Tag Archives: South Dakota Needles

Goodbye Needles

As I prepare to move to the desert, I’m going back to do the climbs that have shaped me.
I am climbing them with my sons. I will not imply a goodbye to my friends and partners over the years by involving them in the project. There is no goodbye for them.
As I return to the old routes, I am finding them suddenly easier. I think it is because I am finally climbing them without any surpassing ambition.
I am not climbing them to become a better climber or to get to the next, harder route. Instead, I’m starting where one always ends: climbing to make the next move.
And as I do so, I’m finding just how deeply those routes have etched my nerves, my bones, my ambitions, and my morality.
They’ve given me technique, tough fingers, persistence, acceptance, joy in small victories and peace in grander desires.
Actually, I’m finding that I can’t say goodbye. I can’t surpass those routes, anymore than I can ever really untie from a partner. They’ve made me, and I will take them along to the desert.

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That’s a Thing? I Thought People Just Did That ‘Cause They’re Nasty.

Like so many other aged and out-of-touch Americans, I learned a new word this Summer. No, I’m not talking about “sequestration”; I’m talking about “twerking”. Thanks Miley.

Chris wishing he was off-width climbing - or maybe twerking - instead of guiding,

Chris wishing he was off-width climbing – or maybe twerking – instead of guiding,

My first take on twerking was the standard one for the aged and out-of-touch regarding any cultural innovation – “That’s ridiculous!”. I’ve no right to heap scorn on the twerkers though, because sometimes, I climb off-widths.
Trying to stay out of the foot-wide crack.

Trying to stay out of the foot-wide crack.

Actually, these are the times that I climb off-widths – when the weather is cool enough to wear clothes with full coverage, but not cool enough to justify breaking out the ice tools. Coverage is a big deal because an off-width is any crack wider than a climber’s clenched fist. In other words, to climb an off-width, the more pampered body parts must get involved.
Now, I am the Miley Cyrus of off-width climbing. A brief foray onto YouTube will reveal, by comparison, Miley’s incomplete mastery of the technique which takes the squatting butt-pump beyond its overt nastiness, transforming it to an artistic representation of nastiness. Like Miley, I’m still at the stage where I’m constantly challenged to recall that I just need to relax, that body position is critical, and that proper technique consists of mostly small movements. But at least me and Miley have passed the first barrier. We’ve gotten past the mortification, and whether or not we’re good at it, realized that nastiness can be kind of fun (if you’re doing it on purpose).
Finally, it becomes a chimney.

Finally, it becomes a chimney.

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Functional Geology


The Hills have been rainy. In a place where it is difficult to climb well, we can usually count on the weather to help us. We are displeased. The bad weather has me thinking about the other impediments to climbing hard in the Hills. The weather really is the only one of those factors which is just a spoiler. The rest are…well, difficulties. Take the rock; our problem there is an embarrassment of riches.
We have so many different types of rock that it is hard to stay focused.
In the Needles, there is a coarse-grained variety of pegmatite. Pegmatite is a kind of granite with giant crystals mixed in. The crystals are quartz, feldspar, and other, exotic minerals some of which, I am told, are quite valuable. I don’t care; to me, they’re all holds – sharp, glassy, oddly-sloped holds. You can’t lever or pull out on the crystals too much, so the program is “feet low and move slow”. Stepping up on faith alone is a bad idea.
Mt. Rushmore is a pegmatite area too, but the rock is finer-grained with bands of crystals like wrinkles in the surface of the granite domes. Plus it has schist. There isn’t a lot of the metamorphic mineral around, but it makes up the steep portion of some of the steeper climbs. The inclusion dikes along with the schist favor a technique emphasizing balance, counter-tension and spurts of faith-based movement.
The Tower is phonolite porphyry. It is not basalt. One more time: The Tower is not basalt. Basalt is much smoother, with sharper edges where it is fractured. Much of the climbing at the Tower is friction/crack climbing in the classic sense – jams, not locks, with feet smeared on divots and small rugosities.
And there is more, so much more. I haven’t even got to the sedimentary rocks yet.

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Late Starts

There are morning people, and then there's this...

There are morning people, and then there’s this…

For various reasons, the rock season has started late this year. I wasn’t far ahead of the kids on our annual June trip to Vedauwoo. Despite its reputation for heinous off-widths, Vedauwoo is not a bad place to start.
Can't beat the view from the campground.

