A few days ago we climbed Devils Tower in the northeast corner of Wyoming. We took the Durrance route, which is listed among the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. It was a 7-pitch, 5.8 climb.* It was also my first multipitch climb. What a thrilling, challenging, exhausting, and rewarding day! Here’s a few things that went down (and up):
The first pitch I was quite nervous and showing all the symptoms of anxiety that are less than ideal for climbing vertical rock faces—sweaty palms, tense muscles, and overall shakiness. As I started climbing, I became more comfortable in the simple yet strenuous act. Rockclimbing necessitates staying in the present moment. It forces your focus to the central task at hand: where’s the next handhold? Where’s the next foothold? How can I creatively use and contort my body to climb up this rock? In this mindset, it soon became a question of not if I summit, but how I summit. By the last pitch I was full-on talking to myself. “You got it girl! Wow, what a nice and satisfying hold. Okay I’m going to put my right foot there and my left hand there, and then pull myself up to jam my left foot in this crack. Ready 1,2,3! Damn gurl, nice move! I see you! You got this!” If becoming your own personal cheerleader helps you up the rock, by all means cheer like it’s the national championship!
I can see why it is called Devils Tower. It looks like a supernatural gargantuan rock plateau rising from the underworld. Many Plains tribes view the Tower as sacred. The month of June is a voluntary climbing closure to respect Native American ceremonies. The National Park Service notice states: “American Indians have regarded the Tower as a sacred site long before climbers found their way to the area. Tribes have expressed concerns about recreational climbing at Devils Tower. Some perceive climbing on the Tower as a desecration to their sacred site. It appears to many American Indians that climbers and hikers do not respect their culture by the very act of climbing on or near the Tower” (source).
Obviously, this information created an internal conflict for me. Naturally, I first look for reasons to justify what I did. The first is timing: we were only in Wyoming for about two days. If we were one or two days away from July or could circle back through Wyoming somehow, we would’ve waited until the conclusion of June to climb. But with our schedule, the choice seemed to be either climb now or never climb. In the end, we decided to embark on the journey of climbing.
In some ways I feel what we did was more respectful. We were at the mercy of the towering rock rising from the earth. In climbing there are moments of life and death in between the movements, clip-ins, and rappels. Interacting with the rock so closely induces many feelings of reverence, awe, and respect. To summit does not mean to conquer the sacred Tower. To summit means to conquer the self.
After we came down, we passed a man with a beer in his hand on the paved, 1.5 mile trail around the monument. He seemed to be enjoying himself, drinking a cold one, laughing, and periodically gazing up at the Tower amongst a sea of other tourists. Mine and this man’s experiences of the same place differ immensely. Neither is bad or good, just different.
I wonder who gets to decide which experiences are more or less respectful. Perhaps it should be the original peoples of the Plains. Perhaps they should have a higher authority to determine how others interact with the place because they have cultivated their relationship with the place over thousands of years. I wonder, but I surely don’t know.
Check out the video my friend Nick made of our climb:
*Traditionally, a pitch is considered one rope length 50–60 meters (160–200 feet). However, it is more commonly simply a portion of a climb between two belay points. The “5.8 climb” refers to the grade of the climb, intended as an objective measure of technical difficulty of a particular climb or bouldering problem. Grades are often subjective, however, and the Durrance route has also been rated a 5.7. For more info on climbing grades, go here.