Trip Report – Devils Tower, WY

There is a reason the aliens in “Close Encounters of The Third Kind” chose Devils Tower in Wyoming as their landing site to introduce themselves to the human race.  That is because even after flying from who know’s where across the galaxy Devils Tower is still an awe inspiring site to behold.  As the tower first comes into view driving into the area you can’t stop your heart from skipping a couple of beats; especially if you know that you’re headed there to climb it.  Coming from the flat-lands of Chicago it is breathtaking to see a rock that rivals many of our skyscrapers in size.  Rising over 1200 feet above the surrounding river valley Devils Tower is comparable to our hometown John Hancock Center.  What makes the tower such a sight to behold is the surrounding area.  It’s essentially flat which makes the tower that much more prominent as it seems to just rise up from out of nowhere.

Unlike the aliens we only had to drive 16 hours to get to the tower.  With three people sharing the drive and making only the most necessary stops we were able to leave early on a Thursday evening and arrive early on Friday afternoon.  Having slept in shifts we weren’t the most well rested, however the excitement was too much to contain and all we could think about was getting our hands on that rock.  Without even a thought at establishing our camp, or resting up we began racking up our gear within minutes of arriving at the Devils Tower parking lot.  After a quick meal of cliff bars and a cup of coffee we were registered at the rangers office and hiking up to the approach pitch.

After a short easy hike and a couple of tourist like photos we were standing at the approach pitch known as the Bowling Alley.  We fully intended on getting the feel of the rock by climbing a couple of pitches, and rappelling down to go set up camp and rest up for a full out assault on the summit the following day.  The sheer enormity of Devils Tower became very real standing in the Bowling Alley.  Each individual column rising steeply away from us appeared to be the size of a building just on its own.  We had perfect weather and the well known Durrance Route all to ourselves so we wasted no time in starting up the first approach pitch.  Half way up we retrieved a newly stuck rope (a common hazard on the tower), coiled it and continued to the actual base of the Durrance Route.  At the base, we met a gentlemen smoking a cigarette and looking for a rope he’d gotten stuck the evening before.  It turned out he and his partner had bailed from the route the previous evening after running out of water and daylight.  In their journey down one of their ropes got stuck, luckily on the final rappel down.  They were so exhausted they decided to leave it until morning.

After a short talk we ate a quick snack and began working our way up the first real pitch of the Durrance Route, the Leaning Column.  We had done the route a million times in our heads looking at pictures, and imagining the moves.  Pictures just can’t do the tower justice though.  Everything becomes so much larger once you’re actually there on the tower, which just makes it that much more fun and incredible.  We made our way up the first pitch pretty quickly though, and immediately prepared for the Durrance Crack, pitch two.  The Durrance Crack contains some of the most fun climbing on the route.  Especially the last 20 feet where the leader needs to commit to the large off-width crack on the route.  Having a big cam to place deep into this crack is recommended for the leader to confidently finish the pitch; which luckily for us Matt had one racked.  The Big belay ledge at the top of this pitch may as well have a big welcome mat on it, because we were all happy to exit onto it.

Pitch three was rightly named the Cussin’ Crack.  I imagine it’s because the person who named it chose the large off-width crack as their way up it.  It’s the shortest pitch on the route, but it’s a mean one.  If you wear high top climbing shoes you’ll be thankful, and if you don’t you’ll immediately go buy some for your next off-width excursion.  This is a pitch I was thankful to not be wearing any kind of pack for, because as it turns out, the best way to do it is to just stuff yourself in the crack and wiggle your way up.  The massive belay ledge at the end of this pitch provided a great place for us to snap a couple pictures, drink some water, and eat the cliff bars we had stashed in our pockets.  It was at this point we decided to go for the summit.  We were nearly half way, and making great time, so we figured why not.

The climbing was fun, so without any debate we continued onto the Flake Crack that makes up Pitch four.  After lots of jamming, and off width grunting this pitch is a great change of pace.  With lots of features on the face of the column, and “flakes” within the crack there are endless comfortable ways up this pitch.  The best part is that the pitch finishes with a few feet of off-width just in case you were beginning to miss stuffing entire arms and legs into the massive cracks of the tower.  Upon reaching the belay ledge we saw the first party of climbers we’d seen all day 100’s of feet below us playing in the bowling alley.  It’s rare to have an entire side of the Tower all to yourself on such a beautiful day for climbing.  It turned out the party we saw was the legendary Frank Sanders himself training some climbers that he would guide up the tower the next day.  We would later have the honor of talking to Frank and having him compliment us on our timeliness moving up the tower as he and his clients had been watching us since we started the route.

