It got to a point where I just couldn’t wiggle up anymore.
“I’m stuck!” I shouted up to John, but with the roaring wind and the 150 feet of distance between us I’m sure my quiet exclamation got lost in the wilderness.
I had studied videos of offwidth climbing technique during the five-hour long car ride to Northern Wyoming, but in that moment I couldn’t remember the difference between a chicken wing and an arm bar.
I waited for a moment with my body wedged in between two imposing columns of rock and closed my eyes. Whenever a pitch gets too difficult or seems too frightening I try to take a few deep breaths and distance myself from the moment I’m in. I picture myself reaching the belay ledge and taking the pile of rope from John so he can lead the next pitch, I imagine the feeling of standing on top of 500 feet of rock, I think about how nice it’ll be to fall into bed knowing that my body took me up and down a massive climb.
When I open my eyes again the offwidth crack doesn’t seem as all-encompassing as it did before. I remembered that my elbow should be pointing up, not down, and the movement starts to feel more natural.
“Climbing!” I yelled up, not entirely certain if John could even hear my cry, but not really caring at that point either. After all, the statement was more for me anyway.
When John saw on the schedule that we had our first two consecutive days off of the season, he immediately suggested we go to Devils Tower National Monument. Climbing at the tower had been a dream of mine ever since the first time I ventured out to Wyoming in 2018, but I wasn’t expecting to pursue such a huge goal after less than a month of living out West. I didn’t want to get my hopes up that we would summit – after all, we had to factor in travel time, camping reservations, and the fact that Devils Tower is typically swarming with climbers also aiming for the top – so as I packed my bags I mentally prepared for simply going up and down a few classic pitches.
As the long drive finally came to an end, the tower eventually made an appearance on the horizon. At first glance, the 867 foot butte of igneous columns and overlapping cracks seemed like a small blip in the distance, but as we got closer the tower grew in size until it seemed utterly insurmountable. I had done multi-pitch climbs before but nothing of this magnitude – 7 pitches total – so my doubts about whether or not John and I would be able to summit the tower resurfaced. It wasn’t just the sheer number of pitches that intimidated me, but also the style of climbing. Offwidth climbs aren’t particularly common in the Southeastern United States, so I had no preparation for what the movement would feel like.
We watched the sun set behind the tower that night as we set up our campsite in the park. Since Devils Tower is a National Monument, the National Park Service offers educational talks at an amphitheater near the campground most nights. John and I huddled on a bench with our vegetable soup and listened as a ranger explained the history of the tower.
Devils Tower has historically been a place of significance to the surrounding Native American tribes, specifically the Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapaho, Shoshone, and Kiowa. Many of the tribes considered the tower a spiritual location, and some even maintain that connection to this day. The NPS website for Devils Tower has a great article about how each tribe interacted – and still interacts – with the tower. The National Park Service encourages rock climbers to abide by a voluntary closure of the tower to climbing during the month of June, in order to honor the summer solstice and strike a balance with the Native American tribes that are against people climbing at the tower at all. It’s hard to call one month out of the year a “balance,” but the issue of climbing at the tower and the relationship the NPS has with indigenous people is extremely complex. Interested in learning more? Check out the following links:
- Why It’s Time to Rethink Climbing on Devils Tower – Outside Online
- Climbers Ignore Native Americans’ Request at Devils Tower – Wyoming Public Media
- Because It’s Sacred – Outside Online
- Indian Religious Freedom at Devil’s Tower National Monument – Indian Law Resource Center
Climbing at the tower began long before it was recognized as the United States’ first National Monument in 1906. The first people to stand on top of the tower were Willard Ripley and William Rogers, who constructed a wooden ladder that they shoved into the cracks and climbed without safety equipment. A portion of the ladder can still be seen right below the summit. The first technical climb of Devils Tower wasn’t until over thirty years later by Fritz Wiessner, Lawrence Coveney, and William House in 1937.
Since that first send in the early 30s, Devils Tower has become an extremely popular climbing destination because of the numerous multi-pitch climbs of various styles – everything from offwidth, stemming, and crack climbing can be found on the tower. John and I were interested in climbing the Durrance route, one of the most popular and frequently climbed ways to summit the tower, and because of the climbing access closure we knew we might not get another chance to go all the way to the top for quite some time (we were there on May 29th, the day before my birthday, and didn’t want to wait until July to try again if we didn’t summit). I kept shooting glances at the other people camping near us, trying to figure out if they were climbers by the cars that they had or the clothes that they wore (which is absurd, get ready for a long blog post regarding appearances and the outdoor community soon) and I was silently panicking that we would have too much competition and wouldn’t be able to even attempt the route.
The next morning we woke up before the sun rose and hastily brushed our teeth, eager to get moving. We saw one other party at the parking lot closest to Durrance, and we quickly left them behind as they organized their gear. The tower loomed before us as we hiked around it, and I felt smaller than ever as I craned my neck at its base. At Durrance we saw one party of three approaching the second pitch, and as we waited for them to finish a group of two older climbers hiked up and chatted with us. Before we knew it, it was time to make our move.
The first two pitches almost shut me down; the stress of knowing that other climbers were literally lining up to get on the same route coupled with my lack of familiarity with the style of climbing made me get discouraged. I was able to find my groove though, and before long John and I were flying up the wall and all of the other climbers faded from view. Before I knew it we were scrambling up and over the edge of the tower.
I had expected the top to be flat and boring, but instead it was an oasis of sagebrush, rocks and boulders, and scurrying chipmunks. Wyoming’s signature wind tousled my hair until I wrangled it into braids, and despite sweating in the sun for several hours I had to pull on my baselayer. John and I sat among the chipmunks near the cairn that signified the highest point and reflected on what we had just accomplished. We also scarfed down some snacks.
When a group of three also arrived at the summit we decided it was time to make our way down. Devils Tower has a reputation of “eating ropes,” which occurs when a rope gets caught inside the large cracks that make up the distinct formations, and lo and behold our ropes got stuck despite our efforts. Luckily, a climbing guide who was familiar with the tower and took clients up it for a local company was rappelling at the same time we were, and he helped me sort out the situation while John waited at the next set of anchors below.
The hike from the base of Devils Tower back to our car – which had felt so long at the wee hours of the morning as we approached the tower – was even longer due to the questions and comments we got from old couples and young children when they saw the ropes on our backs and the exhaustion on our faces. My stomach was growling aggressively, and my thighs were stiff from all of the pressing I did with my lower body in order to work my way up the massive cracks. I remember dumping my gear in the parking lot by the van and hobbling my way over to the bathroom in order to guzzle down water, and as I moved across the lot I locked eyes with a guest John and I had guided at the ranch and became friends with. We marveled at the odds of us being at the same National Monument at the same time, and swapped stories about our recent adventures.
When I eventually eased myself into the passengers seat of the van I was overwhelmed with so many emotions: gratitude, amazement, strength, achievement, fear. Mostly, though, I was completely and utterly exhausted.
Devils Tower National Monument is a special place – reverence for it can be felt in the air from miles away. Somehow it was able to make me feel inconsequentially small and larger than life at the same time, and I know I’m not the only one who has noticed the sovereignty of the pillar of rock. As we drove back to the ranch, back to early mornings and long hours of work, I looked back one last time before the tower disappeared from view. It wasn’t nearly as imposing as it was when I first laid eyes on it, and I knew it wasn’t just because we had some distance between us.
Have you been to Devils Tower? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos in this post were taken by me unless otherwise specified in the caption.