Live Beyond the Weather

Weather is the ass end of the outdoors, enough said.  It never fails to completely alter my plan behind a trip.  This past weekend was a three day weekend thanks to Columbus day, and I wanted to climb.  My buddy Ben and I took off for the Black Hills on Friday, a six hour drive from our temporary home in the flattest part of South Dakota.  We left Brookings basking in a beautiful sunshine with 70 degree temps and arrived in Rapid City at our friend Bryce’s apartment under clear night skies with temps in the upper 50’s.  After enjoying a few $1 brews at a local bar we watched movies until we couldn’t keep our eyes open.  Contrary to the previous day, I woke up Saturday morning to low cloud cover and what looked like rain sweeping across the region I wanted to climb in.

This Saturday morning was no ordinary morning of climbing endeavors.  Every year the Black Hills Climbing Coalition (BHCC) hosts a special event in the astonishing Needles of the Black Hills.  The Needles Pumpkin Party.  The Needles are a well kept secret that us South Dakotans enjoy without the world knowing.  If this area was discovered by the outside world it would attract climbers from all reaches of the globe.  Instead, there is barely ever a wait on routes, and the classics see little traffic and retrobolting (not just replacing old bolts, but adding new ones to make the route easier, thus changing it from its original ascent and destroying the history and overall complexity of the climb) is still regulated with the fierceness of a t-rex with a splinter.  The idea behind climbing in the needles is to have giant cahones.  The routes are scary, at best.  A lot of the classics here are followed by an R or an X rating that visiting climbers shy away from.  If you look close though, these X and R rated routes are also rated with 3 and 4 stars by the locals.  20-30 foot runouts without any available placements are commonplace among local climbers, and they love it, I love it.

The pumpkin party is a chance for local climbers to gather, socialize and celebrate what they have to enjoy at their disposal.  The premises is basic, show up with a pumpkin, drink beer, carve your pumpkin, drink beer, climb a spire, put your pumpkin on the spire.  Later on, after some b.s-ing with your buddies, you climb a different spire and bring the pumpkin down while others bring yours down.  The whole thing is social and provides a healthy happy climbing atmosphere for the whole day. Not this weekend though! No, of course not, because I’m here.

Pumpkin on a spire in the Needles

Ben, myself and our mutual friend Kristen (who drove up from Colorado) rolled onto the Needles highway in a cold, windy rainstorm knowing that no climbing was going down today.  We met up with Chris, the president of the BHCC in the parking lot as he solemnly updated us on the cancellation of the pumpkin party.  He drove off into the storm, but not before inviting us to lunch and beers to heal the wounded moods of the day.  We declined, because although I was sad about the rain and thwarted climbing opportunity, Ben was stoked, because you can always bike in the rain.

We made our way to one of the most favored biking areas in the Black Hills, the Phoenix Trail, another secluded gem of South Dakota.  This area has trails for all levels of bikers including the best of the best downhill mountain bikers, like Ben, or the remedial newbs like myself.  Luckily Kristen had her bike, and Ben had two, so we were covered as far as bikes went.  We spent the next 6 hours biking hard in the rain, taking on big drops, hard berm turns, creek crossings, and big gap jumps.  That night we slept well.

“YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME!” I whined as I gazed out across another rainy and cloudy Sunday morning.  No climbing, for yet another day.  We moved slow that morning, making a hearty breakfast and relaxing before moseying back to the Phoenix.  We shredded hard, being joined by Bryce mid-day.  We left again after 6 hours, but not before I landed my longest jump ever, an 18 foot gap jump over a road.

Monday morning brought saving grace.  We woke up early to a gorgeous sunshine glazed over the hills and ate a quick breakfast before heading for the Needles.  Today was the last day that the Needles highway would be open for the season, so it was a momentous day for climbing.  We had decided on a route called “God’s Own Drunk” 5.8+ with a solid 5.9 consensus.  It was located on the north side of the Khayyam spire in the Cathedral Spires area of the Needles.  A 170 foot ascent would bring us to the top of a formation barely big enough for the two of us to straddle.  It was cold this morning, somewhere in the 40’s, and the wind was relentless, but the sun was shining, and the rock was dry. What more could I possibly ask for?  I mean, I normally would have been in Public Relations class staring at the ceiling.

Cathedral spires viewed from the South

The first pitch was the meat and taters of the route.  It was a huge open book dihedral with marginal gear options in the crack system.  At one point I looked down between my legs to see a 25 foot gap between my feet and my last piece of gear, I was standing over a 50 foot fall on a #2 cam.  I doubled up on gear in the next 4 feet and kept pushing.  I pulled up to the first set of anchors and clipped in and let a “Yippy ky yay” yell echo throughout the unworldly Cathedral Spires.  Ben followed up and met me at the anchor where we consolidated gear again and I took off for the second pitch.  This pitch would have been scary still, but significantly easier without the added rope drag.  After our belay ledge there was a 5 foot ledge with bushes growing on it.  No matter how far I extended the piece above the ledge, the rope still dragged through the bushes.  It felt like I was climbing with a 50lb weight attached to my waist. By the time I reached the ledge with the next anchors I could barely squat the amount of weight from my rope drag as it pulled back against my upward progression.  The rope had become so twisted because of the bushes that it was struggling to move through the carabiners on my gear.

After some fancy rope work and clever improvisation, Ben once again met me at the anchors, a little shaken after the scariness of the last pitch. All he had to say was “You’ve got a few screws loose man.”  The next pitch was short, almost pointless to rope up on, but safety first right?  I started up to the summit which was a mere 20 feet away.  I had to build an anchor at the top to bring Ben up.  We took pics and high fived on our summit as we took in the overwhelming view provided by the Cathedral Spires.  Ben downclimbed on a prusik, then belayed me down while I prayed not to fall to a factor two on the anchor.  We set our rappel, made our way down to the bottom, and once again consolidated gear.  Before long we were headed back to the car with the biggest grins on our faces. I was more content than a bed bug in a Serta warehouse.

Six hours later we were back in Brookings feeling like we were a little bit radder than the rest of the population.

Back to the grind.

Remember, no matter the weather or the circumstances, Adventure Is What You Make It.