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Flag Day 1911: John Otto Climbs Indy

Rob Masters, Brian Shelton, and CJ Sidebottom toast John Otto on the summit of Independence Monument in Colorado. Photo @ Stewart M. Green

Flag Day. June 14, 1911. We salute you, John Otto, pathfinder, patriot, trail-builder, first superintendent of Colorado National Monument, climber, and crazy bastard, on your first ascent of 450-foot-high Independence Monument.

Otto was a cheerleader and prolific letter writer who almost singlehandedly got Colorado National Monument preserved and protected. After President William Taft signed the park into being, Otto was appointed custodian of its 13,583 acres for the grand sum of one dollar a month. Otto was a tough SOB, building most of the monument's trails with a pick and shovel and the occasional stick of dynamite. He lived in a tent in Monument Canyon for 30 years, except for a few summers when he built trails on 10,000-foot Grand Mesa.

John Otto set about climbing Independence Monument by building a pipe ladder to the summit. Two-inch-wide holes were drilled a foot deep with a handheld miner's drill. Pipes were an assortment of sizes picked up at a Grand Junction scrap yard.

The Grand Junction Daily News described John Otto’s work in a newspaper article: “Inch by inch, foot by foot, daring intrepid John Otto, creeping up the giant sides of Independence Monument, the highest and most noble eminence of rock in all Monument Canon, rising a sheer 557 feet from the base of the summit. He writes The News that he expects to reach the top before the end of the present week. It is a perilous piece of work he is doing and he should receive great recognition for his feat when he reaches the summit.”

“He is calm about his work and takes it easily, never rushing, just keeping at it steadily, ceaselessly, working toward his goal. He will be the first man, white, red, or black, ever to set foot on the great obelisk, and it is doubtful if many will ever venture to the summit, even when the ladderway is completed. The view from the top will undoubtedly be awe-inspiring and somewhat terrifying."

After completing the pipe ladder, Otto finally flew the Stars and Stripes from the summit of Indy. In the chapter about Otto's ascent in a book of climbing tales that I'm working on, I wrote: "On Flag Day in mid-June, an honor guard carried the flag to Otto at the base of the tower. He scrambled to the summit, tied the flag to a pole, and hoisted it into a drilled hole on the northern edge of the table-flat summit. People below cheered both the grand flag and John Otto as Old Glory flapped in the summer breeze. A rain squall passed overhead as Otto began descending his pipe ladder and spectators below watched agape as he cautiously stepped his way down the slippery rungs."

Years later I sat on Indy's summit with Brian Shelton, Rob Masters, and CJ Sidebottom and we toasted Otto's amazing feat with mini-bottles of whiskey. Yep, here's to you Otto. You were one crazy redneck!

Brian Shelton, belayed by Bana McMaster, leads the last pitch of Otto's Route on Independence Monument in Colorado National Monument. Photo @ Stewart M. Green

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