American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing
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Devils Tower

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  • Publication Year: 1938

Devils Tower

William P. House

MATO TEEPEE—Devils Tower to the white man—must have inspired awe in many thousands, red and white, before impudent mortals snatched away some of its mystery. Rising in one tremendous shaft from a mount in the rolling plains of N. E. Wyoming it is more than a unique rock formation. It is so startlingly unreal as to defy description. As one looks at it its unreality grows until one wonders whether he is looking at a solid piece of rock or some strange sort of mirage.

The Tower itself rise 867 ft. from a mound which in turn rises 380 ft. above the plains. One thousand feet thick at its base it tapers but slightly to within about 200 ft. from the top. Then it breaks away so deceivingly that from below the angle of its walls seems to be maintained right to the summit. The symmetry of the Tower is accentuated by the graceful lines of the small columns which form its exterior. Emerging from the yellow pines like mighty roots anchoring the gigantic structure to the inner core of the earth they sweep in an exquisite arc to the lower part of the shaft. There they are regimented in straight lines which soar upward until they disappear in the curve of the summit. From dawn until nightfall the walls respond to the changes in lighting, varying from a brilliant rose to a sombre gray-green.

The first ascent was made in 1893 when two local ranchers1 utilized a long smooth crack between two of the columns as one rung of a ladder 350 ft. long. By driving stakes into this crack and joining the outer ends with supports they were able to fashion a more or less substantial ladder over the most difficult part of the S. E. side. From its top to the summit they were able to proceed without great difficulty although many later aspirants were turned back at that point. Numerous ascents were made via this ladder until it fell into disrepair. It was rejuvenated in 1927 and used once more but Park Service policy2 forbade further use and it has since been abandoned.

Interest in climbing the Tower without the use of artificial aids found expression first in 1936 although previous to that date several climbers had looked at it rather closely. In September of that year a party consisting of Marguerite Schnellbacher, Percy Olton, Lawrence Coveney and Fritz Wiessner studied it carefully, but were prevented from actually attempting it by the impossibility of obtaining permission at that time from Washington. However, Wiessner, whose imaginative and competent eye could see possibilities invisible to others, had located a route which he believed might yield to rock-climbing methods unsupported by the aid of a ladder or other artificial means. During the following winter and spring permission was requested again and through the efforts of the A. A. C. and other friends it was finally granted subject to certain restrictions. As plans became more definite Wiessner and Coveney asked me to join them—an invitation which I was not slow to accept.

On the afternoon of June 27th, 1937, the three of us arrived at the Tower and studied the route picked out by Wiessner. On the S. E. corner—only 250 ft. S. of the remains of the ladder—were several columns which, being broken off at different heights, offered a break in the otherwise uniform upward sweep of the sides. These columns varied from six to eight feet in diameter and although probably originally octagonal had been rounded off until some of them approached a cylindrical shape. They formed the integral units of the rock itself, having been formed in the cooling processes in which the molten lava turned to solid rock.3

On most parts of the Tower the columns lay so close to the rock behind them that only a very small crack separated them from it. Behind many of them no crack at all was discernible. However, on this S. E. corner some of the columns in addition to not being continuous to the top—as was true in most cases—were set six to twelve inches away from the face. It was the size of cracks plus the relatively short distance between the tops of the columns which suggested a possible route. It looked from below as though the tops of the columns might be gained successively by a series of courte echelles combined with some pretty stiff crack-climbing. We could not tell whether the tops of the columns were level or not, so a good deal depended upon what we could not see. If the cracks would go at all they would call for the most exhausting sort of climbing and we knew that it could not be maintained for indefinite stretches.

Having ascertained all we could through field-glasses we scrambled up the lower rock slopes and examined the bottom part of our proposed route. By craning our necks and steadying ourselves by fingertips on the rock we could see how to get to the top of one of the lowest of the columns. From there over the critical 200 ft. looked even more discouraging from below. We could make out the smooth rounded edges to the key cracks and they certainly did not make us shout for joy.

