"Gravity—the Big G!” sang Dade, still twenty yards ahead of me on the path around Devil's Tower. He was doing a bad job with the James Brown song, but he continued anyway, “On the third planet from the sun, I’ve been trying to get the funky job done…."
He turned back to grin at me, to try and get me to sing with him, but I wasn't in the mood. First of all, we weren't even supposed to be there. Up until the night before we were bombing straight from the Needles for Yosemite to do the famous Big Wall, Seven Seas. That was the plan, anyway. But while I drove us out of the Black Hills, Dade was reading a recent climbing rag with his headlamp, sucked in by an article on the Devil's Workshop. Although its second pitch was a famous, finger crack testpiece, the third pitch had been an infrequently done aid line until this spring, when two Slovenians freed it and dubbed it The Spanish Prisoner.
The new, 110 foot free line was smeary and nothing but fingertip crack until the cows came home. It was right at Dade's limit and he decided, just before we roared across the Wyoming border, that we needed to fire it off—"To start this trip with a bang," as he put it, yelling over the engine of his '70 Chevy van. Though I knew that what he really meant was that if he didn't do it now he wouldn't get a chance for a long time; his wife, Bev, was five months pregnant, and his baby-to-be, dubbed the Crackmeister because he thought it would climb so hard, was about to change everything. I mean, really, that's why we were on this trip in the first place. It was Dade's last hurrah.
I caught up to him just as he reached the boulder field off the northwestern flank, out of breath from running after I'd signed us in with the rangers. Dade grasped the back of my head with his big left hand, nodding it for me in a 'yes' as he asked, "You want to get funky? You ready to get myopic?"
What I really wanted to do—what I'd messed with like a loose tooth since we left Minneapolis—was figure out how to undo all the trouble I'd caused my maybe-ex-girlfriend Olive and my maybe-new-girlfriend Ruby Li, though a day's worth of driving and thinking had brought me no closer to figuring it out. Not that Dade had been any help.
"Born ready," I lied.
"You better be," he said, letting go of my head on an upswing, "Because we're gonna’ pull this bad boy down.”
I'd been so busy packing gear and signing us in that I hadn't really thought about where we were that morning, but when Dade let go off my head my vision snapped up to the Tower itself. I'd been there a dozen times over the years, once with Olive (though that was a disaster), and all the other times with Dade, but I'd never been so struck by its perfect size until this moment.
Devil's Tower is enormous—a monster—and yet we can walk around it in twenty minutes. It's the biggest thing in eastern Wyoming, but is dwarfed by the broad plains that surround it—just like we were. For a brief moment I imagined that we were already done with the route, up on top of the Tower, looking down on the us that was approaching, the earlier us like a couple of pill bugs crossing a gravel path as we picked our way among boulders the size of washing machines—some almost the size of Dade's van. Cool, musty air rose from their shadows along with chipmunks, which, spoiled by tourists, were bold enough to follow us a ways, their tiny bodies covering ground even faster than we could. Or faster than I could, anyway; I’d ripped my shin open here before and picked my route carefully, while Dade found his inner mountain goat and leapt nimbly from rock to rock, building momentum and flowing over the rough edges and steeplechase gaps.
One of those chipmunks, which had been pacing me along my right side, suddenly shot over onto my boulder, then darted from one side to the other as if it would take me down if I tried to pass. I stopped to watch it for a moment, and then, without thinking, snapped at it, sending it into a short burst of chattering from a small cave beneath the rock. I felt rich, elemental—on a climbing trip. Maybe I was ready to get myopic. Maybe I was ready to fill my head with climbing and swim upstream against the Big G and maybe even hunt for what Dade calls the Climbing Brain—a mental place that lets him climb harder than I can. It's a place that he never wants to talk about—a place that I can never seem to find.
Suddenly inspired, I kicked it up a notch, leaping and running along the line Dade had picked out, though I still reached the base about a minute behind him. It was already blustery there, with winds coming from either side and also from behind, as if they were confused about why they hadn't yet worn down this old volcano plug and were unsure what to do next.
Unlike Dade, who knew exactly what to do. He had somehow tempered his hot psyche during the approach into a cool concentration so that there was no more singing–or any other sounds for that matter–coming from him. He must have been looking for his Climbing Brain, getting ready to put it on or get inside it or whatever he did with it, and I saw him touch his wedding ring that hung from a necklace as he looked over the rack, making a last minute decision to ditch a few extra TCUs to cut down on weight.
