She clung to the sheer rock face barefoot with no safety ropes or climbing gear in sight. To her left, the enormous stone head of George Washington protruded from the side of the granite mountain. An equally impressive likeness of Thomas Jefferson boxed her in from the right. About 15 feet above her was the top of Mount Rushmore.
National Park Service officials said it was at this point that Alexandria Incontro finally stopped climbing last Friday when she illegally scaled the historic sculpture while visiting the monument in South Dakota with her family, according to federal court documents.
On Monday, the 30-year-old from Omaha, pleaded guilty to climbing Mount Rushmore, records said. She was fined $1,000 and given a $30 fee.
“Ms. Incontro seemed like a nice person who was ‘having a day’ as it were,” her lawyer, Thomas Harmon, told The Washington Post in an email late Tuesday.
A Park Service spokeswoman declined to comment on the case, but said in an emailed statement that there are “clearly marked closed areas to provide for the safety of the public and to protect this national icon. Anyone entering a closed area is subject to arrest.”
The calls came pouring in shortly after 7 p.m. on Friday, according to an incident report. A person had gone beyond the barrier intended to keep visitors away from the sculpture and past the bright orange warning signs, witnesses reported. The woman was starting to scramble up the massive pile of loose rocks at the base of the sculpture.
When a federal officer and park ranger arrived, the unruly visitor, later identified as Incontro, was already steadily ascending, the report said. The ranger told Incontro to come down and she responded by saying something like, “Do you want me to come down fast or slow?” She then proceeded to keep climbing, officials said.
The officer and ranger followed Incontro, trailing behind her as she climbed higher and higher without shoes, gear or safety equipment, the documents said.
By the time the officer got close enough to Incontro to speak with her again, the climber had managed to reach the lofty spot between Washington and Jefferson. The imposing monument that bears the carved faces of four former presidents sits near the top of Mount Rushmore, which has an elevation of 5,275 feet.
“From my perspective, she appeared to be on a vertical rock face approximately 15 feet from the top of the sculpture,” the officer wrote in the report.
The pair talked for “several minutes,” before the officer said she was able to convince Incontro to reverse course and come back down the mountain.
Incontro’s risky climb left her with scrapes on her arms and legs and minor injuries to her feet, the report said. She was arrested and charged with climbing the monument, violating a closure or public use limit, trespassing on property not open to the public and failing to obey a lawful order. On Monday, after Incontro pleaded guilty to the climbing crime, prosecutors dismissed the other charges.
The mother, who was at the park with her two young children and more than a dozen family members, is just the latest person venture past the boundaries at Mount Rushmore. Since the sculpture’s completion in 1941, scores of people ranging from protesters to curious park visitors have tried to get on or near the granite faces.
In the 1970s, Native American activists occupied the monument at least twice, protesting violations of the Fort Laramie treaties, which left areas west of the Missouri River to the Lakota tribes, or Sioux.
“At Mount Rushmore, we went right to the top: These are our treaty rights, we own that land, and we’re going right to the top, man!” American Indian activist Russell Means said in a 2009 interview. “Four white men up there, and I peed on George Washington’s head — one of the proudest moments of my life. Right in front of God and everybody.”
More than a decade later, Mount Rushmore became the site of another protest when members of Greenpeace attempted to display banners over the carvings to call attention to acid rain. Five activists hiked up the back of the sculpture using a trail intended for park maintenance, but were stopped before they could unfurl the signs, one of which was a gas mask that was meant to go over Washington’s face, the Rapid City Journal reported. According to the Journal, the group became the first people to serve jail time for violating the national memorial’s no climbing and trespassing rules.
But the punishment appeared to have little effect on the organization. In 2009, Greenpeace activists returned to the monument and successfully hung a banner next to the face of Abraham Lincoln that called for more aggressive action against climate change, The Washington Post’s David A. Fahrenthold reported. This time, three people managed to reach the ridge above the sculpture and rappelled down the front with the banner.
The daring climbers and eight other activists present at the national park were arrested. The group had to pay more than $30,000 and its members were forced to do community service, a news release announced in 2010.
Following both Greenpeace incidents, security at the park was scrutinized, resulting in millions of dollars in improvements, the Journal reported.
Still, people continue to end up on Mount Rushmore and there are at least several incidents each year, park officials have said.
“People are drawn for unknown reasons to disregard the regulations and climb up the sculpture,” park spokeswoman Maureen McGee-Ballinger told the Associated Press in 2012 after a 53-year-old Chicago man was arrested and fined for wandering into the restricted area.
In an interview with WGN Radio, Patrick Marshall claimed he didn’t know it was illegal to climb the carvings.
“I thought you could go run around on the thing,” Marshall said. “I didn’t know better.”
Last July, a 19-year-old from Michigan also appeared to be unaware of the repercussions for climbing the monument when he hiked to a spot right under Washington, the Kansas City Star reported.
“I’m sorry, dude! I was just doing it for the fun,” Zachary Schossau reportedly told the ranger who found him.
Incontro’s trip up the mountain last week, however, appears to stand out from past attempts. In 2018, Don Hart, the chief ranger at Mount Rushmore, told the Capital Journal that he didn’t know of anyone who had climbed the actual rock faces.
“We have lots of folks make it up the talus slope,” Hart said, referencing the steep rock pile at the base of the monument. He later added, “They are just being drawn up there, I guess you could say.”
More from Morning Mix: