Devils Tower Is a Peak Experience for Climbers

Times Staff Writer

Its summit is inaccessible to anything without wings. . . . --Col. Richard I. Dodge, 1875

Thunder rumbled across the northeast Wyoming Bad Lands. Lightning bolts slashed the inky sky here, there, everywhere. A chilling, piercing wind howled angrily. Then came the downpour.

Cautiously rappelling their way down the sheer, rain-slicked, fluted columns of the huge, weirdly shaped 865-foot pinnacle was a party of five drenched climbers.

They were the latest of several hundred rock climbers who come to climb the Tower every year, traveling from all over America and many foreign countries.

"Devils Tower is a mecca for the best climbers on Earth. This is the state of the art. The Tower has a little bit of everything. There is no other mountain anywhere in the world like it," said mountain climber Darryl Miller, 41, drying himself before a roaring log fire after finishing his 20th successful ascent.

All-Night Drive

Miller and four other members of his party had driven all night from their homes in Havre, Mont., 500 miles to the northwest, to spend 3 1/2 hours belaying themselves to the summit of Devils Tower, enjoying the view for half an hour, then taking two hours to make the descent.

The four-to eight-feet-wide columns running from the base to the summit of Devils Tower completely encircle the spectacular peak, which resembles at close range a jumble of elephant legs.

In the 1977 film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," actor Richard Dreyfuss made contact with extraterrestrial life at Devils Tower.

"Where's the airport? You know, the landing strip that we saw in 'Close Encounters,' " visitors are forever asking.

The landing strip, of course, was part of the movie set. But the mountain was, indeed, the spectacular fluted mass of bare rock rising abruptly from Wyoming's Belle Fourche River Valley.

Flashes of Lightning

"We were gripped. I mean gripped," sighed Kim Harrison, 24, elementary school teacher and member of Miller's party. (Gripped is rock-climbing parlance for scared .) She, too, was drenched and trying to get warm and dry from the heat of the fire.

"Lightning was flashing all over the place. We would have spent more time on top, but we were like five lightning rods."

The climbers signed the register on the teardrop-shaped, football-field-size summit, walked from one end to the other dodging a three-foot-long bull snake, then lowered their 165-foot-long rope and started the descent. The columns and cracks were so slippery from the rain it seemed like someone had sprayed oil all over their perpendicular route to the bottom as they clutched the rope and walked backward down the face of the mountain.

"We could feel the electricity from the lightning running through our ropes as we came down," chemist Craig Hertoghe, 37, said as he completed his fourth ascent. Also in the group was grocery store clerk Paula Toy, 23, and Chan Miller, 11, a sixth-grader, youngest ever to make it up the difficult Pseudo Wiessner route. There are more than 150 different routes of varying difficulties for climbing on the four sides of the columnar tower.

Dream Fulfilled

For young Chan, Darryl Miller's son, climbing Devils Tower was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream: "I had seen pictures of Devils Tower as long as I can remember. I have one hanging in my room. Going to the top of Devils Tower is the greatest thrill of my life."

His father teaches mountain climbing, ice climbing and rock climbing courses at Northern Montana College. The school has one of the largest indoor climbing walls in the country, 30 feet high, 200 feet wide.

Darryl Miller has climbed mountains in many parts of the world. He was part of a group of climbers who spent July 4, 1981, on the top of 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley. They spent 44 days on the highest peak in North America, nine days of it in an ice cave.

But Devils Tower has a magnetism that Miller says he cannot resist. He keeps coming back, a couple of times a year, bringing colleagues from the Montana campus where he teaches, students in his climbing classes and friends.

"Climbers occasionally get stuck on the mountain in a storm and spend the night on the summit," park ranger Eric Haugland, 23, said.

"But the Park Service has a hard-and-fast rule against overnight camping under normal conditions."

Devils Tower was given its name by Army Col. Richard I. Dodge when he led a U.S. Geological Survey group to the remarkable landmark in 1875.

In his log, Henry Newton, geological assistant to the Dodge expedition wrote: "Its symmetry, its prominence makes it an unfailing object of wonder. Standing at its base we can only look upward in despair of ever planting our feet on top."

Until the scientific party's visit 110 years ago, the steep-sided mass of igneous rock, whose origin is still a matter of speculation, was known by its Indian name, Mateo Tepee. The most popular theory of Devils Tower origin is that it is the remnant of a volcanic intrusion, the neck of an extinct volcano probably formed when molten rock pushed upward 150 million years ago.

A Sacred Mountain

Mateo Tepee means bear lodge. It is a sacred mountain to Indians who make pilgrimages to Devils Tower from time to time. Medicine men perform centuries-old rituals at the foot of the peak.

The Indians have a legend about its formation: Children were at play when a giant bear suddenly appeared. The Indian boys and girls climbed to the top of a rock for safety and prayed to the Great Spirit. As they prayed, the rock grew out of the ground and grew and grew to its present size.

The bear tried to reach the children by clawing its way up the sides of the newly formed mountain, reaching the lips of the summit but never quite pulling itself on top. The fluted columns, so the story goes, are claw marks of the giant bear forever embedded in permanent grooves.

It was Independence Day, 1893,

when the first recorded ascent of Devils Tower was achieved. Not by rock climbers, but by a couple of intrepid Wyoming cowboys, Bill Rogers and Willard Ripley.

