The First Ascent of the Needle's Eye


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Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Topic Author's Original Post - Jul 27, 2007 - 04:01pm PT
Note: this account also appears as a trip report at . The ensuing discussion and photos there are completely separate from what appears here.

In the spirit of living---or at least not entirely dead---history at SuperT, I offer the following reminiscence of an epic adventure a long time ago.

"He's more interested in her boobs than in me."

When a guy has this thought about another guy, the observation itself would seem to be a no-brainer. But the circumstances here, even if they did not alter the truth of the observation, nonetheless distorted my reaction to it.

"Pay attention, dammit," I shrieked, failing to note that Don could have perceived this as a hearty approval of his current focus rather than a plea to change it. How, I wondered miserably, did I ever get myself into this mess?

It wasn't hard. The year was 1964. I had come across some articles in Appalachia by Fritz Wiessner, articles with spectacular photos of a forest of slender pinnacles. The Needles in South Dakota! I headed out with almost no information about what I would find.

What I found was Don Storjohann, a strapping farm boy from Minden, Iowa with a booming voice, a twinkle in his eye that made women melt on the spot (why can't I do that, I wondered hopelessly), and a passion for teetering precariously on the sometimes breakable crystals of the spires of Custer State Park. Don suggested that we try to make the first ascent of the Needle's Eye.

OK, ok, it wasn't a first ascent, but it was, by Needles standards. A line of 14 aid bolts on the West face, placed in 1953, led to the summit---if you could find appropriate hangers and screws. There was a rumor that Layton Kor had chimneyed to the top of the Needle's Eye and then aided out. But no one had free-climbed the pinnacle. Herb and Jan Conn, who had rediscovered the Needles in 1947 and established amazing classics nearing 5.9 in difficulty, using a single 60 foot rope (requiring them to downclimb every pitch) and $1.95 tennis shoes, set the Needles ethics agenda by declaring free ascents to be the only ascents. So the Needles Eye was unclimbed.

Don had picked out a possible route that started in a gulley at the lowest point of one face of the eye, traversed out to a belay at a flake on the face, then followed the left edge of the face to a fold or crack delineating a kind of "cap" of the pinnacle. From there, a traverse right led to a bulge guarding the lower angle rock to the top.

Hmm. The face above the flake was unprotected. We'd be in groundfall range at or before the fold. If we could get a piton in the fold, we'd have some protection for the bulge. Otherwise...we were young enough not to think about otherwise.

At least not right away.

The Needle's Eye is located at a turnout on the Needles Highway, a sinuous track snaking through the heart of the spires and ducking through a narrow single-lane tunnel at one edge of the turnout. In order to avoid the tourists, we started up at 6 in the morning, Don quickly led the short pitch to the flake belay, and I sallied forth on the unprotected face above.

Well, sallied isn't quite right---dilly-dallied would be more like it. Hours went by as I traversed back and forth and climbed up and down. In truth, the climbing wasn't especially hard, but the thought of making even one irreversible move and then arriving at the "fold," only to find no protection available, brought the hitherto distant thoughts of "othewise" sharply to the foreground. My attempts were nothing more than an elaborate dance of defeat, which I had the bad grace to prolong until the conclusion was inevitable. I turned over the lead to Don.

Bursting with Midwestern corn-fed enthusiasm, exuding the "right stuff" that got us to the moon, and utterly oblivious to my gloomy procrastinations, Don launched up the unprotected face with hardly a pause and rocketed on up to the fold.

A pause.

The sound of a piton being driven, a hollow sound, lacking the musical confirmation of solid pro, and abruptly terminated by the lugubrious vibrating note of a bottoming placement. Some more attempts to place pitons to no avail, and suddenly Don became fully aware of just how bad his situation was, especially since he could see that the bulge was going to be much harder than anything he had done so far. Unlike me, who had been battered by doubt, Don was decisive. No hours of delaying tactics for him. He announced that the pin he had placed was highly suspect and he didn't trust it to lower off of, so he would climb down with a belay through the pin, realizing fully that it might not hold his weight if he slipped, and that the consequences in that case would be an almost certainly fatal fall to the ground.

I held my breath. He made it back to the belay.

It would have made perfect sense to give up at this point, but rationality is not a strong suit of the young. I had on me a very distinctive gold Charlet-Moser piton that I had failed to pass over to Don. It had a thicker blade than he had with him, and he thought it might go in where his gear had failed. And so, armed with the hoped-for magic bullet and comforted by the knowledge that Don had climbed up and down the face below the fold, I headed up to see if more progress could be made.

Now all this had taken a lot of time, and the road was now choked with tourists and backed up for almost the entire length of the Needles Highway. Our 6 AM start had been wasted, and we had become the gladiators in the arena, battling a ferocious nubbin-encrusted beast while the hoards waited, not always patiently, for some a catastrophe to enliven their day. They had no idea how close we were to satisfying their morbid craving for a moment of entertainment.

