June 14, 2016by Jon Kramer

The Hallelujah Wire or Bustin Butt On Devils Track River

Copyright 6-14-16  /   3,616 words

by Jon Kramer


Nonfiction.  These events took place June 11, 2016


It was a bold plan to take on this ascent at this time.   I knew that.  Generally the month of June is better suited for river descents like we’d done the previous June on the Baptism and the Cross rivers.  But the drenching rains had backed off for a few days and the water level appeared manageable from the bridge on Hwy 61.  The coursing waters appeared to be channeling through gravel and rock sidebars that are usually overrun in the spring melts.  That dry ground looked enticing and we were amped to go. I convinced myself the risk was manageable.  Game on.


For decades I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Devils Track River.  She’s buoyed me up in the greatest of joys.  And she’s dragged me down into the darkest tragedies. Through all these years I’ve not yet figured out our relationship.  Instead, I take it as it comes: whenever and however.  Like a lover that you can’t quite get over, there’s always a bittersweet longing of experiencing the thrill again. C’est la vie.


Four days earlier I’d put the word out – I was heading up for another exploration in my North Shore Waterfall project.  The objective this time was the Devil’s Track River, just past Grand Marais.  I didn’t really expect any takers with such a short notice, so I was surprised when both Tom and TJ signed up.  It was good to have companions.  Julie knows the dangers of these expeditions and she gets worried when I go solo.


We left the Twin Cities at 4:30am and were at the Superior Hiking Trail lot by 10:30 – right on schedule.  We sorted gear, reviewed safety protocol, and consulted the map.  The plan called for cutting through the woods and dropping down to the river early on, then trekking in it, following upstream to the confluence with Little Devil Track.  From there we would take the main branch north and top out at the Gunflint Trail on Maple Hill – a distance of about 7 miles.  A very tough 7 miles, I assure you.


We expected to encounter falls before the branch with the Little Devil and I knew from previous experience the main crux would be Devils Track Falls – aka Barrier Falls.  Although not very high by climbing standards, it is a heavily concentrated current that flows full force, punching out from a slot in the sheer cliff face.  Any appreciable amount of water flow would preclude an ascent through the fall, requiring an overland bypass.  If that happened, we would be forced to backtrack several miles to a point where we could climb out of the canyon, then circumvent the fall, and reengage the river upstream.  Exactly how we would do that we had no clue.  So we hoped it wouln’t happen.  So much for hopes…


I knew there was plenty of vertical along the way.  Devils Track is known for its ice climbing.  One of the North Shore’s premium ice routes  – Nightfall – is tucked into a small notch in the shade of its south canyon wall.  Nightfall forms thick, solid, and reliable almost every year and it holds out even when the rest of the Shore has returned to rock. At times I’ve trekked through spring meltwater flooding over the river’s cap ice to climb Nightfall in mid April.  (see my story in Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine, Minnesota Ice, January/February 2004)


But for all its verticality and ice appeal, Devils Track is not a rock climbing destination.  The fragmented geology precludes any safe lines along its walls.  Its highly fractured and friable rhyolite is constantly exfoliating, regularly crumbling and spraying the cliff base with scree and rock fall.  In fact, whenever hiking along these helter-skelter slag piles you must refrain from touching them at all.  Even just a slight brush while pulling around a corner can bring the entire wall down on your head.  Helmets are mandatory.


Ascending a river on foot is generally safer and more manageable than running it downstream.  You can see most of the problems on approach and you have time to calculate your route in advance.  But that can also give you a false sense of security when the conditions are less than prime and water levels are high.  As any climber will tell you, negotiating the route up – seeing all the options and cranking the moves as you go – is far easier than attempting the opposite. Down-climbing is the bane of the climber’s world.   Acute dread sets in when you’ve climbed up as far as you can go and find yourself in a dead-end corner with no option except going back the way you came.  That last part usually ends in an uncontrolled fall. As we dropped down into the canyon bottom, we had no clue we were headed into just such a predicament.


