Rising high above the prairies of the Blackhills stands a tower of astounding geological feature. Considered sacred by indigenous people, it’s an impressive and striking monument against the flat lands of Northeastern Wyoming. Hundreds of parallel cracks make it one of the finest climbing areas in North America, and for decades this remarkable wonder has drawn daredevils and thrill seekers alike, all hoping to stand atop the tower’s flat summit.
One person, though, took a very different approach, one that hasn’t been attempted since.
On this episode of America’s National Parks Podcast, the man who spent six days trapped atop Devils Tower National Monument and the attempt to rescue him.
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In the fall of 1941 professional parachutist, George Hopkins struck a unique wager with his friend Earl Brockelsby. Brockelsby bet Hopkins $50 he couldn’t parachute down and land on the flat summit of Devils Tower. It was a feat that had never been done before and Hopkins, who had a reputation for breaking records with his thrillseeking jumps, eagerly accepted the bet.
Parachuting into strange places was nothing new for Hopkins. His latest stunt would have him setting the record for the most jumps in one day, and a pre-publicity Devils Tower jump seemed like the perfect way to raise awareness. In the end, things didn’t exactly go the way, Hopkins planned.
Letting only a few local reporters in on his plan, under the condition they would not publish his story until the jump was complete, Hopkins took to the sky on the morning of Oct. 1, while a car full of people watched from below,
The plan was to land upon the one-acre top, then descend using a 1,000-foot rope which would drop from the plane after him. Hopkins exited the plane, flew through the sky, and hit his mark, but his rope did not. It landed just out of reach on the cliff face, effectively leaving the parachutist marooned on Devils Tower.
With no option for escape, National Park Service officials were brought in to rescue Hopkins from the cold, windy summit, but exactly how that would be accomplished was anyone’s guess.
While debating what to do with this man stuck on top of Devils Tower, newspapers around the country began picking up the story, and letters from concerned citizens, corporations, and even the military began arriving with suggestions for rescuing Hopkins. The Goodyear Company offered to loan the use of a blimp, while the Navy offered the use of a helicopter.
Airplanes dropped food, water, and warm clothing over the Tower, even a bottle of whiskey, which Hopkins claimed was for “medicinal purposes.” A new rope was attempted but that too didn’t go according to plan. After landing, it became tangled and later froze due to wind, snow, and condensation atop the rock. Try as he might, Hopkins couldn’t get the knots out of the 1,000 feet of frozen rope.
After a few days of discussion, Jack Durrance, one of the earliest technical climbers to scale Devils Tower, offered to lead a rescue party. The park service accepted. The problem was, Durrance was in Dartmouth, so a plan to get him to the tower, and quickly, had to be put into place.
In the end, bad weather forced Durrance to travel by train, which meant Hopkins would be stranded for at least a couple more days.
On October 5, Durrance and his party arrived at the monument and began laying out a safe climbing route for rescue operations. The following day, he led seven other climbers to the summit of Devils Tower where they found Hopkins who, in spite of his ordeal, was in good spirits and excellent physical condition. The team descended down quickly and with minimal difficulty.
Hopkins described his ordeal saying, “I bet I counted the big boulders on that damned mountain peak a thousand times, and I gave ‘em all names you couldn’t print if I told you what they were.”
George Hopkins ended up spending close to a week stranded on top of Devils Tower before Durrance could arrive and assist him down. During the six-day period nearly 7,000 visitors came to witness events first hand, events that started all because of a $50 bet.
“I had my hand out fishin’ for the dough when I hit the ground,” Hopkins said. “Earl paid off.”
Within a few months following the Hopkins episode, the United States entered World War II. National Park Service sites saw very little visitation during the war years. Hopkins would go on to work with the military training the new airborne infantry divisions for the war. It is believed he set his world record as he taught other young men to safely jump and land using a parachute.
Today, nearly 6,000 climbers come to Devils Tower to scale the 867 feet from its base to the summit. Climbing is voluntarily closed in June out of respect for the spiritual and cultural significance of the tower. Over twenty American Indian Tribes consider Devils Tower a sacred place. Activities and ceremonies occur in the monument throughout the year; however, the month of June is an especially meaningful time for traditional tribal ceremonial expression.
Designated in 1906 as our first National Monument, Devils Tower continues to be a popular destination for National Park enthusiasts and during the busy season, parking can be difficult, so plan to get there early if you can.
There is a seasonal first -come-first served campground with 43 RV pull-through sites and 3 group tent camping sites. Large cottonwood trees provide much-needed shade from the summer heat. There is no electric or sewer, and drinking water is available at designated water spigots. If full-hookup RVing is your thing, there are several private campgrounds outside the park.
The park is open year round, and so is the visitor center, however, operating hours vary with the seasons, so its best to call before you go.