Tag Archives: Spearfish Canyon

New Moon

“Do you want to do the top half?”, I asked.
“Yes!”, he insisted.
He was offended that I’d doubted his motivation. For him, this was the advantage of climbing with his dad: he needn’t feign disaffection.
“OK,” I replied.

I kept my tone as flat as possible, but I had my doubts. I could dumb down the next 30 meters, but only to a point. The easiest line was still grade 4+ – vertical, more or less. He wasn’t too worried about whether or not he could get up it. He was not a child anymore, but he was not an adult yet, either. He still subscribed to the quaint notion that, whatever happened, dad would sort it out. Actually, he was right in the case at hand. I wouldn’t have suggested that he continue without a back-up plan in mind. I could manage things if he quit in the middle, but it would be a real pain in the ass.

I placed quite a few screws on the way up, in part to keep him on the easiest line, in part to keep him out of the way if I had to come back down and sort it out should he fail. But he didn’t fail. He didn’t even make any whiney noises, only one curse at a slight slip. Besides that curse, the only sound from him was the measured, heavy breathing of the highly determined.
“Kind of overkill on the ice screws, dad,” he remarked at the top, “What is this climb called?”
“Leigh Creek,” I answered.

He never asked about names or ratings last year. He’d exhibited some ambition. It was a sure sign of lycanthropy. I envied him in a way. I remembered the transformation well – the ravenous fixation on routes, the immunity to adversity, the anticipation of new phases building to the next big climb and its fearful, all-consuming fury.
I also remembered the frustrations of hiding an identity which others found strange, frightening and repulsive.
“What,” I asked family and friends, “you want to go to the beach in February? Well, that’s a very bad time for me. It’s the busy season at work and I’m likely to be so irritable as to be indisposed.”
“May? I’m scheduled to be in Canada in May,” I’d object, “and you’d hate to see what happens if I don’t make that appointment.”
“The city in August? With all those people?” I’d demur, “Could be a little, ah, dangerous at that time, I think. I tend to be in a bit of a ‘mood’ then. Best not.”
There was a downside, but for the afflicted there was no cure. I set up the ropes to descend. He stood by with a hint of a smile on his face and a hungry look in his eyes.
“Can we go to Cody next year?” he asked.
I looked him up and down. He was getting meaty. Soon he’d be heavy enough to belay me without a bottom anchor. I felt my lips creep back over my teeth.

“Sure,” I said, “We’ve got this Summer to get through, but yeah, we’ll go to Cody next season, if you’re still up for it.”

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Setting up for the finger lock.

Setting up for the finger lock.

The endless cycle of suffering which is death and rebirth. This has been the Samsara Summer. It is a story familiar to every climber. Just as the season gets rolling, the rain starts, a partner gets hurt, work asserts itself and the momentum dies. You’re left training, but it isn’t really training. Training implies a purpose, and soloing on a top rope and doing pull-ups has no end-point.
For me, what is left when the cycle turns is Tongueless Wonder.
The route is a Pete deLannoy creation at the most unfashionable crag in Spearfish canyon. I don’t know if Pete put this thing up in the absurd, power-drill-on-lead style for which he was famous. I kind of doubt it, though it would be fitting. The whole thing is ridiculous. It is a horrible crack-climb, with as many pockets and pinches as it has hand-jams and finger-locks. It is a horrible sport climb for the same reason. Furthermore, it is an ethical disaster. The bolted crack could be protected with clean gear, but only as a nightmare. The route is only twenty meters; most of the time on route would be spent with only one piece of gear between yourself and the ground. Much of that gear would be placed blindly due to the serpentine nature of limestone cracks.
I’ve lead it on the bolts, so I’ll never have the clean, first lead on gear. What I’ve got left to me is that most absurd of all climbing achievements: the headpoint. Headpointing is the thoroughly rehearsed lead, with the moves and gear placements worked out and practiced in advance on top-rope. In its own peculiar way, a headpoint is quite alarming. During the rehearsal, you fall off. Denial, the onsight climber’s friend, becomes unavailable. One is motivated to get the route wired.
I’ve been working on this one for, four years, five maybe? I’ve been almost ready several times, but Fall caught me and I had to start over the following year. Perhaps the situation is closer to the Greek version of an endless cycle of suffering – Sisyphus in the underworld. Except, I don’t have Zeus to blame. I’ve chosen to push this, but it is finally an excuse. I like the climb, and that’s the only truth. Climbing it on gear is an arbitrary purpose which keeps me coming back to the route with renewed motivation.
Next lap coming up.

Next lap coming up.

It’s pointless, but so is climbing in all its forms, and work, and every one of our silly struggles – Samsara. We still do it, though. We’re groomed for this game by our heritage. We can’t lose, because points and pointlessness don’t stick to us; the truth is we like the doing and that’s all. Just like Sisyphus, who I believe out-foxed Zeus in the end. Maybe not on the tenth lap, or the fiftieth, but maybe by the thousandth or ten thousandth, old Sisyphus was into it, I’m sure. Then it didn’t matter whether he ever got to the top; he’d beaten Zeus and escaped the cycle of suffering.

