Trip Report
The First Ascent of the Needle's Eye
Monday February 22, 2010 10:59pm
Don Storjohann soloing up the Eye the evening before the ascent. The a...
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.
Credit: rgold

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. The original post, subsequent discussion, and ethics donnybrook appears here in the Super Topo Forum.

"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.

  Trip Report Views: 9,942
About the Author
rgold is a climber from Poughkeepsie, NY.

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Comment on this Trip Report

Gym climber
sawatch choss
  Oct 7, 2009 - 04:01pm PT
Breast thing I've read all day!

Trad climber
  Oct 7, 2009 - 05:01pm PT
I was still laughing from "moltenizing twinkle beam" then snorted coffee when I hit "mammaric trance." Better late than never for a trip report like this one.
Russ Walling

Social climber
from Poofters Froth, Wyoming
  Oct 14, 2009 - 01:00pm PT
A+! Dig the history!

Trad climber
  Oct 14, 2009 - 03:18pm PT
here's 200+ responses and lots of discussion from when this was originally posted:

  Oct 14, 2009 - 04:24pm PT
An ascent Richard would just as soon forget, written


Social climber
  Oct 16, 2009 - 03:23am PT
hey there rgold.... say, great stuff, and i am just a "gal" but i truly saw the sparkle and fun of it all...

oh my---and the danger... :O

say, thanks for a really fun but partially frantic share... '

now, as to this:
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,

i was wondering exactly where it was located, and now, oh my, i see i would never have a trouble in seeing it...
that is unless the tourist have blocked the road in!
man oh man... i've been through south dakota once, and in the tip, once, but never got a chance to sight see, and FIND such great rock...

thanks for the share of your first ascent...
and i will go check the other link you shared...
and then go look up some pics of this great needle in the air...

  Oct 20, 2009 - 12:21am PT
OMG, if there is a better written story about a classic anywhere I'll pay big money for it. This was AWESOME! You put us right there, sweating out oblivion with you. I almost had to chalk up to get the sweat off so I could type! What better place to put this other well told and great Richard Goldstone tale involving Mark Powell and Bob kamps from the other thread, Richs words below:

"Probably the most memorable feature of that climb was an interaction I had with some tourists, a story which now has been told and retold, having now been appropriated by others and recounted as if it had happened to them. But you twisted my arm so I'll tell it again...

Mark was leading, Bob was belaying, and I was on the ground watching. A tourist pulled up and watched Mark lead for a long time, long enough to see him place a piton or two and clip into them, and finally reach the tiny summit. After watching all this, the guy got out of his car, walked over to me, and asked, "How'd they get the cables up there?" (Mind you, he and his wife had just watched how they got the cables up there.) I was very polite, and in my best imitation of the professor I would become, I offered a careful and detailed explanation of exactly what Mark had been doing. At the end of this mini-seminar, his wife (whose size seemed to preclude an exit from the car) leaned out the window and shouted to her husband, "How'd they get the cables up there?" To which her husband replied, in tones rife with exasperation, "I don't know, I can't get a straight answer out of this guy!"

Experiences like this caused me to print up a bunch of tee shirts with the legend "Needles Repair Service" on the back. Bob had one; I can't remember whether Mark got one or not. These shirts were, as I had hoped, self-explanatory to most of the tourists who stopped, the clanking of iron and occasional banging of pitons only reinforcing the repairing theme. Pinnacle repair was a notion they had probably already been exposed to by postcards sold locally showing Herb Conn rappelling down George Washington's nose while on one of the Park Service's periodic missions to patch cracks in the sculpture. The tee-shirts were more successful than I anticipated, leaving us to ponder the fact that many people are happier with a false explanation that conforms to their preconceptions than with a true explanation that does not. One cannot help but wonder, 30 odd years later, what role this phenomenon may have played in the civic and political life of our nation."

LOL! 2 Great story's Rich!!!!!!!!! Thank you so much!

  Oct 18, 2009 - 06:00pm PT
Great stuff. Classic...

Trad climber
meffa, ma
  Oct 21, 2009 - 01:19pm PT
great read!

Trad climber
  Oct 25, 2009 - 03:07pm PT
Awesome read, thanks for writing!
Historical climbing the way it's supposed to be.

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
  Feb 23, 2010 - 11:05am PT
Thank you for a great story!
What a moment - when you don't even know how you got up there.