Locked inextricably into the traffic jam was a convertible with a young woman in a peasant blouse as a passenger. The blouse was revealing enough at eye level, but from the vantage of the belay flake directly above, little was left to the imagination. Don almost immediately engaged his moltenizing twinkle beam in an effort to...well, you know what guys do.

And so it was that I found myself up at the fold with my belayer locked in a mammaric trance below.

The first thing I did was to test the piton Don had placed. A single blow of the hammer knocked it out of the crack and sent it on its way down the rope to Don, who, in an admirable display of concentration, barely acknowledged its arrival. So now I'm up at the fold with nothing in, having lost the only one of Don's pitons that he had been able to place, staring wildly at the spot where my gold Charlet-Moser special was going to go. First some delicate loving light taps---we don't want this baby to bounce out---then some harder blows, and finally all-out pounding, mercilessly overdriving that sucker for whatever extra security it might acquire.

I traversed right, yelled ineffectively at Don, and started up the bulge, which was indeed much harder than the climbing below. (The 5.8 rating of these moves does not convey the cumulative psychic distess I was laboring under as I advanced.) Pinching two crystals, I high-stepped onto a small blackish blob and started to pull through.

I think my nervous system registered the departure of my foothold before I heard the cracking sound, certainly before the the loud thunk from below announced the impact on the hood of the Breastmobile. The bad news: the boyfriend of the Peasant Fantasy was shrieking obscenities at us for damaging his car and I was suspended from two pinch-grips with my feet flaying about ineffectively and one piton between me and oblivion. The good news: I finally had Don's undivided attention.

An adrenaline infusion coursed through my veins and I suddenly found myself several feet higher with no memory of what I had done to get there. With the apoplectic tones of the offended boyfriend wafting up from below, I floated ecstatically up the ever-lessening angle of the final summit slope.

The Needle's Eye had seen its first ascent.

Don Storjohann soloing up the Eye the evening before the ascent. The actual route traversed out of the eye at the bottom of the picture onto the face whose profile is the left edge of the formation.
Chicken Skinner

Trad climber
Jul 27, 2007 - 04:19pm PT
Great story. Thank you.


Sport climber
Buzzard Point, TN
Jul 27, 2007 - 04:26pm PT
here here!
bob d'antonio

Trad climber
Taos, NM
Jul 27, 2007 - 04:30pm PT
Wonderful Rich...great story.

Trad climber
Lee, NH
Jul 27, 2007 - 04:41pm PT
Did you write that recently, or long ago? Great story, thanks for sharing it with us.

I climbed in the Black Hills in the 70s but never had courage to try Needle's Eye. Henry Barber was impressed with that route, and described its seriousness in detail. And it looked intimidating enough from the ground. You could see that climbing above the fixed pin would be an all-or-nothing deal.
Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Jul 27, 2007 - 05:12pm PT
Great story, Rich.

I envision a Rube Goldberg like setting titled "Climbing is 80% mental. The rest is breastwork."

Climbers start, breastmobile arrives, belayer is distracted, leader is distraught, leader pounds in pin, leader moves up, foothold breaks away, hold hits breastmobile, boyfriend hollers at leader, leader clears crux, climb completed.

No wonder we think of our sport as rational and precise.

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Topic Author's Reply - Jul 27, 2007 - 05:14pm PT
Thanks Chiloe. I just wrote this account, after posting to the "Living History" thread got me thinking history.

Whatever the Needle's Eye represented in terms of boldness (or stupidity, or youthful naivete, depending on your perspective) was overwhelmingly eclipsed three years later by Pete Cleveland's paradigm-shifting achievements on Super Pin and Hairy Pin.

Cleveland was easily among the very best climbers in the country in the late sixties, but his choice of out-of-the-way locales for his revolutionary achievements meant that he never came to the attention of the general climbing public.

I should add, as I hope is evident from the account, that although it was me who ended up at the top on the sharp end of the rope, I would never have gotten there had it not been for the truly bold effort by Don, who was the real hero of the ascent, if ascents may be thought of at all as a context for heroism.
the Fet

Knackered climber
A bivy sack in the secret campground
Jul 27, 2007 - 05:32pm PT

The Needles made me nervous just due to the nature of breakable crystals and not much pro. I can't imagine putting up an FA with that gear at that time, BRAVO!
Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Jul 27, 2007 - 05:48pm PT
Hey Rich,

Pete used to work at NASA here in Cleveland didn't he? Have you kept up with him at all?


Trad climber
Fruita, Colorado
Jul 27, 2007 - 06:05pm PT
I spoke with my old friend Pete Cleveland by phone not but a few years ago, while working on my history of free climbing. He sounded good then. He and I climbed in Boulder together quite a bit, when he was yet to do those bold runouts. I took him up some hard offwidths, the likes of which he'd never experienced. He floundered a lot, but I detected some real tenacity. I enjoyed him a lot and, at the time, had no idea he was to become one of the real legends of climbing.

