Devils Tower

Devils Tower Trip Report (#1499)

  • Signed By: Greg Schaffer
  • Date submitted: October 13, 2004
  • Number of People Encountered:

CLIMBING DEVILS TOWER

By Greg Schaffer October 2, 2004

It's hard to believe that more than a year has gone by since my identical twin brother, Jeff, and I climbed Devils Tower at the "mature" age of 60. This was the realization of a dream that began 40 years ago when I briefly visited Devils Tower on my way back home from college. I had only begun climbing the year before and I wasn't ready to climb the Tower. But, I vowed to someday return to climb it.

Fast-forward 39 years. I was firmly wedged into the slightly overhanging slot on the second pitch of "Mary's Crack", a climb at Donner Summit in California. Based on my predicament, I wasn't going anywhere either up or down. Twenty something years ago I had zipped up this route. Perhaps, at age 60, I was just slowing down.

In the year 2001 I had contacted Jeff to see if he might be interested in climbing Devils Tower with me. He agreed to participate in the climb. But first we needed to check our outdoor climbing skills. We had not been climbing together outdoors very much, and it showed when we went to Lovers Leap for a test climb. Whereas we felt comfortable with 5.6 leads, we were grossly inefficient at placing protection. It took us longer to place and retrieve gear than to actually climb the route! Clearly, we needed more practice. Having incompatible work schedules for the summer, we decided to give Devils Tower a pass and try some other year. An obvious year would be 2003 when we were both 60 years old.

It was mid-June of 2003, and Jeff and I had spent two days climbing in Yosemite. Not only was I beginning to feel comfortable leading 5.8 routes, but I was actually enjoying it! We were getting better. And faster. In early July, we spent a day climbing at Donner Pass. Which gets me back to Mary's Crack. "Who," I wondered, "was Mary?" Maybe it wasn't named after her. Maybe it had something to do with female anatomy. Judging by my situation, I concluded this was probably correct.

Faced with one of those urges to "Just Do It!" I moved out of the slot and was soon on easy terrain above. Jeff berated me, rightly so, for overprotecting and stalling on the pitch. This would be our last day of practice climbing. In four weeks we would be climbing the Durrance Route on Devils Tower.

We chose the week of July 29th through August 5th for our most excellent adventure. With luck, we would be ascending the Durrance Route of Devils Tower on Thursday, July 31st. Our main concern was the summer heat. We had heard that the Durrance route was probably the worst route for summer climbing due to the direct afternoon sunlight it receives in the afternoon. For that reason we planned an early start. Unfortunately, so did everyone else.

We awoke at 5:00 a.m. that Thursday to the sound of thunder and gentle rain! Having read the warning about climbing Devils Tower in the rain, we decided to sleep in a couple more hours and see what happened. After a leisure breakfast, and noting that the rain had stopped, we decided to give the Tower a try.

It was now 8:30 a.m. and we were on our way up the talus. I suppose most climbers third class it all the way to the base of the route. We decided to rope up for the last 30 yards since it wasn't obvious we were on the correct approach route. As it turned out, we probably were.

Upon arrival at the Durrance route, we encountered the usual: one party on the route, and another party ready to start. The waiting game had begun. This gave us plenty of time to speculate (and worry!) about the climb. What were we doing here? The party ahead of us balked thirty feet up the first pitch. What is it going to be like higher up?

Jeff and I had agreed that I would lead the second pitch (the crux pitch) since I was better at crack climbing than he was. Indeed, I assumed that I would do all the leading. Consequently, when it was our turn to climb, I was surprised when Jeff said that he would lead all the odd pitches and that way we would share leads. I was delighted since I always seem to be slow at warming up.

Two hours had passed since we left the rangers station. Jeff proceeded to cruise on up the first pitch. I would have also had it not been for the pack I was wearing. My advice: do NOT take a pack up this route. It will definitely get in your way inside the chimneys.

Now it was my turn. I had been having nightmares about leading the second pitch based on stories from other climbers. The word was that the pitch was really a 5.8, and one climber even told me the crux at the finish was more like 5.9! If so, that would be pushing my outdoor leading skills. Countless times I had looked at photographs of climbers on the route in hope of gaining clues about it. But, to no avail. As it turned out, I methodically led the second pitch without any real problems. The pitch goes up two parallel cracks that separate as you reach their end. Jamming and stemming are the keys to success. Near the end of the pitch I was able to continue stemming until I could easily move into the slot at the finish. Most climbers, so I am told, make this move lower down which definitely increases the difficulty. Take along a 4' cam to protect the final moves. Whereas the route is somewhat strenuous, it is relatively straight forward if you have had crack climbing experience. I would rate the pitch a 5.7 (or 5.6 g).

It was now Jeff's turn to lead. I managed to get a great photo of him while he was scoping the route. "Cussin' Crack", as it is called, is indeed a short awkward chimney. But the chimney can be avoided by staying on the outside and face climbing. Of course, this leaves you more exposed. The biggest difficulty is placing the initial protection. I wonder if the small flake on the left would really hold a leader fall. Once past the chimney, one traverses to the right and then heads up to the belay ledge. All the belay ledges are great! And they have belay bolts that make setting up the belay a trivial procedure.

I again took over the lead on the fourth pitch. This lead is a real delight! Just plain fun and well protected to boot. Jeff then led the next pitch, mostly chimney climbing, while I struggled up it with the #@*%&!$ pack getting in the way.

It was a relatively cool day for July, about 90 degrees as I recall. But, this route gets the afternoon sun and is notorious for being 10 to 15 degrees hotter than air temperature. This was beginning to take its toll. Whereas I perspire a lot, Jeff perspires profusely. In spite of having a pack with us, we really had not packed much water (my fault). I thought we could get buy with two quarts of water for the day. In retrospect, this was a serious oversight. It was really taking its toll with Jeff.