Can’t beat the view from the campground.

It has plenty of moderates, especially now that the kids’ idea of “moderate” is evolving. They are at the magic point in their climbing careers where they’ve begun to trust the rope and their knots and where they are habituated to exposure. They can focus on the movement alone, and a whole new aspect of the sport is opening up for them.

Spire Two.

Spire Two.

I’m not the only one starting slow this year. Back in the Needles, the gumby routes are swarming. But that is always the case, as one man’s hero is another man’s gumby right down the line – another beauty of the sport.

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Dr. Blue Thumb (with apologies to Cypress Hill)

Right Pillars

Right Pillars

The crop has come in. It may be no taller than G1 in Hyalite, but it is more potent, and much closer to home.

Central pillar

Central pillar

Overhangs, chandelier, steps – it’s all there for the pleasant terror of the community.

All ninja missions require video documentation for payment. Left pillars.

All ninja missions require video documentation for payment. Left pillars.

Maybe the Black Hills will sprout some more ice climbers after all.

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East Gruesome

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.

Don’t leave home without them. Tricams in a pegmatite crack

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.

Base of East Gruesome rappel

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!”

Energy Crisis

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.

Rich on Energy Crisis

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!”

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The mighty Bartizan, from the Spires

The Bartizan is an oft overlooked gem. It flanks the Cathedral Spires on the West, and because it sits slightly lower and isn’t pointy, people walk on by it without a second glance. It does, however, sport several features of interest to climbers. I could tell you about a quaint little 5.7 on the North end, or the truly horrible chimney and off-width right next to it. However, I am a snob trained by snobs, so I will only talk about the two best routes on the rock.

After the 5.0 approach up the gully, The Crack…

The Crack of Earthly Delights is a crack, but it is so much more. It is a lie-back, a face climb, an alpine rock climb and a stemming problem. It is also potentially dangerous. The crux comes low on the route, just after stepping off a little pedestal. If you piece it together properly, after the fact you’ll be able to say, “I can see how you could call that 5.9.” But if you put the right hand where the left should be or disregard the improbable-looking holds out to the left, you’ll be faced with a frightening lie-back which takes you far enough above your last gear to risk dynamic re-acquaintance with the top of the little pedestal should you fall.

So this is how steep the crux really is.

The remainder of the climbing in the corner is safe and fun. A hard left turn before the crack ends takes you to an exciting run -out to the anchors on a pinnacle to the left of a small gully.

Looking up toward the roof

Kevizan goes from the base right up the middle of the formation. The first pitch is an off-width with an overhanging section.

Looking SE from the belay ledge

The second pitch continues the off-width for a few, desperate feet, then eases up before turning a roof.

From the top

A key, hidden flake on the right takes you past the overhang to some of the best finger locks and hand jams in the Needles – if you have the sauce left to stick to them.


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Beetle Battle

The Cathedral Spires after the beetles

The mountain pine beetle is a native son of the Black Hills, but nobody around here is very proud of the little guy. I like him. He’s tiny and a weak flyer. A victim of his own reproductive tactics, he’s a bit like the Lemming – doomed to population booms and busts that make him look stupid. Nevertheless, this little insect has thwarted the will of the baddest mammal on the planet.

For the most part, the life cycle of the pine beetle is typical, boring high school biology. It’s one of those egg-larvae-adult-egg affairs that fits well in a circle of arrows on the textbook’s margin. In late summer, adult beetles emerge from trees infested the year before and fly to new trees, where they burrow into the bark and lay eggs. The eggs hatch quickly into grub-like larvae which begin to eat the tender, inner layers of the bark. After a Winter’s break, the larvae finish their meal, metamorphose into adults and the cycle begins again.Within this staid tale, there are a few interesting details that, under the right conditions, conspire to make the smoldering, little endemic population of beetles into a conflagration.

First, there’s that Winter dormancy. To prepare for the cold, the larvae produce antifreeze. If cold weather strikes before they are ready, many will die. If they are ready, though, they can survive temperatures down to thirty below zero, Fahrenheit. Besides allowing more larvae to survive, adequate preparation means the larvae are further along in their development when they wake up in the Spring. Sometimes, they are far enough along to complete two generations in one year.

