In May of '04, I was invited to tag along on an extended Memorial Day weekend climbing trip. Nearly any destination would have been just fine. Devils Tower though, that was a bonus! Spring was finally giving way to the warm air of summer, and I was itching to climb. I had always peered at the tower's strange formation through photos and such, but never really attempted to put any plans together. In fact, I thought the climbing was just incredibly hard there & I simply hadn't reached that level yet. Well, there are indeed a huge number of hard climbs on the tower. There is also a nice selection of intermediates. There's even the all-time super classic Durrance Route which only goes at 5.7.
Plans were made for the trip well in advance. I called the Devils Tower Lodge and got acquainted with Mr. Sanders over the phone. I'm compelled to make a recommendation at this time for anyone reading this in preparation for their own trip to Devils Tower. There is only one place you will want to stay in the area - with Frank Sanders and crew at the Lodge. Their hospitality and gracious accommodations can be found nowhere else - period. Jaap - if you can get him talking, will share great stories, and offer his unique perspectives on our American lives. Kate will have you thinking you were back home as a teen - where mom did everything for you! God bless her. Frank's climbing guides, Kurt & John, will treat you to all the adventure you're willing to bite off - be careful of what you ask for! And Frank...well, you will just have to meet Frank for yourself. Suffice it to say, once you've met him, you will have a friend for life.
Our first two days at the lodge rained off and on; just enough to keep us from committing to the multi-pitch effort required to reach the top of the tower. We attempted some shorter routes here and there, but eventually packed up our ropes lest we get trampled by the crowds. With the weather, everyone had the same idea as us. They however, didn't mind climbing over/under other parties along the way. We saw a father leading a climb, wearing a helmet. He had his son (maybe 12 years old?) belaying him from below - without a helmet. 100 feet up from dad, a guide and his climber (not one of Frank's guides) kicked loose a grapefruit size rock. It missed the dad by inches and crashed into the rock just a few feet from the boy. Fear and claustrophobia forced us to retreat. The father/son team wisely decided to do the same. George (climbing with us) immediately rappelled to the boy and gave him a helmet to wear. It had started to rain again and the boy was clearly shaken. His dad should not have had him up here in these circumstances - especially without a helmet! As a parent, I wanted to give the guy an earful on his selfish poor judgment (At the very minimum, he could have given the boy HIS helmet). My apologies for ranting and raving here, but he made me mad! We ended up just heading back to the lodge for some food and drinks. There was a bobcat or mountain lion in the area that evening. He circled Frank's property for hours and let out screams that had everyone terrified to sleep in their tents that night. He would eventually move on, as you could hear his cries from probably miles away. There was a Minnesota crowd there at the lodge. They were obviously not ever taught to come in when it's raining out. They pushed on until dark before bailing on their climb. Soaking wet, they all floundered in around 9 pm.
The next day, we woke to more rain. We quickly decided to do the tourist thing, and go visit Mt. Rushmore and the Needles in S. Dakota. What a fun day! The weather was windy, but at least the sun was shining. We saw Rushmore, and Jerry slipped George Washington the tongue! From there, we went to the Needles to check out some of the area's classic climbs. It turned out to be too windy to comfortably climb, so we just played on the rocks like a bunch of kids. We found a small spire that had a dramatic lean to it. It was only a short 5.8 climb to the summit. We decided to climb it just for photo's sake. We ended up ALL climbing it, one after another - without anyone rappelling down! We had 6 people on top; our group, and Kurt & John from the lodge, who were enjoying their no-work day. It must have looked like we were trying to topple the spire from the road below. Although we hadn't gotten to climb the tower, and 2 days of our 3 day weekend was behind us, we were all having a great time. We headed back to the lodge for some more food and drinks.
That evening we all psyched ourselves up for a do-or-die day tomorrow. It was the last chance we had to get on something and get to the top. There's something about climbing on the tower for the first time. It seems almost imperative that one reaches the top. I'd image that after summitting any number of times, the aesthetics of the rock itself have a stronger appeal. We were definitely summit bound when we woke. Jerry, his daughter Ashley and I would be one roped team. George, CD and Mark would be another. We left quite early, and still managed to get scooped by another party on the classic Durrance route. We decided to wait a bit and come up behind them. However, their leader began to downclimb from his lead on the second pitch. It was then obvious that they were setting up a rappel to get off the climb entirely. This didn't bother us any. Jerry led the first pitch and belayed up Ashley, then me. Then, knowing that the second pitch was what made the climb "classic", gave me the gear rack to lead on. It was indeed classic, with parallel cracks that slowly separated until one becomes so stretched out that they can barely reach. Just then, the pillar to the right begins to separate enough for the leader to work into its crack. The pitch finishes with hand-width to off-width jams in a sweet dihedral. Many thanks to Jerry for unselfishly giving me the best pitch. During the 3rd pitch, Ashley dislocated her shoulder! I was sure that the day was over. Stubborn and courageous though, she refused to abort the climb. She gathered her senses and continued the chimney climb to her dad's belay. I was happy to climb with Ashley and her dad together. They're father-daughter bond was a treat to witness during our climb. Hanging out with Ashley on the belay ledges felt just like being with one of my sisters, as we laughed and joked with each other. The last couple of pitches merely traversed to grassy slopes, which led to the summit. The weather was awesome. Finally, I was standing on top of the tower.
CD, George and Mark came up shortly thereafter. Then some of the other climbers from the lodge summitted. It was a good day for all. Back at the lodge, we had a feast of a cookout. We lounged in the hot tub and stayed up quite late getting to know Frank's crew and the other guests. The next day, we would all be off in separate directions to return to the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives. Visiting Devil's Tower is something I will not forget though. I will try to make my way back to the Tower as much as the good Lord allows. In fact, I hope to bring my daughter Holly up the Durrance route someday, as did Jerry with Ashley.