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Like it was made to be climbed...

Like it was made to be climbed…

The Hills have lots. Limestone is one of our most abundant resources. Most of it is the typical yellow stuff, with many small pockets, butter-dish edges and thin cracks.
There is some black rock mixed in. Much of it is moderately overhanging, with a few roofs, often close to the ground.
There is also a bit of sandstone. Nothing like the acres of patina found in the South, but of good quality.
Looking up at the roofs on Dedicated to the Game on the SW shoulder of Devils Tower

Looking up at the roofs on Dedicated to the Game on the SW shoulder of Devils Tower

For sport climbers and boulderers, there are worse places to be. Still, the magma-forged stone is the main attraction.

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Ice Climbing is Dangerous


So we place tubular screws in the ice to secure the rope in case of a fall. But even placing the  protection is difficult enough to be controversial. You find them less and less, but there are some experienced climbers who feel it is safer to go without protection against all but a catastrophic fall. Their rationale is that the screws are too tiring to place and the placements are not predictably reliable.

As if it isn't hard enough - penalty slack

As if it isn’t hard enough – penalty slack

I disagree, of course, but I’m an optimist. I figure, if the screw hit an air pocket,  it may fail if I take a big fall on it, but that means it may not too, and I know that the ground will be even less forgiving. I have some data to back up my optimism. There are the drop tests done by Craig Leubben and Chris Harmston. Then there’s my anecdotal evidence. I know several people who have fallen on ice screws. The majority came away with fractures, true, but the screws held and all the climbers lived to climb again. In addition, I have personally witnessed two falls on ice screws.


The first was several years ago. A friend and I were watching a couple of guys climb Jaws a waterfall in Rocky Mountain National park. The sun was baking the upper third of the climb and the leader wisely placed a screw just before he climbed out of the shade. About fifteen feet into the tropics, he started having trouble getting his tools to stick. He placed another screw and continued. After ten more feet, it was clear he could not go up any farther; the ice was just too thin and rotten. Things looked better off to his right though, so he struck out in that direction. It proved a false hope. Two moves into the traverse, he slid down several feet. He recovered, made two more tool placements, then popped off. The upper screw blew out of the ice without even stretching the rope. The shadow piece caught him after about fifty feet, just five feet from the ground.


I witnessed the second fall just five days ago. A younger gentleman was climbing at our training area. I had led a solid line just to his right a few minutes before. He wanted to go a bit steeper. The line he chose had a little overhanging icicle about fifteen feet up and he launched for it. Rich had tapped on that feature on his way past it, and neither of us liked the sound it made. I almost said something, but I didn’t want to intrude. Tony’s a good climber; he would be careful. He drove an ice screw in the pillar below the icicle, hooked a tool on a feature in the middle of the hanging dagger, and took a tentative swing for the top of the icicle. As soon as the pick of the tool made contact, the whole thing cut loose. Fortunately, he had his legs out from under the falling chunk, so he missed having his bottom half skewered. The screw caught him just before his crampon points scraped the ground. The screw did not bend and the ice around the hanger hadn’t a chip in it. The fall factor had to be close to 1.5. I shall persist in my optimism.


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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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Weird Seasonal Activities

It’s time to be mixed up. A little good-humored anarchy prepares us for the fearful chaos of winter climbing.

This isn’t mixed climbing, where one foot is on rock and the other is on ice. This is climbing rock with ice tools.

Without crags developed for climbing with tools and crampons, it would be nearly impossible to be an ice climber living in the Black Hills. Being an alpine climber would  be entirely impossible. But with our specialized crags, when the waterfalls finally freeze in Cody and the faces and gullies ice up in the Big Horns, Tetons and Canadian Rockies, our strength and balance are tuned up and with a few swings of the ice tools to knock the rust off, we are back in the game.

Now,we just wait for the cold.


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Just a Taste

A few days of cold make a big difference.

The cave is finally formed up.

Either side is going at ~4+ right now, with indifferent protection.

Maybe it is going to be winter after all. On the other hand, it is 45 degrees and raining right now in Northern Wyoming. Hope this isn’t global warming – my boot is awful heavy, and the crampons are really sharp.

Leo demo's that essential piece of ice gear, the down vest.

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Not lookin’ good

Not much ice in Spearfish canyon. 11th Hour is about the only thing climbable.

The cave was trying earlier last week, but there’s not much left now.

If you’ve got the secret weapons.


You can still make the best of it.

Those global warming skeptics best hope they’re right, though. Because if these temp.s are the new normal, they’re gonna find out what it’s like to get cramponned boot up the ass.

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