Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sky

A virtual climb up Devils Tower

                “You are too old” they warned .”Your knees won’t take it. Your legs will give out. Your heart will stop.” All negatives but one positive overruled them all. I wanted to do it! Devil’s Tower, the first US National Monument, is located in the northeast corner of Wyoming. The Sioux Indians tell of a legendary princess who was chased by a huge bear. The princess implored the sun god to save her and the rock she sat on began moving upward into the sky but the giant bear persisted and he repeatedly clawed at the rock trying to reach the imperiled princess. The rock is there today and is over 1000 feet almost straight up piercing the deep blue sky. The “bear scratchings” are on all sides making it easy to imagine the princess on the flat top and the giant bear trying its best to reach her.

                Modern geologists have a different theory.  Millions of years ago, a huge volcano dominated the countryside forming a classic Mt. Fuji type of volcano. The last eruption filled the caldera with molten lava and as volcanic activity began to subside, the lava was captured like water in a glass and very slowly cooled. It was so slow to cool that it began forming giant six-sided crystals of a granite-like rock. Each crystal was 15 feet or so wide and stretched from the top of the volcano to its deep core 1200 feet lower.  Eons passed. The loose ash surrounding the once-molten core began to erode and eventually disappeared exposing the weather-proof rocky crystals. Over the last million years, several hundred of the crystals cracked, broke off, and fell to a shattered demise at the base of the enormous pillar creating a talus pile completely around the tower. No one in recent memory has seen or heard a crystal fall and large Ponderosa Pine trees now grow between heaps of broken crystal.

                One must have permission to climb from the park rangers and since I was climbing with two younger partners who had done this several times previously – permission was reluctantly granted. Waivers were signed and agreements not to sue the US Government if I fell off the side. Not that a dead person would take anyone to court but federal agencies can’t be too careful.

We practiced climbing some of the fallen pieces testing ropes, spikes, clamps, and other specialized wall climbing stuff – most of which I didn’t know the name of.  We scaled a monster rock with ease and rappelled back down in seconds. This was going to be a piece of cake – a rather large piece of cake perhaps – but confidence was brimming over. Secure in our knowledge that all equipment was working properly we started up a well-worn path some 200 feet high that took us to the perpendicular challenge. I looked up and instantly my head swam and my feet tottered and I leaned against the rock wall with my eyes closed. “I can do this”, I said three times in a whisper only audible to me. “I can do this!”

                The path we chose was one used for a hundred years when crowds gathered to watch solo climbers carry two 3 foot logs to the base and drive them into the cracks between crystals with a sledgehammer. Slowly the climbers of years ago created a perpendicular ladder stretching straight up for hundreds of feet. We carefully stepped up each rung testing its strength as we went. Each one was driven into the crack about eighteen inches and none were loose and provided just enough room to move first arm and then leg up to the next rung. I stopped halfway and looked down with slightly less confidence than when I began. There were a few ant-size people back at the base and they waved as they saw me stop and catch my breath. The wind was slight, the temperature was in the mid-’60s and the morning glare from the sun hadn’t reached our side of the monolith yet. One more rung – one at a time – arm first – then leg – then repeat. Adrenalin is a magic potion and my body was producing it at a record pace. My heart was beating quickly – not racing – I was in control. And then it happened!

                The log rung looked like all the others but it was loosened somehow and as I reached upward it gave way with a shower of prairie dust and loose pebbles. Fortunately, my hard hat and goggles protected vital parts but in a confused gulp, I swallowed a touch of sandy grit and momentarily choked. “Take a sip of water and rest for a few seconds.” My companion ten feet below called out. “throw your rope up to the next run, secure it, and work your way up the crack.” The hours spent in mountaineering class paid off and within seconds I had the momentary dilemma under control and slowly, carefully worked my way past the loosened rung which dangled enticingly as if challenging me to grab on. I knew better.

                After 45 minutes of using the 19th century built log ladder, we reached the top of the crystal which after being sheared off in some cataclysmic event a million years ago left a six-sided flat resting spot a mere six feet across.

