In a place defined by vertical geometry, I am the lone exception.
As a climber of decades, I am no stranger to seemingly insane positions and situations, the kinds of things that predictably and, I admit, satisfyingly cause sightseers to unhinge their jaws. Dangling from a jut-browed overhang, posed upon invisible crystals, topping out on a pinnacle with my arms outstretched like an eagle king, I relish not only the joys of conquest, but the sheer wonderment these exploits elicit from tourists, hikers and other passersby.
This time, however, even the other climbers are gaping. This time, instead of dangling or posed or perched, I am, well sideways.
And I don’t mean facing to one side — but rotated at 90 degrees. You know the little horizontal line braced between the vertical segments of the letter “H?” That’s me: spanned out lengthwise, an unlikely spring-tension rod of arms, spine and legs, wedged between two perfectly parallel walls of stone. It takes a bit of doing to upstage the scenery here but, conspicuously, I have pulled it off.
I’m several hundred feet up the side of Devil’s Tower, a rock formation that is itself a befuddling attraction. An utterly unique fusion of striking symmetry and WTF geology, Devil’s Tower National Monument draws climbers and non-climbers alike to this backwater corner of Wyoming.
For climbers, “the Tower” (which, like “the Valley,” needs no other modifier to set it apart) is among the best climbing locations in North America, and perhaps the world. Cracks at other venues may be longer, steeper, even more uniform (though that would be a knock-down drag-out title fight), but no place can boast such a concentrated assembly. The fact that Nature has raked them so uniformly upon the flanks of a surreal, flat-topped, skyscraper-sized stump — well, that’s what brings the tourists.
Of course, the minute the RV captains and crews get a glimpse of our cliff-side shenanigans, they are riveted, amazed and intensely curious. But no amount of patient demonstrations, no matter how dutifully performed by fully roped and racked park rangers, will ever explain to them what I’m doing at this moment. Strung out like a human hammock, I’m not quite sure myself. But I do know who to blame: a photographer. Or, rather, a photo.
Photojournalists are the porn-peddlers of the climbing world. Their images ignite our desires and passions — lust would not be too strong a word. One iconic shot of Our Hero posed upon an exotic chunk of stone is enough to compel us to bad choices: to spend money we don’t have, to put lives on hold — in short, and in the language of addiction, “to suffer negative consequences.” I once burned through an entire summer’s savings traveling halfway around the world for a single route that had bewitched me from a magazine cover. By the time I finally bagged it, I was already under the spell of another route back home, a siren song from the center spread of a climbing journal printed in a language that I couldn’t even read.
My very first ascent of Devil’s Tower marked the beginning of this pattern. My hometown newspaper had run a photograph of some local heroes on top of the Tower. It didn’t look like any summit photo I’d ever seen: no jagged peak, no high point at all, really; just a pile of rocks in a field of weeds. What did capture my imagination was the large wooden signpost that declared, “No Climbing Above This Point.” To my adolescent sensibilities, something had finally surpassed MAD magazine as the absolute apex of hilarity. Imagine my disappointment when a year or so later I staggered onto the summit of Devil’s Tower myself, a brick-like “instamatic” in tow, and found only a couple of other climbers sitting on that rock pile.
“Hey,” I croaked, “where’s the sign?”
“That way,” one of the guys said, pointing west.
“Yeah?” I brightened, shading my eyes in that direction. “I don’t see it.”
“No,” he said with a smile, “not here. It’s on top of the Grand Teton now.” Great. A few years later, a guy in the Tetons told me it had been carried to the summit of Mount Rainier. I’m still chasing that sign. And that photo.
Thankfully, my definition of high art has evolved. Today, the most seductive imagery incorporates stunningly unique rock. An elephant-sized flake that is waffle-thin, a corner so clean it surely must have been quarried, the crack that breaks like a flagpole shadow: these surreal angles and shapes burrow like parasites deep into the brain folds to trigger neurons that scream, “Hold up — look at that! Where is that?!” Which, of course, is only a single synapse spark from, “I’ve got to climb that!” It’s all about the stone — the more out-of-this-world, the better. And there’s only one place on Earth where no matter which direction you point a camera, you frame columns that embody an alien landscape.
Another killer photograph: That’s what’s gotten me in over my head. Except that’s not quite right. No part of me is actually over my head. Oddly, there’s nothing under my head either. I’m not doing any of the things that might make a grain of sense in terms of explaining why I’m bridged out like a plank over empty space between two stone columns. But I’m definitely attracting a crowd.
