One and Done

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The one and only Devils Tower Climbers Festival has passed into the annals of our nation’s first national monument. It transpired over three days in September, and it aimed to be a little different than other climber rendezvous – but not too different. Festival events are hard to plan, but there are some successful examples to draw upon. For the Devils Tower event, the organizer studied a long-running festival nearby, and used it as a springboard. The idea was to take the International Climbing Festival in Lander, Wyoming and kick it up a notch.
The Lander Festival is a big to-do. It’s a party, really. There are cookouts, and vendors, and if there’s any extra time, a little bit of climbing. The afterthoughts occur at Wild Iris, a famous sport crag outside town. All in all, the International Climbers’ Festival at Lander, Wyoming is what passes for a glamorous event in the world of real, amateur climbing.
What the organizer of the Devils Tower gathering sought was not to out-glam the Lander event. That would be expensive and difficult. The idea was to be more authentic than Lander, and pull the climbing into the festival. Now, there was a complicating factor from the start. The climbers’ festival coincided in time, and mostly in space, with the annual Beer Fest in Sundance. The arrangement was intentional, and not entirely unreasonable. As a rule, climbers have taste for beer, not to mention wine, and the occasional sip of scotch. The organizer calculated that the Beer Fest might attract a few visiting climbers on its own merits. And, the Beer Fest had some notoriety to lend. It had grown large enough, over the few years since its inception to draw the ire of local moralists, as expressed on the opinion page of the town paper. If an event provoked fear in the righteous for the souls of the general public, that event likely had coattails.
What went unconsidered in the decision to link the two events, were the effect of alcohol on the climber psyche, and the true role of alcohol in the climbing culture. The ‘in-town’ events for the Climbers’ Festival were scheduled for the evening, while the Beer Fest was up and running soon after the sun rose. This was a mistake.
There is a thing in the climbing world called, “bailing” – as in bailing out of a stricken aircraft. It crosses all sub-disciplines. Everyone understands it. It refers to the abrupt decision to stop going up and start going down, in particular, and, by metaphor, any abrupt decisions to change course drastically in the face of adverse conditions. It carries the suggestion that one is definitively casting one’s fate to the wind. Attending the Beer Fest provided a strong temptation to ‘bail’ on evening lectures and slideshows in favor of, say, passing out.
On the first night, the ranger in charge of Devils Tower resource management gave a talk on the preservation of the Tower as a climbing destination, and the climbing management plan. It was a very good talk, I’m told. Three people attended. On night two, the crowd swelled to seven. However, there were more pictures and music ( the speaker is an accomplished pianist).
Nor was the drinking crowd prone to participate in the actual climbing part of the festival. But that should have come as no surprise. The climber’s reputation as a booze hound is largely mythological. It used to be the case, back when the avocation was associated with the counter-culture, and the gear was so bad that it helped one’s performance to be hung-over or even still a little drunk while climbing. But the modern climber is an athlete. He or she is much more likely to have a temperature controlled cooler full of (ostensibly) performance enhancing supplements in the back of the van, than a box of wine. Modern climbers have a bedtime.
Festivals still attract the alcohol traditionalists, but the drinkers don’t show up for any active activities. Such exertions are better left to the professionals. The drinking crowd wants a show – and a little validation. The best festivals leverage the dichotomy between the athletes and the partiers. The Southfork Icefest, for example, has the synergy dialed.
At the Icefest, the daily agenda begins with a fashionably late breakfast – ‘free’. You’d be crazy to pass it up. Then there are clinics and tool demos. These are held on some of the easier climbs in the valley, and are not too far from the road. After a couple of hours of edification, and having gotten properly chilled, everyone heads back to town to get ready for the evening meal and slideshow. As the food is served, a new group of festivants appears, burned by wind and sun, glassy-eyed, and still outfitted in their climbing gear. These stragglers have come for the “best lead” contest. Basically, it is a chance to spray, an irresistible opportunity for the hard core. Everyone gets to tell a story of the day’s climb, and why their partner should be rewarded for having lead the most mind-blowing route in the valley. Then there is a pull-up contest. Everybody leaves happy. The hard core have unburdened themselves and gotten some recognition. The rest have heard some stories and gotten a little validation by association. During the Devils Tower Climbing Festival, any visiting athletes remained at the Devils Tower campground, rather than venturing into town.
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Only one group of locals attempted to enter the real climbing event. That event was not ill-conceived. It capitalized on the history of the Tower as a bastion of traditional climbing by challenging participants to climb a route with passive gear only, and film the ascent. The best movie would win a new rope for the artistes. The only takers made a valiant effort. My partner and I spoke with them as they were headed up to climb Walt Bailey Memorial. We climbed a nearby route, Double Indemnity, so we could hear them all the while. It seemed to be going well, so we were surprised to see them all looking glum at the base of the rappels. Upon inquiry, the cameraman simply held up his iPhone, which he’d been using to record the leader’s success. It had fallen out of his pocket 250 feet above, at the start of the rappels. Even Gorilla Glass has its limits. The phone still came on, so they hoped to download the movie. But it was not to be. Chalk one up for the Luddites; the new rope went unclaimed.
They still showed up for the final day contests. This was the best-attended portion of the whole meet. It was held in the little park behind the county courthouse, just across the street from the beer fest. There were three events: slack chain walking (like a tightrope, but slack, and chain), a combination pull-up and ‘toes-to-bar’ lactate tolerance test, and crate stacking. The last contest stood out as the most entertaining. It was also the activity at which the attendees excelled. The test of strength was disappointing. Fifteen of each maneuver was the best that anyone could muster in the allotted two minutes. At the Southfork Icefest, I have watched Aaron Mulkey crank out 35 pull ups hanging from a pair of ice tools – and that’s after a hard day of climbing. Nobody got across the slack chain in three tries. But, climbing at the Tower doesn’t take pure footwork or arm power; it takes dynamic weight distribution. Stacking one milk crate upon the last, as one stands on the growing structure, tests one’s dynamic weight distribution. The winning total was 19.
Besides being suspenseful and impressive, the crate stacking event had an old-west flair, as it was conducted with the belay line strung from a giant cottonwood on the courthouse lawn, calling to mind the era of frontier justice. A crowd, drawn from the adjacent beer fest, gathered (the other two contests having been completely ignored), and a couple of wobbly young men among the onlookers even asked if they could have a go.
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When the climactic event concluded, the results were read and prizes distributed with little ceremony. Participants said their brief goodbyes and dispersed. No one felt particularly disappointed; it was just how things focused on the Tower, worked. The Bear’s Lodge is an awesome and intimidating object to regard. It reflects one’s attention back. As a whole, those who have stood at it’s base have recognized the mirror-effect. Aboriginal people have approached it privately, quietly, to leave their prayer bundles in the trees surrounding its rearing columns. Climbers feel it as well, and then some. Climbing at the Tower is hard. It can’t be overpowered or out-foxed. However, it will let you be as safe as you want to be. It treats its climbers like a good grandparent, at once strict and kind. It does not feel right to pound beers and get loud with grandfather looking over your shoulder. And maybe that is the main reason for the failure of the First Annual Devils Tower Climbers’ Festival, as such. However it was promoted, organized, and realized, it was still a party in honor of a place just doesn’t generate a party atmosphere. And that’s OK.

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