Dade romped up the first easy pitch and I followed him up into the wind, pulling the three nuts he'd placed along the way. My pitch, the old finger crack test piece, was mostly vertical and hard, and I looked the route over carefully before I unclipped from the anchor chains. I knew from the guidebook that the endurance crux ended just below a dwarf pine tree that grew straight out of the rock, 100 feet into the pitch, and that things got easier after that.
I slipped my hands into the crack, finding the inside quite a bit cooler than the air, then lifted my right toes to twist them in and—prepared myself for the panic, for my body to freeze. This is what had happened every time I'd gone climbing since that spring, when I took the way-whip on Son of Sam, a vicious little cave route. Anytime I started a climb, in my body, more than in my mind's eye, I would live through the fall again: my fingers peeling off the cave roof, my body swinging down and backwards as the gear at my knees rips out, the next piece catching me in its pendulum so that in the end I whiff my hair against the cold edge of the belay boulder—only inches from splitting my skull.
This attack normally only lasted a minute or two—until I'd used up all my little mind games and got enough chalk on my hands to whitewash a fence—but this day, at Devil's Tower, I didn't feel the panic at all. There was no frantic energy, no head-whiffing, no gear popping out. Weird.
I looked at the sky and saw a few huge clouds floating above us and it seemed like I could actually hear them moving overhead—like a giant yawn drawn out but slowed down and very far away—and then I cranked my toes into the crack again as if I were mounting the stirrups of some familiar beast. This time there was no thought about anything, not even Olive or Ruby. This time it was like there was a ‘me’ that was always climbing, and I was able to simply step over and into that me.
Twenty-five smooth feet and two nuts later, I came to a rest big enough to shake out my forearms and looked down to see Dade staring up at me, exuding calm and strength by the way he held the rope. Far beneath him, down past the talus on the asphalt path, I could see a family bunched together, passing binoculars back and forth, and dozens of miles away I could see another outcropping of rock, maybe another volcano core.
I placed a solid nut, yelling “Slack!” down to him and suddenly the air and the rock and my body all felt of the same stuff for a second, and for a little while there was nothing else. I was all myopic and all climbing and I was fearfully strong, sure of every move, yarding on the crack as if I were hoisting a sail. For a while I had that queer sensation that comes when you stand in a doorway and press the backs of your hands against the sides—then step away to feel them magically rise up. It felt like I were wearing some space-age levitation suit—an anti-G suit to elude the Big G.
I climbed like this for maybe twenty feet, then placed a good nut and kept chugging. I had pulled on Dade's Climbing Brain I was sure; I was cruising in control but not on cruise control.
"Pay attention!" Dade yelled. I was over twenty feet out from my last piece—180 feet above the base of pitch one—hanging on only my thin hands and toe tips in a crack that was just too hard not to be putting gear in. And with his words—like a novice fisherman so excited to get a bite that he forgets to set the hook—I scared my own moment away. I misjudged a swelling in the crack, couldn’t get the nut in, then fumbled with the next size trying to make it fit when I noticed that the compact pine tree that had been so far away was now only ten feet above me.
I took off for it, cranking my fingertips as deep as I could get them, my forearms and calves cramping up, and managed to reach the tree and grab hold of it, forcing myself through its stubby branches. The tree, its trunk as big around as my neck, was uncomfortable and it tore my shirt as I scrambled through it, but it was super solid—my new best friend.
"What was that all about?" Dade hollered.
"The climbing was just so good I thought I was OK," I lied, wrapping the trunk with a sling.
He looked down and away and said nothing more, and after a short rest, I finished the last fifty feet of the pitch, following a corner which ended on a two-by-two foot ledge.
By the time Dade finished the pitch it was almost 10:30, and the long skirt of shadow the Tower had thrown during our approach had tucked up tight to the base of the route. Dade clipped into our anchor chains and then gave me the look—what his wife Bev calls the "Goat eye."
"I should have gotten some gear in," I said, trying to head him off at the pass.
"Yeah, you should have. I don’t know how you can freeze on that nothing route you did yesterday, and then run out something that would freak out most people—including me.”
