Pete deLannoy climbing the Totem Pole (5.8), Custer State Park, Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota. [Photo] Beth Wald
Posted on: March 1, 2006
Pete deLannoy climbing the Totem Pole (5.8), Custer State Park, Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota. [Photo] Beth Wald
"You're not serious," said Paul Muehl. The ends of the rope whipped back and forth forty feet short of the ground. His cigarette made another nervous trip from one side of his mouth to the other, and the wrinkles at the corners of his dark brown eyes deepened. We both leaned over the edge, inspecting the overhanging wall and noting the large white jug some ten feet below the ends of the free-hanging rope. From the jug the wall swept outward to the ground. If we could get to the jug, we could get down. Paul scratched his cropped mustache. "Well, if you can make the jug, then I can too," he said.
Paul's lanky six-foot frame outstretched my five and a half feet, so it made sense for me to go first. Another crash of thunder brought our attention back to the dark clouds that roiled and teased the highest pinnacles of the Cathedral Spires. Raindrops pelted our tired faces and lightening split the sky.
We gazed across toward the main Bartizan formation and lamented our inability to jump the gap when another flash-bang sent us into a frenzy. Paul took our last soft iron pin, drove it straight down into the flared crack and tied the rope off to himself and to the pin as I lowered over the edge. I stopped above the dangling ends and studied the jug that seemed a hundred miles away. Looking up, I caught Paul's silhouette. The glow of his cigarette danced against his darkened face. He seemed to nod.
I eased the rope through my figure-eight until I held the very ends. For a moment I hesitated. Then I let the rope slip through my device, and I hung free from the tips of the rope.
I began to jerk and swing, trying to latch my toe on the jug. Time slowed. My arms began to fail from the exertion, but soon I had a swing going and eventually caught the big nugger with a toe. In desperation I lunged for the wall and let go of the ends, which whipped out of reach like a bungee cord. For an instant my body was balanced as if on a slackline, neither on the wall, nor off, and my hand shot forward, feeling for anything to hold on to.
At last I snagged a nearly invisible edge, and a moment later I reached the white jug. Now it was only a matter of down climbing the forty-odd feet of lower-angled rock to reach the ground. Paul soon followed, and another Needles adventure was in the bag.
Our first ascent of the Naked Rib (5.10a), accomplished in a single push, had entailed drilling more than a dozen bolts on lead. The year was 1981, the golden age of face climbing in The Needles; all around us, it seemed, other climbers were engaged in similar exploits, giving rise to stories and legends as phantasmagoric as the place itself.
Most climbers are never quite sure what to expect when they first travel to The Needles. When you head west from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a blackened shadow rises on the horizon above the high plains—the first hint that the wheat crops of the heartland do in fact come to an end. Then as you arrive in Rapid City from I-90, the rocky summit of Harney Peak and the jagged skyline of The Needles appear, dark gray against the Black Hills, an area the Native Americans affectionately called "the heart of everything that is."
The center of Needles climbing lies along the Needles Highway, the road that begins at Sylvan Lake and winds lazily through the towers and spires. Over the years the clusters of rocks have taken on names: Outlet Rocks, Photographer's Peak, Needle's Eye, Ten Pins, the Cathedral Spires. Some of The Needles' routes lead to summits so small they can be slung with a single shoulder-length runner. Other formations are large and flat with potholes that fill during wet years, offering climbers the chance to skinny-dip far above the pine forests. This myriad of pinnacles, covered in a coarse skin of feldspar and quartz, presents a face-climbing arcadia, with some of North America's most highly featured rock, including hand-sized crystals. The unusual geography has yielded a unique sense of tradition: sparse protection and purist ethics combined with often unorthodox descents, such as the simulrappels on classic routes like Tricouni Nail (Cerebrus), in which one partner raps off either side of the spire.
The Needles are an anomaly, a surprising and mysterious realm where a climber may come face-to-face with a mountain goat near the top of a spire and cool off later that day in one of the many muddy lakes oozing cattails and snapping turtles. Their pinnacles form shady labyrinths with strange echoes. At times, another party may be around the corner and not a sound can be heard. Other times, every detail of a quiet conversation can be shared by climbers many valleys away. It's common to hear climbers describe The Needles as "magic" or compare them to Mirkwood, the enchanted forest in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.
