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.

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