There’s no place to hide on Devil’s Tower. A loop of paved trail provides ready access to every aspect of the monument. For climbers, this facilitates quick and easy approaches no matter where you’re headed, but it also promotes little knots of ordinary folk who congregate to observe the spectacle playing out on the walls above them. Beneath the deeply weathered southern aspect, they ooh and aah as climbers rappel any of the several equipped descent routes. Their emotions seesaw beneath the awesome North Face when climbers seemingly give up and descend without reaching the summit (the fact that this is de rigueur for avoiding the loose upper sections of many routes here is baffling to them). The East Face is also a mystery. Here, the tourists are likely to ponder the relative absence of climbing activity, oblivious to the formidable barrier of The Window — a double-tiered roof that spans 10 columns. And the West Face — the one displayed above the grandstand of teeming parking lots and the Visitor Center, the one with acoustics that ensure every gasp and whimper is clearly transmitted to the gawking throngs, is the one that I’m stuck smack dab in the middle of.
Of course, even before there were rock climbers, Devil’s Tower was the scene of some pretty hair-brained stunts that the public devoured like candy. The first, and probably still the hairiest, culminated with the first ascent of the monolith — with nary a rope involved. As a prelude to the 1893 Fourth of July picnic extravaganza at the foot of the Tower, local ranchers William Rogers and Willard Ripley spent weeks hammering a line of 24- to 30-inch wooden stakes up a crack system on the southeast face of the Tower. The pair fixed a continuous rail of wood to the outer ends of the pegs to fashion a crude but fantastic ladder. On the appointed day, before a crowd of a thousand strong, Rogers ascended to the summit and planted the American flag. Perhaps because this was Indian land, the flag promptly blew over and floated down onto the talus. Because they were Americans, the promoters quickly portioned up the flag and sold the bits as souvenirs. As a veteran of a few epic climbs on welded ladders (TV antennas, water towers, etc.) undertaken by necessity in the dead of the night, I shudder at the thought of Rogers under a blazing midsummer sun, pulling nearly 400 feet of shaky rungs.
Perhaps angels watch over Devil’s Tower. (The name alone begs a watchful eye from on high.) Not counting my current predicament, I have used up at least nine lives here stepping on a rattlesnake, dodging lightning strikes, ascending jammed rappel lines, and being present in a local bar when, in response to a cowboy’s drunken declaration that he was none too fond of sharing a stool with us “climber faggots,” a friend responded, “Well, then, I guess sodomy is out.” And that’s just the stuff that wasn’t actually climbing. The fact is, approximately 5,000 people registered to climb Devil’s Tower in 2007, and there have only been five fatalities here. Ever. None of those occurred during the 44-year period before people started using ropes (over two dozen people, including his wife, summited via Rogers’ stake ladder during those decades).
In 1937, Fritz Wiessner led the first rock-climbing team up an ugly 5.7 off-width crack that still carries his name and relatively little traffic. Modern teams looking to tag the summit by the easiest path typically opt for the 5.6 trade route pioneered by Jack Durrance the following year (Durrance returned in 1941 to play a part in yet another crowd-pleaser, as leader of the rescue party that brought down a stranded parachutist). After that, the routes at Devil’s Tower quickly advance up through the grades, with a high percentage of modern classics concentrated in the 5.10 to 5.11 range. One of these is called El Matador (5.10), and the cameras love it.
Picture this: a stunning perspective shot straight down a breathtaking three-sided chute, the climber posed with legs forked impossibly outward between the columns, limbs split like a rubber wishbone, torqued beyond the tolerances of ordinary sinews and joints. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a master at devising unorthodox rest positions. But like a rare book, my crotch is not something that can be roughly pried without threatening the spine. Yet from the moment I laid eyes on an image of El Matador, I’ve imagined myself as elastic as a cheerleader. Why am I surprised that things have not gone well?
I’m feeling betrayed — by my own stupidity, but also by this crag. Devil’s Tower is, after all, an old friend. As the closest Western “mountain” to my lifelong home in the Minnesota heartland, this was the scene of my first multi-pitch climb, my first hanging belay, my first summit. Time and again, this is where my friends and I would return to savor even just a few hours of Big League adventure, despite the fact that it was over 500 miles away. Devil’s Tower was both our salvation and our curse. To this day, I question whether the Dakotas really exist because they were never seen. I recall only a fuzzy dreamland of dark grasses and distant lightning that we passed through in fitful half-sleep as our cramped and creaking vehicles traversed the long night separating week from weekend. As Saturday dawned, we tumbled out into the dust beneath the Tower, but by Sunday evening, we were back in our rides again, wheeling east through the nothingness, arriving home with just enough time to bandage our scabs, knot our ties and take our workday seats; sated but scarred — not only in body, but so road-shocked we could not even begin to explain, even to ourselves, how we spent the weekend.
Now, as then, fooling oneself is just too easy. So is blame. Confession is something historically associated with being twisted into bizarre contortions, so it is my turn: it wasn’t really a photographer, or a picture. Ambition is what has brought me to this place, and to this end. Towering ambition.
