Climbing Devils Tower, Wyoming via Durrance

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It’s muggy and grey in Lincoln today. The sky is full to the brim with cloud cover, a moist blanket that erases the horizon, absorbing and diffusing any sunlight.

As bleak as it sounds, I actually enjoy this weather. It’s rare for Nebraska, and it takes me back to the Sacramento valley, where the only precipitation is a slow and steady drizzle, with moisture dissipating in all directions. Before coming to the Midwest, I’d never experienced a real thunderstorm, where dark, dense concentrations of rain can pound one end of the city, and leave the other end untouched.

In terms of climate, Lincoln has a consistent diversity of flavors and textures. Winters range from frosty to fresh, springtime starts slushy and ends up soupy, summers are spicy, and autumns transition to crisp and crunchy.

It’s the landscape of Lincoln that I struggle with. In terms of geography, southeast Nebraska is blander than plain old original oatmeal.

To escape the flat, pasty gruel this summer, my buddy Case and I journeyed to the Black Hills, a veritable topographic smorgasbord. We drove 600 miles northwest to feast on Devils Tower, Wyoming, and after a night there, we spent two nights at Winkled Rock, sampling the crags, walls, and spires behind Mount Rushmore, South Dakota.

Durrance

We pulled into our nation’s first national monument late on a Monday afternoon. After 10 hours of driving, our fingers were twitching for a climb, so, with a few hours of daylight in the sky, we hurried to scope out the approach and pitch one of the classic Durrance route.

Having roped up at the base, a passing cloud, the remnants of an earlier thunderstorm, decided to relieve itself right above us. The tinkling was brief, but enough to send us back to camp to prepare for an early start the following morning.

The Wyoming sun rises soon after 5:00 AM this time of year. To beat any crowds, we set our alarms for 4:30 AM, and were back at the base of the approach pitch, racking up and flaking ropes, by dawn. The sky was mostly clear, with a chance of storms in the afternoon.

The prospect of being on legit rock all day filled my heart with joy. Every few moves up the gentle approach pitch I pinched myself to confirm this was real.

Devils Tower Durrance approach pitch

Everything was awesome, from the hexagonal igneous protrusions that made up the route itself, to the pigeons cooing on their platform penthouses two hundred feet above us. Moss growing like mortar in the lower cracks? So nice. Shadow from the tower stretching into the valley below? Yes. That ladybug, just doing her thing? Yep. It was going to be a good day.

Devils Toward Durrance approach pitch

I led pitch one, Leaning Column, which follows an easy hand crack that widens at times to minor off-width. This was my first crack climb, and my first lead placing large protection, some 2s, 3s, and a 4. I had to gulp down a few mental hurdles along the way, but it worked out. Embrace the friction, trust the protection. As the kids would say, just keep swimming.

[Wikipedia reviews the basics of crack climbing]

Case led pitch two, Durrance Crack, which brought us to the crux pitch of the route, Cussin’ Crack. The cussing is inspired by an off-width section ascended using a creative combination of jamming, squeezing, pushing, thrashing, and heel-toe camming. I tapped out after two failed attempts.

Case would lead us to glory. Once on top, the total exertion of it nearly pushed him to puking, but he held it in. Parties below us were unaware that they’d been spared a shower of vomit.

Devils Tower Cussin Crack

After Cussin’ Crack, we continued up Flake Crack and Chockstone Crack. Flake was manageable, though the last few moves up onto the platform push you out a bit and make you think. Chockstone pushes you out at the last move as well, but your only option is to fully embrace a yoga-ball sized stone as you clamor to get around and above it.

From the top of Chockstone, we turned right to face the Jump Traverse. This famous pitch starts as a horizontal and then downward scramble toward the sloping bulge of rock that is the launch point for the jump. About 7 feet of air separate you from the welcoming landing zone, a small platform, and the remainder of the pitch.

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Having investigating the logistics of it, Case decided to climb around and through on lead, and then belayed me from the other side. I scooted to the edge and contemplated the jump for a minute, running through the what-ifs in my mind, some of them reasonable, like what if I lose my balance just prior to departure, and others more outlandish, like what if my foot cramps up or a pigeon dives into my face. In the end, I went for it, landing on all fours with a triumphant howl.

A frolic across the Meadows follows the Jump Traverse, and it’s easy going from there to the top. Three quick rappels then brought us back down to our starting point, where we immediately asked the standard post-climb question, “did we just do that?”

