SUNDANCE — What’s the best way to celebrate the landmark of your 91st birthday? For Dr. Bill Weber of Florida, the obvious answer was to break a record and become the oldest known person ever to have climbed to the summit of Devils Tower.
“National Park Magazine had a little squib around February last year that an 87-year-old, the oldest man to climb the Tower, had succeeded,” Weber says.
“An 87-year-old? Damn, that’s something I could do, I thought.”
Actually, he says, his ascent up the Tad 5.7+ route took place the day after his birthday because his guides, Gabe and Rostyn, advised a day of rest after the training session. At 8 a.m. that morning, a climbing party that also included Bill’s two sons, Bill and John, left the Devils Tower Lodge and began a 16-hour journey to the top of America’s first national monument.
For Weber, the most rewarding part of the whole experience was having his sons by his side as he climbed. He’s grateful they were kind enough to come along.
“I said, boys, are you up for one more adventure with the old man? John said, ‘I don’t know, some of your adventures have about killed me,’” he says.
“Anyway, they agreed to come along with me. I said, it’s my party, I’ll pick up the tab, I would just like it for the three of us to have one last adventure.”
It’s not the first time the three have climbed together, though it’s been three decades since their last expedition in the Grand Tetons in 1988.
“The boys were both young men when we went to climbing school. The older son worked out there for three different summers and he climbed all of the Tetons except Moran – I told him he’s got to go back and get Moran,” Weber says.
Weber’s two sons followed in his footsteps, both becoming veterinarians. Weber himself practiced in Leesburg for 30 years, he says, before his hobby of wildlife photography turned into an obsession and a new career that included 100 magazine covers.
It was through this hobby that the family got to know Devils Tower.
“We camped out west every summer when the boys were little and growing up,” he says.
“I liked Devils Tower because I could take pictures of prairie dogs, so we always went by and we always said we ought to climb that one day.”
When it came to it, getting to the top of the Tower was a little tougher than Weber expected.
“When Frank [Sanders] can do it as quickly as he did it and set his record, I thought, well that can’t be too tough if he can do it in 15 minutes. But it was tough and, the day before my birthday when we practiced with the ropes and the climbing technique, I realized crack timing is not my game,” he jokes.
“I doubted whether I was going to make it but I thought, if I croak while I’m doing this at least I’ll die doing something I wanted to do and I’ve had a good and long run.”
Fortunately, he notes, they had excellent help on hand throughout the climb.
“Both Gabe and Rostyn, the two young men that we had as guides, were very, very accommodating and helpful, trying to help me as much as they could. They’re neat guys, very nice boys,” he says.
Even so, two big challenges awaited Weber at the top of the monument.
“When we got to the top and the sun had just gone down, there was enough light that my son, John, got a picture and one of the guides took a picture of the three of us standing by the marker up there and we’re silhouetted against the last of the sun going down. But the wind was really strong up there – it was miserable,” he laughs.
But to get back down meant encountering the second difficult moment: launching backwards off the Tower into the darkness to rappel back down to the ground.
“Stepping back into the dark and going down the ropes was not the nicest part of it,” he frowns.
But those tough moments did little to detract from the exhilaration of Weber’s achievement. “It was a worthwhile experience,” he concludes.