Ship Rock: Sacred Navajo Peak in New Mexico

Ship Rock Facts and Climbing History

Shiprock at Sunrise, New Mexico
Sumiko Scott / Getty Images

Ship Rock is a dramatic 7,177-foot-high (2,188-meter) rock mountain located in northwestern New Mexico about 20 miles southwest of the town of Shiprock. The formation, a volcanic plug, rises 1,600 feet above a barren desert plain south of the San Juan River. Ship Rock is on Navajo Nation land,  a self-governing territory of 27,425 square miles in northwestern New Mexico, northeastern Arizona, and southeastern Utah.

  • Elevation: 7,177 feet (2,188 meters)
  • Prominence: 1,583 feet (482 meters)
  • Location: Navajo Nation, San Juan County, New Mexico.
  • Coordinates: 36.6875 N / -108.83639 W
  • First Ascent: First ascent in 1939 by David Brower, Raffi Bedayn, Bestor Robinson, and John Dyer.

Ship Rock Navajo Name

Ship Rock is called Tsé Bitʼaʼí in Navajo, which means "rock with wings" or simply "winged rock." The formation figures prominently in Navajo Indian mythology as a giant bird that carried the Navajo from the cold northlands to the Four Corners region. Ship Rock, when viewed from certain angles, resembles a large sitting bird with folded wings; the north and south summits are the tops of the wings.

Ship Rock's Name

The formation was originally called The Needles by explorer Captain J. F. McComb in 1986 for its uppermost pointed pinnacle. The name, however, didn't stick since it was also called Shiprock, Shiprock Peak, and Ship Rock, which is its name on a map from the 1870s, because of its resemblance to 19th-century clipper ships.

The town nearest to the rock mountain is named Shiprock.

The Legend

Ship Rock is a sacred mountain to the Navajo people that figures prominently in Navajo mythology. The primary legend tells how a great bird carried the ancestral Navajos from the far north to their current homeland in the American Southwest.

The ancient Navajos were fleeing from another tribe so shamans prayed for deliverance. The ground beneath the Navajos became a huge bird that transported them on its back, flying for a day and a night before landing at sunset where Shiprock now sits.

Diné, the people, climbed off the Bird, which rested from its long flight. But Cliff Monster, a giant dragon-like creature, climbed onto the Bird's back and built a nest, trapping the Bird. The people sent Monster Slayer to combat Cliff Monster in a Godzilla-like battle but in the fight, the Bird was injured. Monster Slayer then killed Cliff Monster, cutting off his head and heaving it far to the east where it became today's Cabezon Peak. The monster's coagulated blood formed the dikes, while grooves on the Bird drained the monster's blood. The Bird, however, was fatally injured during the great battle. Monster Slayer, to keep the bird alive, turned the bird to stone as a reminder to the Diné of its sacrifice.

More Navajo Legends About Ship Rock

Other Navajo myths tell how the Diné lived on the rock mountain after the transport, descending to plant and water their fields. During a storm, however, lightning destroyed the trail and stranded them on the mountain above sheer cliffs.

The ghosts or chindi of the dead still haunt the mountain; Navajos ban climbing it so the chindi are not disturbed. Another legend says Bird Monsters lived on the rock and ate humans. Later Monster Slayer killed two of them there, turning them into an eagle and an owl. Other legends tell how young Navajo men would climb Ship Rock as a vision quest.

Ship Rock Is Illegal to Climb

Ship Rock is illegal to climb. There were no access problems for the first 30 years of its climbing history but a tragic accident that resulted in a death in late March 1970 caused the Navajo Nation to ban rock climbing not only on Ship Rock but on all Navajo lands. Prior to that, Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly and The Totem Pole in Monument Valley were closed in 1962. The Nation announced that the ban was "absolute and unconditional," and was due to "the Navajo's traditional fear of death and its aftermath, such accidents and especially fatalities often render the area where they occur as taboo, and the location is sometimes henceforth regarded as contaminated by evil spirits and is considered a place to be avoided." Climbers have, however, continued to climb Ship Rock since the ban, often obtaining permission from the local grazing holder.

Ship Rock Geology

Ship Rock is the exposed neck or throat of a long-vanished volcano, which is the solidified feeder pipe of the volcano that erupted over 30 million years ago. At that time lava or molten rock came up from the earth's mantle and was deposited on the surface of the mountain. Evidence suggests that the lava explosively interacted with water and formed what geologists call a diatreme or a carrot-shaped volcanic vent. The United States Geological Survey calls Ship Rock "one of the best known and most spectacular diatremes in the United States." The neck is composed of various kinds of volcanic rocks, some deposited in cracks in the diatreme after it cooled. Erosion later removed the upper layers of the volcano as well as surrounding sedimentary rocks, leaving the erosion-resistant rock mountain behind. Ship Rock's volcanic plug as seen today was deposited between 2,000 and 3,000 feet below the earth's surface.

