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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.
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.
We had some good days and bad days exploring Rushmore’s routes, but no matter how hot, tired, or frustrated we got on any given day, at least we were outside and climbing—or attempting to climb. During the next phase of the project, lasting through the past fall and winter, we sat planted in front of our computers.
The digitization of all the information we’d collected was tedious and far less dramatic than topping out on the second ascent of a spire. Logging enough 40-hour weeks to fill a regular job, we drew lines on topo photos, typed out directions, crafted maps, and described hundreds of individual climbs. Our publisher, Fixed Pin Publishing, handled a lot of the dirty work, but each of us still had an over-full plate. Even a one-sentence route description seemed to take much longer than it should. In weekly emails, we ranted about how we thought the book ought to look and why it was taking so long. During the hours of blurry-eyed staring at a computer monitor, it was all too easy to drift off in a daydream about the great times and climbs we’d experienced out in the forest.
Now that the layout is roughed in, we have the treat of editing. Errors of all kinds seem to be endless, and everyone is to blame. While this final step isn’t easier than the others, we can see just enough light at the end of the tunnel to keep going. With fingers crossed, by the time you read this, the book will be at the printer, and it will be on the shelves by summer.
In the end, I still constantly ask myself: Was it worth it? In financial terms, or the cost of time away from my family, probably not. But I’m hardheaded and enjoy the creative process. I got to take some pretty pictures along the way. And if you visit the Rushmore area this fall, you’ll know which routes are worth tying in for, which ones are safe, and which ones to avoid unless you enjoy sitting atop a spire with no anchor in sight.
Mr. November (5.8), Harney Peak
American Life (5.9), Primal Wall
Woodpecker Protrusion Direct (5.9+), Rubik’s Ridge
Wife Sentence (5.10), Emancipation Rockphormation
Velcro Kangaroo (5.10), Palmer Gulch
Alligators All Around (5.10+), Magna Carta
Almastafa (5.10+), The Playground
Bulgey Wood (5.11-), The Gash
Lizard King Arête (5.11-), Raspberry Rocks
Chemical Wire (5.11), Emancipation Rockphormation
Sultan’s Tower (5.4), The Playground
Gossamer (5.7), Magna Carta
Star Dancer (5.8), Magna Carta
Garfield Goes to Washington (5.8), Emancipation Rockphormation
Cedar Jug (5.8), Elkhorn Mountain
Baba Cool (5.9+), Chopping Block
The Bein Crack (5.10), Breezy Point
Mr. Critical (5.11), South Seas
Ladies in Love (5.12+), South Seas
Forbidden Colors (5.13), The Playground
Eric Hansen weaves up Holdum 15 (5.10) at Elkhorn Mountain.
Getting there: Mt. Rushmore National Memorial is on Hwy. 244 in far southwestern South Dakota. Twin Cities: 576 miles Denver: 375 miles Salt Lake City: 630 miles Bozeman: 489 miles
Camping: For free camping, Wrinkled Rock Campground is the place. Located on the northern edge of the Mt. Rushmore Memorial, it has a few adequate campsites and a vault toilet, but fires are prohibited. South Seas and the Chopping Block are a mere five-minute walk away.
The Black Hills National Forest (BHNF) provides free dispersed camping for up to 14 days. Sites must be 300 feet from major roadways, lakes, and campgrounds. fs.usda.gov/ blackhills
The BHNF also has improved campgrounds for $18–$23 a night. Horsethief Lake Campground is the best, followed by Grizzly Bear Campground. Reservations: 1-877-444- 6777 or recreation.gov
Shop: Granite Sports in Hill City is your best bet: 301 Main Street, Hill City, SD; 605- 574-2121.
Seasons: Climbing is possible all year for locals, but the best weather is found May through October. Spring weather is typically unstable and can produce heavy precipitation (snow, rain, or a combination of both), but temperatures are usually very conducive to climbing.
Summer is the safest time of year to visit; high temperatures can be easily avoided by gaining elevation and staying in the shade. Be aware of building thunderstorms, and avoid becoming a lightning rod on top of a spire.
During the first half of August, the state’s population doubles with the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Not the best time to be in the Black Hills unless you like motorcycle traffic and noise. Also, note that many climbs close to the Mt. Rushmore Memorial are often closed around the 4th of July. This particularly affects the Magna Carta and Emancipation Rockphormation areas.
Fall is highly recommended for climbing here— the friction is off the hook. The weather is very stable, though fronts can bring colder temperatures.
Gear: A 60-meter rope is ideal; however, some routes will require a double-rope rappel. Ten to 12 quickdraws will suffice for most sport routes. A standard traditional rack in the southern Black Hills consists of a set of brass micro-nuts, a double set of wired nuts, camming devices, and some ultra-thin shoulder-length slings for tying off large crystals. Occasionally, a route will require doubling up on cams or racking a larger cam for offwidth moves.
On traditional routes in the Black Hills, it is recommended to always place gear when the option presents itself. You never know when—or if—you’ll get another chance.
Descents: The Black Hills are home to a unique descending technique referred to as Needles Style Rappel (NSR), used to descend from a spire with no anchors. The NSR essentially is a simultaneous rappel where each partner rappels off the opposite side of the formation and acts as a counterweight for the other. Success hinges on trusting your partner, timing, and ensuring your rope is well placed to prevent it from rolling off the top.
Nearby climbing:Sylvan Lake: If you’re feeling bold, head over to the west side of the hills and sample routes in the historic Needles. The most recent guidebook, by Zach Orenczak, will keep you on the classics. extremeangles.com
Spearfish Canyon: Within an hour’s drive of Rushmore, the northern Black Hills offer a vertical limestone paradise in Spearfish Canyon and steeper limestone in recently developed Victoria Canyon. These areas are covered in a new full-color guidebook by local Mike Cronin. blackhillsclimbingguide.com
Devils Tower: The wild corners and cracks of Devils Tower should be on every climber’s life list, and it’s only 90 minutes’ drive from the Black Hills. The most recent guide was authored by Zach Orenczak. extremeangles.com
Andrew Burr, Climbing’s senior contributing photographer, has rarely met an adventure he didn’t like.