Fritz Wiessner, Lawrence Coveney, Percy Olton and Marguerite Schnellbacher made a short trip to The Needles in 1936, climbing Totem Pole (they used a small ladder to aid the 5.8 crux) and Spire Two; but Herb and Jan Conn were the first climbers to find themselves truly spellbound. In 1947 the Conns traveled through the area and stopped briefly to climb the Fan and Exclamation Point. In 1949 the allure of easily accessible, challenging summits drew them back. They moved to the Black Hills and spent the next decade climbing more than 200 first ascents.
The Conns' journey has been repeated many times since. I myself was en route to somewhere else when curiosity brought me to the Needles Highway, where I stood slack-jawed and speechless. As Paul Muehl used to say, "Some climbers come here and leave. Others feel the magic and stay forever."
Certainly the Conns fell into the latter category. Needles climber Dick Laptad compares them to Tolkien's hobbits—in part because of the dwelling the Conns built in the side of a rock called the Conn Cave, but also because of their toughness, love of merriment and devotion to the landscapes of their adopted home. The couple created a scale model of the Cathedral Spires and wrote songs about their adventures. Their goal was to get to the top of unclimbed pinnacles by the most feasible way. Using a sixty-foot hemp rope and dime-store tennis shoes, they free climbed from the ground up, trading leads, placing occasional pins and down climbing each route as they single-handedly opened the area. Old eight-millimeter movies document the simplicity of a bygone age: they climbed with a bowline around the waist, hip belays and body rappels. I'll never forget one video segment on top of Spire One in which the Conns smile broadly, the snow splotching the shady hillsides behind them.
Anyone who has repeated their routes will agree that the Conns were ahead of their era. On the last pitch of the Conns' East Gruesome, after clipping a pin just off the belay, the climber must negotiate a thirty-five-foot runout on 5.8, a remarkable achievement in 1959. Even now, in the age of sticky rubber and wired nuts, some climbers still retreat. Jan Conn used to say, "You can climb just about anything in The Needles if you have the guts."
Their ascents began The Needles' tradition of boldness and purity, an ethos that emphasizes the style in which routes are opened over the mere fact of climbing them, and the natural opportunities for self-knowledge over artificially imposed safety. As Paul Piana would explain in his 1983 guidebook to The Needles, Touch the Sky, the multitude of R and X climbs forces climbers to "evaluate their own abilities and motivations," a view John Harlin III would reiterate in his guidebook, Devils Tower, Wyoming and The Black Hills, South Dakota: "the definitive difficulty of Needles climbing is largely psychological." Such routes, together with the otherworldly ambiance, present climbing more as a wild and internal journey than as a competitive and commercialized sport: an opportunity for climbers, like Tolkien's hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, to travel there and back again.
When, in the 1960s, the Conns became absorbed in mapping Jewel Cave, a new group of climbers—including Bob Kamps, David Rearick, Rich Goldstone, Mark and Beverly Powell, Dick Laptad, Tom Higgins and John Gill—adopted The Needles as their summer home. These visitors brought a certain change in perspective: they established difficult routes to summits previously climbed, in addition to climbing many of the "unclimbables," such as Superpin and Hairy Pin. Yet their commitment to The Needles' tradition of bold free climbing remained just as strong.
The story of the Thimble embodies this new era. While David Rearick and others had made its first ascent, via the 5.3 gully in 1958, three years later Gill soloed the 5.12 north face, perhaps the hardest route in the world at the time. Anyone who has stood at the base of the Thimble can't help getting sweaty palms as he or she contemplates pinching the small orange microcrystals that sweep up the overhanging north side. Take a good look around the base of the climb because in 1961, the parking lot was graveled and the end of a guardrail silently spotted Gill while he finished the moves to the summit. As a testament to Gill's ability, the north face went unrepeated until the 1980s.
The Thimble's intimidating nature may have inspired other 1960s climbs, including the eventual first ascents of Superpin, in the Ten Pins cluster. Six years after the Thimble, Pete Cleveland climbed the 5.11 north face of Superpin with no protection—not that there was any to begin with. To this day no one has repeated Cleveland's route, although many people have now climbed the spire by another route (5.10) that Henry Barber established in 1977.
During the fourth ascent of Barber's route, also in 1977, Mike Todd added a bolt high on the northeast ridge, making the climb more palatable but causing some controversy. According to Dennis Horning, who belayed Todd on his climb, Ed Sklar had bet Todd he couldn't do the route without a bolt. One thing led to another and Todd ended up pasted to the spire's narrow arete some twenty feet above a manky pin. Here climbers must rely on small, useless handholds to step right onto a sloping shelf the size of a paperback novel. Performing that leap of faith took all of Todd's composure. Unable to move off the next stance, he called for the drill. But this stance was so steep that when he raised the hammer, he felt as if he might peel off into the void. Galvanized into action, his friends strung a line from the top of Tricouni Nail around Superpin and back again and made it taut. With a quickdraw clipped off to the line, Todd drilled the bolt and finished the route.
