A hero to many of us, Herb Conn has climbed his last rock climbing route and explored his last caving lead. On Feb. 1, 2012 he died from natural causes (probably prostate cancer) in his home near Custer, SD.
His smile and spark were strong to the end. His giggle was something to inspire us all. There are few men that combine the humble toughness his achievements attest to with the gentle good nature, and kindness worthy of a true hero.
As his friends will attest, Herb was ready to go and knew it was his time. He told me while I was over at his place chopping firewood last fall that he was not sure anyone needs to live beyond 90 years. He managed to do it in style though. Few people in America live without electricity or running water by choice into their elder years. If you ever feel the need to try this…be sure to secure the devotion of a tough, and loving life partner. I can’t imagine either of the Conns would have been able to do what they did without the other. They were a team to the end. Jan told me that she was reading aloud to Herb while he rested during their last days together. It brings a warm tear to my cheek to recall the vision of Jan standing there in front of the Conn Cave (the name they have for their snug little home), telling me that the end was near, but that…. he still giggled when she read a funny passage.
Jan and Herb always seemed independent to their core. Herb floated through life living simply, leaving only survey marks and summit registers during his time here. If you have followed a Conn route up a Needles Spire and tried to imagine what it must have been like to do it 60 years ago, with only a hand full of pitons, dime-store tennis shoes, and a rope too short to rappel back down (so you’d have to down climb the route as well), it is hard not to be inspired, and empowered by what they did. If you trek into the dark depths of Jewel or Wind Cave following the carbide survey marks of this dynamic duo of yesteryear, you have adventured well!
Since 1948 they have called the southern Black Hills of SD home. They recorded over 220 first ascent summits and explored over 60 miles of Jewel Cave putting it on the map as a world class cave. Jan explained with a grin during an awards presentation that ‘tourism was the last thing on their minds as they explored and adventured back in the day,’ but if you travel where they once went…it is easy to understand the draw. The hidden treasures and beautiful sights they discovered will be sought out by generations of explorers to come.
The Black Hills was a perfect place for Herb’s love of math, maps and adventure. He spent countless hours seeking out places that no human had ever been. He and Jan filled in blank spots on the maps and drew maps of places no one ever dreamed existed.
Herb was no socialite and his isolated existence added to the mystery and romance of this Custer couple. We might well learn more about him post mortem than we knew while he was with us, as people who knew him over the decades share their experiences. One thing everyone seems to agree on, is that he had a beautiful smile, simple presence and sweet giggle…… that cast a spell upon us all.
Jan appears to be doing well and plans to continue living in the Conn cave and in her words “doing a few things Herb might not approve of.” She, like Herb still glows when you see her, and has a zest for life that everyone can love. We look forward to enjoying new adventures with her. She said she plans to write a bit about Herb and we hope to post that here too when she gets done with it.