Devils Tower Trip Report (#1596)
- Signed By: Dan "Iron Hiker" Saxton
- Date submitted: November 01, 2002
This is an excerpt from a longer narrative detailing the summer's adventures - the part about Devil's Tower is shown below.
Our mission was to rock climb the Tower, led by the esteemed legendary climber Frank Sanders, who has pioneered many routes on the Tower over the last few decades. His bed-and-breakfast retreat is located in Devil's Tower Lodge, which is located just to the north of the national monument boundary. It has an excellent view of the Tower's north side, the classic place to take a memorable photograph.
Dad and I reached the Lodge about mid-afternoon on the 24th of July. Frank was out climbing, but Lorna, his companion, was there to greet us. She showed us our room and we got settled in, just in time for Frank to return. After getting acquainted with him and others who were staying at the Lodge, we enjoyed supper, courtesy of Lorna.
I was generally hopeful that we would be able to scale the Tower, knowing some things about rock climbing and its methods, but never actually having gone on real rock before. To prepare us for the big summit day, Frank had set aside a "Playday" (July 25th) to introduce us to the Tower and its column cracks.
Since Frank had another guiding obligation, a fellow climber named Jeremiah and Lorna took over the Playday duties. We traveled along the paved Tower Trail, which is for almost everybody who visits the Tower, from the visitor center to the east side slabs. After scrambling up about 300 vertical feet, we took our positions at the bottom of the sheer column walls. It was a cloudy, cool day, so other climbers were there to take advantage of the ideal conditions.
We climbed the first pitch of three routes, one of them named Broken Tree (every climbing route has a name given to it by the first ascent party - as you can imagine, the nomenclature can get pretty weird). These were rated from a 5.7 to easy 5.8 - that is the rock climbing rating universally recognized in America. Routes can range from 5.0 (generally easy) to 5.12a (extremely difficult) with about the highest yet attained being a 5.14. Nearly all Tower routes are 5.7 or more, including the "most moderate" one, the Durrance Route, which was to become our line of ascent.
Dad and I did well on each of the three routes, using various techniques to ascend the cracks such as jamming in our hands, clinging to small ones with our fingers, and using our feet to support and move us up. Sometimes it got challenging, especially when the crack got very small and we had to rely on friction and rock outcrops to move upwards. The hardest of the three was more of a "ridge" climb, being on the outside of the column rather than a crack. Dad slipped on that one, but I held firm and prevailed. It took a great deal of concentration to analyze and evaluate every handhold, and it was only by the grace of God that I was able to do this all without advice from the guides (my deafness being a factor there). I was greatly encouraged by my progress.
After this "playing," we traversed over to the beginning of the Durrance and practiced its first pitch, a generally easy broken-column and chimney section. Dad and I ascended this one twice because the next day we would be doing the pitch in general darkness. Then it was back to the Lodge for a rest and supper. We retired to bed early due to the early 3AM start that Frank mandated to start up the Tower.
In the dim light of early day, Frank, Dad, and I signed in for the climb. As expected, the first part of the Durrance went quickly, and we were at the base of the really vertical portion of the Tower as the sun's first light reached us. The weather was sunny and clear, but it was going to be hot.
It should be noted that the south side of the Tower, which we were on, is not as sheer as the other sides - it is more ledgy, making the routes moderately easier. With this in mind, I gazed upwards. Above us was the famous "Leaning Column," broken from the rock and now resting against another column. Another party was on the ledge below the Column and they graciously let our group go first.
Frank quickly climbed up to the top of the pitch and set a belay. I then began climbing.
Before I describe our ordeal, it is worthwhile to mention an unusual occurrence on the Tower in 1941. George Hopkins, a parachutist, landed on the top and planned to rappel down on a massive rope, but the first one bounced off the Tower and the second one became "hopelessly tangled." He was marooned on top for nearly a week, and various rescue operations were tried before some expert rock climbers came. Jack Durrance, who had made the first ascent of the Durrance Route, led the rescue team up the same cracks and columns we were on and Hopkins was rescued in style. It was in the footsteps of this party that we were following right now.
As I scaled the Leaning Column, I had thought that it would be easy to just climb up on the incline, but the Column was more vertical than I had expected, and I was forced into a chimney between it and the adjacent wall. Therefore, I had to "stem," or push my hands and feet against the rock to hold me up and inch upwards. After a few strenuous moves, I stood at the top of the Column, and surveyed the infamous crux (hardest part) of the route, the deep, menacing Durrance Crack. It was 70 feet high, soaring skywards nearly 90 degrees. To its left was a thinner crack.
