A Devil’s Lake Tale

When we heard our friends from Chicks Climbing were coming back to Devil’s Lake to offer their awesome Chicks Rock program again this summer, we thought: Of all the climbing areas across the country where somebody could learn to climb, Devil’s Lake has to be the best. The who’s-who of climbers who came out of this place reads like a list of international alpine heroes. We thought we would ask one of them – our friend Mattie Sheafor – to tell us what it was like to cut her eye-teeth on Baraboo Quartzite. Here’s what she had to say…


Driving to Lander for a day of rock climbing at Sinks Canyon from Jackson Hole just this spring: The small talk had begun. “So, how long have you been climbing, Mattie?” said the strapping lad sitting beside me – a strength coach and intern with Mountain Athlete – excited for his first day climbing outdoors.

I asked him how old he was? “24” he answered.

Smiled to myself,“Just a little longer than that.” He choked on his water.

Worth it, I thought.

Is that mean? I think on a road this long, you have to have a little fun along the way, don’t you?

I’ve made my home in Wyoming for these past 20 years, in the shadows and summits of the Teton Range. I know how the heat from sunshine bouncing off gneiss and schist feels on my face, fills my nose, along with the pungent scent of those fragile purple sky pilot flowers that grow in between the rocks way above tree line. And from this base, I’ve spent numerous months at a time climbing on exotic limestone features and alpine peaks in foreign lands. This amounts to a resume that spans some respectable ascents on ice, mixed, trad, and sport routes, big walls, and alpine peaks. And truly no societal value! Merely, I have to guess, the saving of my own soul. Lionel Terray nailed it with his title: “Conquistadors of the Useless” yes…AND there’s the soul thing too…a’course.

For all this, it’s the Baraboo Quartzite of the Driftless region deep in my marrow. There are routes at Devil’s Lake that I still climb when I dream, and some routes I still dream of climbing there. The pines, the hardwoods, the wasps flying lazily on an autumn afternoon. It will always be among the most special of places to me.

The cliffs are not imposing, neither tall nor vast. Nonetheless, Devil’s Lake is demanding, serious, and remarkably beautiful. I feel fortunate to have cut teeth in this place, steadily working my way through the grades on these cliffs while a student at UW.

Likely I was not the first fledgling climber to sell her meal tickets and eke by on bagels and yogurt in order to purchase a first pair rock shoes after her first day touching the smooth black and brick colored quartzite. Mine were purple and yellow high topped lace-ups, La Sportiva Drus, one of the two choices on the wall at the Erehwon Outfitters on State Street, and which I wore for daily bouldering sessions on the flagstone of the Alumni Center in between studies. I traversed so much that my forearms would throb as I lay in bed at night. I dreamed of climbing like Catherine Destiville.

Before I graduated, I worked part time in that same climbing shop, taught the UW climbing course that started me off, and had started to select my courses based on the climbing schedule they allowed. And even rented, with a friend, a couple acres of farmland as a camping spot adjacent to the lake, so that we’d have a more economical sleeping spot than the state campground. My guidebook, dog eared and worn with anticipation, was bedside when it wasn’t in my pack. I spent nearly as much time in the mountaineering section of the library as those that pertained to my coursework. Graduation came in the nick of time.

So even before I left those wooded bluffs, I learned to value the ‘history’ of climbing, walking in the footsteps of John Gill, Fritz Weisner, the brothers Durrance. And legends like Pete Cleveland still lurked in his blue farm house-bastion, surrounded by tidy rows of cordwood, like a gatekeeper of an ever-present flame. Tommy Duetschler, Eric Zeische, Rich Bechler, they were just some of the Knights Templar. I believed, until I came west, that every single pitch had history behind it because every one of ours seemed to, a story, that you just had to find the right person to tell you. Really I did.

