Wednesday, December 29, 2010

No. 5 - The Power of the Tower - Part 4 of 4

a four part series detailing a personal quest to climb Devils Tower Wyoming

- by Bill Urbanski

Part 4 (of 4) – PULL ON RED

Photo courtesy
The team stood atop Devils Tower as hell unleashed its fury around us.  In a heartbeat, wind speeds went from gentle to gale.  It was as though someone had flipped the switch on a giant fan.  There was no time to lose; we needed to get off the highly exposed summit.

Aleya coiled the blue rope behind her neck and I stacked red.  The winds roared at forty miles per hour, sustained, and even though Aleya and I were a mere ten feet apart, we could hardly hear each other’s voices.

I spotted the foot-high cairn which marks the top of the final pitch we had ascended earlier.  As I approached the edge, the ferocity of the wind forced me to assume a crouching position.  I feared a sudden gust might sweep me over the rim.  I began to crawl backwards down the rock and looking up I saw Aleya; she was frozen.  Rope still coiled behind her neck, her face and mouth expressing a curious combination of fear and frown, she remained fixed in her position twenty feet from the edge.

“Aleya, come on,” Patrick’s voice bellowed with a heightened sense of urgency.  “We have to go down now.”

Aleya responded only by shaking her head from side to side.  I watched, stunned as I saw Aleya drop the rope at her feet.  What on earth was she thinking?  Then, she began to tie a figure eight knot – safety first, a smart move.  From a point of security, Patrick put Aleya on belay.  Cautiously she down climbed and clipped in to the anchor bolts.  Wasting no time Patrick was directly behind her, and the three of us were back on the ledge atop Bailey’s Direct.

Patrick fed the blue rope through the rap rings, and he and Aleya worked to lash the red and blue together.  All the while, the winds continued with unrelenting fury.  I saw that Patrick was preparing to fasten the ropes to his figure eight rappel device.

“No!” I commanded, an unquestionable authority in my voice.  “You’re staying here with Aleya.  I’m going down first.”

The protocol in rappelling is to yell the word “rope” just before tossing it in order to warn any unsuspecting climber who might be directly below.  We followed this ritual, despite the abject futility of it.  The wind roared like a passing freight train.  No one below could possibly hear us.  We could hardly hear one another.  I threw first.


The world turned upside down
 To my utter amazement, the rope did not fall.  Gravity inexplicably had failed.  Newton was wrong.  Instead of tumbling into the void below, the rope blew back up and into my face like a tangled mass of spaghetti.  Amazed but undeterred, Patrick threw blue – same result.  We were dumbfounded.  I gathered the red rope as best I could and, keeping it close to the cliff face, kicked it over the side.  Patrick followed suit with blue.

“Don’t worry about it; I’ll just take it down as I go,” I assured my companions.

Looking back at Patrick and Aleya, I knew immediately by their expressions that they had crossed into uncharted territory.  They were clearly beyond their comfort zone.  Time was not on our side.  The weather was only going to get worse, and the rope fiasco heightened insecurities as it would surely extend our ordeal.

During my years of alpine mountaineering and climbing big western peaks, I have found myself in more than a few harrowing predicaments – dangerous situations brought about by the unpredictability of the weather.  I’ve crossed crevassed glaciers in thick fog on Mount Rainier.  I’ve rappelled in hail storms at 12,000 feet in Montana’s Beartooth Range.  I survived a frigid night without food or water in a rock cave in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, and just six weeks earlier I was nearly buried alive by an Alaskan avalanche while sleeping in my tent at 13,000 feet on Denali.

In seemingly desperate situations, emotions always run hot; a sense of fear is omnipresent.  The key to survival – the difference between life and death – lies in controlling that fear and having faith in your own training and abilities to extricate yourself from your plight.

I looked again at the faces of Patrick and Aleya.  Something had to be said.  I drew close to my partners in order to pull the two ropes through my ATC so I could begin my rappel.  But I got close also so both could hear me, and I figuratively grabbed them by the scruff of the neck.

“Remember what you read in the summit register,” I implored Aleya, shouting inches from her face.   “’Windy as hell.’ People rappel in these conditions all the time.  We are getting down from this Tower.  We are getting down safely.  We will do it together as a team.  Now keep your head about you.”

I spun shut the lock on my carabiner and weighted my harness.

“I’ll see you down below.  On rappel.”

Without a moment more of hesitation, I jumped from the ledge, kicking the rope out in front of me as I went.  Periodically I needed to stop my descent to undo a tangle or free a portion of the rope from a crack.  The lashed ropes should have provided us with 200 feet of uninterrupted rappel.  But it was not to be.

At 100 feet down, with more tangles below me than I felt I was capable of dealing with while dangling from a rope, I spotted the belay ledge at the base of Bailey’s Direct and steered the balance of my rappel to it.  It was a much quieter place than the ledge on which I left Patrick and Aleya above, and it was large enough to allow us space to untangle our ropes and prepare for a second rappel.  I unlocked the gate on my carabiner and pulled the ropes from my ATC.  Grasping the radio, I keyed the microphone.

“Off rappel. Off rappel.”

Clipped in to the anchor I began to assess the tangled rope at my feet.  It was a Royal mess.  But I didn’t have time to do anything about it.  My attention was focused on my partners above while I had Aleya on fireman’s belay.

Aleya descended to my position. Patrick soon followed using his figure eight belay device.  Off rappel and all clipped into the anchor, we pulled the red rope.  Without much difficulty, the knot soon came into view and then the whole of the rope fell from the uppermost anchors.  The blue rope caught on some protruding rock above, but with a few flicks it was free.

The conditions were now dramatically different. Tight against the cliff face and 140 feet below the summit, the winds had subsided.  It was now actually possible to hear each other speak without shouting.  But it wasn’t all good news; the storm was intensifying.  The skies were darkening and rumbles of thunder were rattling our nerves.  We were far from safety and we knew we still needed to move with all deliberate speed.

“Which rope are we feeding through the rings?” Aleya asked.

“Let’s keep it consistent,” I responded. “Feed blue.  That way we always pull on red.”

The ropes were untied, blue was re-threaded through the new anchors, and the ropes retied.  Aleya stacked both ropes using a looping technique that was meant to prevent the tangled toss we had to deal with from the ledge above.  Her chore completed, the two ropes in unison were flung over the edge.  This time, gravity took control and the ropes disappeared into the void below.  My faith in Newton was restored.  

