First All Female Ascent of Devils Tower
by Jan Conn
Formerly from Washington, D. C., Jan Conn, with her husband, has spent a number of years in the west. A large part of that time was in the neighborhood of the Black Hills of South Dakota, where the two of them climbed often. She has many fine climbs to her credit, and of this one, the first all-feminine ascent of the Devils Tower, Mrs. Conn can justly be proud. This article first appeared in Appalachia magazine on December 15, 1952.
IT ALL STARTED FOUR YEARS AGO when Herb and I were coming triumphantly into camp after climbing Devils Tower. It had been an excellent climb on good firm rock, and we had that tired, satisfied feeling one always has after such a climb. I was feeling particularly smug because I was the first woman to climb the Tower without the aid of the old ladder, which had long been out of use.
My self-satisfaction was short lived. Curious tourists had gathered around us asking questions and staring at our ropes and hardware. After looking at me with what I assumed were awe and respect, a brawny Minnesotan turned to Herb and asked, "How does it work? Do you climb up to a ledge somewhere and then haul her up?" Herb's careful explanation was lost to me as I fumed inwardly at the stupidity of the human race and the quirk of fate which made me look like a pudgy school girl instead of a tall, strapping Amazon.
At that moment I took a solemn vow that someday I would climb Devils Tower with someone who couldn't possibly "haul me up," someone who wouldn't get all the credit for my straining muscles. If I could find another girl.
Girl rock-climbers who lead and are willing to assume equal responsibility for an ascent are fairly rare, but the climbing group in Washington, D. C., has turned out more than its share. They have developed female climbers who don't seem to have heard that men are physically superior to women. They not only do their share of back-packing in the high mountains, but hold their own on the severe practice climbs along the Potomac River.
I had seen Jane Showacre do some superb practice, climbing on the Potomac cliffs, and I knew she had spent several seasons in the mountains of western Canada. Pim and Ken Karcher, who had been in the high mountains with her, found her a camera fiend and reported that her greatest fault was her insistence that, "If you stand out to the right of that foothold and lean back just a little more, it will make a better picture." Also, they said, she consumed more food than anyone they knew.
Well, I have my own peculiarities, and I could certainly put up with hers if she could stand mine. Herb has long teased me about my dependence on a Clark Bar for quick energy, sometimes even in the middle of a pitch. By our standards a "Two Clark Bar" Climb is a real humdinger. I get scared sometimes, not when I am leading, but only when I have a secure upper belay. Also I am allergic to carrying a pack.
In spite of all these things, Jane and I decided we would give Devils Tower a try. So at 4:30 A.M., July 16, 1952, the two of us crept out of the Devils Tower campground carrying rope, hardware, a camera, and food enough (including Clark Bars) for six people. As I was panting up the talus and wondering why the active life I lead doesn't make me lose weight, Jane was bobbing along behind munching a plum.
I was elected to lead the first pitch because it required a long reach, and being one and three-quarters inch over five feet I was three-quarters of an inch taller than Jane. The pitch required balance and the use of small holds. Jane coming up under our tremendous pack was not happy. Therefore we decided to haul it up the next pitch, the Durrance Crack.
I led again, taking well over half an hour on the eighty-foot pitch. I didn't expect to lead the whole distance. For the last twenty feet I was just looking for a piton crack so I could climb down with an upper belay and let Jane lead the rest. We had so much trouble hauling up the pack that we ate some of the lunch (just to lighten the load, of course) before going on.
Thus fortified, Jane took the lead. She jammed into a narrow chimney above, where I could hear her pounding in a piton. It didn't sound to me as if it were in far, and I heard Jane remark as she snapped her rope through it, "It might not hold some six-foot muscle man but it's good enough for us." Jane weighs only 109 pounds.
As I shouldered the pack to follow Jane there was grim determination on my face. Carrying a pack up an inhale-exhale, jam chimney is not my idea of a pleasant way to spend a hot summer day. Once jammed into the chimney with the pack I seemed utterly unable to move. But with enough heaving, grunting, and pushing, I slowly inched my way upward. Jane's face looked concerned as my head finally emerged from the crack. She voiced her concern, "Golly, I hope the oranges didn't get squashed."
The next pitch was a high-angle inside corner with an overhanging bulge at the top. Pitons had been left in this pitch. Someone had placed them at arm's reach to protect each tricky spot. Jane, as leader, discovered that in each case she had to take the difficult step before she was high enough to reach the piton which was to have protected it. Being short does have its disadvantages. Nevertheless, she reached the overhang in short order and pulled over on to the belay ledge.
It is almost impossible to climb Devils Tower without gathering a large audience of inquisitive tourists. We could see them all grouped below and could catch occasional remarks such as, "Does someone pay them to do that?" and the emphatic answer, "I don't know, but you couldn't pay ME to do it."
Jane and I grinned at each other. It seems to be impossible for people who haven't tried it, to understand just why climbing rocks is such fun.
Jane's last lead had brought us up to the start of the traverse to the large bushy ledge, where the serious climbing is over. Soon we were following the crude trail made by the seventy-five or so people who have climbed Devils Tower since 1937, when Wiessner made the first ascent of the rock not using the old ladder.
Beyond the ledge two hundred feet of easy scrambling brought us to the large rounded summit and the flying ants. One would think that with all of Wyoming to choose from, that swarm of ants would find a spot more to their liking than the top of Devils Tower. But there they stay to pester any stray climbers who are foolish enough to invade their personal domain.
After gleefully signing the register as the first man less ascent, Jane and I retreated to the edge of the summit for a bite of something besides flying ants. We had spent six hours on the ascent, and we used two hours more on the summit, exploring, taking pictures, and eating most of the food we had brought.
By the time we started down, it was really hot, and we found ourselves collapsing in every piece of shade on that sunny face. We had not brought a rappel rope, so we had to climb down to the top of the Durrance Crack. Here we had left an extra climbing rope, and by joining the two ropes we managed a rappel.
At the base there was much picture taking and staring, and I was feeling wonderful. No one could possibly think that Jane had pulled me up or vice versa. I looked too chubby to haul anyone, even Jane, and she looked so small that it was hard to picture her doing anything much more strenuous than playing shuffle board.
But of course the blow had to fall. As a couple turned to leave the crowd that had gathered around us, I heard the man remark, "That climb must not be very hard if THEY can do it."
Did You Know?
One of the fastest climbs of Devils Tower was done in 18 minutes by Todd Skinner in the 1980s. A typical climb usually takes 4-6 hours.