Second, the trees don’t just stand there and take it. They have an immune response to the beetles. As the insects dig into the inner bark, the injury prompts the tree to force resin upwards.  Sap spills out of the defect in the bark, smothering the beetles. If the beetles are few enough, and the tree is strong enough, the immune system can prevail. In turn, the beetles have adapted to overcome the trees’ defenses. They produce a pheromone which calls other beetles to a tree under attack, giving them the opportunity to exhaust the tree’s immunity with sheer numbers.

Blue stain fungus

The beetles have also developed a symbiotic relationship with a fungus that weakens the trees. The ‘blue stain’ fungus thrives in the core wood of pine trees, where it interferes with water transport to the crown. Beetles carry fungal spores on their bodies as they breach the outer layers of bark which normally bar the fungus entry.

Under usual conditions, things work out so a few trees die and a few beetles survive. However, if the weather is right and the trees are already weak, a positive feedback loop ensues and the beetle population explodes. Usually these excursions amount to little bursts, limited by the availability of suitable trees.  But presently, due to a lucky convergence of human and beetle preferences, there is no limit to the availability of suitable trees.

The forest that we have cultivated is made of trees which are just the species and size that the beetles prefer. Plus, we’ve made a dense forest, so even the mountain pine beetles’ weak flying skills carry them easily from trunk to trunk. Our relationship with the pine forest has unwittingly, coincidentally helped turn the little pops in beetle numbers into a boom. Modern human activity on the land, from fire suppression to agriculture to habitation, has attenuated a kind of herd immunity inherent in the age, size and density of the trees.

Cuttin’ & Chunkin’

Now, we are trying to stand in for that herd immunity. We want our forest back the way it was. It gave us logs, shelter and aesthetic satisfaction. So, we try to cut infected trees before the beetles can emerge. We try to trick the beetles with pheromones (the insects actually release a repellant pheromone when their host tree harbors too many beetles). We even spray neurotoxins on the trees in ‘high value’ areas, like Mt. Rushmore.

Beetle-thinned forest

Close up, our efforts look pretty smart, like a beetle attack on an individual tree looks smart, with its chemical communications, antifreeze equipped larvae, and fungal force multiplier. But just as the beetles are already doomed to population collapse by the time they start to thrive, we have already ensured that we won’t have the forest back the way we like it, simply because we liked it that way so much in the first place.

It will work out in the end. Preservation is a fool’s errand anyway. We pursue it for sentimentality’s sake, and because it makes us feel like we may be able to avoid our own eventual extinction. When the beetle epidemic is over, we will learn to like the new forest and maybe we will recognize the beetle battle as a farce. For at a proper distance, our interaction with the habitat is indistinguishable from that of the beetles. Like them, and the Lemmings, we’re condemned to a lifestyle that allows us to survive in spite of a built-in vulnerability to chaos.

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Oxidative Stress

Weston County caught fire Sunday. On the way to the Needles, the air was clear and the land, peaceful. On the drive back, the trees were exploding and the sky was filled with buzzing aircraft and stinging smoke.

As I waited with the other cars for a grader to pass, I got to watch fire-fighters scramble for their trucks as flames popped out of a 40 foot pine less than 10 meters from them. They were experiencing severe oxidative stress. Scaled back and slowed down, that moment captured my whole day.

With temps in the upper nineties, our climbing choices were limited to the Cathedral Spires or Sylvan Lake, the best places to chase the shade. There’s an off-width with my name on it in the Spires, so I begged off that option – too hot, I insisted.

I wanted to climb Shelob before the day was over. This route is a Bob Kamps classic, a steep series of cruxes protected by just enough bolts and gear to make it reasonable. If I’d had my way, we would have gone right over to it. Instead, we warmed up.

The actual warm-up, the first route, made sense. It was a 5.7 crack named what every good 5.7 crack in every climbing area in every part of the world is named: Classic Crack. The second route, ostensibly part of the warm-up, was, in retrospect, what sealed my fate.

I believe the route is called Four Play (apparently lots of lonely climbers roaming the Hills back in the day – watch for a pattern in the route names). Though it is a slab and gets a low difficulty rating, it is a route made to make anybody look bad. It follows a line of greasy feldspar crystals up a nascent groove in the rock. Most people step back and forth several times trying to find the best way through the lower section. The generous gaps between the bolts add to the sense of insecurity and the angle permits indecisiveness.

