Ten Sleep, Wyoming has been my home for the past two weeks since I arrived in the state. The 18-mile long limestone canyon in the middle of Bighorn Wilderness is home to some amazing sport climbing on a clean unpolished (yet!) limestone. The nature of climbing is very technical and steep – it is mostly face climbing on perfect jugs and finger pockets. The area has just been getting onto the climbers’ radar and here is an excellent video by Cedar Wright about climbing in Ten Sleep: http://t.co/MV0TRCZ
Most climbs in the canyon are concentrated around 7,000 feet above sea level and are accessed by 30-40 minute hike up switchbacks, so it was a great training before heading to the mountains I thought. I even went on a few runs from my camp on rest days or easy days when we only climbed half a day. The climate of the canyon is very desert like, meaning very hot and dry during the day in a direct sun, but cold at night. Once the sun moves over the canyon and walls are in the shade it’s actually pretty comfortable to climb – dry and cool.
Aside from a two-day trip to Rumney, NH, my sport climbing experience was equal to zero before this trip. Most of the times I have been feeling as Kelly Cordes in his latest humorous blog: http://www.thecleanestline.com/2011/08/trad-guy-sporto-tips.html. Here are my few lessons I learned as a tradie entering sport climbing:
- Pointy cambered shoes are a must on a pockety limestone – my trusty Mythos just won’t stick into those tiny monos (mono is a small pocket that’s big enough for an average guy’s one finger – I found that I could sometimes get my two fingers in those).
- Down climbing – what downclimbing? If you can’t figure out the move you might as well fall or take instead of wasting your energy on downclimbing. This is sport climbing, so you better preserve your energy for a redpoint.
- Falling – I have yet to master the art of falling. First week I have been here, I wouldn’t even fall on a top rope. I’m slowly testing waters by controlled falls on top rope and on lead – still super scary!
- Bolts are not always where you need them – most climbs are very well bolted in Ten Sleep and are usually body length or so apart, but unlike gear routes you still need to climb to them and overcome your fears instead of plugging gear wherever you feel like it.
- Cracks are not always your friends – I too often get sucked in into the cracks and find myself on scary thin traverses to the nearest bolt, yikes!
Camping in Ten Sleep is really good except for mosquitoes (sometimes could be a pretty big PITA). Most of the climbing area is on the National Forest land, and there is ample room for dispersed camping. We had a great site with our very own little creek (mostly used to keep the beer cold).
Mato Tipila or Bear Lodge, is what Lakota Indians call the unique rock formation that we now know as Devil’s Tower in North Eastern Wyoming. I was never interested in climbing at Devil’s Tower, as I’d heard that rock was rotten and climbing not very inspiring. But here, in Ten Sleep, we are just three hour drive away, and we thought we’d at least go up and gawk at it. We also wanted to tick off one of the 50 North American Climbing classics – Durrance route. Dottie was generous enough to offer watch Marat’s dogs, so with her help and blessings we packed our sleeping bags one of the mornings and drove 3.5 hours North East.
We arrived at the park around 2pm, the heat was oppressive – the temperatures were in mid-90s and and not a single cloud in the sky. The forecast for the next day looked even more of a scorcher – 98 degrees high, so we decided to give it a go Durrance route that afternoon, as we didn’t feel like getting to the base of the route around 5am (recommended start time) since it has a South Eastern aspect and most of it is in the shade around 4-5 pm. We registered at the ranger’s station, had lunch, sorted our rack and started hiking from the parking lot around 5pm. We were at the base of the climb around 5.45pm.
Marat took the first two pitches, which include the namesake pitch of the route – Durrance crack that is notoriously sandbagged. Traditionally graded 5.6, nowadays people give it an ambiguous 5.7+ grade. The double crack of the route is known to spank ambitious face climbers and beginner leaders who are not well versed at crack climbing. In fact, the ranger had told us that the previous day a party spent 12 hours on the route and bailed from the P2, thus ruining everyone else’s chances to take a shot at it as they didn’t allow anyone climb pass them. Following the route, I thought the crack felt a tad harder than 5.6 for sure.
