Climbing “the Strike” in the Black Hills Needles with Legendary John “Verm” Sherman

Photograph by Dawn Kish

John “Verm” Sherman is a legend among us. He pioneered bouldering and invented the V-scale for grading bouldering problems. He also championed the development of bouldering at Hueco Tanks, Texas. Quite a legacy. Here Sherman tells us about climbing “the Strike,” ascending all Ten Pins in a single day in the Needles of South Dakota’s Black Hills, with local guide Cheyenne Chaffee last summer. Photographer Dawn Kish climbed and rappelled several spires, as well, to document the feat (her tips are coming up next, stay tuned). Sherman is the author of several climbing books, including Stone Crusade, Sherman Exposed, and Better Bouldering 2nd edition (due out in October). See the image in our Extreme Photo fo the Week gallery.

Adventure: For starters, is this type of geological formation unusual?

John “Verm” Sherman: There are hundreds of such spires in the Black Hills Needles, hence the area’s name. Molten granite and pegmatite intruded into metamorphic schist in such a way to form fins and spires. The softer schist has eroded away, leaving the spires. In my experience—I’ve climbed in over 600 areas in the U.S.—this is unique. I have been to other areas with lots of spires, but almost always they are made of sandstone, not granite.

Adventure: Why is this pin called Super Pin? Do they all have good names?

John “Verm” Sherman: Of the 10 Ten Pins, Super Pin and Hairy Pin are the most challenging and dangerous because Pete Cleveland did the first ascents of both and he was determined that these spires would be elite level climbs with very little fixed protection.

Legend has it that he led Super Pin with only one piece of gear and upon reaching the top rigged his rope to descend and pulled it before anyone else could climb it, leaving himself as the only person bold enough to stand atop the spire. Later, climbing legend “Hot Henry” Barber established the line I’m pictured on, which is still very scantily protected, but not the unabashed death route Cleveland’s path is. Nevetheless, climbers still debate whether a fall on Barber’s line would end your career or not.

On this day my partner was a local guide, Cheyenne Chaffee. We set our belay up high in a notch between Tent Peg and Super Pin with the plan being if I fell, Cheyenne would jump out of the notch down a 40-ft face vertical face below. Timed right, this would pull enough rope through the belay system that neither he nor I would hit the ground. We don’t always climb that way.

Adventure: How tall is it?
John “Verm” Sherman: About 70 feet on the uphill side and about 120 feet on the downhill side the belayer would jump down. All the Ten Pins are one pitch climbs.

Adventure: How challenging was it to climb all ten in one day for “the Strike”? Is that something people have done before?

John “Verm” Sherman: Climbing all ten in a day is call “The Strike”, but it isn’t done often, for that matter, Super Pin and Hairy Pin probably see only a handful of leads each year. Just identifying all ten pins was a challenge because there is no set list and no comprehensive guide currently in print. The thought of doing all ten in a day was in my mind from a trip there 20 years ago. When I did it this summer I was looking for a good challenge given my current physical condition. I’m 52 years old with a partially paralyzed left arm, separated right shoulder, two artificial hips, and numerous other injuries I’m contending with, so even though The Strike requires a degree of physical stamina, the main challenge was mental – holding it together on runout terrain where a fall could be a career-ender. Adding to the mental strain was the fact we did it in mid-summer heat which makes the peanut-sized crystals you’re pinching feel greasy. Getting the timing right so the rock wasn’t too hot, but the light good for photos took some planning. As well we had to worry about lightning and rain.

Adventure: What style climbing are you doing?

John “Verm” Sherman: The climbs were all put up in the days before sport climbing, so even though some have bolts for protection, they would be considered traditional (“trad”) climbs as the bolts were all drilled by hand on the lead.

Adventure: Dawn mentioned that the rock looked like jewelry. Can you tell us about it?

John “Verm” Sherman: There’s lots of mica in the rock which shines in the sun. The mica plates are pretty, but very fragile so you want to avoid stepping on them while climbing or they can part ways with the cliff sending you with them.

Adventure: Dawn also said you have Coke and Cheetos to get through. Do you always eat junk food when climbing?

John “Verm” Sherman: Ha, that was just what was available at the Sylvan Lake store nearby. Normally my diet consists of beer and pretzels. Actually, usually I make it though a day of climbing on an apple and some cheese sticks, but ran out that day.

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Adventure: What did you do when you got to the top?

John “Verm” Sherman: Stood up very, very carefully. It’s about the size of a twelve pack on top.

Adventure: How long did it take to do all Ten Pins?

John “Verm” Sherman: Because of rigging ropes for Dawn, and also pulling ropes so Cheyenne could also do some of the leads, and dodging the midday heat it took most of the day. We started early to get to Super Pin and Hairy Pin before it got too hot. After the first five pins we took a break, then finished up in the afternoon. On a cool fall day I think I knock off the Strike in 3-4 hours—the pins could all fit in a supermarket parking lot, they are all packed so close together.

Adventure: Which pin was the most fun to climb?

John “Verm” Sherman: King Pin was the last one we did and it was just plain fun to hang out atop that one. There’s enough room for two climbers to stand on that summit and we toasted the day with beers on top and just hung out and shot the shit and signed in to the summit register. By the time we got to King Pin we were through the harder climbing of Super Pin, Hairy Pin, and End Pin (the latter is the hardest physically, but not as risky as Super or Hairy), so there wasn’t much question that we’d succeed as long as the brewing thunderheads didn’t open up on us. So climbing King Pin felt more like a victory lap, like wearing the yellow jersey riding into Paris on the last day of the Tour de France (the final stage of that is more ceremony than race).

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