A labor of love – My labor day climbing road trip! Part 2: Climbing at Custer state park and on Mount Rushmore!


Saturday, 04-Sept-2021, through Saturday, 11-Sept-2021

I love road trips. I’ve learned that, speaking to various therapists and councilors in the last year or so, long drives are a Saturday, 04-Sept-2021, through Saturday, 11-Sept-2021

I love road trips. I’ve learned that, speaking to various therapists and councilors in the last year or so, long drives are a major form of meditation for me. I have something to keep me focused, and I’m accomplishing a goal, but I can let my semi-conscious mind wander and reflect on what’s been happening in my life.

I try to do this at home, of course, but… I always get too stressed out, feeling like I should be doing something instead of just sitting back and letting my brain process all the various thoughts and possibilities that are constantly screaming around in my skull.

For my birthday, I’d originally planned to climb at Index with Daniel. When that fell through, I’d sketched out a road trip down highway 101 into California with my friend Laurel. That fell through too. Finally, I gave up and decided to do something on my own – something I’d always wanted to do, but had never quite been able to make happen.

An ascent of Devil’s Tower...

Monday and Tuesday, 06-Sept-2021 and 07-Sept-2021


I woke up early.

I am not a fan of waking up early, dear reader.

I need something major to make me positive about waking up early. A big hike, a fun drive, or… in this case…? A full day of rock climbing!!!

I met up with the guide about an hour from where I was camping – I hadn’t really planned my campsite for that distance, but when I realized it… I wasn’t against the situation. Sure, it meant I needed to wake up earlier than I otherwise would, but… okay. Hear me out. My goal here was to climb, to enjoy myself, and to get back safely at the end of the day. If I camped 5min from the area, I’d end up waking up 10min before I needed to, and then zipping out the tent door and rolling my way to the guide. As it stands, I wake up maybe 70min ahead of time, get dressed, and start the drive.

It means I have an hour to wake up completely – I’m safe to drive, especially early in the morning, and it lets my conscious brain wake itself up. That way, when I do meet up with the guide and start in toward the climbs, I’m primed and ready to go!

So… weird as it is to say…

Yay waking up early!

We met up outside the guide shop in the town of Custer. The plan was to do two days of climbing in Custer State Park – not only to get some good rock under my hands, but for Doug (guide extraordinaire) to assess my skillset and temperament, and decide if he felt comfortable going up Devil’s Tower with me.

I don’t blame them at all – I have an impressive climbing resume, to be sure, but people lie, and the guide is absolutely trusting his life to my hands just as much as I’m trusting him. For me, I can see his certifications… but I don’t have any of my own. The best way is to actually climb together.

As you all may expect – I passed with flying colors. We climbed, we crushed, we moved around, and we climbed some more. I got more climbing in today than any other day in the last… probably year and a half, maybe two full years. Probably more, thinking about it… which I don’t want to do.

Instead of thinking about sad things, I’m going to list off the routes that we climbed. Interestingly, my guide was pretty stingy with revealing grades… though near the end of the day he started filling me in a bit more. Some of these are guesses though, so… bear with me, if they’re completely wrong.

Also of note – the type of rock!! The rock here is granite, but very old slow-cooling granite. What that means to us is that the crystals in the rock are huge – the grain structure had more time to solidify, which means the crystals were able to grow. Because of that, there’s lots of large holds and big cracks, with huge veins of quartz running throughout the rock. It’s strong, it’s grippy, and the movements are fun and energetic.

On the Practice Rock
– Practice Chimney – Maybe 5.5? – Lovely and simple. A good chance to get on the rock, and definitely nice and easy.
– Practice Face – Maybe 5.7? – A simple face climb next to the chimney. Fun, interesting crystals, and a pleasant mix of delicate moves and fun steps.

On the “Outer Outlet Rock”
– Re-Table – 3 pitches, 5.7 – One medium length pitch, one short pitch, and one longer pitch. The 3rd pitch reminded me a lot of Beacon Rock, the 3rd pitch on SE Corner, where you have to make a semi-big move through a roof. That pitch, and the move on it, was always one of my favorites… and this route was no exception. One really cool item of note on this was the quartz crystals – they were absolutely massive. There was a vein running through the rock… probably a solid 3ft wide, with individual crystals easily the size of my torso.
– Weissner Chimney – 2 pitches, 5.7 – Pitch 1 was lovely, up to a good stance. Pitch 2 started off with a huge chimney, which was absolutely lovely… legs on one side, back on the other, and just shimmy. Just… kinda shimmy. Lots of shimmying.
– Kamps (Classic) crack – 1 pitch, 5.8-, though originally rated at 5.6 – This route. This route was amazing. I did it twice, it was so fun. A solid 100+ feet of varying crack climbing. Some face moves, one section of BEAUTIFUL layback, and a crux of just solidly fun crack climbing. I loved it. I adored it. I already want to go back, thinking about it.

