What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Part 1

August 2017.

Before I begin, let me explain that this trip was always planned to have two different, but hopefully mutually supportive purposes; first to achieve a long sought after climbing objective, the Devil’s Tower (as well as another adventure climbing goal – climbing the Grand Teton again, this time during a total solar eclipse), and secondly to practice creating some memorable photographs. Neither of these objectives could have been met without the priceless support, encouragement, and direct assistance of my friends, family and climbing partners, and to them I would like to express my deepest gratitude.

Bison and big horn cattle graze on the hills around Devil's Tower in northeast Wyoming
Bison and big horn cattle graze on the hills around Devil’s Tower

The vacation adventure that had been in the planning stages for over a year was here at last. By chance, just a few weeks before the trip, a truck pops up for sale on my Facebook page – the perfect truck for a trip like this – all set up for dirt bag climbing adventures like the one which I was preparing to leave on. Eric, the owner of this dream vehicle of sorts, was upgrading his adventure-mobile from this tricked out Mazda B3000 to a new sprinter van that he was building out and planned to live in for the next 10 years while he and his Angel traveled around, sampling climbing destinations around the country. For my purposes, the old Mazda was set up perfectly with a sleeping platform in the back and a gear drawer built in beneath it. The back of the truck was set up with lights and a fan as well as USB ports that all worked off a 2nd battery under the sleeping platform.  With a little work (new starter, battery, spark plugs, wires, tires, etc.), this truck would be too good to be true! (We’ll get to that later.) My friend Thomas pulled out all the stops helping me get the truck ready for the road trip of the year. On Friday, August 4th, after putting in the last 8 hours of work for a month, I headed out from work, west on Interstate 80, to meet my friend and climbing partner, Mike, at the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln as depicted on Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore

I had 2 days to drive 24 hours but managed to knock that out and squeeze in a stop at Mount Rushmore by getting a jump on the trip and driving all night after work that Friday.  In fact, I arrived at Devil’s Tower before sunset on Sunday, August 6th, in time to see this:

Sunset at the Devil's Tower in Wyoming
Devil’s Tower Sunset

Devil’s Tower is a very unusual monolith that shoots up about 800 feet out of the rolling hills of northeast Wyoming. As we heard a ranger explaining to some visitors, “only” about 600 of that would be considered technical climbing. The Tower was featured in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and it’s been on my tick list of rocks to climb ever since. Devils Tower was the first official United States National Monument,  proclaimed by President Theodore Roosevelt on September 24, 1906. Its summit is about 180 feet by 300 feet, about the size of a football field, but not as flat as one might expect. The paved ‘trail’ around the base is about 1.3 miles long and a very pleasant walk.

Mike’s flight was somewhat delayed on Sunday, August 6th, so he called ahead to the hotel and let them know that I’d be arriving first. After a couple long hard days of driving, it felt good to get showered up and crawl into a real bed. Mike arrived late and settled in. On Monday, August 7th, we sorted gear and headed over to Devil’s Tower for a walk around and to work out the approach. A good dinner and an early bed time gave us a running alpine start on Tuesday, August 8th. There was one truck in the parking lot with climbers sorting gear by headlamp when we arrived but we were all set and simply had to slip into our harnesses and start hiking to the base of the climb. We arrived at the base with nobody ahead of us and racked up. I took the first lead, a pretty straight forward start up to a traverse to the base of the second pitch, the leaning tower pitch.

The first pitch of the Durance Route on Devil's Tower in Wyoming
The Durance Route, Pitch 1

Mike led the leaning tower pitch with the awkward squeeze up behind the slanting broken tower.

The 2nd pitch of the Durance Route on Devil's Tower in Wyoming
The Durance Route, Pitch 2

The next pitch, the Durance pitch, was mine. We thought this pitch would be easier for a taller climber. It wasn’t. Off-width cracks just aren’t my thing and they’re even harder when they are flaring. These were flaring off-widths.

Mike belaying at the top of the Leaning Tower pitch on Devil's Tower in Wyoming
Mike belaying at the top of the Leaning Tower pitch

Inevitably, you’d get up into these cracks, stemming between their flared, curving edges, and find you couldn’t reach the gear you needed because it was pinned between you and the rock. Then you’d have to down climb to a stance and re-rack the gear on your other side. Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty.

And I must confess to having had to step into a sling or two in order to progress through the flaring off-width crux or be spit out like some bad chewing tobacco.  Mike said he knew we were in trouble when my bout of tourettes turned to praying. It was, in fact, the next pitch that is known as the Cussin’ Crack, and this pitch was Mike’s lead. As if one pitch of off-width terror wasn’t enough, now we’d both have our turn on the sharp end for this unique brand of suffering. Mike plowed through the difficulties with more grace than I was able to muster and, if I remember correctly, linked this short section up with the next short pitch, the Flake Crack. My next pitch, the Chock Stone crack, was also very short so after belaying Mike up that, I continued the next pitch, although not in the same style as the young blokes that passed us at that point by doing the Jump Traverse. Wow! He made that look easy! For my part, I climbed past the gap instead of taking that leap of faith, as I’d already had enough excitement having climbed multiple pitches of off-with nonsense. Having navigated past the Jump Traverse, we untied and scrambled across ‘the meadows’ to a point that had us rope up once again for a long easy pitch that led to the top.

Mike stacking rope in a tunnel on the other side of the Leap Pitch on Devil's Tower in Wyoming
Mike stacking rope in a tunnel on the other side of the Leap Pitch

Mike and I no sooner reached the top when we hear the pealing of thunder and notice a storm in the not-too-far-off distance. We snap some quick pictures, sign the summit register, and head back towards the top of Bailey’s Direct, right above most of the route we had climbed, and down-climb a few feet to a rappel station.

Mike at the summit cairn on Devil's Tower in Wyoming
Mike at the summit cairn on Devil’s Tower

As Mike sets up the first rap, I run back up to check to see if the climbers that passed us earlier on the route are still on top. (We had offered to let them rap down with us since we had two ropes.)

Grabbing a quick snapshot of a birthday greeting for a friend in the summit register on Devil's Tower in Wyoming
Grabbing a quick snapshot of a birthday greeting for a friend in the summit register

There was nobody up there, so I snap a few more pictures and head back down to Mike for the first rap, which put us back in the meadows near the jump traverse. A 2nd rap got us down to where we had untied earlier.

Mike rapping down the bowling alley on Devil's Tower in Wyoming
Mike rapping down the bowling alley

Here we were able to swing over to the right to some bolts below and right of the jump traverse and make three more raps down the Bowling Alley, ending a bit to the right of the Durrance route. All raps required 2 ropes. We were careful to always rap over the nose of each pillar and NOT in the crack or else the rope would get stuck as we pulled them down.

Mike standing below the Durance Route on Devil's Tower in Wyoming
Mike below the route we just climbed

Walking off was a bit of a circus as we weren’t prepared to answer all manner of questions from inquisitive tourists walking around the base.  I wonder how many of them believed the story about the bar on top of the tower.

We had knocked the route off with a day to spare so the next day I accompanied Mike over to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse memorials. It was a day of rest and relaxation before he headed home and I continued on to the next stage of my summer vacation, The Wyoming Photo Safari.