Devil's Tower, El Matador

By: Guillaume Dargaud | Climbers: Guillaume Dargaud, Jennifer Mariani |Trip Dates: August, 2002

Photo: Guillaume Dargaud

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Ed. Note: This is a section of a longer trip report on several climbs on the Devil's Tower, which can be found, with photos, at the authors' web site.

You may have seen the pictures of Catherine Destivelle, solo, doing a full body stem in that long dihedral. So ever since we decided on this climbing trip, Brad had been pushing us around with an unavoidable: "You should do that route." Sure, I'd like to do it, but reading the various guidebooks return mixed feelings: "No move is harder than 5.9", "very height dependent 5.10d/11a", "Easy if you are 6'6"... So is it doable by a meager 5.9 crack leader?

On the 3rd day at breakfast I finally said: "We'll do Walt Bailey and then maybe El Matador if there's nobody on it, and if it's in the shade, and if we feel like it..." trying not to make it sound like any kind of commitment. And when we got off the parking lot I just walked towards the west face, maybe because it was nearer, maybe because I wasn't awake yet, maybe because Brad would have given me shit if I'd chickened out then.

So we got to the base, and roped up for the first pitch, a very easy and nice 5.8 finger crack (was that poison ivy growing at the base of the crack ?). Jenny joins me at the belay and I finally give a good look at this 'thing'. What is it ? A dihedral ? 2 finger cracks ? If you are given to mathematics, you can imagine 3 hexagonal columns touching each other. If you are not into math or poetry, you just want to relieve excess bodily fluids; OK, now's the time to get nervous. I can leave the #4 cams to Jenny, looks like only small gear is necessary here.

Finally my feet leave the ground with my fingers locked in a piton scar on the left crack. I try to stem the right wall, but I can't even reach it! There's an irregular crack on the left column, but it disappears after 7 meters. I try to stem again and barely make it with the tip of my shoe. Once both feet are at the same height, I feel fine; the problem is moving them up. Let's try different things: fingertips on both columns and jerky foot motions to inch slowly higher, or alternating both hands on the left crack to raise the right foot and then the opposite? After a few different trial moves, my calves are burning and I end up resting on my 3rd piece. OK, so I was worried that I was going to aid the entire thing with parties behind us complaining about my style... There's nobody else, we are in the shade and I actually manage to do 10m free.

I forget all about style. We climb to get to the summit, right ? After a while I get into a routine: worm up 3 meters, drop a piece in, rest a few minutes and start again. There are actually some great hand jams and finger locks on the left crack, and also some crimpers on the almost vertical wall, but it's so undemanding to just keep on stemming that I do the entire pitch like that. As I am looking up with my chin against the rock and my legs spread open against the columns, I get the weird feeling of being on the rails of a subway system, with a train ready to roll down at any time. Must be the lactic acid of my calves getting to my brain cells. I also try things like turning around and doing a full body stem with the encouragements of the regulars at the base.

6 meters from the summit I place a bomber hexentric and finish up laybacking the left crack to get to the belay. Wheee... As Jenny takes my place in the stem, she sends up all the camera gear tied to one rope. As she is much shorter than the required 6'6", she doesn't do many stems, mainly jams and laybacks. Since I hung on almost every piece I placed and most of what I placed are stoppers, she has a hard time retrieving some of them. I take pictures; too bad we are in the shade. Hmmm, maybe not so bad, it was so hot 2 days before.

So, should we rappel off like everybody else? Nahhh, we may not be able to climb in style, but at least we bag summits! So we continue on the short 5.8 hand crack just above. First and third pitches are both supposedly 5.8, but what a difference... Then comes a choice of roofs: 5.10 on the right, and something not in the guidebook on the left. Left. Nice, exposed 5.8ish, also short. Comes a big belay ledge; up above there are plenty of crack systems, some are hideous, some display nice gardens growing in them... The first choice was an off-width right above the previous crack but I don't have any large pro. Then I look at a long hand crack but it looks somewhat overhanging, somewhat rotten and I can't see the end of it. OK, then here we go in the off-width: 15 meters with only two small placements of cams between a rock stuck in the crack and one of the walls. There are plenty of outside holds, but many sound very hollow and move when I apply pressure. The 2nd half of the pitch is, among many possibilities, a very nice overhanging hand crack with a final mantle move.

Then a 6th pitch takes us to the flat summit we now know. No sign of Lisa and Brad, but it's late and we will hear their epic about the heat melting off Brad's shoes only back at camp. At least he had an excuse for having an even worse climbing style than I.

Editor's Note: The author is a Major Contributor to the North American Classics project.