Thursday, October 8, 2009

Devils Tower: Sacred to Many

Devil’s Tower is the columnar volcanic monolith rising out of the plains that most people would recognize but few would be able to place it in the very northeastern corner of Wyoming—near Hulett to be exact—without a bit of research. Since we stopped at the tower last summer on our way through, we had a chance to do that all important research. I concluded that maybe in a few years I would be ready to climb it and Stefanie told me that I had better look elsewhere for a partner because she would have none of it. Ever.

Stefanie attempting to position Capt Silverhawk for a photo-op in the middle of the highway. Wyoming: you've never seen so much nothing.

Mr A. Tree

Stef got her shot in the middle of the road and made it all the way across

Fast forward a year or so and we are heading down highway 16 West, out of South Dakota and into Wyoming. But first, a word about Wyoming. Ok, several words. Vast. Expansive. Magnificent. Empty. Empty headed. We continue to have a love hate relationship with the state that is filled with so many people who seem to do their utmost to sour even the sweetest offerings that natural geology can provide. It is ironic that the most unattractive elements in this state are the polar opposites of the social spectrum represented therein, in a constant state of bedlam and conflict, resulting in an unfavorable climate in which nice, chemically balanced people might thrive. From meth to mountains—its all there for your viewing pleasure.

That said, we were interested to see what would arise on our second pass through this state that had proven itself to fit us like a pair of really expensive shoes that turned out to be a half size small. We were excited for what the tower could provide, and driving mile after mile looking out at all the rolling emptiness the images of the great tower grew more and more menacing in our imaginations.

We had gotten a tip from some friends we met climbing in Rushmore to stay with some guy named Frank who owns a B and B up near the tower. He reputedly was a nice old hippie-ish guy who let climbers camp for free. It didn’t take much convincing to get us to bypass the USFS campground in the valley just off the Belle Fourche River where we stayed last time. Ten dollars a night got you a site and running water—no showers (like that matter to us) But Frank would set you up with all that for free AND was reputed to be THE man in terms of Devils Tower climbing.

Frank and Juliana's place- Devils Tower Lodge

Our spot at Franks

We found Frank-or he found us- hard to say since we were driving aimlessly around by the visitors center after missing the turn off to his place. He was talking with his clients in the parking lot and out of nowhere he just turned away from his conversation, smiled and waved. We redoubled our efforts to find his place and succeeded in pulling in just a few moments before Frank’s VW Jetta came flying over the cattle guard at the end of his driveway.

Not knowing the guy from Adam’s lump I was put in the awkward position of having to combine an introduction with a request for a patch of lawn on which put our tent for a few nights. All my angst was in vain it turned out, as he greeted me like an old friend and insisted that we make ourselves at home and put up the tent. Once Stefanie was introduced, he was giving us beta on which routes to climb and offering ropes and gear should we require them.

So that you can fully picture Frank, besides the actual picture (in the summit shots) which only captures his appearance (which is only a fraction of his charm) you must imagine a guy who is so at ease with himself and the rest of the world that he makes it a personal mission to make people welcome and help them have a fantastic time climbing at the tower. As you may know, I am not big on hippies, usually because I find their demeanor to be disingenuous and a façade masking a “holier-than-thou-becauseI-drive-a-Prius-and-eat-only-organic-co-op foods-and-have-worn-the-same-pair-of-Birkenstocks-since-1988-and-that’s-just-for-starters” attitude. I am not sure that a classification for Frank exists, but he is not a hippie per se (although his vernacular does belie time spent in California) and that is partly why he will always have a very special place in my heart.

It seems that many climbers know of Frank’s hospitality and frequent his place—we met a couple of guys from Colorado on our first night there who had both been laid off from jobs they hated and took the opportunity to get out and climb for a while. We discussed lawncare and its evils, fat neighbors and the different “scenes” that accompany various climbing locales.

