2/9/12 - Climbing pioneer Herb Conn passed away in his home near Custer, South Dakota, on February 1, at the age of 91. Conn was especially well known for his exploration of the Jewel Cave, the world’s second largest cave system. He mapped over 60 miles of the South Dakota cave with his wife, Jan, throughout the 1960s and 1970s.But before Jewel Cave, the Conns were climbers. They wore cheap, low-top tennis shoes they had trimmed with a knife instead of climbing shoes; they used pinecone dust instead of chalk; and they tied a rope around their waist instead of wearing a harness.
Herb traveled with his wife throughout the country, putting up first ascents all over, including Seneca Rocks, West Virginia; Big Bend, Texas; Zion, Utah; Carderock, Maryland; and the Needles in Black Hills, South Dakota. They put up more than 200 first ascents in the Needles alone, including the Conn Diagonal (5.7), the Conn Route (5.4), and East Gruesome (5.8). The Conns published a guidebook to the Needles, in which they wrote, “Being a climber in the Needles is like being a cat in the fish store.”
The Conns often climbed long and low traverses, a style considered to be the precursor to bouldering, and encouraged climbers to down-climb. They did this particularly in Carderock, Maryland.In 1959, after almost 17 years of climbing and traveling, the Conns stopped to explore the Jewel Cave in the Black Hills. They chose to settle close by, and explored the cave almost daily for 22 years. They lived nearby in small stone home, without any electricity or running water for more than 50 years, and Herb worked filling in cracks on all four faces of the Mt. Rushmore National Monument to finance their explorations. On September 17, 2011, Herb and Jan were inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in recognition of their pioneering exploration.