Other than questionable sanity and a zest for arduous, often painful, adventure, there are two essentials in ascending rivers laden with waterfalls and cascading rapids. The first is a strong “Wilson”, the name I’ve given to a sturdy wooden, slightly curved walking stick about 6’ in length.  (The term originates from the Tom Hanks film Castaway in which he anthropomorphizes a deflated Wilson basketball).  You grab a stout Wilson from the flood debris along the river and it becomes your best friend.  Trekking poles, despite their highly touted versatility, are impossible to use in these places.  They inevitably get bent, mangled, and destroyed in the rocks and waters.  But a properly sized Wilson delivers you the stability necessary to negotiate tricky currents with a blessed third leg.


The other essential piece of equipment is felt-bottom boots.  Originally developed for fly fishing, they offer indispensable traction and surefootedness in the rocky rivers of the North Shore. This footwear must be worn responsibly and should never be carried from one stream to the next. (I disinfect mine in a bleach bath.)   These simple felt adaptations have been the culprit for movement of invasive species in the Northeast and are thus banned in several states.  We use them with caution – but use them we must.   There is simply no safer means of ascending the steep rocky rivers of the North Shore Volcanic Complex surefootedly.


After descending the slopes along the lower Devil Track, we landed on a small embankment heavily overgrown with dense brush.  The canyon bottom here is broad and sunny.  After securing our Wilsons we headed upstream.  A gravel bar appeared on the south side and we had the first try of our gear as we worked across the flow.  It was, we realized, much deeper than expected from our initial inspection at the bridge.  Although not a difficult crossing, I was concerned for what lay ahead: the narrowing canyon would inevitably mean deeper sections with drastically increased current.


On the south side, we made good time for the first ½ mile then had to cross to the north again as the canyon walls started closing in.  The next mile and a half saw us crossing and recrossing the river – back and forth from wall to wall – following the path of least resistance.  The canyon narrowed and its walls gradually became vertical, the currents progressively stronger.  Rapids became more common, and more severe.  Roaring cascades appeared.  Our progress slowed.  The canyon walls eventually became shear and to advance upstream became more challenging with each turn.  Eventually we ran out of dry ground altogether and were in the water full-time, hugging the wall with the shallowest water.   Crossing from one side to the next became more sketchy as we got further into the canyon and the water depth increase.


We eventually found ourselves hugging the south wall as the cascades and currents became fairly intense.  Falling in the river here could be serious business – one with consequences.  As in rock climbing, once you push out past the safety of your last anchor, it gets to a point where you cannot afford to fall.  Only here we had no protection.


We skimmed along the south wall, turned a corner, and negotiated through a small waterfall with an island of boulders lodged in the middle of the flow above.   Shortly thereafter, I noticed a broad shallow crevasse in the south wall.  The notch went all the way to the top with a small stream tumbling down its 200 foot face.  I pointed it out to TJ and Tom – this is where Nightfall forms in the winter.


Nightfall has taught me – and others – a few lessons.  One cold February day in the early 1980s my new girlfriend – a nurse at the local hospital – and I were on a date snowshoeing up Devils Track.  We happened upon Nightfall as a small group of climbers were on the route.  That looks dangerous, Kath said, if they fall they’ll be dead.


I took the opportunity to impress my girlfriend – pointing out the special equipment we use to climb vertical ice and protect ourselves along the way.  I explained the technique of using ice tools and crampons and placing anchors such as ice screws and scepters on the way up.   If you know what you’re doing it’s safer than rock climbing, I declared rather smugly.


But as I studied the climbers I was amazed to see the leader had run out his rope with nary a placement to back him up.  His belayer sat snug on the ledge 30 feet below. If the leader fell now, he’d hit the ledge first and then fall another 30 feet before the rope caught him.  These guys are tempting fate! I told Kath, Even the best ice climbers can’t count on perfect ice all the way out. We watched for another 15 minutes until he finally placed some pro and I could breathe again.