The three of us sat down, took a few bites of a power bar and a few swallows of water in our ten-minute respite. There is no way to describe sitting there looking out on a world 400 feet lower and turning your head slightly and seeing the 600 feet of the sheer cliff rising abruptly from our perch to limitless sky. Nothing but rock – up and down  – unless you count the soaring buzzard checking out a potential feast if we made a wrong step.            

                We double checked our equipment, said a few words of mutual encouragement, and looked for a small crack in the rock face to drive our first stake into. The space between crystal faces narrowed to about 4 and a half feet and we spread-eagled our way cautiously up the sheer face, first bracing one foot and then the other and pulling ourselves upward with a rope secured by the lead climber. Twenty feet and my ankles ached, another twenty and my calves started screaming, I had to stop and regain some semblance of control. “take your time” my climbing buddy calmly encouraged, “We are not in a race. The top will still be there. It’s not going anywhere.”

                Taking a deep breath, I pushed onward, carefully placing my specialized shoes one sidestep higher and realized that I could do it with less pain if I kept the angle of ankle to rock face a little larger.

                Another hour passed and the sun suddenly flooded us with blinding light and it took a few minutes to adjust but I actually could see my foot alignment and my companions a little better. I didn’t dare look behind me at the great expanse of Wyoming’s Black Hills. The name came from the dark green silhouette of Ponderosa Pine against the barren grey rock. From a distance, the pine appeared black. I wondered if the Sioux storytellers had a legend that involved pine and rock and the yellow gold that proved their ultimate demise. Treaties were signed giving the Black Hills to the Indians but that was before gold was discovered. Once the rush began, the treaty became just words in the wind as soldiers had to protect miners and gold-seekers encroaching on Indian land – treaty or no treaty.

                The calf ache, the ankle pain, the knee twinges – more like lightning bolts – began taking their toll as two-minute breaks became more common.”I can do this! I’m almost there!”

                I could see a rim above me but whether it was a hundred feet or twenty feet, I could not tell. It was then my partner yelled – startling me from my self-imposed hypnosis. “There it is! The rim! Five more minutes and we are there!” One more and the last dose of adrenalin shot through me from pulsing head to throbbing foot. My body load suddenly became lighter as I sensed my partner lifting me those final feet – giving me the incentive to push my legs and arms a little more energetically when I sensed the wall I had grown accustomed to, turned abruptly horizontally and I was, indeed, at the top.

                More relief then elation consumed me and I dared not stand. I just lay there staring up at the intense blue blanket of sky that enveloped everything. I slowly rolled away from the edge and I could see my partners talking but I heard nothing except a dull roar as my body began recognizing that the climb was over. We made it. One thousand feet straight up into the sky. We escaped the claws of that giant bear and the princess sat with us as we gradually regained strength and perspective.

                Was it an hour we sat there? Or ten minutes? All time measurement ceased and as our bodies coalesced back into human form and feeling, I looked at the great expanse of forest and prairie that stretched limitless before my eyes. I remember reading that three states could be seen from these heights – Wyoming, of course, Montana, and South Dakota. What state I was seeing now escaped me but it was beautiful in its foreverness.  My partners and I exchanged smiles as if words were beyond our capability but that conveyed a sincerity of purpose fulfilled. I closed my eyes and my body collapsed within itself in a mindless sleep erasing exhaustion, numbness, and memory.

                The descent down was a foreboding thought but relief was in sight as a pulsating, whirling helicopter landed fifty feet from the spot I had collapsed. The top of Devils Tower is relatively flat and is about an acre and a half in a roughly rectangular shape. A weed, here and there, poked up through the weathered rock but never more than a few inches and these hardy hangers-on disappeared from view as the ‘copter eased away from the craggy outcrop.

I looked down as we flew over the edge a hundred feet above the rim I had just conquered and the view of the 1000 foot brink shocked me with its stark precipitous drop as if I was seeing it for the first time. The descent to the monument’s parking lot took only a few minutes in contrast to the half-day ascent. The reality of the accomplishment was giving way to a greater awareness of every fiber, every muscle, and every joint in my tortured body. But I did it.

2 thoughts on “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sky

  1. Amazing!


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