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.

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