Devils Tower Summit Selfie

After the tower, we rested for a bit at our campsite, and then decided to hit the road and stay the next two nights at Wrinkled Rock, where the camping is free and the climbing menu is endless. Wrinkled Rock is a few minutes west of Mount Rushmore, about a two hour drive from the tower. We spent most of our time climbing in the Emancipation area, which borders the backside of Mount Rushmore.

More on Emancipation next time.

Extra Beta

Durrance is a popular climb that apparently gets crowded and slow on weekends. We opted for a Tuesday morning and mostly had the route to ourselves, with only one party ahead and one behind. The chance of rain may have discouraged others who prefer not to strap themselves to a gigantic lightning rod as a storm rolls in.

The Belle Fourche campground, managed by the parks service, is $12 per night, first come, first served.

Note that the National Parks Service has instituted a voluntary climbing ban during the month of June:

A voluntary climbing closure on Devils Tower is in effect during the month of June. The 1995 Devils Tower National Monument Climbing Management Plan established a voluntary closure for all climbing routes on the Tower out of respect for traditional cultural activities of American Indians. The voluntary closure has been implemented each June since 1996. The average number of climbers that choose not to climb during June has seen an 85% reduction.

Gear Review: Climbing Holds From Rocky Mountain Climbing Gear

Last spring, Rocky Mountain Climbing Gear sent us a sampling of their holds to test and review. After using and abusing them on our basement wall for a year, the results are in. Awesome.

My official rating of awesome takes into account three factors: value, construction/durability, and usability.

Value

As a dad of five kids, I am obsessively frugal. I reuse plastic utensils. I wear shoes until the soles are bald and falling off, and then I salvage the laces, storing them in an old No. 10 can. If you come over to dinner, and we have ribs, and you ask for a napkin, it will come from a stash that I’ve accumulated from random restaurants and complementary airline beverages over many years.

I’m still getting used to throwing away floss after a single use.

That said, the holds from Rocky Mountain are a bargain. I searched and did the math. I couldn’t find a better deal per hold. Their shop on Amazon seems to have the best prices. At the time of writing this, their larger sets of holds boiled down to about $1.50 per hold, including hardware and shipping.

Durability

We haven’t used these outdoors, so I don’t know how they hold up under the elements. Indoors, they’re still going strong. No cracks or chipping, even after cranking them to the wall, both with the included socket head bolts and with hex bolts.

The holds look and feel like old chunks of cement, like debris from a construction site. No fancy company logo stamped in the corner. No bubbly or creative features, like grape clusters, or snail shells, or Buddha bellies. Just angular chunks of stone.

I’m imagining the company was started by a student at UC Boulder who dropped out of college to sell climbing holds out of his garage. He sorts through road work rubble at night, and then chisels and grinds down each piece by hand, while wearing a leather apron and a slouchy beanie. If any climbing holds out there are going to have blood, sweat, and beard hair mixed in, it’s these.

Perusing the company website, it appears the holds are made from over 70% recycled materials. It’s not clear if this includes beard hair, but the materials are said to be non-toxic. The website also says the founder/owner was an aerospace engineer, not a hipster college dropout.

I smacked one around with a hammer, just to see how it behaved. No signs of damage. Granted, I don’t know anyone who climbs with a hammer, so this test isn’t all that relevant.

What really counts is that a hold withstands the pressure of a bolt cranking it to the wall, while also supporting the weight of a climber. So far, so good.

Usability

The only downside to these holds is, so far, the features are limited mainly to jugs and nubs. The lack of interesting shapes makes them less ideal for climbing gyms, but perfect for DIY home walls or jungle gyms, especially with younger climbers who are more interested in going up than in perfecting their technique.

To keep things interesting, we turn the holds sideways or upside down. They double as small ledges and even foot chips when rotated the right way.

Half Dome, Yosemite via Snake Dike: Multi-Pitch Slabbing in Tennis Shoes

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A week or so after climbing Mount Shasta last summer, my brother and I attempted our first multi-pitch climb up Half Dome via the popular Snake Dike route. This seemed like a reasonable alternative to competing with hordes of hikers for unobtainable cable permits. Instead, we would jockey with a horde of climbers for a turn on the dike.

