Road Trippin’

Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming

Rock climbing is one of those sports that tends to become a lifestyle.  Once you’re hooked, you’re either climbing or you’re thinking about climbing.  It creeps into your vacations, your choice of friends, even the way you dress.  And at the core of the climbing lifestyle is the road trip.  Many climbers spend years living out of their cars, chasing fair weather from destination to destination.  I started climbing at the age of 28, so career and family have always made extended road trips impractical.  But last weekend I got a little taste of the road trip experience, hitting 3 destinations in 3 days (the original plan was for 4 days, but more on that later).

By definition a road trip involves a vehicle, preferably one you can sleep in.  Luckily, my climbing partner, Blake, recently purchased the ultimate road trip vehicle: a Sprinter RV.  The Sprinter combines the fuel economy of a car with the space of a big van (and it looks pretty cool too).  Under the hood is a Mercedes 5-cylinder turbo diesel engine that gets 20+ MPG – very impressive for such a large, heavy vehicle.  All hard core climbers aspire to own a Sprinter, but they tend to be young and “under-employed” so few can afford one.  I guess there’s at least one advantage to being a middle-aged climber (and in Blake’s case a retired NFL player).

The Sprinter:  Our transportation (and home) for the trip.

Blake had already driven the Sprinter to Jackson Hole, so our plan was for him to pick me up at the airport in Gilette, then drive an hour to Devil’s Tower for four days of climbing.  Devil’s Tower was our nation’s first National Monument, established in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt.  Nobody is quite sure how the monument was formed but one theory is that it is a volcanic plug and the volcano itself eroded away over millions of years.  Regardless of how it was formed, I can tell you that it’s one of the most amazing rock formations I’ve ever seen.  And almost all of its signature rock columns contain climbable cracks, making it a climber’s wonderland.

DAY 1: Devil’s Tower
Unfortunately for us, eastern Wyoming experienced all-time record high temperatures last weekend, with temps over 100 degrees.  Since Devil’s Tower is a circular formation, we were able to chase shade but the heat still limited our climbing.  To familiarize ourselves with DT climbing we mostly stuck to short stuff, saving our summit bid for later in the weekend.

  • El Matador:  Considered THE route to do at DT.  We climbed the first pitch (5.8) as a warm-up.  This was my first time to climb outside since May and didn’t feel ready to lead the super-sustained 10d second pitch.
  • Tulgey Wood:  We climbed the first two pitches.  Very technical and felt way harder than 10a to me.
  • McCarthy West Face Variation:  First pitch only.  Did I mention that the ratings here are legit?
  • New Wave:  Fantastic route with a wild crux move.

Me at the top of the first pitch of the uber-classic route El Matador.
Above is a 130 foot 5.10d stembox, one of the most unique pitches in the country.  Next time…

DAY 2: The Needles
Because of the heat, we decided to change our plans and drive to The Needles in the Black Hills of South Dakota, which are usually 10 degrees cooler than Devil’s Tower.  The Needles is a climbing area like no other, with hundreds of spectacular towers and spires situated along a winding scenic road.  I was impressed by Devil’s Tower, but blown away by The Needles.  And as hoped, the temperatures were much cooler.

The Cathedral Spires in The Needles of South Dakota – a climber’s playground

The Needles has a reputation for runout (scary & dangerous) routes.  We hit 3 of the most classic (and safe) routes in the area:

  • Classic Crack:  Considered one of the top 10 pitches in the Needles.
  • Conn Diagonal:  Super-classic 3 pitch route put up by climbing legends Herb & Jan Conn in 1953. Probably the most interesting 5.7 climb I’ve ever done.
  • Cerberus:  Fun, well protected Royal Robbins route on a freestanding spire with a summit the size of a dinner plate.  You get down from this spire by stringing the rope across a groove at the top and simul-rapping on opposite sides.  Wild!

Blake styling the airy traverse on pitch 2 of the Conn Diagonal


Blake nearing the top of Cerberus on Tricouni Nail in the Ten Pins area.

DAY 3: Mount Rushmore
In the true spirit of a road trip, we decided to hit a third destination – Mount Rushmore – before heading back to Devil’s Tower for Day 4.  We climbed a route called Garfield Goes to Washington on a formation next to the famous Mount Rushmore Memorial.  We did 3 pitches to the top then rapped halfway down to try two variations to the second pitch.  Each of these routes starts from a small ledge about 100 feet off the deck.  The routes proved to be very hard and too runout for my comfort.  After backing off of one of the routes, I was cleaning a piece of gear about 10 feet above the ledge when my foot slipped and I fell backward to the ledge, bounced off the ledge, then tumbled backward down the steep wall.  I came to a stop handing upside down on the wall about 10 feet below the ledge.  The rope (and my belayer) did its job, but it was a pretty nasty fall.  My first thought was, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m not injured”.  Then I flipped upright and felt a sharp pain in my left ribs.

We rapped down and it was clear that this trip was over for me.  Breathing is pretty painful and climbing won’t be in the cards for a little while.   Bummer – I was just getting into the road trip lifestyle.  I decided to fly back to Dallas to be with my girls before I have to leave on Tuesday for a business trip.  Blake made the long drive back to Jackson Hole.  Already thinking about the next trip…

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