A world righted
 I began the second rappel, and moved steadily for forty feet until encountering a rope eating crack.  I paused momentarily to free the mass and continued, but not much farther as I encountered another rope eating crack.  Seventy feet down I found myself face to face with two bolted hangers waist high atop a pillar.  I could see that the ropes yet again had tangled below me.  I stopped, unclipped my ATC, and radioed for Patrick and Aleya to follow.

During Patrick and Aleya’s rappel I flicked and fussed with the blue rope below me.  It was caught in a crack fifteen feet down, and it was hopelessly stuck.  When my partners were safely beside me, I clipped back into my ATC and continued my rap to the sticking point.  There I found the end knot, which is tied to prevent the climber for rapping off the end of the rope, was the cause of the problem.

I worked the knot free and looking about discovered I was immediately above and to the right of yet another set of rap anchors.  I kicked out away from the wall, traversed left to the ledge, and beckoned my partners to join me. 

We were now 200 feet down, but less than half way home.   Clipped into the anchor, Patrick began to pull on red – it moved slightly but then nothing.  He pulled again, a little rope stretch but otherwise nothing.  I pulled with him.  The rope would not budge.

Thunder clapped and lightning began to flash around us.  Then, just when we thought matters could not get any worse, it started to rain.  Our stuck rope was now a wet stuck rope – a perfect conduit to conduct the electrical charge of a lighting strike.  We were now officially in harm’s way.

I scanned our immediate environment and considered options.  Ten feet to our left was a large crack set back slightly into the Tower.  Huddled together in this crack, we would be sheltered from the rain and could wait out the storm.  Unfortunately, with lighting strikes nearby, the crack itself provides another excellent conduit for electrical charge.  As counterintuitive as it may sound, we were actually safer on an exposed ledge 300 feet off the deck than we would be huddled in a crack.

Patrick continued working the rope and continued to tug to no avail. It was definitely stuck, but we could not be sure why.  We could plainly see eighty feet of rope hugging the rock face directly above our heads, but beyond that, it disappeared over a nose for thirty feet to the anchors.  Was it just a twist? Was it wedged in a crack beyond our view where a simple flick from below might free it?  Or, was it a worst case scenario where the knot was jammed in a crack as the blue end knot had earlier.  Patrick flicked; I twisted – nothing.

Aleya proposed ascending the stuck rope using prusiks in order to ascertain the source of our problem.  A prusik is a friction knot made by wrapping nylon cord around the climbing rope.  When unweighted, the knot slides freely; when weighted, the prusik “grabs” the rope and holds the climber.  This process however would take a significant amount of time – time we did not have.

I was convinced our redemption lie elsewhere.  I recalled my free-air rappel from the summit of the Maiden two days earlier where Dave and I were able to see the entire length of rope above us, all the way to the anchors.  I remembered that a single twist created enough friction to make pulling the rope nearly impossible.  Even untwisted and flowing freely, pulling a full sixty meter length of rope through two rings required Herculean effort.

I was convinced that our ropes were merely twisted, and working to untwist them was our best option under the circumstances.  Of course, unable to see the top thirty feet of rope, my conviction was borne of little more than blind faith.

I took blue in my left hand and red in my right, and making two clockwise circles with the strands I handed red to Patrick. We both pulled, still nothing.  Two more twists. Pull. Nothing.

Separating the ends as far apart as possible allowed for a better view of what was going on above, so I extended the cordelette which anchored me to the cliff face and shuffled six feet left on the ledge.  Thunder boomed. Then, a spine tingling “crack!”

“Should we call 911?” I heard Patrick ask.  I did not respond.

Our situation was no doubt grim.  The same sense of desperation and panic that nearly took hold of us atop Bailey’s Direct was creeping back into our consciousness.  But I knew 911 would do us no good.  There are no rescue personnel at the ready at Devils Tower.  We could not anticipate the arrival of an army Chinook helicopter or the National Guard.  We were on our own.  If we could not get ourselves out of this situation, we were not getting out of this situation.  It was that simple.

Patrick’s question I learned later was no random plea for help.  It was prompted by a very specific event, the details of which he did not share with us at the time.  It was not until we were safely down from the Tower that Patrick explained what prompted his question.  Aleya and I were facing the rock at the time so we did not see it, but Patrick, peering outward and into the plains below, had just witnessed a bolt of lightning score a direct hit on a ledge fifty feet below us.  Patrick decided to keep the event to himself so as not to further heighten our already heightened anxieties.   

I was now out on a ledge six feet from Patrick and Aleya.  Patrick handed me the ropes.  I gave them two more clockwise twists and handed red back to Patrick.

“Pull,” I shouted.

Nothing.  Patrick returned the red. Two more twists.

“Try now.”

Still nothing.  With dogged persistence, I repeated this process until a point when I realized I was actually making matters worse.  I could see the twists multiplying and working their way down the rope on the rock face above me.  This was bad.  But it also meant that by reversing my motion, I could make it better.

Full Reverse.  Five twists counterclockwise and I handed red back to Patrick, who pulled again to no avail.  Two more counterclockwise.  Then again.  Methodically, I continued the process..  Finally, the two strands of rope visible to me above had separated.  We were close.

Two more twists, back to Patrick.  Patrick pulled on red,.  The rope moved!  The rope actually moved.  It was untwisted and free.

In an instant, I leaped to Patrick’s position and stood beside him.  We both took hold of the red rope, pulling hand over hand with every ounce of strength.  The rope was indeed free and it was coming down.  We looked up and to our profound collective joy, the knot lashing the two ends together drew closer and closer.  Only a moment more, we heard the distinctive whistle of falling rope and the entire length of both blue and red dropped with a thud at our feet.

There was no time for celebration.  The storm continued its rage.  I stacked red while Aleya untied then fed and retied the ropes.  Patrick stacked blue.

Now I was facing outward, as Aleya and Patrick went about their tasks, and it was my turn for an exclusive view of Mother Nature’s majesty.  But unlike when Patrick witnessed the lightning strike and kept silent, for me this was a peering-in-the-tomb moment.  I saw it first; I saw and believed, though as yet my partners did not see or understand.  I could not wait to shout it to the world – but, not until after I got a picture. 

“Hang on. I need to get my camera,” I advised Patrick, masking an almost maniacal giddiness with a seeming callous indifference to our ordeal.  “I am not missing this moment.”

