Date: 16 May 2019
Route: Durrance Route, Devil’s Tower WY
Team: Patrick Vickers and Peter Regan
If you ever decide to go climb in Wyoming, let me give you some advice: When you and your partner cross the state line, stop the car and punch each other in the face. This serves as a warmup for the ass-kicking that is ahead of you.
There’s no one else on the road as I race north from Champaign to pick Packy up in the suburbs. It’s 5:30 AM on Wednesday, May 15th and for the first time in a week, things are quiet. I can’t wait to see Pack, but I appreciate the time to myself. I graduated from college over the weekend, so it has been a rush of family, photos, and parties. I should be happy, but graduation signals more than just diplomas and tassels. I’m staying for grad school, entering the old guard of climbers in the area. I’d told my parents, though perhaps mostly to convince myself, that only three or four of my friends were leaving Champaign-Urbana. I was telling the truth, but it ignores the most important fact. Sure, only a few are leaving. But my closest and most cherished friends are among them. The goodbyes hurt, each containing a variation of a phrase that drops my heart into my stomach:
“See you later!”
“We’ll plan something”
“Till next time!”
The best part of graduating is how free you are – possibilities abound. Yet this is also the part that terrifies me. No matter what is said, I may never see these people again. I don’t want to face that reality – that the last four years of my life might just be temporary. It keeps me up at night. It breaks me into nothing.
I’m proud of my friends’ successes. I’m excited for their futures all over the country and the world. I don’t worry about them, and for the most part I don’t worry about me. I worry about our bonds, our friendships. I don’t share this with any of them. We’re all stressed out enough as it is. So I push it deep down into my mind. Just another thing unsaid.
These notions swim throughout my mind as I pick Packy up, as we crawl through traffic in Wisconsin and fly down the reads in South Dakota. I try to explain myself to him, but I can’t find the words. He understands anyway.
By the time we reach Wyoming, the thoughts have extended throughout my body. My stomach is tight, my fingers are cold. This trip is supposed to be a celebration and an escape from the darkness. So far it hasn’t felt like it, until we see the tower.
Even in the blackness of midnight, Bear Lodge (Devil’s Tower) asserts its dominance over the Black Hills skyline. Google Maps is no longer needed, instead I just keep the car pointed towards the towering monolith. Excitement and nerves bubble over me, and I feel freedom from the chains of worry as Packy and I set up our tent. My mind is still overwhelmed, but at least for a while it is about opportunity instead of loss.
4:45 AM – Campsite
I had just slowed my racing thoughts when the alarm went off a mere four hours after we went to bed. I stumble out of the tent to make breakfast while Packy savors the remaining few minutes of sleep.
6:30 AM – Approach Pitch
Packy racks up and leads the approach pitch. The moves are easy, so he runs it out to set the day’s mood. I follow and continue over fourth class to the base of the first pitch of Durrance.
Pitch 1 – Leaning Column
I rack up and take off up the first official pitch of the route. Ten feet of face climbing leads to a low angle crack. A good size for my hands, I feel confident as it steepens to vertical and pull the awkward mantle that signals the second half of the pitch. After placing a solid nut in a dihedral, I ascend the space between the tower and the column with squeeze technique. Two pitons protect the 25 foot chimney.
Now is probably the time to give a short history of the Durrance Route. It was the second technical route on the tower and is the most popular route due to its relative easiness and large belay stances. This means it has seen thousands of ascents since it was first put up in 1938.
Three feet from being able to reach the top of the column, I feel myself slipping. Thousands of butts have scuffed up these moves, polishing the features into oblivion. No amount of thigh squeezing makes me feel secure. Not wanting to take a fall onto a fixed piton at the beginning of the route, I frantically shove a #4 cam into the crack and pull myself up on it to make the finishing mantle.
Packy flies up the pitch, even while trailing our pack. My shenanigans have made the #4 difficult to remove, so I lower down and work on it for a minute before retrieving it. The party ahead was still climbing the second pitch, so this isn’t lost time, but I punish myself anyway.
Pitch 2 – Durrance Crack
Durrance Crack is a 70-foot system of two parallel cracks. The left one is hand-sized, while the right crack is an offwidth. It is the hardest pitch on the route, but luckily for me it is Packy’s lead. He runs up the start, which mixes hand jams with greasy face holds. Towards the top you are forced into the offwidth, made difficult by the three-foot face separating the two cracks. Packy hangs, works the moves, and is on top at the belay as quickly as he started. I follow with our summit pack but have trouble with the face moves and the transition into the offwidth. I commit the cardinal sin of multipitch climbing and take longer to follow than Packy took to lead. As I pull up onto the belay ledge, Packy looks at me and says “I’m not feeling too well” before immediately leaning over the edge of the column and vomiting.
