History of Climbing the Needles Is Worth Preserving

by: Robbie Freidel

The Needles in the Black Hills of South Dakota have an unusual attraction which lures thousands of tourists each year. No one embraces this attraction more than the local rock climbers. Each towering granite spire in the Needles tells its own rich history in the eyes of these climbers. Sadly, in the past few decades this history has been threatened.

The Needles are home to huge granite spires which prove ideal for rock climbing. The quality of rock mixed with the climbing ethic in the Needles makes it the only place in the world where one can find its unique style of climbing. The granite in the Black Hills contains tiny crystals which provide small balance compelled holds and great delicate climbing. This means the rock requires small movements which involve a substantial amount of balance.

A climber on a 5.9 rated climb in the Needles of the Black Hills. Photo by Rifugio Mestdagh and shared on Flickr.

The ethic in the Needles is also very unique, even to the Black Hills area. The way the history of climbing is preserved in the Needles is by the protection of the climbs. Most climbs in the Needles were put up in the traditional fashion of establishing the route on lead. This means that the first ascensionists started the climb from the ground up, putting protection in as they ascended the rock. This technique meant the climbers had no idea of the danger or the difficulty of the rock ahead. As they wandered into the unknown they drilled bolts where they felt fit. It was not easy to stop on tiny crystals and drill bolts from a stance, and this is where the legendary Needles run-out was originated. Now, when climbers set out on one of these routes, they can connect with the first ascensionist. Because there is no pattern in where the bolts are placed, one can feel for the first ascensionist and understand exactly how the route was put up.

Due to this ethic there is danger lurking around every spire in the Needles. There are even many climbs known to be fatal. People learn to respect the climbers who established all these routes and preserve the history of how they were done, and whom they were done by. The way these climbs were put up gives the first ascensionists the right to be honored for what they did. Many people have contributed in putting up routes in the Needles. Herb and Jan Conn established over 200 routes in the Needles in the 50’s and 60’s. They were soon followed by the era of John Gill, who revolutionized difficult climbing in the Needles. He was followed by strong youthful climbers such as Paul Piana, Dennis Horning, and Todd Skinner. There have been many more climbers leading up to modern day where there are still people like Chris Pelzarski and Jack Torness establishing great routes in the Needles.

The problem now arises when people get scared climbing in the Needles and decide to “retro bolt” climbs. This means that they go to the top, rappel down, and bolt or re-bolt a climb to make it safer. This is a highly controversial topic in the climbing community. People who have started retro bolting do it so that more inexperienced climbers have the chance to climb the Needles. The problem with retro bolting is that it erases the beauty, the concentration, and the history of the climb. Climbers can no longer connect with the first ascensionists in the way that they have in the past. Climbing areas all over the world have been exposed to retro bolting. The Needles is one of the last places on earth where one can still find a full traditional climbing experience.

The old generation of climbers in the needles is coming to a saddening end. There are many new young climbers rising in the Needles, but only a handful of them have the same traditional ethic. It is the duty of the past and present Needles climbers to educate the new upcoming generation of the tradition in the Needles. It is important that the history and the style of climbing are preserved in order to maintain the beauty in climbing that the Needles have to offer. If that is lost then the Needles would no longer be unique and would not be the great epitome of wonder and adventure that they were in the past and are today.

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