of climbing the rock for sport disturbs some Washoe. Experienced climbers scurry up the strenuous routes in just a few minutes--then shimmy down to start up another path. On a sunny weekend, 10 climbers might be clinging to various handholds, each attacking a different route. Such blithe scrambling all over Cave Rock seems to mock the cautious, respectful and solitary way Washoe medicine men approached the site.

"The activity [of climbing] itself trivializes the site as a cultural symbol," Penny Rucks, the Forest Service's heritage resource manager, noted in a recent report. "Climbing on Cave Rock is as appropriate as climbing on the Washington Monument."

The climbers find it frustrating to fight such emotional analogies. But fight they do.

They argue that no one group can claim exclusive rights over a natural wonder like Cave Rock, especially because the federal government owns the site. "This is a place for everyone to enjoy," one teenage climber wrote in a letter to the local paper.

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