Hollis Marriot, also known as the Last Pioneer Woman, wrote up a beautiful tribute after Herb Conns death. Check it out and enjoy all the photos. Check it out here. I think she is correct in calling them the original rock climbing bums, and I’m so glad we all had their footsteps to follow in. Their simple lifestyle will inspire me forever.
Hollis’s story and photos made me think of the time when we first met Jan and Herb 16 years ago. They were looking for ferns and had spied some up in a wide crack and wanted to investigate. They seemed so spry and young at heart that I did not hardly think about the fact that they were both well into their seventies. Cheryl and I were wide eyed 20 somethings and enjoying our new South Dakota home. We met Jan our first week in Custer, SD after seeing a small poster for play tryouts. The play was the musical that Jan had written, called Run To Catch a Pinecone. It is a beautiful story about life, summer romance, and how things sometimes turn out. Cheryl and I got small parts, and a friendship was born.
Anyhow…a few years later, the Conn’s asked us to help them get a closer look at the Ferns that they had found and Hollis talks about in her blog post. We rode in their Jeep named Pogo and parked at the Black Elk/Custer State Park boundary along Needles Highway. From there, off we went on a hike to the rocks. Jan thought our climbing packs were huge, and could not figure what all we had in them that was worth carrying so far. The packs hey had used were tiny day packs with a mountaineers coil for their rope, a holster for their piton hammer, and special pockets in their pants for a water bottle, they were ready for adventure.
We all soloed up the rock, and Jan made sure that we all had a chance to take our turn leading the expedition. There was no doubt some 5th class moves (in their 70’s remember) on the way up. So once above the ferns, the plan was to climb/rappel down to take a closer look at the specimens to determine if they were the Hybrid Variety, and perhaps even collect a sample of the ferns.
Come to find out, according to them, neither of them had ever worn a harness or rappelled. Of course Cheryl and I were shocked. But Jan and Herb always thought that if a rock was fun enough to climb up, then it was fun enough to climb down. And besides, most the time their 60 foot rope was to short to rap on. There was also the fact that extra pitons were hard to come by, so leaving anything behind was nearly in-fathomable to them (once a climbing bum always a climbing bum).
So I unloaded my huge backpack of its gear and made a nice anchor with a few cams. Jan and Herb were having none of that. If I recall correctly, Jan said something like “I’d trust that tree a whole lot more then those new fangled things”…now the tree was about 3 inches in diameter and growing out of a crack in the rock so probably had little root structure, but who was I to argue with 2 living rock climbing legends.
So I moved the anchor over, although kept a tail attached to my cams though, as I didn’t trust the tiny tree, and thought that it would be really bad form to get hurt or killed with ‘THE’ Jan and Herb Conn. Once I got that done, Jan whips on a bowline on a bite, I started to belay from the top as she climbed down. She made it 2/3 of the way down to the ferns and nearly to the ground until she asked to be lowered (it was probably 5.9 moves at that point) to the bottom.
Herb decided that he was up for a new experience so I lent him a harness, and at that spot taught him to use a rappel device. Looking back, it still amazes me that I was some 28 year old punk teaching Herb Conn, my hero, how to rappel.
Anyhow, all of us got down safely and I then Cheryl and I took a few laps climbing on the new route just for fun. Jan probably has a much better journal entry about the day. The Conns always disliked getting their picture taken, so we don’t hardly have any pictures of them, but I’ll never forget that day.
I know Jan is adjusting to her new reality, and looking forward to seeing her when I get home from Greenland.
A favorite photo of the late Herb Conn with his wife and life partner Jan. Two AMAZING people. Taken by Hollis Marriot.