(Dan wrote this about his climb of the Conn Diagonal with Netta in the Black Hills. He gave me permission to post it.)
22 October 2010
I wake at sunrise in the Black Hills. The light is just hitting the top of a large, quartzite boulder, which stands to greet the day like a shimmering block of ice. I silently climb to the top of it, and, still in the wakefulness of mind that the morning brings, gaze over the pine-covered hills. The dark, forested mounds are broken here and there by huge cliff-bands, made of the same gleaming rock as the boulder. I find it hard to believe that Mount Rushmore, the tourist epitome of the country, is less than ten miles away. I spot the sharp black angle of a hawk circling above the hills. This place is magic, I whisper.
Sylvan lake, the icon of Custer state park, has been fortunate enough to be protected from the South Dakotan tourism which claimed Mount Rushmore. Here, the lake and rock spires are subject to only a handful of benches, picnic tables, and outhouses. Netta and I park near the lake and rack our gear. A set of cams, nuts, and hexes. It's a slim rack for a three pitch climb, which traverses much of a three hundred foot block; but I've been to the Needles before. There won't be much in the way of placements. As we walk beyond the views of the lake, we pass a waterfall and stop to listen to the water drum over the crystalline rock.
“Do you think that could be climbed?”
“Sure. I bet it's been done.”
“Can you imagine what the Conns thought when they came to this place? How everything looks possible? Climbing on crystals?”
We find the path around the outlet rocks, which are a few hulking blocks towering hundreds of feet above us. The path is covered in their crystal sheddings, and Netta can't resist filling her pockets with pink and white jewels. After a brief hike around the outer outlet, we take a moment to let the seriousness of this endeavor weigh on our minds. Netta and I look at each other. We are both excited, but I see in her the thought that is a reflection of my own. We're going to climb THAT?
I am nerves upon nerves. Netta spills coffee on the rope bag and laughs. I smile and push air through my nostrils like I think it's funny, when I'm not really thinking about the coffee at all. We quickly check each other over and then I am saying “climbing” before I know what I am saying. I start toeing along the massive flake of rock that diagonals up and right for almost 160 feet. This route, the “Conn Diagonal,” is named for the flake the climber follows on the first pitch. It is sparsely protected. I barely notice that I am twenty feet above the last piece of protection when I reach an awkward move, requiring me to cross my body with my left hand, lay out into the open air to weight that hand, and move onto the face of the flake. I preform the move easily enough though, which fits right into the perverted “Needles 5.7” rating. There are placements for gear every twenty feet or so, but I use mostly natural protection by throwing the rope behind the flake, so it will simply catch on the rock if I fall. At some undetermined height (after fifty feet, you die anyway, right?) I place a number 4 cam behind the flake and immediately know that it is a bad placement. Unfortunately, like a novice, I have let my nerves get the best of me. Forgetting which way I slotted the cam into the crack, I pivot the piece upward into what seems to be a larger section. I am wrong. The upper section is deceiving and eats the cam. It still moves, but never on both sides. I curse to myself. Nice Dan. Just great. I wish someone were around to clap for you. As it turns out, I'm good at being a sarcastic prick to myself. After fifteen minutes of struggling with the cam, I hear my name called across the valley. Some friends of ours from the gym are on a route nearby. I try not to curse quite as loud.
When Netta reaches the first belay station, I am still kicking myself over the lost cam. It was a foolish placement. She is beautifully understanding.
“It's okay. Look around us!”
Straddling the flake, with no more of a ledge than the bicycle seat width we are sitting on, I look out over the hills again. They are beautiful, and I know it, but I'm too nervous to appreciate any of it. I watch our friends rappelling off their route, whose summit is already below us, and long to be descending. I look onward up the route. There is a traverse around a corner only five feet out, and I am unable to see anything beyond. Beneath us, the face is utterly sheer. No cracks or ledges. It's like looking across a lake, if on the other shore you could see the shadow of your own ghost.
I realize that to stop thinking and start doing is the only way out. Soon I am around the corner. Finding an old piton, I clip it and make quick work of the slab leading to the traverse crack above. I reach the crack and find that it plays to my strengths. There are large, open hand holds in the crack, if sloping at times. The protection is better here than behind the flake, and as I find a decent stem I realize that I couldn't be happier. The nerves have suddenly emptied from me, and all that remains is my body, which is overly prepared for this kind of climbing. The Needles requires a fitness of the mind more than the body. After the mind has been subdued, there is little to stop lustful adventurers from careening into a state of bliss.
After the second pitch, I am giddy. I set an anchor and belay Netta up. She is more anxious on this pitch than the last, which plays to her weakness: upper body, open hands. As the second on a traverse like this, her fall would be very similar to a lead fall. As she takes out each one of my placements, she creates a pendulum for herself of ten feet. That's a twenty foot swing. Netta groans at the touch of her palm on a bread loaf shaped hold. She is shaky, but pulls through each move with poise until she is clamoring onto the shallow ledges.
Together again at the belay station, we talk and re-rack. I'm much more excited than nervous now, but above us a twenty foot roof looms. I plan to skirt around it and into the left chimney, as the Conns did, remembering a cartoon from the guidebook in which Herb Conn is torso deep in the chimney with his legs dangling below in the open air, accented with the curved lines that indicate shaking. I reach the roof easily and clip the piton that still remains there. Backing it up with a nut placement, I look at the next couple moves, doubtfully. The entrance to the chimney is only about two feet wide, right where the roof ends, and houses a small ledge level with the roof. To do the move, I grab the ledge with both hands and preform the “getting out of the pool” mantle, while simultaneously worming through the thin opening into the chimney. Without the help of foot holds, the cartoon suddenly becomes less hilarious than it is accurate. Finally up high enough to press my whole back into the wall, I put my hands out against the other side of the chimney and act like I'm trying to force the crack wider, pushing with my back and my hands, while I pull my knees onto the ledge. I let out a cry of joy. All that remains is 80 feet of unprotected chimney climbing, which is a gift to Needles climbing. I joyfully grunt my way through a hell of rope drag and set a belay in a strenuous stance, grinning from ear to ear.
After some heavy breathing, I see Netta coming up the chimney, dragging the backpack behind her. Immediately feeling guilty for not carrying the weight, I take the backpack when she gets to me and tell her to summit first. She does, and I solo out of the chimney with the bag.
At the summit, we breathe heavily and laugh and shiver. We look out over the hills and the highway we came up, which is now snaking into the pine wood and the streaks of clouds. We are thankful to be alive, which is what makes being in this place so beautiful. Netta says exactly what I am thinking.
“I'm glad I got scared for awhile. It makes this better.”