The cowboys spent weeks driving wooden stakes into cracks on the face of the pinnacle, building a ladder with crossbars on to the stakes, finishing in time to climb to the top on July 4 and unfurl Old Glory on a flagpole they carried up with them.

During the next 34 years, a total of 25 people were brave or foolhardy enough to climb the cowboys' ladder to the top of Devils Tower, the last being Babe White, known as the human fly because he scaled the walls of skyscrapers. He went up and down the ladder in 1927. Then it was dismantled except for remnants still in place.

In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed Devils Tower America's first national monument.

It wasn't until 1937 that three mountain climbers from the American Alpine Club of New York City, led by Fritz Wiessner, made the first ascent by climbing. Since then 17,093 climbers have made it to the summit and back. There has never been a fatality.

Climber With Wooden Leg

The youngest climber was a 7-year-old boy. The oldest, men and women in their 60s. A 60-year-old nun made the climb. A man with a wooden leg did it. Two blind climbers tried but failed.

Members of a wedding party attempted to belay their way to the summit for the ceremony. The maid of honor quit halfway up. The minister, bride, bridegroom and best man made it. The ceremony was held on the grass-covered peak amid prickly bear cactus and sagebrush also growing on the summit.

Looking on no doubt were rattlesnakes, bull snakes, chipmunks and pack rats that live in the cracks, ledges and wedges of the fluted columns and thrive in the foliage on top.

Chipmunks scamper up and down the columns dodging climbers. Rock doves fly out of holes, dive-bombing the belayers and rappellers. Turkey vultures hover overhead.

Attacking Falcon

Last year the upper half of the west face was closed when a nesting prairie falcon repeatedly attacked several climbers heading for the summit. It isn't only the difficulties of the climb, but the local wildlife that adds to the zest of the challenge.

Foreign climbers have come from such faraway places as Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, Taiwan, France, Germany, Spain, Norway, Italy, Great Britain, Mexico, Canada, Liechtenstein and Switzerland.

Dennis Horning, 36, a Custer, S.D., carpenter, has climbed to the top of Devils Tower 325 times in the last 13 years. He holds the record. His wife, botanist Hollis Marriott, 33, whom he met when she was a ranger at the national monument, has made it to the top 125 times. The couple have written a booklet, "How Do They Get Their Ropes Up There?," providing visitors an understanding of what rock climbing is all about at Devils Tower.

"We wrote the brief illustrated publication (it sells for $1) because climbers at Devils Tower are highly visible objects and the source of much curiosity by those who come to the monument and are not climbers," Horning explained.

For six days two months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Devils Tower commanded front-page headlines in newspapers all over America.

On Oct. 1, 1941, George Hopkins, a 30-year-old professional parachutist from San Antonio, jumped from an airplane and landed on the peak. He planned to make his descent on a 1,000-foot-long rope, but the rope dropped by the pilot of the airplane overshot the summit.

Daredevil Hopkins was stuck six days on Devils Tower.

Headlines in the Los Angeles Times that first week in October 43 1/2 years ago echoed those of newspapers coast to coast: "Chutist Marooned in Wind and Rain Atop High Pinnacle." "Storm Blocks Daredevil's Descent From Rock Peak." "Daring Parachutist Held Atop Devils Tower for Third Night." "Blimp Ordered to Aid Rescue of Daredevil."

Suggestions Pour In

People throughout the nation wondered how George Hopkins was ever going to get off the mountain. Thousands of suggestions poured into newspapers, radio stations and the National Park Service. The Navy was experimenting with helicopters and agreed to dispatch one. But the weather was too stormy to make the attempt. Goodyear was going to send a blimp, but that, too, was grounded.

On his second day on the peak an airplane dropped food, blankets and a tent. It was suggested an airplane make a pass with a long, rope ladder, but that plan was scrubbed because it was considered too dangerous.

Finally, on the sixth day, the stormy weather subsided and Jack Durrance, who had led the second party of climbers on record to the top of the peak in 1938, along with seven other climbers, rescued Hopkins. They brought him down safely in the glare of hundreds of automobiles headlights at 8:20 p.m. on Oct. 6. He had no ill effects.

"Devils Tower Chutist Saved by Alpinist" was the Times headline the next day.

In 1910, 1911 and 1913 Wyoming Rep. Frank W. Mondell introduced bills in Congress to build a circular iron stairway to the top of Devils Tower enabling people to walk up to the summit. The proposed legislation got nowhere.

Through the years, people have recommended the National Park Service build an elevator to the top and put a restaurant on the natural tower so everyone, not just experienced rock climbers, might enjoy the view from the pinnacle.

In 1954, Richard C. Mason, a 78-year-old Tulsa churchman, proposed that a 240-foot-high statue of Jesus Christ with outstretched arms and wearing a golden halo be erected on top of Devils Tower as a beacon of Christianity. Like the iron stairway and elevator, the suggestion also was ignored.

Writing a Book

Richard Guilmette, 50, chief ranger at Devils Tower for the last five years, is writing a book about the geological wonder. He has written geologist and mountain climbers throughout the world searching for another mountain similar to Devils Tower.

"It is unique in that it is round and completely embraced by the fluted columns. I have sent photographs of Devils Tower and geological descriptions of it to the Soviet Union, China, India, Africa, all of the Americas, to the Pacific islands, Australia and New Zealand. No one has ever seen one like it," Guilmette said.

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