Category Archives: Devils Tower

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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Experiencing Embodiment – with Extreme Prejudice

Rowan on McCarthy West Face, Hong Variation

Rowan on McCarthy West Face, Hong Variation

The edge was huge – at least half a finger-pad wide. But how to get there? The fingers of my right hand were crimped on the vertical edge of a slight irregularity at shoulder height. My thumb lay across the top of the same feature. My feet teetered on the corner of the column which bordered the little roof. My left hand gripped the corner of the neighboring column, thumb down, elbow up, in a maneuver called a ‘Gaston’.
My right hand needed to get to that good edge. That edge meant security, success, salvation from the tension of my current situation. I stretched for the hold, pushing down with the Gaston and straightening my knees. It was too much for the foot holds on the corner. They needed pressure to work.
I was off.
I prepared to drop into the corner below the roof. I had two small chocks above the feature. They looked set when I placed them, but the crack flared slightly, and small stuff had a tendency to shift. In the time dilation of the fall, I got another glimpse of blood and hair on the rock below, left by a fellow traveler the week before.
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He had been climbing the standard variation on this route. His belayer had been standing on a comfortable patch of dirt about 50 feet below. He fell from about the same level as I had. With rope-stretch and slack in the system, he hit the ledge below the roof. He injured his leg in the initial impact, then flipped upside down and hit his head. He suffered a nasty scalp laceration, but fortunately no damage to the contents of his skull. We wore our helmets, and took the trouble to set the belay on the ledge below the roof. Never disregard a free lesson.
The little chocks held. I jerked to a stop just a few feet below the roof.
I looked down at my son. He looked bored. I couldn’t tell if the expression of ennui was a 15 year old boy’s affectation or actual lack of concern. I hoped it was the former.
“Lower me a little,” I asked him.
He complied, and I got back into the corner, a sporting distance below the difficulties. I moved back up to the overhang and inspected the chocks. They looked no worse for the wear. I grabbed the right hand crimp and set my feet on the corner. My left hand caught the Gaston.
This time, I ignored the edge. Keeping pressure on my feet, I reached up and pinched the corner with my right hand. I leaned back. Like so many things in climbing and outside it, the move felt precarious and it was committing – I would not be able to reverse it – but it was also the answer. My feet locked onto the small holds and I was able to step up. The right hand pinch turned into a good side-pull and my left hand swung up to a nice shelf. It was over. I plugged in a good cam and moved up to stand on the little ledge.
But, it wasn’t over. The corner above wasn’t as steep, but it was still thin and tricky. I got a short break. There was a section of crack climbing, with pretty good footholds. Then the crack closed up again. A bulge confronted me, with no obvious way past. I got a couple of small chocks in the corner formed by the intersecting columns, and took the most feasible path that I could see.
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Once upon a time, my mother-in-law had an out-of-body experience. She was in labor with her second daughter, and things were not going well. As they prepared her for an emergency C-section, she floated above her body and looked down on the scene in the surgical suite. My dearest love relates this story in terms of wonder, as an example of the mysteries of the world beyond our limited comprehension. Her appreciation for such mysteries is one of the things I love most about her. But for me, astral transformation is not so mysterious, though it remains wonderful. It is a familiar experience, and I pursue it doggedly.
It happens on the hardest moves of a climb sometimes. I can break down the moves before and after, but during the movement, the analytic distance disappears and another distance replaces it. The real me is absorbed in action and no longer has time for silly self-awareness. But, the reflective consciousness is selfish. If it can’t do, it will watch. The phenomenon is weird – like a movie observed, but not experienced. Yet it is also wonderful, because for a moment, thought is banished and everything is aligned in its proper place.
That’s what happened at the little bulge. With the moves mapped out in my head, I took a deep breath and began. The fugue hit me. Afterwards I could recall images of small adjustments. I saw my right foot move up to a tenuous hold that I could not have seen at the time. I saw my left foot stick to a sloping hold in the face of counter-pressure from my right hand, which rested flat against the wall of the dihedral.
At the time, I snapped back to a brighter day above the bulge, not entirely sure of how I got there, but feeling wonderful, with the whole thing still catching up to me. Or maybe, it was vice versa.
No matter, I soon stood at the anchor belaying my son as he followed the route (with only one fall and one hanging rest). My motivation had never been higher. I was itching for another lap on the climb – or maybe, something harder.

