In The Beginning

Posted on: March 1, 2006


Herb and I couldn't believe we were in South Dakota; we'd always thought of it as a flat state, but there, as far as we could see, were granite spires—pinnacles—needles—rising a hundred feet above the highway on both sides, with even higher ones looming up from the forest.

It wasn't advice from other rock climbers that had led us there in 1947, but rather a picture of the Cathedral Spires in my geology book, a close-packed cluster of stone needles that looked worth investigating. But until we'd walked among them, we had no idea how many there were. Spire One, barely noticeable in the book photo, now immediately captured our attention: 200 feet of isolated majesty dominating the western end of the group.

The area felt untouched, and we happily scrambled to several giddy summits. We returned again in 1948, and in 1949 bought ten acres of land nearby, convinced that here was where we wanted to live. In none of our previous travels had we seen so many individual and demanding summits all within an easy distance from the road. And we seemed to have the place to ourselves!

Over the next ten years we left more than 200 summit registers in The Needles. We rated the routes "easy," "moderate" and "difficult," with no concern for the now-popular decimal system. A friend in Rapid City, Bill Gilson, joined us on many of the climbs, and from time to time we would persuade climbers from back East on their way to the Tetons or the Selkirks to stop in The Needles. Gradually the word spread, and one after another folks who preferred rocks to mountains came to share our passion: Bob Kamps, John Gill, Dennis Horning, Dick Laptad, Paul Piana, to name a few. As age began to slow us down, Paul Muehl became the local climbing authority.

We made our first attempt on Spire One in 1949, but not until June 12, 1962, did we find the route to the top. The spire is formed of three slender blocks, piled one atop another; we used to wonder whether a strong wind might topple the summit block. A tight 120-foot chimney led to the top of the first block—not technically difficult, but hard work and abrasive to the skin. On the ledge above it, we rested for a long time, studying the route. Large chockstones that looked and sounded loose blocked the way, intimidating us. Finally Herb squirmed through a tight hole, a fracture between two blocks that went completely through the pinnacle. When he returned, he told me it felt awkward and scary to emerge from the hole onto an overhanging face, and that there might be an easier route up the second block on the other side.

As I took my turn at leading, I tried edging right from our resting spot to circumnavigate the spire on its outer flank. This proved easier than expected. Alternating leads up an airy, exposed face, we were able to reach the top of the second block. We touched the summit block in reverence, thinking this was probably as high as we would get. But lo, it proved possible to follow the second ledge back around to the original side, and there we found a way up to the top. We were in the place we'd dreamed of being for three years, where no one else had been; and having found the way, we could return there again and again.

Herb and I weren't the only ones who had found this spire alluring. In 1936 Fritz Wiessner, who had been instrumental in bringing the sport of rock climbing to the US from Europe, had climbed Spire Two with Lawrence Coveney, Percy Olton and Marguerite Schnellbacher. He had also looked longingly at Spire One, which he called the Praying Madonna, but he hadn't had time to try it. In 1961, at age seventy, he returned to The Needles with his family, looked us up, and soon we were discussing Spire One. On June 29 we had the honor of climbing it with him and his son, Andie. After twenty-five years of waiting, Fritz said it was as fine a climb as he had hoped. Fritz signed the Spire One register; we were amused later to hear another climber's remark, "Some joker put Fritz Wiessner's name in here!"

Custer State Park, which contains many of The Needles, has been tolerant of climbers. We hope nothing ever happens to change the attitude once expressed by the park superintendent in those early days: "Hell, we have mountain goats and mountain sheep. We might as well have mountain climbers." For our part, Herb and I are grateful to have enjoyed The Needles in our way, without criticism of how we did it, where we went or why.

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