Base of Pitch 3 – Discussion
Once Packy finishes voiding the rest of the morning’s bread and cheese, we discuss what to do. The route traverses climber’s right, so rapping down the belays is not an option. The meadows rap line is somewhere below us but locating it will be difficult as our descent beta is in reference to the first station up and climber’s right of us. Packy assures me that he feels good enough to continue, though possibly just because he knows the safest descent is to get to the meadows. Either way, he has some time to rest while I lead the next pitch. From the looks of it, he’ll have plenty of time.
Pitch 3 – Cussin’ Crack
Cussin’ Crack begins with a 20-foot squeeze chimney. Just looking at it felt like staring into Bob Scarpelli’s hardened soul. Hoping to find some kind of gear, I rack everything like a fool. There is a fixed nut eight feet off the ground, so I clip that and bump a tipped out #6 cam the whole way up. The weight and shape of my failure to commit to the gear beta pulls me down, useless #3s getting caught on every lip. I’ve climbed too many offwidths to excuse this rookie mistake. I pull up onto a ledge and place a #1. A wider offwidth continues up, but the route description mentions traversing a ledge right to a well-protected hand crack. Unsure, I consult Packy, and the leader of the (much more competent) party below says to keep in the offwidth. I bend down and awkwardly retrieve my #6, hoping that it will fit. I leave everything but a #1, #2, and #6 clipped to my last piece. The #6 hardly holds its own weight, so I run it out over my #1 until I reach a hand crack. I plug a #2 and run it to the anchors. On top, I realize that I wasn’t supposed to climb the second offwidth, as I see the aforementioned hand crack below, mocking me. Oh well, it kept things interesting. Packy follows up, and even with the summit pack and nearly the entire rack, he makes quick work of both squeezes.
Pitch 4 – Flake Crack
As Packy steps up onto the belay ledge, I ask how he is feeling. He says he feels a little better, but we decide to wait a bit for him to prepare. Eventually he admits that although he can follow, he doesn’t want to lead anything. Shit, now I have to lead the last four pitches of the route.
I suppose I should give some context as to my history with Devil’s Tower. Two years ago, I came here with friend and mentor Nick Tripp and climbed Pseudo-Wiessner (5.8). I wasn’t leading trad at the time, so Nick lead the whole route. I was out of shape and by the end of it, nearly delirious. We rapped in the dark and hardly talked to one another. Two weeks later I was admitted to the ER and diagnosed with Adrenal Insufficiency – my body was missing the hormones that allow it to manage physical stress. In addition, I was unable to uptake sodium and so was constantly hyponatremic.
Being diagnosed sucked, but at least I had an explanation as to my performance on PW. I didn’t know how to tell anyone, but when I finally did Nick immediately understood.
That climb was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, physically and mentally. I am probably the only person with AI to do something like that without medication.
I still feel weak, and I expected Durrance to be really fucking difficult for me. The prospect of leading all the remaining pitches scares the shit out of me. But Nick did it for me when I was sick, so I’ll try my best to do it for Packy.
I look up at the pitch looming overhead – an eight-inch crack separates a flake from the tower. This crack is filled with smaller flakes and plates. This comes together to form the kind of climbing that scares me most – little to no jamming, polished face moves, and sketchy gear. I fucking hate it, but we’re not going anywhere until I start.
As I pull up onto the holds, the words of Roger Hubank in North Wall circulate through my mind.
Always it must be like this for someone, somewhere. And perhaps the time had come for him to suffer what all men must have suffered since the beginning.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m a weak face climber. The fear generated by this pitch brings the anxiety of losing friends back to the front of my mind. I’m standing on good feet and good hands, but I don’t move. The instability of the climbing above melts into the instability of the life ahead of me and paralyzes me completely. It’s not the climbing that scares me, it’s the feeling of being alone in a difficult place. This pitch and everything I have been dealing with are the result of the same insecurity – one that has followed me across years and places. Realizing this, I allow Hubank to guide my hands forward.
As I move up above my first piece, my mind remains fragile but clears of all extraneous thought. The stress of graduation, of watching good friends leave, the fear of loneliness all fade away. All that exists is me and the stone. Packy is a vague presence below me, shouting encouragement. I place a nut next to a hollow flake, think about removing it, but instead sandwich that plate in with an X4 on the other side. Though my head is empty, my mouth chatters the whole way on autopilot – mostly apologies to the group below for being slow and agreeing to let them pass at the next anchor. I pull into the offwdith that guards the last five feet of the pitch (to quote the MP description, “go figure”), plug a #6, and scoot up onto the luxurious belay ledge. This is the only pitch on which I don’t pull on any gear, mostly because I don’t trust the rock. I set the anchor, belay Packy up, and extend my tether to let the group below pass us.