Patrick Gensel redefining the Face of Terror

At the first rappel ledge, given the exigency of our circumstances, I had stowed away my cell phone and camcorder.  They both were deep in my pack.  My point-and-shoot however was merely in its case and clipped to my harness.  I pulled the camera from its case, and I snapped what may be the finest photograph ever taken in the annals of rock climbing.  Patrick’s expression redefined the face of terror.  Little did he know that a rainbow of salvation had just appeared over his shoulder. 

The storm to our east
 “Turn around. You gotta see this,” I directed.

It was a brilliant Technicolor display set against a retreating blackened sky.  It meant sunshine had broken through in the west, and the storm had all but passed us by.  We had been spared.  The storm was over.  Our ropes were free, and we were alive.

Aleya and Patrick in The Bowling Alley
Two more rappels and the team was on the solid footing of a series of gently sloping slabs known as the Bowling Alley.  Ropes were coiled, gear collected and after a short hike down a dedicated trail, we reached the macadam Tower Trail to hugs, high fives and collective sighs of relief.

 The waning sunlight illuminated the Tower and surrounding desert landscape with stunning effect.   We each retrieved our image capturing gadgets and took some of the best footage of the trip.  Tourists roamed the trail and were in awe of our climbing prowess.  To the shorts and sandal clad set, we were immediately recognizable as hardcore, badass rock climbers, and we were peppered with questions from all who passed.

Shorts and Sandals Set
 We gladly recounted the exploits of our epic journey to the rapt attention of our suddenly adoring fans.  They snapped their own pictures of us against the backdrop of the Tower as though we were zoo animals just escaped from it.  We happily abided their requests to pose with them, thus becoming permanent fixtures in the scrapbook albums of families unknown.  We had transformed from rock climbers to rock stars, and we basked in the adulation.

Final thoughts were captured for posterity before leaving the macadam path.   Perhaps Patrick summed it up best.  I pulled my point-and-shoot from its case one final time and set it to video mode.

Aleya and Patrick enjoying the view

“I have you on video,” I informed Patrick as I centered him in my lens. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“That was a pretty scary experience,” Patrick responded, calmed and revived by his accomplishment. “But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Indeed. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

The triumphant team posing for tourists
Click here for Bill's full photo set, along with 4 short video clips.

Patrick's account of the Devils Tower climb can be found here.
Aleya's account of the Devils Tower climb can be found here.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

No. 4 - The Power of the Tower - Part 3 of 4

 a four part series detailing a personal quest to climb Devils Tower Wyoming

- by Bill Urbanski


The Team poses for "The Band Shot" at the Wyoming border
    Western sunsets can be stunning when viewed through the eyes of an easterner.  Sunday night’s fading rays over the arid stretches of Wyoming grassland did not disappoint. The perfect pallet of red and orange and copper and all their subtle hues decorated the horizon.

      As Patrick, Aleya and I gazed in wonderment at the western skies and debated which planet we saw piercing the tableau, we discussed how far and how long we wanted to drive.  I placed telephone calls to the campgrounds that awaited us along our path, and the decision was made to push on all the way to the Tower.

      We chose to stay at the KOA campground three miles from the Tower, which still had ample space despite being the first day of the Sturgis motorcycle rally.  The Tower has been known to be overrun by bikers during Sturgis’ bike week, a cause for concern.  Most important to us was the fact that the KOA had a swimming pool.  We each envisioned a refreshing post-climb dip to soothe our weary limbs in the heat of the afternoon sun.

      We arrived at the KOA campground at 11:30 PM and filled out the self-registration envelope.  Under a faint moonlight and with the aid of headlamps and vehicle lighting, we set our tents, oblivious to our proximity to the Tower.

      With tents pitched and gear stowed, we turned our attention skyward.  Our site was some seventy-five yards from the bathrooms which were lit throughout the night by two large floodlights.  The artificial lights however proved no match for the powerful incandescent display above.  The full swath of the Milky Way and a brilliant array of stars dominated the heavens, captivated our eyes and stirred our hearts. It was not until our own artificial lights were extinguished and our eyes were given the opportunity to adjust that I discovered just how close we were to our Grail.

      “Hey guys look over there,” I said pointing to the western horizon and interrupting my star-gazing friends.

      There it was, silhouetted against the westward sky – still more than two miles away but so imposing in its presence that it ruled the skyline.  The Tower loomed, standing silent watch over us like some lone sentinel in the moonlit night.  Patrick immediately seized his digital SLR camera and went to work.  Unfortunately, without a tripod to ensure a motionless lengthy exposure, he was unable to capture the striking image our naked eyes beheld.

View of Devils Tower from my tent at the KOA campground

      Reveille was 0500.  I arose first and lit the iso-propane stove to heat water for breakfast.  We each enjoyed a hot meal and even some instant Starbucks coffee – leftovers from my recent Denali expedition.  The pre-dawn light began to illuminate the Tower.  The SLR was summoned and put to work again.

      We arrived at the visitor center parking lot just before 7:00 AM.  Two other climbers were already there.  Patrick worried they might get on the Durrance Route ahead of us and slow our progress, but we soon learned they were climbing a different route.  Aside from these climbers, the lot was empty.  The visitor center did not open until 8:00 AM, and as we made our final gear check, the hoard of Harleys was still nowhere in sight.

      “Do you think we might need this?” I asked Patrick, holding aloft an emergency bivy I had brought along.

      “If we need that on the Tower today, that means we screwed up in a big way,” he jokingly responded.

Patrick completes the climber registration form
       I tossed the bivy back into the Explorer and Aleya drove off.  Heeding the advice of a park service ranger, she parked the car in a lower lot far from the visitor center to prevent us from being trapped by the soon-to-arrive throng of tourists.  Aleya returned on foot and the team approached the climber registration kiosk.  Patrick had the honor of completing the form that would memorialize our endeavor, and at 7:00 AM, on August 9, 2010, we began our climb.
      “Just so you know,” I said, getting the attention of the team.  “The route we’re doing is a 5.6 and it’s 7 AM on 8-9-10.  I like these numbers.”


      The approach to the climb begins along a macadam path that leads from the visitor center parking lot.  The path assumes a gentle grade for approximately one hundred yards until it intersects the 1.3 mile long Tower Trail, which circumnavigates the base.  No more than fifty feet after turning right at this intersection, we left the macadam and began a scramble up granite slabs and over large boulders towards an obvious ramp tucked alongside the vertical pitches awaiting us.  Three quarters of the way up, with grade and exposure increasing we changed into our climbing shoes for surer footing.

