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The Needles Rock Climbing: Climbing in South Dakota

Climbing Area Description

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Brian Shelton with Front Range Climbing and Bill Springer at the Needle's Eye area.

The Needle's Eye area offers roadside climbing at its finest--watch out for tourists!

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

The Needles, located in 71,000-acre Custer State Park in the Black Hills in western South Dakota, is one of the best traditional granite climbing areas in the United States. The Needles are composed of pinnacles, spires, outcrops, crags, and cliffs scattered over piney ridges and valleys below 7,242-foot (2,207-meter) Harney Peak, the highest mountain in South Dakota. The Needles are a magical place, with a maze of strangely shaped rock formations within easy walking distance of The Needles Highway.

Traditional Climbing at its Best

The Needles, an old-time climbing area, is one of the last bastions of traditional climbing in the United States. Most of the routes are protected by nuts and cams in cracks, slings and cords hitched around crystals, or not at all. Part of the area's ethic is to climb with sparse protection. The area has had a staunch ground-up ethic for the establishment of new routes so routes are sparingly bolted, usually by the first-ascent leader standing on calf-burning holds and drilling bolt holes by hand. When you come to The Needles, don't expect sport climbing-if that's your game, you'll find plenty of sport routes on the east side of the Black Hills at Mount Rushmore.

Needles Geology: Granite Offers Lots of Crystals

The Needles are composed of 1.8-billion-year-old granite that was intruded into the earth's crust as molten magma-the Harney Peak Granite Batholith-which slowly cooled some eight miles beneath the surface, forming a fine-grained granite at Mount Rushmore and a coarse-grained granite with lots of pegmatite crystals at The Needles. It's these crystals, often feldspar and quartz crystals, which make Needles climbing so special, unique, and spectacular. The face climbing is characterized by pinching crystals with fingers, crimping on the top of a flat-edged crystal, or grabbing huge jug crystals. Protection is sometimes gained by looping a thin sling or cord around a large crystal with a girth hitch.

Needles Climbs are Serious Routes

Bill Springer climbing Gossamer at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota.

Gossamer is an amazing and fun classic climb on the backside of Mount Rushmore.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

The Needles offers great adventure climbing, with sparse gear and competency at placing protection. Many moderate climbs, usually 1 to 2 pitches long, are found. Most were established by Herb and Jan Conn from the 1940s through the 1960s, but don't let the old-style climbs fool you. Needles climbs are traditionally serious with routefinding dilemmas, loose rock, traverses, runouts, old bolts, and no summit anchors. Expect granite face climbing on crystals and edges with occasional crack moves, off-width cracks, and chimneys. Because of their serious nature, be comfortable at the grade and be forewarned that some routes are undergraded-watch out for the infamous "5.3" sandbag climbs!

6 Major Climbing Areas

The Needles climbing areas are divided into 6 groups-The Outlets; Middle Earth: Photographer's Peak/Aquarium Rock; Needle's Eye area; The Ten Pins; and Cathedral Spires. All the areas are accessed from The Needles Highway, with many having roadside crags and one-minute approaches. The Cathedral Spires have the longest approach. It can be difficult to locate many formations since each area is a complex maze of fins, towers, ridges, and canyons.

Climbing History: Conns Arrive in 1947

The great climber Fritz Wiessner made the first known ascents at The Needles (on the Cathedral Spires) when he stopped in 1937 on his way to do the first free ascent of Devils Tower. The area lay dormant for a decade until Herb and Jan Conn, eastern climbers who had learned to climb at Carderock, visited during a road trip in 1947 and climbed The Fan and Exclamation Point on their first day.

Herb and Jan Go Climbing

The couple returned the next year to stay, then buying land in Custer in 1949. In a 1953 issue of Appalachia, Herb Conn described their climbs, saying, "…we have lived like two cats in an untended fish market." Over the ensuing decades, Herb and Jan did not only over 200 first ascents, but they also mapped the area, named most of the formations, and introduced other climbers to its granite. The Conns were old-school climbers who used an 80-foot-long rope; tight smooth-soled sneakers rather than clunky boots; and placed occasional Army angle pitons and clipped the rope with steel carabiners. They also down-climbed every route rather than rappel. Remember that the first time you're atop one of those airy summits. In 1959, the Conns, who lived in The Needles in a cabin without electricity, were distracted in 1959 by caving. Over the next decades they explored and mapped miles of underground passages in nearby Jewel Cave and Wind Cave. Herb died in 2012 at age 92.

Needles Climbing Equipment

The Needles is a traditional climbing area. Bring a rack that includes sets of Stoppers, TCUs, and cams to 3 inches. Hexentric nuts work good in some cracks. Many routes require just a minimal rack. Also bring an assortment of slings, including thin slings or cords, that can be used to tie-off knobs, chickenheads, and crystals. Webbing is sometimes needed for rappel anchors too. A 165-foot (50-meter) rope is adequate for most climbs-remember that the Conns always climbed with an 80-foot rope.

Location

Black Hills in western South Dakota. The Needles are 30 miles west of Rapid City.

Finding The Needles

Bill Springer dances up a granite arete in The Needles in South Dakota.

Dr. Bill climbs Lander Turkey Shoot at The Outlets below Sylvan Lake.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Access from Rapid City/I-90 to the east and from Newcastle, WY to the west. Drive US 16 to Custer. Turn north in Custer on SD 89 and drive to a junction with SD 87. Go right on SD 87 to Sylvan Lake and Needles Highway. All sectors are accessed from SD 87.

Management Agency

South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks: Custer State Park.

Restrictions and Access Issues

Few climbing restrictions at Custer State Park. Power drills not allowed. Climbers are encouraged not to climb at the Needle's Eye area from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The mere sight of climbers creates traffic jams here! No permits or registration are required. An entrance fee, good for 7 days, is charged. Year passes are available.

Climbing Seasons

May to October. Needles Highway usually doesn't open until April. Summer days are pleasant. Watch for afternoon storms. Summer temperatures rarely rise above 90.

Guidebook

The Adventure Climbs of Herb and Jan Conn by Lindsay Stephens, Sharp End Publishing, 2008, describes 240 routes.

Camping

Custer State Park has several campgrounds. Best for climbers is 39-site Sylvan Lake CG (open May 15 to September 24) since it's within walking distance of the crags. Make reservations at 800-710-2267 or book on-line at Camping Reservations. A free climber campsite is past Mount Rushmore on the right side of the SD 16.

For More Information

Custer State Park 13329 US HWY 16A, Custer, SD 57730. Telephone: 605-255-4464 (Visitor Center).

Climbing Shops and Guide Services

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

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