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Secret Worlds of the Black Hills
Untold natural wonders lie buried in the haunting landscape of western South Dakota—including some of the best climbing, caving, and mountain biking east of the Rockies. By Laurence Gonzales


Photo: climbing the Needles
SPIRE EDUCATION: Scaling the quartz-speckled Needles in Custer State Park, a great place to learn the ropes.
It was already September and I hadn't yet found my escape. Every year, as I chase the sun on its wan ecliptic toward the solstice, I find a way to escape the oncoming seven-ton weight of winter. I've always sympathized with Ishmael, who took to the sea "whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul." But I don't much like the sea. You can't drink it, and you can't bathe in it, and you mostly can't breathe it. So I look landward.

I had noticed a spot on a big space shuttle map of the United States, one that looked like a badly healed scar across the South Dakota-Wyoming border. I'd heard tales that it was the rimrock of our world, a place of spirits. It had bewitched even Custer's army of psychopaths bent on genocide—had rendered them simple with its pleasures in the summer of '74. Rolling through the Black Hills on the way to their doom at the Little Big Horn, they had picked wildflowers from the saddle and had even gotten down to play a game of baseball. Some Indians refused to live there, for the place was too powerful for all but a few shamans and vision-seekers tracing a mad arc across the land. The Black Hills had some of the world's longest caves, I'd heard, and glorious rock climbing on crystal towers. They had wicked biking and hiking on the highest mountain east of the Rockies, Harney Peak. I thought: That sounds like the place for me.

So it is that I find myself a month later in a Ford Explorer piled with gear, heading west on I-90 one blue-sky day, taking in the burning autumn colors and listening to Lucinda Williams sing: "Some laws should be broken from the start."

Yeah, I think. Like gravity.

At first light, the moon sets through the pines like a great faceted ivory lens. The air is full of wild red and gold leaves, fluttering around like broken butterflies. Far in the distance, I can see Cathedral Spires leaping into decks of pink clouds against a blue-gray sky.

We're going out to attack those spires with tight rubber shoes, some rope, and a jangling rack of metal wedges, and the main thing on my mind is that I'm going to fall. As we hike around Sylvan Lake through a narrow slot in the granite, my instructor, Susan Scheirbeck of Granite Sports in Hill City, South Dakota, is trying to reassure me while simultaneously regaling Bobby Model, our photographer and a top climber himself, and Julia Nielson, his fearless assistant, with stories of horrible climbing accidents.

Even though it's October, the temperature gradually rises to almost 80°C, but at the base of the 70-foot (21-meter) stone face it's still comfortably cool. Susan has anchored bolts in the granite wall, and now I watch Bobby spider up a rock to place a rope. There appears to be nothing holding him to the wall, and he goes up so fast. Of course, he's not roped.

The previous day, I'd worked some bouldering problems with Bobby and watched him execute a move called a barn door on a smooth overhanging rock 15 feet (4.5 meters) straight above me. Gravity just politely stepped aside and let him through; there's no other explanation. So seeing him walk up this rock face the way I'd walk up stairs did little to give me confidence.

At the base of the wall, Susan says, "I just want you to stay right here and work your way across laterally to get the feel for it. Just look at your feet and find places to put them. Take your time."

Everyone has to start somewhere. The route was only four feet off the ground and traversed the rock about 25 feet (7.6 meters) toward a big vertical crack. The goal was the crack, and I moved easily across until I got within about two arms' lengths of it, at which point the wall became glassy smooth.

"This is a 5.6 move," Susan informs me, "but you can do it. Just study it for a while."

I catch sunlight winking off of a tiny blue crystal just above my head, and for the first time I notice how beautiful the rock is. It is a great dark medium studded with a rainbow of colored crystals. Then somehow I'm in the crack. An earthquake can't move me.

"Aw," she says, feigning disappointment, "most people fall the first few times. OK, let's rope up."

The day is still young, I think, as I tie the knot through my harness.

And I just begin climbing. This is easy, I think, grabbing big fists full of rock. Just like when I was a kid, climbing trees.

I go 10 or 15 feet (3 or 4.5 meters) up, and Susan calls to me, "Lean back."

"What?"

"Lean back. I've got you." That sounds pretty counterintuitive, but how can I refuse to trust her here if I plan to trust her farther up? I prepare myself for the ridiculous move, then let go. I'm in the air, feeling gravity grab me, here I go...

Then the rope tightens and springs up and down as my harness catches my hips, and I hang there with my toes gripping the wall.

I let my pulse return to normal as Susan holds me on belay, and a sudden joy pours through me. I'd forgotten that feeling, when gravity gives me a big old hug.

"Pretty cool, huh?" she calls. "You can't fall."

Yeah, I think. Unless the rope breaks.

"Climbing," I call.

"Climb on," she says.

Now as I climb on, I find myself concentrating hard on the puzzlement of it. At no time do I look down at the ground, for fear that the panic I am keeping just below the surface will blossom like a poisonous flower and I'll just freeze and hug the rock.

I come to a place where I make a move to a tiny dime-edge crystal and am astonished that it can hold me. My left foot smears on a rounded place, and I'm hanging on with my right hand to a slim edge, looking for the next move across an expanse of granite that appears for all the world to be mirror-smooth. There has to be something here, I think, or this wouldn't be called a 5.6.

Just then Bobby appears in my field of vision and shoves a camera lens in my face.

"Smile," he says, snapping the shutter, then scrambles down and around to my other side like a guy working a cherry picker.

I reach the crux, the most difficult part of the climb. I'm about halfway up, where the crystals vanish, leaving a blank space about five feet high and sort of rounded out just enough to get in my way. As Bobby scampers past me and on to the summit in about three moves, I'm still searching for something, groping like a blind man with my left hand as my calf muscles begin to do an Elvis number. I can see that in one more move, I'll have a place to stand, but there's nothing in between. I desperately want to go down but remember an old Danish saying: Pissing in your pants will keep you warm for only so long.

Will Gonzales make it to the top? Read the full story in the October print edition.



Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, October 2004

What It Takes: The best dream adventures you can make happen—today
Welcome to the Neighborhood: Can mountain lions and mountain bikers get along?
- Secrets of the Black Hills: Granite towers, sunken caves, and singletrack abound
Pelton's World: Five things travel guidebooks never tell you


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Related Links

The Black Hills Badlands and Lakes Association
Start planning your trip to the Black Hills will helpful advice on where to go, what to do, and how to get there.

Sylvan Rocks Climbing School and Guide Service
Even beginners can take on some of South Dakota's best rock climbing with expert safety and instruction from Sylvan Rock Climbing School and Guide Services.



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October 2004



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