Text and pictures © 2001-2020 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2018/10/17
"Profanity is about the best pro you'll get until the crack starts to narrow. Include doubles of profanity in the #6 to #8 range on your rack for this lead." — Bruce Bindner.
Right: South face of Devil's Tower
Left: Getting cooked up on T.A.D., east face of Devil's tower.
This place is amazing. Hexagonal towers a few meters in diameter packed together for a height of about 150m. Between each of them is a crack waiting to be climbed. Well, not waiting anymore since every single one has been climbed in more than a century of ascents. Still, they were bold the first settlers who planted wooden stakes in a crack to build a ladder so many years ago. And stupid was the parachutist who landed on top. The Natives have their stories about the Tower, the climbers have theirs. Different times, different styles.
Left: That's me leading Assembly Line, a long 5.9 handcrack.
Right: Jenny on Assembly Line;
There were some warnings about stiff ratings so we started with T.A.D. on the east face, thinking that with such a late start we'd be already in the shade. We ended up frying in the sun, all our water gone in no time. I don't remember much about the 5.7 climb, except that the belay was uncomfortable and the black rubber of my shoes was stewing my toes. We got to the summit, briefly disappointed that it was flat and looked mostly like the top of a hill. We top-ropped a few other routes as soon as the sun moved around the corner and then we rappelled off the tower, finding 2 nice aliens in a crack (if whoever left them wants them back, you have to give me the serial number on each of them, no less. I like them. Thanks). So I was actually surprised that we did encounter some aliens on Devil's Tower; life's better than movies.
The second day of that Laboring WE, we went to the north side to find a whole lot of other climbers also cowering there in the shade. We stood in line to do Assembly Line, a very nice hand crack in well featured rock allowing for a variety of placements. We also climbed the offwidth to the left of it, as nice as any offwidth I've ever seen. We finished off by top-roping some of the 5.10 routes at the base.
Left: South face of Devil's Tower.
Right: Jenny on Patent Pending, 5.8+ offwidth just left of Assembly Line. A good route to toprope.
The guidebook is clear about that: "do not waste time in the parking lot or you will be surrounded by hordes of tourists". Quite true. Imagine coming back down parched from a day of climbing in the scorching heat and having tourists stop you on the trail so they can take pictures ? That's what big hexes are for. Fortunately they always ask the same questions, so a well prepared: "Yes we went to the summit, it took 3 hours, the summit is flat..." will usually suffice. And no, do not tell them you didn't go to the summit, you certainly don't want to get into involved explanations about climbing only routes without bothering with the top. Or use Jeff Batten's line about: "No, I'm not going climbing. All of these ropes and gear are to tie up your wife and daughter".
It brought to mind two such events of a distant past. Once was when climbing in the Verdon in southern France, a busload of Italian started shouting and throwing empty beer cans at me from the summit railings as I was climbing on the very near opposite cliff. At the time I did not speak Italian and could not shout back. Another time happened coming down very tired from a summit in New Zealand, late afternoon, deep heavy snow. A small plane circled us, landed nearby and taxied next to us. 3 Japanese tourists came out and asked us to pose for pictures. I found a new use for my ice axe that day. I mean, if it's tourist season, why can't we shoot them ?
Left: That's me followed by Roberta and Laurent on Bonhomme Variation, a nice 5.8. As Euro face climbers, it was their first crack ever ! Not the easiest introduction.
Right: Jenny topping the first pitch of Bonhomme Variation. It's quite sustained and there are several blind cam placements.
Left: That's me on the start of the second pitch of Bonhomme Variation.
Right: Jenny rappelling down Devil's Tower after I got past the end of the rope and waited for her on a cam. Weird, but this has happened several times at DT. The rappels are often placed 35m apart, tricking you in believing you can reach the next station with double 60m.
You may have seen the pictures of Catherine Destivelle, solo, doing a full body stem in that long dihedral. So ever since we decided on this climbing trip, Brad had been pushing us around with an unavoidable: "You should do that route". Sure, I'd like to do it, but reading the various guidebooks return mixed feelings: "no move is harder than 5.9", "very height dependent 5.10d/11a", "Easy if you are 6'6"... So is it doable by a meager 5.9 crack leader ?
Left: Devil's Tower seen by the light of the full moon. The headlamps of a descending party are visible on the left.
Right: On lead on the 2nd pitch of El Matador, trying to stem on the left.
On the 3rd day at breakfast I finally said: "We'll do Walt Bailey and then maybe El Matador if there's nobody on it, and if it's in the shade, and if we feel like it..." trying not to make it sound like any kind of commitment. And when we got off the parking lot I just walked towards the west face, maybe because it was nearer, maybe because I wasn't awake yet, maybe because Brad would have given me shit if I'd chickened out then.
So we got to the base, roped up for the first pitch a very easy and nice 5.8 finger crack (was that poison ivy growing at the base of the crack ?). Jenny joins me at the belay and I finally give a good look at this 'thing'. What is it ? A dihedral ? 2 finger cracks ? If you are given to maths, you can imagine 3 hexagonal columns touching each others. If you are not into math or poetry, you just want to relieve excess bodily fluids; OK, now's the time to get nervous. I can leave the #4 cams to Jenny, looks like only small gear is necessary here.
Left: Jenny stemming El Matador, 2nd pitch, 5.11a.
Right: Burning calves on El Matador, 2nd pitch, 5.11a.
