Six pitches in six days. Not much of a climbing trip, but the lack of climbing was offset by the sheer beauty of the improbable geological oddity known as Devils Tower. There is no mistaking Devils Tower for any other feature on earth and it has become a Wyoming icon, its silhouette gracing every state license plate. Devils Tower also plays a prominent role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, obsessing Richard Dreyfuss' character to the point where he makes a mashed potato sculpture of the tower at dinner. It (the Tower, not mashed potatoes) has that kind of power on people.
Long before a meeting place for aliens however, Devils Tower had become a meeting place and geological landmark for generations of area Indian tribes. Known by various names, usually a variant on Bear's Tower, the current name was the result first of a misunderstanding between natives and an interpreter, and then the apostrophe was dropped in the 1906 official proclamation that recognized Devil(')s Tower as the nation's first National Monument.
The Tower had been first climbed even before becoming a National Monument. In 1894 a couple of local ranchers erected a ladder up one side, summitting on July 4th. Remnants of this ladder still exist, and remind us that older generations were simply a hardier breed of people.
Approaches to the beginning of the climbs are mercifully short, but even twenty minutes was proving a challenge for me. Six weeks in the Tetons had taken a toll on my feet—I'm not really sure why, as I've done a lot more in the past with a lot fewer consequences. But whatever the reason, simple walking was sometimes uncomfortable and climbing was almost unthinkable. While running cross-country in college, I experienced debilitating foot pain and went to a podiatrist. He told me that I had the feetof a fifty year old man, and I should never run again. (He was also wise enough to know hislimitations, as he referred me to another podiatrist, himself a marathoner, who outfitted me with orthotics and I have continued to run ever since.) That was in 1984 when I was 21 years old, meaning that my feet had aged 2.38 years for every normal year. At 45 years of age now, my feet are 107 years old. It's no wonder I have such problems with my feet in general, and in finding decent fitting climbing shoes in particular.
Above, looking down one of the flutes
Susan's summit pose
This was the perfect time of year to climb—ideal weather, neither too hot nor too cold, and very few other climbers. The day Susan (my climbing partner) and I stood atop the Tower, we shared the small plateau with only the sun and the breeze. The top gently slopes up one side and down the other, with the high point being about 1/3 of the way from the north end. There is a summit register on top consisting of a yellow pad of lined paper in a leather cover, and we dutifully wrote our names in one of the blank pages. Unfortunately, the pad is replaced every few months and famous names—including, surprise surprise, Fred Beckey—are found mostly only in the record of the guidebook.
Prairie Dogs bid us farewell
We drove back to Jackson, once again admiring the vast scenery of Wyoming and reading from the Roadside Guide to Geology to help interpret the landscape. A large fire in Yellowstone had closed the main road, forcing a long detour over the mountains. Pelted first by rain, then by snow, we arrived back in Jackson with the Tetons cloaked in white. Somehow we had left in summer and returned a week later to the first dustings of winter.