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Mouse-Catching

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“I was an idiot,” he said.
We looked up the thin crack dividing two, hexagonal pillars. The wind buffeted us, seated as we were on the sheared edge of a broken column-top.
He proceeded to explain that the route which we regarded had been the site of one of his ‘big whippers’. He’d had a proper ‘big whipper’ era when he was climbing hard, during his second decade.
In the case under discussion, he had been leading the route in the heat of the day. As he stepped up to the crux, a strenuous move involving counter-pressure, he passed out.
He looked like a skydiver in the fall, his limbs extended from his torso and flapping slightly against the rising airspeed. At least, that was his belayer’s description. He only remembers lurching back to consciousness as the rope came taut.
Now, the shade of the big whipper haunted the narrow split in the rock above us. I looked at his face. He would hold the rope if I climbed it.
He would do his best to shake his way up when I got to the top and yelled, “On Belay!”
But there were other mice to catch, and I knew where this one lived. It wasn’t like he didn’t want to climb the route. It might be the route he wanted most. It simply needed to ferment a little before he could take it in.
We rappelled back to the cozy ledge on the Southeast shoulder.
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Above the little garden of juniper and gooseberry perched on the sheer side of the Tower, every line was occupied.
A team from Boulder, CO was climbing up to the awful hanging belay on Soler, a climb every bit as good as any at their home crag. A pair from Montana was queued up right behind them. We would watch the two teams try to share the bolts at the unsupported stance as we left. At the other end of the ledge, a guided group of four was climbing the easiest route from the ledge, aiming for the summit.
The trip back to the base of the Tower involved a scrambling traverse. Most of the time, it was done with a single-layer safety system – the finger strength and caution of the climber. But the consequences of a mistake or mishap, like a falling rock, a seizure, cardiac dysrhythmia, etc., would be fatal. Having seen its vulnerability to the shade of the big whipper, such spooks preyed upon my friend’s mind. I paid out rope for him until he was safe, threw my end on the ground and followed.
Back at the base, we packed up and moved around to the West face. On the way, we passed the viewing tubes – sights pointed perpetually at the stake ladder constructed by two local ranchers years ago as a publicity stunt. Nobody was paying attention to the tubes. In fact, we saw few pedestrians until our way departed from the main trail.
There, my friend exchanged a few words with gawkers who shook their heads at what was, to their eyes, the modern equivalent of stake ladder activities. But I was already looking at the West face. We had not escaped the show. All of the prominent routes were occupied, some doubly. Perhaps the gawkers were partially correct; it was absurd.
We started up the boulder field. The day was too nice; we couldn’t turn away.
We found an open line, or at least, a line where we could establish priority.
As we sorted ropes and gear at the base of the thin crack, another team completed a nearby route. After they pulled their ropes, they began discussing further options, a little too loudly. One of their options, as it turned out, was our line. Usually, I would demur to visitors, but not in the midst of the carnival. We exchanged the usual pleasantries which allow etiquette to be enforced. We suggested a nearby route. They had some initial misgivings, but soon quieted down as the climbing began.
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I was already past the wider sections of our line by then. I was confronted by a series of challenges – three or four hard moves, followed by a secure stance, each set harder than the last and ending right before the anchor bolts. I placed a small aluminum wedge or camming device every four feet or so on these sections.
Part of the trick is knowing the difference between placing protection which safeguards life and limb, and placing protection which bolsters the psyche. Part of the trick is learning not to care too much about that difference. I made it. Now it was his turn.
With the rope ahead of him rather than trailing behind, the haunts fled and he moved smoothly. He even took a fall in stride. As I lowered him, he told me how good he felt about the climb. He told me how good he felt about the whipper-era too, in retrospect.
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We pulled the rope and left the particular carnival at Devils Tower. I dropped him at his house and returned to my own. I would do a few more days of work in the medical clinic, helping people postpone their fate, before I got to go back to the Tower.
As I pulled into the driveway, my little cat was perched on a rock by the walk, intent on something in the grass. She was well fed. If she caught a mouse presently, she would not eat it. Cat activities were no better than stake ladder activities, or climber activities, or perhaps even tourist activities. I started to shake my head, but she looked up. Her puzzled expression stopped me.
“And?” it said, “There are mice to catch.”

