by | Jul 27, 1994 | Detroit Free Press | 1 comment

DEVILS TOWER, Wyo. — It was not a good time — with my fingers trembling, my feet slipping, my heart pumping and my body pressed like flypaper against the cold, hard rock — to look down.

I looked down anyhow.

This is what I saw: trees. The tops of trees. And pigeons. The tops of pigeons. It is never good to be above pigeons. Especially when this is the first rock you have ever climbed, and the air is thin and there’s a skinny rope going though your harness and nothing else keeping you from certain death except a grip that could choke a statue — but a grip I was losing. Where was my hold? Where was the damn crack to put my hands? Where, pray tell, were my brains? I was 500 feet above earth, the wind was blowing, and as I began to slip, my fingernails scratching down the surface, I heard, from somewhere deep inside me, the unmistakable sound of a whimper.

Mama! . . .

All right. I’ll catch you up. I had come to this magnificent structure, Devils Tower, to address an ancient yearning in my soul. Remember the movie
“Close Encounters,” when Richard Dreyfuss couldn’t get that mountain out of his mind? This was the mountain. It haunted me, too. Of course, I didn’t expect to find aliens.

Then again, I was in Wyoming.

Which brings me to my guide, the man who would take me to new heights, the man I knew only as Petefish — Andy Petefish — the legendary owner of Tower Guides, who told me, over the phone, to come to the base, find his trailer by the river and knock. This I did.

Nobody answered.

Mountains are not my normal line of work. Normally, I stick a pad under some basketball player’s nose and ask a brilliant question about zone defense. But ever since the big shots at this newspaper mistakenly approved an expense account for a week’s worth of adventure travel, I knew I had to challenge the Devil, America’s first national monument. Reach the top. Conquer my fear. No sooner had I finished my first escapade, surfing the Great Lakes, than I was here, in the badlands, in the shadow of the beast.

I knocked again. It was a ragged, old trailer, and not far away I saw a pair of gravity boots on a pole. At least this Petefish guy knew how to hang upside down — which, come to think of it, wasn’t really encouraging.

I wandered back to the park entrance. The Tower was huge. Foreboding. Mostly it was steep. I mean, like straight up? Like a wall? And I’m thinking, “This is crazy. Lemme out of here. I am not a human fly–“

“Excuse me.”

I spun around. Here was a lean man, with chiseled cheekbones, piercing blue eyes, tousled blond hair and the easy stance of one used to heights and bored with earth. He slid out his hand. The grip was powerful.

“Andy Petefish, I presume?”

He nodded.

“We’re not really going up that, are we?” I pointed to the summit.

He studied me. “Why not?”

“Because I’m a chicken?”

He stared blankly. So I guess humor hasn’t found its way to Wyoming yet, either. Now, normally, you don’t just show up and climb Devils Tower. Once upon a time, it was considered one of the hardest climbs in the business. The ancient Indians, who prayed here, had a legend about this monolith: A long time ago, seven young girls were being chased by giant bears, and just as the bears were about to catch them, the girls jumped on a low rock and pleaded, “Take pity on us, rock! Save us!” The rock began to grow, pushing the girls higher, out of danger, up to the sky, even as the bears slashed their claws into its side, creating the famous columns that make the Tower unique.

Take pity on us, rock! Save us!

It was a line I planned to use.

WHAT YOU WEAR TO CLIMB A ROCK: Special shoes, with sticky soles, a harness that fits snugly under your butt, ropes, clips and a hard hat.

WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE: One of the Village People.

“See this knot?” Andy said, tying a monster through my harness hook on the morning we attempted the climb. “Never, ever untie this.”


“And never unhook from the rock until I yell down that you’re on the rope.”


“Don’t tense up. Tense muscles don’t work well.”


“Any questions?”

“Can I send a substitute?”

He smirked. It was 5 a.m. The sun was just yawning through the darkness. Andy, who wanted to be first on the mountain — “Avoid rush hour traffic,” he said, which I guess is funny, in Wyoming — worked methodically, sorting his ropes, clips, slings, loops, holds and other devices to keep me from dying. I honestly believe that Andy Petefish, had he been going alone, would have needed a pair of Reeboks and a T-shirt and he’d be at the top in 20 minutes. Some men give you that kind of performance.

And some don’t. Like me. Andy — who likes his pupils to have a little more training — told me to get rid of my watch, my ring, anything that protrudes, and to empty my backpack of all but the essentials, like water and courage. As he ran through the checklist, I glanced at the Tower’s silhouette. It was awesome. Scary. It seemed to eat half the sky. I can’t be sure, but I thought I heard it say, “Your mama wears Army boots.”

“Ready?” Andy said.

Up we go.

There’s more than one way to scale a rock. Naturally, I asked for the elevator method. Andy, however, chose the Durrance Route, named for one of the first men to tame the Tower. “It’s an easier climb,” he said.

I mumbled silent thanks to Mr. Durrance.

Until I saw it. This was easy? It looked like the side of the Empire State Building, without windows. You climb a rock like this in “pitches,” where the guide shimmies up, attaches the rope to pre-nailed hooks, then yells down to the climber “On belay!” which means, basically, “Go home, you idiot!”

No, actually, it means you’re safe to try to climb. I emphasize the word
“try.” The first pitch, about 80 feet, nearly killed me. You find yourself flat against sheer stone, running your feet desperately up and down, searching for a foothold, panting like a tired dog and clinging to anything solid as if it’s your last hope. Remember slow dancing in high school? That’s nothing compared to how tight you hold a rock.

“Stick your hand in a crack, turn your forearm and use the leverage to lift yourself,” Andy yelled.

