“Dad, I am going to climb to the top of this tower someday.” I said this as an 8-year-old standing at the base of Devil’s tower watching the climbers. I had never even seen rock climbers before, but I have always dreamed big, so why not?
My family was on an epic 2-week road trip out west in our silver Ford van. My parents, Doug and Fay, my 15-year-old brother, Josh, and my 13-year-old sister, Mary. My family was always into long road trips, but this was our first trip out west! We did all the highlights: Wall Drug, Corn Palace, Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, and Oregon Trail sites. On our stop at Devil’s Tower, the rest of my family hung out at the parking lot, but I convinced my Dad to walk around the base of the tower via the 1.3-mile paved walk. As we were walking, we saw the climbers. We watched in awe for a while, and that is when I added a new item to my bucket list!
My parents have always been supportive of my dreams and taught me how to achieve huge goals by chunking them up into small attainable goals. Heck, I got a firsthand lesson from my dad when we were riding our bikes across America when I was 16. We just need to ride to breakfast, now we need to ride to lunch, then ice cream, then the campground and do it all again tomorrow. It worked, as we successfully rode, self-sustained, from Seattle to Cape Cod. I’m so grateful to my parents for teaching me this skill and for always supporting me.
When I told them that Mike and I were going to take another year to adventure and that Devil’s Tower was an objective, they said just let us know when and we will be there! My parents have never seen me climb, and here they were coming to witness Mike and I climb 500 feet up my childhood dream!
We met on Saturday at an Air B&B 20 minutes from the Tower in the middle of nowhere Wyoming. Our original plan was to climb on Monday or Tuesday, but the weather was forecasted for rain, so our window was Sunday. Mike and I scoped the route on Saturday, talked to the rangers, and found a great viewing spot for my parents. Then back to the B&B to pack, study the route descriptions and catch-up on the family news.
Our route of choice was the Durrance, the original climbing route from the 1930’s and the most popular route to the summit. With this in mind, we opted for a 4:30 wake up to be on the rock at 6am. I’m not sure my parents were fully aware that it was going to be such an early morning, but they were troopers, and we made it out the door on time!
During the 20-minute drive, we were treated to an amazing sunrise, and our first view of the tower had a pink and purple sky behind it. Wow, we get to try to climb that! When we got to the park entrance, there was a mist in the valley, so the tower looked like it was rising from the mists. So beautiful. I can see why this is a sacred place for the Native Americans. It felt special to me, and I was hoping for a safe, fun day of climbing.
I was happy to see that there was only one other car in the lot. It was a quick 15-minute walk to the viewing spot to leave my parents. Dad, a professional photographer took a few before pictures, and I got a big hug from my mom. My parents were warned that this might take 8 hours, so they had chairs, water and food. My dad brought 2 cameras including the super long-range lens. This was going to be a well-documented climb!
As Mike and I started up the climber’s trail to the base, I was worried about the climb, my parents being bored, and excited that this was happening! From the base of the climb, you look up and see the big (the largest columns in the world) beautiful columns which steepen the farther up you look. It was breathtaking and a little intimidating.
The original route took exposed 4th class ledges to the starting tree. We opted for the nice looking 5.4 approach crack. One more pitch of climbing and the guidebook said if we had any trouble on this approach to bail, as we don’t have the skills to climb the route! So, this felt like the safest, most conservative option to start.
As we geared up, I could hear my parents below chatting away with some other tourists. My dad was telling my story. Mike and I wondered how many times that story would be told today!
Mike took on the approach pitch which starts hand-sized and widens until it gets to off-width at the top. A 20’ easy traverse to the belay tree finishes the pitch. Mike got right into the crack and got the first pitch done. I quickly followed. No bailing for the Raffs, although it was worlds different from the sport climbing in Tensleep!
We were now at the base of the leaning columns. The first true pitch of the Durrance route. The guidebook suggests combining pitch 1 (Leaning Columns) with pitch 2 (Durrance Crack) for an epic 140’ crack pitch. Mike kindly gave me this pitch as it was the crux and the best pitch of the climb. What an awesome husband!
The leaning columns are 2 broken columns stacked on top of each other and propped up by the tower itself. The first half had good stems and hand jams. Halfway up, you must commit to some off-width moves using the crack created between the leaning column and the tower face. I had so much gear on me, I couldn’t see my feet! I eventually figured it out, got to the top of pitch one and heard my parents cheering below. I checked my remaining gear and yelled down to Mike that I would continue up the Durrance crack as planned.
