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Conn Diagonal (5.7), Black Hills, South Dakota

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Exposed granite goodness in the historic needles

“We used pitons, an 80-foot rope, tennis shoes, and we didn’t have harnesses, so we tied the rope around our waists. We were scared to death,” says Jan Conn about this issue’s “Classic Climb,” Conn Diagonal, which she and her husband, Herb, put up on August 26, 1953. “The route is one of our favorites, and certainly the longest.” This unforgettable 300-foot, three-pitch climb sits in the shade on Outer Outlet, one of two striking formations bordering the northeast side of Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, South Dakota. Although certainly not the hardest or scariest line in the area, the Conn Diagonal stands as a bastion of exposure above the Black Hills’ dark-green, Ponderosa canopy. Like most classic climbs, the Conn tells a history of adventure and exploration. Of the roughly 220 first ascents the Conns made in the Black Hills, many climbers regard the iconic route as one of the boldest, helping to spawn a strict ground-up, all-free, hand-drill-only ethic that has come to define the area. The first pitch of the Conn follows a diagonalling flake system requiring stemming and laybacks, with larger gear placements (bring cams up to 4”) and a mid-height piton, to a bolted anchor. To reduce rope drag, sling horns with shoulder-length runners. Conn Diagonal gets its strongest acclaim from its exposed ropelengths — especially the second-pitch traverse, which eats gear of all sizes. This 45-foot voyage crosses on jugs, while your feet smear over a giant vertical drop (a fall from here would leave the second hanging in the void). “We knew we were committed to the summit after the traverse [pitch two], because there was no rappelling after that point,” says Herb Conn. Finish the second pitch in a hallway-esque slot, by building an anchor with 1/2” to 3/4” gear, and a 4” cam. From the belay, work up the hallway to a horizontal seam, where you’ll add your last piece of gear, then veer left into the bombay chimney. Belay from inside a large pothole at the top — undoubtedly one of the hairiest “book-ends” to an adventurous route established by the pioneering Conns.

> GuidebooksRecommended Climbing Routes in the Needles of Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota (1999), by John Page; A Poorperson’s Guidebook (1996), by Dingus McGee and the Last Pioneer Woman

> Guide Services Sylvan Rocks Climbing School and Guide Service; (605) 484-7585,

> Gear Granite Sports; (605) 574-2121,

Five Classics Near Conn Diagonal in Custer State Park, South Dakota

By Daryl Stisser, Sylvan Rocks Climbing School & Guide Service —

There has been a lot of published photos of “the Needles” of South Dakota lately, but there are still relatively few climbers here and lots of terrain for them to get lost in.The Cathedral Spires, the Ten Pins, the Needles Eye area, and, of course, all the routes around Sylvan Lake are the major Needles climbing areas. It is a magical maze of granite spires and rock masses … some of the purest crystal-pinching face climbing I’ve ever found. Bring you edging shoes, a standard rack, and plan to have a great time with few crowds.The climbing behind Sylvan Lake is divided into two main areas: The Outlets and Middle Earth. These routes are a great way to get to know the Needles style of climbing. Jan and Herb Conn enjoyed the area because of its short and easy approaches, I’m sure you will, too. With Spearfish Canyon, Mt. Rushmore Area and Devils Tower, WY within a two-hour drive, there is a lot more than these five lines to keep you busy around here.

The climbing behind Sylvan Lake can be approached from either of the two parking lots (or a walk from the campground) located at the north end of the Needles Highway. From the lot in front of the General Store, hike north around the lake towards the dam which forms the lake. To the left of the dam there is a tunnel formed by a huge chockstone. Through the tunnel turn left and head up hill. At the Custer State Park Staff quarters head right, and down the hill into the Outlets and beyond that, Middle Earth. The following route descriptions will start from beside the Brown cabin found there.

Lander Turkey Shoot

, 5.6, on the end of Inner Outlet

After passing the brown cabin on the left and the remains of a stone structure at the base of a pinnacle on the right, follow the first trail to the right. Up the hill, you will arrive at the end of a large rock mass. This is Inner Outlet. Take the trail to the left and look for the new-ish bolts on a spire attached to the main mass at the base. The modern bolt spacing make this route a favorite to get accounted with Needles climbing. Follow the bolt line to the top (


90 feet). For a long time you had to rap using a Needles simul-rappel. Now, there are rap anchors.


