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Up in the air

Cave Rock's future hangs in the balance of past and present.

September 09, 2003|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

South Lake Tahoe, Nev. — TO the Washoe Indians, Lake Tahoe's Cave Rock is sacred ground -- so sacred that only tribal shamans are allowed to visit it. The rest of the tribe has orders not to go near.

For rock climbers, the cave is a secular sanctuary, one of the best sport climbing sites in the country. Its killer routes have nicknames like "The Slayer" and "Super Monkey."

The culture clash has brought on a protracted and unholy battle for access to the 250-foot tower of volcanic andesite on Lake Tahoe's south shore, a few miles down the road from the gaudy casinos that hug the Nevada side of the lake.

But after years of haggling, public hearings and acrimony, rock climbing at Cave Rock is to be banned later this month, by order of the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service says it's got nothing to do with sacred ground, that it's a decision based on the best way to use the land.

But climbers call it rank discrimination because other activities, including hiking and fishing, will still be allowed on and around the site. And they dismiss the notion, put forth in the Forest Service decision, that Cave Rock is akin to the Statue of Liberty as a cultural symbol of the indigenous Washoes, whose tribe numbers about 1,500. If that's the case, the climbers ask, why did they find Cave Rock littered with beer cans and other trash left by partying teens when they began climbing there in 1987?

"Some people say it's the Indians versus the climbers," said Mike Reeves, an ardent climber who led the way up the steep path to the cave last month. "The climbers have no problem sharing this space. The climbers just want to work a way out."

Reeves had to speak loudly to be heard over the din of traffic rushing through the two highway tunnels below the cave, which were bored through Cave Rock -- one in 1931, the other in 1957 -- as part of the U.S. 50 expansion. And the view of the lake, however spectacular, includes lines of motorboats waiting to roar off from Cave Rock State Park, just a stone's throw away.

But the Washoes contend that Cave Rock is critical to the beliefs and identity of the tribe, which was almost wiped out during the California Gold Rush. They believe that the rock, which plays a key role in Washoe mythology, is charged with spiritual energy that gives tribal elders healing powers. They say climbing trivializes the site.

"It's related to the small and the big of everything we're about," said longtime tribal chairman Brian Wallace. "It's central to our existence as a race of people."

The controversy dates to 1987, when climber Jay Smith began developing sport-climbing routes around Cave Rock and saw that the most challenging were inside the cave itself, where the overhanging wall was difficult for even the best climbers. But the cave needed a lot of work.

"There was nothing up there but garbage and pigeons," said Smith, who now lives in Castle Valley, Utah. "I didn't see any evidence of the cave section being used for any kind of ceremony."

The climbers cleaned up the mess and began -- in their minds, at least -- to make it a better place. Legendary climber Dan Osman began tiling the cave floor with rocks and cement hauled up from below.

In 1997, the U.S. Forest Service banned rock climbing after complaints by the Washoes. That decision was rescinded three months later in the face of a threatened lawsuit by the Access Fund, a national climbing advocacy group.

Since then, the fate of Cave Rock has been mired in bureaucracy. Then, last July Maribeth Gustafson, the U.S. Forest Service supervisor for the Lake Tahoe Basin, issued the Cave Rock decision that barred climbing, saying it was detrimental to the site. She also said the Forest Service would try to return Cave Rock to its state when Washoe shaman Henry Rupert died in 1965. That eliminates not only rock climbing, but also college classes and bungee jumping.

The Access Fund has yet to weigh in. Executive Director Steve Matous said one stumbling block has been that the Washoe tribal leaders have refused to discuss the issue face to face.

"It's OK to disagree," he said. "But you've got to at least talk to each other. We've been completely rebuffed by the Washoes."

The 300-odd climbing bolts will be removed, as will the floor that Osman built. Osman died in 1998 at Yosemite National Park while performing his specialty -- diving off huge cliffs at the end of a rope. At a memorial service, his ashes were scattered at a spot sacred to him -- Cave Rock.

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