As I mentioned in the previous post, we left Rushmore with the intent to go straight to the town of Custer, set up camp there, and save the climbing for the following day. We had to head through Custer State Park to get from point A to point B anyway so I twisted Stefs arm to get her to let me check out a few routes that we might want to come back to on subsequent outings.
As we made our way up through the granite spires known as “The Needles” I pulled the car to the side of the road into a small pullout. The Needles Highway is quite narrow and as crooked as a Chicago politician. I extricated myself from the cramped vehicle and dodged a minivan full of gawking tourons and made my way down towards the spires. The charm of the Needles lies not only in the barely protectable nature of the climbs but also in its elusive layout which, taken with the shortage of quality guidebooks can leave a visiting climber completely lost only a few hundred feet from the road.
I was looking at a spire called “The Tent Peg” which is a moderate route which has the classic runout at the top where no protection is available. This, I thought might be a good place to start since not having the protection would not matter on easier terrain. As I weighed the options between the safety of a nice protectable lead and the fact that nothing of that nature exists in the Needles, I heard someone calling to me from a nearby route.
“Hey what are you scoping, man?”
I turned to see a couple of climbers, one clad in fluorescent lycra, smoking American Spirits at the base of a neighboring formation. I assumed (rightly) that the guy in lycra must have some pretty serious skills to be able to compensate for such an outfit, worn in plain sight of passersby. His name was Josh, and his friend, also named Steve were concluding a long day of working a new route and were taking a break. I took them into the confidence of the struggle I was having over not wanting to get in over my head climbing something that offered little decent protection. They assured me that my concern was largely overreaction to hype from outsiders and that most Needles routes are in fact safe. Provided you don’t fall.
[Myself, Steve and Josh, racking up for his ascent of Superpin]
You need to understand a little about the history of this area to be able to appreciate the “Devil-may-care” attitude of its local climbers. This area was developed originally in the 1950s and 60s by visiting climbers who had much less available gear wise to increase their margin of error. They climbed knowing the consequences and measured themselves carefully against the possible outcomes, sacrificing the sheer difficulty for more heady and psychologically demanding climbs which had little protection and topped out on the tiny summits of the spires, barely able to accommodate the leader and the follower. As time went on, this area preserved the tradition of bold climbing and the ethic of preserving the rock- not drilling bolts indiscriminately but rather making due with what the incipient fissures in the rock provide naturally.
This is not characteristic of all climbing areas; many climbing areas boast much wider margins of error, where climbers may fall repeatedly without much consequence while working out the moves of a given route. It is that very fact that leaves many spectacular routes open as the crowds eschew the risk in favor of convenience and safety.
I am glad that the Needles is what it is. Managing fear and learning to control ones mental state are things that make you a safer climber and a wiser one. One should realistically measure themselves every time they attempt any route, regardless of the perceived risk. Learning to do this makes all the other “safer” climbing locales that much more enjoyable.
Anyhow…Josh and Steve insisted on taking me on a personal tour, and I had no option but to come and see, hoping that Stef would figure out that I didnt fall off of something but rather had made some new friends. They led me past another climb that I had thought about, called the “Tricouni Nail” which was similar to the “Tent Peg” in nature but a grade harder and reputedly scary. Not a death route by any means, but one that you wouldn’t fall on without leaving a good bit of skin behind. They were certain I could do it. I was certain they were still high.
We probably were both right, but they offered to lead it so that Stef and I could follow it, thereby eliminating the risk involved. I felt somewhat ashamed to let them do this since there was a part of me deep down that agreed with their Spicoliesque assertions of my ability to lead it myself. I decided that prudence was the better part of valor, and left my guides to go find my wife, who I was hoping had not driven off and left me in the half hour that had elapsed since I last saw her. As I approached Stef, I brought her up to date and dragged her along with the requisite gear up to the spire we were going to climb.