The next morning it was our intention was to climb a route called El Cracko Diablo, a moderate crack that took two to three ropelengths to an area on the tower called “the meadows”. Two thirds of the way up the tower is a series of brushy and grassy ledges, hence the name. The meadows acts as sort of a false summit and many routes technically end here. The actual summit is gained by a 4th class scramble up from there for about 200 feet (4th class meaning that it is commonly climbed without ropes or protection because it is pretty straightforward and the likelyhood of falling is slim to none)

Before climbing, it is imperative that you register with the Park Service Rangers before you go up and begin the climb that gets you to…the start of the REAL climb. I went into the ranger station to declare my intent to summit legally on paper, where I was greeted with sidelong glances from the ranger on duty who apparently thought little of my zeal. Our neighbors from the preceding night at Franks had mentioned that the rangers could supply you with a printed diagram of the descent route (rappel routes) off of the summit of the tower. I asked the surly little troll in uniform about the possibility of such an acquisition and he curtly informed me that climbers should be self sufficient and that just buying the guide book would be the best possible outcome. I decided that since federal tax dollars which paid for this clowns fair-trade java beans simply were not enough incentive to print me out a piece of paper that I would just have to settle for biting my tongue for the time being.

Now that I am free to explain the situation to people with (I am guessing here) triple digit IQs, I had the book already, I simply wanted to have a beater copy of the rap routes so the book could stay nice and fresh for a bit longer. Whatever. Napolean complex.

Once finished with that ordeal, we trekked up to the base of the tower in front of the southeast face. It’s a pretty stout hike albeit relatively short mileage wise. Navigating through the talus at the bottom of the tower and the switchbacking trails is also a challenge-so rather than continue on around to the East face where El Cracko was located, we opted to jump on the trade route called Durrance which was a bit easier gradewise. While Durrance is the easiest way to the summit, it is not the most aesthetic route by any means—pitches are short and the moves are more akin to grappling than dancing across faces holds, since you are relegated to shimmying up large cracks and chimneys. It was a tiring day, but around 6 pm we summited, along with Frank who had been doing double duty coaching us as he brought up his clients, never breaking a sweat just having a ball.

Durrance follows the columns on the left side of the photo, starting with the leaning column at the bottom.

Thrashing up the 3rd or 2nd pitch. We ran some pitches together...

Opportunities to climb outside of the wide cracks were welcome, albeit rare...

Here is a video I shot of Stef following the first couple of pitches. Quality is poor, but its tough to get Oscar quality shots with a cell phone, and one free hand. While belaying. (Belay was on auto-blocking mode, so it wasn't a safety crisis)

Summit Shots:

This is me and Frank talking gear on the summit. He is a character, climbing virtuoso and a hell of a guy.

The Summit itself seems anti-climactic in terms of aesthetics- it is just a lumpy hill; rather nondescript. There is, however, an energy that you can feel here that supersedes appearance. It is a sacred place. Go and see if you doubt it. I initially lamented that no pictures or writing would convey the power of this place.

Rappelling off took about an hour and a half and seemed much more tiring since we were already drained from a days worth of climbing.

Back at the car we were greeted by a note from Linda and Bill who we had met at Custer; they had hiked around the base of the tower and had recognized our car. We shot a few night photos of the tower and retired for the evening.

The next day was a rest day, and we just took a short hike where we saw this snake…initially I thought it was a rattler, but on closer inspection, it seemed otherwise since it didn’t have any rattles.

The next couple of days we climbed some other routes, one called Soler (5.9) which was a much more striking line. We were pretty spent after the first pitch so we bailed and didn’t go all the way up.

Racking up for Soler


Here are a few videos of Soler, a preview look up the first pitch and then two of Stef cleaning P1. Again, not award winning, but something.

The following day we climbed Patent Pending but again, only the first two pitches which go at (5.6). We had hoped to summit again before pulling up stakes, so we aimed to rest up on and then summit on Sunday via our originally intended route, El Cracko. We took a rest day, organized our gear, talked, read guidebook descriptions and watched Frank mime the first two pitches while talking us through the cruxes and belays from memory. We aimed to get an early start, so 6 AM we were up and at ‘em. Until we opened the tent and were greeted by a decidedly hostile sky.

El Cracko rack

It figured that following a week of perfect weather, our do-or-die summit day was marred by lousy weather. Unable to take another rest day, we had an insightful conversation with Frank and Juliana and made off on down the road, in search of better weather…

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