Finally, the last pitch. We decided to climb the Bailey Direct Finish rather than take the longer traverse route to the right. I had forgotten the route description's admonition that "If you encounter anything loose or difficult, you are probably off route and need to reconsider your path." Apparently, the correct route goes more or less straight up. This did not look appealing, so I traversed left in search of something better. But this is where I encountered loose rock. On account of that, I did not place any protection since falling rock would probably hit Jeff. We were both wearing helmets, but the scenario did not look inviting. On the other hand, a fall from this height (I was about 25' above the ledge) could prove fatal. Afterwards, I heard that someone had indeed been killed at this point when he fell. I continued up a chimney and then moved out onto an exposed face at the top. After a few moves I was up to the short third class section leading to the top.

We spent about half an hour on the summit and then prepared for the descent. Because we had ascended the Durrance route, we decided to rappel down it. Bad choice! A much better rappel route is about 30' to the left of this (as viewed when looking at the Tower from below). This is a little to the left of where El Matador finishes. The rappel from there is steep and relatively featureless compared to the rope eating cracks of the Durrance route.

Our first rappel went okay, but on the second one, the ropes got hung up. We were at the base of the 4th pitch. So, do I climb two pitches back up to free the rope, or try something else? Around this time we noticed a climber coming up the second pitch. Judging by his speed, he would soon reach us. We yelled down at him and asked if he would free our rope after he passed us. He said he would. Good. In a half hour this will all be over. Not so! He was a guide with two beginners in tow! Two hours later, our rope was cleared and we could begin rappelling again. It was now after 6 p.m., and Jeff was suffering from dehydration. Whereas we could reach the base of the climb in two rappels, I considered this too risky because of possibly hanging up the rope again. Instead, we carefully rappelled one pitch at a time. This worked, but it was now more than an hour later.

Rather than descend the approach route, I chose to make a short traverse to the right where we would be able to make one rappel to the talus and walk off. This worked. By 8:30 p.m., we were back at the car. Jeff was cramping badly. We drove over to Devils Tower Lodge where we were spending the night. After a large dose of Endurox, Jeff's cramps went away.

I was scheduled to climb El Matador (5.10+/5.11-) with Frank Sanders the next day. At the last moment, something came up and Frank had to bow out. John Walker took Frank's place. Having been through the ordeal on the Durrance Route, I was wondering how prudent it would be to attempt El Matador. After all, I was 60 years old and was dehydrated from the previous day's climb.

During the year I had become obsessed with El Matador, after seeing a photo of someone climbing it in a climbing brochure. Since it involved sustained stemming, something that I'm good at doing, I figured I could climb this famous route. But, I had just climbed the Durrance route with Jeff the day before, so I was wondering how I would hold up on a second day of climbing with no rest day in between.

The first pitch of El Matador is wonderful. It follows a crack that gets thinner and steeper as it reaches a ledge. I was enjoying it so much, that I completely forgot about the next pitch that is the crux of the climb - a 130-foot long, nearly vertical stem chimney. I reached the belay ledge with a big smile on my face and then looked up at the next pitch. I let out a "holy shit!" as I nearly fell off the ledge. The chimney seemed to be overhanging! Not only that, it wasn't even clear how I would start it. Frank Sanders had said there are only two moves on the pitch: moving your left foot up, and moving your right foot up. He forgot to mention that you have to repeat this about 100 times on each foot! John did a great job of leading the pitch, but I was worried about all the protection gear he had placed as well as how loudly he was breathing near the top. This was not a good sign. "What is a 60 year old man doing on El Matador?" I thought. John had begun the pitch with a fairly difficult hand jam. I decided to opt out and see if I could stem the chimney instead. Fortunately, I could. There is a reasonable crack going up the left side of the chimney and a mediocre one on the right side. About ninety feet up I felt totally exhausted, having felt this way after the first ten feet! My calves were burning up. There were no rests anywhere! (If you want to duplicate the feeling, try standing on your toes for 20 minutes.) I yelled something to the effect that I needed to rest and promptly popped off the route, falling about five feet. Immediately, the pain went away. I agonized over getting back onto the route again. As soon as I did, the calf pain came back. Realizing there was no easy way up this pitch, I made the commitment to just finish it and ignore my calves. When I reached the top I was so exhausted I could barely talk. I asked John what was the most difficult route he ever did with a client, and he responded, "We just did it." We still had four more pitches to the summit. I felt like quitting and rappelling off the route. From where we were, we had a superb view of the visitor center. Of course, the tourists had an equally good view of us. I wondered what they thought while watching the two of us on this route. Jeff had shown up and taken some photos of us earlier then he headed off to get other shots of the Tower.

After about fifteen minutes, and some water, I was feeling better and decided to go on with the rest of the climb. The next pitch, a 40-foot jam crack, was rated 5.8. As is typical at Devils Tower, the routes are more difficult than their ratings. Even John said that if the crack had been any longer it would have been rated 5.9. I managed to crank my way up it with a minimum loss of blood. (I don't use tape.) We reached the summit, and after a short walk to the top, came back and rappelled off the route. We rappelled just to the left of El Matador down a mostly featureless, nearly vertical face. Clearly, this was far superior to the descent route Jeff and I had taken the previous day.

Was the 39 year wait worth it? Yes. In spite of the ordeal, there was something very satisfying about being 60 and climbing the Tower. A final note: up near the top of Devils Tower there is lots of loose rock. I highly recommend wearing a helmet.

Devils Tower Trip Report Index