Conquering Devil’s Tower
I was taught how to trad climb by a guy who said it was like learning how to drive stick: once you start, you’ll never go back to automatic.
He taught me in Red River Gorge, a climber-famous area in Kentucky, on a 5.7 grade climb called Octopus Tag. All of it — the friction of the sandstone, the huge flakes and the chimney I could nestle in to — were much more forgiving than the off-width, granite cracks I found myself on while climbing Devil’s Tower.
It was around 9:30 p.m. at the end of a long day in May, and our motley crew of six 20-something college students were exactly one mile away from the tower. At least, we were according to our out-of-service phones.
The plan was to “take the tower.” With an almost respectable amount of climbing experience under our belt, our main goal was to just try and not fall while leading. We approached the tower with the assumption that we would be climbing six or so pitches of a 5.7, mostly off-width trad route called Durrance. Our worst fear was falling, popping out a gear placement and then falling completely off the tower.
Of course, that sounds more like a nightmare than a legitimate worry now that we are back on the ground.
When you look at Devil’s Tower from the park visitor center, it looks like 600 feet of massive columns squished together and, by some miracle, still standing. As we approached the tower in the dark, however, all that we could make out was a huge, ominous formation and two small but distinct lights meandering around the top. We scrambled out of a packed Honda CR-V, weighed down by four ripe-smelling climbers and pounds of gear to make out the lights as headlamps. They were climbers, not yet finished with their route from the day.
That night, we got into a spat. Half of the group wanted to explore other areas with the prospect of bad weather in the morning. The other half thought that if we woke up early enough, we could beat the rain. We went to bed undecided and woke up to a clear, slightly windy day, knowing that was our chance. We packed up and were at the base of our climb in an hour.
After missing a turnoff in the trail, we were left to scramble up to the first pitch, adding an extra 50 feet of climbing to our day. My climbing partner, Connor “Marty” Martin, had taken the first lead. We were the last of our three pairs to ascend. When he scrambled out of sight, I stood belaying from the ledge at the base of the tower, alone except for the wind and the sights of the others climbing high above me.
When it was my turn to climb, I somewhat gracefully cleaned Marty’s gear while making my way up the route. We met at the next belay ledge: an awkward slope accompanied by a leaning tree he had set an anchor on.
My first pitch to lead looked terrifying. The 70-foot climb is called Leaning Column, aptly named for the tilted pillar that had fallen over far enough to create a wedge of space between its bottom and the column underneath, leading to a chimney of space behind it. Climbers reach this point about mid-route.
I started off strong, humming nonsensical tunes to keep myself calm. When I got to the base of the leaning pillar, I could not figure out the move to get up and around it. My head was frantic, overwhelmed by the fear of falling combined with the knowledge that I was about to be hundreds of feet off of the ground. The pie-shaped wedge underneath the pillar only seemed big enough to uncomfortably wiggle through. I jammed into a nearby crack and decided to trust the questionable placement I had just made in order to go up and around to the chimney.
That’s when my feet cut out.
I swore at the top of my lungs as my feet slipped, my hand still jammed in the crack and holding, then, my entire weight. Slightly panicked, I hoisted my foot up to the next reasonable hold in the crack, reached up with my non-jammed hand and beach whaled my body underneath the leaning pillar.
I laid there for a minute, breathing hard and laughing from fear until I heard a call from the belay ledge above me.
“Clara, I don’t think that’s how you’re supposed to climb the route,” Nolan, who was in the second pair of our climbing group, mocked from above.
I chuckled a little to myself, still flat on my stomach underneath the pillar. After yelling down to Marty, I placed another piece of gear for some peace of mind, shook out my throbbing hand and continued on with the climb.
Marty and I made our way up and over the last light scramble, 600 feet above the ground, my chest felt like it was swelling and I thought back to more than five years before, when Devil’s Tower was a distant, unachievable dream. We had done it.
One thing to note: reaching the top of the tower meant accomplishing a dream that I had consistently thought about for nearly six years. Sometimes there are those that think you will never be fulfilled. That after you accomplish one thing, it will not feel as good as you think and you will move on to something else. At the top of the tower, trying to soak in everything about the rolling grassland around me, I only felt peace and pride.
Climbing seven total pitches took us nearly nine hours. With our late start to the day, we finally started to set up a rappel line as the sun set around us. As we descended from the tower, the stars came out and we turned our headlamps on, ready to reach the ground and crawl into bed.
[Photos by Nolan Bollier]
Duluth resident Clara Hatcher is completing her Bachelor’s degree in journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Her love of the outdoors began in Northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters and flourished with environmental conservation work in AmeriCorps NCCC.