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Devils Tower 2000 - Durrance Route, Among Others


by Kelly Bates

December 29, 2001

So my friend Scotty isn't real fond of heights. Big deal. Mostly it's just the not-wanting- to-fall thing, I think, but still, he's the one that's really gotten me into vertical stuff, so I have no complaints (usually) and when he wants to go climb somewhere I'm usually game. It didn't really surprise me when he said he wanted to go up to Devils Tower, the 865' monolith in NE Wyoming, because he really wanted to get to the summit. He'd been a year or two ago and a long line of climbers and time constraints forced them off after pitch 2. Well, since he might be off to Cali for a new prosthetics job shortly, we decided 'no time like the present' and hopped in the car on Friday afternoon, 7 July. What the heck. How hard can it really be.

I had no beta other than 'it's a crack, and I've seen you at Turkey Rocks - you'll have no problems.' That just made it more interesting. Unfortunately, the traffic to Denver was insane, and it took us 2-1/2 hours to get to the Tech Center, only 60 miles away. Not an auspicious beginning to a 500 mile drive. I switched out driving shortly thereafter, and made it as far as Douglas, WY, around midnight. My idea of roadtrip car-camping is to pull off on some deserted road and toss out a sleeping bag next to a tire. Scott wasn't particularly thrilled with this idea, and slept in the car (it's so big and comfortable). About 0220 someone drove up in a big truck and asked us if we were lost or okay, but she went on her way when I explained I just didn't want to hit any antelope, being so tired and in the middle of nowhere. I was getting tight on gas, but the signs said it was only 35 miles to Bill, the next town. I got up at 0530 and started driving again, with Scott still asleep in the passenger seat. Well, Bill has exactly 3 buildings; one's a post office, one's a metal RR maintenance building, and apparently the employees from the first two sleep in the other. Uh-oh. I cruised the next 40 miles to the next town, coasting down hills on fumes, and was oh-so-thankful when there was actually a truckstop in the next little town, still 35 miles south of Gillette. I'd have been so embarrassed to have had to stop and flag down a ride, waking Scotty and saying, 'We're outta gas.'

It's about an hour past Gillette to the Tower; we pulled in at just before 9. Well, the weather looked good, and the young summer-hire ranger (cute but for the nose ring) said they only had two other groups on the Tower at all. Very surprising, especially for a summer weekend. We quickly sorted our gear and started the easy hike up to the boulder field. It's about a 5 minute walk to where you leave the trail, and then head up over the SW shoulder through boulders and onto slabs. The Durrance starts maybe 350 feet above the plain, but the shoulder of the tower is already a couple of hundred feet above the plain below. We got to the leaning column which starts the route just as a couple, Wes and Connie, started up ahead. Just enough time to get our gear sorted so we'd have a clear lead.

Pitch one, the leaning column, is maybe 75 feet of semi-face and some offwidth with a left-foot stem to a nice, 4' diameter pillartop belay. We'd already decided I'd have lead all day (I like hand and finger cracks); as I was climbing we could hear Connie talking to Wes, complaining that he hadn't shown her how to remove a cam from the second pitch. She didn't sound real comfortable, hanging 15' above the stance and trying to figure out new (to her) gear. As I got up and clipped, she dropped a nut and quickdraw into the crack behind me. It missed, and ended up lodged well down inside and behind the leaning column in a windy offwidth. It'll probably stay there for a while. Lots of 'I'm so sorry' came from above.

Pitch two, the Durrance crack proper, is supposed to be a double crack around a small pillar, on the left side of another slightly hanging column. Well, it ain't. Maybe back when it was first freed, but since then it's gotten wide and smooth, with a serious dearth of anything to hold or put feet on. Stemming one foot left and off-widthing the right side is the only good way up now, and it's a pain. Scotty kept telling me how hard this all was, and how his old partner Alan Moseman (put in all the routes at Jackson Creek Dome in CO) put in like 10 pieces all the way up the 70ish feet. It was just too damn big, so I put in a #4 camalot about 20 feet up, ran into two fixed pins at 25 and 28 feet, and then freed the damn o/w to about 50 feet. Scott was pretty happy when I found a place for the #3 camalot, but I still had 20 feet of heinous o/w to get to the stance. Around here, Wes and Connies' second rope, which they were hauling uncoiled, had tangled itself and knotted under a little chock stone in the main o/w. I pulled it out for then and pulled myself further in for a rest. About 20 seconds after getting it out and having it hauled up by Connie, it was abruptly dropped on my head again. Having stuff falling on you in an offwidth with little pro is unnerving, to say the least. I got pretty well pinched for the last 10 feet of smooth offwidth; I asked Connie on the stance above what she'd done where I was, and she said 'oh, I was about where you are and I fell.' I guess a better move would've been to stem of the column way off right and use the less-damaged left crack more.

