Devils Tower with Frank Sanders
I climbed several routes on Devils Tower with my friends Erik Schaefer and Jessica Kilroy. Our leader/guide was the legendary Frank Sanders, also a friend with whom I've climbed many times.
Before I get to the story, let me tell you that Frank is a gifted pianist who made a recording in my studio in Madison, WI. Look for the release of it, hopefully early next year! He's really good.
We got to Frank's Devils Tower Lodge on Tuesday evening, and no one was there (all out climbing), so Erik and I played Scrabble (he won), and went to off to our respective beds. The next day we got up and Frank took us out for a day of strenuous climbing. None of the routes we took that day led to the top, but still high enough to put some fear into us. The last climb of the day looked pretty hard and both Erik and I wanted to opt out. It was a 10a-rated climb called “New Wave”. We watched as Jessica, a much better climber than either Erik or myself, puzzled over the crux and we got sufficiently intimidated by her struggles that we decided to forgo the climb, especially since it was the end of a long day and we were both exhausted. Well, Jessica and Frank pressured us (in a friendly way, of course), so Erik decided to have a go at it.
Erik is a bodybuilder and a complete workout zealot. He is in better shape than I’ll ever be and has more strength in his left big toe than I have in my entire body. So when I saw him having a tough time on the crux, preceded by Jessica having a tough time on it, I was truly ready to beg for mercy. But Jess, who was now on the ground with me, just smiled, pointed to another route on our right, and said “try that one, it’s much easier”. So I did.
It was a single, 200-some-odd pitch route with about a 50-foot crux on the thing. I wanted to give up halfway up but I just kept getting encouragement from Erik, Jessica and Frank: “Come on! You can do it! Don’t give up now!” So I clawed my way to the top and found out it wasn’t an easier climb after all; it wasn’t even the same difficulty, it was harder! The route Erik and Jess did, “New Wave”, is rated 10a; the one I did was called “Broken Tree” and was rated 10b. Wow. I felt good about that one!
Then, finally, the last day Frank taught us to do some aid climbing, then we decided to roll to the top via the Durrance route, a classic Devils Tower route rated—depending on which guide book you believe—a 6, a 7 or an 8. Personally I think it’s a solid 7, but I’m not great at crack climbing techniques so who knows?
We started at 4:00pm, a little on the late side for such a long climb. And we got into trouble right away. Two groups ahead of us were having minor issues. This group, Vicente and France, have logged their own report. They are really nice people and France in particular helped me kindly with a haul bag issue I was having. We had gotten up only one pitch when this became apparent. Before we started the second pitch, Frank helped them out while Erik and I waited below. Finally it was our turn to go.
The climb was long and, for us non-crack climbing dudes, somewhat difficult. While Erik and I had both climbed for about 12 hours the day before, we were now tired, it was getting dark and the wind was picking up fiercely. Pitch #3, the longest and probably the most difficult, was the last one I got to climb with any daylight. Frank and Erik got up pitches 4 and 5 with the last remaining bit of twilight, but by the time it was my turn, (I was last, which came complete with haul bag duty; getting the haul bag up past the various catches and ledges in the rock so it would follow us was not always easy. Thank you for your help on pitch #6, France!), darkness had fallen.
So while I waited on my ottoman-sized rock column about 450 feet above the earth for Erik to complete pitches 4 and 5, I hurriedly dug through the haul bag to get out my headlamp. As one would predict, the headlamps were at the bottom of the bag, so I had to take all the other stuff out first: extra layers of clothes, food, water bottles and other extra gear, to get to the headlamps at the bottom. I never did locate mine in the dark, so I grabbed one of Frank’s—the first one I got my hands on—and attached it to the clips on my helmet. Only then did I realize that I didn’t know anything about this light, even how to turn the thing on. I fumbled for awhile and got it on, then started re-packing the bag. In the meantime, Erik’s trail-rope—the other end of which was attached to me—was pulling out slack as he climbed higher and higher, out of sight and, to my dismay, out of earshot. So I could now neither see nor hear my companions. I got the haul bag re-packed and set it in front of me. Space was limited but I had to keep the haul bag and myself on the platform until it was my turn to climb.
In spite of my care, somehow Erik’s trail rope—the one attached to me—got underneath the haul bag. One nice tug of that trail rope later, the haul bag flipped over the edge and I watched in horror as it started plummeting toward the ground.
I was able to catch the attached rope and bring the bag to a halt without rope-burning myself too badly, and I then painstakingly started pulling the thing back up. It caught a couple of times but I was able to get it back just in time for Erik’s trail rope to pull tight. Erik and Frank were ready to, with my help, get the haul bag up, followed by my turn to climb that pitch. I gave the bag a nice sideways flip to get it out of the crack, in which it surely would have gotten stuck, and watched it go up. I was then able to make the trip up the next two pitches myself, in the dark and feeling as alone as I ever have been in my life. But I finally made it to the top!
We took a few photos up there, all the time fighting the wind, which was easily 40 mph at the top, and signed the Devils Tower Summit Log.
Having lost a bet to Erik earlier on the trip, my punishment was that I had to perform as many push-ups as I could at the top of the tower. I asked Erik to take photos of this and he did take one, but as luck would have it, it turned out looking like a dark blob. Darn. I did push-ups on Devils Tower and have no proof!
Then it was time for the long rappel downward. We got back to the lodge at 12:15am to find that Jessica had a hot meal all ready for us (sadly, she wasn't feeling well and didn't climb with us that day).
All in all, a wonderful few days on the tower with Frank, Jessica and Erik. Highly recommended!
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