TNB Night Owl – Dropping in on Devils Tower

Devils Tower National Monument.
Devils Tower National Monument. Photo by Walter Siegmund.

Most world records have been broken, usually multiple times. One record that has never been broken is George Hopkins’ parachute landing on Devils Tower National Monument. He remains the only man to have ever parachuted onto the one-acre top of the landmark tower in northeast Wyoming. Hopkins was a thrill seeker, a dare devil, a stuntman, an airshow wingwalker, and a professional parachutist. For a living, he jumped out of burning airplanes in flight while they were being filmed for movies, among other stunts.

In September, 1941, the highly experienced skydiver made a $50 bet that he could land on top of the monument, which as previously noted had never before or since been reached by parachute. Hopkins won the bet on October 1st. He could not, however, collect his winnings immmediately.

Devils Tower stands approximately 870 feet tall from base to plateau, with sheer cliffs on every side. The monument had been climbed several times before, the first time in 1893 — thirteen years before it became America’s first national monument — so it was certain a safe descent could be made. Once on top of the tower, Hopkins plan was to descend down the side by means of a thousand foot rope, which he would anchor at the top using a sledge hammer to pound an old car axle into the rock. The rope, sledge hammer, and axle were to be airdropped to him. Unfortunately, when dropped the package containing his escape plan went over the side, revealing a serious flaw in Plan A. Hopkins was now stranded.

The aircraft left and returned with a second thousand foot rope, sledge hammer, and old car axle. This time they landed on the summit without falling off the edge. Plan B appeared to be going better than Plan A, so far. The weather, however, had turned cold and wet, and the rope had become tangled and knotted when it fell. A further temperature drop froze the wet, twisted hemp solid. Hopkins couldn’t untangle it and gave up on Plan B in frustration. Meanwhile, warm clothes, food, drink, and survival gear were dropped to him. The National Park Service, under whose care the monument was entrusted, were notified of Hopkins’ dilemma. This news came somewhat as a surprise to the park rangers, as Hopkins had chosen not to ask permission to jump on their rock, fearing he’d be denied.

As authorities scrambled to find a way to get the trespasser safely down to ground level, the weather continued to worsen and the story made headlines across the nation. Among the offers of assistance that came pouring in, the Goodyear Corporation offered one of their blimps to rescue Hopkins. The airship was even on its way, but then forced to land due to high winds. Likewise, the US Navy offered to send one of their new helicopter flying machines, but again the weather kept them grounded.

Jack Durrance, an accomplished climber who had previously scaled Devils Tower in 1938, offered to assemble a rescue team. The park service readily accepted Durrance’s offer, but it took several days for the team of eight to arrive. The weather was so bad that aircraft weren’t flying, forcing the group to travel by train. Upon arrival, the climbers were greeted by sheets of ice coating the tower cliffs, making the climb more treacherous. When they finally reached the summit, the team found Hopkins in good health and spirits, ready to go. He had spent six days stranded on Devils Tower. Having landed up there an unknown, by the time he came down he was famous thanks to the national newswires.

Two months later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and the expert parachutist soon found himself instructing airborne infantry on the finer points of jumping out of airplanes.

1941 British Movietone newsreel,  “Parachute From Devils Tower” (1:31):

Question of the Night: Have you ever gone skydiving, or would you like to try it?

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About Richard Doud 622 Articles
Learning is a life-long endeavor. Never stop learning. No one is right all the time. No one is wrong all the time. No exceptions to these rules.