Easter weekend 2009. My friend Colin and I had been planning a trip to the Needles climbing area in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Originally this was going to be a trip with quite a few people, but it turned out to be just us two. The climbing on Saturday was fun, yet sufficient snow coverage hindered us from climbing too many routes in the Needles. We climbed a bit throughout the day on Saturday and topped it off with a hike up Harney Peak in the late afternoon. We knew some weather was about to pass over the area, and we were debating what we wanted to do on Easter Sunday. Still wanting some adventure, we decided we would pay Devils Tower a visit, only about an hour and a half out of our way from where we were staying at a friend's house in Rapid City. Judging from the forecast, we expected not being able to climb the tower; the forecast called for rain pretty much all day. Colin and I decided that we would check the weather in the morning and call it. We slept very well after our day of climbing in the Needles.
Colin was up at 7 to check the weather. I followed him to the computer and saw that there was a lot of rain on the radar in the area. We decided to sleep another hour and check back. We slept until 10. I got up and went to the computer to check the weather, and to my surprise, it seemed that all the rain had passed the Tower and judging from the radar map, no more rain was on its way. I inform Colin, and we try to pick out a route on Mountain Project. Mindful of the seasonal falcon closures, we picked El Matador, a 5.10d that Colin had his eye on for a while. I agreed that we give it a try, and so we packed up and were out of Rapid City by 11.
Arriving at the Tower
Driving west on I-90 had us driving through the rain. When we got off the interstate in Sundance, the sky was gray, the air cool, and the ground wet. We drove north out of Sundance into the ranch lands. Our hopes were slightly turned down when we drove into some fog that was sitting on the mesas. Yet, as we came out of this cloud, the view amazed us. There stood the Tower in the distance, with completely blue sky behind it. Within minutes, we passed the park entrance and were at the parking lot. Colin and I were full of excitement, perhaps so much that we weren't thinking much about the fact that we were about to climb a trad route rated 5.10d, which was harder than either of us had ever climbed on trad. I bought the guide book (which proved to be a very wise move) in the gift shop, and by 1 PM we left the parking lot and were heading up to the base of the climb.
At the parking lot before the climb.
We easily identified El Matador from the base. The 130 foot stemming pitch looked pretty intense from where we were, but we were so excited to be at the Devils Tower that all judgment went out the window, I think. Colin rocked pitch 1, a sweet finger crack that lead up the the belay ledge beneath the crux pitch. Within half an hour, both of us were standing on the belay ledge. Studying the pitch above us, our mood quickly changed. Above us rose a pitch of sustained 5.10d climbing. Colin gave it a shot, but quickly backed off about 5 feet off the ledge. He asked if I wanted to give it a shot, but I declined. It looked like a really hard climb on trad. Finally Colin tells me he is going to aid climb it. So he does. It took a long time. He was using a lot of pro, and I even had to lower him back down to where I was so he could get some of the nuts and cams he had placed earlier on so he could use them higher up. Two and a half hours later, he was standing on the next belay ledge, 130 feet up from me. Now it was my turn to clean. I managed to struggle up the entire pitch, but not without taking for maybe 10 times. I too, finally got up the pitch, but not without leaving a nut behind that I could not get out. Our spirits went back up, because we still had quite a bit of daylight, and we knew the hardest part of the climb was over.
Looking up the crux Pitch
The Sun goes down...
Pitch 3 was a short, but fun hand crack. Being only 40 feet in height, we were able to climb this in very little time. Yet once we got a view of pitch 4, our hopes went down again. Above us was another crux; a finger crack that led to a 5.10a roof. Now normally, this wouldn't have been too much of a problem, yet the protection was more scarce on this pitch that the previous ones, and the sun was beginning to get close to the horizon. Colin decides to do some Aid climbing through the hard moves. I belayed him up to the roof, where we was able to stand on a couple of cams and make his way over the roof. After the roof, I was not able to see him, and it seemed like a long time until he was at the next belay station yelling "off belay". By now the Sun was pretty much on the brink of setting. I knew we had two more pitches left until the summit. I yelled up to Colin and suggested we bail, yet in order to do that we would have had to leave quite a bit of gear behind, which we both didn't really want to do. I climbed pitch 4 pretty unorthodox. Using artificial holds and batman-ing up the rope, I got up the pitch as quickly as I could. When I arrived at the belay station, the sun had set, and darkness was quickly approaching. Luckily we both had headlamps, so we broke them out. Colin quickly climbed pitch 5, which consisted of a 5.7 chimney complete with loose rock and bird crap. Placing minimal pro, we both got up this in pretty good time. Now we were just a bit below the summit in the pitch black. Colin climbed the last 60 feet of easy terrain, only placing one piece of protection. I let out a sigh of relief when I heard him yell "Off MOTHERFUCKING BELAY!" very loudly. I motor up the pitch and arrive at Colin who is hanging off the bolts just feet below the summit. I move over to him and we top out at the same time.