Maybe I'll find myself on that thing one day, and I'll think of your TR.
Mark Hudon

Trad climber
On the road.
  Feb 23, 2010 - 11:18am PT
Great story!
mike m

Trad climber
black hills
  Feb 8, 2011 - 11:36am PT

  Feb 8, 2011 - 11:48am PT
I swear.

This story should be published in the New Yorker.

  Feb 8, 2011 - 03:29pm PT
Wonder how I missed this. A great story, Rich, beautifully told! Conveys perfectly the spirit of Needles climbing.

Trad climber
Santa Monica, California
  Feb 9, 2011 - 11:17am PT
Great Story!

I was just up there in Sept., it's hard to convey what tight quarters it is with the road until you've been there. It's probably one of the closest things to immersive voyerism that there is in the climbing world. The smells are a dizzying mixture of diesel exhaust, sweat, patchouli oil (on the biker chicks) and cheap perfume...I won't even get started on the audio part of the spectra. Just suffice it to say that everyone there has a good "view" of the proceedings, and the spectators change on a minute by minute basis as the hoards hustle through to take their 2 minute "scenic view" and move on.
Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
  Feb 9, 2011 - 06:28am PT
Yes, this is one of the good ones, told by one of the good
ones. I won't anytime soon, if ever, forget my recent trip
to New York and staying at Rich's house, the climbs he hauled
me up in the Gunks, the show at Rock and Snow, the good spirit
there, in the Gunks and community,
the beauty of the place matched only by the beauty of
the people. It all goes back, though, for me, to when I first
met Rich in Boulder in 1965, and we went to the Royal Gorge,
where I took him up his first big wall, and then the Black
Canyon, and his poison ivy ordeal, his forearms like bubbling
pizzas, they were so infected, but all the good bouldering
together... He would simply grab a chin-up bar and
do one-arm pull-ups, easy, nothing to it... Such a
calm, good, intelligent spirit, such a fine being in this
Star-trek saloon universe, and one of the original
disciples of Gill.

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Author's Reply  Feb 9, 2011 - 10:41am PT
Thanks for your kind comments, folks. It's nice to see an old story rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of the SuperTopo archives.

Trad climber
Cascade Mountains and Monterey Bay
  Feb 14, 2011 - 03:05am PT
A couple of days ago during our visit, I asked Layton Kor about the Needles Eye. He remembers the rock, but says he didn't climb it.

Social climber
Newport, OR
  Feb 14, 2011 - 03:35am PT
Way cool for sure!! :)

  Sep 28, 2011 - 08:57am PT
Bump for awesomeness
mike m

Trad climber
black hills
  Oct 13, 2011 - 04:12pm PT
This is super great.
Claw Fang

Social climber
High Falls, New York
  Jan 12, 2012 - 10:39am PT

needle tracks ...gripping history.....

this article is the stuff that
mammaries are made of .....

thanks to RMSGold

old age - don't let this happen to you ...
old age - don't let this happen to you ...
Credit: Claw Fang

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Author's Reply  Jan 12, 2012 - 04:22pm PT
For those who have not reached the appropriate vintage and/or are not familiar with the Vulgarian founding fathers, the shot above depicts Claude Suhl and Bert Angrist demonstrating that the life-long Vulgarian commitment to the art of the fiasco is not something that dims with age.
mike m

Trad climber
black hills
  Mar 15, 2012 - 12:59am PT
Read this whole thread if you have not. It is about climbing you might like it.

Social climber
Truckee, CA
  Jan 27, 2013 - 11:06pm PT
Awesome story telling, I laughed hard... thanks for sharing :)

Trad climber
Mancos, CO & Bend, OR
  Jan 27, 2013 - 11:17pm PT
Pure gold from a Goldstone.

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Author's Reply  Jan 28, 2013 - 12:59am PT
Nice to see this old tale bubbling up again from the bottomless depths of the Supertopo archives.

If I can last another seventeen months or so, I could celebrate the 50th anniversary of that climb.

But I think I better take it one month at a time. Beckey I ain't.

Mountain climber
Draperderr, Utah
  Jan 29, 2013 - 03:57pm PT
I did NOT see that ending coming. LMAO. Great story, and thanks for sharing!

Boulder climber
Andy Cairns
  Jan 29, 2013 - 07:50pm PT
Nice to see this old tale bubbling up again from the bottomless depths of the Supertopo archives.

Is 2010 really that long ago?