As we talked amongst ourselves about the risks and gains involved and whether or not I was justified in being scared or simply had a bad case of the vaginitis, Josh called over to us that he had a “much better idea, something much more classic.”
We scrambled over to him and Steve and they disclosed their plan: to lead Superpin for us. Superpin is the quintessential hard and scary climb of the Needles, replete with a storied past. It weighs in at 5.10, 3 grades harder than what I would willing lead myself, but since Josh was feeling gutsy, I would let him and his lycra lead it.
This route is r/x rated meaning that a fall while leading it would result in injury at the least and possibly death. There is little protection close to the ground and then about a thirty foot span until the next. Falling to the left would see the leader decking out on boulders. Falling to the right would result in a 40 to 60 foot fall– if the pin protecting the hardest moves at the start holds…if not, well…
[Josh on lead, almost at the summit]
[This is the second runout, less severe than the first since a fall here would be long but the climber would not hit the ground…Josh’s last piece of pro is barely visible at the bottom of the picture, the red sling]
[Josh claiming the summit]
Josh started up and made it look easy, talking and breathing audibly, giving us a play by play. Josh earned his lycra on this day, climbing past the crux and up the runouts without hesitation. He made an anchor by wrapping slings around the summit and then lowered off so that Steve and myself could follow. Steve graciously allowed me the next turn and I was off.
[the first two pictures are me surmounting the crux bulge, the rest are pretty self explanatory. the last two are Steve following as well]
Gut-wrenching horror gave way to respect and admiration as I climbed through the crux, imagining having to lead this rather than simply follow it, with an anchor now above me. I was surprised how enjoyable this climb turned out to be and as I stood on the tiny summit of Superpin, I was overwhelmed that I had summitted such an auspicious climb. I didn’t think I had it in me. The Jeff Spicoli in my head reintroduced the idea that I really ought to try leading the Tricouni Nail the following time out. Josh and Steve heartily agreed again.
After we were done, we all hung out and Steve told us about his time in Squamish and how he was heading back east and Josh told us about his other job as a magician. They gave us some other route suggestions and after a while we parted ways to go set up camp in Custer.
The next day…Stef and I went out, armed with the memories of Superpin and I led the Tricouni Nail cleanly, with no problem whatsoever. Turns out that others sometimes can see things that you can’t. It was my proudest lead to date because while it was not easy or foolproof, it forced me to channel the fear and climb out of a center of confidence and enjoyment.
We finished that off and headed down to Sylvan Lake, a few miles away in another part of the state park. We were going to check out a route called “Conn’s Diagonal” a moderate (5.7) but long outing. This route is named for Herb and Jan Conn who moved out to the Black Hills shortly after WWII and climbed many classic lines with only a hemp rope and tennis shoes which they “tied extra tight”. This route and many others are testament to the developers who started climbing in this area back in the day.
As we walked back from Sylvan Lake to the beginning of the route (about a mile and change) we passed many tourists who looked at us dispassionately and sometimes curiously. We took a series of trails which led us further from the beaten path and as we got further out an older couple coming toward us greeted us and asked us what we planned on climbing. I explained our objective and they proceeded to tell us about what they had climbed back in the 1950s. It turned out that we had bumped into Ray Harris, a lesser known developer of the Needles climbing from way back when. He had been part of the team that put up the route “Needles Eye”, another sketchfest located just adjacent to a tourist parking lot in the heart of the state park.
We continued on and managed a good ascent of the Conn’s Diagonal but had to rig an unconventional simul rappel at the top of pitch one since there were no rap anchors in place.
[Stef following Conn’s Diagonal]
The Needles and Sylvan Lake will always hold a special place in our hearts. Climbs are always more complicated and involved than they seem and invariably will scare you at some point. Yet, at the end of the day you feel a greater sense of satisfaction and the feeling that you have actually touched history-because in the Black Hills, you have.
Thanks to Stef for the pictures of me Steve and Josh; having a photographer makes for much nicer photos than the inevitable butt-shots that occur when your belayer has to take pictures!