Henry Barber wanted the bolt removed, but it stayed, and recently the manky pin has been replaced as well. Some Needles climbers feel that the climb itself has been changed; if the challenge of finding protection—or of maintaining focus without it—forms part of the historic nature and difficulty of a climb, then, according to climbers like Piana, retro-bolting is as bad as chipping holds: "climbs that were inherently unprotectable should remain so and be left for those climbers who have a realistic awareness of their own capabilities and the requisite coolness under fire." Nevertheless, even now an outing on Superpin will give the leader a tingly feeling, and a fall anywhere prior to the bolt on the upper ridge will at a minimum leave him/her maimed.
Despite the effort of the Conns and the intrepid 1960s group, hundreds of lines and many unclimbed spires remained open for the next wave of pioneers. A new eclectic band of climbers—dominated by locals Paul Muehl and Bob Archbold, in addition to a number of summer visitors including myself, Jim Black, Paul Piana, Kevin Bein, Barbara Devine and others—arrived in the 1970s and extended The Needles tradition onto the crackless faces, pushing both difficulty and boldness, as well as the sheer number of established climbs. By the time Paul Piana's Touch the Sky was published, it was already out of date, and by the end of the decade, hundreds of new routes had been added along The Needles Highway. By the mid-1980s 5.11+/5.12a was well established. Paul Muehl's widow, Loretta Muehl, says about those years, "It was a magical time. It was like having one big family. You never knew who'd be in our front yard when we woke up in the morning."
I first was adopted into the "family" in 1977, when Paul rescued me and my friends off the Moonlight Rib (5.3) on the Fan, a large bulbous formation adjacent to the Needles Eye parking area. Like others before us, we hadn't fared very well on our first trip to The Needles. In fact, we had backed off every spire we tried, intimidated by the lack of protection. Dejected, we were discussing taking a bus to Colorado when a tall, swaggering climber wearing blue-jean cutoffs and a Tyrol sweater walked up. He radiated authority. Our chatter evaporated immediately. I tried to sound competent when I answered his questions, but Paul could clearly tell we were out of our element.
"Try the Moonlight Rib," he said. "It has some pro. There's a pin partway up." I soon thereafter found myself clipped to the ratty pin, which then fell out of the rock and into my hands. Staring up sixty feet of overhanging ridgeline spattered with large crystals—a crackless cheese grater that emptied into a forty-foot chimney—I yelled down to my friends, "No, I can't do it!" But suddenly Paul had soloed to my high point and was asking for the rope. Within minutes, he ran it out to the top, the rope went tight, and for the first time since we had arrived in The Needles, we stood on a summit.
Paul was known for taking The Needles' bold tradition to the extreme. On several occasions, he led Superpin in unlaced tennis shoes he affectionately called "K-Martos." He also developed "secret weapons," such as altered pitons ground smaller and thinner than RURPs. My introduction to his ingenuity occurred during the first ascent of Tails You Lose (5.9) on Dave's Dinghy in 1981. A variation to Heads You Win (5.9), this route takes a direct line up a forty-foot water groove devoid of cracks or hands-free bolt stances—and poised over a dark chasm that the leader must bridge to start the climb. When I asked Paul how he intended to protect the pitch, he reached inside his rucksack and pulled out a fistful of skyhooks slung with parachute chord. "Secret weapons," he said, with his trademark baritone laugh. "You've got to be kidding me, Muehl! How do you plan to hold them on the rock?" I asked in dismay. But he was ready for me and reached inside the rucksack again to produce a roll of duct tape.
Until the 1980s a steady stream of climbers spent their summer evenings in the Muehls' cozy cabin along the main drag of Custer, South Dakota, eating home-cooked meals and drinking one-too-many beers or sharing Loretta's chokecherry wine, while scheming and planning for new routes or recording their daily exploits in the "Bible," a faded, blue, cloth-backed journal. Few nights were complete without Kevin Bein cranking off one-arm fingertip pull-ups on the door jam in the Muehls' kitchen. Bein and his partner, Barbara Devine, had come in 1979 from the Shawangunks, where they were well established in the harder grades. Although Bein was short, stocky and muscle-bound, Devine was thin and long—and their styles differed remarkably, a puffing freight train versus a spider's balance and grace. One need only to glance at Touch the Sky to see their numerous testpieces scattered up and down the Needles Highway—powerful climbs, such as the formidable thin crack Horseshoes and Hand Grenades (5.11+), that often followed seams and narrow cracks and were protected with small wires and pins.
