Climbing history in Custer State Park

Needles Area Climbing History South Dakota

The Needles of South Dakota are what makes Black Hills Climbing famous.  The routes near Sylan Lake in Custer State Park and other areas such as the Cathedral Spires, the Ten Pins, and the Needles Eye along Needles Highway, might be called the worlds best granite face climbing.  The views of the surrounding Black Hills are one of the best things about climbing the pinnacles and spires here.

While on his way to make history by free climbing Devils Tower in Wyoming, Fritz Wiessner stopped through the area and did several first ascents. Jan and Herb Conn (some of the countries earliest climbing bums) stopped in the Needles on their way to the other areas (including Devils Tower and the Tetons) from their home on the east coast. Soon they had bought a piece of land “as close to the Needles as we could afford” according to Jan Conn. Through the 1940’s and 1950’s Jan and Herb put up around 219 first ascents. They put great effort into recording and creating maps of the Black Hills climbing areas. They liked the place so much because it was beautiful, the rock climbing was good and easy to get to, plus there were countless summits in need of first ascents.  They had climbed in the Tetons and enjoyed that mountain rock climbing, but much preferred the easy access found here.  If you’d like to know more about the Conn’s first ascents, call to order Lindsay Stephens new needles guidebook which chronicles almost every route the Jan and Herb put up.

Click here to go to an Article that Herb Conn Wrote for a 1953 edition of  Appalachia Magazine

The approach hikes are still short, the crowds are still small, and the summit scenery still breathtaking. The Conns with their 60 foot climbing rope and tennis shoes from Woolworth “as tight as we could get them,” put routes like the Conn Diagonal, East Gruesome and many many others up in bold style. They spent a fair amount of time scouting things out, and on more than one occasion were forced to go back several times in order to summit their spire or pinnacle of choice. If you want to do a Conn route in true Conn style, just remember you have to downclimb it all, as they never rappelled.  For brownie points, climb in Keds tennis shoes, carry steel pitons and carabineers, and tie in using a bowline on a bight (no harness). They were real climbers!

The Conns named many of the Black Hills and Custer State Park rock formations and climbed routes found in the Ten Pins, Cathedral Spires, and Sylvan Lake area. As time went on there were many other climbers noticing that the Needles had great crystal pinching fun. Some of the more famous include Royal Robbins, John Gill and Henry Barber. There are still many Gill arrows found around the Black Hills if you know where to look.

Paul Muehl, John Page, Bob Archbold, Dennis Horning, Pete Delannoy, Cindy Tolle, Paul Piana and Todd Skinner all put up first ascents here. There have been many other climbers and there will be many more. If you intend to put up a new route in this area, please check with the local land managers and climbers to learn what is acceptable and expected.  Bolting with power drills is illegal in many Black Hills climbing areas.

The climbing routes in the Needles have a bit of a reputation for being scary and lacking safe protection. To a certain degree, the area lives up to this reputation.  The course Granite rock and runout protection while climbing, certainly offer up a special character for the area. If you are going to lead a route here, it is always good to get as much information as possible, climb well within your abilities, and count on run-outs. The Needles is home to a strong ground up approach to establishing routes. Most everything was put up while on lead with a hand drill and hammer standing on a crystal or two while leaning up against the rock to drill the hole in the granite and place the bolt. This sometimes resulted in fewer bolts then normally seen on most modern routes. As always, use these bolts at your discretion. Many maybe older then you are, rusty, and of the short/small variety! Stay Safe, Have Fun!