Rich, your story of the Needle's Eye is great of course. I should pilfer some of it for the revised version of History of free climbing, which will come out one day... I remember soloing up to about the point of the fellow in the photo, on a rainy day in about 1966 and wonderng where the route went. And on that trip of course I got an up front look at the nearby Thimble. It was before I'd met John, but he was already a living presence in my life. I first heard about you from my student Fred Pfahler, who showed up one day at my house in Boulder asking if I'd like to climb. He mostly knew nothing about climbing, other than having met you and having done a tiny bit at Devil's Lake or the Gunks. He was a bit gullible at that point, and a climbing shop had sold him a full bin full of pitons, enough for forty climbers, with a few pins to spare. But that bin and the fact that he had a working car (his Scout) were like striking gold, so I adopted him on that basis, then found out I liked him. He had a heart of gold. He kept talking about Rich Goldstone, and how good Rich was, and how Rich was a disciple of Gill's, etc.

Hey, I just remembered. You were there, at the top of the Black Canyon to greet Fred and me when I led that thing they now call Ament's Chimney, that big corridor where I was spread out, feet on one wall, hands on the other, and had to dangle at the top by one arm, to get into and squeeze up through some chockstones, runout a hundred and fifty feet... I imagine you remember those days.

Didn't you know Ray Schragg too? I haven't heard from him since I drug him and Stultz up the Crack of Fear in 1966...

McCarthy and I had lunch several times together in Idaho Falls a few years ago. He is always great to be with...

Social climber
The West
Jul 27, 2007 - 06:44pm PT
Nice Story!

In 1983 I climbed a lot, winter ascents in LCC, the month of April in Josh (onsighted the monkey roof, almost died soloing sail away, etc) Climbed Zodiac (first ascent after a major Rob Slater clean up the fall before) -my first wall as head nailer. The needles, a failed attempt on the window @ Deto and much other shid.

-the most scared I got was leading The Needle's Eye-

I Knew a crystal would break on that half pitch runout, the old pin would pull and I would die on the hood of a Vistacruiser™. Didn't work out that way, but man, that was a scary lead!!

A few years earlier I was climbing something in that parking lot with Roadkill Phil, can't even remember what it was, cause out of nowhere, stepped a tube-toped Venus ... We stopped what ever we were doing (climbing, belaying, setting anchors, who can tell?) as she exited her car and wandered up the trail uphill and left of the tunnel.

another time I was there with Chasbro bouldering @ campground boulder and there was this new york talking hippie Rich Golds-omething or other ("didn't we see him in that Gill book?") attempting and doing these 4' (maybe longer) dynos. That was something, but that memory has faded somewhat, not like the tube top vision.

Bleeding heart liberal that I am, style edit; I realize that I am going to sexist hell, but what's a guy to do?

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Topic Author's Reply - Jul 27, 2007 - 07:49pm PT

Here's a picture of myself, Steve Derenzo (a climber from the University of Chicago who you never met) and, at the wheel, Fred Pfahler driving his Scout.

I lost track of Fred years ago.

Edit: You can't see Fred's face in that picture. Here's one of him and me in the Long's Peak shelter.

Here's Raymond Schrag on the Hagermeister slab with an amused Gill looking on.

Schrag is a lawyer in NYC. I still talk to him from time to time.


Social climber
kennewick, wa
Jul 27, 2007 - 08:13pm PT
Thanks for the story. Climbed up the face of it in the early 90's. I dont remember if it was the same route, I dont recall entering th chimney but I do recall the car directly below the route.

The needles was one of my favorite climbing destinations.

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Topic Author's Reply - Jul 27, 2007 - 08:24pm PT
Golsen, you probably did the 5.9+ or 5.10 variation straight up the face to the flake. We thought about it in '64, but we weren't ready for it then.

Trad climber
Top of the Mountain Mun
Jul 28, 2007 - 01:12am PT
I love this place. This is what this forum is all about. Thanks for sharing the mamories.

Social climber
Davis, CA
Jul 28, 2007 - 01:24am PT
Thanks for the beta on the key jugs!
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Jul 28, 2007 - 01:36am PT
thanks Rich, wonderful story...

Trad climber
Fruita, Colorado
Jul 28, 2007 - 02:54am PT
Great shots on Fred and you. Yes, that's the old Scout. I wish I knew where he was. He had started to study some kind of eastern religion, if I recall, chanting and such... after a few bad experiences in the psychedelic later 1960s... Say hello to Ray Schragg for me, Rich. What were you and Fred doing up on Longs? Now you've jogged my memory, as Fred and I did some 6 or 7-pitch thing way up south of the shelter cabin, on the Meeker wall, RURPS and all... That doesn't look like Gill below Schragg, in the photo. But my computer doesn't bring up the photos very well.

Trad climber
Lee, NH
Jul 28, 2007 - 09:08am PT
For the benefit of those who haven't gazed up at the Needle's Eye,
here is an image (photog Gary Schmidt) borrowed from

The crux bulge is above and right of the climber, pretty much up the skyline.
I believe he is at about the position of the only protection crack.


Social climber
The West
Jul 28, 2007 - 09:10am PT
Nice photo, worth going big, for!

edit, liked the bigger on better.
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