Getting Schooled as a Climbing Guide

Guiding for a living has quite a few perks. You spend your days sharing your passion with others while simultaneously honing your craft. Life is slowed and simplified. Everyday is spent in the mountains, forests and rivers that people at work are daydreaming about. However, perhaps the most unexpected and valuable perk is the lessons your clients have to teach you.

In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Explore, contributor Jenny Abegg talks about the moments her clients transformed from students to teachers.

Its the heart of July. That period of summer when both spring and fall feel worlds away. The sun relentlessly beats down, somehow feeling closer to earth through the northeastern Wyoming sky. Despite the pine tree forest, shade is elusive.

Plastic water bottles in hand, droves of tourists walk the paved trail that circles the main attraction, stopping to gaze upward at the steep columns above. Most who visit do so from the east, the parking lot peppered with license plates advertising the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota, Nebraska’s state bird, or the Show Me State.

Perched precariously on the border between east and west, Devils Tower hosts an equally precarious mixture of guests. The national monument is not only a tourist attraction for these paved-trail hikers and kitchy gift store-goers, it is also a destination for climbers from all over the world. Sharing the same trails, oil and water mix at Devils Tower perhaps more than any other climber’s crag, resulting in curious interactions.

As climbers return to the flat trail from their forays in the vertical, the friendly Mid-Western onlookers are often bursting with questions, and usually the same three: Did you get to the top? How long did it take? How did you get the rope up? Each answer is received with a gasp, and perhaps an, “Oh, good for you, I could never do something like that.”

But there are the few. There are the few who drive from their Mid-Western homes, walk the trail, stare at the tower and decide, “I want to climb that.” Often these individuals have never tied into a rope before, and know nothing of El Cap or Chris Sharma. Many have never been to another climbing area, or even to the climbing gym that probably doesn’t exist in their hometown. However, these are the few who, despite their experience and ability level, believe that they can dream. These are the few who do not make excuses. These are the few who choose, at least this once, to let curiosity and desire trump fear and uncertainty.

This is my second summer guiding at Devils Tower, and I am so fortunate to get to meet these few, and guide them up the steep, granite columns. I might be the teacher of climbing fundamentals, but these individuals have made me the student of so much more. Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned:

Do What They Say You Can’t

As we geared up at the base of his first 5.10 Tower route, Dave entertained me with the story of the time that he dropped his leg on his belayer. When Dave lost his left leg in a motorcycle accident, he realized that he had two choices—bitterness or happiness. He chose happiness, and possibility, and since his accident, has thrown himself into recovery and a brand new passion: climbing. Dave was told that his life would need to change, that he would need to scale back his level of activity, but he chose to charter his own path. This summer, he took a chance and took my boss Frank up on his offer, “if you can get here, we’ll take care of the rest.” Dave came for a few days; it’s been a month now and he is still here, soaking up everything he can about climbing, learning how to better use his leg, and scaling harder and harder cracks each week.

Bitterness or happiness? Dave chose wisely.

Try Really, Really Hard

If you search for Grant’s state on rockclimbing.com, you’ll read, “Nebraska has been blessed with flatness.” Climbing on the Tower did not come easily to Grant, as he would readily admit. His 6’6” runner’s stature struggled to move efficiently and knowingly over the rock, and each of the seven pitches to the summit was a fight. Grant battled for every move, and often I’d catch him whispering to himself, after a burst of frustration, “I can do this, I can do this.” Nothing—and I mean absolutely nothing—was going to stop Grant from completing the climb; I was humbled by this thought, knowing that I have often lowered off of difficult climbs, frustrated and defeated. Grant reached the top with bloodied pants and bruised knees and elbows, but as we celebrated his birthday with a candle stuck in a Cliff Bar and blown out by the wind, he was glowing with pride and accomplishment.

Grant: bruised and battered, but more content than ever.

