The Tower Classic:
While the rest of our gang would be driving up to Devils Tower on Friday, Angela and I left home Thursday after work. After spending the night out under the stars at a small campground near The Badlands, we only had a couple hours of driving left Friday Morning. We hoped to be able to climb the most popular route on the Tower before the weekend crowd arrived. (Weekday climbing is the best!) To our delight, even after taking a more scenic route from Spearfish to the Tower, we arrived a little after nine and headed straight for the parking lot at the visitor center where we could rack up for the climb.
After packing just what we needed for the climb and reading the guidebook's description of the approach, we headed down the trail. You don't have to go very far along the trail before you leave it and start scrambling up through the talus field. Once through the talus field, the approach becomes a little more difficult--at least it does when you don't really know where you're going! It took us a little while but we figured it all out without too much backtracking. When we finally rounded the corner where you can first see the start of Durrance, we expected to see a crowd at the bottom, or at least some people up on the route. Much to our satisfaction, the route seemed to be deserted! With no one nipping at our heels, we decided to rest a while before beginning the climb. We lounged around a while, munching on gorp and fully appreciating the sunny skies, pleasant temps, and wonderful surroundings. Finally we decided we'd better get started climbing before someone actually did show up behind us.
We were going to be swapping leads today with Angela leading the first pitch. This worked out well for her as she would get all the easier pitches and I would get the Durrance crack and the Jump Traverse (lucky me!). The first pitch, the Leaning Column, climbs up to and then on to the top of a large broken section of rock. As a side note, we've heard just recently from one of Frank's guides that the Leaning Column started to wobble this year! Do hope it stays put and doesn't come crashing down when anyone is around. Perhaps this pitch will get renamed the Wobbling Column Pitch.
Angela made quick work of this first pitch and soon was belaying me up to her stance on top of the Leaning Column. While Angela had been up this route before back in 1999, this was my first time. I found the climbing on the first pitch to be just nice, mellow, 5.6.
So, the next pitch was supposed to be mine--the Durrance Crack. I must admit that looking up this pitch for the first time was a bit intimidating! It looked considerably steeper and more sustained than the first pitch. The pitch actually follows two parallel cracks. The one on the right is a monster wide crack and the one on the left is a good deal narrower. Pushing aside any feelings of doubt inside, I happily took the rack and headed upwards. Having two cracks and faces to work with gives you a lot of opportunities to use "the lost art of opposition" (as our buddy Matt once called it). The rock was well featured and while the climbing was a bit demanding there were numerous good rests and stances along the way. The real excitement of this pitch came at the end where the cracks seem to diverge. The good crack on the left starts to tempt you away from the end of the pitch which finishes on a large ledge to the right. After placing my largest cam above me with a long runner, I remember standing for some time contemplating how to best move into and commit solely to the wide crack on the right. There just didn't seem to be any great way to do it. Perhaps if I had made the transition a little lower it would have been easier. Finally I finished calculating in my mind a move that might do the trick. It was the best I could come up with in the time allotted. Instinct told me there was at best a 50/50 chance it would work. So without further ado, I launched myself toward that wide crack. To my amazement and delight, the move I thought improbable actually worked and I quickly finished out the rest of the pitch, pulling onto another comfy ledge.
As I belayed Angela up the Durrance Crack, I noticed that there were indeed climbers above us on the route. Could it be that we were actually catching up with someone! This just never happens!
The third and fourth pitches, Cussin' Crack and Flake Crack, respectively, are both quite short and rated 5.5. We had discussed earlier the possibility of linking these two pitches together. It was Angela's lead, so it would be her call on linking the two. Once she got established in Cussin' Crack, she found the climbing dead easy and scampered quickly to the next belay ledge. Not satisfied with doing just a 30 foot pitch, she attached a long runner to the anchor bolts and climbed on up Flake Crack making it look easy and fun!
When Angela reached the fourth belay she found that, believe it or not, we had actually caught up with another party on the climb. While I climbed and cleaned pitches 3 and 4, she got acquainted and chatted with these other climbers. By the time I joined them, they had discovered that they had previously corresponded via email with Angela about climbing Mount Moran. Small world indeed!