I nodded. I wanted to talk to him about the Climbing Brain—about whether what I'd just experienced was a piece of it—but then Dade needed to get his head together for this very hard line and I didn't want to throw him off. He untied and retied his shoes, kissing each one on the very tip, then looked over the pitch. The walls on either side started out close together and formed a kind of chute at first, but then peeled away after about forty feet to widen out. All that was left from there to the top was seventy feet of razor thin seam, which finally passed though an eight-foot bulge. That was the technical crux, where the crack didn’t change in shape, but overhung slightly. The real crux, however, was placing gear just below the bulge. In my conversation with the ranger that morning, I'd gotten the word on gear: a point-five TCU or an Alien just below the bulge, then a small, but solid nut about 10 feet after it. The ranger had to rest on the TCU below the bulge, then pumped out trying to place the nut and took a thirty-foot whip.
Dade changed the order of his rack few times as he looked over the route, getting the tiny RPs and nuts and TCUs in just the order he thought he'd need, and then he did something odd, something I’d only see him do with dogs. He grasped my head with both hands and pressed the crook of his nose to my forehead and held us for a moment, his prescription safety glasses pinned between us. Then, with the briefest of eye contact, he clicked his cheek with a horsy giddy-up and turned to face the rock, so that I was looking at him from the side, his shoulders square and wide.
“Watch me close," He said.
“Not too tight. Keep the rope—”
“I got you.”
He worked the sidewalls as long as he could, spread-eagled as if he were climbing inside an elevator shaft, then he stuck to just the right side in a layback, pausing for a long, casual rest—and a couple good friend placements—about fifty feet out. That rest (I found out when I followed the route) was just a thin edge, about the width of the back of a good kitchen knife, but Dade had balanced there with an ease that those people down on the trail, who were still watching with binoculars, didn't seem to have standing on flat ground.
With his hair whipping around his head he checked over his gear and then set out on the completely vertical line, only able to stuff his first digits in by torqueing them hard.
He did this left fingers, right fingers, foot, foot; left fingers, right fingers, foot, foot, moving fast until he reached a place in the seam you can’t see from below, where it opens up and you can get your whole hand in. He punched his left into this, then bone-hanged, his body turned sideways to the rock as he slammed in a good nut and clipped the rope–all of this as if in a single movement. This was the last good rest until past the bulge–another fifty feet away–and his veins already seemed as thick as the rope in my hands. He shook out his left arm, hard, then made a few more moves to get his left foot in the slot where his hand had been.
“Aaah-oooow!” he howled, setting off again aggressively. He was climbing fast, even for him–only getting in fingertips, only able to smear his feet–and barreled right through a section where he might have gotten another piece, finally pausing on an edge where he could set his toes. It was too hard, I realized. He’d taken on too much and was so far out that if he fell he’d go fifty feet and come to a stop just above me–and that was only if the last nut held.
“You’re getting pretty run-out!” I yelled, gripping the rope too tight.
He managed to get in a big RP, then went another ten feet where it seemed he’d found an edge for his right foot, maybe eight feet below the bulge.
“This is some serious shit! I need to hang a second!”
“Can you down climb to the RP?” My stomach was so knotted up I could barely yell loud enough.
He couldn’t, though. I could feel how hard it was through the rope. It was thin and crimpy and on the other side of the spectrum from big and burly Son of Sam—as hard as the crux pitch of Seven Seas in Yosemite would be. Then he was moving again, almost at the bulge and twenty feet above that RP—its cable so thin it would surely break if he fell that far onit. I could hear his gear tinkling, the wind ripping around us, my own heart, beating not so much faster as with more depth, as if I were a great drum.
“Fucking pumped!” he yelled at the rock, not calm anymore, not in his Climbing Brain. He got an arm free for long enough to swing his rack around and pulled off a cam. His left ring and middle fingers were locked into the seam, straight above me, feet smeared and seeming stable, and just as he started to pop the cam in, he slipped sideways, barndooring out over me in a millionth of a second. In my mind's eye I saw him falling then, perhaps like he’d seen me on Son of Sam, and I locked the rope down hard and waited for the bomb-blast.
But it didn’t come. He was hanging from his two fingers, frozen over a seventy foot fall, the cam tearing through the air towards my face. I thought myself small, my teeth tight, as I hunkered in, and watched Dade, faster then I could comprehend, stab his right fingers back into the seam to freeze his cartwheel off the wall, his two hands and one foot sucking at the Tower’s hard skin while his last limb flagged the rock for balance.