At least I am in good company. Names like Robbins, Kor and McCarthy attest to the Tower’s longstanding preeminence as a crucible in North American climbing. El Matador was originally a dicey nail-up pioneered by the ubiquitous Fred Beckey. In the mid-1980s, Todd Skinner — who applied almost frantic energy to advancing free-climbing standards — lived entire seasons based out of a teepee beneath the Tower, as he methodically plumbed the possibilities between every column. Skinner, who was tragically killed in a fall from Leaning Tower, in Yosemite, two years ago, was also a spirited raconteur. Among his campfire standards at Devil’s Tower was the story of how he once hired a small boy to confront John Bachar, another 1980s climbing icon, beneath Yosemite’s Columbia Boulder. According to Skinner, the kid practically thumped Bachar on the chest as he asked, “Are you John Bachar?”
“That’s me,” Bachar declared.
Following Skinner’s script, the youngster narrowed his eyes in a gunfighter squint and put Bachar on notice: “Someday, I’m gonna blow you out of the water.”
But it was Bachar’s steely response that brought Skinner to tears: “Go for it, kid.”
Skinner loved the idea of a big-name climber matching toes with a child — and he wasn’t alone. One morning, as he racked for his daily dance with the Devil, a small boy wandered over from an adjoining campsite. “Are you Todd Skinner?” he demanded.
Skinner responded, “Um who wants to know?”
Undeterred, the kid issued his challenge. “Someday, I’m going to blow you out of the water.”
Skinner deflated. “Aw, c’mon, kid,” he pleaded. “There are other sports.”
Skinner’s record for the fastest ascent of the Tower still stands: 18 minutes via the 5.9 classic Walt Bailey Memorial. Of course, he also put a lot of effort into reworking (freeing) the contributions of earlier pioneers. Dennis Horning (aka Dingus McGee) also helped rewrite the book by freeing an impressive number of modern classics, and literally rewrote the book in the late 1970s by supplanting an archaic guidebook with a series of pamphlet-like “Poorperson’s Guides” that he practically gave away. Free was indeed the mantra at Devil’s Tower.
For a few short years after its own liberation in 1978, El Matador was rated 5.11 — the top of the scale for the place and time. Soon, however, the realization dawned that there simply isn’t a move that hard here. To me, considering the outward uniformity of the cracks at Devil’s Tower, it has always seemed remarkable that cruxes exist at all. In fact, there is tremendous variation within these crystalline fissures. Feldspar shards and differential weathering of the gray phonolite porphyry have resulted in toothy pockets and tapers within the seams and fractures — myriad opportunities for all manner of locks, jams and protection. As a result, pitches can be outrageously sustained and pumpy, but there is still quite often a distinct hardest move.
Except on El Matador. Even the current 5.10d rating may be a stretch in terms of pure technical difficulty, but nobody’s lobbying to drop it another peg. El Matador is a different kind of hard. The climb is the stemming archetype –the one by which scientists calibrate their instruments, and the rating is an attempt to quantify the endurance required to sustain an unconventional and agonizing position for an entire rope-length. From my first, tentative attempts to ascertain El Matador’s singular demands, my groin threatened to go critical, but I found I could make and hold the stem. And I did — for a while.
It began as a sort of wounded waltz. Foot up, foot out, work the crack, then again. Each time I abandoned the stem in favor of the crack, I knew I was turning my back on convention and exhausting valuable strength, but I’d found a rhythm. The key was to climb as quickly as possible, don’t pause, don’t overprotect, don’t think, just move. Foot-crack-foot shit, that’s not right — I missed something. Crack-foot-rest, no — not rest!
Ground to a halt by flaming calves, smoked forearms and a mental meltdown — locked in an excruciating pose that no longer afforded a shred of recovery or relief — I played my ace. With both hands locked neatly together in the left-hand crack and one foot stemmed out right, I blindly lobbed my other leg outward toward the right-hand corner. The toe caught, and I shuffled both legs up until the burning began to subside. I experienced a fleeting moment of relief — and then dawning dread at the doomed absurdity of my situation: stretched out at full extension between the columns, both hands on one side and both feet on the other.
It was unorthodox. It was creative. It was something I could never reverse.
So it ends here: legs at 3 o’clock, arms at 9. Any relief this position afforded my calves has been replacedby a volcanic burning within my abs. Staring straight down the wide, fluted box of El Matador I consider that at least it will be a clean drop — as long as my arms don’t give out first and dump me headlong into the chute.
The crowd is getting excited. “Hey, check it out dude, that guy’s horizontal!” I do love impressing the tourists.
Soon, very soon, things at Devil’s Tower will fall back into line.
Dave Pagel began his courtship with his wife, Dina, by guiding her up Devil’s Tower. Despite his best efforts, nobody got horizontal on that trip. Over the years he has climbed the Tower more than 50 times.