As it turned out, this happened to be one of there first big trad climbing adventures. I wasn't sure whether to admire them for the guts it must have taken to take on something so challenging given their level of experience or to be scared for them for the same reason. They were certainly having some adventure. At the urging of Frank Sanders (Frank just loves alpine starts), they had gotten up early (3:30!) to start the day. Needless to say, when we joined them on the large fourth belay ledge at 1:40, they had already had a long day. They seemed to be a bit confused about where they were on the climb (I think they had forgotten their topo), and were seriously considering bailing; neither seemed to have enough nerve left to lead the last few pitches. Angela just couldn't see them being denied the summit when they had already worked so hard, so we agreed to help them along a bit and let them follow us up the last few pitches on top rope.
With just two technical pitches left, I took the lead and quickly climbed Chockstone Crack which was only about 40 feet in length and the easiest climbing on the route. I just love how all the pitches on this route have names! Angela followed right after and brought up our companions' rope.
The next pitch, for it's length, is one of the most intense ever. The pitch is just a short traverse to the right, but after gaining a rather awkward stance and clipping an old fixed pin, a rather wide gap presents itself in front of you--The Jump Traverse! I'm not sure about the name of this pitch as the guidebook highly recommends not jumping. In 1999 when I had climbed Bon Homme Horning Var., I had the great pleasure of hanging out in the Meadows and watching numerous friends find their way across the Jump Traverse. It was highly entertaining as they were all convinced that jumping was the way to go, but most of them failed miserably. Fortunately no one was hurt (other than their ego) and a good time was had by all. At the time, Angela, being less foolish than the rest, managed to climb cleanly across the gap, impressing us all with her smooth style.
So now, after clipping that fixed pin and eyeballing the gap for myself, I had to decide: To jump or not to jump? That is the question. My testosterone driven ego side of my mind wanted to jump--it would be cool to pull it off. However, a more self-preserving side of my mind urged me to find a better way across. With the amount of slack necessary in the rope to make the jump, a leader fall here could be ugly. I just couldn't see the point of risking broken bones on the first day of the trip, so I decided to climb my way across.
Interestingly, the Durrance route has traditionally been given a rating of 5.6, though most now agree that the Durrance Crack pitch is 5.7. That said, the guidebook clearly states that free climbing across the Jump Traverse is 5.8 if you don't hang on to the piton (or jump--not sure how you'd rate that!). In my mind, hanging on to the piton would constitute aid and make the climb 5.7 A0. Though I'm not above pulling on gear occasionally, it's certainly a last resort in my mind. With some effort I inched my way across the gap utilizing the barely large enough holds that presented themselves. Definitely the hardest move on the climb, but it's over as soon as it starts.
On thing about any traversing pitch is that they're almost always equally exciting for the leader and follower. After I quickly established a belay and redirected the rope around a large rock to minimize Angela's fall potential, she came across the traverse undaunted. The same couldn't be said for the two climbers we had picked up earlier. I think they might have been regretting giving in to Angela's arm twisting. Though you could see the fear in their eyes when they saw the airy traverse for themselves, they both managed to climb cleanly across.
Successfully finishing the Jump Traverse leads to a large, low angle area called the Meadows. Here there are numerous ledges to walk around on and lots of vegetation. We've always joked that someone should put a couple pygmy goats in the Meadows! Wouldn't that be a hoot to work your butt off getting up the Tower and find a couple goats grazing in the Meadows?
From the Meadows, it is still a ways to the top, but the difficulty is only fourth class, however route finding can be a bit tricky. We showed our buddies how to shorten their rope with a kiwi-coil so they could simulclimb the last bit behind us. We led on and found our way to the top fairly easily.
Since it was just mid afternoon and the weather was fair, we actually had some time to enjoy the summit this time. (In 1999 the sun was setting when we reached the top!) And to our pleasant surprise, flying ants didn't attack when we reached the summit cairn! So, we checked out the log book and took in the views for a while before heading back down. We let our new friends know where the rappel route started and they assured us that they would be fine getting down. So, we rigged the first rappel and set off downward. Things went smoothly and after the third rappel we scrambled over to the beginning of Durrance to retrieve our hiking shoes. One more rappel put us at the base of the Bowling Alley and a short hike from the main trail around the Tower.
While it is generally agreed that this route is a classic, it seems I'd heard many people talk badly of it--that it was a good way to get to the top of the Tower but not a great route on it's own merit. I must say I disagree! I thought the climb was thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.
With a successful climb under our belts, we headed off to Frank's Devils Tower Lodge to see where we would be staying for the weekend and to meet up with the rest of our friends. There were a lot of people at Frank's place and the mood was quite festive! We could tell we were in for one fun weekend!