Pitch three, the cussin' crack, was about 3 mini-pitches of cracks (more correctly more offwidths) to the second set of bolts on the pitch. It's just about 35' below the traverse to the meadows, but the rope was getting draggy so I decided to hold and belay Scott up. He didn't like this one even as much as I did. It was probably only 5.6 all the way through, but I still had some interesting moments. Scott traved out around a boulder for the second small pitch (to the right) and found a nice short hand crack to get up far faster than I did.

Pitch four looked to be a real wide offwidth, so I treated it like a chimney. I couldn't jam myself in with my pack (rope, shoes, food, and extra gear), so I downclimbed from where I got stuck and rigged it for a haul after I'd gotten up. Scott slowly got the idea that I couldn't do that, without taking out the other rope and hauling bags between us, without completely freeing the pitch. Yep, I said. The chimney was fun; I think my body would've just been a big chock if I'd fallen (except right at the top), so up I went. Hauling the bags up wasn't so much fun.

We decided to try to work around the jump traverse to the meadows (a big hole between two columns) rather than shoot the last 150' 5.4 crack pitch straight up. I have no idea how you could actually jump without hang-dogging off a pin plugged around the nasty side of the boulder you have to swing out from under; I climbed down about 15' onto a small, slick sloping ledge and amazed myself by doing two crossovers and not falling until I got to the other side. I set a hard trad belay on the other side and Scott followed. Since I couldn't see him, I kept yelling for him to give me slack/take directions; as he started down, I was yelling 'do you need slack?' as the rope went taught. I said, 'talk to me,' and he said 'I fell.' Oh. Fortunately, the fall brought him across the gap, and he chimneyed and face-cliimbed up to the start of the Meadows, where the first of 3 rap anchors is set up.

We went off with the rope coiled around my neck, and Scott got to lead some easy 4th- class scramble stuff across the Meadows, and up some gullies to the summit. He wasn't real happy with the exposure, but did fine climbing on up. The summit's a pretty bare, slightly rounded place with lots of boulders and grass and a good view, about half the size of a football field. Nowhere at all to put a spaceship. We finished off our third and last liter of water, and started looking for bolts to rap back down. The first Scott found led right off the west face, and I decided that was a really bad idea. I looked further until I found some that seemed to go down to the Durrance area.

The first rap (they're all doubled 165's) was going straight down the 5.4 we avoided, and necessitated swinging over the jump traverse on rappel. The second started the more vertical stuff, going down the main 'gully' that's next to Durrance. We ended up on a small pillar-top with three hangers, two with chains and cold-shuts. Scott saw another station about 40 feet below on the right, but we figured we'd be fine. I went on down to basically ropes-end, and Scott rapped on down. I told Scott, 'pull red,' and he gave me a bad look. The ropes wouldn't budge, and we were back down at the level of the start of the first pitch with another full rap to go. Yep, they were pretty well stuck, and we were pretty well poked.

I've got something like 11 years of ropes experience (but only less than 1 of rock), so I got the honors. I broke out my BD ascender from Scott's pack (emergency gear I'll never go without again), and tied myself off to a web-prussik and my waist and the ascender, fully locked into the rope, to my anchor-daisychain. The ropes were fixed off on the bolts we were at to give me downward tension to move up the prussik (and fix the ropes incase they started to move with me up on it somewhere), and up I went. A full 110' of offwidth up an aid route arÍte (mateo tepee, 5.7 A3) slowly, slowly, painfully led me up to the belay station I'd foolishly bypassed, and still the ropes were caught. I aided up the last 40 feet, and found that the ropes had gotten cammed to the rock by the shuts, and had to manually feed the rope even right through them. What a pain, and thank god for knowing what to do and having the gear. I rerouted only 40 feet through one of the shuts (angled out so I could pull it from the next station), and down I went. The next rap was picture-perfect, back down to Scotty an hour and a half after we'd gotten ourselves hosed. I can only imagine what the tourists pointing at us all day, were saying or asking the rangers.

The next rap was simple, and we were back on flat terra firma, after a short 9 hours with 95degrees, full sun, and next to no water. Silly silly silly. The rangers back down at the visitors center were very pleasant, wondering if we'd gotten off and just not checked in, but they did give us important beta - the Fort Devil's Tower (, just about 1/2 mile out of the monument gate, had food, beer, cheap camping, and showers. We paid $5 for a place to though our bags and showers (take shower shoes, soap, and towels), and $20 for two huge meals with appetizers (plus lots more $2 16-oz beers). They had a band that night and the place was kicking (for the Wyoming boondocks, anyway) (about 20 people). We couldn't stay awake after 3 beers and crashed hard to drunken renditions of classic rock. Definitely look into this place for fun, good food, and beer when you're done climbing. And that's the story.

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