Devil's Tower Climbing and People

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I pulled into Devil's Tower just on dusk, and used the last of my cash to pay for a couple of nights camping. Got up early so I could try and collar some climbers checking in at the visitor center in the morning. Got lucky. The ranger meeting and greeting was the climbing ranger, and was looking for a climbing partner for the day. Saves him from roped soloing.

Chuck meets and greets a bit more, then we head up to do the Durrance Route, 5.7. Six pitches if you do it traditionally, as little as two if you link them up a bit. Chuck's job basically revolves around climbing in the popular areas, chatting to people, helping them find routes, descents, and all around liason. Pretty good deal.

Chuck leads the first pitch, the Leaning Column, to let me warm up to the climbing, then I get the second, crux pitch. The Durrance Crack. We have to wait a little while here for a guided party to give up and retreat. (This guide turned out be to Curt, you'll hear about him again later) We are on the most popular route on the tower, by far. Big belay ledges though. I lead off, a fairly solid 5.7, and fairly wide really, when all accounts of Tower climbing are of thin cracks between columns. Quite happy to have lead it. Another big belay ledge.

Chuck leads the next three pitches, up more wide, yet fun and enjoyable cracks, to where the traditional route traverses right into the "meadows". most modern parties do the "Bailey Direct" which goes straight up, on some less obvious, and not as well protected climbing to the top. A fine jaunt. We rap down, chatting to people coming up and providing beta as required, then spend a good 45 minutes or so chatting to tourists at the base of the cliff.

This is a unique experience. I thought the tourists at Yosemite asked a lot of questions, but no. It seems to be related to just how close the climbers are to the tourists at Devil's Tower. And how unexpected, and accessible they are to ask questions of. It's such a small park really. They ask all sorts of questions, but mostly these three.

  1. Did you go to the top?
  2. How long did it take?
  3. What's it like up there?
The polite answers to these are...
  1. Yes/No, depending on whether you did or not
  2. about 5 hours round trip. (or less, or more)
  3. Much like down here, but no trees
Of course, a lot of baiting goes on by people that aren't in uniform.
  1. No, we suck. (rarely true, a lot of the harder climbs don't go to the top)
  2. What day is it?
  3. Well, there's a pool on top, because the top is sunken in, and there's deer, and a toilet. (etc, etc)

Lot's of fun for everyone that way. That was enough for day one, and Chuck was finished for the day, so I went and had some lunch, then went up to see Chuck's house in the hills. Yurt in the forest more precisely. Spent a leisurely afternoon falling off a slackline, throwing balls to Chuck's dogs, and doing very little. Met Matt, one of the "naturalists" for the park, who came up to fall off the slackline with us.

That night was a going away party for Matt and Justin, another naturalist, who were finishing up for the season. We all trucked into Spearfish, SD, (an hour away, for god knows what reason) after I snuck a shower at the employee housing. We ate, drank and were merry, all these park service people from all over the place. Local cowboys, North Dakotans, Midwesterners, young, old, all sorts.

And so ended my first day at Devil's Tower, what a hookup, meeting up with the climbing ranger on the first day. Day two was simply more climbing. Again, I got the good pitches, and the pair of us mingled with the other climbers, being generaly nice guys. Today's climb was El Cracko Diablo, 5.8+, a nice solid two pitch route, more typical of Tower climbing than the Durrance route. Both of us were feeling a little shabby for the first pitch, and Chuck admitted to being glad he was wearing real climbing shoes instead of his usual approach shoes.

All that had to be forgotten though for me to lead the second pitch. Which was definitely 5.8+. I got it clean, but I milked every rest for all it was worth, and still battled with some of the upper sections. Very fun route though. Lots of fun moves up high, where the crack gets not so pleasant, but rad flakes and layaways on the edge come into business. Chuck tagged the summit, to make it once for every day of his work week, and we rapped down the Durrance route, talking to more people coming up.

Both feeling as seedy as ever, we chickened out of another climb, and went and had lunch instead. This was my sort of climbing :)

That morning I'd met another local character, Frank Sanders. I'd been waiting for Chuck to finish working behind the info desk, when a guy came out, looked at me, and asked if I was climbing today. I said I was, still not knowing whether this person was a climber, or a tourist, or what, and he asked me where, and again I was vague, "the other side" Finally it dawned on me that this man did indeed climb, as he regaled me with stories of El Cracko, which he highly recommended. Then 30 seconds later he was asking me where I was staying that night, and inviting me to come up and have dinner with him, and camp out at his place. Chuck had mentioned that Frank is totally open and hospitable, but it was still quite a surprise to be invited to come and stay with someone after a 3 minute conversation.

