Rising from the Great Plains is the small, secluded mountain range of the Black Hills located in western South Dakota. Taking many people by surprise, the Black Hills have much to offer, especially to enthusiasts of the vertical world of rock climbing. The Black Hills offer everything from limestone to granite and bolt clipping to traditional climbing. Aside from the tremendous quality of rock climbing, the Black Hills have great sentimental value to many. Of the many great climbing areas in the Black Hills, and my favorite area, is Custer State Park which is in the southern Black Hills.
Custer State Park is home to the Needles, an excellent area for those seeking good, traditional rock climbing on great rock quality. One reason why I am so intrigued with the Needles is because of the area’s history and ethics. The Needles have a great historical story involving many generations of climbers. Herb and Jan Conn were credited as some of the first pioneers of rock climbing in the Needles. They put up over 200 first ascents in the area. They then got involved in the mapping of Jewel Cave which is another great story itself. Many other climbers followed the Conns and continued to set new standards and continued to establish new, beautiful routes in the Needles, and to this day routes are still being established left and right!
“Some people come to the Needles and leave. Others feel the magic and stay forever” – Paul Muehl
The Needles are an area with a good set of ethics that some may think seems strict. In my opinion the ethics are a way of cherishing rock climbing in the Needles and have worked well. As a Needles climber of the younger generation I am grateful for the set of ethics that this area possesses. The ethics in the needles are very traditional and what some climbers would call “old school”. By this I mean that the routes are all supposed to be established in a ground up manner by putting the bolts in, if necessary, using a hand drill. Some other regulations are set to preserve climbing in the Needles. An example is the prohibited use of power drills in the area for establishing new routes. Power drills have been used by people to repair routes that were already established ground up out of consideration of the well being and safety of other climbers in the area.
Besides the great history of the area, the Needles are one of the places that I have come togreatly cherish for many reasons. There is something about the beauty of the area that I have become emotionally attached to. I often find myself daydreaming of being tucked away deep in the gullies in the Cathedral Spires. One reason that I really enjoy the Needles is because the area is a hidden gem when it comes to climbing. Besides the summer season, I rarely run into other parties while out climbing. This makes the Needles a great escape from whatever you have going on or are worrying about. When I am climbing in the Needles I experience a true sense of enjoyment and passion. The peaceful sounds of the wind whistling through the gullies would calm anyone. I have had some of my most memorable experiences in the Needles; therefore, I am very attached to the area. Not all memories in the Needles are calm and peaceful. Some are absolutely horrifying! What I enjoy about the area is that I have had so many different experiences that were exciting, joyous, rejuvenating, or horrifying. I have experienced so many different emotions in the area. I am not saying this to scare climbers off because the Needles offer terrain for climbers of all levels. The Needles have also been an amazing place to become more and more educated on the sport of rock climbing. However, the area can require some creative thinking, decision making, and proper knowledge of what to do in specific situations which is what makes it a great place for learning. I have often heard people say, “If you can climb in the Needles, then you can climb anywhere”. I am beginning to recognize the truthfulness behind this more and more with every experience.
The Needles, and the Black Hills in general, are a place that you should make a visit to whether you are a climber or not. The magical beauty of the hills can be experienced with your feet on the ground too, so don’t shy away! “Some people come to the Needles and leave. Others feel the magic and stay forever” – Paul Muehl
By Ryan Emery