I had been talking to my friend Andrew Busse who is taking on the monumental task of writing a new gudiebook for the hundreds of granite spires that surround Mt. Rushmore.
He had teamed up with the accomoplished photographer Andrew Burr to make it a full color glossy edition. Busse had been looking for info and volunteers to do some climbing so they could GPS the routes and get some pictures. He had also contacted Dennis Horning aka Dingus McGee who had put up a lot of routes in the areas that we would be climbing in specifically Grizzly Bear Creek and the Playground. We decided to that it was nice enough to go for it in mid November and met at the Climbers Campground at Mt.Rushmore early on Vererans Day to get started. We all stuffed into Burr's Honda and we drove up to Sylvan Lake where the gate to the Needle's highway had already been locked adding quite a bit to our approach.
We ended up hiking in from Sylvan Lake on the Harney Peak trail and then hooking up with the Grizzly Bear Creek Trail not too far from the summit of Harney We then hiked another mile or two to get to the climbing area dropping about a 1000ft in elevation.
After looking around the area we dicided ondoing Yellow Devil. Jason McNabb and I roped up for this and I did the first pitch out of a gulley and over a chockstone. It was about 60ft with some wide chimney and crack sections that protected really well with a big peace or two. I wanted to go to the top, but the ledge after the first pitch was big with about 25ft to the tricky start to the second pitch. The second pitch was deceptively steep at the start, but did have good gear in a nice crack before making a strenuous move out to a large knob to get in the easy crack to gap between the two summits. I then did some interesting scrambling to the high and then got stood up on the summit. Most of the spires out here require a needles style rappel which means there is no fixed gear left on the summit. This can be somewhat dicey at times to get the slings off while you are trying to weight the rope.
While we were doing Yellow Devil Busse's brother William and Cheryl from Sylvan Rocks did Portal Peak which is listed as a 5.4 Conn Route in Piana's guide. I did not check this one out, but they seemed to take a fair amount of time getting starting which makes me think that this was a sandbagged 5.4 whatever that means, as Cheryl and Will are both accomplished climbers. Also it was starting to snow at this time.
We then moved over to Kid Sister where Busse did a very nice job getting up this scarry thing. It is a fairly straightforward looking chimney to start that gets you about half way up the spire, but then is very runout on fairly small crystals to the top. I think on one of the pictures you can see a white sling and that is the last piece. there are a lot of long runouts in the needles, but they are all not necessarily that scary. This one looked like it was. No big rests and small crystals on fairly steep route that look like they could break.
Popsie is right next to Kid Sister and has a very destinctive "Needle's Eye" which is the route. I did the first 80 feet where there was some fairly stiff chimneying and then set up a belay. Busse then took the second pitch which started out with some very interesting placements in some huge pockets and then runout chimneying to a horizontal crack. As he wnt up he moved farther into the chimney and out from over my head. This turned out to be a good thing as there was a fair bit of loose roch that come pooring down and would pinball inside the Chimney. It kind of felt like belaying a ice climb as a lot of the rocks that were falling were breaking up like ice inside the chimney. The last 30 feet had an excellent crack to finish on. It all turned out OK, but props to the Conn's for putting up such a demanding route in 1959. The time was getting late and it was dusk before we got our stuff packed up. We decided to hike out to our camp at Mt. Rushmore rather than hike back up over the majority of Harney and then out to Sylvan. i had forgot my headlamp and so the hike out was quite grueling and probably took a couple of hours. The light from the others headlamps was enough to get me by, but I kicked a lot of rocks and had quite sore feet by the time it was done.
Camp and plns for the Playground
When we got back to camp Dennis was there and we spent some time talking about routes for tomorrow and lots of other stuff over beer and food. We got up fairly early and made brekfast and got our stuff ready to hike into the Playground the next day.
Long John Silver
We hiked in from Horsetheif Lake the next morning heading for Long John Silver. The hike in is through a mile or two of spires and rock everywhere, and although, I have been through there before it had been quite some time. There is a ton of potential in there for new routes, and apperently after talking to Dennis they were just looking to put up Fifth class summit and many times by the easiest way possible. So that leaves a lot of terain that has not been touched and much of it is the biggest faces around, possibly up to 500ft in route length from my estimation. Long John Silver was led by Chris P. another guy that came along today. It was an extremely runout route as it was and chris did an excellent job leading it. He clipped a pin at about 10 feet then slung the shoulder at about 30 feet and then went to the top which was at about 70 feet so he would have grounded if he would have fell up high. He did break a handhold quite close to the top whcih got my heart racing, but probably not as much as his. He then had to tie two cordo's together to wrap them around the top as the top is quite oval with no natural protection. It took us qite a while to get off after I followed the route as again we did a needle's style rappel with very little rugosites holding the rope in place across the top of the spire. While we were doing that Busse did another spire near there but I did not catch the name, but it had basically no gear for about the whole 80 feet of the route.
Owley and Cowley
We then went onto Owley and Cowley and couple of spires that Dennis had put up with some french chicks in the early 70's. I did Owley and Busse did Cowley. Owley was a 5.4 with a great crack. There was a register on top and it had not been signed since Dennis put it there in 1973. I think it was the same with Cowley. Both had Needle's style rappels and went fairly well. Dennis showed us a very cool corridor that we walked through to get to some of the spires.
We also did Renn's Nest which had the only bolt on it that we clipped in two days.
End of my short vacation.
All in all it was a very good trip. I climb a lot in the backwoods of the needles but had not climbed that far back before. I was very impressed by the boldness of may of these routes. I would not consider leading some of them, but as Dennis told me they put a lot of pins in back in the day and took them out on the way down, and in many cases a pin is the only protection that would work.
The highlight of the whole time was sitting down with Dingus after everyone had left and just bullshitting about climbing in the Black Hills and beyond. i had put in quite a few new routes in the hills and we talked about some of the obscure canyons we had both been in. We also talked about the place he has been developing for over a decade in Wyomoing in the Laramie Range and can't wait to get a look at it for myself next year. It is amazing the amount of absolute killer classics that Dennis has put up. He mentioned doing something like 30% of the free routes at the tower first, getting the first ascent of 11th Hour Gultch(a popular ice climb in Spearfish Canyon), putting up Dozzens and Dozzens of routes in obscure areas in the Needles, ect., ect., ect. With ultra classics like Belle Fourche Butress, Bonne Homme Variation, One Way Sunset put up by him you would expect someone with a large ego, but he was very easy and fun to talk to. Also i feel that Andrew Busse and Andrew Burr are going to put out an outstanding book that will open up new areas to a lot of people as they are not only doing the bolted routes, but also the many obscure trad routes that are in many areas east of Harney Peak. I feel like I am moving to a new phase of my climbing and I think I found enough projects on this trip to keep me busy for the rest of my life. With that there waas only one thing left to do. Go haome and see the family then off to the Crow Peak Brewery for a tasty mug and stories with some friends.
Great area. I've only been to the needles once, and absolutely loved it, but we spent a lot of time frustrated and confused by bad guidebooks, lack of beta, and runout routes. Luckily we found our way to the moonlight ridge area where there's a little less space between bolts, and I got to do my first trad lead up "beside the point". Any idea when the guidebook is coming out?
I have been talking to Busse the last couple of days and he hopes to have it in stores by May. It sounds like it will be full color with lots of pictures, GPS coordinates, and good beta on routes. This is something that will not have existed for many of the out of the way areas in the needles and will cover a lot more than just the bolted routes around the monument. As a matter of fact once you get a little ways away from the the road most areas are probably very traditional.