With fingertips and toes feeling a little tired, we slogged up the other side of the little valley to Shelob. This is one of my favorite routes at the Lake because I can cheat my way through the crux. An alpine climber at heart, cheating makes me feel clever and I am proud of it whenever I manage to weasel my way through a challenging bit of climbing that would otherwise demand skill, strength or boldness.

The first moves are steep, but straightforward up to a couple of bolts. Then a pair of cams in a horizontal crack protect a few moves through a bulge. A fall on those moves would be bad. The cams would hold, but you would brush the ground, at best. Three boulder problems, protected by bolts, follow, then a step up and right to the little roof and corner which constitute the crux. Once I peek over the lip of the roof, I can set my feet on some good holds below the roof, lay my left side and shoulder against one side of the corner and apply counter-pressure. This allows me to rest while I place a pair of micro-stoppers to protect the move over the roof. I can then step high with my right foot to maintain the pressure and just wriggle my way up the wall until I get to the next good hold. It was just as beautifully uncouth this time as the first time I ever did it.

The diagonal crack, Sex Never Did This to My Hands

Perhaps I was feeling too smug coming off that success. I felt like finishing the rotation with a route on Vertigo View called Sex Never Did This to My Hands. It’s only 5.8. Plus, it’s a crack. It’s a diagonal crack though, steep, crusty and irregular. Much of it is just wider or just narrower than a clenched fist.

I felt a peculiar sense of fatigue as I skirted the small roof at the bottom, but I wasn’t worried; I had climbed this route many times before, and I had just waltzed up Shelob after all. About midway, the tape sweated off my right hand, and when I got to the hard part the back of my fist was slick with more sweat and a light sheen of blood. By then, I was cooked.

Tape vs. No Tape and why the route is named as it is

Fermenting like mad, I tried to pull through, but realized I couldn’t get to the next stance with enough left to place gear. I managed one and a half moves back down before I had to disengage. Eighteen feet later, it felt like my cheap rope delivered every bit of the 8.5 KN of impact force it allows right to the leg loops of my harness.

Deflated and burdened with what I am convinced were actual crystals of lactic acid in my blood vessels, I climbed back up to check the tricam that saved me, then staggered on through to the anchors. From the top, I could see smoke in the distance.

As the line of motorists watched those poor bastards scrambling to save their fire truck, I’m sure some of the observers questioned the fire fighters’ decision to park where they did. I wasn’t among the critics. I was thinking that the firemen probably thought the situation was more manageable than it turned out to be, and I was reluctant to blame them for that. Hell, I know that’s the reason most of them were out there in the first place. Civic duty be damned, some folks just need the oxidative stress. It’s the kind of love-hate relationship that keeps you going.

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Critical Thinking

 Climbs with a hard start are the best. Any commitment issues get resolved right away. Nantucket Sleighride is like that. Once you make those first few moves, your teeth are locked and the rest be damned. Fortunately, the fall protection is good in the first half of the route, where you face difficult climbing. That’s because you rely on a crack to place the protection yourself, so all the decisions are yours and you can let them evolve. After you leave the crack at the mid-point, you rely on bolts. Then you have to guess about the climbing between the bolts. Is it within your capabilities, and if so, how far within? You have to guess at the consequences of a fall. How far would it be? Might you bounce on the way down? You have to guess about the bolts. Do they look like they were placed by a Prussian officer or the guy down the road with the junked cars in his yard? Most of all, are you running on fear, ambition or reason? On Nantucket Sleighride, it all comes to a head at the last bolt. From there, you have 30 feet of climbing to finish, so a 60 foot fall if you blow it right at the end. The fall would be ugly, too. Twelve feet above the bolt, two harder moves guard the way, then the climbing eases. A right hand where the left hand should be could end badly right there. But the fall would be unpleasant rather than a catastrophe. After those two moves you get no reprieve psychologically, it is all physical, technical relief. The trick is to see the truth: the first twelve feet and the remaining eighteen feet are two separate things rather than one, as your inner child insists. Launching from that bolt is a real exercise in critical thinking.

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