Before sitting down to write this column, I’ve waited a week to allow my body chemistry to normalize, my emotional state to stabilize and my perspective to at least approach “journalistic objectivity.” A week, however, obviously isn’t enough time because I still feel high, high, high. Before you contact the authorities, however, please note that I have imbibed nothing more than adrenaline. A succulent cocktail borne of effort and self-doubt, of faith and fear, has hijacked my senses, but I have no hangover, and no regrets. Rock-climbing has me in its throes once again, and if I’m addicted, so be it. About 13 years ago, when Joshua Tree National Park was still only a monument, I spotted climbers clinging to the odd quartz-monzonite rock configurations there, inching their way up the jagged faces, muscles, sinews, tendons and minds working in concert to create a form of athletic artistry that instantly intrigued me.
Upon returning home, I signed up for a rock-climbing course that took place at the cradle of the sport, Stoney Point in Chatsworth, California. Early in our introduction to the equipment, the knots and the terminology of climbing, our instructor pointed to an almost vertical wall of sandstone about 50 feet high and said, “By the end of the day, you’ll all climb that.” I laughed, thinking he was kidding. He wasn’t, and as I later stood atop that rock, before rappelling down, I thought, “This is one of the best days of my life.” I PROCEEDED TO BUY gear and books on climbing. I began to go bouldering, generally a simpler form of climbing that requires less equipment and doesn’t necessarily require a partner. I tested my meager skills throughout the western states, quickly learning which campsites provided the best access to boulders.
I climbed in rock gyms — indoor facilities that use artificial rock and adjustable holds — and learned to love the athletic challenge and the sporting camaraderie of climbers. But just as I started to see my skills develop, I took a job that rarely allowed me to see daylight, then another that gave me tendinitis in both wrists. I didn’t touch my rock shoes for nine years. That is, until I heard of Devils Tower Climbing. I was scheduled to visit Devils Tower National Monument in the northeastern part of Wyoming, intending to walk around the geologic anomaly, wonder at the powers of nature, snap a few pictures, then move on. But I packed my climbing shoes and harness, just in case.
When I arrived at the monument, I parked the rented RV in the very limited RV parking area, then began the walk on the paved trail that circles the tower. Made up of numerous attached, multi-sided columns that soar upward from the base 867 feet to a summit the size of a football field, the tower is otherworldly, jutting from the high plains, able to be seen from miles away. It is easy to understand why the local Native Americans consider the tower sacred. The movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which features the enormous summit as a UFO landing site, doesn’t come close to doing the tower’s grandeur justice, I thought, as I walked around its base. When I was finished snapping pictures, I called Frank Sanders. Frank owns Devils Tower Climbing and Devils Tower Lodge, a bed and breakfast that practically sits within the shadow of the tower. The view from his sunroom may soon be illegal, since it makes guests feel so good.
Frank is a character in the best sense of the word, and is known by everyone in the area (not that there are too many people in a county without a single stoplight). He makes visitors feel at home, both as lodge guests and as climbers. Since I was there to feel the phonolite porphyry (the tower’s igneous rock) beneath my fingers and feet, I was introduced to Chris Harkness, an apprentice guide, and Jaap Pierse, a man from the Netherlands whose climbing prowess makes me suspect he is half lizard. Both guides have climbed all over the world, yet are perfectly comfortable introducing nervous, knock-kneed novices to the sport. After tinkering in the indoor climbing gym at the lodge, we headed to the base of the route we would climb, called Patent Pending. As Chris ran through climbing’s protocols — what I could expect of him and what he expected of me — I reminded myself that climbing is a sport that only seems dangerous.
Perceived risk, not actual danger, is what triggers phobias and stagnates limbs. Statistically, we run a greater risk of being killed by a cow than dying while rock-climbing, yet no one has ever warned me to be careful on a farm visit. Other than scratched fingers and scraped knees, I’ve never been hurt climbing. Besides, I had complete faith in Chris and Jaap — they could climb Patent Pending in the dark, I was sure. Faith in my abilities, however, was another story. THE ROUTE STARTED OUT perfectly — big holds and simple moves. I reminded myself to keep panic at bay when the terrain changed, which happened almost instantly. I used the sticky rubber shoes to friction my way upward as I wrestled with the crack that defined the route. I had never “crack climbed,” and it was a different animal than the face climbs I had negotiated so long ago.
Within a few moves — as I fought to regulate my breathing and tried not to embarrass myself — the rush of climbing was back full force. When my right foot wedged in the crack, I thought I might have to cut my shoe off, but I eventually managed to extricate myself, then push upward. I reached and pulled, stepped and staggered, progressing inch by inch, gaining altitude, contemplating surrender. “I’ve had enough, guys,” I heard the voice in my head say two or five times. But Chris and Jaap coaxed me onward, offering encouragement, pointing out holds I could grab onto. The muscles I hadn’t used in ages were wearing out fast, so when I reached the end of the first pitch — 120 feet up — I knew I had reached my limit. I’m glad I was roped in because for a moment I felt like I could fly. Devils Tower National Monument, (307) 467-5283, nps.gov/deto.