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Close Encounters of the Old Kind

Submitted by floridaputz on 2006-10-30 | Last Modified on 2011-04-14

Rating: 12345   Go Login to rate this article.   Votes: 13 | Comments: 5 | Views: 5930

Close Encounters of the old kind By Tim Shea (Floridaputz)

The Van came to an unexpected halt. I awoke out of my sleepy daze. You know the kind, you're half asleep trying to pass the time but you're just too uncomfortable to actually doze off. This is usually associated with long road trips, bus rides or airplane flights.

Camping and climbing gear filled every nook and cranny of the van. Our bodies contorted in abstract shapes, like an evil game of twister. I peeked out the window catching a glimpse of a freakish object. Then it comes into full view. Oh my God, I'm thinking, are we going to climb that! My palms instantly started sweating. That feeling of fear and adrenaline mixing in your veins. The rush that you feel after consuming a well mixed drink and reflecting on the days climb. It starts surging through your body. Devils Tower. So that's Devils Tower. I am in awe.

She was a pretty woman. Carrying a stop sign and a big radio. She looked very official. “I'm sorry but were filming a movie, would you mind waiting a few minutes?” Her voice hummed. The mood in the van started buzzing. Minutes ago we had the ambiance of a can of dead sardines lying in catsup sauce. Now we were all outside the van chattering like wind up teeth. “Look at that thing!” said one, “I wonder what kind of movie their filming” said another. We suddenly came back to life. About 30 minutes had passed when our lovely charge spoke secretively into the radio. We were then allowed to proceed. All of us were plastered to the windows looking for signs of the movie set or of Devils Tower. We were stopped again and before us was a huge sign “decontamination camp”. Actors milled about in white suites, like fumigators hunting for termites. Others dressed as military officers looked as if they were headed for a coffee break. There were helicopters, jeeps and other military paraphernalia parked along the road. We were through quickly and off to the campground.

I awoke out of my sleepy daze. You know the kind. We had a hard landing on the runway at the Rapid City South Dakota airport. Looking out the window, a lot of old feelings came rushing back. Thoughts of climbing Devils Towers Durrance Route in 1976 and the hellish van ride from Minneapolis amused me. I was here to climb the route again for my 25th anniversary of the first time climbing it. I had been back more than a few times and had done other routes, but this was different. The anticipation of this climb brought a rush of adrenaline, reviving me. This trip brought my life back full circle to my climbing roots. I mused about back in 1976 when we used hiking boots and body belays to climb the Tower. Thank God for modern gear. Then there was the surprise after the trip, finding out that the Movie being filmed was none other than “CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE 3RD KIND”. Between that and the Durrance Route being my first big climb how could I ever forget?

On the drive to the Tower we were wowed by the same impressive views. Feeling much the same way as I did when I first viewed this awesome volcanic plug. We pulled into the National Monuments campground and it was packed. Not one site available. We were supposed to meet our other friends here so we did not want to go to the private campground back up the road. As we drove around the loop road again I spied an old man and women at a large campsite. “STOP!” I said to Tim. Let me talk to those people. Ill offer to pay for their site if they share it with us. This old trick had served me well over the years. I walked up to the old man and his wife. I asked him if he would consider my proposition. He spoke German. So with a series of hand gestures and his broken English we managed to communicate about camping at his spot. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes. In very careful broken English he said “you climb the Tower?” I thought here is my chance to impress him. “Yes we are climbing the tower”. I gleaned. More focused now he says “you camp here, you take me up Devils Tower!”

He's kidding right, I'm thinking, this old guy probably thinks there is a stairway to the top somewhere. He takes off and runs to his rental car and returns with an ancient harness, shoes and some old rope maybe a 100 ft long. His Wife looked on with the endless patience of an experienced climbers wife. His gear was the most pathetic I had ever seen. All tattered, old and well worn. Now he says to me “I'm East German, I climbed with Fritz Wiessner”. Now, for all you climbing history buffs, Fritz Wiessner was a famous climber. Go read the history books on all his exploits, but in regards to Devils Tower he lead the team that did the first free accent. He also climbed it to rescue the parachutist who landed on top of Devils Tower but was not able to get down. He communicated that he knew that Fritz had done the 1st accent. He wanted this climb. He and his wife traveled all the way from East Germany where they spent most of their lives behind the Iron curtain. This would be their one and only trip to America. He brought his ratty ass climbing gear and parked below Devils Tower hoping to hook up and get to the top.

I was already taking a party of 3 on my lead so this would make a party of 5. In addition, the forecast for the next day was calling for temperatures exceeding 105 degrees. I was thinking of calling off the climb period. But he had the look in his eyes. The look that one climber gives to another. The look tells you someone can climb. Like when you hook up with some European guy in camp 4 who doesn't speak English but you go climb with him anyway. Because you know he can climb. By the look. I knew that this was his life's dream to climb Devils Tower. How could I deny him? However that rope was not coming with. I had an extra.

My friends are horrified. “Are you crazy, he must be close to 70 years old?” Tim shrieked. I looked over at the German. He stood about 5 7’, and weighed maybe 140 pounds. He wore old wire rim glasses. His white hair was thin and free in the breeze. Dressed in all black it was a stark contrast to his white skin and hair. A pencil thin mustache completed the man. Did I just agree to take this guy climbing tomorrow, I thought to myself. Funny, but I didn't have any second thoughts. Only about the weather. We had a meeting. I brought up the heat, the dangers of climbing in it and the possibility of not climbing at all. I'm quickly over ruled by my friends. They all want to climb anyway. I gave in. “Alright” I say, but we must have an early start and each climber must carry 4 quarts of water.

We hike to the base by 6:00 am. We are 1st in line. Our group is in high spirits. By 11:00am we are all passed the leaning column, the Durrance crack, the cussing crack and are at the jump traverse. Man its getting hot. Its like a steam bath already. No one listened to me about the water and now we are out. I was going to do the Bailey direct finish but the heat is oppressive, we need to hurry. So I lead the Jump Traverse, and we all scramble to the summit. Oh and the German guy. He could probably have lead the whole thing blindfolded. He was an excellent climber. I signed the register with the note that it was 25 years since my first visit to the summit of Devils Tower.

By the time we all got down, and back to the parking lot, we were all near heat exhaustion. It was like we had just crawled across the desert. We all drank until we were bloated. From my first visit 25 years ago, I always had a story to tell from my visits here. Now I had another one. I was 16 years old when I first climbed the Tower. Now I had just witnessed a man near 70 years old climb it. Ill be looking forward to my 50th anniversary climb someday. Our German friend was sitting in the shade with a wide grin on his face. I walked over to him and shook his hand. He thanked me and I thanked him. One climber congratulating another. I made a vow to myself to always be a climber. Just like him.

Photo credit: the image used for this article was submitted by user scallywag on 2003-10-05.


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5 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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5 out of 5 stars Great story. Awesome trip. It makes me want to go out on a climbing road trip so that I can come back with stories of my own.
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its great that our community can really connect in ways that make great stories like this, its what we're alive for
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thanks for a shot of inspiration. but do you know the old man's name? (why does this comment box say "100 characters MINIMUM?")
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2 out of 5 stars This is an okay story about a nice day of climbing, but the writing could use a lot of work. Check out Strunk & White's "The Elements of Stlye" for basic punctuation and spelling tips.
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Awesome story. It's amazing how having climbing in common can instantly bring people together, no matter the barriers of language or culture.

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