DEVILS TOWER, Wyo. — Its summit is inaccessible to anything without wings. . . . --Col. Richard I. Dodge, 1875
Thunder rumbled across the northeast Wyoming Bad Lands. Lightning bolts slashed the inky sky here, there, everywhere. A chilling, piercing wind howled angrily. Then came the downpour.
Cautiously rappelling their way down the sheer, rain-slicked, fluted columns of the huge, weirdly shaped 865-foot pinnacle was a party of five drenched climbers.
They were the latest of several hundred rock climbers who come to climb the Tower every year, traveling from all over America and many foreign countries.
"Devils Tower is a mecca for the best climbers on Earth. This is the state of the art. The Tower has a little bit of everything. There is no other mountain anywhere in the world like it," said mountain climber Darryl Miller, 41, drying himself before a roaring log fire after finishing his 20th successful ascent.
Miller and four other members of his party had driven all night from their homes in Havre, Mont., 500 miles to the northwest, to spend 3 1/2 hours belaying themselves to the summit of Devils Tower, enjoying the view for half an hour, then taking two hours to make the descent.
The four-to eight-feet-wide columns running from the base to the summit of Devils Tower completely encircle the spectacular peak, which resembles at close range a jumble of elephant legs.
In the 1977 film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," actor Richard Dreyfuss made contact with extraterrestrial life at Devils Tower.
"Where's the airport? You know, the landing strip that we saw in 'Close Encounters,' " visitors are forever asking.
The landing strip, of course, was part of the movie set. But the mountain was, indeed, the spectacular fluted mass of bare rock rising abruptly from Wyoming's Belle Fourche River Valley.
Flashes of Lightning
"We were gripped. I mean gripped," sighed Kim Harrison, 24, elementary school teacher and member of Miller's party. (Gripped is rock-climbing parlance for scared .) She, too, was drenched and trying to get warm and dry from the heat of the fire.
"Lightning was flashing all over the place. We would have spent more time on top, but we were like five lightning rods."
The climbers signed the register on the teardrop-shaped, football-field-size summit, walked from one end to the other dodging a three-foot-long bull snake, then lowered their 165-foot-long rope and started the descent. The columns and cracks were so slippery from the rain it seemed like someone had sprayed oil all over their perpendicular route to the bottom as they clutched the rope and walked backward down the face of the mountain.
"We could feel the electricity from the lightning running through our ropes as we came down," chemist Craig Hertoghe, 37, said as he completed his fourth ascent. Also in the group was grocery store clerk Paula Toy, 23, and Chan Miller, 11, a sixth-grader, youngest ever to make it up the difficult Pseudo Wiessner route. There are more than 150 different routes of varying difficulties for climbing on the four sides of the columnar tower.
For young Chan, Darryl Miller's son, climbing Devils Tower was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream: "I had seen pictures of Devils Tower as long as I can remember. I have one hanging in my room. Going to the top of Devils Tower is the greatest thrill of my life."
His father teaches mountain climbing, ice climbing and rock climbing courses at Northern Montana College. The school has one of the largest indoor climbing walls in the country, 30 feet high, 200 feet wide.
Darryl Miller has climbed mountains in many parts of the world. He was part of a group of climbers who spent July 4, 1981, on the top of 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley. They spent 44 days on the highest peak in North America, nine days of it in an ice cave.
But Devils Tower has a magnetism that Miller says he cannot resist. He keeps coming back, a couple of times a year, bringing colleagues from the Montana campus where he teaches, students in his climbing classes and friends.
"Climbers occasionally get stuck on the mountain in a storm and spend the night on the summit," park ranger Eric Haugland, 23, said.
"But the Park Service has a hard-and-fast rule against overnight camping under normal conditions."
Devils Tower was given its name by Army Col. Richard I. Dodge when he led a U.S. Geological Survey group to the remarkable landmark in 1875.
In his log, Henry Newton, geological assistant to the Dodge expedition wrote: "Its symmetry, its prominence makes it an unfailing object of wonder. Standing at its base we can only look upward in despair of ever planting our feet on top."