It’s Never Too Late

Steve was 68 when he showed up to climb the Tower, and it had been 30 years since he’d last roped up. Unexpectedly entering early retirement after his employer downsized a few months before, Steve hit the road for a few months, unsure of what his travels would bring. He expressed that he wasn’t where he expected to be at that age in life, but was learning to accept it. To be sure, Steve never expected to be climbing to the top of the tower either, but after a practice day on the flanks, I convinced him that he was capable of reaching the summit. The next day we set off, and Steve skillfully tackled each pitch, surprised after each rope length that he was successfully ascending. On top, Steve followed his name in the summit register with, “68, and I’ll surely be back next year.”

Photo: Sagar Gondalia I spy with my little eye…climbers on the summit!

Be Curious

I’m endlessly impressed by those who see the Tower, and having never put on a harness in their life, decide, “I want to climb that thing.” Though I climb the Tower multiple times per week in the summer, this pales in comparison to a non-climber taking the leap, entering the unknown, and going out of their way to contact a guide service. Brigitte first spied the Tower at the age of eight when her family was living in nearby Gilette, and at the age of 31, traveled back to fulfill a 23 year dream, quelling her curiosity and creating a thirst for much, much more.

Photo: Sagar Gondalia Laying eyes on the Tower for the first time…

A lot.

Frank is the man of the Tower: he’s owned and run Devils Tower Lodge (and guide service) now for 18 years, still guides often, and in his early 60s, climbed the tower every day for a year. Frank arrived at the Tower in the summer of 1972, hitchhiking west from Tennessee and spending his first night in Wyoming in the county jail after a bar fight. A strong climber and well-educated man, Frank was also a loose cannon, and struggled with alcoholism. The day, however, that he acquired the land on which Devils Tower Lodge now stands, Frank checked himself into rehab. “The ironman who ran triathlons and climbed El Cap and all the rest,” he recalls, “admitted out loud he needed help. At that time I realized I had one choice on my menu: I needed to quit.” Now, Frank gets to sit at the head of his dining room table, “in the middle of nowhere, where people come from everywhere,” living a life he never dreamed possible, and giving thanks every evening for another day of being clean and sober. Then, with a plate full of meatloaf or lasagna, Frank listens to story after story from clients of failing, failing, and failing again, to then—just like in his own life—live their wildest dreams.

Photo: Sagar Gondalia “I do know,” Frank orates, “right now, in this life, with that tower, and the good people around me, it’s about as good as it’s going to get man, and I want to absorb—every morning, from the time I open my eyes, whatever I’m doing—to take in and collect, and savor… Yea…yea…yea, I’m surely under the influence of the tower.”

 

Author: Raised by mountain-loving parents on the flanks of the North Cascades, Jenny’s idea of a perfect day starts and ends wearing a headlamp, and includes a snowy approach, dry granite, and endless high fives with a favorite partner. Her passion for adventurous climbing has led her from the jungles of Rio to windy spires in Patagonia, from the unexplored faces of the Purcell Mountains to heady granite domes of North Carolina. Currently based out of her GMC Safari nicknamed “Ol’ Blue,” Jenny is a climbing guide and a writer, exploring the topics of climbing, life, and the spaces between.

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2 comments on “Getting Schooled as a Climbing Guide

  1. Haha! It was funny and great meeting you Jenny after I summited the tower. Funny because I started getting cocky about climbing, and I said I want to climb my ass off! Thank you for pushing me to climb harder. Climbing and in life we must carry a bundle of confidence. Like at work slaying tree and being sure of the of the out come of the cut you just made! Or selling work to a customer or maybe confidence just walking with a prosthetic! Thank Jenny for helping me in my recovery after this leg amputation it’s a life changing injury that doesn’t go away but climbing in amazing therapy!

  2. My son and I are two of those people who saw the tower, and although never climbed anything in our lives, decided we needed to go to the top. With Frank’s help, and a half day of training, we reached the summit.

    Ten years later my wife, daughter and I had an unexpected visit to the tower. Frank was most gracious host, and once again, one of my children and I climbed. We did not Summit, but I had a great time. I cannot say enough wonderful things about Frank and his crew.

    My son was bitten by the bug. He and his wife now enjoy climbing regularly together. My daughter has found a new found confidence in herself and in her abilities. The tower had a great positive affect and two of my children.


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