Me About to Top Out
Two at the Summit
Triumphant yells and screams resonated from the top. Surprisingly, we even heard our success shrieks being answered down at the parking lot by congratulatory "YEEEAAAAAAAAAH"'s by climbers whom we would meet the next morning. Colin and I walked the dozen yards to the summit cairn and sign the log. It was around 10 PM at this point, yet there was very little wind and the temperature was bearable. We broke out the guide book to find our rappel route. We had only one rope, and since most of the rappels off the Tower require two ropes, there was only one rappel that we could do, which was the Extension Rappel. One problem arose here; both of us sort of lost our sense of direction amidst the excitement of topping out. The stars were out in full force, yet the moon hadn't risen yet. We found two anchors that looked like they were correct. Colin raps first, and judging from the guidebook, we were supposed to be looking for the top of a column which was where the next rap station was, 80 feet below. I hoped for the best as Colin rapped over the edge. A few minutes passed by until I heard him yell back up at me, telling me that he was not seeing any column. We both came to the realization that we were on the wrong rappel, so Colin managed to bring himself back up to the summit where I was waiting. Confused, we both looked at the diagram in the guide book. It seemed that the anchors we were looking for would be easy enough to spot if we knew which direction was which. Annoyed, we head back to the summit cairn. After a few minutes of haphazardly trying to identify stars to get which was way north was, we came to the conclusion that it would be best to wait until the Sun came up.
By now it was past 11 and the temperature was dropping. Colin had long pants, a t-shirt, a thin long sleeve shirt, a wind shell, and approach shoes with socks. I had on long pants, a long sleeve cotton shirt, an 80's ski jacket, and no socks with my climbing shoes. We both knew it was going to be a cold night. I tried stuffing toilet paper into my shoes to make makeshift socks, but it didn't work out too well. We stuffed our feet into my pack and huddled down in a semi-protected spot on the summit plateau. We spent the entire night shivering and not getting any real sleep. The wind picked up as the night wore on. Every so often we would have to readjust ourselves in order to keep each other warm. Finally pre-dawn light started coming up the eastern horizon. The wind was still growing stronger, and both of us were utterly exhausted. We waited about 15 minutes after the Sun had risen until we put our harnesses back on, packed up our gear and gave finding the anchors another shot.
Tower shadow in the morning
The Rappel, Return, and Confrontation
Even in the day, these anchors were tricky to spot, but eventually after about half an hour of searching, we found what seemed to be the right ones. The guide book said we needed to do 4 single rope rappels. After 4 rappels we were still pretty high on the Tower, prompting some doubt that we were not on the right rappel route. Even more of an annoyance was that there were no rap anchors near us. We had landed on some blocky shelf area of the Tower, so we decided to leave one bomber nut and rap off that. Finally we got to the last rap station, which consisted of two runners slung around a rock sitting on a ledge. At 9 o clock we touched down back onto the ground, which meant we had spent about 19 total hours on the Tower, which became my longest day outing to date. We were tired, annoyed, and glad to be on the ground, but also glad that we had a good adventure.
Back at the Base
We walked back the mile or so to the parking lot. On our way we met the guys who had been congratulating us from the parking lot when had summited the night before. They were on their way to climb themselves. We got back to the car and began to pack up. It was Monday morning, school was in full swing, and we were about 7 hours from Boulder, so we made an effort to leave quickly. Just as we were about to fill up our water bottles in the bathroom, a ranger asks us if we had spent the night on the summit. We reply "yes" and he asks us to come inside the office. "Crap" we both thought to ourselves. In the office, the ranger informed us that spending the night anywhere on the Tower was forbidden. Colin and I had not known that fact, and we certainly hadn't planned on it. I was prepared for this ranger to be an asshole and start writing us tickets, yet to my relief, he was very stern, yet sympathetic towards us. He explained how climbing on the Tower is looked down upon by many different groups, and how it is very difficult to keep climbing open when people disobey the rules. Being a climber himself, he understood that we were two young guys who got a late start and didn't have sufficient enough information to make the rappels. He graciously gave us a break and sent us on our way. Colin and I drove out the park and marveled at our epic adventure, but also thought about how we could have made that entire situation better for us. I felt bad that I broke the rules that jeopardized climbing on the Tower, and I believe the ranger also saw that we felt bad about it. I guess it was just lucky that we got a break from a ranger who understands climbers, unlike many other rangers I have come into contact with.
-Aid climbing is very tedious and takes a long time, especially when you don't have enough protection or aid equipment.
-An early start to a climb is essential for it not turning out bad.
-Spur-of-the-moment climbs do work out, but make sure you have all the necessary beta.
-Not upsetting the local climbing community is very important, but when it comes down to it, in climbing, you gotta do what you gotta do.
Thanks for reading!