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.


  1. I can't take the suspense!

    Great post, I've really enjoyed reading these. I will be climbing the tower this summer!

  2. yeah, it's a real cliffhanger isn't it? ;) call me anytime if you wanna talk Tower.

  3. "a belay ledge that in his estimation was the size of all of Canada"

    Really? Haha...

    Great post Bill. Y'all need to come up to Canada and see just how big it is! Eh.

  4. You know Dave, I don't think Patrick has ever been to Canada, so maybe he wasn't the best one to judge. haha. I was just quoting him there. We both have tentative plans to hit Squamish next year, so maybe afterward, he can reassess.