Bein and Devine's prolific accomplishments roused the rest of us to action. We accepted The Needles tradition for what it was, but for the first time, we began using bolts as the primary form of protection on faces devoid of cracks. The climbs of this era were still runout; drilling on lead while standing on little thimbles is desperate business. Ultimately the number of bolts on a route was dictated by how many of these miserable stances the leader could endure.
Take Bob Archbold's Four Little Fishies (5.9) on the Aquarium Rock, for example. The climb starts on a gentle ramp that ends abruptly at a headwall, sending climbers up a full ropelength of steep and nimble terrain. As they teeter to make the fourth clip some twenty-five feet above their last gear, few people consider what it must have felt like for Archbold to drill the bolt.
As daring as Four Little Fishies is, Arch's Trojan Determination (5.9) on Reunion Rock presents one of the most serious undertakings on the Needles Highway. The route takes a central line on the steep face overlooking the road; the first crux comes fifteen feet off the ground before you clip the bolt. The final runout to the anchor is a taxing experience through a sea of large crystals, none of which are in the "right" place or feel good in your hands. In response to a posting on www.climbingblackhills.com that complained about the small number of bolts on Trojan Determination (5.9), Archbold said, "To say I didn't get scared [opening the route] would be a lie, but it was a matter of learning to keep your head on runouts. [It's] an art that many climbers today are losing." Make no mistake about the grade; a lead of this climb will leave you feeling as if you free soloed the entire route.
Whatever emotions modern climbers may feel as they leave the ground to tackle a runout climb that, nonetheless, has been previously established, they are nothing compared to those of a first ascensionist starting up a blank wall with no bolts and no predetermined gear placements. Oh sure, retreat is always an option, but in The Needles there's always the possibility you won't be able to reverse the moves. The first ascent of Vertigo (5.11+) by Kevin Bein, Bob Archbold, Barbara Devine, Mike Gotszche, Paul Muehl and Jim Mullin in 1979 demonstrated this level of uncertainty and commitment. Resembling a large corn kernel carefully balanced on top of a tall pedestal, the spire instills pure terror, even from the ground. Opening the route required the nerve to push sustained runouts onto difficult terrain where the only hope of retreat was a life-threatening fall.
What we learned about drilling on lead in the early '80s coalesced in the summer of 1983 when Paul Muehl and I began putting new routes in a collection of pinnacles near the Outlet Rocks that became known as Middle Earth. Obscured by a tree-lined ridge, these spires had been largely ignored, and according to Touch the Sky, only one of them had previously been climbed: the Hot Potato, by Herb and Jan Conn in 1955. Paul's idea was to use Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as the guiding theme. He sketched a map based on Tolkien's Eriador, dividing the area into the "Near Downs" and the "Far Downs." We converted a dark hole leading to a cavern into an "Orc Cave," adorned with deer and cow skulls and stocked with a jug of chokecherry wine. Middle Earth meant more to us than just putting in routes; we were living a story, and we swore all those involved to secrecy. The results were sometimes excruciating. Imagine standing, one-footed, on a golf-ball-sized bolt stance for an hour waiting for unknown voices from the Outlet Rocks to move on while Paul (an ex-Special Forces Green Beret) snuck barefoot through the woods doing close-in recon on the suspects.
That first summer, Paul and I, along with others, climbed more than seventy first ascents and drilled some 300 bolts on lead. After about five years, we had established well over 200 new climbs. On One Ring to Rule Them All (5.11c/d), a coin toss remanded me to the belay, where I ground my teeth as Paul shook his way over a bulge. The runout completely marginalized his only protection: a quarter-inch bolt. I had my friend Everett Akam move the packs, and I prepared to run downhill as Paul managed to wiggle a slider into an invisible seam. Frightened for his life, I yelled, "Is the slider any good?"
"Of course it's good," Paul bellowed back. And then just to prove it, he grabbed the sling and yanked on it. The slider exploded from the rock as though it had been shot from a gun; the force of it caused Paul to teeter backward toward a certain ground fall, fifty feet above the deck. His arms windmilled wildly, and I began stepping downhill again, preparing to run. But in the last instant, gravity lost the tug-of-war, and he lay panting with his face against the rock. "Can you drill?" I yelled.