The very next weekend, the scene was repeated, but this time Kath was skiing with a friend.  They got to Nightfall and stopped to watch a couple climbers.  The friend remarked, What happens if that guy falls?  No sooner had the words left her lips then it happened – the leader fell.  He was swinging his ice axe when the crampons broke free and he peeled off in a screaming backwards drop.  He fell some 25 feet, hit the ledge with a sickening thwack! and bounced off into the void below.  The rope played out fast and abruptly caught tight, slamming him into the ice wall.  The stunned belayer lowered the body to the ground.   Kath ran over and did the best she could to stabilize the unconscious victim while her friend skied out for help.  Forty minutes later a musher friend of ours – John Patton – ran his dogsled team in and brought the guy out to an ambulance.  We never did hear what happened after that.


Same spot, different setting.  Nightfall had retired for the season some weeks prior when the forceful southeastern winds penetrated even the most stubborn winter holdouts and the crystal walls melted away. Tom, TJ and I were just below the Nightfall route when we found ourselves on a dead-end ledge in about two feet of water.  As I looked ahead around the turn I saw the route ran out of options – steep vertical rock rose up directly from the water.  It was wall-to-wall deep cascades.  It looked like we would have to turn around and climb our way back down river : the dreaded down-climb!  Or, could we possibly climb out of the canyon here?  It certainly was not going to happen from where we stood – the Nightfall route was vertical and crumbly.


From our perspective, we saw the other side of the river had a corner buttress sticking out into the river.  While it appeared to gradually incline to vertical higher up, the lower slopes were not too steep at the base.


If the north side held any hope for us to get out, we had to get over to it.  From where we were the central current was concentrated – strong, and deep.  We had no choice and ventured into the river, our Wilsons working overtime.  The water rose up our bodies and the current became tremendous.  At the limits of our pluck, Tom and I made it across.  But just when TJ go to the center, he lost his footing and was swept off his feet.  In an instant he was yanked into the surging flow, shooting downstream.  He suddenly hit the rocks in the middle, above the fall.  In a desperate, flailing, cartwheel he managed to pull himself up onto them.


Tom and I raced to a position below TJ and just above the small fall.  I could see that if he came off the rocks on our side he would pass nearly within reach.  We developed an emergency plan -as he came by I would grab his pack, swing him with the current around me, and land him on the shore just before he plunged over the edge.  It was our one and only chance.


I got into position.  Tom backed me up by holding onto my left arm, while I was ready with my right. On my signal, TJ let go of the rocks and swept into the flow.  Everything happened in slow motion and it went exactly as planned:  TJ headed toward us.  As we had hoped, he came close enough.  I reached out and deftly grabbed his pack loop. I felt a tug as the force of his body weighted my arm.  I pulled him at an angle around me, just as we planned.


That’s about when the futility of this idea became abundantly apparent.  The current’s force was overpowering.  I had not nearly enough staying power to hold my position, despite Tom grasping my other arm.  The plan rapidly unwound as I felt myself yanked right off my feet and into the current with TJ.  I have to say it wasn’t entirely unexpected – the chance of “catching” someone in such a current is about as easy as catching a person falling off a roof.


I plunged into the river just behind TJ.  Now the two of us were headed over the fall.  It was going to happen – it was happening! – and there was not the slightest thing we could do about it.   I kept ahold of the pack loop for fear that he might get caught in the siphon below the falls.  If that happened it could swing his head under backwards and easily crack his skull on a rock.  I surmised that in my back-seat position, right behind him, I could hold his pack up and prevent that possibility.  Unfortunately for me – as will be explained in a moment – it also meant that as we went over the fall, he was effectively sitting in my lap.  Not that I don’t like TJ or anything, but he is a little too old, and a tad bit large to be sitting in my lap.


Over we went.  When we hit bottom, by virtue of our seating arrangements, I became TJ’s cushion. As we hit, my ass slammed onto the corner of a boulder, the impact compounded by TJs weight crashing on top of me.  WHAM!  I knew there was injury – intense, searing pain has a way of telling you such things –  but I hoped it wasn’t too bad.  After the fall, we were discharged into the middle of the river and were swept away for many yards before we caught a downed tree and arrested our slide.  We crawled out along it but ended up on the wrong side!


