Saturday, August 18, 2012

Our Climb of Devils Tower

Once you begin climbing there are certain things, at least throughout the United States, that stand out as something worth giving a try. Yosemite, Rocky Mountain National Park, the Enchantments, Mt. Rainer, Moab, the Tetons, My. Washington, and Devils Tower among others. The sight of Devils Tower is just strange. It does not look like anything else I can think of. 
Devils Tower from the KOA parking lot with my 287,000 miles experienced van in the foreground
Since a few coworkers and friends in Dubuque were getting into climbing, and I have more or less been on hiatus from climbing since 2010, I started to do more of it this year. After a few climbing outings I wanted a goal. Something worth going climbing to train for. My family saw the tower from a distance in 1999 and it came back up in memory. A tower around a thousand feet tall, a couple hundred miles from any other long multipitch climbing objective I know of. It seemed like the perfect weekend road trip. A grade two (typically a half day) climb and a moderately long (13 hours) drive one way from Dubuque. The kind of thing worth spending a weekend doing, but a dubious expenditure of precious vacation time. 

The Newbie, at the Trailhead
So we left Dubuque at noon Friday and drove and drove and drove. Actually with four drivers, it is not bad at all. After a few hours someone can take a rest in the back. Plus, we drove my van, and without the middle seat there is a significant amount of room so the people in the back can really stretch out their legs. These things helped us pass the time until it was around 1AM mountain time when we arrived at the 1/3 full campground below Devils Tower.

Th original plan was to wake up at 4AM and go from there. However, 4 AM came and our most excited climbing advocate woke up and tried to get the rest of us up, but it had rained the night before and I wanted the rocks and dirt to dry out a little more, so we slept another hour or hour and a half. We finally woke up, and it was light enough we didn't need headlamps. It was interesting, I am the kind of person that once I'm up, I'm ready to get going, but most people are not like that. So my comrades brushed their teeth and changed their clothes and stood around eating. I suppose I learned years ago that the way to get things done is move in that direction and not stand around. In other words, when you are getting ready for a mountain adventure, why put on a long sleeve shirt after you wake up if you intend to take if off in 15 minutes?   This kind of goes back to some sort of desire I have to be the first ready or fear of being the person everyone is waiting on.

The climb was interesting. I consider it a resounding success. We all went up and down safely with no permanent injuries. Two of the four of us made the summit. (One was not planning to climb at all and only did the fourth class approach.) It was nice to have him along for at least that bit. Then one of us only made the penultimate belay, a mere 100 feet below the summit. Of course, the last pitch was not a piece of cake and it started raining, hailing and lightening minutes after I arrived on the summit. 

Roping Up 
A few things, we didn’t have the greatest approach. We started around 6:30 AM, later than planned but it had rained the night before and we decided more time to let it dry would be good. I think it went well but we ascended the talus too far to the east of the tower and not the south of the tower where our route was. So we ended up doing some traversing I am not sure we had to do. Then I didn’t lead very fast. There have been many times when I have led things lickety sizzle, moving up the rock with a strong rhythm. Today, I write this on my laptop hours after the climb, I did not have a strong rhythm. Many of the pitches and moves were very physical. I suppose that when it says “mostly fists and off width” that it means this is not your standard little ledges and finger cracks trad climb. I would describe the route as very physical. Knees and elbows were used for many key jams along the route. That’s not normal traditional climbing.

Me Leading Pitch One on the Durrance Route
Another interesting factor was having two novice climbers with me. So I did all of the leading and the belay site management was a little more hectic than with more experienced climbers or just one rope. As far as the route was concerned, we did the Durance route with the direct finish. The second pitch was somewhat hard and the last 15 feet of the last pitch really gave me a hard time. Also the penultimate pitch I went part way up, but wasn’t so sure about the chock stone so I descended and tried two other no go options before deciding the let the party behind us pass us, and trail a rope up 30 feet to the next belay. Then I climbed it on top rope, feeling incompetent because the move was not that hard. That is the way it is sometimes. Collaboration is used to acquire the objective, even if not every individual does the originally intended task.
I struggled significantly the last 20 feet of technical climbing. It was an inside corner with a not terribly steep face with 1 inch ledges every four feet and on the left was a flaring off width between the face wall and the left wall which was slightly overhanging. I ended up using painful  left arm jams with small holds for my right hand and feet. Plus I had introduced a ton of rope drag based on a weaving route so I was pulling the rope up as I struggled just to push myself up. I will have a few more back of the hand scars after this jam fest.

Once on the top, the rain started. It was late, probably 3 PM or so when I topped out. I had significant difficulty belaying the second because of the rope drag. This is actually a common problem in rock climbing. The leader will end up with a lot of rope drag and after climbing the route gets no rest before having to pull all the rope up for a second. So the climber below is yelling “take... take... up rope!” and the leader is but it goes slowly. After a quick summit video we started the rappels down. The rain started in earnest and then some hail, but not significant hail. While it was uncomfortable, I was pleasurably sucking the water off of my shirt and arms because I ran out of water about a half hour before and my mouth was very very dry, so the rain was a blessing in that respect. Plus, rappelling in the rain, is not all that bad. The ropes are so heavy that you go even slower than on a dry rope. Then since the rappel devise is squeezing water out of the rope the device is getting water cooled, which is much more efficient for heat transfer. So you can almost take your hands off of 10mm ropes on a double rope rappel when it is wet without worrying about picking up too much speed. At least a 130 pound person goes slowly. As we were setting up the second rappel the rain diminished and the third and fourth rappels were nearly dry. 
Me halfway down the second rappel. 
When we reached the ground our friend who had gone bicycling and hiking during the day met us and we walked back along the paved trail to the van. Lest any climbing story end at the parking lot we went to the KOA and had hamburgers and buffalo burgers and texas toothpicks, which is a local dish with jalape├▒os, onions and green beans fried, as we watched the beginning of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We took a shower and headed to South Dakota. It’s funny to take your pants off after such a physical jam fest. Our ankles and knees were red and green, scraped and inflamed. There are aesthetic routes for climbing and this, while perhaps aesthetic from the ground, was not aesthetic climbing.

Enjoy the video! It is two minutes that sum up the adventure. 

It has taken me a week to get this posted and I have had some time for reflection. First, it's really hard to watch myself on video. I feel like there are so many things to critique. On that note, in the video from the summit, I was wasted! I was so physically exhausted and somewhat mentally as well and perhaps a little emotionally. In fact, the physical exhaustion that you see there is about as worn out as I get. Sure it is worse after a marathon, but not much, and certainly not much exhaustion in my upper body like in this video.The strange thing is I watch this and it doesn't look like I am struggling much. I suppose I put on a good show. 

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