Ship Rock: What to Know About This Sacred Navajo Peak in New Mexico

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 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.

How Ship Rock Got Its Name

The formation was called The Needles by explorer Captain J. F. McComb in the 1860s for its uppermost pointed pinnacle. The name, however, didn't stick. Due to the peak's resemblance to 19th-century clipper ships it was called Shiprock, Shiprock Peak, and Ship Rock. The rock formation has been called Ship Rock since at least the 1870s, based on its appearance on a map from that time. The town nearest to the rock mountain is also named Shiprock.

The Legend of Ship Rock's Formation

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 Navajo people 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.

The Diné 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 battle. 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, partly because of its sacred status but that's not the only reason. There were no access problems for the first 30 years of its climbing history but a tragic accident that resulted in a death on Ship Rock in 1970 caused the Navajo Nation to ban rock climbing on their land. 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 despite the ban.

Ship Rock Geology

Ship Rock is the exposed neck or throat of a long-vanished 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 called 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. The Ship Rock we recognize today was originally formed between 2,460 and 3,280 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 pioneering technical climber Robert Ormes who attempted Ship Rock several times.

After a failed attempt in 1936, Ormes decided that the best route to the summit was via the Black Bowl. He returned the next year with a larger experienced team but took a 30-foot fall when a foothold broke. He was saved by a single piton, 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 and again turned back. Ormes later wrote of the attempts and his fall in a 1939 article titled "A Bent Piece of Iron" published in the Saturday Evening Post.

1939: First Ascent of Ship Rock

In October 1939, a crack team of California climbers 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 people 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 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 climbing by the use of expansion bolts was 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.

Article Sources
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  1. The Climbing Zine. "A Culture of Climbing: An Interview with Len Necefer." Jan. 27, 2019

  2. United States Geological Survey. "Other Volcanic Structures: Plugs (Necks)." Feb. 4, 1997.

  3. New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources. "The Ship Rock Landform." Accessed May 17, 2022.

  4. Bestor Robinson, Sierra Club Bulletin. "The First Ascent of Shiprock." Feb. 1940. Page 2.