We revered these pitches, as though we feared the route might itself retell our performance. Pure? With honor? Fear? Not shame? We ‘saved’ some routes until we had trained hard enough to believe that we might be worthy of their test. The stature of the cliffs meant that any piece of gear better be placed well, because it may be the piece that keeps you off the deck, any fall can have ground fall potential. The leads, especially in the harder grades are technical and unforgiving of even small errors. It tends to make one precise, which serves you on any terrain.

During my internship there (1985-1989) Devil’s Lake was an extremely conservative and traditional fortress. Climbing was experiencing the shock wave of sport climbing, newly imported to the US from Europe. Smith Rocks (near Bend, OR) was “going off.” Alan Watts and a handful of others had seen the promised-land of southern France and come home to rap bolt formerly un-protectable lines. It presented a radical new paradigm! Before this time you HAD to be committed on the sharp end to do hard grades. Tackling high end routes had meant futzing with small brass nuts, that may or may not hold your body weight times the force of the fall, and sporty, which meant you may need to travel a terribly long way in between those points of protection.

With the advent of rap bolted lines you no longer needed to be extreme and committed with solid steel emotional control. Now you could be human, have a career, have a mortgage, perhaps even plan to procreate one day AND climb 5.12 and HARDER?!! It was a literally amazing break through, some of us just didn’t realize it straight away. Change is threatening.

It threw all of us at the Lake for a while. The numeric standards of our sport were rising at a suddenly alarming rate. This made everyone a little crazy to reinforce definitions and judge each other. It was the source of some violence, chopped bolts, fist fights, and heated arguments in the pages of the climbing rags and at cliffs across the U.S. At the Lake it just pushed a hard core group to go harder.

Diverse in background, united only in their focus for climbing and their irreverent sense of humor. These were the hard-partying men of the DLFA (The Devil’s Lake Free Ascenders, or as they were more commonly known, the Devil’s Lake Fukness Association). Often rude and crude, these self defined social misfits were highly skilled when it came to rock climbing. Like the Vulgarians of the Shawangunks a generation before in the New Paltz, NY region, these guys influenced standards by setting the bar.

I watched them compete and drive each other to do harder and scarier leads. Some were little more than solos with the added pretense of a rope and nuanced protection, one time I saw duct taped sky hooks placed on a successful lead. I kid you not.

What surprised and impressed me was the way that these strong climbers would come together when one of their number went for something hard. Whispers around the crag would begin and soon enough a quiet gathering of these strong, accomplished men stood below the intrepid sharp ender. They didn’t cajole, when they uttered anything at all it was positive and sincere. They watched with eagle eyes and sometimes carefully positioned themselves to absorb an impact if it would come until the climber was out of ground fall danger. Competitiveness aside, there was respect. All of us recognized that battle was being waged up high, the leader was slaying his own fears and all of ours collectively by breaking down barriers and clearing new ground.

When the lead was done a collective sigh was breathed, the laughter and the ribbing cut loose. And when the leader was back on the ground a handshake and a nod and all manner of comments: “Well done,” “nice lead,” “Who knew you could walk with THOSE enormous cajones between your legs?!”

There were fewer women climbing then, but they were important to those of us who followed in their wake. Jan Tarr was one of the women I had the privilege to know there before she left to pursue her graduate studies, astrophysics I believe (and climbing) in California. She and her husband Rick taught me to climb my first pitches. They cut me out of the pack and sent me off to climb numerous pitches that weekend with Rick while Jan guided the rest of the newbies. I was sensible of the honor, but sad that it wasn’t her I was following. She was a great model for me of what a woman could be: Competent, humble, accomplished. I haven’t seen her since that introductory course she taught except in the pages of a Chouinard climbing equipment catalog on a Joshua Tree route called Figures On A Landscape. She is patting the back of another woman at a hanging belay and smiling wide. This was the spirit I imbibed from her myself.

The Lake will always be, I hope, one of those special enclaves where you can taste the essence of traditional climbing.

