Devil's Tower

Where: Black Hills, North Dakota, USA
When: 4 October 1998
Route: Durance route

Last weekend was magic, Buff and I managed to get out of Boulder by 8 (late enough) on Friday night and didn't notice the drive on a perfect Autumn evening as we progressed North, onwards into Wyoming, not turning onto the I-80 west as we left Cheyenne but staying on the 85 and on into the lonely Wyoming wilderness. By 2 o'clock we were tired and ready to sleep when we pulled into the camp ground at Devil's Tower, able to barely make out it's dark shadow with only a small moon visible.

The Durance route was our choice and the most popular way to the top. We had been told to be ready for traffic on the route, especially on a Saturday, the climbing ranger confirmed this as we got the details of the climb we needed of him (not having a guide book for the area). However, there turned out to be only one other party on the route all day and they were two pitches ahead of us so we never saw them until close to the top. A perfect day, in the high teens (centigrade), we climbed with two ropes, wearing long pants and a T-shirt, carrying a Camelbak (water pack containing 2.9L) with us that also held our windcheaters and some food (sandwiches and energy bars). Challenging pitch (rope length) followed challenging pitch, the crux (hardest) third pitch falling to me. After an hour long stimulating wrestle with the rock and my rusty climbing head I made the last move to the anchors. Buff followed and we continued upward at a leisurely pace, now far above the surrounding trees at the tower's base.

Devil's Tower has gained much of it's notoriety from being in the opening scenes of the film Close Encounters of the Third kind and unlike many images we have from the silver screen it's stature embellishes with the naked eye, it's continuous expanse of columns mesmerizing the viewer. The only way to summit the tower is to lead a rock climb, the Durance is the easiest route up, a classic, but only for the competent climber. So unlike many other binocular watching climbing destinations, the summit is pure - you will meet no hikers on top.

Most climbing parties skip the first pitch of the route by scrabbling up a slope and coming in at the bottom of a fallen column. By sheer accident (not having a guide/map) we took the wrong approach hike and when we eye-spied the fallen column above us, we decided to climb a pitch to the 'normal start' rather than hiking around. At the top of the 6th pitch I belayed Buff up in the mid-afternoon sun. We met up with the other climbers, they had driven all the way from the twin cities in Minnesota just for the weekend to climb Devil's Tower. One of the climbers had been there earlier in the summer and had only made it to the top of the second pitch and was back to finish the route. They commented that on that occasion he started from the bottom up but this time they had skipped that first pitch, we didn't realize what they meant but when they kept saying 'you guys started from the bottom' we caught on.

Up to this point the route finding had been straight forward but now there were some options to summit. The lads had just come down off the top and pointed us to the recommended finishing pitch, an easy solo scramble (5.2/MS in climbing ratings) up a chimney system and other broken rocks. We topped out together and spent a peaceful hour alone on top before doing 3 double abseils to the bottom as the twilight dwindled. On top we were afforded stunning 360 views of the hilly wooded unpopulated Wyoming country side. We unscrewed the metal canister on top and wrote our names - Buff wrote in 'Ethiopian' that he was the first Ethiopian to summit, which is quite likely. As then self timer on the camera beeped down we watched the shadow from this unique summit tower stretching across and beyond the nearby slowly meandering river.

That evening we drove to the Black Hills and found a camp site in the National Forest. Early Sunday we made the short drive to the as you would expect anti climatical Mount Rushmore, along the roadside we saw some all-white Rocky mountain goats who were introduced to South Dakota in the 20's. As you approach from the South, the side view of Washington as you come around the bend is a view I had not seen in pictures before and is very impressive. From our climbing US bible atlas we knew there was climbing to be done around and soon drove past some climbers and stopped to get the low-down. We decided to head for Custer State Park where in the quiet parking lot we were fortunate to bump into 2 older climbing partners who after consultation hiked in with us to the base of this awesome looking crack, aptly named Classic Crack. It turned out they were old schoolers and their guide book said it was a grade under it's actual rating. In hindsight we were glad of that as if we had know the real rating we likely may have not climbed this classic. It was an incredible one pitch climb that would not end, crux followed crux and just when you thought your exhausted body could not do much more the crack continued over head. I don't know how long I took on the lead but it was probably over an hour, leaving Buff belaying below in the shadowy confines of the narrow windy gap that separated our formation with the neighbouring one. In the last 15 metres I broke into the sun and was delighted to finish the pitch as I made those last moves. Safely on top, I looked at what little remained of my climbing rack and thanked God the climb did not go on for another 20 feet. As I set my belay a local helicopter pilot flew overhead with his customers.

Towards the top of the pitch a scream from Buff threatened to interrupt our perfect weekend. I knew it was his shoulder that popped and didn't worry as I had him on a bomber belay, but I was concerned that he may have banged his head as he lost grip on the holds as his shoulder went. He managed to get it back in within half a minute or so, the pain gone he was able to keep the ascent going but had to treat the left arm gingerly, not taking too much weight with it.

We spent some leisurely time at the summit overlooking Sylvan lake and the other granite formations in this picturesque setting, enough time for the chopper pilot to return with more customers. This time we provided them with some top of the summit poses as the flew by giving us the thumbs up.

We reluctantly descended and took a quick spin up the Needles highway before turning towards Crazy Horse and the 6 hour drive back to Boulder. As the mile markers whizzed by in the empty darkness and the breakbeats spun on the Discman, thoughts turned towards my pending move from this country and to the great years I have spent here.