The cam just missed me, landing on our pack with a waspy buzz, and when I looked up again I saw the puffing white of his hand as it snapped out of his chalkbag. Dade let out an unearthly cry then–almost a roar–from deep down in his belly, and then he was fighting as hard I’ve ever seen anyone, his elbows winged out to the side, his whole body trying to suck itself to the rock. With each move it seemed he would fall, my own body bracing over and over, but then his hand or foot would snap back into rock–punching the clock in the Devil's Workshop–screwing another lid onto another jar of gravity.
If I thought of it I would have been yelling but I didn’t have room for anything else but my heart beating don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall and the sadness that swelled out of my bones that even if Bev and the baby could live without him I didn’t know if I could. I powered my love for him up the rope, pulsing and pushing him upwards, trying to bubble him off from gravity by wishing he were light as a feather, strong as a ape, and though I could barely stand to watch him I had to because he was amazing and if I didn’t focus my spell of don’t fall up the rock then he really might fall. I squeezed this thought dry until he reached the top 110 feet above me, his feet skittering and almost popping one last time just before his hands caught the sloping ledge and mantled him out of sight. I choked once, lost to the wind, and then Dade’s head came into view.
“Fuck meeeeeeee!” he screamed out over Wyoming, “I am a bad man! I am a fucking monster of the earth!"
“You are, my man, you are!” I tried to yell but I couldn’t say it right because my heart had filled my throat, beating thankyouthankyouthankyou
thankyou thankyou thankyou
thank you thank you thank you
until it had dropped back into my chest, splashing down in a sea of adrenaline.
"Seven Seas here we come!" I said, breathless, when I arrived at the sloping, bench-sized alcove. I clipped myself into the belay while Dade tied me off, and then reached out to shake his bleeding hand. It was so heavy with what he'd done it felt like I were grabbing the rock one more time. He didn’t reply, though. His eyes were glassy, the calm after the storm, and I could smell the bitter scent of panic that must have washed over him when he barndoored.
"We need to re-name this whole route Dade's Workshop," I said, sitting down next to him, our feet dangling over the edge. I was psyched, partly because I had climbed it (albeit on top rope) and partly because he was such an animal, but I only got a thin, forced smile out of him.
"You still want to take it to the top?" he asked flatly.
"Dude, you flashed it! X-rated! Who else will have flashed the hardest route at the Tower and taken it to the top? It’s…it’s historic or something.”
I slapped him on the chest just to touch him again and this gave him a weird face, like he had a smile laid over a frown, so that he looked intensely proud and also terrified.
He held out both hands so I could see his fingers, which jumped and shook like he was playing boogey-woogey piano, his forearms still hard with their pump: "I'm bonking."
My own arms were unbelievably pumped, too, and it was an effort just to get the water bottle open and pass it to him. Then I pulled the fruit roll ups and a small bag of gorp out of the pack. Every single one of my first knuckles was raw, with ghost-white flappers of skin curled away from the flesh, and I had to lick the drops of blood up before I put my hand in the gorp bag. I handed him the bag but he took a roll-up instead, peeling a Tyrannosaurus off the backing before biting its head off. I wanted to talk about the killer crux section where the rock felt like it had been cut with a great scalpel the exact width of my fingertips, forcing wild tensioning and insane footwork—but he cut me off just as I was about to speak.
"I’m never doing this again," he whispered to himself, and then, loudly, to me: "I'm a fucking idiot. If Bev could have seen me right now she would have died from fright—or divorced me. I've convinced her that I never get into trouble. That I'm always safe. That I'll always be there for the Crackmeister...and I almost took the way-whip again. I'm Oh for two right now."
I started to protest but he slapped the ledge we were on and said, “I almost popped on this last, easy mantle move.”
"You’ve always said that if you didn't fall you weren't pushing hard enough."
"Not on deathfalls! Christ, what are you thinking? I couldn't get any gear in."
"It’s just that I can’t believe you did it! That I could even follow it….”
“After that barndoor—believe you me, you would have had enough juice to follow it…” he said, taking a swig from the water bottle and handing it to me, "And you’d be just as mad at yourself."
I went to take a sip and froze when I saw a thin snake of blood from his cracked lips swelling in the water, diffusing until it magically disappeared. Then, too parched to care, I took a swallow and stared out into sky.