Pitch 5 – Chockstone Chimney
As the threesome from below lead up the next pitch, I scout it out. Chockstone Chimney is 30 feet of offwidth and chimney moves on glassy walls. There’s not much gear – a solid nut 15 feet up followed by a 0.2/0.3 X4 offset at the chockstone 25 feet up. I scuffle up, taking expert beta from a guide below that severely reduces the pucker factor. The finish is to surmount a large boulder covering the top of the crack. It has bomber hand jams, but to reach it I have to pull my waist up to my hands on an undercling. It feels sketchy, and my gear may as well be miles away. I quickly stuff a jam and beach whale onto the belay stance. I laugh and high five the father of the party ahead of us as he congratulates me on finishing the last pitch of technical climbing. I bring Packy up and receive beta on the traverse.
Pitch 6 – The Jump Traverse
The Jump Traverse is a short pitch that traverses between two sets of columns. The first ascent party bridged the six-foot gap by jumping. We are not so brave. I crouch and waddle under a roof. I reach blindly around a corner and clip a piton. Pulling on the draw, I slip my feet onto a dish and inspect what’s before me. It is supposedly 5.6, but outside of the piton all I see is a sloping horizontal seam. 5.6 my ass. I place a 0.1/0.2 X4 offset in the seam and yank on it, testing its strength. It holds, so I place my faith in Black Diamond and tension off it to reach the opposite column. I throw together a gear anchor just next to the traverse and bring Packy over. Hell yeah brother.
Pitch 7 – Meadows Fourth Class
Packy and I hike over to the start of the fourth class. I take all the gear except for the doubles of #3, #4, and the #5 and #6. The climbing isn’t too hard, but still feels closer to 5.3/5.4 than fourth class. I struggle to find the right route and begin to get stressed. I’m pulling face moves 25 feet above gear, unsure of where I’m going. Packy is out of earshot, and I am no longer sheltered from the wind. It whips all around me, leaving me feeling extremely exposed after six pitches of relative protection. American kestrels dive bomb all around me, simultaneously beautiful and panic-inducing. As scared as I am, I repeat a phrase from an ice climbing guidebook Rich Weston showed me:
Somewhere there’s a poor bastard sitting on a beach with a margarita
I climb 100 feet before building an anchor. I want to discuss things with Packy and rerack, but mostly I just want to regain human contact after thirty minutes of only me, the birds, and the wind.
Pitch 8 – Summit
Packy clips into the anchor and I rerack to continue. I’m stressed and nervous, but Packy’s encouragement guides me forward. I continue on in what I think is the right direction and find that I was only forty feet from the second-class scramble to the top. I find a stance and hip belay Pack up and he continues to the top. We crack open the summit register, eat, drink, and then start the search for the rap station. It is 3:30 PM.
After Packy finds the rappel station and guides me down the exposed scramble to it, we get to business. We pull out our tag line and overhand it to our climbing rope. Packy coils the lines into saddlebags and takes off for the meadows below. Once we are both down, we start to pull the ropes. We pull to climber’s right, attempting to keep the ropes from getting stuck. Unfortunately, we soon learn we should have pulled to the left as our climbing rope gets wedged ten feet from the anchors. We pull on it with everything we’ve got, but it is rooted firmly in the crack. We are no faced with only one choice – lead back up the fourth-class pitch, but this time using our 7 mm static line. Packy bravely volunteers, but as he begins to rack up I hear voices from below. Being after 4:00 PM, we didn’t expect any other groups to be summiting. I yell down to find a guided party on Pseudo-Wiessner. I explain the situation and the guide agrees to free our rope when they summit.
We wait and hour and a half for the group to finish and start the raps. With our rope free, I set up and the next rap station. I toss both lines, but fail to throw hard enough and they land, tangled, on a column ten feet below me. Embarrassed, I fumble with untangling and recoiling as Packy, the guide, and his two clients look on. By now we are basically in a cloud as the weather sours. With beta from the guide I find the next station and Packy zips down. I launch off again after we pull our ropes (this time without issue) and am told by the guide that we should be able to reach the ground. Stupidly, I take is word for it and sail past the last rap station to find our ropes only reach the middle of the approach pitch. Luckily, I land on a spacious ledge, build an anchor, and guide Packy to the station above me. He pulls the ropes, sets up the rap, and tosses the ropes all on his own while I twiddle my thumbs 20 feet below, unable to assist. Packy raps past me and begins to collect our things while I rap down and pull the ropes. On the ground, physically destroyed, mentally exhausted, but safe. The light rain that had started during our raps is no longer threatening but refreshing.
Devil’s Tower by Durrance Route
Start: 6:30 AM
Summit 3:30 PM
End: 7:30 PM
This would have been much, much harder without the help of several people:
I’m still not sure how I feel about this time in my life. I came back to Champaign to three less friends, two of whom left while I was in Wyoming. Things are still hard, but if I learned one thing from this trip it is that we are the ones in control. The climbing was hard and scary, and it pushed me, but I never felt held back by my adrenals. Those promises to meet again don’t have to be shallow, but you have to move on them. Nothing just happens.
Eventually, I sickened of people, myself included, who don’t think enough of themselves to make something of themselves – people who only did what they had to and never what they could have done.
Mark Twight, I Hurt, Therefore I Am
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