Ah, the Black Hills. Even though it’s a 10 hour drive from the cities, many Minnesotan climbers claim this area as one of their home crags. Hop in the car, head southwest through rolling farms to Sioux Falls, and then straight west across South Dakota. Landmarks along the way include a short dip into the river valley of Champlain, a roadside sculpture of a skeleton person walking a skeleton dinosaur, Wall Drug, and the Badlands. Stop in Rapid City for a bite to eat, and then head on south into the hills.
The Black Hills are beautiful; pine forests with giant globs of granite plastering the hillsides. The rock here is granite, laden with tiny crystals, making for great friction and sharp rock. Place your foot somewhere and it will probably stick. Nearly every climb is a summit.
On this trip was myself, Seth, and our friend Paul, and I’d say the main story was the weather. We spent a lot of our time dodging storms and trying to figure out where we could climb once the storms rolled in.
Our first day out, we headed up to Sylvan Lake to warm up on the Conn Route on Aquarium Rock. Paul led the first pitch, brought Seth and me up, and then Seth took the lead from there. As Seth was heading to the summit, we could see a storm approaching from the west.
Seth linked the 2nd and 3rd pitches and was on top of the climb when we saw the lightning. We had two choices: bring Paul and I up and all do the double rope rappel from the top, or bail from where we were. We chose the latter. The storm was approaching quickly. Paul set up a rappel back to the ground from our perch, and Seth set up to rappel back down the route. Some good teamwork and problem solving got us all safely back to the ground.
Soon after, the storm hit. Rain soaked the hills, and our climbing was done for the day.
Later that afternoon, we hiked up to the Cathedral Spires and scouted possible climbs for the next day.
Same weather forecast, so we knew we needed to get moving. Our objective was Spire 2. The Cathedral Spires are a line of granite towers higher up in the hills. I had been on Spire 2 twice before, but never actually finished it (see posts here and here). We got an early start, made the hike in, and Seth set off to lead the first pitch.
I love this climb. The climbing itself is pretty casual, but interesting. The belays are bolted, which are always nice and save a lot of time. The first two pitches climb through a fun gully with a few short headwalls. The last pitch starts up a short chimney and then steps across to exposed, unprotected face climbing to the summit. The view from the top is gorgeous, and I was so happy to finally be able to see it.
The weather was beautiful, and our team of three rocked it, finishing the three pitch climb in three hours. After a short time up top and a long rappel back to the ground, a storm rolled in.
We retreated to lower elevations, back behind Mt Rushmore. The storm missed us there, and Paul and Seth finished the day climbing Shark’s Breath.
Back to the Conn Route to both finish it and retrieve our gear. I led us up the first pitch this time and brought Seth and Paul up together to save time. We all had our eye on the weather, as the forecast once again called for storms. This is the same climb on which we had nearly gotten caught in a lightning storm earlier that week.
Paul took the lead to link the second and third pitches and brought me and Seth up behind. Even though this route is rated a 5.3, it’s fun climbing and worth doing. The first pitch traverses a comfortable, but fun, flake, the second pitch is up through a squeeze chimney (kind of a pain with a pack on!), and the route finishes up with a bouldery move to some easy face climbing up to the summit.
At the top, the weather was *still* perfect. We set up the rappel, but hung out for a bit to enjoy the view.
Five minutes after this picture was taken, Paul looked over his shoulder and said “guys, maybe we should get out of here.” A storm had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and was bearing down on us. We all rappelled as quickly as we could, and by the time we were on the ground, it was hailing. We took shelter under a rock overhang and managed to avoid getting soaked.
Back at our campsite, storms were all around. Clouds swirled overhead, moving in every direction. It was quite a show. Shortly thereafter, we were all hunkered down in the car, waiting out another hailstorm. The storm was intense, and we learned later that the same storm had produced a tornado. Very glad we weren’t out climbing during that one, and also that all we got at our camp was a lot of hail and wind, and no tornado (our Marmot tents held up beautifully, by the way).
So… day 3, a nice, casual multi-pitch, gear retrieved, two hailstorms and a tornado. Check.
Contrary to the weather up to this point, the forecast called for ZERO PERCENT chance of rain! Zero. Awesome. We took full advantage of it.
This is the day that I was reminded of what a Black Hills 5.7 is. Friction is the name of the game. Don’t expect bomber footholds or handholds. Feet smear on sandpaper rock, hands balance on tiny crystals. Repeat.
We started the day on Weird Water. Paul led the trad variation of this start. He set up a belay at the top of the crack, turning this into a two pitch climb, and Seth and I grunted our way up the sharp, painful crack that Paul had just very impressively led. My confidence was low as I realized I didn’t really know how to climb a Black Hills 5.7, so I lowered down and waited below while Seth and Paul finished up the climb. Here’s a photo of Paul belaying Seth up to the summit.
Next up was Gossamer, a really cool rock fin with a big hole in the middle, and another Black Hills 5.7. Trad start, sport the last half. No feet to speak of once you’re on the face, just lots of smearing. Paul put this one up (Paul had some really great leads this week) and I followed. Here’s where I figured out how to climb a Black Hills 5.7. Smear smear smear smear and… smear. It’s all about the feet. Once I got a feel for the technique, Gossamer was a super fun climb.
It was getting late in the day and I wanted to get another lead in to finish off the trip. The 5.7s we had been on that day were a bit heady for me, and I was just figuring out the technique, so I sought out something more in the 5.4-5.5 range. I found a climb called Dunce Cap, a 5.4 trad route, that was close by. I led, Seth followed. When I got to the top I had to laugh at myself for choosing it. It wasn’t a fun climb at all, mostly just grunting my way up a gully with way too much trad gear getting in my way. I did get to place some gear and build a trad anchor up top, so not all was lost. I brought Seth up, and then we actually just downclimbed the last half of it and walked off the other side. Wah wah.
And that was the end of the trip. All in all very fun. Lots of weather dodging, with climbing in between, and a great last day with perfect weather. We got in a couple of multi-pitch trad climbs, and worked really well as a group, so I’d say that was successful. We were not struck by lightning or hit by a tornado. We made it safely to the ground before impending lightning and hail storms, and our tents survived the hail and wind and stayed mostly dry.
I’d love to get back out there later this season. Other climbs that have caught my eye: Sultan’s Tower, Spire 1, Spire 3 (first pitch), Station 13…. there is an incredible amount of climbing out there.