For years now, I have wanted to climb Devil's Tower. I am not really sure why, but maybe because of it's reputation for the world's best crack climbing, or because of it's striking presence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or maybe simply because one of our friends kept asking us if I had climbed it yet. Whatever the reason, Bill and I impulsively flew from Boston to Rapid City on Sept. 2nd. The trip took 10 + hours with a layover in Salt Lake City. The wait in the airport is painful, but there are tours of the Mormon Temple that leave and return to the airport for people who have two hours or more between flights.
When we landed in Rapid City, South Dakota it was 100 degrees. The average temperature for September is 70 degrees. This heat wave would plague us for the rest of the trip. In Rapid City we rented a car and began our three hour drive to Devil's Tower. We were not sure if we would be able to get to the general store at the entrance to the park before it closed, so we pulled off at a K-Mart early in the drive to get our camping fuel. We were also delighted to find a KFC with an all you can eat buffet.
When we arrived at the park, there were still quite a few camping spots left. We chose a prime spot on the edge of the prairie dog town with Devil's Tower looming in the background. Deer kept running though our campsite. We me a pair of climbers at the camp ground who had climbed the Durrance route that day. They said the approach was simple and quick and the route was nice. I got more information about the approach and wished them luck on their continuing trip to the Tetons.
We got ready for bed early so we could get a good night's sleep. The temperature had dropped drastically, so much so that I needed my zero degree sleeping bag. I figured the heat wave was over.
We left our campsite before dawn and signed in at the lodge at the base of the Tower. We were optimistic; planning to climb the famous Durance route in the morning and if we were up to it, climb another route called Solar in the afternoon. We wanted to travel light, and since the morning was so cold, we left our extra water in the car where we could get it for lunch after the first climb. In light of the temperature from the previous day, this proved to be a very bad choice.
The directions to the route were pretty clear. Some parts of the approach were steep and very dangerous, leading to a very unpleasant fall. We decided to rope up to be safe. Managing the gear and the uncertainty of where we were going put us more than an hour behind schedule. We learned that the climbers that we had met (they were mountaineers by trade), were a lot quicker at this type of climbing than regular climbers like us. We recommend that those not experienced with mountaineering or with this approach add extra time into their plans.
We slithered and scraped to the top of a cracked slab and we saw the base of our route, beginning at a broken column that leans against another column. Hopefully it would stay leaning where it was at least until we climbed it! We had spent weeks training for this trip, climbing every crack in New England we could get our hands into. Our plan was to combine the first two pitches into one pitch of 152 feet. Bill started off but did not have his usual grace. Was he nervous? Was this too hard? He continued at a decent pace and then put me on belay.
I started climbing and struggled to get good footing. The texture of the rock felt like soap! Over 16,000 climbers had been on this route, resulting in an amazingly polished rock surface. I struggled, groaned, and grunted. When I got to the top of the first pitch, I never wanted to climb again but I did not have a choice...Bill was still 80 feet above me. I had to continue. We learned that all cracks are not created equal.
We decided to combine the next two pitches as one (as if it had been a good decision for the first two pitches). The rock was still polished but it challenged me with perfect hand jambs, arm bars, and squeeze chimneys. Still shy of the Tower summit by 200 feet, many people rappel from the top of this pitch but since this was the most tortuous climb of my life, there was no way I was coming back tomorrow to climb another climb and top out then. We were very low on water but we decided to continue the 3 pitches of third class climbing to the summit. Due to the exposure and our unfamiliarity with the remainder of the ascent, we stayed roped up. Though the scrambling was technically easy, fatigue, dehydration, rope management, and my general crabbiness slowed us considerably.
We finally made it to the summit, which is a rather small place compared to the large base. The summit was covered in grass and rocks. We were the only people up there on top of the world. I could see 5 states and the entire sky.
Although it would have been two rappels from the top of the Durance route, we now had to do six rappels from the summit. Finding the rappel station from the top is simple because it is below the cairn, but getting down to the rappel was a bit scary so we roped up and belayed the down climb to the station. We decided to do a simul-rappel for the first rappel so that we could save a bit of time. Unfortunately on a later rappel, the rope jammed before it even left the next station, so Bill had to jug up the hung rope to free it. By the time he descended to rejoin me on the ledge where I was waiting, his lips and mouth were white and cracked and bleeding from the dryness.
I completed the final rappel and touched the ground. I left Bill behind to do the last rappel while I ran to the ranger's station to get water. When I arrived, the ranger was just coming out. He asked me if I was part of the party of two on the Durance route. We had put an estimated return time of noon, and it was 5 pm. He said he was going to walk out to the tower to see if we needed anything, but it seemed as though we were ok. He asked me if we summited for his records and wished me a good evening. I guzzled water and bottled more for Bill.
I ran back the path to find Bill. He was sitting on a rock and was beet red. I poured a bottle over Bill, half expecting to hear the water sizzle as I dumped it on his head. I offered him the remaining water. I was pleased that he was still alive. Our adventure was over. Interestingly, the first person to climb Devil's Tower was quoted as saying that you could never have enough water to climb the tower. We later learned another lesson: If you drink a lot of water fast after a long period of dehydration, you can not keep it down.