What make of car was the "Breastmobile"???!!! Rgold may be more like Beckey than he thinks. This reads very like a Beckey story from Castle Rock in Icicle Creek Canyon, except that Fred was unambiguous about the car.

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Author's Reply  Jan 31, 2013 - 08:50am PT
According to my calculations, 2010 was three years ago. Give or take. An eternity if measured in terms of the Page 1 scrolling rate.

As for the make of the Breastmobile, circumstances I found pressing prevented me from conducting a proper evaluation, a failing I'm sure would not be one of Beckey's; he would certainly have been able to register the make and model while hanging footholdless from two pinch grips. This is even more evidence, as if any were needed, that I never was and never will be either the man or the climber that Beckey is.


Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  Jan 30, 2013 - 11:33am PT
Fun read......ah, the old days, to be fondly remembered because there is no going back.

Trad climber
  Jan 30, 2013 - 12:28pm PT
Great story. The history part of this forum is what really makes it worthwhile.
Maybe John Gill can post up on his Thimble adventure.

Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
  Jan 30, 2013 - 01:10pm PT
Tell us a story John!

Credit: Jaybro

Credit: Jaybro

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
  Jan 30, 2013 - 01:23pm PT
Well and entertainingly told, RGold!
You do know that Don's last name in Norwegian/Swedish is 'BigJohann'? ;-)

  Jan 30, 2013 - 07:17pm PT
Not much to say about the Thimble. Drove down from Glasgow AFB several times in 1961, sometimes with a young airman who wanted to do a few roped climbs, other times by myself to do some soloing. Usually finished the day with a visit to the Thimble, geting the bottom part wired and exploring the upper part. I recall one time I was there looking down at my young companion while he moved around trying to spot me, bewildered by the whole thing.

Here's a young Japanese climber, with some home footage from 1992, doing my route. He's right on track, from what I recall.



Boulder climber
Andy Cairns
  Jan 31, 2013 - 12:12am PT
Yes, many threads sink quickly from page 1 and settle toward the sea floor, but it is reassuring that those which are brought up from the deep tend to be the better ones.

  Jan 31, 2013 - 12:18am PT

At last, another golden moment on ST.

  Aug 11, 2014 - 03:18pm PT
Love that first picture.

Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
  Aug 11, 2014 - 03:39pm PT
Nice video!

I think I was pretty close to he historic line, when I toproped ( head hanging in shame) it in '88.

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Author's Reply  Aug 11, 2014 - 10:35pm PT
This August is the 50th anniversary of our ascent of the Needle's Eye. Although I ended up with the credit for arriving at the top on the sharp end, the account should make it clear that this was a team effort. I would never have gotten to the top on that day or any other day without Don Storjohann. A toast to Don, the real hero of that day a half-century ago!
Dingus Milktoast

Trad climber
Minister of Moderation, Fatcrackistan
  Aug 21, 2014 - 04:51pm PT


Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
  Aug 21, 2014 - 06:10pm PT
This part, right here, is really cool!

Boulder climber
Andy Cairns
  Aug 21, 2014 - 06:22pm PT
To Don Storjohann, Rich Goldstone, The Needle's Eye, and the Black Hills!

Boulder climber
The high prairie of southern Colorado
  Aug 21, 2014 - 06:26pm PT
Well done, Rich and Don! Classy climb.

Trad climber
Poughkeepsie, NY
Author's Reply  Aug 21, 2014 - 11:54pm PT
Thanks John. John got caught in the traffic jam that resulted from my cowardly procrastination on the route, and I think that might have been the first time we met.

Right next to the Needle's Eye is a little thing called the Thimble, that John climbed at a level of difficulty four full grades higher than the Needles Eye and two full grades higher than anything anyone else in the USA (and perhaps the world) was doing at the time. Think 5.17a to get the appropriate perspective.
Gnome Ofthe Diabase

Out Of Bed
  Nov 4, 2014 - 07:39am PT
bfbst ? B.F.B.S.T. bump for better super topo= BFBT, !!!!

Trad climber
The fake McCoy from nevernever land.
  Nov 4, 2014 - 10:11am PT
Fantastic writing and an incredibly engaging story! Several lines really got me, not necessarily by what they were saying, but how they said it : "almost immediately engaged his moltenizing twinkle beam". This whole thing really worked for me.

Larry Nelson

Social climber
  May 31, 2016 - 10:47pm PT
Bump for a great story
Mark Force

Trad climber
Ashland, Oregon
  Jun 1, 2016 - 07:15am PT
Rgold is always worth reading!
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