Finally my feet leave the ground with my fingers locked in a piton scar on the left crack. I try to stem the right wall, but I can't even reach it ! There's an irregular crack on the left column, but it disappears after 7 meters. I try to stem again and barely make it with the tip of my shoe. Once both feet are at the same height, I feel fine, the problem is moving them up. Let's try different things: fingertips on both columns and jerky foot motions to inch slowly higher, or alternating both hands on the left crack to raise the right foot and then the opposite ? After a few different trial moves, my calves are burning and I end up resting on my 3rd piece. OK, so I was worried that I was going to aid the entire thing with parties behind us complaining about my style... There's nobody else, we are in the shade and I actually manages to do 10m free.
I forget all about style. We climb to get to the summit, right ? After a while I get into a routine: worm up 3 meters, drop a piece in, rest a few minutes and start again. There are actually some great hand jams and finger locks on the left crack, and also some crimpers on the almost vertical wall, but it's so undemanding to just keep on stemming that I do the entire pitch like that. As I am looking up with my chin against the rock and my legs spread open against the columns, I get the weird feeling of being on the rails of a subway system, with a train ready to roll down at any time... Must be the lactic acid of my calves getting to my brain cells. I also try things like turning around and doing full body stem with the encouragements of the regulars at the base.
Left: Jamming the left finger crack when the stem gets too large near the end of the 2nd pitch.
Right: Hand crack on the 3rd pitch of El Matador.
6 meters from the summit I place a bomber hexentric and finish up laybacking quickly the left crack to get to the belay. Wheee... As Jenny takes my place in the stem, she sends up all the camera gear tied to one rope. As she is much shorter than the required 6'6", she doesn't do many stems, mainly jam and laybacks. Since I hung on almost every piece I placed and most of what I placed are stoppers, she has a hard time retrieving some of them. I take pictures; too bad we are in the shade. Hmmm, maybe not so bad, it was so hot 2 days before.
So, at this point should we rappel off like everybody else ? Nahhh, we may not be able to climb in style, but at least we bag summits ! So we continue on the short 5.8 hand crack just above. First and third pitches are both supposedly 5.8, but what a difference... Then comes a choice of roofs: 5.10 on the right, and something not in the guidebook on the left. Left. Nice, exposed 5.8ish, also short. Comes a big belay ledge; up above there are plenty of crack systems, some are hideous, some display nice gardens growing in them... The first choice was an offwidth right above the previous crack but I don't have any large pro. Then I look at a long hand crack but it looks somewhat overhanging, somewhat rotten and I can't see the end of it. OK, then here we go in the offwidth: 15 meters with only two small placements of cams between a a rock stuck in the crack and one of the walls. There are plenty of outside holds, but many sound very hollow and move when I apply pressure. The 2nd half of the pitch is, among many possibilities, a very nice overhanging hand crack with a final mantle move.
Left: 4th pitch of El Matador, nice overhang.
Right: Mantle move at the end of the 5th pitch of El Matador, Devil's Tower.
Then a 6th pitch takes us to the flat summit we now know. No sign of Lisa and Brad, but it's late and we will hear their epic about the heat melting off Brad's shoes only back at camp. At least he had an excuse for having an even worse climbing style than me...
Right: A Bridge Too far, a 5.11c with desperate stemming, poor pro and colorful lichen.
Left: Tulgey Wood, a tiny finger crack to the left of the Matador where the pro at the crux is all below #0 TCU.
While we were at the base of the East face, we had one of our best laugh ever. We climbed the Weissner route with Max, a beginner friend. That route is just to the right of the easiest route on the Tower, the Durance. We passed a party on the first pitch and then proceeded onto the next 3 pitches to the summit. Then rappeled down the same way. The party we'd passed, along with the party above them, was at the base coiling their ropes after rappelling. They were talking really loud among themselves:
— Yo dude, I'm sorry I dropped your binner...
— No worry dude, I'll just get it X-rayed to make sure there aren't any micro-cracks in it.
— It was just like on that 5.12 route at [somewhere], man.
— Oh yeah, rad, I remember that route, it was just like the 5.13 I kept falling off of !
At which point I absentmindedly asked:
— What have you climbed today ?
— Well, we tried the Durance route [NA: 5.6], but it was just too hard for us. You understand, we aren't too used to placing gear...
At which point Jenny gave the final blow by asking if it had taken them 3 hours to climb and bail off the first pitch [5.4 ?]... At least Max, the beginner on our team, made it fast and without fuss to the summit. There are some 5.12 'climbers' I wouldn't want belaying me...
Left: Me leading the very long crack of Walt Bailey Memorial. People are visible on the broken column of the Durance in the low-left corner.
Right: Max followed by Jenny on Walt Bailey Memorial, a 5.9 finger and then handcrack which may not have been the longest pitch I've ever done, but it sure felt this way.
Left: I ran out of gear for the end of the route and had to backclean. An excellent route for finger and toe jams. Or even hand jams towards the end, as you can see Jenny in action...
Between Walt Bailey and Soler there was an interesting line of bolt on the outside edge of a pillar. We climbed it with some difficulty, not knowing what it was. On the way down a ranger stopped us to ask us if we knew who had put up those bolts, as they'd like to 'speak with him'. All the crack lines have been climbed a long time ago on the Tower, and apparently 'unethical' route development is not too appreciated in those parts.
Right: Jenny stemming the 2nd pitch of the Pseudo Weissner. The first pitch is common with the Durrance, so expect some traffic there. At 5.7 this route offers a nice alternative to the crowds on the left.
Left: Jenny higher up on the same pitch which goes on one side and then the other side of that column.
Right: Max and Jenny topping up on the Pseudo Weissner. The summit is at hand.