We fussed around for some time making tentative passes at an obnoxious gooseberry bush which obstructed the lower part of the route and as the tower turned grey in the fading sunlight we dejectedly made our way down to the cars. We did not feel like talking too much about it to each other, but our chances seemed much less than we had ever imagined they were even in our most rational discussions of the problem. Mechanically and with little zest we prepared our ropes and equipment for the morrow. After an insincere, though somehow heartening exchange of optimisms, we turned in. After all, the rock was supposed to be unclimbable the way we were going about it.

Six-thirty the next day found us at the base of the Tower marveling at the changes the eastern sun was making in the rock above our heads. Scrambling up the first slopes we came to a small ledge above which was our first problem—a shallow depression quite smooth and holdless in its lower part, exit from which was stoutly guarded by the gooseberry bush of last evening’s acquaintance. This shrub came as close to defeating us as any of the more orthodox difficulties higher up.

We had already decided on a three-man stand and indeed had spent many precarious minutes tottering in such a position on faces of the Black Hills Needles several days previously. Grimly Coveney made of himself a sturdy foundation upon which I climbed and, there being inadequate holds, anchored myself firmly to a piton. Up our bodies Wiessner nimbly climbed until standing tip-toe on my shoulders he was able to come to grips with the gooseberry bush. For long the battle raged while the pyramid groaned and talked of imminent collapse. At last the bush gave way and Wiessner was able to move into a cleft 18 ft. above the platform where we stood. So far so good. Coveney and I joined him as quickly as the lack of a pyramid and the bush would permit and together we were able to climb straight upwards for about twenty more feet.

This brought us to the base of one of the decapitated columns. Actually it was continuous down past our feet to the base of the Tower but at that point it had begun to cleave away from the face, leaving a wide crack. In fact, it now touched the rock behind it at only two points. Wiessner was able to gain a few feet elevation in the crack on the right side of the column, but an overhanging chock- stone and the extreme smoothness of the walls decided him to return and traverse the face of the column. By this maneuver he was able to get in the same crack on the other side. We could almost touch hands through the crack so he unroped and the rope was passed through, giving him the ultimate in strong belays.

The other side of the crack proved less difficult and after certain difficulties with the rope due to chock stones he reached the top of the column—35 ft. above us. He reported it to be in good condition with room for us all. Of greater import he announced that a long crack leading to the top of the tallest column was accessible and that if it proved too stiff he could probably traverse to the far side.

Thus encouraged we joined him and all tried to appear unconcerned at what we saw ahead. To the right, separated from our platform by a gap of 6 ft., lay the most evil looking crack I have ever seen. For 80 ft. it went up practically without a break in its smooth edges. One side was the wall of rock—the other, the rounded corner of the column. The crack was vertical and varied from 6 to 9 in. in width. Only a chock stone dim in its interior 30 ft. up and a few irregularities on the wall gave the least bit of moral support. We felt it was very much needed at this point.

This crack—with the possible exception of several others to the left which we agreed might be climbable if one had to get up them badly enough—seemed to be the only practicable continuation of the route we had followed. On it converged both of the two possible routes we had selected from below. We had to admit what we had feared the night before—that if this crack would not go we would be unable to reach the top.

We were now on the steepest section of the Tower. On either side of us was a near-vertical profile from which there was no escape except via the crack or a long rappel. Up to this point the temperature had been ideal, but as the sun rose higher it beat down on us with such intensity that we realized our time on the face was limited. Sunstroke is not to be courted halfway up a precipice.

The platform was small, but adequate. Coveney put himself in good belaying position while Wiessner and I wrestled with the intricacies of arranging satisfactorily his double rope. When all was ready he climbed down from the platform and on feathery holds traversed over to the crack where he wedged himself securely and looked up. We both waited breathlessly. Then he started to climb. With back against the wall, his hands, arms, hips, knees and feet making all possible use of the crack itself, he moved slowly and with obvious effort. Twenty feet up he drove in a piton and continued almost without a rest. Still climbing slowly he seemed to move with greater ease and confidence even as he wriggled up what looked to us like the most difficult part. Incredibly he kept going, forcing himself up the crack with a power and rhythm that was beautiful to watch. The distance between him and the platform grew shorter and shorter until with a shout of triumph he hauled himself over the edge—his legs hanging motionless as he struggled for breath.