Although it hurt like hell, my wound wasn’t life threatening.  A huge contusion landed square on my right butt cheek, but otherwise I was OK.  The bleeding was curtailed by the cold water.   We trekked back up above the fall again.  Tom, on the other side, yelled,  Where’s your rope? It was a proper question.  In the frigging car, I screamed, forgotten there by a stupid idiot named Kramer!  This time we went as far upstream as we could, threw the Wilsons over and jumped full force into the flow, scratching like hell to get across. Finally, all three of us were on the north side.


From this new vantage point we had the chance to see for certain there was no way to progress further upstream – it was wall-to-wall crashing cascades, completely unmanageable.  It was either straight up to get out, or retreat back the way we came.  The idea of down-climbing the river – with the likelihood of more falling and rides in the rapids was not something I looked forward to, especially considering my throbbing ass and the fact I was pretty chilled by this point.  I was game for going up and trying our luck on the warm – albeit crumbling – rock walls.  Alas, we had no rope or protection.   If it got too hairy, we would have to back down.  The trick was to not get lured into a free solo runout that dead ended in no-mans land.


The initial steepness of the pitch was comfortably protected by some well-rooted trees.  This encouraging setting carried on a good 75 feet or so up the wall.  But after that the wall steeped dramatically, the trees ran out, and loose scree littered the few slopes which were not quite vertical.  I stopped to consider our options.


I’ve had plenty of experience on loose, flakey scree slopes like this.  I knew the game and figured I had a pretty good chance of uber-scrambling up this slag heap without protection.   In these cases, when the whole slope is sliding, you have to stay atop it and scuttle rapidly up the slide while its going the other way.  It’s critical that you stay on top and move fast as hell.  If you slow for one instant, the rockslide will catch you and suck you down to the bottom with it.  And from this point to that, you would die.


But what about TJ and Tom?  What were their chances?  Neither of them were serious climbers and I was quite sure they would have problems without a rope.  What if one or both took a fall?  They’d end up dead.  Hell, I could end up dead too if I miscalculated.  The odds were stacking up against us.


As a climber, I accept risk as part of the game.  Sometimes it’s a lot of the game.  Yes, I take risks – I even relish the chance at times.  But my personal risks are calculated, dissected, thoroughly examined, and deeply evaluated.  I never take it lightly.   Risking my own life is one thing.  I would prefer, in fact, that it be the ONLY thing, and most of the time it is.  That’s when I love adventure the most.  But risking the lives of others is something I cannot abide if there is any earthly way to avoid it.  No matter how you try, one cannot sufficiently evaluate the risk you place on someone else, simply because you are not them, nor they you.  You cannot know them like you do yourself.  So trying to judge the acceptability of risk for another person is uncharted territory best left alone.  In this case there was a safer way out, although it meant turning around.


TJ and Tom were on the slope below when I stopped my advance.  The angle was close to vertical now.  I decided not to chance it.  Safer to go down.  I was just about to abort the attempt when my eye caught sight of something unnatural buried in the scree.  I was curious – what was that?  I leaned over toward it and found it was the end of a wire – a big, thick wire like the kind you see connecting houses to the grid. But what the hell was a wire doing here? Was it trash thrown over from above?  I reached out and grabbed it.  It was buried in the slag and would not easily yield.  Yet, as I tugged, more and more of it came out of the crumbled rock.  I then noticed that about every four feet the wire had a knot in it. I kept yanking on it until the whole course of the wire was pulled out from the face and exposed.  As far as I could see it went all the way up to the top!


Hallelujah!  But what the hell?….


I could only guess the reason for the wire.  From this spot, one would have an incredible view of Nightfall on the opposite wall.  It seemed the wire was installed so someone could descend from the trail above to gain a spot from which to shoot a photo of the climb.  Obviously, whoever had strung this wire was not a climber.  But at that point I didn’t care how it got there, it was our stairway to heaven.  That wire saved us from having to go back down the cliff and down the river!  We followed that lifeline all the way up and out of the canyon.


The Hallelujah Wire turned our luck around.  The rest of the day was without incident and ended on a high note with the discovery of some nice hidden falls on an unnamed tributary of Devils Track.  Ironically, the hidden falls were found on the way back out to the car, near the point we had first started up the river!


Sometimes you have to go through hell, and heaven, to get back to the trail.