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Devils Tower, Wyoming, shrouded in snow; Photograph by Max Lowe

Climbing Devils Tower: When “Bad” Weather Makes an Even Better Adventure

The snow was blowing sideways blurring the stands of pines surrounding the small log cabin-style ranger station at the base of Devils Tower. We had arrived hoping to climb several routes that afternoon, but the climbing ranger advised against it, saying that high winds, dropping temperatures and snow sticking to the rock would make climbing impossible. These were literally the opposite conditions we had hoped for.

That morning at 3 a.m., we had departed Bozeman under starry skies and balmy winds with high hopes of climbing under afternoon sun at Devils Tower, a truly magnificent formation of igneous volcanic rock jutting out of the rolling hills of northeast Wyoming. According to the laminated placards we poured over in the warmth of the ranger station, Devils Tower was originally called the Bears Lodge by the many Native American tribes who still consider it to be a place of great spiritual power. The formation is a volcanic plug, a piece of hardened lava that solidified in the top of a great underground volcanic structure millions of years ago—but the Native American explanation of a great bear sharpening his claws on the stump of stone appealed to me more. To the passerby, its awe-inspiring. In the words of Scott Momaday a Native American author, “There are few things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devils Tower is one of those….”

Defeated by the ferocity of Mother Nature in our search for getting on rock, we posted up in a cave around the base of the rock, ate some lunch, and composed a plan. With no hot springs within striking distance, our next option was the warmth and shelter of the Holiday Inn in Spearfish, South Dakota. A far cry from our plan to camp under the stars and cook our dinner by camp fire, the Spearfish Holiday Inn did sport “the largest pool in town, complete with two hot tubs!” How could we say no?! We didn’t give in completely to a failed camping attempt though—we popped open our Coleman camp stove next to the vacant indoor pool, and grilled up some dinner under the watchful eye of the night clerk.

The next morning, the snow had abated—mostly. We drove back toward the tower under scattered clouds that cast shadows like lumbering creatures across the landscape around us. A cold, northern wind greeted us upon arrival to the tower, but we set up camp below and cooked a hearty breakfast at the abandoned visitors campground. Unprepared for a major winter ascent of the tower, as snow from the night before still blanketed the top of the mighty stone thumb, we decided to just go for the famous route “El Matador,” a 5-11C rated route unique to the tower distinguished by the massive chimney of rock making up its majority between two massive pillars rising half way up the massif.

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A climber leads on Devils Tower’s Matador route; Photograph by Max Lowe

My friend Bud led the first half, but with cold wind and wet rock was forced to retreat after about 30 feet of suffering. My dad, Conrad Anker, a return sender to this route, traced Bud’s gear and then redlined the rest of the way up. With a little blood left on the route and a sense of triumph over at least becoming rock bound, we repelled back down and trundled to the car.

In a literal sense it had been a failed trip: We had not made the summit, and I had not even climbed ( I had jugged up the wall to hopefully shoot photos of a lead on the Matador). But in the larger scheme of things, the trip had been even more fulfilling. Spending time with friends I had yet to venture with and doing so with my dad, who is truly in his element in the dirtbag climber situations, we had found ourselves in on this journey made it a trip to remember—a reminder that you might set out for an intended goal and end up landing right where you need to be.