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.


  1. Just so everyone is clear, I wasn't going to Rap first out of cowardice. I wanted to go down first to clear the undoubtedly tangled mess of a rope.

  2. Wow, what a story!!! Thanks for sharing, I was riveted. Glad you all made it down, and good thinking on the twisted rope. :)

  3. Great story, rappels can be such dicey things but this one certainly had added spice to it!

    Glad you all got down safely!