Western Omelette Part II: The Black Hills

This is part II of our road trip story. Part I can be found here and the latter parts will be linked here once they exist. Enjoy!

Leaving the Badlands was an easy decision, since we were anxious to keep moving closer to the mountains to the west. But before the mountains came the hills. The Black Hills National Forest, that is. You may remember that we rang in the new year in the Black Mountains, a range in Appalachia that tops out at 6,699ft. The Black Hills highest summit towers at 7,244ft…so it’s clear they named the Black Mountains before they saw the Black Hills.

On our way to the Black Hills National Forest, we stopped by an information center just outside Rapid City, South Dakota and got some VERY good information. The lady who worked there had a husband who liked to climb, so she gave us some tips on good places to climb, some hot springs in Wyoming, a scenic route to the Tetons, and the name of a good pizza place in a one horse town on the way. Armed with this new information, we hit up a gear shop in Rapid City for some more quickdraws, sunscreen, and food.

The Black Hills (or Black Forest as I like to incorrectly and ignorantly call it), was awesome. We went down Spearfish Canyon, of which Frank Lloyd Wright had these praises to sing: “But how is it that I’ve heard so little of this miracle and we, toward the Atlantic, have heard so much of the Grand Canyon when this is even more miraculous…” Not a bad endorsement. Oh, and apparently it’s full of world class limestone climbing (who knew South Dakota had anything world class to offer other than corn palaces and drug stores)! We met a dog in the parking lot (oh and some people too) who gave us some info on the walls we were close to….but it was too wet to climb from all the rain and hail (oh yeah, it hailed before we got there). This turned out to be for the better, because by the time we drove to a trailhead, hiked into the forest, and set up camp, the lightning and thunder was rolling in, and the rain started pouring down the minute we got the tent set up. We enjoyed some wine while making dinner in the tent, happily slurped up the ramen, and then hit the hay.

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I wish the iPhone took better low-light pictures. 

Now we get to the fun part. Climbing! Well first we woke up and drank some tea yadda yadda yadda hiked back to the car blah blah blah OKAY NOW WE ARE AT THE CLIMBING WALL! Let’s get started. We were climbing on Sunshine Wall, in a section called Big Black Face. We had helmets on and took all the necessary safety precautions such as high fiving and saying things like “yeah, that should be fine” and “eh, I’m sure it won’t be a problem”, so we were ready to rock. Andy lead first, starting his way up a 5.9+ called Lost Ninja. There was a stone at the bottom of the route that gave the route a 4 ninja-star rating, so yeah…it was a good route…

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“Let’s see if we remember how to do this.”

The slabby limestone was dry and easy to grip, but the holds tended to be a bit crimpy and the footholds were mostly chips. Andy made it up maybe halfway before the first crux. He had his right hand on an undercling and his left hand had already clipped a quickdraw into the wall, so all he had to do we reach up and clip his rope in. He seemed solid enough, and he called for some slack. I obliged. He missed the clip, dropping the rope; I had heard the clip make its clipping noise so I took in the slack again. No biggie, he could just call for more slack and then clip in. He called for the slack, brought the rope up to the carabiner…then fell. He fell past 2-3 quickdraws (if you count the one he missed clipping), meaning he fell around 15 feet. To be clear, calling for slack is the absolute worst thing to do preceding a fall. The only thing that would be worse would be calling for “belay off”, I guess. Anyway, I gave Andy some penalty slack the rest of the day just to make sure he understood the severity of his mistakes. He fell once again on this route, but he was able to warn me a few seconds before and I caught him easily. He finished off the route after a short break and we got him down the wall for his turn on belay.

I took my turn on the sharp end of the rope (slang for leading ), and flashed the route (climbed it successfully on my first attempt without falling). To celebrate, a barrage of birds bombarded me as I cleaned the anchor and rappelled down.

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Some places, you just never want to come down from.

Next up (and right next to us), was The Pakistani, another 5.9+ classic. Andy attempted the first lead again and made it about three quarters of the way up before the pump set in above an unclipped bolt and took a 20 foot whipper, this time tweaking his ankles. I set him down and had him belay me again, as I ticked off another flash, before heading out.

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Watch me whip...

After hitting the local diner for a beer and a burger, we hit the road towards...The Black Hills! So the way this National Forest is set up, a small portion of the forest is in Wyoming, even though all the big stuff is in South Dakota (Spearfish Canyon, Mt. Rushmore, etc.). We took the scenic route and arrived around 5, leaving plenty of time to hike and find a campsite. We searched high and low for over an hour  circling almost completely back to our car before finding  flat enough land between some hills to hide and camp.

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"This was the sign we were looking for to leave the trail and find somewhere to hide for the night."

We set up the tent and hammocks while drinking wine, cooking dinner, listening to music, and reading through our AAC magazine for inspiration. We planned on sleeping in the hammocks, but some thunder and lightning frightened us into the tent right after the sun went down. Better safe than sorry, I rarely say!

Andy’s ankle was still bothering him in the morning, but we decided to check out Devil’s Tower National Monument anyway. Like most things we see, we want to climb it. The Tower was no different, except for the fact that we were 500$ worth of climbing gear and 10 hours of professional training short of climbing to the summit. But we still wanted to try some of the shorter routes and scout the area for future trips. After saying hello to the prairie dogs on our way into the park, we got up the the base of the tower. We washed our faces in the bathroom at the visitor center and basically just sat on a bench looking at the tower, contemplating. Then...we decided not to climb it. The weather in the Tetons was clear for the next few days followed by a week of thunderstorms, so we wanted to rush over there as quickly as possible. Goodbye, Devil’s Tower...we will conquer you another day.

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"Thanks, President Teddy!"

Now for the boring road trip stuff. I’ll keep it quick: we drove. The drive wasn’t boring, actually, because the scenery was incredible...but it has nothing to do with our adventure, so I won’t dwell on it. We passed through a town called Ten Sleep, right outside Ten Sleep Canyon (INCREDIBLE place, want to climb there someday). We were supposed to get some pizza in Ten Sleep (population 23, probably), but the pizza place was closed. Sad day. We ate some car snacks and drove for a few more hours until we got to Thermopolis...which is apparently the sight of the world’s largest mineral springs.

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None of the old people stuck around to soak with us.

After the eating lunch and getting our mineral bath on (fo free! Thanks, taxpayers!), we hit the road once again: next stop, Tetons! Okay Maybe one more stop. We slowly climbed some mountain passes in my crappy ‘05 Malibu, and upon reaching the summit, we found there to be snow on the ground. And snow in the air. From mineral hot springs to blizzardy mountain, real quick. We decided to test our snowshoes, since we’d never worn snowshoes before, and we got a taste of what our Teton’s trip would be like. Also, some ugly kid in an RV left his mountain dew bottle in the parking lot. Ugh. Americans.

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The road to Jackson, Wyoming is long and flat, finding itself in a valley between two mountain ranges. We were giddy. We ended up staying in a KOA a few miles outside of Jackson, getting a proper shower in and packing for the next day. Stay tuned for what was probably my and Andy’s most dangerous hike ever.

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