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Dateline 1911: John Otto Climbs Independence Monument

Evening light shafts across Independence Monument and Monument at Colorado National Monument. Photo Stewart M. Green

One of the chapters in the book of climbing stories that I've been writing is about John Otto and the first ascent of Independence Monument in western Colorado in 1911.

When you climb Otto's "cowboy" route today, you follow in the chopped footsteps and empty drilled pipe holes of one of Colorado's first climbers. Otto's pipe route, now an amenable moderate climb up the 450-foot monolith, ranks as one of the great kooky ascents back in those days, ranking with the ladder of pounded stakes in cracks on the first ascent of Devils Tower by a couple cowboys on July 4, 1893. Is it something about the Fourth of July that attracts daredevil feats?

Anyway, here are the first three paragraphs of the story, entitled One Crazy Redneck, as a teaser.

John Otto was a nut case, well, almost a certified nut case. But Otto was out there—way out there in left field. He would fit right into today’s nomadic, dirt-bag climbing culture. Even though he had been committed three times to various asylums for mental breaks, Otto was harmless enough. He just talked a lot, wrote a prodigious number of letters to the editors of the two Grand Junction newspapers in western Colorado, and expressed some downright kooky ideas. He recognized that he was a different sort of a person, sometimes signing his letters with his name and the epigram “The World’s Greatest Radical of the Safe Kind.”

Otto’s last maniacal break was reported on the front page of the Grand Junction Daily News on February 2, 1908. The headline read: “MANIAC VOWS TO STOP SPEECH OF BUCHTEL.” Below that were two sub-heads: “Fruita Excited by John Otto, Who Suddenly Loses Reason” and “NOW SAFE IN JAIL.” According to the story, Otto went on a swearing rampage after learning that Governor Buchtel was slated to appear in Fruita. Otto reportedly said: “He shan’t speak here today. I won’t let him. I am going to speak myself down in the park and I’m going to get the best stenographer in town to take it down. I am going to have a time. We must celebrate about this. We must go and get some dynamite and take it up to my cañon and have a big blowout.” The mention of a threat to the governor coupled with dynamite set off bells and whistles and the sheriff was summoned to haul him away.

He was released from jail on February 24 after an insanity trail. The headlines proclaimed: “Otto, Found Harmless, Is Given His Freedom” and “Jury Liberates Monument Canon Guide Who Went Insane at Fruita—Has Been in Asylum Before.” After the prosecutor and Otto’s lawyer questioned him and other witnesses, the jury of six men deliberated for forty-five minutes before returning with the verdict that Otto was sane. Charges dismissed. The Daily Sentinel reported, “At first sight he would not impress anyone as being mentally imbalanced but approach him on certain subjects and he at once becomes wild in his statements.”

The two photographs are from Otto's Route. One is an image taken from the rim of Wedding Canyon looking over at Independence Monument in the center. Otto's Route climbs the sunny face and finishes up the south skyline ridge.. The other photo from 2007 is of Rob Masters, Brian Shelton, and CJ Sidebottom, and myself, of course, raising a toast of airplane spirit bottles to John Crazy Redneck!


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