Labor of Love: Mt. Rushmore’s new guidebook
Jason McNabb on The Profile (5.13)
“Was it worth it?” Like a broken record, the question keeps spinning in my head. On the surrounding spires, steely gray, crystalline granite sparkles in the crisp fall air, but the chunk of rock between my legs doesn’t seem so magical. I’m straddling the tip of an obscure spire called Lost Yeti, with only a rusty relic of protection far below, and there’s no anchor. I have no choice but to mumble “I’m off,” put the second on belay—luckily the terrain is only 5.7—and then start figuring out how to get off this thing.
Guidebooks are often called “labors of love,” a term I’d understood but never fully grasped until I committed to writing one. Now, on Lost Yeti, I’m meticulously gathering information for a no-star route that should never be climbed. Why bother? That seems like a simple enough question, but it’s not easily answered. My coauthor, Andrew Busse, and I have been working on the new guidebook to Rushmore-area climbs for more than three years, and we still struggle to cite convincing justifications for this effort. At times, it feels like we’re wasting our days and energy. But information on the area is badly lacking, and we’re trying to fix that.
Back in town after escaping the Lost Yeti, we toast to another day of successful research—and another day without a broken leg.
Rewind 15 years. My heart was captivated by the Black Hills of South Dakota at an early stage of my climbing career, and sketching up spicy spires has been an addiction ever since. Most Black Hills climbers gravitate to the area around Sylvan Lake, with its famous spires and long runouts. But 20 minutes away, on the east side of the range, the forest in and around Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, home of the famous presidential monument, has just as many needles and a long climbing history of its own. And, unlike the heady testpieces of the traditional “Needles,” Rushmore’s spires typically are better protected, thanks to a laissez-faire style of route development in which all styles are accepted by local climbers.
Rushmore’s maze of rock fins and corridors is so complex that it could be taken straight from an Escher drawing or Zelda’s Castle. It’s all too easy to get lost, and claustrophobia may take hold as you stumble about in search of a particular spire or climb. Busse and I had set out to systematically solve the mysteries of Rushmore climbing: placing cams, taking notes, snapping pictures, and drawing maps. There are more than 800 routes in the Rushmore National Memorial and surrounding national forest and wilderness areas, and we wanted to document them all.
Like many quests, this one started at a bar, some 10 years ago, when I sat down with local climbing legend Ron Yahne. The old Rushmore Bar was a greasy biker joint, and climbers were generally welcomed except for early August, rally time, when the hills come alive with herds of deafening Harleys. Yahne and I swilled some swill, and as the evening wore on, I found an appropriate time to ask my burning question: “What are your three best first ascents?” He spouted off names, and I scribbled them down, intending to photograph each climb. Later that night, though, thumbing through the four existing guidebooks, I couldn’t find a single route Yahne had described. A seed was planted: A new, comprehensive guidebook was needed.
Andrew Busse on the second ascent of Green Back (5.4) near Pack Rat Peak.
In the beginning it was easy: Busse and I were filled with energy and desire—on some days we did 20 routes. Climbing, rappelling, measuring, photographing, documenting each route every way thinkable.
As time churned on, though, it started to feel more like a job, and although Busse lived nearby in Rapid City, I was commuting 10 hours from my home in Salt Lake. Even when the old guidebooks covered a climb, a key piece of information usually was missing, forcing us to climb the route ourselves, if only to verify what was already described. Single-digit route days became common. At times, frustration grew as Busse burned valuable time putting up new routes. (Deep down, I couldn’t let it bother me too much, as a quality unclimbed line will eventually capture even the strongest-willed person.) Meanwhile, much to Busse’s ire, I spent too much time shooting action photos of non-classic routes. We were fighting the same battle, but occasionally charging in different directions.
Refreshingly, there were days when we could drag out other local climbers to help explore, climb, and make sense of the area’s complex layout. Chris Hirsch, with his fingers of steel, showed us his latest testpieces. Chris Pelczarski would glow with satisfaction while walking below one of his ground-up creations. And Eric Hansen was quickly dubbed “Epic” Eric as he consistently cruised the hard, bold climbs that I was too chicken to lead.