Ship Rock Volcanic Dikes

Besides Ship Rock's unusual size as a volcanic plug, it is also famed for numerous rock dikes that radiate out from the main formation. The dikes formed when magma filled in cracks during volcanic eruptions and then cooled, forming the long distinctive rock walls. Like Ship Rock, they gained prominence when the surrounding bedrock was stripped away by erosion. Three main dikes radiate out from the main formation to the west, northeast, and southeast.

Rock Formations

Ship Rock is composed of fine-grained volcanic rocks, which solidified in the vent as the volcano cooled and became inactive.

Most of the formation is a combination of a pale yellowish tuff-breccia, composed of angular rock fragments welded together. Dark dikes of basalt were later intruded into cracks, forming dikes in the formation as well as a few large areas like the Black Bowl on the northwest side of Ship Rock as well as the radiating long dikes. Much of the exposed rock surfaces on Ship Rock are crumbling and often unsuitable for climbing. Extended crack systems are rare and are hard to climb with rotten, brittle rock.

1936 - 1937: Robert Ormes Attempts Ship Rock

Monolithic Ship Rock, towering above the desert floor, was one of the main objectives of American climbing in the 1930s. In the late 1930s, there was a rumor that a $1,000 prize awaited the first ascent team but all failed, including Colorado climber Robert Ormes who attempted Ship Rock several times with Dobson West between 1936 and 1938. Besides Ship Rock's technical difficulties, the big problem for Ormes and other suitors were route finding dilemmas.

After a failed attempt, Ormes decided that the best route to the summit was via the Black Bowl. In 1937 Ormes returned with a larger experienced team but while attempting a crack system up a basalt dike, took a 30-foot leader fall when a foothold broke. A single piton held the fall, bending it in half. Two days later Ormes returned with Bill House, who had held his fall, but the pair was unable to solve the difficulties of what is now called the Ormes Rib since they didn't know aid climbing techniques and again turned back.

Robert Ormes later wrote of the attempts and his fall in an article entitled "A Bent Piece of Iron" in the Saturday Evening Post in 1939.

1939: First Ascent of Ship Rock

In October 1939, a crack California team composed of David Brower, John Dyer, Raffi Beayan, and Bestor Robinson drove from Berkeley, California to Ship Rock with the intention of becoming the first to climb the formation. On the morning of October 9, the climbers ascended the west face to a prominent notch called the Colorado Col below the scene of Ormes' fall. The team searched for an alternative to Ormes' Rib, finding a circuitous passage which required rappelling down the east side of the notch, then traversing across the northeast side of the peak.

After three days of climbing (returning to the base each night) they surmounted the Double Overhang and climbed the bowl above to the base of the final problem on the Middle Summit. Bestor Robinson and John Dyer aid climbed up a steep crack system below the Horn by pounding pitons into the expanding crack. At the top of the pitch, Dyer lassoed the Horn and hand-drilled an expansion bolt, their fourth one, for a belay anchor. Another difficult pitch leads to easier climbing and the untrodden summit of Ship Rock.​​

First Bolts in American Climbing

Ship Rock is the place where the first expansion bolts were placed in American climbing. The party carried a handful of bolts and hand drills to protect rock sections that had no cracks that would accept pitons. Four bolts were placed - two for protection and two for anchors. In the 1940 Sierra Club Bulletin, a magazine published by The Sierra Club, Bestor Robinson wrote, "Lastly, and with some concern over the mountaineering ethics of our decision, we included several expansion bolts and stellite-tipped rock drills. We agree with mountaineering moralists that climb by the use of expansion bolts as taboo. We did believe, however, that safety knew no restrictive rules and that even expansion bolts were justified in order to secure the firm anchorage that would present a serious fall from imperiling the lives of the entire party." Besides bolts, the party brought 1,400 feet of rope, 70 pitons, 18 carabiners, two piton hammers, and four cameras.

1952: Second Ascent of Ship Rock

The second ascent of Ship Rock was on April 8, 1952, by Colorado climbers Dale L. Johnson, Tom Hornbein, Harry J. Nance, Wes Nelson, and Phil Robertson. The team took four days and three bivouacs to climb the peak.

First Free Ascent of Ship Rock

1959: The first free ascent of Ship Rock was on May 29, 1959, by Pete Rogowski and Tom McCalla during the 47th ascent. The pair free-climbed Ormes' Rib, which had been aided (5.9 A4) by Harvey T. Carter and George Lamb in 1957. The Rib is now rated 5.10. The two also found a bypass around the Double Overhang and also climbed the Horn Pitch without aid climbing.