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Burning Daylight

The future, Mr. Clean

The future, Mr. Clean


The speakers hammered out The Chieftains’ O’Sullivan’s March.
“What the hell is this?” he demanded.
I shrugged. “I can’t help it. If there is reincarnation, then I once wielded a Claymore. But there is no reincarnation, so let’s go.”
I switched off the engine. He didn’t know what I meant by that comment. He thought he did, but not really. He would someday though; I was sure of it. He was a smart lad.
It was already hot. The air smelled of baking pitch. My legs felt rubbery under the sun’s pressure, but the feeling didn’t last. By that time of year, the body had become acclimated. Marching up the paved trail, weaving through the lumbering tourists, my circulation rallied and my stride steadied. I passed pedestrians, some on the trail, some on the rocks beside the trail. It wasn’t that we were short of time; it was just nervous energy that made me walk fast.
I slowed down when we turned off the asphalt and started up the narrow climbers’ trail. When we hit the relative cool of the Tower’s shadow, I began to stroll. Where the trail butted against the rock’s base, I stopped. We dropped our packs and broke out harnesses and helmets while the sweat dried from our necks. He was ready quickly. He stood there looking at me, wearing a well-measured expression of annoyance.
I wouldn’t do this with someone else’s child. We had a bond, from the beginning, that made it alright. When the neonatologist told us that he had been put on a ventilator, his mother started to cry. I held her hand and told her not to worry. She had been part of the pregnancy, and reasonably expected that she had been delivered from its troubles. I had watched it the whole time from the outside, without any expectation of relief. We both knew what could happen. We had seen fetuses get tangled in their development and come out confused. We had seen maternal physiology give up on the process and, against the mother’s wishes, abandon it all in various ways. She knew these things could happen to her. I knew what I would have to watch. It was my proper place. I was a climber and I knew how to be helpless without suffering from helplessness.
That was why I didn’t cry, not when he was intubated, and not when I sat by the plastic crib and watched him lay too still. He wore a blinder for the first few days, to protect his eyes from the ultraviolet lamp which did his liver’s job for him and cleared the toxic pigments from his blood. They took the little mask off the day after the last of his tubes came out. He looked up, then he looked straight at me. He stared for a long time. The nurses made a big fuss about him recognizing his father, but I knew it for what it was. He had a little patch of nerves on the side of his brain which were devoted to facial recognition. Those nerves made a baby stare at faces, and they were working for him.
He stood looking bored and a little impatient as I fiddled with my helmet’s chin strap.
“This is hard, you know. I can fall off of this one,” I warned, “You’re sure you are OK with that? We can always go over to Assembly Line
“No,” he said flatly, “Burning Daylight
I was serious about Burning Daylight. It was a place that a friend of mine took those who would lay their hands on Mateo Tipi – the Bears’ Lodge – with impunity.
“I ought to be able to knit a sweater while climbing .10b,” the last one had said to him.
When he demanded his sweater as she scrabbled over the last roof, wild-eyed and bloodied, she didn’t reply.
Second pitch of Tulgey Wood

