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Cliff Notes: Spearfish Canyon, A Sport Climber’s Bliss

The first developers of Spearfish Canyon were sworn to secrecy. No one was to know that Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota, held a wealth of steep, beautiful, bomber lines—over 800 limestone routes, twice as many, for example, as in Rifle, Colorado, would eventually appear here.

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The first developers were sworn to secrecy. They hid their cars, stowed ropes out of sight, and stayed off the trails. They avoided canyon homeowners, Forest Service personnel and other Black Hills climbers. They even generated a decoy crag with mostly short routes on lesser-quality rock down canyon to deflect attention. No one was to know that Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota, held a wealth of steep, beautiful, bomber lines—over 800 limestone routes, twice as many, for example, as in Rifle, Colorado, would eventually appear here.

The project began with Pete deLannoy, a chemistry professor at Black Hills State University, who grew up climbing the crystalline granite Needles of the southern Black Hills around Mount Rushmore and Sylvan Lake. Around 1990, he began feeling trapped by the traditional ground-up ethic that had long governed the granite. Gravitating toward rap bolting, he spent time on the limestone in Colorado and Utah, and with Paul Piana and Todd Skinner established sport routes at Wild Iris in Wyoming. It was then that deLannoy realized the vast potential of Spearfish Canyon, but after his experiences in the southern Black Hills, where sport routes were chopped over disputes about bolting ethics, he was careful about sharing his discovery.

To bolt the first routes, deLannoy conscripted a few trusted allies, who also discovered walls throughout the canyon and went to work themselves. While deLannoy developed the Mohican crag, Nate Renner and Greg Parker worked at Blue Sky, Mike Cronin at the Big Picture Gully, and Mike McNeil at Sunshine.

“The diamond in the rough was slowly being cut into a magnificent gem,” says deLannoy. Rapping in with power drills, the crew humorously called Spearfish Canyon the “Freedom Zone.”