Summer is shrinking away to the equator. The rock doesn’t warm over the day and the Needles’ shadows at noon grow longer and longer. We have a couple of weeks of denial left at best. On the good days we took for granted less than a month ago, we can climb on the faces last season’s heat denied us.
Driving past the entrance to Custer State Park this week, the fee station was closed and its windows boarded up. Soon the custodians will gate the road and abandon the park until Spring. We stopped at Sylvan Lake and wandered around looking for routes in the sun and out of the wind. Only two routes held no shade. The first was an easy face climb. The second was an arching crack protected in the upper half by three pitons, each thinner, more rusty, and more unfavorably oriented than the last. The route proved that the smallest summits can be more daunting than the tallest.
As a climber passes a point of protection, if he falls, he will fall twice the distance he climbs above that point. The closer to the ground, the quicker that distance becomes equal to the distance to the ground and the sooner one is utterly dependent on a single, rusty metal blade in case of a slip. ‘The leader must not fall’ is how a now defunct generation of climbers summed it up. On the arching crack, we backed the pitons up with modern, removable equipment, and nobody fell.
We walked by a further reminder of previous generations on the way out – a memorial plaque for Renn Fenton, one of the Black Hills’ climbing pioneers. Whenever we pass the small memorial, with its birth and death dates, Rich comments on the unlikely gap between the numbers. In those days, climbing was part of a counter-culture more concerned with hard-drinking and pursuing inspiration than building a retirement account. Somehow, the early climbers survived, and with some amazing accomplishments to their names.
Jan and Herb Conn represented that era as well as anyone. The couple, who made so many of the Needles’ first ascents in tight, dime-store tennis shoes, with a braided rope around their waists and a handful of pitons clipped to their belt-loops, may not have drunk as hard as some, but they made up for it with the finest inspirations. A week prior to standing before Renn Fenton’s memorial, we had visited the Conns’ masterpiece, East Gruesome.
Nobody knows for sure where the original route goes. We climbed a somewhat difficult crack on the East side of the formation, which the Conns almost certainly did not follow. Above the crack, though, all paths converge on a thin seam through a steep slab. Driven into the seam are three pitons. The section is awkward. The handholds are tiny crystals and the foot work requires precise balance. We did it with no mishaps, but it did not feel any easier than the first two times I climbed it. Eric Sutton’s comment in the summit register says it all: “Damn, Herb!”
A week later, we left Sylvan Lake after climbing the crack across from the memorial; it was just too cold and windy. We drove over to the Ten Pins and climbed Energy Crisis, another thin, arching crack. I fell at the crux. My foot came off a crystal as I tried to pull up on a triangular hold I had pinched between my thumb, index and middle fingers. A small metal chock caught me after just a couple of feet, and after a rest, I was able to climb it top to bottom with no falls.
Herb Conn died this past year. Jan is still alive, but no longer does her annual singalongs at the Devils Tower picnic shelter. Climbs like Energy Crisis were inconceivable in the Conns’ day. Even if they’d had our stretchy ropes, sticky shoes and sculpted metal gear, they may not have been capable of such routes, as modern equipment allows us to run up against limits of tendon and muscle which the techniques of the Conns era did not test. We will never know how the Conns may have performed in the modern era. However, I don’t think I would have, or even could have tiptoed up the upper portion of East Gruesome with a cord of twisted plant fiber tied around my waist and cheap tennis shoes on my feet. Looking back, I just have to shake my head and agree with Eric, “Damn!”