Instead of answering me, Paul began fiddling with the slider again, all the while mumbling about a "bomber placement." Soon loud slapping sounds echoed in the narrows, one mocking the other as he retested the piece and started to drill. I began to relax. But suddenly the drumbeat lost its rhythm, interrupted by a hollow note; the drill bit had broken. "Shit," he said. His hand rummaged around in the bolt bag. My gaze was drawn to the base of the climb; near the wall lay the shiny extra bit. "It's down here," I said meekly.
"Can you throw it up?" asked Paul. Everett rolled his eyes. Each time the bit fell short and rocketed back into the narrows. "I'll just lower off," said Paul.
"On the slider?" I choked.
"It's a good piece, Pete," he said. Shaking my head, I drew in the rope while he down climbed back to the slider and I took his weight. I couldn't watch. At one point there was a loud pop and Paul settled lower on the rope. "It just set itself," he said with confidence.
After he had reached the ground and lit up a cigarette, Paul said, "You shouldn't have any problems drilling the bolt, Pete."
"Aren't you going back up? You won the flip," I said. On the wall above us, the faded blue sling waved smugly from the slider's metal loop. I didn't want any part of it. But partnerships are partnerships, and Lord knows Paul had bailed me out more times than I could count, so I climbed up above the bomber slider and drilled the bolt.
One Ring to Rule Them All signaled the culmination of a golden age: it was one of the last difficult routes we did in Middle Earth. I don't think we realized at the time how profound the changes would be, as the 1990s brought motorized drills and more 5.12 grades. But like the magic ring in Tolkien's story, the new drills offered an equivocal power—and the desire to use them to open even harder climbs brought bitter conflict.
For those of us who had been at the vanguard of route development, the motorized drills represented new possibilities. We could now attempt, from the ground up, lines that in the past were barely imaginable. Many of these testpieces had been toproped previously, but the lack of hands-free bolt stances had prevented leading them.
One such route is Walking the Plankton (5.12 c/d) on Aquarium Rock. First toproped by Eric Doub and Paul Piana, the climb follows a water chute that undulates down an overhanging wall. Only the lower half had hands-free bolt stances. By the summer of 1988, Greg Childs had already established five bolts on the climb, and there were rumors about climbers planning to hook the upper section. Armed with the Bosch and belayers, I spent the better part of three days placing bolts on the steepest portion of the wall. By the third day of climbing hard 5.12 with the drill clipped to my waist, I was thwarted by the lack of anything bigger than a quarter-inch edge to hang on to, and after many airy whippers, my legs were gouged and bleeding from drill punctures. Finally I hung the drill on a toprope, and joined by Rusty Lewis, a Custer local, finished the climb.
Clinging to a 5.12 finger bucket and managing an eleven-pound vibrating drill next to your face for even more than thirty seconds was not yet realistic. But I believed that The Needles should be the testing ground for those techniques. After all, at that point the sport-climbing revolution was taking over the rest of the country, and The Needles were littered with thousands of steep lines without hands-free bolt stances. The ability to place bolts without having to let go with both hands would have opened a whole new realm of Needles climbing—without abandoning the ground-up tradition or giving into sport-climbing's rap-bolting trend.
Paul Muehl prepared a survey that year about the drills and sent it to as many past and present Needles climbers as possible. Some seventy or eighty surveys eventually returned; many were in favor of the drills, under certain conditions. In the subsequent meeting, local climbers agreed to draw a boundary along the Harney Peak-Elkhorn Ridge Line between the Mt. Rushmore area and The Needles. On the Mt. Rushmore side, the new sport-climbing ethics of safety-first rap-bolting would be implemented to create well-protected climbs, but The Needles would keep their tradition, with one alteration: the overall consensus was that the motorized drills could stay in The Needles as long as they were only used from the ground up. Of course not everyone agreed.
During the short-lived peace, Mike Lewis, Rusty Lewis and Mike Johnson opened Warning (5.12a) on Stonehenge, in the Outlet Rocks. Vern Finney had first courted the line, establishing its first three bolts up to the headwall where the hands-free stances came to an end. Rusty Lewis, fresh from Walking the Plankton, now threw himself into steep, finger-wrecking moves up a series of overhanging bulges, the eleven-pound drill hanging off his waist. Finding himself pasted in the pod above the crux bulge, he drilled the bolt that opened the route onto easier terrain above. The effort flamed him out, and Rusty lowered off, allowing his brother to complete the climb.
