What goes up must come down is a principle that bends the paths of pop flies and footballs, but when a parachutist named George Hopkins stepped from a small plane over northeastern Wyoming early on Oct. 1, 1941, gravity was only partly served.
Hopkins, 30 but looking younger, could have been the archetypical Dead End Kid—tough, boastful, a swaggering 5'7" and 118 pounds—only he came from South Dakota not Hell's Kitchen. On a $50 bet he parachuted onto the top of Devils Tower—and he couldn't get down.
According to Sioux legend, Devils Tower was created by the Great Spirit, who lifted the plug of rock more than 1,200 feet above the Belle Fourche River Valley to save three Indian maidens being pursued by bears. The bears, great brutes, tried but failed to reach the elevated maidens. Instead, the bears slipped and fell to their deaths, leaving a lasting signature—claw marks that give the rock its distinctive, fluted surface. After the bears died, the legend goes, the maidens slid down on a rope of wild flowers.
An escape similar to that of the Indians' was what Hopkins intended. The plane made a second pass over Devils Tower and dropped him rope, a pulley, an axle and a sledgehammer, but they fell to a ledge beyond Hopkins' reach. Another rope was dropped. Bull's-eye! But it fell in an enormous Gordian knot that Hopkins couldn't untangle.
Undaunted, he toyed with the idea of clambering down. Among the few observers gathered at the base of the cliff was Newell F. Joyner, custodian of the Devils Tower National Monument. Someone asked him how long it should take the chutist to reach the bottom. "About five hours," Joyner said, "unless he slips."
Joyner wasn't amused by Hopkins' stunt, performed as much to publicize a parachute-jumping exhibition in Rapid City, S. Dak. as to win a bet. "My first consideration will be for Hopkins' safety," he told a reporter. "My second will be to take steps to prevent any recurrence of this event."
Hopkins reconsidered climbing down almost immediately. He may have been a fearless chutist—indeed, he was a former RAF parachute instructor—but he was no mountaineer. He shouted down that it looked too tough, and he retreated to his aerie to work again on the rope. After a while the sun set, the wind came up, and it began to snow.
By the next day, Thursday, several missions had been flown over the Tower to drop food and supplies to the chutist. Joyner summoned two mountain climbers, Ernest Field and Warren Gorrell, from Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado to see about rescuing poor Hopkins. But Hopkins wasn't faring too badly; the United Press reported that he spent that night "curled up with a bottle of liquor at his side and an army field tent over his head." The liquor had been supplied after Hopkins tossed down a note requesting it "for medicinal purposes."
Field and Gorrell arrived and made their way through a picnicking crowd that grew in size each day Hopkins was marooned. Newspapers across the country were picking up the story, the biggest of its kind out of Wyoming since the grasshopper plagues of the '30s, and it made a nice change from the war headlines usually splashed across Page One.
After scrambling up the 400-foot-high mound at the base of the Tower, Field reported that he and Gorrell found themselves "gazing straight up some 800 feet to a nonchalant Hopkins perched on the rim of the Tower's top."