World-class climbing not far away

Reed Rombough

I have a long-term relationship with the weather that isn’t necessarily positive.  The weekend of Oct. 7-9, the weather once again showed its ugly, rainy, wet and cold behind.

It was Friday Oct. 7 and I had just arrived in the only noteworthy region of South Dakota, the Black Hills.

Ben Ekeren and I drove out west to do some climbing with SDSU alumni Kristen Wiles and Bryce Drefke, with Wiles coming from Colorado.  It’s a crisp evening in Rapid City as we go enjoy some watered-down $1 pints at a local bar.  I lay my head down on the pillow a couple of hours later knowing that I’m climbing in the most secret, yet world class crag (climbing area), the next morning.

Saturday morning is 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 called the Needles Pumpkin Party. The BHCC protects this area’s secrecy with the intensity of a T-Rex with kidney stones.

The pumpkin party is a chance for local climbers to gather, socialize and celebrate what they have to enjoy at their disposal.  The premise is basic: show up with a pumpkin, drink beer, carve your pumpkin, drink beer, climb a spire and put your pumpkin on top of the spire.  It also involves a swap of pumpkins once you reach the spires. The event provides a social, healthy and happy climbing atmosphere for the whole day.

Not this year though. This year I’ve come, which of course brings the first rainstorm in four weekends.

We roll onto Needles Highway in a cold, windy rainstorm knowing that no climbing is going down today.  We get the word of the cancellation of the pumpkin party. I’m sad about the rain and thwarted climbing opportunity, Ekeren is stoked because you can always bike in the rain.

After six hours of wet biking followed by a hot shower and a few movies, I once again lay down with dreams of the Needles in my head.

“YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME!” I whine as I gaze at yet another storm whipping across the Black Hills.  It looks like Sunday is going to be a bike day too.

With two days in and no climbing, Monday morning brings saving grace.  We wake up early to a gorgeous sunshine glazed over the hills and eat a quick breakfast before heading for the Needles. Today is the last day that the Needles highway will be open for the season, so it is a momentous day for climbing.

We decided on a route called God’s Own Drunk. It is located on the north side of the Khayyam spire in the Cathedral Spires area of the Needles. It was in the 40s but the sun shone bright and the rock was dry. What more could we possibly ask for? I normally would be staring at the ceiling in public relations class.

Big climbs like this are done in legs like a relay, called pitches.  The first pitch is the meat and taters of the route. I can look down between my legs to see a 25-foot gap between my feet and my last piece of gear. I pull up to the first set of anchors and clip in and let a “Yippy ky-yay” yell echo throughout the unworldly Cathedral Spires.  Ekeren follows up and meets me at the anchor where we consolidate gear again and I take off for the second pitch.

As I started, it felt like I was climbing with a 50 pound weight attached to my waist. By the time I reach the ledge with the next anchors I can barely squat the amount of weight from my rope drag as it pulls back against my upward progression.  The rope has become so twisted that it is struggling to move through the carabiners on my gear but some fancy rope work and improv saves the day again.

We both climb the last few feet to the summit.  We are 170 feet up, straddling a chunk of ground that maybe 100 other people have ever sat on.  We take pictures and high-five on our summit as we take in the overwhelming view provided by the Cathedral Spires.  But the best is yet to come.

We grab a rope we’ve been trailing and start hauling our pre-carved pumpkin up the face.  It may not be the official Needles Pumpkin Party, but that pumpkin cost $3.38 and we’re not wasting it.  We relish in the idea of a pumpkin on this tiny little summit and then we make our way down.

Before long we are headed back home feeling like we were a little bit more radical than the rest of the population.  More proof that adventure is what you make it.