This makes about as much sense as it sounds. By the time I reached the top of the pitch, I was more bruised than a British rugby team.

“Good job,” Andy said, sorting through his clips and hooks.

“I . . . bunh . . . huhh . . . ah . . .” I said.

Second pitch. Another 80 feet. Here I knew I was in trouble, because when Andy went up, he disappeared from sight, meaning the rock actually jutted out, at a backward angle.

“ON BELAY!” he yelled.

“I’M A MORON!” I replied.

Again, I found myself midway through with nothing to grab onto, and no place to go. Never have the words “get a grip” held more meaning.

“I’m . . . in . . . trouble here!” I hollered.

“Wedge inside a crack,” Andy answered, “then push against your back, while using your elbows and legs for leverage to lift.”

Did this guy write VCR manuals?

I tried to do what he suggested, and nearly slipped altogether several times. My adrenaline was pumping like one of these self-serve gas hoses, and my knees were doing things they were never meant to do. When I finally reached the top of the pitch, throwing my hand over the tiny ledge, I was breathing so hard, I could have inflated a Goodyear blimp.

“OK, you made it,” Andy said. “Relax. Take a drink of water.”

Ha! I wasn’t moving. My back was flat against the rock, my feet as far from the ledge as I could get. Andy hooked me in, and I was like a leashed dog waiting outside the supermarket.

Or in this case, above it.

I suddenly realized that the sun was strong. We’d been climbing several hours. “Look at that,” Andy said.

“Not if it’s down,” I said.

“No, look.”

We were already high as a skyscraper, and the Tower cast a huge shadow over the greens, browns and tans of the national park and the Belle Fourche River below. It was breathtaking. At least it would have been breathtaking, if I had any breath left.

“This rope I’m attached to,” I gasped, “it never breaks, does it?”

“Nah,” Andy said. He fiddled with his equipment. “But you know, you got to be careful. Even car brakes fail once in a while.”

Up he went, smiling.

What did he say?

I have noticed this about adventure guides. Most of them have a calmness that is so reassuring, you honestly believe if you were broken into a million pieces, they could put you back together. Andy, who has guided hundreds of people up the Tower during the last 12 years, had that kind of calm. He spoke of the tranquillity of the mountain. How he never got tired of finding new faces of the rock to climb, which he then got to name. I suppose he’d name mine “The Shut Your Eyes Route.”

Of course, Andy had another adventure guide’s trait: horror stories.

“You see that ledge,” he said. “This guy they call Old Doc fell once, landed on that ledge, knocked his teeth out, bounced off and landed 40 feet below. He’s OK, though. He’s got money.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I feel much better now.”

And yet, I must admit, the more pitches we made together, the more confident I grew. True, I was running out of flesh to rip. And Andy yanked me up a few inches when things got desperate. But eventually, I felt cocky enough to try a technique he suggested, straddling one of the Tower’s cracks and inching up, step at a time. I pushed off one hold — and whoop!

I was falling.


Isn’t that what the girls said?

I fell for only a split-second. The belay rope caught me, I jerked and an icy shiver went through my body. I grabbed a crack. Then promptly began to sweat like a furnace. “Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod,” I stuttered.

“You OK?” Andy yelled down.

It was then I noticed the pigeons, flying below me. We were in the sky, above the birds’ nests, lost in a tranquillity that would have been heavenly, had I not just wet my pants.

“I’m OK,” I yelped. Inch at a time, I pushed, wedged, counter-forced and grabbed my way up. When I reached the ledge, Andy was singing.

“Cracklin’ Rosie get on board. . . . “

Oh, God. Anything but Neil Diamond.

“How can you be singing?” I gasped. “I’m shaking here. I’m drenched. This is like, the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, I’m on a ledge that’s as big as a shoe box, and even the pigeons are laughing at me. What’s the deal? I mean, Neil Diamond?”

Andy looked at me the way adventurers look at their pathetic pupils, a look that seems to say, “You are a flea. Die.” Then he squinted in the hot sun, and pointed to skinny bushes, about 30 feet up.

“See that?” he said.


“That’s the top.”

I could have kissed him. But he might have pushed me off.

And so it was. The top. I have never — and I am including every paycheck I’ve ever earned here — been so happy to see anything. I actually dashed the last few feet, and the surface flattened into low grass and rock.

“Where’s the spaceship?” I said.

Andy was singing again.

I wandered in a circle, felt a rush of accomplishment, and began to leap like Rocky on the steps of the art museum. At the center of the summit, 1,200 feet above the river, there is a marker, and a metal canister that contains a register.

“Go ahead,” Andy said, handing me the tube, “sign your name.”

I believe he actually smiled.

I unrolled the paper, and noticed the cover, which had a sketch of the Tower and an arrow that said: “You are here.” Very funny. I flipped through the pages, looking for a clean one, and I noticed one of the inscriptions.

“They’ll never find me here (signed) O.J. Simpson.”

I am not making this up.

Never mind. We had survived. We had scaled the Devil. I looked out over the vast Wyoming prairie and counted my blessings. I also figured Andy — who wasn’t even breathing hard –must be half mountain goat. I took a deep breath, and soaked in the history of this place, the ancient Indians, and their charming legend of the seven girls on the rock. And then it hit me:

How did they get down?

Thursday: A River Runs Through Him.

1 Comment

  1. Mike Sove

    I was there that day, on a motorcycle trip with my Dad from Detroit to Vancouver and back and was watching people climbing… later I was told it was Mitch Albom and I read this story in the freepress when we made it back to Detroit.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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