September 11, 2001
Spire Four is the highest point in the Cathedral Spires, so it seems natural that we would want to climb it first. While Angela and I had been climbing in the Black Hills in '99 and '00 and were well versed in getting lost trying to find the climbs, this was Will and Alison's first climbing trip to the Hills and I'm not sure they fully understood what they were in for. Until you spend some time there and start to learn your way around, navigating into the Cathedrals can be a real adventure!
Fortunately we didn't have much trouble navigating into the gully that separates Spires Three and Four. We were all in awe at just how cool a place we were in. In places the gully is wide and grassy and in others it pinches down and forces you up steep rocky sections. One of these steeper bits resembled a quartz waterfall frozen in time. When we got higher up in the gully, things started to get a little confusing. When you're that close to the rock it's a bit difficult to tell what's what. While we had almost convinced ourselves that we'd found the beginning of the route we wanted, another party passed us by. They must have sensed our apprehension and confusion about where we were and quickly pointed out that the climb we wanted was further up the gully. In fact, they were headed for the same climb, and I must say that letting them pass us by and get started first was just fine with us. It would be a convenience to have someone to follow up the climb since we were so unfamiliar with the territory.
At the base of the route things got weird. While making small talk with this other party about the weather and such, one of them said to the other, "Should we tell them?" "Tell us what?" I thought. I thought maybe they had news of some gloomy weather coming our way. At any rate, they decided to fill us in and just told us quite plainly that the World Trade Center in New York had collapsed and was no longer there!
Of course our first reaction was that they were pulling our leg. It just seemed too far-fetched to believe. While they didn't know much more than that, they stood by their claim and we decided to give them the benefit of the doubt. That terrible news put a strange feeling over the day, but since there was nothing we could do about it, we decided to push it to the back of our minds and enjoy the beauty and adventure of the Cathedral Spires.
After the other party cleared the first pitch, it was agreed that Angela and I would climb first. The first pitch starts at the back of a wide chimney. From there it climbs easy rock to where the chimney narrows. Eventually after working up this narrow chimney I came to a bit of a cavern formed by some large chockstones lodged in the chimney above. At this point there are two options. You can head out to the left and bypass the chockstones via mostly unprotected 5.4 face climbing, or you can do it the old fashioned way and squirm through a ridiculously small hole formed between two of the chockstones and the main wall of the chimney. This second option is aptly named "The Wormhole". While the Wormhole looked like it might be miserably tight (I wondered if my shoulders would even fit through) maybe that wasn't necessarily such a bad thing! It certainly looked more secure heading out on the steep face to the left. So, up into the Wormhole I went.
Surprisingly my head and shoulders fit right through. The area above the Wormhole was quite spacious and inviting... if only I could figure out how to get my hips through the hole! My feet dangled below me as I pushed like mad with my arms. There was no way I was going to fall now as I was sufficiently wedged in the hole! The biggest hindrance came from the front of my harness which insisted on hanging up on a large protrusion in the rock. Finally after several attempts, much grunting and pushing until I thought my arms would pop off, I flopped onto the top of the chockstones--the first pitch was finished! I peered over the edge of the chockstones to the base of the route and shouted "I've been born again!" The others got a good laugh at that, but they would see--before the end of the day we would all be born again!
I must say that being the first one up in our party was a real treat. I got the pleasure of watching everyone else confront the Wormhole! I remember Angela getting quite frustrated when she got stuck in pretty much the same position I had been in. In a brilliant stroke of genius, she insisted that she should take her harness off in order to fit through! I convinced her that that was just silly, so instead she awkwardly removed any and all gear from her gear loops in order to better fit the hole. Finally she somehow managed to find purchase with her feet below and popped quite easily out of the hole.
By the time I had gotten out of the Wormhole, the party that was ahead of us had already scurried off out of sight on the second pitch, so after Angela emerged we had to figure out where to go. We could hear voices up ahead, but it was hard to tell which way they were coming from. As is typical in the Black Hills, there seemed to be several ways one could go about continuing on. When I was just about sure I had it figured out, the other climbers popped into view to the left as they topped out. Apparently the route proceeded in exactly the opposite direction that I suspected! Obviously my route finding skills needed some improvement!
After walking past some large chockstones the route turned to the left up a really nice hand crack which led to a summit just shy of Spire Four itself. From here there was a very committing step to the right across a gaping chimney and a few moves up the final face to the top of Spire Four.
I shared the summit briefly with the party that had topped out ahead of us. Fortunately they vacated shortly thereafter--Angela and I were not enjoying breathing in the smoke from the pipe they had lit up upon gaining the summit!
Will and Alison followed right behind us up the second pitch. Alison had a bit of a moment on top of the sub-summit where she started feeling a bit dizzy. After pausing a moment to collect herself, she leaned across the gap, clutched onto the few available holds, and pulled herself over and up onto the top!
To be on top of Spire Four was just amazing! Although we may have faltered a bit along the way, it felt like a great accomplishment to reach the top of our first Cathedral Spire (even if it was only rated 5.0). This lofty perch, with it's breathtaking 360 degree panoramic views, felt like the center of the universe! It was undeniable that we would be returning to climb more of the Spires in the future.
Unfortunately we didn't get to stick around and enjoy the summit for long. Rain clouds were brewing around Harney Peak and we knew we'd better get down before the rain and lightning started. We only made it halfway down before the rain started. Fortunately the rain was light and didn't include any lightning, so we made it down safely though a little wet.
Watch our Spire Four Video (3.7 MB)
(Ok, so it's actually more like a slide show with music and narration!)