Nebraska to Wyoming, Climbing in Vedauwoo

Looking down from Turtle Rock, Vedauwoo, Wyoming.

Day one of our annual summer road trip to the west coast begins with excitement and anticipation. We’ve got wallets, purses, phones, chargers, snacks, water, books, paper, pencils, and pillows. Bags are loaded, bladders are empty. We are clear for departure. Engage turbo boosters.

[The kids think our minivan has turbo boosters, and that they’re reserved for special occasions, like on road trips and when we’re late for church.]

Lincoln is small enough that we’re soon out of the city in light traffic, flowing west on highway 80, the contiguous asphalt artery that will carry us like an oxygenated blood cell from the Nebraska heartland to the congested extremity of our trip, California.

Everyone is pumped.

The freedom of the open road, the anticipation of seeing new sights and old faces, of camping, hiking, swimming, fishing, restaurants, parties, together we’re bound for a good time, and we’re bonding on the energy and excitement. Parents have visions of free babysitting, and sleeping in while the kids watch Fox News with grandparents. The kids can almost taste the bottomless smorgasbord of pizza, soda, treats, and all-out gluttony that awaits them. Each day, they’ll consume before lunch more sugar than they’ve had in the past month.

This is going to be an epic trip.

Fast forward eight minutes and the magnitude of 1,500 miles has sunk in. The good times are so, so far away. Too much asphalt artery separates us from vacation glory. A steady stream of questions is projected from the back of the van. Hey, are the turbo boosters still on? Why not? Wait, isn’t Nebraska a city? What is a state? Can we have a snack? Now are we there?

Vedauwoo sunrise over a quiet and dry camp, last summer.

One kid mentions Wyoming, and the rest convince themselves instantly that we must have just crossed the vast expanse of Nebraska. Phew, I thought we’d never get there! Wait, we’re not there yet? Then why did someone say Wyoming? Six more hours? The positive vibes and bonding give way to irritability and then hopelessness. The blood cell has lost all its oxygen.

For the remainder of Nebraska, everyone is holding out for Vedauwoo, where we’ll stop to breath, at least for an hour or two, possibly for the night.

[Recommended reading: Annual Overnighter at Vedauwoo: Climbing, Hiking, not Sleeping]

Vedauwoo is an unassuming US Forest Service camping area just off highway 80 between Cheyenne and Laramie. If you’re ever passing through, I highly recommend a visit. Exit the freeway and faster than you can say, “Stop pinching your sister or I’ll tie your fingers and toes together, you just watch me, oh, you think this is funny,” you’ll find yourself on a mesmerizing hike through enormous, globular granite formations, stacks of rounded, misshapen bricks that glow orange and pink in the evening sunlight.

Camping is ten dollars, day passes for the paved areas are five. There’s also a dirt road to an unofficial looking parking area past the main entrance where you can stop, and possibly camp, for free. Take a look.

When the weather is right, you’ll see rock climbers doing their things, flaking ropes, sorting through piles of cams, some as wide as your head, in preparation for a distinctive climbing experience. Note that the bulbous bricks that characterize Vedauwoo have no mortar between them. The gaps have been flossed clean, leaving cracks and chimneys of every shape and size, some just large enough for a fingertip, bicep, thigh, or twisted foot, wedged in for stability and then upward leverage. After much squeezing, contorting, and grimacing, all while mummified in roles of athletic tape to preserve skin against abrasive granite, people are able to shimmy their way to the top. Vedauwoo is famous for this off-width style of climbing.

Some spring-loaded cams, up to size 3, for anchoring into small to medium cracks and gaps.

This summer, my oldest son and I roped up for our first climb on Vedauwoo’s iconic turtle rock, which resembles a mountainous, scraggly old tortoise resting on its belly. Having trounced around on the crag’s scree every summer since he was five, bouldering on petrified turtle droppings, it seemed fitting that my son’s first lead belay and first climb on traditional gear would be a scratch on the turtle’s shell.

Most of my son’s belay experience comes from playing on our tiny basement wall. We’ve also practiced at the local gym. One of us will climb on the auto belay, a mechanized self-tightening safety rope, while mock lead climbing on a second rope, as the other mock belays. This seemed like adequate preparation. Looking up at the route, I did pause for a moment to make sure everything felt right. It did. Harnesses, helmets, knots, and belay were all triple checked. We were ready.

First time following lead on Walt’s Wall, making his father proud.

We made it up the first pitch of Walt’s Wall, a gentle meandering ascent with ample protection (more at Mountain Project). Rated 5.4, Walt’s is mostly a steep scramble, perfect for a dad helping his 11-year-old navigate climbing on real rock. Unfortunately, after hugs and high fives at the first set of bolted anchors, a thunderstorm rolled in from the north. With lightening approaching, we decided to call it off, before getting the full body experience of off-width. Next time.

Leaving no trace at Vedauwoo after getting rained out, Turtle Rock relaxing in the background.

Rain meant an immediate departure. Tents and gear, soaked within minutes, were crammed into the roof rack, sleeping bags were strewn about the cabin, as kids clamored into boosters and car seats. An hour after arriving, we were back on the road, with 400 miles and another state to go before our next stop, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Climbing Devils Tower, Wyoming via Durrance


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.



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!


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!