I couldn't put my whole body into the Crack, so I jammed my right foot and hand into it and placed the opposite in the smaller crack. It was full-blown stemming, and quite excruciating. I struggled upwards, gasping for breath and frantically surveying the rock for holds that I could use to propel myself upwards another six inches at a time. The rope holding me was secure, so I was not afraid of falling, yet I was often conscious of the increasing void below my feet. My muscles were burning from the exertion, yet I still forced myself to ascend. Finally, at last, thanks be to the Lord who protects me, I reached the top of the column and Frank.
Of course, Dad's effort was to be admired as well, since he used every part of his body that he could to proceed up the crack and reach the top of the pitch in about the same time that I did.
The next pitch contained the Cussing Crack, named for obvious reasons, and the Flake Crack, which had several large rocks in it. It wasn't too hard getting up them, although the first crack was a bit awkward at first.
Next was a long pitch, that led all the way to the top of the Tower, via the Chockstone Crack and the Bailey Direct route. The normal Durrance Route takes a traverse over to a "flat" spot called the Meadows and is a slightly easier way to reach the top, but Frank wanted us to try something a bit more challenging. It was.
The Chockstone pitch was yet another deep crack, but big rocks (the "chockstones") blocked progress and we had to move over them using jamming and stemming techniques. After a few tricky moments on the pitch, I began the Bailey Direct.
By then, the heat was more noticeable, and the rock was getting warm. I was also beginning to get tired, but the top was close!
However, about halfway up the Bailey Direct, I encountered an awkward ledge that had a paucity of footholds. My hands were secure, but my feet fumbled around, and the strain was a little too much on my arms. I slipped slightly, the rope holding me taut. After about a minute, I regained control and continued upwards - only to notice a tightening of the rope around my waist.
Unexpectedly, I had gotten tangled in my dad's rope, and was stuck in the middle of the pitch. Thanks to the Lord, all my hands and feet were on secure ledges, but I was still frozen, unable to move. It was quite a situation. 800 feet below was the ground and the scene marched away to the Belle Fourche River and the Bear Lodge Mountains - a sublime vista - but at that moment showing the depth of the exposure below me. I wondered if some tourists down below were watching and thinking "What is that crazy guy up to?"
I yelled up to Frank to come down and help me out, but there was some delay probably caused by lack of communication. In about 10 minutes or so, he came rappelling down over the side of the cliff and rescued me with style. Then I finished the pitch, gritting it out and finally pulling myself onto the ledge 10 feet below the Tower's summit.
Dad soon joined us, and he had guessed right that I was having a problem with the rope, so any embarrassment on my part was quickly averted. We scrambled up to the summit plateau.
So what do you think is up there? Is it a landing pad for the alien ship......or a flat plane of rock? Yes, it's one big hole like a volcano's mouth, showing that the Tower is indeed a hollow tree stump........no, just kidding. It's a small prairie community on top. Rocks, grass, and even some small bushes grow, and I even saw a small chipmunk go darting away. Yes, small rodents inhabit the top - that's the TRUTH! They obviously can scamper up and down the columns.
The top is not actually that big; it took only about 3 or 4 minutes to cross from side to side. At the highest point was a register to sign.
The view was just plain Wyoming......the rolling hills, ranchfields, Bear Lodge Mts, Missouri Buttes, and the desert to the west fading away towards the unseen Bighorn Mts, 100 miles away. There was one spot at the top of the Tower's north face where we could gaze straight down at the visitor center. And Devil's Tower Lodge was also seen, nestling peacefully in the trees a mile to the north. I felt privileged to have gained access to this vista that only about a few ten thousand people have seen.
After some photos, we began to get ready for rappelling down.
Rappelling is quite an activity, although I hear it may be the most dangerous part of climbing. Bit by bit, Frank lowered me down the Tower's sheer sides as I descended nearly perpendicular to the slope, using my feet to guide me down the walls. We did this thing three times in all, and before long I was back on flat ground at the base of Devil's Tower, staring back up at it and disbelieving that I had just climbed up it and then rappelled down it. It looked even more bold and intimidating than when I had been climbing it.
We had just gotten off in time, for a thunderstorm hit only about 30 minutes after we had gotten back to the Lodge.
This was quite an adventure! Having had no prior rock climbing experience before, I feel blessed to have made it up to the top. Frank Sanders was an excellent guide and I would recommend him for any first-timer who wants to scale Devil's Tower. Best of wishes to all who wish to summit this marvelous creation of God!