Could I have done it? I had known exactly what to do—even the weird crossover undercling— my hands going left, right, right, right left, while my feet did an intense, slow-motion rhumba beneath me. And it wasn’t just from having seen Dade do it, either, because I was too consumed ‘helping’ him up the rope and had no real idea what moves he’d made. It's true, I'd had the rope above me, but on the sharp end I'd have had a little more incentive.
Of course, I might have just panicked, gotten dizzy with vertigo, and fainted myself right off the rock to splatter on one of those washing machine-sized boulders—or pill bug sized people. Now I'd never know.
While I thought about this the wind, made up of fingers of different temperatures, pulled at the rope and then my shirt, finally deciding on a wrapper from one of the fruit roll-ups, which it snatched and pulled straight out from the Tower.
As I watched it flutter downwards I felt something whip past my head. I jerked back, thinking it was a rock, just in time to see the blurry trail of a second something rocket past.
We both leaned out to watch them go, crying to each other as they ripped mad patterns through the air, arcing out of sight but returning immediately to shoot straight up to the top of the tower—an ascent that would take us another half hour. Way up in the sky they seemed to disappear into each other but then they grew larger until they spun past us like a pair of wind-tossed oak seeds, chirring wildly for the several seconds of their mate. Just as they reached the height of where we'd started Spanish Prisoner, they burst apart and shot back up past us again, still screaming with their anger or lust or whatever they scream about.
"Noisy little bugger-ers," I said, trying to make a joke as another swallow whistled past, gliding sideways over vertical rock as if they were flying horizontally over the earth.
"My glasses are killing me," Dade said then, ignoring me, "If you want to top this out, we'd better get moving."
I re-racked the gear and set off, quickly putting the final, easy pitch behind me, and Dade followed, passing me at the anchor chains to disappear over the edge.
Up on the rough top, at the altitude at which small planes fly, the wind came gusting from the southwest, filled with the sweet smells of sage and scrub-brush and gravel. I followed the rope over a hillock and past some small boulders to find Dade splayed out on his back on a big, flat, spot, untied from the rope with his shoes off.
I sat down next to him, unclipped the water bottle from his harness and took a sip, then brushed some gravel out of the way and lay back with my hands over my head. But as soon as I lay back, Dade stood up and said, “Let’s sign the register and get out of here."
As he walked away, I groaned and picked up the other end and started to coil it, my exhausted arms spread out cruciform again as I made each loop, counting them off to myself. As I neared the end of the coil–24, 25, 26–I saw my first vulture of the day float up above the Tower near where our route had topped out, its wingspan almost as wide as mine, rising over and then behind me to briefly blot out the sun. It eyed me over its long beak, and then turned away to fight a confluence of winds at the corner of the Tower. Its primary feathers, translucent at their tips, bent and shifted like cattails down in the Belle Fourche over a thousand feet below us, and then it angled its wings slightly and peeled out of sight.
When I caught up to Dade he was sitting cross-legged next to the summit cairn with the register pulled out of its heavy steel canister.
“Did you see the turkey vulture?” I asked, squatting down beside him.
He had just finished writing in the register and handed it to me, standing up and shaking his head "no" at the same time. I had to turn the book around to read what he’d written: “'Devil’s Workshop, Spanish Prisoner'— FREE. Dade and Atlas, the Monsters from Minnesota.”
I crossed out “Devil’s” and wrote in “Dade’s” and added, "On-sight 'Spanish Prisoner'” and then I wrote down the coordinates for the Tower that I’d read in the rangers’ station that morning:
44º 35’ N/104º 42’ W
As I started to shut the book I noticed the last entry from the day before, from "Collin from Fort Collins" who topped out on McCarthy West Face and wrote, “The thought is one thing, the deed another, the image of the deed yet another still; the wheel of causality does not roll between them. F.N.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? And who's F.N.?” I asked Dade but he was already out of earshot, walking to the rap station. Over to the west there were a dozen more vultures riding early thermals, and I yelled to Dade, pointing at them and wishing I could just spread some wings and float back down to the campground. I said as much to him at the rap anchors, just as he tossed one coiled rope out into space, but when he held his hand out for the second rope it was as if he were looking right through me.
Sean Toren is a writer living in Minneapolis with, to roughly quote Zorba the Greek, “ … wife, child, house — everything. The full catastrophe." He can be reached at email@example.com.