After climbing, I felt a little bit restless and off… This was my first big climbing trip post-Sarah, and arguably my biggest post-Sarah trip in general. Melancholy was a good descriptor for my mood, after the high of climbing had started wearing off…

I wandered, a bit.

Walked around Custer – It’s not a particularly large town, so I didn’t have too far to go… but I was able to find some interesting diversions for myself. A rock shop, a few art galleries, and some generally interesting people watching… which honestly wasn’t as interesting as watching what the tourist shops carried. Lots of motorcycle gear, since Sturgis had been the week prior, but… also a surprisingly large quantity of anti-liberal gear.

I’m sure Portland is similarly stocked with anti-conservative clothing and paraphanalia, but… still. It’s sad to see, you know?

Anyways, I got a bit out of my funk. I called my Mom, chatted with my sister, and drove back to camp.

I cleaned up, took a lovely long shower, and made an amazing dinner of Proscuitto Mac and Cheese with steamed asparagus. Comfort food, with tons of extra calories to keep me going tomorrow.

I rested, I wrote, and I read some more Treasure Island.

It was a good day.


Instead of the guide shop, we met at the crag this time – a new crag! A famous crag! A crag that, I’ll bet, most people didn’t know is an amazing climbing spot!

I’m talking, of course, about Mt. Rushmore!

No, I didn’t climb the faces. I didn’t poke George in the eye, or pick Abe’s nose. I wanted to steal Teddy’s mustache, but unfortunately that area is very clearly off-limits to climbers. Large signs bolted to the side of the cliffs clearly delineate where you’re welcome to climb… and more importantly, where you’re “unauthorized entry, area under surveillance”.

I hadn’t realized that the Faces of Mt. Rushmore had been carved into a living mountain like this, but seeing the back side of the mountain… makes me a bit sad, to be honest. Don’t get me wrong – The faces are definitely here, for better for for worse, and my opinion on the matter doesn’t matter in the slightest. But coming from a climbing perspective, I am saddened by what was lost to create them.

Part of me wishes that the States had more things to tie us together – cool statues or monuments that were unequivocally positive and American. But maybe not having anything that doesn’t divide us… is what makes America what we are?

Man, who fed Ben the philosophy-juice? This post is about rock climbing!

Okay, going back.


We met at a small pullout behind the faces on Mt. Rushmore. We walked in roughly 500 yards, and were at the base of a glorious, soaring, majestic granite cliff. It swept upward, and upward we went with it…

West side of Mt. Rushmore, climbing routes:
– Garfield Goes to Washington – 3 pitches, 5.8 – This was amazing! The rock here was gorgeous, and the crack system led to some amazing climbing. Three pitches, each varying rock type and moves, kept me really happy and chugging along smoothly.
– StarDancer – 1 pitch, 5.8 – A beautiful face climb, and a sport climb on top of that! Went quickly and easily, pulling on beautiful little crystals of granite and quartz. Delicate, careful, and balancy. I loved it!
– Solo System – 1 pitch, 5.6 – Super fun face climb, continuing the small break from cracks to pull on small crystals… the rock here was second to none, and I felt like I could have walked up the route without using hands at all… in fact, I did so at one point when my hand slipped, and I didn’t slide an inch!
– Crack with no name to the left of Solo System (also called “Unknown” in Mountain Project) – 1 pitch, 5.6 – super fun, super simple, easy flaring crack / dihedral. I actually got to mock-lead this one, and got some interesting feedback and tips from the guide on placing gear!
– Aces High – 1 pitch, 5.9+ – The hardest route that I’d done so far on this trip, and I cruised up it. I mean… I slithered and shimmeyed and bashed my various limbs into and around cracks, snaking my way to the top in a roughly-similar shape to how I left the ground. It was super fun, and while I was exhausted by the end, I was absolutely ecstatic when I made the top.

I freely admit that, by the time we finished Aces High, I was bushed.


Tired out.

A tuckered pupper.

Ben had climbed hard! Ben wasn’t energetic no more!

Instead of pushing farther, we called it a day. Someday I very much want to try out another route here called Gossamer (1 pitch, 5.7) that climbs up a huge soaring fin, with a super-cool looking window in it. But for today, it was already late… we’d been climbing for 7 solid hours, and we still had Devil’s Tower to lay siege to.

Doug and I chatted, planned out when (4am), where (base of the tower, gravel parking lot), and how (by being the only two vehicles there at 4am) we’d met for the tower ascent. We talked about prep work, food, snacks, things to bring, things not to bring, and all the good little details that make a guide a wonderful climbing buddy. Then we headed out into the sunset, as every story in South Dakota should go.

<See Ben’s adventures for the rest of the day in the next, exciting post!>

One response »

  1. WOW !!!
    Entirely engaging and beautifully descriptive writing – with Amazing photos to complement the storyline that takes me back to my 1996 trip that missed much of your detailed experiences described here.
    So happy you got to do this trip the way you did,
    Love & Hugs, Dad

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