      Patrick was out in front, and at 8:00 AM he peered around a corner and announced he had found the leaning pillar.  The leaning pillar is the first pitch of the Durrance Route, named for rock climbing pioneer, Jack Durrance, who first ascended it in 1938.  It was the second free climb ever done on the Tower and today is considered one of the fifty classic climbs in North America.  It consists of seven pitches and covers 415 vertical feet from the first belay ledge to the summit.

      Patrick would lead the first two pitches.  Aleya would belay and second each pitch, cleaning the pro as she climbed.  I would clean the belay anchors and follow third on top rope.  Beyond the second pitch, Patrick and I intended to swap leads.

      Patrick loaded his climbing harness with his rack – a fairly standard trad climbing rack with one key addition, a #4 camalot purchased exclusively for the cracks we knew we would encounter on Durrance.  Aleya and I flaked our ropes.
The shadow of Devils Tower blanketing the plains below

      Figure eight follow through knots were tied and checked.  No one was ahead of us, no one behind.  We had the route to ourselves.  The sky above was brilliant blue, save for a few puffy white wisps of cloud.  The temperature I suspect was seventy or so, but was sure to rise as the midday sun swung around the Tower and onto our backs.  What was noticeably absent was the humidity.  We had left the ever-present mugginess 2000 miles to our east.  I gazed at the shadow of the Tower blanketing the western plains 750 feet below me, and I heard Aleya’s voice.

      “Belay on.”

      “Climbing,” Patrick responded.

      “Climb on.”

Patrick begins the 1st pitch.  Aleya on belay
       I have heard those routine commands communicated between climbers on countless occasions in the past, but today they sounded just a little bit different.  Today was different. Patrick, to paraphrase James Tabor, was on the sharp end of my dream, and we were about to climb Devils Tower,.  Today, those commands never sounded so sweet.

      The first pitch begins as a twenty-foot scramble.  Patrick advanced quickly and was soon face to face with the first of the many cracks to come.  If he had any apprehension or was forced to stare down any of the demons he faced on the Magician in Boulder Canyon, I would not have known.  I heard no complaints from above as I snapped photographs from below.

      Soon enough, Patrick had reached the belay ledge atop the leaning pillar and began to fix an anchor.  Two, three and sometimes four bomber anchor bolts can be found waist high at each of the belay ledges along the Durrance Route.  Patrick pulled the balance of the blue rope to his position until it tugged on Aleya’s figure eight.

      “That’s me Patrick,” Aleya hollered upward, whereupon she began to second the pitch. 

      With three on the climbing team, the job of the second is to not only clean the protection set by the leader, but also to drag the belay rope of the third.  Aleya cleaned the route and joined Patrick atop the leaning pillar seventy feet above me.  Now it was my turn.  I hoisted Patrick’s pack over my shoulder and fastened it tight.

      “Climbing,” I radioed to my teammates above.  I was on my way.  I was climbing Devils Tower.

      The weight of the pack on my back was a new experience for me.  I’ve done a fair amount of trad leading, so I’m accustomed to the weight of a standard rack fastened to the gear loops of my harness, but this was different, and I was noticeably winded by the time I joined my partners at the second belay ledge.

Patrick leading the Durrance Crack
      Patrick began his lead on the second pitch, the Durrance Crack.  Apparently old Jack wasn’t satisfied that the whole route bore his name; one of its component parts needed his signature as well.  The Durrance Crack, like the first pitch, is seventy feet in length, but there is no bunny slope at the start. It’s a straight up 5.6 with a 5.7+ crux towards the top.  The crux occurs at the point of decision for the climber.  For fifty feet, you have the luxury of two parallel cracks with which to work.  At the crux, you must commit to one or the other.  This is also where the #4 camalot is needed.  Patrick pulled through it like a pro, set anchors again, and called for Aleya to follow.


      When all three of us arrived at the third belay ledge it was finally my turn to lead.  Patrick transferred his rack to my gear loops.  I took his Camelback hydration pack and I returned to him his burdensome pack.

      The start to pitch three was awkward.  Beginning in an off-width crack on the right side, I could not find a proper balance.  After several tries I retreated downward, traversed left and started up a flake with a series of side pulls.  Much better.  Twenty feet up, past that first troublesome off-width crack, a right traverse awaits, after which ten vertical feet leads to the fourth belay ledge.  

looking down at other team rapping beside us - yellow dot is helmet
      Midway through the traverse, I interrupted my lead to take pictures of a team rappelling immediately to my right.  They all had safely reached the summit and were rapping down in rapid succession.  They were in good spirits and had enjoyed their climb.  Pleasantries were exchanged.

      When I reached the fourth belay ledge, I set an anchor using my cordelette and backed it up with a sling.  I yelled down to Aleya to begin.  After struggling a bit with the first ten feet, she was quickly beside me as was Patrick.  Patrick took lead on the fourth pitch, which topped out on a belay ledge that in his estimation was the size of all of Canada.  I swung back and led the fifth, then came decision time.

      From the sixth belay ledge, there are two finishing options.  Choice one is called the Jump Traverse.  It involves a slight down climb and a traverse to climber’s right to a point where a jump is necessary.  After the jump, the route leads to a class 4 and 5 scramble through an area known as the Meadows and ultimately the summit.  Choice two is a continuation of the climb from the belay ledge up a 140-foot pitch called Bailey’s Direct.  Though we didn’t spend a whole lot of time looking, the Jump Traverse wasn’t patently obvious. We chose Bailey’s Direct.


      At the top of Bailey’s is the final belay ledge, after which is just a fifteen foot scramble to the summit.  Aleya had the honor of leading the final pitch and reached the summit first.  With no protection to clean, I made quick work of the scramble and joined her. Finally it was Patrick’s turn and, standing besides Aleya, I was ready with my camcorder to film Patrick's triumph as he joined us at the summit – well, not quite.

      The true summit of Devils Tower, which is designated by a wooden post in the middle of a modest rock cairn, was still another fifty yards beyond us.  We dumped our packs, untied ourselves from the ropes that had bound us as a team for five hours and 500 feet, and we casually strolled towards the cairn.  The summit was ours. The Tower had been topped.

