On a bleary day in the plains of eastern Wyoming, a small group of travelers decides to take a detour to a place known as Devils Tower. The group was returning to New York City and had planned a stop-over in the Black Hills for one of their favorite past times: rock climbing. Most of the group was skeptical about the detour, since Devils Tower was not a place for rock climbing.
As Fritz Wiessner stood at the base of Devils Tower, gazing up at its monumental columns, he thought to himself this would be a good place to climb. Although doubtful at first, Custodian (Superintendent) Newell Joyner, soon supported the idea. However, the National Park Service office in Washington, D.C. disagreed. Wiessner left the Tower disappointed that day, but an idea had been planted.
Climbing Devils Tower
In May of 1937, Fritz Wiessner submitted a formal application to the National Park Service to climb Devils Tower National Monument. What he wanted to do was unprecedented: a technical rock climb up the 867-foot monolith, unaided by artificial devices. Although several people had been to the summit of the Tower, all who had done so accomplished the climb by means of a stake ladder built in 1893. Wiessner wanted to use ropes, pitons, and his technical climbing abilities. The park service gave him permission.
On 27 June 1937, Wiessner, along with Lawrence Coveney and William House, arrived to the monument and began scouting for a viable climbing route. They made a short start up a crack on the southeast face, but were held up by vegetation and dwindling daylight. They would return the next day prepared to make the climb, but for the first time Wiessner admitted that "failure was probable."
The following day, Wiessner, Coveney and House began their ascent of the Tower. All of them were experienced climbers, but it was the leadership and skills of Wiessner that made the ascent possible. As Fritz worked his way up along the cracks, Coveney and House watched with "spontaneous and complete but soft-spoken admiration. We knew we were watching an exhibition of leading such as few climbers ever see."
Techniques used for climbing at Devils Tower can be challenging even for experienced climbers. One must jam their body parts - usually feet and hands, but sometimes shoulders, arms, knees and legs - into cracks and use friction and opposing forces to work their way up the columns. Coveney admitted to great difficulty during certain sections, despite his previous climbing experiences.
During his climb, Wiessner inserted only one piton - a fixed anchor device used to enhance climber safety. The expert climber would later proclaim that anchor unnecessary, and modern climbers of the Wiessner Route will testify it was placed after the hardest section of climb. At 11:18 am, June 28, 1937, the three men became the first to summit Devils Tower using traditional climbing techniques.
On the Summit
The climbing party had been asked by Custodian Joyner to collect data and samples from the summit. Exhausted but exhilarated, the three men paced out the dimensions of the summit and examined the soil and types of plants found on the summit. Bill House was a forester and had a keen eye for vegetation. There was an interest in how plants made it to the summit in the first place. House determined that wind could have easily carried the seeds of the various species of grasses and sage they encountered on the summit.
After only a short time on the summit, the three agreed it was time to descend. By inserting pitons and stringing their rope through these anchors the men were able to rappel from the summit. After several series of rappels, the men were back at the base by 1:30 pm.
First of Many
The route pioneered by the first three climbers is named after their leader - Wiessner. It is considered a challenging route, but today there are much harder routes to be found on Devils Tower. The Wiessner Route remains one of the most popular climbs at the Tower.
In a larger sense, it was not just the route he climbed, but the fact that Wiessner proved Devils Tower was indeed climbable. Less than a year later a second route was pioneered. Although climbing was more an exception than a rule for several decades, it became increasingly popular through the last quarter of the 1900s. Today an average of 5,000 people follow in the footsteps of Wiessner, Coveney and House as they embrace the challenge of climbing at Devils Tower National Monument.
For those interested in reading more about Wiessner's climb, the park provides text from the report filed by Custodian Joyner shortly after the three men completed their descent.