This pitch had 2 parallel cracks to climb. The right was a large off-width. The left was hands, then fingers and then off-width at the top. I stemmed, jammed and grunted my way up. I was thankful that I took a crack climbing clinic last fall, as I used every technique, I learned leading this crack! It was stout and I could hear my parent’s cheering below. I was stoked! The last 15 feet are pure off-width. We brought the #6 to protect it and I was happy to pull the top move and enjoy the nice belay ledge! It was a beautiful 140’ of physical crack climbing. Super sweet. We were now over ½ way up the tower!
Mike climbed the leaning columns quickly. He slowed down for the Durance crack. I heard a lot of grunting, but he made it to the top using lots of leg jams (he had the bruises to prove it too)!
We also combined the next 2 pitches: Cussin’ Crack and Flake Crack for a 70’ pitch which Mike led. Cussin’ crack is 5.8 off-width. Mike used the #6, the #5 and #4 x 2! The flakes crack eased up to 5.6 up a dihedral with nice flakes to climb. We were cruising. I couldn’t hear my parents much anymore, but every time I waved, they waved back!
The next pitch was a 40’ chimney filled with 3 chockstones. The first 2 can be used, but the top one is loose and cannot be touched. As I squeeze myself into the chimney, I told Mike he better drop the pack on a leash as it was super tight for me! I’m thankful for the experience of climbing chimneys in the North Cascades, as I quickly got up it, skirted on the slab below the loose chockstone and made the belay. This was a hard pitch for Mike as he had to deal with the pack and the chimney was a true squeeze for him! I yelled down “Just get ‘er done”!
At this point, we had a choice. We could continue straight up 100’ to the summit via Bailey’s Direct or stay on the original route and do the jump traverse pitch! Looking up was more chimney, so we opted for the iconic jump pitch. This pitch was a traverse to get you from the column that we were standing on to a few columns over to our right. There is a 5’ gap between columns which you can jump, no way, or delicately face climb over, yes please. Mike went first and opted for a reachy hop made possible by his arm-span and long legs. I opted for a small crimp, and delicate foot work to get me across. I whooped when I made it and heard a faint cheer below! It did get my heart going as a fall there wouldn’t be pretty.
From here, we walked on a trail through “the meadows” to the final pitch. 100’ of 4th class chimney-like scrambling to the summit! It was my lead, and I was thankful for the easy climbing! Finally, I was on the summit! I couldn’t celebrate yet, as I needed to get Mike safely up as well. He cruised it.
The views were incredible. Unlike mountain summits, there are no mountains in sight. Just green plains with red cliff bands and a river. 360-degree view of gorgeous Wyoming countryside. The summit had grass and flowering cactus.
We signed the register, had a snack and sorted gear. The climb was only half-way done. Now we had to get down safely. We had opted to bring only one 70m rope per the rangers’ suggestion, but we had to be very careful to make sure we selected the correct summit anchor, otherwise we wouldn’t have enough rope. After a thorough review, we found our anchor and started the 4 full 35m raps to the base. Luckily, we had no rope snags! As we descended, we witnessed the human traffic jam on our route. Thank goodness that we got up early. There was a party on every pitch!
At the base, we kissed, and then I quickly changed shoes and ran down the hill to give my parents a hug. I left all my gear on for the after pictures! Little did I know, I would have a hug fan base waiting for me. My parents were busy making friends and pointing us out, the team in blue. I had several pictures with little girls – maybe I will inspire them to dream big. Then big hugs and celebration with my parents!
Mike joined us and we headed down. Mom and Dad told us all about their morning. They had a ball and said that the 7 hours flew by! I’m glad that they found it fun. We couldn’t have asked for a better location for them to watch us as they could see us the whole time up and down. Plus, they had shade and lots of people to talk with.
We wrapped up the day with a giant burger and enjoyed the front deck of our B&B discussing the climb. It was one of the most physical climbs I have ever done. Our bodies were pooped, bruised and already sore. This was no sport climb, and it was old school 5.8!
My dream came true, and it lived up to everything I thought it would be. It was a beautiful line and fun, physical climbing. The weather was perfect, and we beat the crowds.
Thanks Mom and Dad for making the drive to support me and for always believing in me and giving me the confidence to not only dream big but to make your dreams a reality. Thanks to Mike for being the best partner and for giving me the best pitch! I look forward to many more adventures. I owe you one!
My Dad’s amazing photos can be viewed here. Enjoy!https://dougmathews.smugmug.com/Travel-Photography/DevilsTower/