Quickdraws. One rope.

Classic Crack (Kamp’s Crack)

, 5.8, on Inner Outlet

Follow the trail through the rocks above and around

Lander Turkey Shoot

. The route is the beautiful 150 foot crack on the northwest side of the rock just right of the huge flake (like 70 feet tall huge). This is one of the routes in the Needles where you actually get a hand jam or two, but the crack is mostly a place to put your gear while climbing the face around it. Rappel from anchors on top with two ropes.


standard rack, nuts and cams to 3.5″

Sex Never Did This to My Hands

, 5.8+/9-, on Vertigo View

The great name came from a comment uttered by the second at the top after the leader had claimed “That route was better than sex!” … ”Sex never did this to my hands … ”

Vertigo View is the rock across the gully from Inner Outlet. From the Classic Crack area, walk to the top of the gully via the slot on the left side of the gully, and then scramble down (a fourth class move or two). Walk downhill to the base of the steep, left angling crack. Start under a roof and climb out the left side to join the hand/fist crack to the sling anchor near the top of Vertigo View. The route is a lot longer and harder then it looks. The crack opens as it goes in, so pro can be finicky. Hint: save a couple big pieces for the top. Rappel with one rope back to the gully. This is a fragile area with erosive soil and rare plants. Please take care to walk on durable surfaces and avoid trampling.Gear: standard rack, cams to 4″, medium to large hexes work great in this one. One rope rap off of sling anchor.

Inner-course, 5.4, on You-bet-jorassesAfter passing the cabin and the stone structure mentioned above, continue down the main trail for a short way before heading right up a boulder-filled gully (look for climber trail). Inner-course begins by climbing up a 30-foot boulder. From the top of the boulder, lean over to the main mass, clip the first of eight bolts that lead the way up this enjoyable crystal-laden face. If it’s getting hard, move left to easier terrain. Near the top, jog right, it’s a bit of a runout on easy terrain (sling horn here) to a very beautiful summit view.  Rap with two ropes from the anchor back to your gear.Gear: Quickdraws (include a couple long runners to reduce rope drag and sling the horn near top)

Aging Gracefully, 5.6, on Old People’s DomeFrom the brown cabin, take the road down hill. At the point where the Sunday Gulch trail leaves the old road (watch for blue arrows) head straight across the hill on a climbers trail to a saddle and a route called Riddle (beyond this is Middle Earth). From Riddle follow the trail down hill to the right, to where it ends at the base of Aging Gracefully. (the left most set of bolts just right of a chimney looking thing). The first clip is fairly high. The start might be the crux so feel free to use the tree to get going. The bolts are fairly run out, especially towards the top. After placing a medium cam in the horizontal and slinging a horn, clip one more bolts, move slightly right (you might find another bolt from another route) then up to a two bolt anchor on the shoulder. You can belay from there or continue to the top if you clip the anchor with a long runner and have a 60-meter rope. Take the path of least resistance in a groove above the Poison Ivy. Great place to take in the view and get a perfect look at the Conn Diagonal across the way on Outer outlet. Rappel from a webbing anchor with two ropes via a 5.9 route back to your gear.Gear: Quickdraws and a couple hand sized cams (1 – 2 BD), long slings to eliminate rope drag, and sling horns. You can TR the 5.9 that follows the rap line.

If you want to climb a little harder, routes like Harbinger, and Three Rings for Elvin Kings, Nick of Time, and Two Year Plan can be found. There are also a slew of other moderate single and multi-pitch routes here. Just remember that while the Needles is truly great crystal-pinching face climbing fun, the protection can be run out, so it’s best to be comfortable climbing the grade you plan to lead. Finding your way around can be a little tricky till you learn a few landmarks. The pink Poor Persons Guidebook by John Page will go a long ways towards getting you where you want to be. Give us a call this spring to set up a day or two of guiding or I’ll mail you a copy of the new Needles Guidebook from Extreme Angles Publishing when it comes out. Sylvan Rocks Climbing School and Guide Service: A Black Hills Climbing Tradition since 1989.

Daryl Stisser Sylvan Rocks Climbing School & Guide Service P.O. Box 600 Hill City, SD (605) 484-7585