Climbing Devil’s Tower National Monument

In the summer of 2013, we went out to the Black Hills of South Dakota for our yearly family vacation. We Herr’s tend to spend our vacations hiking, biking, running, and climbing.

One of our favorite adventures in the hills is rock climbing. We had climbed in the Needles a few times before with Sylvan Rocks Climbing School, but this year we decided to take it up a notch...and a few stories (the rock is tall...).

If you’ve ever been to Devils Tower National Monument—or watched the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”—you know it really does look like something created by aliens. After driving west of the black hills, the Devils Tower National Monument is as starkly opposite of the surrounding landscape.

But walking around the tower on the paved walkway only offers one perspective of the incredible monument of nature. There are myths and legends about the creation of the pillar that rises straight out of the earth and is beyond appreciation from the ground below. Some have to do with an enormous bear clawing at the sides of an escalating mountain of earth that rose in protection of native hunters.

There are stories of climbers “free climbing”—climbing without ropes or trad gear—which, after climbing it myself, seems simultaneously crazy and amazing, and other tales of men being dropped on top by helicopter. Tourists come from across the world to gape and awe at the natural skyscraper. When we heard the guides at Sylvan Rocks talking about climbing Devils Tower in 2012, we knew we had to see the monument from a perspective far fewer people have had the ability to attain.

My view from the top of Devil's Tower

My view from the top of Devil's Tower

The day before we climbed Devil's Tower, we had a warmup climb in the Needles around Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park. The warmup climb helped our guide decide what route difficulty would be best for us when climbing Devil's Tower. 

At the top of one of the "needles"--the rock structures in Custer State Park.

At the top of one of the "needles"--the rock structures in Custer State Park.

After completing our warmup climb, we headed out to Devil's Tower.

Ascending the structure is more than a few hour feat. We camped the night before at the Devils Tower KOA so we could start the day before 4 AM. Still in the dark, we hiked up above the tree line where our guide set the first route. The rock was still cool and dry as we started our ascent.

We're excited...even though we're chilly and barely awake.

We're excited...even though we're chilly and barely awake.

Cheyenne set route after route as we continued up the side of the rock. We watched the sun rise over the Wyoming landscape from a few hundred feet in the air. The Belle Fourche River and the smaller creeks snaked through the flat plains all around the monument.

Resting between routes.

Resting between routes.

One of my favorite sections required "stemming" where you extend your arms and legs out around you and press against a rock formation called a chimney, taking a step up with one foot, moving a hand up, then doing the same on the other side. 

Stemming!

Stemming!

We climbed all 867 feet from base to summit and finally summited at 10 AM. We found old discarded food cans left behind by one of the first people to ascend and gaped at the amazing view from the top. We ate slightly squished PB&J sandwiches we had packed for the summit and prepared to repel back down. 

We signed the register at the top!

We signed the register at the top!

Of course, it is unsanitary to defecate on top of the monument. Cheyenne brought a "poop bag," but he told us we'd have to carry it down if we used it. Thankfully, none of had to bear the "poop bag" back down the monument. 

It took us hours to repel back down the 867 feet of the monument. We repelled in sections one at a time until we finally set foot back on solid ground around 2PM. When we got back to the sidewalk that surrounds the monument, tourists took our photos as though we were rockstars coming off a stage after a show. They had spotted us through their binoculars. 

"Were you the people all the way up on top of the rock?!" they asked us and we just laughed and nodded. At the time it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity...But I hope someday to be able to change my perspective again at the top of Devils Tower National Monument.  

Post-climb photo op.

Post-climb photo op.