At this point in the climb the world below seems almost surreal.  The trees, rolling hills, people, and cars all just look like toys on a model train set.  The feeling of being “almost there” is overwhelming, even though there is still much climbing to do.  It’s the perfect boost to get you through pitch five, the Chockstone Crack.  You can easily chimney your way up most of this pitch, but as with every pitch on the tower a challenge will present itself.  On this pitch it’s the namesake chockstone near the top of the pitch.  This forces you out of the comfort of the chimney where some well placed hands will allow you to pull yourself past and onto another welcoming ledge.   From there you climb down a couple of feet onto another ledge where you will face one of the most fun parts about the Durrance Route, the Jump Traverse.

Pitch six, or the Jump Traverse is one of the scariest, and most fun climbing moves I’ve ever made.  It involves climbing, or jumping your way across a couple feet where there is nothing but 500 feet of air straight down to the base of the tower below you.  Most people choose to hang onto the single piton  hammered into the extremely thin crack that goes across the traverse.  Some, choose to jump across.  Our party opted to go the hard way, which skips the piton, and uses the thin crack and some very precarious foot holds.  Somewhere on youtube there is a short video clip of me using some choice words as I muster up the courage to make the move.  The jump traverse is something every person who climbs the tower should experience once.

From there you get to bring your heart rate back down with an easy walk through “The Meadows”, which is a long flat ledge area that traverses across the tower a ways.  When it dead ends it’s time to go up again, this time the next stop will be the summit.  At this point most parties will coil their ropes onto their backs and scramble up the easy barely 5th class climbing that leads to the summit.  The excitement of reaching the summit makes this last 100 feet seem to go on forever, but finally we reached the top with a little bit of daylight remaining.  Exhausted and out of water and cliff bars we snapped pictures and signed the summit log book which stays sealed up in a big steel pipe.  The football field sized summit plain is it’s own environment entirely.  It is home to plants, birds, and even some small animals that some how work their way up and down the tower.

We watched as the sun began to set which created some breathtaking panoramic pictures.  It was at that moment we had regretted leaving our headlamps in the car under the assumption we were just doing a warm-up run.  Luckily our party of three was very capable and was able to locate the rappel stations quickly and make our way down the tower just as it got too dark to see anything.  As I rappelled down the final pitch every bit of light left in the sky was squeezed out and we were left in pure blackness as we stuffed our ropes into our packs and prepared for the short hike back.  We slowly made our way down to the base to the paved trail that circles the tower.  Just as our feet hit the pavement the moon pulled a cruel joke on us and finally poked out from behind the tower lighting up the sky as if it were the sun.  We had a good laugh and vowed never to leave the car without our headlamps again.

From the parking lot the hunger and thirst struck quickly, and we frantically searched our phones for the nearest watering hole.  Our search led us to the only place open for 50 miles serving food and beer.  Rodeo Bar in Hulett, Wyoming beckoned us like a 5 star restaurant.  It was there that we downed two frozen Digiornio pizza’s and ice cold Coors; all served to us by a bartender who’s claim to fame is a grandfather who was a rancher in the town that had helped put up the famed ladder that made the first ascent up the tower.  We listened to his stories, told some of our own, and met a few locals before making our way to the sanctuary of the Devil’s Tower Lodge, where we wearily set up our tents and fell asleep as quickly as we could crawl into them.

The excitement of reaching the summit of Devil’s Tower lasted for weeks.  The moves all the way up the tower would play out in my head over and over, and I could describe them in detail every time a friend asked me about it.  There is a reason the Durrance Route is one of the 50 classic climbing routes in North America.  It’s a great climb, a fun climb, and well protected safe climb to bring even a beginner climber up.  Devil’s Tower is a place that I think everyone should see at least once in their life, even if they don’t go with the intention of climbing it.  I can’t wait to visit the tower again; and watch the sun set from the summit. This time I’ll be sure to have my headlamp secured to my helmet.

Jason Miller