Coveney and I cheered and a shout arose from the crowd that had assembled below. Wiessner called down that it did not look too bad from where he was and that we had better come right up. Successively we came to grips with the crack and successively had to admit its superiority over our more modest powers—an admission of defeat hard enough to bear in itself, but made much less bearable when such fragments of conjecture as “Oh, the man’s pulling him now” drifted up from the multitude.

Assembled on the top of the highest column we chose the only available route and worked our way up a shallow chimney which took off from our perch. The chimney ended in a sloping slab from which we were able to crawl to the right onto a sort of shoulder. Above the rock was more broken so we unroped and after traversing further to the right followed a more or less direct route to the edge of the summit mound.

With indecent haste we rushed to the top of the dome where we immediately broke into a long anticipated can of grapefruit juice. The summit itself belies the true character of the Tower it caps. Once in the center there was no suggestion of the appalling cliff that dropped away on all sides. We might as well have been on the top of a sagebrush-covered hump on the plain below for all the effect of grandeur there was. Quickly we set about collecting the data which we had given feebly as one of the justifications for our attempt. Pacing showed the summit dome to be approximately 400 ft. long by 200 ft. wide. There was an irregular shallow layer of coarse soil which supported a characteristically sparse growth of sagebrush, cactus and a few grasses. We collected duplicate specimens of most of the plants so that botanists could determine whether any independent development had taken place due to the barrier to seed presented by the height of the Tower above available sources. This was considered a possibility, but it is probable that high winds would be capable of carrying the seeds of most species found even to such an elevation. Search was also made for animal life. A Mormon cricket proved to be the only representative found, although a chipmunk had been seen much further down.

In the midst of this Coveney and I diverted Wiessner’s interest long enough to set off a mammoth explosion consisting of several large salutes which we had, unbeknownst to him, secreted in my sack. Alas, what had struck us below as the most brilliant of ideas fell flatter than flat on the summit. When the firecrackers went off with a phut and a bang we saw no point in it at all and wondered dully which of us had been stupid enough to suggest such a dull scheme in the first place.

We knew the reason for our lethargy. We had ceased to sweat and the sun burning through clothes onto our skin seemed to be draining the last bit of moisture from our bodies. Clearly we should not tarry long on the summit. After the last troublesome cactus had been stowed in my pack we climbed as rapidly as we dared down the broken rocks beneath the summit. The sun was worse now and in spite of the delay we used rappels in places which under other conditions we would have felt perfectly safe in climbing unroped. With the rock pulsating heat into our faces we reached the top of the highest column from which in a series of long rappels we covered the remaining distance to the base of the Tower.

There we were met by boys from the nearby CCC camp bearing countless canteens whose contents we swished down our throats and about our faces in a frantic attempt to kill the blistering heat of the past few hours. It was not until the cool of the evening after we had found much cold beer that we began to feel like human beings again. We agreed that the torrid memory of this climb would stand us in good stead in future efforts on mountains with opposite extremes of temperature.

1 Appalachia (1893), 216.

2 Devil’s Tower was set aside in 1906 as the first National Monument. It is administered by the Park Service in the Department of Interior.

3 Regarding the origin of the Tower, two general theories are held. One considers it the remains of an ancient volcanic neck or plug from which the enclosing walls have been eroded away leaving the more resistant core.

The other holds that the Tower is the remnant of a lacolith which molten spread out lense-shaped in the earth. In the process of cooling cleavage planes were formed at right angles to the surface of cooling—which was the top of the lacolith. This cleavage was responsible for the columnar structure of the rock as it appears today. As the solidified mass of lava was uncovered by erosion it became subjected to frost action and other agencies of disintegration which was more active along the cleavage planes than elsewhere. The result was that part of the columns were forced out of position and fell off in sections as units rather than as irregular masses. Thus the columnar structure of the rock has been maintained by the falling away of the outside columns and so exposing the inner ones. This process has gone on until today only a relatively small shaft marks what was once probably close to the center of the lacolith.

Both of these theories have strong exponents and the question is far from being settled. Possibly deep borings at the base of the Tower may provide a clue to its history. Until then or until some new light is shed on the subject neither theory can be proved definitely. The majority of geologists hold to the lacolith explanation.

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