      The summit is a broad sloping expanse of 1.5 acres roughly resembling a flipped saucer.  The ground is typical of any lower lying western desert terrain. There is low sage brush, some cacti, and other indigenous flora scattered about, but nothing too intrusive to prevent a climber from exploring the whole of the tract.  And while the National Park Service advises that chipmunks, mice and the occasional snake can be found on top, aside from the swarming flying ants nestled in and around the summit cairn, Aleya, Patrick and I were the only creatures to be seen. 

the Team recreates "The Band Shot" at the summit of Devils Tower
      I walked to the eastern edge and spotted our tents at the KOA campground nearly three miles away.  When I turned back, I could see Aleya posing for Patrick at the cairn, her Himalayan prayer flags whipping in the wind above her head.  It was a glorious sight.

      We spent an hour on the summit taking in the sights, taking pictures, and generally enjoying ourselves.  But all of this reveling was done with a blithe indifference to the dangers that still surrounded us, and it would prove to be a critical mistake.  None of us had bothered to take notice of the skies above.  A ferocious storm was brewing and it was about to strike.

      Under normal circumstances getting down from the summit of Devils Tower takes about an hour.  It is no simple task.  It involves multiple rappels using two lashed-together ropes.  The team was about to find that we were in anything but normal circumstances.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

No. 3 - The Power of the Tower - Part 2 of 4

 a four part series detailing a personal quest to climb Devils Tower Wyoming

- by Bill Urbanski

Part 2 (of 4):  BOULDER BOUND

      I returned from Alaska on June 19th, my bid for Denali’s summit having eluded me.  Stuck for three days at 17,200 feet in the midst of a seven-day storm, my team was forced to retreat.  In all, I spent sixteen days on the most glorious mountain on the continent.  I returned much wiser for my efforts, and much lighter – fifteen pounds lighter to be exact.  It was the adventure of a lifetime, but it was behind me, and I was eager to get back on rock.

      My local crag and my regular climbing schedule were calling, and Patrick was talking about something called a “tweetup.”  More precisely Patrick was talking about the COtweetup, a meet up of rock climbers to take place in Boulder, Colorado arranged through the social networking site Twitter.  I was new to Twitter, and the COtweetup intrigued me.  Colorado offers of bounty of rock climbing possibilities, but more importantly Colorado borders Wyoming, the home of Devils Tower.
Richard Dreyfuss obsessing over Devils Tower
     In short order, Patrick and I booked flights to Denver.  While doing so I suggested that if we were going to Colorado, we absolutely must take a side trip to Wyoming to climb the Tower.  I don’t know how much Patrick knew about the Tower at the time.  He certainly had never been there before – hell, he hadn’t even seen Close Encounters of the Third Kindbut Patrick and I had spent the last year peer-pressuring each other into doing all sorts of things climbing related.  When he researched the Tower on-line, he was immediately hooked and on board with my quest.


Patrick topping out in Clear Creek Canyon
      We arrived in Denver late on Wednesday August 4th and met up with Patrick’s friend Aleya, who had arrived before and would be climbing with us.  Our first day was spent in Clear Creek Canyon, just outside of Golden.  Local climber Kira played hostess.  The four of us tackled many challenging sport routes, including putting up a 70-meter route with a 60-meter rope.  I led the route and ran out of quick-draws two-thirds of the way up.  I was forced to down climb, pirate some of the already placed draws and continue up with my re-filled gear loops to finish.

      After saying goodbye to Kira, Patrick, Aleya and I drove back to Boulder and to the Pearl Street Pub, a watering hole in the heart of the entertainment district.  It was the first official event of COtweetup.  Thanks to Eddie Bauer’s new clothing line called First Ascent, all drinks and food were gratis.  Giveaways included wristbands, CD’s, hats, t-shirts and technical clothing.  Fun was had by all, and new friends quickly became good friends.

The Maiden - a Flatirons Classic

      On Friday we were joined by Peter, a professional photographer from Seattle.  Our goal for the day was the Maiden, an imposing pinnacle at the southern end of the Flatirons, a classic climb featuring a dazzling 110-foot free-air rappel from the summit.  Unfortunately, a late start, confusion over the directions on the approach and an afternoon thunderstorm conspired to chase us off the climb before we could even begin.  Indeed, we never even found the Maiden, hiking above and beyond it, catching only glimpses of two neighboring spires, the Matron and Devil’s Thumb, the former rising dramatically above us on the Shadow Canyon Trail, the latter dominating the skyline all around.

       The hike was not a total loss.  We had gathered important beta for a second attempt, and by topping out at around 8000 feet, Patrick and Aleya had soared to new heights.  They had climbed higher in elevation than ever before in their lives.

Patrick & Aleya enjoying 8000 feet
      On Saturday, with a much earlier start we hit the South Mesa Trailhead for a second attempt at the Maiden.  We were joined by Dave, my Denali expedition team leader who hails from nearby Evergreen Colorado.  A seasoned alpinist but a neophyte on rock, he was anxious to test his mettle.  Dave and I went after the Maiden; the rest of our party tackled the nearby Matron.  Success was had by all. 

Dave begins his 110-foot free-air rappel from Maiden summit


      Sunday was the final day of COtweetup, and Patrick, Aleya and I planned to spend the morning sport climbing in Boulder Canyon before heading north to the Tower.  The approach to the crag turned out to be half the fun.  In order to get to it, Boulder Creek, which in spots can rightly be labeled a raging torrent, must be crossed.   It cannot be forded and there are no bridges.  No matter to the rock climber.  Our method of crossing was the Tyrolean traverse.

Patrick on a Tyrolean traverse of Boulder Creek
       In a Tyrolean traverse, a rope is stretched between two fixed anchor points on opposite sides of the void to be crossed.  The climber clips into the rope with a quick draw or other similar line attached to the harness belay loop, and proceeds to pull himself across using only his hands.  This was my first Tyrolean traverse and it was a blast.  The waters rushing below my backside provided such a rush for my senses; I knew it would not be my last.

      Boulder Canyon afforded us numerous sport routes of varying degrees of difficulty.  My final route of the day was the Magician, a 120-foot mixed route rated 5.9.  It easily could have been rated 5.10, and it was well worthy of a PG rating.  Patrick led the route, a route he later called the toughest lead of his life.