The next three pitches are easily linked – pitches 3, 4 and 5, which was my turn to lead. Pitch 3 is also known as a Cussin crack, for it’s an offwidth chimney. I sure have uttered a couple of expletives on the pitch. P4 and P5 were pretty straightforward 5.easy cracks. To finish, Marat led the Bailey’s direct finish which is not the way the original party went up the summit, but it’s more of an aesthetic and straightforward line – around 160 feet of pretty sustained 5.6 climbing. We both thought that this variation pitch had the best climbing on the route. We summited as the sun was hovering over the horizon to the West around 8.15pm. The top of Devil’s Tower is a grassy plateau which blends to the landscape of the surrounding plains and while standing on it, you don’t feel like you are on top of a roughly 1200 foot rock formation, but in the middle of vast plains.
After couple of haste summit photos and filling out the summit registry, we started our way down, and that’s when the adventure began. By the time we got to the first set of rap rings, it was all dark and we had to down climb with headlamps in pretty strong winds. Despite our best efforts, our ropes got stuck two times in the crack while we were pulling them (luckily I had carried my GriGri 2, and used it as a ratchet while pulling the rope). One of the rope tugs dislodged few rocks that barely missed me. And on the trail down I almost stepped on a rattle snake!
Day 2 at Devil’s Tower, we decided to give El Matador a go. According to some beta, while it’s graded 10d, it is not as hard and you can get rests by stemming plus you can get good gear in. I led the first easy 5.8+ pitch and Marat got on the money pitch – which turned to be way harder than was described. Half way up, the sun turned around the corner and there was no way we were going to even siege climb it as the highs that day were supposed to reach 98, so we bailed on 2 nuts and went down to the town for beer and lunch planning to return later that afternoon for some climbs in the shade…
Encouraged by the ease I got over the first 5.8+ pitch of El Mat, I decided to give Soler a go (5.9-) – a three star classic hand and finger crack that came highly recommended. The first pitch goes at 5.8+ and as most routes on the Tower is super long – 170 feet of sustained finger and hand jamming, but oh so awesome! This was the longest and hardest single pure crack I’d ever led and my toes and calves were burning. I had to take once mid-pitch as I could no longer take a pain in my toes, although hand jams were super positive, I regret on not pushing through and busting my OS. And then came the hanging belay… I found this the crux of the climb – taking up the slack of almost entire length of 60M double ropes while hanging off the harness, was the most challenging part of the climb. By the time Marat came up to the bolts, I was almost toast but still energetic to lead the P2 that goes at 5.9- (I think the difference between 5.8+ and 5.9- is that 5.8 has more hand jams and 5.9 has more finger jams – my favorite). Unfortunately while flipping our ropes we cluster-effed them and could not get them out efficiently, by the time we reflaked them third and fourth time, we lost all our enthusiasm plus it was getting dark and a possibility of another headlamp rappel, plus exposed scrambling down was not too appealing so we rapped off without doing the P2.
Day 3 at the Tower, we only had a half-day to climb – so we went over to the Northwest side to check out Assembly Line (5.9-) via New Wave (5.10a). Beat by two consecutive days of crack climbing in the heat, we moved slowly that morning and didn’t get to the climb till well past 10am. By the time we put our belay high up (instead of leading the 5.7 pitch we just scrambled up and decided to link pitches as other climbers recommended), racked up, it was probably around 10.30 when Marat started leading. The climb was a rope stretcher! I had to simulclimb the last 12 feet. Climbing was excellent – really varied climbing starting with few fingerlocks and thin face moves and laybacks, culminating in 20 feet of a perfect hand crack. It was around noon by the time I got to the belay ledge and another 160 feet of sustained crack climbing didn’t seem like we could be done by 2pm as we had planned so we rapped off from top of New Wave. Assembly Line looked super sweet though – I guess there is another Devil’s Tower trip in the future!