Second pitch of Tulgey Wood

We pushed through the bushes and clambered over a fallen log propped against the foot of the Tower. Where the scramble got steep, we roped up. The rope was mostly for my peace of mind. He could handle this terrain with little risk, even if it made him nervous. I didn’t have him put me on belay. If I fell , I would stop before my weight came onto him. The rope was for his mind more than his body too. It would speed him up and let him build some confidence along the way.I waltzed over the blocks and bushes, past the gnarled juniper tree and the briars to the ledge. This was the most dangerous part of the day; the routine, soft-focus section where a lapse could occur. I anchored into the base of the Burning Daylight crack and reeled in rope.
He followed quickly, buoyed by the nylon cord.
I hitched him into the anchor and began to sort gear. I would need everything, from aluminum wedges smaller than the end of my little finger, to cams as big as my fist. Part of the difficulty of the route was its variety. It never permitted a comfortable rhythm.
I had him put me on belay and we went through our final check. He understood the seriousness of the process. He was a smart lad. But he didn’t understand all the reasons, not really.I started up.
I placed a medium-sized chock in the first 10 feet. This was for him. If I fell, my weight would not come onto him directly. I would still break my leg if I fell, but he would be in good shape to get back down the approach. I moved out slightly onto the face to climb a series of edges, leading up to a stance below a bulging corner. If I fell from there, the gear failed and I hit the belay ledge, I would be killed. He would be on his own to get down, but I had confidence in his ability to do so. He had a natural faculty for seeing the mechanics of a situation clearly. It would work for him in case.
I pulled through the bulge, feeling solid. Now standing under the crux roof, I dawdled with setting up the protection. I tried to remember how I had done it the last time, but I couldn’t. I trusted that the feel of it would come back to me as I began. That was the useful part anyway. Exposition of the moves just soothed the mind.
I reached up and locked my fingers in the crack. My feet set on the last good holds, I stretched high with my other hand and set its digits in the fissure above the roof. They rested loosely. I tensioned my body against the handholds and moved my feet, the left one onto a small irregularity below the roof, the right to a vertical seam on the wall of the corner. My right knee turned in to hold tension, I shuffled my hands higher in the crack above the roof. The forces shifted back across my shoulders as I raised my left foot over the roof and set it on the smooth, sloping ledge. Without pressure on it, the sole slipped slightly. I recovered and reset it. Gently, I transferred weight onto the sticky rubber until it could withstand some force. One more step and I was over the roof.
The next roof was easier, as it led to a hand crack. I wouldn’t fall out of a hand crack, not unless I had a seizure or was struck by lightning. It ended too soon. I placed a couple of cams near the top of the crack and began stemming up the final, overhanging corner. It was technical friction, not too hard, but with tired feet, it always felt desperate.
I clipped the anchor bolts and yelled, “Off belay!”
I took my shoes off and secured the rope for him. He took a long time putting on his shoes. I couldn’t see him easily past the overhangs, but I was suspicious about the delay.
I called down, “Did you clean the anchor?”
“Yes”
“We were going to use that to clip back in to when we rap.”
“I won’t need it,” he assured me.
There was another reason for leaving the bottom anchor: he would need it if he quit and had to be lowered.
“On belay,” I replied.
“Climbing.”
I began to take up rope as he advanced. It accumulated slowly on the ledge beside me. After 15 feet, I could hear him breathing. The respirations were even yet. Then the rope stopped. He must have come to the little bulge. A couple more feet of rope came up, then the line went taut.
“Damn it!” he spat.
I bit down on words of encouragement. I wasn’t going to take this away from him just yet. Once more, the rope went slack, then taut, but there was no more swearing. He hung on the harness for a long time. When he moved again, the rope kept coming.
“Take,” he called.
No swearing at all this time. He stopped for a minute or two to puzzle out the crux.
“OK, climbing.”
I leaned out from the anchors. I could see him now. He had the rattley finger lock over the roof. His right foot slipped, but he didn’t tense up or let go. He put his left knee against the edge of the roof and re-established the right foothold. He shuffled his hands up, and it went.
“Take”
He slouched in his harness and shook blood back into his forearms. Taking a deep breath, he stepped back onto the rock. At the second roof he paused and asked for a tip.
“Feet high on the right wall until you can reach above the overhang,” I suggested, “then palm out left and get your left foot on a big edge over the lip.”
He started the moves and got stymied.
“What the f-. Oh, hand crack,” he declared, finally wriggling high enough to reach over the edge, “Never mind.”
He cruised the rest of the crack to the friction climbing and the exit moves. The corner was steep again, and he was tired. For a minute, he tried to establish a position in the final, little chimney which would allow him to reach the exit holds. Exhausted, he weighted the rope again. At that point, I was close enough to reach down and give him a hand up if I just extended my connection to the anchor a little bit. The thought crossed my mind, but then he looked up at me. His expression reflected his fatigue and some exasperation, but no panic or defeat. He was comfortable on the rope, and he knew he could finish the climb. He wanted to finish. I sat back.
“Take your time,” I told him.
“Yeah. I’m back on,” he replied.
With a little more fumbling and swearing, he managed to drape his hand over the solution-hold below the belay ledge and pull over the top.
“Nice job,” I told him.
“How hard is that compared to the hardest climb at the Tower?” he asked.
I shook my head, “Not that hard.”
“No, I mean how much harder is the hardest one?” he insisted.
“Three number grades.”
He nodded. I began setting up the rappel while he transferred gear to a sling on my shoulder.
“Do you want to go first?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “you go.”
I checked his set-up and descended. At the base, I thought about resetting the anchor, but decided against it. He lingered for quite a while after I called “off rope”. I didn’t worry. I just sat and looked out at the perfect weather and the perfect flood-plain of the Belle Fourche river, not thinking about anything but the passage of time. And that, I told myself, was nothing at all.
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