In the early 1990s, a few voices' loud screams about the power drills, coupled with land managers' concerns about their use, polarized the issue, and the drills were banned in 1992. The greatest worry seemed to be that climbers would use the drills to establish climbs from the top down and that grid-bolted walls would result. About the same time, Paul Muehl was diagnosed with lung cancer, and the escalating infighting finally drove me off to the virgin cliffs of Wild Iris near Lander, Wyoming, and to Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota.
The divisiveness of the 1990s has spilled into the new millennium. As Loretta Muehl says, "The people changed... the idea of climbing changed." New climbs that are well bolted, but mysteriously unauthored, continue to appear in The Needles. Some of these routes could have been established from the ground up with hand drills, but others seem doubtful. For example a first ascent party drilled Lander Turkey Shoot (5.6) from the ground up using a power drill after the ban was in effect. When the climbers reached the top, a raging snowstorm and loud angry voices assaulted them. The voices seemed to be searching for the source of the noise—convinced, perhaps, that they would find a group of offending sport climbers power drilling from the top down. The first ascensionists escaped, leaving behind a popular climb, albeit one without an anchor. Years later another party added a bolt anchor, contributing to the infamy. Some think the anchor placed after the first ascent should be chopped, that a natural horn at the summit offers a perfect opportunity for a traditional "Needles-style" simulrappel. One only needs to visit www.climbingblackhills.com and peruse the comments section to see a scene rife with bickering.
The climbing community was not only ambivalent about the motorized drills. Some argued that the use of hooks would enable climbers to place bolts on the stance-free climbs without resorting to power drills. Others felt that even hooks were a form of aid and thus violated the area's free-climbing ethic. In 2004 the Black Hills Climbing Coalition, together with local climbers, agreed that hooks could be combined with hand drills to establish bolt protection, making it once again possible to attempt futuristic lines.
Larry Shaffer, a transplant who has been living in the Hills for more than eleven years, is one of these modern pioneers. Another is Curt Love, a Rapid City local who claims Larry as his mentor. Love, who started climbing in The Needles in 1998, stepped to the forefront in 2000 with his Shocked and Persuaded (5.12c/d) on Sore Thumb. Opened ground up, with climbing partners Shaffer and Travis Rypkama, and still unrepeated, it's possibly the hardest climb of this style yet done. Although its use of hooks preceded the agreement by four years, the eighty-foot route required a cool head and a willingness to take big falls.
During the past few years, longtime Needles climber Paul Duval and others have been pushing a different style, seeking lines that can be well bolted to produce safe, moderate climbs. A new area above the Needles Eye called the Moonlight Ridge displays several of these routes. Duval insists that there are plenty of climbs to go around and that you shouldn't have to risk your life every time you go climbing on Needles Highway. He and others are quick to point out that some of the main protagonists in the various conflicts never climb the scary classics and instead spend the majority of their time on the newer, well-protected climbs. But while Duval complains that "some people want to keep Needles Highway a museum," other postings on www.climbingblackhills.com lament any changes—like added bolts and anchors—and worry that the area's old traditions and values may be passing away.
I would like to believe there is room for peaceful coexistence between the two contrasting styles—and that, just as each new influx of outsiders, from the '50s to the '80s, has brought a new flurry of bold ascents, The Needles are now waiting for other adventurers visionary enough to carry climbing to the next level. With all the available rock, boundless opportunities still exist for those who wish to pursue either the true Needles ethic or the establishment of well-protected moderates.
Each era of Needles climbing has seen transitions, from the Conns' original simplicity of taking the most natural line up unclimbed summits, to the search for harder routes and the creation of partly or entirely bolted lines. But in spite of these changes and the divisions they create, the fairytale landscape, the adventure climbing—as well as the often larger-than-life characters who make up its community and whose exploits fill its folklore—create a sense of persistent magic and camaraderie.
Reaching the top of one of the classic spires, you may still find one of the "Conn pennies" gleaming inside the summit register: a flattened coin inscribed with the Conns' names and the date they made the first ascent. Like countless other climbers you may feel a closeness to history and to myth unlike that of any other place. As Dick Laptad writes, "Just as Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins could be adventurous and strong, or cowardly and weak, so too can the climbers be who are attracted to the area. We become aware that it's not what we do to the place, but what the place does to us, that makes it unique and special." That potential for self-transformation, as the rocks force you to adapt to their terms and as their beauty and risk uncover unexpected qualities within you, still lies at the heart of The Needles' enchantment.