Rising up from the flat, dusty, New Mexico desert, it’s hard to miss the imposing and mysterious Shiprock. At over 7,000 feet tall, it’s no wonder that the strange formation (actually the remains of a 27-million-year-old volcano) attracted the wonder and curiosity of humans for centuries. The rock was sacred to the Navajo people, who called it the “Tsé Bitʼaʼí”, or “the rock with wings”. According to legend, it’s all that remains of the giant bird that carried the Navajo from the north to New Mexico.
As the stories go, the original Navajos lived on the rock, only coming down from its peak to plant and water their crops. One day, when the men were off the rock, lightning struck it, leaving them no way to get back to the top, or for the women and children to come down for food and water– and one of the reasons that it’s forbidden to climb the Shiprock is that the Navajo fear that the ghosts of thoses stranded will be disturbed.
Navajo legend also places the rock in the context of the entire landscape. Shiprock is said to be the medicine bag or bow carried by a giant, mythical, man-like being, whose body is made up of various mountain ranges and peaks. There’s also another legend that says that flesh-eating Bird Monsters lived atop the Shiprock. One of the two Warrior Twins, Monstery Slayer, killed two of the Bird Monsters and turned one baby Bird Monster into an eagle, and another into an owl. The rock is even mentioned in various chants and ceremonies.
Of course, the rock holds interest for more than just the Navajo people. Since the early 20th century, people have been intrigued by the idea of climbing the Shiprock– the first ascent occurred in 1939. It’s a confuddling and technically difficult climb, with various routes recorded, each more challenging than the last. It doesn’t really matter anymore, though, since climbing the rock has been outlawed by the Navajo, who own it, as the rock is sacred to them. At the end of the day, adventurers who’d like to conquer the rock will have to gaze up at it from below and wonder about the ghosts, bird monsters, or other mythical beasts might be hidden at its peak.