Jason McNabb on Cheap Seeking Missile (5.12-).
Jason McNabb on Cheap Seeking Missile (5.12-).
By far the most memorable experience was spending an afternoon with Herb and Jan Conn. In their 90s and still living off the grid outside the small town of Custer, they welcomed us into the Knot Hole, a room they reserved for hosting guests. Stories were told around an old wooden stove; Jan sang and played a few songs on her guitar, while Herbie bobbed his head back and forth with an endless ear-to-ear grin.
The Conns are responsible for many of the earliest summit ascents in the Black Hills, starting way back in the 1940s, and over the years they discovered, climbed, and named some 200-odd pinnacles. They left beautiful summit registers in small paint cans on many of the spires. They were also rumored to have left a penny on every summit. During our research, we found a few of the paint cans, still unopened, hidden underneath summit cairns, but even though we nabbed a few second ascents, we never found any pennies. To this day, I’m not sure if it’s true or campfire legend. Sadly, in February 2012, Herb Conn died peacefully at home in Custer at the age of 91.
We also got some unforeseen help from the North American pine beetle, as it continued its devastating march along the eastern slope of the Rockies. The beetlekilled trees are slowly turning the black of these hills brown, and as the pine needles drop, hidden spires are revealed. Sometimes it felt as if more rock was appearing every week.
Still, we’d occasionally wander about for an entire day, pushing through deadfall and dodging poison ivy, only to never find our intended spire. Colorful, descriptive names like the Candlestick, Crocodile Head, Big Baboon, or Dorsal Fin would help unlock some mysteries, but names like It’s A Rock and Deception provided no help at all.
Occasionally, we shelled out gas money to bring a first ascensionist back to the area and help locate decade-old climbs in the backcountry. It worked about half the time. But many of the remote old spire climbs are in jeopardy of being lost to history. In the end, we had to weigh a route’s value, and, unfortunately, sometimes it just wasn’t worth the time or energy to locate a no-star route up a minuscule formation. In those cases, we transcribed what information we had, denoted it with a fancy symbol in the book, and wished the user luck.
In September of last year, Busse and I made another toast, marking the end of our field research. Between the two of us, we had spent more than 150 days, over 36 months, exploring and climbing Rushmore routes. We nearly got to every climb—more than 760 routes felt our blistered fingertips and worn-out shoe rubber.
Surprisingly, through all this, there was little to no pushback from locals— even disgruntled ones didn’t gripe too loudly. The Black Hills are an anomaly in this day of tightly clenched secret crags, and the current developers welcome the slow trickle of visiting climbers with open arms, sharing their beloved Rushmore granite with all.
The area is stacked with new routes, and the potential for more is mind-boggling. Often, entire walls are developed, and then, after an initial flurry of activity, many lie dormant—cliffs like the Boondoogle, Sanitarium, Love Knob, Breezy Point, and Festivus all come to mind. Meanwhile, sparsely documented walls such as Raspberry Rocks and the Gash have been filled out, offering days of great adventure while basking in the winter sun or relaxing in the summer shade. And the older plums of the area remain super classic: Baba Cool (5.9+), a vertical wall of crystals on the Chopping Block; Gossamer (5.7) on the Picture Window natural arch; The Cider Jug (5.8) on Pack Rat Peak; and Mr. Critical (5.11), a beautiful long sport pitch at the South Seas—just a few excerpts from a long list.
Like anywhere, though, the development of the Rushmore Needles hasn’t come without a few growing pains. Over the years, boundaries in the forest have shifted, and a few parcels of land have been annexed into wilderness areas, taking the power out of route developers’ drills. The National Memorial threatens to extend its no-climbing zone in the name of “national security,” putting the Emancipation Rockphormation and Whitehouse walls in never-ending jeopardy. Climbs in the Vale of Tranquility are already blocked by signs threatening imprisonment.