Beta and Preparations

According to Mountain Project, Snake Dike is eight pitches with an overall rating of 5.7 R. That’s a capital R for runout, which means the rope is often just ornamental for the lead climber, because there’s nothing to anchor it to.

The lower friction pitches hover around 5.8 with an occasional bolt or cam placement. The higher pitches crawl along at about 5.5 with little or no protection. The climbing evolves to be pretty laid back, with lots of knobby holds. But, with the continual running out, a fall at the wrong spot would be long and painful, like sliding down 200 feet of cheese grater.

For gear, we brought a 60 meter rope and the recommended handful of small cams, from .5 to 1 inch, six quick draws, plus an assortment of carabiners and slings. No stoppers. Other preparations included a hastily printed copy of the free Snake Dike supertopo, and results on my phone of a Google image search for belay instructions.

For sustenance, we had some random fruit, bread, cheese, a handful of granola bars, and 2 liters of water each. Plus, the dew of a ginko leaf and the energy of the universe.

Lessons Learned

Keep in mind, this was our first multi-pitch climb, and so our first time route finding and setting up belay stations. As kids these days would say, we were total noobs. And we were about to get poned.

Our first mistake was beginning so late. We left the Sacramento area at 8:00 PM the night before and about midnight got to the park entrance, where we “slept” in our car until 5:30 AM. That put us in Curry Village, at the start of the six-mile approach, by about 6:00 AM. When we finally arrived at the base of the climb four hours later, there were three other climbing parties there shuffling through gear while shooting the breeze, waiting for countless other groups mid route.

On a busy summer day, I’m guessing you’d have to depart the valley by 3:00 AM to lead the way.

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Because we left so late, our turn to climb didn’t come until about noon. And at our plodding pace, we leveled out at the top just before sunset, the only ones on the summit. As the sky darkened, we ate what remained of our food and contemplated descending the cables and then eight miles of switchbacks and stairs by the light of our cell phones. No headlamps.

Our second, much stupider mistake was not bringing proper climbing shoes, and then thinking we’d be fine. The stupidity of this became clear as we eavesdropped on a conversation between a weathered Yosemite guide, next in line to climb with father and son clients, and another climber, who looked like he might live in a van by the river. It went something like this.

Climber: So, uh, how many times would you say you’ve climbed this route?

Guide: Oh, I’ve lost count, but probably fifty or more.

Climber: Wow. That’s pretty bad @ that you’re doing it in those tennis shoes.

My brother and I glanced down at the guide’s tattered running shoes, and then, gulping, scrutinized our own. The guide clarified that he would never go without climbing shoes. That would be ridiculous. He just hadn’t changed yet.

The climbing power of a shoe is described in terms of its “aggressiveness.” The more vertical and technical the climb, the more aggressive your shoe needs to be. Aggressive shoes are typically tighter, with pointier heels and toes, a higher arch, and sharper edges. Understandably, they’re also less comfortable.

A climber is more than his shoes.

Our shoes were light and comfy, passive not aggressive. They were timid and shy. When confronted with 800 feet of slabby granite, they cowered in fear.

But a climber is more than her or his shoes. And so, we went for it.

The Climb

Pitch 1, with its friction traverse, almost pushed my shoes to their limit. I scrambled up just fine, placing a cam in the roof with a long sling. But moving down and then left, I was immediately in sketchville. I channeled all my energy into my feet, and tread extremely delicately, my hands and toes searching for the smallest patches of unpolished rock. I made the traverse, and then scampered up to the first belay station, where the last climber in the group ahead was still waiting to go. He supervised my belay setup.

In the photo below, the roof is in the shadows, and the two climbers are at belay one.

Pitch 2 starts with a shorter, easier, traverse right. After a .75 cam placement in a small crack, I moved up to belay station two. The tennis fared well.

Pitch 3 was the crux for my passive kicks. After going up and off route, seeing my error and sliding down ten feet, I confirmed with the topo that the route takes a friction traverse straight left, one that’s void of friction. Over the next thirty minutes, I tried and failed a few dozen times to cross over, my knees and palms taking the brunt of the sliding falls. Poned like a noob. Demoralized, I decided the only solution was to borrow some shoes.

A climber is only as strong as his shoes.

I explained my plight to the leader of the next group. He was reluctant, but took pity on us. Thank goodness. It’s amazing what some aggressive rubber soles can do. I flitted like a butterfly across pitch 3.

