I live in Florida. How in the hell did I let climbing become my obsession? It must be because it is as common a pursuit here as surfing is in Banff. A middle age guy has to prove he can do the improbable, I guess. Quest for uniqueness and all that. Whatever my spurious reason, I've spent the past 13 years finding ways to climb: The local climbing gym all year, road trips to North Georgia, annual trips to Jackson Hole. And the occasional solo trips to Colorado and Switzerland. I don't intend to elicit pity, but people who live in close proximity to decent climbing might have a hard time understanding the anxiety-arousing process suffered by a flatlander when he plans what he expects to be his only major trip of the year. You have to balance available time-off, weather, air fares, availability of partner or guide and a host of other logistical variables. Ususally for me, I have been able to pull it off, putting together a series of trips over the years that have satisfied my craving for high places. It is a year-round process. Six months of planning...one week of climbing...followed by brief satisfaction, as the process of planning the next trip revs up again. Tic toc. In 2009, the formula broke down. A new paradigm was born on the fly.
What are the Bugaboos?, most people would ask as I told friends and family of my next trip. It was attractive to me that my obsession now included a paradise that few in my circle had ever heard of. I was attracted to many things: the aesthetics of perfect granite nunataks poking up through glacial ice, the remoteness of the interior ranges of British Columbia, the paradoxical comfort of the Conrad Kain Hut and the long moderate alpine rock routes. I had found a place that was beyond trip-worthy. My obsession blossomed in January, with a fixed date of July 4-9. That is the "start" of Bugaboo climbing season. The heli-skiiers are long-gone and snows are receding. I knew that an early season trip was a risk weather-wise. A week or two can make a lot of difference as to whether the snows have receded enough and whether the wet season has passed. I had read tales of people spending five days cooped up in the Kain hut sheltered from torrential rains. The weather is the X-factor in any climbing trip. In the Bugaboos, it is XXX.
Despite weeks of unseasonably sunny and dry weather over the Purcells, Guide Mark Stewart and I started up the trail to the Kain Hut in a light rain that turned into a downpour. By the time we arrived, we found a hut full of refugees from the weather. There was an ACC women's group and a group of public safety personnel taking a crevasse rescue course. I met a nice couple from Ontario and even a solo climber from Jackson Hole whose partners had bailed out on him. The forecast was more of the same. Above the hut it was primarily snow and more snow. Over the next four days, I was able to do some fine glacier trekking and some nontechnical mountaineering routes on East Post and Crescent Spire, but was unable to enjoy any of the legendary Bugaboo alpine rock routes. Summit vistas were like the inside of a ping-pong ball. By most standards it was still a nice trip, but I didn't get to do what I came for.
On returning to Florida this year, I experienced something unexpected, an itch I had not scratched. Not to sound melodramatic, but it does feel like a clock is ticking. I'm pushing 60 and realize that the number of climbing trips I will be taking in my life is limited. I went to Canada to rock climb. Glacier trekking and scrambling are fun, but that wasn't I why I went all the way to the Bugs. I had been snowed out. Sounds exotic to fellow Floridians. It felt like I had lost out on a chance for a peak experience. A check of my calendar revealed that my next chance for any kind of trip was at the end of September. Four days. Where could I go and what could I climb in four days at the end of September. It's too cold some places and too hot in others. What's on my bucket list? The only thing that fit the bill was Devils Tower.
Tic toc. The clock is a slavemaster. Limited number of trips left in the tank. Limited time to climb. Limited time to plan. After a series of emails and phone calls I was able to work it out with a guide to try the Tower September 27 and climb in the Black Hills on the 28th (or try the Tower again on the 28th). Tic toc. Catch a plane to Rapid city. 50 minutes to make a connection in Denver. Tic toc. Two hours to the Tower from Rapid City. Finally, I am there. Instantly I feel home, if only for a few days. My blood pressure drops instantly. This is my other life. The one I can escape to occasionally and only briefly. The one that for better or worse is different than the one I escape from. The one I cannot explain to most people I know.
I was initially looking forward to camping. I consider car camping to be pretty plush. But I dropped that in favor of an opportunity to stay at the B&B run by legendary Tower climbing guide Frank Sanders. Frank is an American original and the choice to stay there was a great one. Staying at the Devils Tower Lodge is an experience in itself, especially for climbers. The lodge was also the rendevous point where I would hook up with Sylvan Rocks guide Chris Spellmeyer.
The forecast was perfect, but it was still surprisingly warm when I got there. When I arrived in Northeast Wyoming, it was 85 and sunny. I watched a couple parties baking on the West face of the Tower in the hot afternoon sun. I awakened on summit day to surprisingly warm weather. Where was the cold front? I sure didn't want it rolling in while I was on the hill. When I saw black clouds rolling in from the North, I had visions of the Bugs all over again. Fortunately, it was a dry front that passed quickly. By the time Chris and I were roped up at the base of El Cracko Diablo on the Southern aspect of the Tower The blue skies had returned. There was a stiff wind howling out of the North, but we were on the lee side and largely unaffected. El Cracko is rated 5.8. For some reason I wanted an alternative to the classic Durrance route. Think big, think different, think stupid sometimes. This is not your average climbing gym 5.8 or even your average Tennessee Wall 5.8. Apart from the third class approach and the fourth class finish above the Meadows, El Cracko is basically a 300-foot continous jam crack.
The crux pitch is about 150 feet of continuous 5.8 crack. I was truly surprised at how exhausting it was. Aestethically beautiful climbing, but exhausting.
The rock is unlike granite, sandstone quartzite or limestone. Whether because of climbers or weather, much of it is surprisingly polished. Not like most volcanic rock. After the crux pitch, the remaining fourth class is actually fun and pleasant, leaving you refreshed to enjoy the airy summit. I thought I climbed ugly, but still enjoyed this summit as much as any I've known. My itch was scratched.
Now, I had a day just to enjoy this other life of mine. I Met up with Chris again at Sylvan Lake in the Black hills for a day of pure pleasure climbing. The Needles area is filthy with rock climbs of all shapes and sizes for all tastes and skill levels. Chris helped me pick out a couple fat, juicy summits that met my specifications of the moment: multi-pitch, 5.6'ish, with nice rock and airy summits. Cathedral Spires 2 & 3 provided a days worth of climbing satisfaction minus objectives or challenges to my 59-year-old ego. Another itch was scratched.
The ticking clock now went silent. I had filled a couple of needs that chased away that gnawing sense of urgency. My body felt used without being abused. I didn't have the stiff knees that follow most alpine trips. I had not experienced AMS and wasn't dehydrated. This trip was surgical. I packed two full days of gourmet climbing into a four-day trip and did everything I wanted to do. I could now head on toward my 60th birthday without thinking I had wasted a trip or a year or a day. I felt what I think every climber wants to feel after a trip, whether it is Everest or El Cap or El Cracko. Satisfied. It took two trips, but I was satisfied.
Oh yeah. I didn't get snowed on. Came closer than I expected though. Five days later, I got an email from Frank showing the first snow of the year on Devils Tower. Glad I missed it.
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