Tag Archives: Devils Tower

Tower Blowout

I should have known better. The term “blowout” is never associated with a good aftermath. At best it entails something nasty issuing from an orifice of some sort. I prefer the Tour de Tower, which is a trip around the monolith, hitting as many routes as possible along the way. Some of those routes may be Killer b’s (the 10.b grade at the Tower is a universal sandbag), but not a bunch of 11’s. For me, those are still part of a three route regimen: one warm up, one desperate struggle, and one warm down to wash away the cotton-mouth.

When Mr. Swift suggested the blowout before the voluntary June climbing closure, I figured it would be OK. He’d lead all the hard pitches. Nobody can string together those steep, crimpy slabs and fingertip cracks all the way around the Tower without getting tired. I’d lead the approach pitches and then, when he folded, I’d take over and ease things back into the classic tour.

He didn’t fold, he escalated. Before it was over, I found myself on routes I wasn’t sure I could even follow. I managed, but only just. When it came time for the warm-down, it was I who was forced to quote the great Roberto Duran. No mas.

At least all that time on the dull end allowed me to get some amusing photos.

Anonymous climber on Everlasting, aptly named since you’re sorry you got on it by the second clip and then it just won’t end.

Making his “O-shit” face.

It is important to chalk up here to take your mind off the crappy footholds. 

Busy day on the NE shoulder.

Baby bird doing what good babies do best.


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I don’t subscribe to the idea of reincarnation because I don’t like the way it’s said to work. If you are good, you become lighter and float up the preset hierarchy of beings. If you are bad, your evil deeds will burden you and you will sink down the preset hierarchy. This is bogus. It should be more like skeeball. You should get tickets for being good and then get to pick your next incarnation from the highest shelf you can afford. I could go for a scheme like that.

I would choose to come back as a White-Bellied Swift. These birds swarm around Devils Tower in the Spring and Summer. They are specialists in flight with boomerang-shaped wings and sharp, compact tails. They keep the Tower climbing experience real. Finish a hard route feeling all fluffed up and euphoric and one of these little guys will zip past your head, the wind screaming over his feathers, then dive vertically down the wall less than a foot from the rock. No matter how good you feel right then, you will never be as good at what you do as he is at what he does.

This guy is about as close as we humans come to that kind of mastery. He is a rock climbing specialist. As a result, he’s achieved a degree of control and skill that looks a lot like what the Swifts have. Sadly, that’s not for me. I can’t devote myself to rock and since I lack any singular genetic gifts, I’m doomed to mediocrity. I don’t mean to imply that I’m lukewarm on rock climbing. On the contrary, as soon as the snow melts, I’m itching to smell warm granite and feel the crushing embrace of rock shoes on my toes. It’s just that, by the end of summer, I start longing for bleak landscapes, violence and weird new forms of water.

So if I came back as a Swift, I’d probably start watching the vultures soon enough, wishing I could be soaring up high instead of whipping around the Tower like a madman. Maybe I wouldn’t cash in my tickets on swiftdom after all. Perhaps something small and terrestrial, with a bad attitude and a wicked set of teeth…

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Marginal Behavior

Climbing with kids is always iffy. Multi-pitch climbing with kids can be asking for trouble. It isn’t guaranteed trouble, it’s just a set-up that, given the arrangement of the pieces, makes you think twice. It is important to start with low expectations and treat the whole enterprise as a sort of upward rescue.

The great thing about climbing with kids is that they bring kid foolishness, which is plain and transparent,  to the climb rather than adult foolishness, which is deep and opaque. Kids aren’t going to tell you their knot is good when it isn’t. Kids may horse around on the belay ledge, but they aren’t going to unclip from the anchor so they can move around to get a better picture.

By the same  token, if  kids are going to freak out and freeze, it’s probably going to happen in the first twenty feet, when they realize the gravity of their situation, rather than three pitches up when their ego collapses.

When we started up the Tower with our 11 and 12-year-old boys, Mike and I had all these things in mind. Being veterans of soul-searing alpine epics and dicey retreats, we had a reasonable degree of confidence we could pull it off. Experience like ours builds an expertise in Redneck Rescue – an improvisational method of crisis management that is effective, but lacks the smoothness and consistent redundancy of a professional approach. Of course, professionals avoid crisis situations in the first place, so what do they really know.

Rowan, the older kid, had seen the method in action. He had climbed the Tower with me the year before. The way up was tough and he just squeaked by the crux pitch, but the descent was a horror show. A thunder-storm caught us and we had to descend the ropes through hail, wind and lightning. It affected his motivation for the current day, I could tell. Jack, the younger kid, had never climbed the Tower, so he had no reason to fear it.


Rowan folded at the crux pitch; Jack’s curiosity and ambition led him on into the wide crack and stemming problem. I had the opportunity to belay him on the pitch and the experience was the same as every other time I’ve belayed a kid on difficult climbing. It’s a lot like deep-sea fishing would be, if you could hear what the fish was thinking.  You brace yourself, pull, reel in line, all to the sounds of desperate effort interspersed with whimpering.

On the belay ledge, once he stopped shaking, I could see a familiar light in Jack’s eyes. He’d gotten by the hardest thing he’d ever climbed and now his teeth were locked on this project. Jack was going up, but Rowan was going down. He wasn’t upset, he’d just made his decision and would not be continuing.

Splitting up the team is a core skill in Redneck Rescue. After batting the question, “OK, so what is going to happen..?” back and forth for a few rounds we completed the hand off and Mike continued to the top with Jack while I took Rowan down.

It was a long wait at the bottom while Mike and Jack finished the route. An adult would have spent the time moping and feeling impatient. Rowan spent it trying to figure out why rocks bounce. I got to watch the light change over the Belle Fourche River valley without having to think about anybody else’s emotional weirdness. I wouldn’t want to do it every day, but I like climbing with kids.


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