Patrick atop the Magician of Boulder Creek Canyon
      I seconded the Magician, broke down the anchor and rapped back to the base. I gathered my gear and followed the trail to the rest of our group where I found Patrick belaying Aleya.  He had a look of concern about his face – not concern for his charge, but a concern borne out of his just completed Magician lead.

      “I don’t think we’re going to do the Tower,” he somberly announced. “After Magician, I’m having doubts about crack climbing.”

      My jaw dropped.  The Tower after all was the ultimate prize of our trip; it was or our Grail.  I did not immediately respond.
Classical Depiction of The Grail
      “Aleya’s not climbing it,” Patrick continued.  “Maybe you and I can do it, but I’d feel bad if she just came along and had to hang out while we climbed.  We can look into getting a guide, but I think we should climb Eldorado Canyon tomorrow instead.”

      Still, I had no response. I just walked away.  I took the trail to climber’s left, and I began to idly shoot video of Josh working a 5.11d route as I engaged Liz and Peter in conversation, the topic of which I cannot remember.  My mind was elsewhere.  My mind was on the Tower.

      Had Patrick just scuttled my six-year dream?  I knew I couldn’t climb the Tower alone.  I needed Patrick.  To climb the Tower we needed each other and Aleya needed both of us.  For the Tower to be topped, we had to do it as a team.  I was confident in my abilities. I knew Patrick had the necessary skills, and from what I had seen from Aleya over the last three days, I knew she had what it takes as well.  I walked back to Patrick.

      “There’s an old saying in mountaineering,” I began in a consoling tone, but with more than a hint of disappointment in my voice.  “‘The mountain will always be there.’  The Tower will always be there too. We can always come back.”

      “Will you be disappointed if we don’t climb it?” Patrick asked.

      “You know my credo of living life without expectations,” I answered. “This goes against that creed, but I did expect to climb the Tower on this trip.  So yeah, I’d be disappointed.”


      I’ve known Patrick for about a year, and as strange as it may sound, given this relatively short duration, I’ve entrusted him with my life on countless occasions during that time.  As climbing partners, he has reciprocated that trust in me.  Over the last year, I have also discovered that Patrick and I share something more than just a love for climbing.  I’ve found that we are both very susceptible to peer-pressure when it comes to all things climbing.    

      “Look, we’re all going back to Boulder to take Peter to the bus station.” I said.  “Let’s just gather up our gear and we can talk about it along the way.”

      We proceeded to do just that.  We said our goodbyes to Josh, Sarah, Larkin and Liz.  We shared goodbye hugs with four people who, to me at least, were complete strangers just a week before, but in short order had become as close to me as any longtime friend.  With one more Tyrolean traverse across the creek, Boulder Canyon became a memory.

      After dropping Peter off to catch his bus, our climbing party now numbered three, but two questions loomed: where would we climb and who would be climbing?  Aleya’s return flight to Baltimore was scheduled for Monday morning.  If she was to climb the Tower, she needed to change her flight.  Patrick and I were not flying back home until Tuesday, and we again considered Eldorado Canyon as an alternative.

      Boulder grew distant in our rear view mirror, and Aleya, Patrick and I sped northward to an as-of-yet unknown destination.  We approached Longmont along the Diagonal Highway and closed quickly on I-25.  We stopped at Starbucks.  There, over a cup of coffee, we availed ourselves to free Wi-Fi service and Aleya employed her laptop to best explore flight change options.

      “Bill, what do you think we should do?” Aleya asked.

      “We came out here to climb the Tower. I think we should climb the Tower,”

      Aleya continued her search.  Patrick searched too.  I continued to brood.  Decision time had arrived, and everything appeared to hinge on Aleya’s ability to find a suitable alternative flight.  Aleya put down her coffee and looked up from the screen. 

      “Ok, it’s done,” she announced.

      With the click of a mouse, her flight was changed; we were Wyoming bound.  The dream was intact.  The team, Aleya included, was going to climb Devils Tower after all.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

No. 2 - The Power of the Tower - Part 1 of 4

a four part series detailing a personal quest to climb Devils Tower Wyoming

- by Bill Urbanski


      In July of 2004, after climbing Hood and Rainier and Borah Peak in Idaho, I began to meander my way back east in a motor home with my family.  We visited numerous sites along the way of historic, geologic, and touristic significance, but one site more than any other had a profound impact on my life.  It was in the extreme northeast corner of Wyoming.  It was Devils Tower.

Devils Tower Wyoming
       Devils Tower is one of the most unique geological features on the planet.  Rising abruptly 1200 feet above the Wyoming plains, it was first believed to be the core of an ancient volcano.  Today, those in the know refer to it as an “igneous intrusion” formed some 50 million years ago when molten magma forced its way upward into the surrounding sedimentary rock.  The magma cooled, fractured, and formed what we see today as distinctive columns, revealed in all their splendor by the power of millions of years of erosion and leaving us with a stunning artifact of antiquity.  From a distance, the Tower resembles a massive tree stump. Up close, one discovers an array of vertical cracks and columns, a virtual playground for rock climbers.

      When I visited with my Dad in 2004, I did as most do when visiting the Tower.  I strained my neck gawking upwards to glimpse a view of the thrill-seekers seeking to reach what appeared to be an unattainable summit.  As I watched the climbers on the Tower that day, two prevailing thoughts buzzed about my brain: first, those people are crazy, and second, I’m going to climb that some day. I did not realize it at the time, but the power of the Tower had me and there was no escaping it.

Backpacking in the Wind River Range
      When I returned home, that one tantalizing day at the Tower mixed in with the many memories of my trip, and the spell cast upon me by the Tower slipped innocently into my subconscious.  In the years that followed, mountaineering reigned supreme.  I went on to explore the Wind River Range of Wyoming.  I took on Colorado Fourteeners and the rugged mountains of the Beartooth, all the while looking to Denali (Alaska’s Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak at 20,320 feet) as my ultimate prize.  The memory of the Tower appeared to fade.

Summit of Gannett Peak, WY - 13,804'
      With each journey west however, something strange was happening.  I seemed to be encountering more and more rock routes along the alpine slopes I was traversing.  I wasn’t climbing them, but I sure was noticing them.  Little by little I found myself strangely drawn to the allure of the rock.  The Tower was intruding. A sea-change was occurring. I came to view rock climbing not as a feat of folly but as a curious challenge, a new way to test the physical limits of my body.  It was compelling; it was seductive; it was sexy.  It was something I decided I had to do.