Frank runs Devil's Tower Lodge, a BnB/climbing guide service. That day he was doing some short climbs with Jane, a charming woman who had climbed the Grand Teton 26 years ago, but had done nothing else since, and now wanted to get back into doing stuff again, and chose the Tower. Tomorrow was Jane's big day, when after her training today, Frank, Frank's wife Kate, and herself would go up the Durrance route, and tag the summit, with film and photos the whole way. Frank and his guides really know their stuff. I've seen more than a couple of guides that haven't been anywhere near as professional. (And I'd say that even if they had served me dinners, breakfast, and let me camp in their yard)

Met more local climbers up at Frank's place that afternoon, one of the other guides, and a Black Hills girl called Andrea who demanded that I be in her photos of armpit hair. Andrea, and Japp, one of the Guides, were the sources of much of the lies and half truths that have been told to tourists.

Wonderful dinners around a big table, with paying guests and freeloaders like myself, icecream, nuclear physicists, novice climbers, fishermen, hardened climbers, and everyone in between. Quite a place to be.

Day three. (I debated whether to make this all one story or multiple, but the shortage of photos drove me to choose one long story. Hope you're not too bored after reading this far, and the story isn't too incoherant) Chuck had gone to Custer, SD, to be with girlfriend for his weekend, and I was without a climbing partner. Matt, from the visitor center was working, but would be climbing with me tomorrow. I slept in, then packed up some gear, including some selected pieces to complement someone else's rack, so I could talk them into doing Walt Bailey Memorial, a 5.9. This was hyped by Chuck, Frank, and anyone else I spoke to, Chuck going as far as saying it was the single best pitch on the tower. I wanted it, I needed to get a good solid 5.9 under my belt, not some of the mostly 5.7, with a 5.9 move or two routes I'd been doing so far.

Yet somehow, today was a quiet day. Hardly anyone climbing compared to the previous two days. Things were not looking good. I met a few climbers at the base of Durrance but they were done for the day, and there was no-one to be found at all at the El Cracko/Soler area. I was almost ready to give up, when a guy came up the track, no gear, looking like a regular local punk, who it turned out just happened to be passing through, and wanted to know if anyone wanted to climb! Sweet. Jesse and I ran back down to the parking lot, racked up more gear, registered, and off we went, Walt Bailey here we come!

I made it, but not as clean as I would have liked. It is a beautiful beautiful line, and very enjoyable jamming, from fingers to hands to fingers and hands again. And very long, a good 55m, with very few rests of any sort. Of course, I just rested on the gear, starting from the crux, only about 50feet up. Some absolutely stellar jams though, and a climb I'd love to go back and do again some day.

We had time left, but not a whole lot, so we decided to race up Durrance, this time Jesse would get the good pitches, and I would take the pitches Chuck had led. Frank, Kate and Jane were up ahead of us, and we raced to try and catch them, but weren't quite quick enough. They were just rapping down from the top when we reached the last pitch. Jane was ecstatic and exhausted all at the same time. She had had a great day. Kate kindly dug out an extra pair of headlights for Jesse and I, which would help greatly on the way down, and tried to help us on our way to diabetes with some sugar offerings. Such nice people.

All we could do to repay them was help get Franks ropes down, which had gotten stuck on the final rappel. (Devil's tower is fairly notorious for this. The Walt Bailey anchor is fixed hangers instead of rap rings, with a sheet of steel with "rope eater rappel" stamped into it. You are strongly encouraged to walk off and rap down the Durrance route. Another beautiful dinner, and even met up with a person, tgreene and his charming wife. More icecream, more tall tales.

El Matador, 5.11a. Allegedly no move over 5.9, only 10d if you're tall. Way back at christmas time, I'd shown Scott a picture of this, and told him we should get tough and climb it. I'd decided before I got to the tower that I simply had not gotten tough enough. Then of course, sitting at the visitor center, the first line I picked out as, "wow" happend to be El Mat. My plan had been that if I had gotten Walt Bailey clean, Matt and I were going to hop on it, and aid it if necessary. It allegedly swallows gear, and is a very clean fall. Matt was psyched. I was ripped to shreds. I'd not taped for Walt Bailey, as I never normally get cut up much. But Walt Bailey was right at my limit, and my hands were cut all over. I just didn't have it in me. More tall talk down the drain. Maybe I just need more drive. Maybe Maybe Maybe. :)

Instead, Matt and I picked up a family who wanted to see climbing up close, so they registered (to be allowed above the boulder field) and off we went to do two pitches of 5.5, with plans of toproping a 10. The family loved the action, and seemed to have a great time seeing what we were doing. Of course, we were just soft, and didn't even do the toprope we planned on. All the usual excuses, didn't bring enough long slings, don't want to run these skinny ropes over that edge, blah blah blah.

So I ran away to South Dakota, after a delightful four days at the tower, full of wonderful people.

The Durrance Crack, solid 5.7

Chuck atop Cussing Crack

Chuck at the base of the Bailey Direct

Karl on the Summit of Devil's Tower (looking W)

Belle Fourche River, campground and prairie dog town

The Durrance route goes up the leaning column then upwards and slightly rightwards

Devil's Tower

Giant caterpiller (about 3 inches)