I guess a climber is only as strong as her or his shoes.

Pitches 4 through 7 were mainly dike, gradually transitioning to slab in pitch 8. The runouts were nerveracking at times, but manageable.

After an unexpected fontanelle in the aged mountain’s skull, it was a featureless slabfest all the way to the summit.

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Conclusion

Snake Dike is a simple but classic climb, up an iconic mountain, in a legendary place. The approach is substantial, but worth the trouble. Just leave extra early, pack plenty of water, and climbing shoes, and plan for crowds.

All together, the climb lasted roughly sixteen hours, from 5 AM to 10 PM. Ascending from the valley floor took us about four hours. After waiting two more at the base of the route, the climb itself ate up around six. We descended the cables right about sunset, and made it back to the valley by 10 PM, stopping only once to give our remaining water to a climber from the party ahead of us, the one who might live with his buddies in a van. He was sitting in the dirt, head between his knees, as if he’d just rock climbed all day without drinking any water.

The late drive back to Sacramento put us at right around 30 hours total, door to door. Exhausting, but a great alternative to not getting permits. I’m looking forward to doing it right. Stay tuned.

DIY Basement Rock Climbing Wall: On Belay!

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Over the past two years we’ve slowly transformed our basement into a miniature American Ninja Warrior training course. The climbing wall, inspired by the rock climbing bunk bed, is the highlight. It gets the most use, as the kids can easily set their own routes and practice “lead climbing.”

With its modular board panels, this wall is lighter, more versatile, and more attractive, or less unattractive, than the traditional plywood job, but it’s not quite as strong.

The holds are DIY chunks of scrap pine, and some cement composite jugs, a sampling of Bolt on Climbing Holds courtesy of Rocky Mountain Climbing Gear.

Detailed instructions are coming soon. For now, here’s the gist.

  1. Measure out your space, and do the math. Ours is 8 feet wide, taking up most of the wall vertically, with a roughly 8 foot ceiling.
  2. Mark your studs, and hang 2 by 4s using 5/16 by 3 inch lag screws, countersunk at least one per vertical foot.
  3. Cut all your boards to length. Ours are 1 by 10 pine. After a year, they’re still intact, but with some minor splitting. Harder wood is ideal.
  4. Mark your 2 by 4 spacing on the boards, so you aren’t trying to hang holds over them.
  5. Mark and drill your t-nut holes. Ours are spaced at 16 inches, and staggered by board. So, the top board is 16 starting at inch 4, and the next is 16 starting at inch 20, etc. These shifted slightly to avoid the 2 by 4s.
  6. Plug in the t-nuts, and hang your boards with four 2 inch screws at each 2 by 4.
  7. Climb on!

Gear Review: VacuVin Green Banana Guard

Has a bumpy ride has ever left you with a bruised banana? You’ve got a few options for protecting your elongated fruits when biking, hiking, horseback riding, or just parkouring around town.

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Has a bumpy ride has ever left you with a bruised banana? You’ve got a few options for protecting your elongated fruits when biking, hiking, horseback riding, or just parkouring around town.

Apologies upfront for the phallic innuendos. They’re surprisingly difficult to avoid.

First off, I paid the full price for this gear, around $8, and am reviewing it here out of the goodness of my heart. Second, I haven’t yet tried any of the competitors.

That said, this is a pretty simple review. I’ve been using a VacuVin banana guard for a few years now, and it works. Only minor bruising after eight to ten miles crammed in a backpack on my bike rack. Potholes, curbs, the occasional bunny hop, no problem. I’ve yet to try it on while playing tee-ball.

Vacu Vin Banana Guard – Anti-Bruising Green Carry Case

The guard folds together, forming a sturdy but flexible triangular defense against jostling. It holds any reasonably sized banana, but fits best on average to large ones. Smaller fruit will float around, and end up taking a beating, like this guy.

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I remember from geometry class, and Zelda, that triangles are pretty strong, as far as polygons go. The only downside to the triforce of banana packages is its size. This thing is voluminous, much larger than a banana, and awkward to pack. It’s probably twice as big as the alternatives. It does fold flat when not in use, but I’ve never bothered to try.

If size is a deal breaker, check out the clam shell cased Banana Saver and the tubular Banana Bunker, which wins for most phallic, and best white elephant gift.