The Technical Rock Routes That Taunted Me in My Tent
   By 2007, it was time to act. On a tip, from of all people a Common Pleas Court Judge, I discovered an adventure group from Bloomsburg University called Quest.  Under their guidance, I took classes on basic rock climbing technique, gear placement, and anchor building.  I supplemented my education by reading all I could.  I bought books. I read on-line. I watched videos.

      I was hooked all right, but my Quest outings were few and far between.  I needed to find regular climbing partners, which proved to be a bit of a challenge.  Northeastern Pennsylvania isn't exactly a rock climbing mecca.  My partners for alpine excursions were scattered about the country, and they were mountaineers, not rock climbers.  I turned to the internet, and I reached out to other climbers in the virtual world.  Success!  I had the good fortune of meeting Gail and Mitch, who lived near Philadelphia but were weekend regulars at the Gunks – New York’s Shawangunk Range in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains.  The Gunks offer some of the best rock climbing east of the Mississippi.  My first trip there was a rousing success and it only made me want more.

      Gail and Mitch no doubt inspired me.  Their enthusiasm for the sport was infectious. The only problem was that they lived two hours away from me.  If I was to make climbing a regular part of my life, I needed to find a climbing partner closer to home.  I again turned to the internet – enter Patrick.  Patrick was a local climber who was just as new to the sport and just as eager as I was.  We began to climb together at the Paradise Wall, the Library and the Main Wall in Mocanaqua – our local crag.  In order to hone our skills, and to maintain our habit during inclement weather, we joined the local indoor climbing gym.
      By the time spring of 2010 arrived, my love affair with rock climbing was in full bloom.  In May, Patrick and I and several other friends attended the New River Rendezvous, a three-day festival for rock climbers at the New River Gorge in West Virginia.  There was camping, food and entertainment, competitions, vendors, seminars with some of the world’s best climbers, and of course great climbing – all for twenty-five dollars.  Upon my return, I touted the extended Rendezvous weekend as the best twenty-five dollars I ever spent in my life.  Then at month’s end my burgeoning rock climbing career and recent climbing binge came to an abrupt halt.

Denali Team Assembled with Gear on the Talkeetna Airstrip
Chris, Dave, Rob, Ken, Joe, Stony, and Bill
      It wasn’t accident or injury that arrested my exploits.  It was a return to my alpine roots.  My shot at Denali had arrived.  On May 29th I flew to Alaska to meet up with six other alpine mountaineers, some of whom I knew and had climbed with before, some not.  Denali would be the most significant undertaking of my climbing life.  It was intimidating.  Our team would attempt to reach the summit via the West Buttress Route.  Along the way we would battle extreme conditions, acute mountain sickness, epic snow storms, even avalanches.  Failure or injury on Denali could spell demise for my foray into rock.  Oddly, a successful summit had all the potential to do the same.

Friday, December 3, 2010

No. 1 - Observations on Jtreetweetup 2010

As a rule, I always wait at least a week before I write a trip report.  The extra time allows me to gather perspective and to be more reflective.  Most importantly however, time gives my imagination the space necessary to fill in the ever-widening gaps in my memory, which in turn makes for better copy.

For my most recent trip, the wait also gave me the opportunity to read five or six trip reports from others who had adventured with me.  So, for better or worse, my account will be necessarily colored by the collective memories of others.  I suspect also that my remarks will be far less introspective than others, much more superficial.  I’ll be using the Carey model.  Enough with the prefatory comments, here goes.


Jtreetweetup (JTT) – a four-day rock climbing/camping adventure in California’s Joshua Tree National Park.


JTT for me began on Wednesday, November 10, 2010 at 4:20 AM.  David picked me up at my house.  He was ten minutes early.  But I was awake and ready.  I had just stuffed the last tri-cam into my trusty duffle which incidentally weighed in at precisely 49.5 pounds on the airport baggage scale.  My task of packing had begun just four hours earlier, and with a mere two hours of shuteye, I piled my sleep-deprived body and gear into David’s car and drove off.  We flew from our local airport (AVP) to Philadelphia and then on to Los Angeles (LAX).

Five days later on November 15th I flew home, after a one day side trip to Chicago where I rode the L, viewed the second city from the Willis Tower Skydeck at 1300 feet, took the world’s shortest cab ride, devoured some deep dish Chicago-style pizza, and enjoyed the company and hospitality of non-tweep friends.   


Two months ago, I was on the fence about this whole JTT thing.  While I thoroughly enjoyed my first ever climbing tweetup experience (COTweetup – August, 2010) and met some amazing people in the process, I didn’t have an overwhelming desire to go to the California desert for this one.  In the northeast, the summer climbing season was winding down; holidays were approaching.  I was content to shut it down for a few months and pick back up with my climbing after the first of the year.  But then…

But then, sometime in early October, I read a tweet from my good friend Patrick.  Patrick has been my primary climbing partner for most of my climbing life.  Sure, he had talked about the JTT before, but Patrick talks about climbing destinations the way a six-year-old talks about Christmas presents – only with more enthusiasm.  They are wish lists, and often they are big and bold and brash pie-in-the-sky desires that stand little chance of ever finding their way into Santa’s sleigh.  So when it came to JJT, I heard talk but did not expect action.

Then came the tweet.  Suddenly and without notice, Patrick was announcing to the twitterverse that he had just “pulled the trigger” on a flight to Palm Springs.  He was going to California. He was going to the JTT.  This tweet changed the equation for me.  If Patrick was in, I had to give this some more serious thought.  (He is such a bad influence on me).  I decided that if I could find three good reasons to go, I’d pull the trigger myself.  Why three?  Well, it just seemed like a good number.  I really didn’t care how many reasons I could find not to go.  Believe me, there were plenty.  Besides, people are always finding reasons not to do something.  So I set about to focus on the positive, even accentuate it.

An internet search quickly revealed reason number one: dirt cheap airfare.  I glanced at the calendar and discovered reason two: the trip was to take place during Veterans’ Day weekend, which meant one less work day to worry about missing.  Reason three came just as swiftly in the form of a thirty-second conversation with Patrick on a Tuesday night at our local climbing gym in Wilkes-Barre.

            Bill:  I can’t believe you booked a flight to go to Jtree.
Patrick:  Hey, you know, we have to leave this Pennsylvania place ‘cause it’s bogus; and if we don’t get some cool climbs for ourselves, pronto, we’ll just be bogus too.