During our tenure there we were a bit obsessive about the minutia. Determined to be “so pure” that we didn’t even countenance hangdog while top-roping. Hanging was blasphemy. It wasn’t done. Properly, you lowered to the ground and pondered your next effort from that distance, then you’d climb up to the spot that had forsaken you before and try to charm the crux and pass beyond. You got plenty worked. It wasn’t the most efficient way to learn new movement patterns! But if you didn’t quit you got stronger and hungrier…

To prove just how badass (or closed minded?) we were some of us even wore simple swamis (no leg loops!) instead of real harnesses – why? I think we muttered something about freedom of movement, but really it made us feel superior, we did not “hang.” Because no joke, those things were killer! Crushing your diaphram and entrails ridiculously hard as soon as you popped off the rock. Just hold your breath and pray for a quick lower! You didn’t climb with anyone who didn’t also wear one, they were the ONLY partners you trusted to get you on your feet before you passed out.

One of the coolest things about rock climbing is that the geology really does tend to leave a mark on you. (And hopefully, not bruises and injuries.) I mean internally, the way it forms you. The features of the rock type you spend the most time on tends to inform your movement and can influence your mindset. I see this when I study a climber’s body moving across the rock, I can see their history, their travels, sometimes their demons, just in the way they address the route. It’s fascinating really.

Devil’s Lake forged our climbing bodies as universally metered and static from spending so much time leading with serious consequences so near below our feet, less gymnastic than others. We also learned to stand on our feet with a good measure of poise and control, to always be strategic and thoughtful with gear placements, it just didn’t pay to do otherwise and so it became the default.

I realize how indebted I am to the place and the people that influenced my life so richly. I do hangdog now with impunity and think sport climbing is a fabulous gateway drug. But I still try hard to onsight, because you “only ever get one chance at it.”

Hey Chicks! Do you want to climb at Devil’s Lake with Mattie Sheafor,

Angela Hawse, Kitty Calhoun, and Kim Reynolds this Summer?

Of course you do! Sign up here!


Mattie Sheafor lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with her sons Alex and Lucas. Mattie has guided for Exum Mountain Guides, Chicks With Picks, and Chicks Rock. She was also the founder of Women That Rock, and an ongoing Mountain Athlete. For twenty years, Mattie was a buyer and manager at Teton Mountaineering, and is now pursuing a career in education. We have been gifted with her voice at PEMBAserves.com many times, and hope to hear it again here, soon.

5 responses to “A Devil’s Lake Tale

  1. That was a GREAT read, thanks Mattie for sharing your story. I get so inspired every time I read of someone starting their career @ the Lake, and plugging gear while doing so.

  2. avatar Annie Hughes

    As a Devil’s Lake climber, I too am indebted to the place and the people! I am indebted to Mattie who I first met as my first guide at a Chicks Climbing workshop. What an inspiring mentor and knowledgeable, safe, engaging guide. I love this piece because it resonates with her true voice and personal perspective, wisdom and humor.

    Mattie, you’re the BEST! Thanks for writing this!

  3. Great piece Mattie! I too have many memories of the Lake from back in the day! Including watching you struggle on one of your first top-ropes! lol! You have done some wonderful things in your passion for the sport since then! Well done!

    I particularly liked how you wrote that the rock you climb the most as you learn forms the way your body moves over rock. So true! There are definitely some advantages to learning in an area as technical, balancey and footwork extensive as the Lake!

  4. avatar Mattie Sheafor

    Melissa, I well remember investigating the efficacy of the ‘head jam’ (my first and last I think) as you walked by. I was SO embarrassed! And I think it may have been the first belly laugh we ever shared together- You were then, and continue to be an inspiration to me as an athlete and a woman. Thanks for sharing your spirit and kindness with me through the years.

  5. avatar Amy Skinner Underwood

    Thanks for this wonderful piece, Mattie! I, too, got to follow Jan Tar and Rick Aster years later in CA and in New Mexico. Thanks for giving my memory a nudge…