Mark Maier <mai...@gmail.com>: Jun 08 08:04PM -0600
Last month I added on some climbing days to a bike tour in the Black Hills
of South Dakota. I was hugely impressed with the climbing, thought it was
very suitable for a visiting climber, and so am doing a little guide here.
Not a route guide, look at Mountain Project or whatever, but an area guide
for a visiting climber.
The famous "Needles" of South Dakota are spread over a wide area of the
Black Hills. The nearest tourist town is Custer with a few hotels and good
restaurants. You can fly into Rapid City, or drive in from Denver or Salt
Lake in a long day. The Needles is not a single area but multiple areas
spread over many square miles. The famous very scary climbs (like Superpin
and The Thimble) are arranged in a relatively small area along the Needles
Highway. But there are many much larger, and considerably saner, areas. The
most notable are the Cathedral Spires (accessed from the Needles Highway)
and the Sylvan Lake area (a hiking and resort area a few miles north of the
The Needles rock is its great feature. The rock is very grippy weathered
granite with many quartz crystal inclusions. However, there are relatively
lfew cracks. The grippy nature, coupled with the profusion of crystals, and
the lack of cracks, is what made Jan Conn say "You can climb anything in
the Needles, if you have the guts." The climbing is hugely engaging and
often intricate requiring high quality footwork and delicate standups. You
can climb all over the place on the crystals, if you're willing. It is also
often very run-out, even when bolted. Bolts are put in on lead, ground up,
and so are very spaced.
I used Sylvan Lake Climbing School guides, since I had no partner along,
and was very happy with them. We spent one day wandering around the towers
next to Sylvan Lake doing a variety of routes up to 5.9. My general sense
of the ratings, comparing Needles 5.9 to Seneca 5.9, is that Needles 5.9 is
easier, but not by much, and the Needles climbing was usually more
intricate though less strenuous.
If you climb here on your own you'll need a standard rack to lead. Two 60m
ropes or a rope and a tag line are a good idea. There are some pretty long
pitches in places. Be prepared to run it out, even on very easy climbs.
There are plenty of moderates, not unlike Seneca, but run outs abound at
all grades. Plan to spend some time in Sylvan Lake or the Cathedral Spires
if you have any ambition to climb around the Needles Eye or the Ten Pins
(the famous stuff off the Needles Highway).
If you do plan to do some of the famous climbs be aware that most of them
go up right off parking lots or the road. In any busy time expect clueless
tourists to be right in your face. Maybe bugging your belayer or taking a
selfie while you're leading 20 feet above gear. Be sure you read the route
descriptions as many of the famous towers require trickery, like
simultaneous partner rappeling off opposite sides of the tower.
Onward to Devil's Tower. The tower (DT) is in eastern Wyoming, around 90
minutes or so drive from Custer, SD. It's out in the boonies. The nearest
town with hotels and restaurants is Hulett, and it's very small.
The DT is all about cracks. There are a few bolted routes up aretes, but
the reason to visit to climb is to climb the cracks. They are of all sizes
from fingers to off-widths, chimneys, and wild stems. You can get up the
Tower at about 5.6 on the Durrance Route, and 5.7 on a few others. There is
a Soler on the Tower, same Tony Soler as at Seneca. Route Finding at DT is
largely about getting into the right crack at the start. There is a long
crack every 10 feet or so, and they jump around a lot in difficulty, so
finding the right start is very important. Getting off the Tower involves
up to four rappels of roughly 40-50 meters. There are several established
rappel routes. Some can be done with one 70, but not all, so a two rope
system is probably required. And be very careful on pulling the ropes. The
heavily featured nature of the cracks can catch a knot very easily. On the
route I did there was a metal tag on the belay bolts saying "Rope Eating
Crack," so be aware.
A few things to be aware of to do the Tower:
1. No permits are required, but you need to register at the climber kiosk
2. The approach is easy, probably 15-20 minutes, but you need to find the
right crack to start on
3. There is a voluntary closure in June based on a request from the Lakota
4. There are falcon nesting closures every year. You have to look in the
climber kiosk to find out exactly which routes. After you run into the
pigeons who live on the tower you'll probably root for the falcons.
5. Since the Tower is round some part will get morning sun, some will get
afternoon baking, some lots of shadow, etc. Temperature and wind extremes
are considerable so take that into consideration.
I used my Sylvan Lake Climbing School guide again on the tower. It worked
out very well. We did the "Walt Bailey" Route, 5.9 off-fingers to thin
hands crack. It is considered one of the best 5.9 crack routes anywhere,
and I agree. It is a touch below vertical and the finger/hand jams are
mostly insecure so the route is very footwork intensive. You can protect it
every meter if you are willing to stand on the foot jams and carry that
much gear. Comparing ratings is difficult. The moves on the Walt Bailey
were less burly than routes at Seneca like Triple S or Marshall's, but much
more sustained and generally tenuous than either of those Seneca routes.
Summiting the tower we went through some easier terrain, like you find on
the Durrance route. It seemed to me pretty familiar burly, relatively easy
Overall, both the Needles and Devil's Tower are great rock climbing travel
destinations accessible to a wide range of ability levels. Both require
strong trad multi-pitch skills and route finding. In both there is lots to
do in the 5.7/8 range, though of course things open up substantially with