            I was sold instantly.  It was as persuasive as any argument ever posited by the most learned of legal scholars.  My response as I recall was equally as eloquent.

Bill:  All I need are some tasty climbs, some cool brews and I’m fine.

I booked my flight the next day.

The preceding conversation represents my best effort to create that far less introspective, much more superficial trip report.


Twenty-three, maybe twenty-five tweeps from all corners of the country.  I have to agree with much of the commentary already out there on this one.  It was the people that genuinely made this trip an immensely pleasurable and memorable experience.

Think about it fellow JTT tweeps. Take away the group.  Imagine for a moment that we all did this trip on our own – okay, maybe in pairs, you need a belayer – but same trip, same camp site, same weather, same climbs.  Would it have been as enjoyable? No chance.

During my years as an alpine mountaineer and recently as a rock climber, I have come to realize that climbers are a special breed.  There exists a certain camaraderie between climbers and among the climbing community as a whole.  And what’s more, this connection is almost always instantaneous.  It’s hard to explain why this is other than to say that it just is.

Maybe climbing attracts those with personalities similar to my own and I just fit.  Perhaps it’s the fact that climbers routinely place their safety and ultimately their lives in hands of their climbing partners.  Trust, the foundation upon which good relationships are built, is a necessary byproduct.  (Crap, so much for being superficial).

Anyway, my point is that there is a special hard-to-define bond that exists between climbers.  I feel a closer kinship to climbers I’ve known for a few short months than I do to high school or college classmates or coworkers I’ve known for years.  My family still insists that climbers are crazy, but there is no doubt in my mind that these crazies I’ve met over the years, these enablers to my addiction, have truly enriched my life. 

The other observation I have about the climbing community, and the JTT group in particular, is that they all seem so damn smart.  I’m an advanced-degree kinda guy.  Hell, I’m an anti-authoritarian multi-disciplinarian (not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds good).  But after ten minutes of conversation with a group of climbers, I often end up thinking I’m the dumbest guy in the room.  What other group sits around a campfire and engages in a half-hour long discussion on string theory? (Particle physicists excluded of course).

Then in the blink of an eye, the conversation turns.

Teri: A skeleton walks into a bar and says ‘gimme a beer, and a mop.’
Bill: Two peanuts were walking down the street. One was assaulted.  Ooh, Ooh wait, I have another one. Two fish are in a tank. One turns to the other and says, ‘hey, you know how to drive this thing?’

Such diversity - of life, of culture, of background, experience and education.  If only United Nations diplomats were climbers first, the world would be a much safer and peaceful and fun place.


The climbing, oh yeah, almost forgot about the climbing.  It was great.  As an east-coaster, the landscape of Joshua Tree is other-worldly.  I half expected to see two guys in spotted tunics peddling by in an open-floored car with stone wheels.  The monzogranite formations popping out from the high desert plains amongst a sea of Joshua trees, cacti and sage brush, provided as advertised world-class climbing.  The rock was rough and sometimes sharp, and took some getting used to.  My hands were much worse for the wear after three straight days of dawn-to-dark climbing.  And despite my best efforts, I could not totally satiate my appetite.  This of course simply means I must go back.

As for specific climbs, my favorites include: Double Cross, Sail Away, Congratulations, Vorpal Sword, Aiguille de Joshua Tree, and Sexy Grandma.  These are classics for sure.  I let our amazing host Eileen know early on that I have a penchant for classics, and she was ever gracious in her recommendations.  But in all honesty, I enjoyed every climb I was on in Joshua Tree, even the Gunsmoke bouldering traverse.  I may not be much of a boulderer, but hey, Gunsmoke is a classic.

I suppose my next climbing trip to Joshua Tree can’t come soon enough.   The only problem I foresee will be deciding what to climb when I get there.  Classics are classics for a reason.  Next time I know I’ll want to revisit some of my faves, but for me there is a whole world of unexplored territory out there.


I’ve always said that you know you’ve had a good vacation if upon your return you are so thoroughly exhausted that you feel like you need a vacation.  This is my vacation modus operandi.  Frankly, I’m not sure how my body does it sometimes – how I can exert so much energy and survive on so little sleep.  There seems to be a constant adrenaline rush – up early, out late.  To me, sleep time on vacation is wasted time.  I think my mind takes over and controls my body through fear, more specifically, fear that I might miss something.  I have a ten-year-old nephew who appears to suffer from this same affliction.  He regularly and desperately tries to stay awake during family get-togethers as they wind on into the wee hours.  Why? – same reason, for fear he’ll miss something.  Maybe vacations just take me back to this childlike state.

For JTT, it was no different.  It was dawn-to-dark climbing followed by enjoying the company of my fellow JTT tweeps around the fire pit until the last glimmer of light faded from the last smoldering ember.  I never wanted to crawl into my tent until I knew everyone else was already in theirs.  If someone was still sitting by the fire, I had to be there; or if some silly soul wanted to make one more run up the Manure Pile, I was in.  These are just examples of a suck-the-marrow-out-of-life philosophy that I wholeheartedly endorse.

Recently, I stumbled across two quotes that echo this sentiment:

“Dream as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die today.”  - J. Dean.

“As you grow older, you'll find the only things you regret are the things you didn’t do.” – Z. Scott.

            Words to live by, at least in my book.

Okay, I’m waxing philosophic again, so here’s one last nod to the superficial – my conversation with my Uncle Stu after showing him some video of a climb I butchered on the Thin Wall called Congratulations.

Uncle Stu:  Congratulations. Things looked kind of rough out there.

Bill:  Well, I'll tell you Stu, I did battle some humongous climbs! But you know, just like I told the park ranger, "Danger is my business!"

Uncle Stu:  That's fantastic! Let me ask you a question. When you get up there, do you ever fear for your life?

Bill:  Well Stu I'll tell you, climbing’s not a sport; it's a way of life.  It's a way of looking at that climb and saying, "Hey bud, let's party!" Where'd you get that jacket?

Uncle Stu: Got this from your aunt. Let me ask you a question. What's next for Bill?

Bill: Heading out to the Gunks, Mocanaqua, maybe Yosemite, then me and Mick are going to wing on over to London and jam with the Stones!

Awesome! Totally awesome!

link to full set of Bill's Jtreetweetup photos, click here