A Weekend High-pointing in the Dakotas

A Weekend High-pointing in the Dakotas

A Weekend Highpointing in The Dakotas

White Butte, Black Elk Peak, Devil’s Tower, Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, and the Crazy Horse Memorial

September 26, 2016

Wes Chapman


Black Elk Peak, SD (formerly Harney Peak)

7,242 Ft, 7 miles

A simple trip becomes delightful

We came to the Dakotas to climb 2 of the 5 remaining state highpoints on my list, expecting a couple of easy climbs and perhaps a little sightseeing. We left enchanted by the beauty and complex history of this corner of America. Joining us on this trip were Wade and Donna, two of our friends from Nashville, new to the world of highpointing, and looking forward to the climbs with some prudent trepidation. We set up our base camp for the first couple of days in Deadwood SD, a formerly raucous and violent mining town whose founding dates to the gold rush of the late 1870’s. Deadwood was where Wild Bill Hickok was killed, the home of Calamity Jane and recently was the subject of an eponymous TV series. Today Deadwood is trying to make a go of it as a tourist destination, focusing on its history and gambling. We were pleasantly surprised by the good food, low prices, colorful history and wonderful Victorian homes. The Main Street was incredibly well preserved, and retained some of the former color.


Celebrity Hotel in Deadwood, overlooking Main Street

I wasn’t surprised when the front desk clerk at our hotel – a brothel converted into a casino – suggested that the single “must see” site in town was the local Boot Hill – the Moriah Cemetery on the hill overlooking town. The big draws are the graves of Wild Bill Hickok, and Martha ‘Calamity Jane” Canary – described in the cemetery brochure as a “prostitute of little repute”; I’m not sure how to take that.


Wild Bill’s Grave

The Black Hills have a tortured political history which colors everything in the area. The land was ceded to the Lakota Indians by the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1868 – at the time considered unsuited for farming and therefore worthless. In 1873 the world plunged into the first Great Depression – fueled by contracting money supply as the central banks moved exclusively to the gold standard, and a series of fires, floods and epidemics dramatically constrained economic activity. Casualties included all debtors, as the relative costs of their debts increased and assets values declined. The depression was worldwide in scope, and US victims included Jay Cooke’s bank and the Northern Pacific Railroad.

In this period, the only way to increase the money supply was to find more gold, and in 1874 gold was discovered in the Black Hills, during an expedition led by General George Armstrong Custer. In direct violation of orders from President Grant, Custer leaked the discovery to the press, and the rush was on. It is doubtful if the Native Americans could have stopped the onslaught of miners, but with the depression the miners received official sanction by the Federal Government. There was a war in 1876, the Lakota lost and the lands were officially appropriated in 1877.


Custer – Discovered Gold, and told the press


History aside, we came here to climb, and first on the list was White Butte in North Dakota. The day was wet, and we arrived to a very soggy climb. White Butte is actually a huge pile of bentonite clay – and really is bright white where the clay is exposed. Bentonite has a number of familiar uses including drilling mud and kitty litter. It is both extremely slippery when wet, and hydrophilic – consequently a very poor substrate for climbing in a rainstorm. White Butte sits on private land, and the landowner asks for a $10 per vehicle contribution for the right to climb – under the circumstances it seemed like a lot. This is a 3 mile round trip hike, with only a few hundred feet of elevation gain. Other climbing blogs about this hike reported gigantic rattlesnakes and couples having wild sex on the summit – all we saw was an abandoned farm and a bunch of antelope beds.

This was Donna’s first highpoint hike – ever. I felt a little bad that her first climb was a slippery little hill in a pouring down rain – but she did it with a smile. I could tell that we were on the road to a great weekend – if she could smile through White Butte in the rain, the rest would be a breeze.


Please put $10 in the mailbox prior to the hike


Abandoned farm, and White Butte through the fog


The Team preparing for the ascent, Donna, Wade & Martha

High pointing Gothic


Martha and Donna at a muddy summit

Bentonite normally forms when volcanic ash weathers in place in a marine environment. It is very soft, and prone to easy weathering through rain, and is immediately scraped off through glacial activity. This part of North Dakota has had a relatively dry climate and no glaciation for a very long time – and is unique at this latitude in the US. I guess that you need a special environment for a long time to have a pile of mud this big.


Antelope beds on White Butte


White Butte – a big pile of clay

We fled White Butte at flank speed, after a quick change of clothes – ours were covered in white mud.


Devils Tower beckons

Next stop on the tour was a quick crossover to Wyoming and a visit to Devil’s Tower. This is an 857 foot tall sub-volcanic/intrusive structure of a very rare rock – phonolite porphyry; about 45 million years old. What makes it interesting are the columns that formed as the rock cooled – generally hexagonal shapes. This is the same phenomena that created the Palisades in New Jersey, and the Giant Causeway in Scotland. But in the case of Devils Tower, the surrounding rock is much susceptible to erosion, and the intrusive structure – the tower – was preserved intact.

Devils Tower is a holy place to several Native American Tribes including the Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Lakota and Shoshone. All of these groups associate the Tower with stories involving a Bear Deity which formed the tower by scratching with its claws. This National Monument receives over 400,000 visitors per year, of whom about 4,000 climb the Tower. It is still an area of active Native American worship, and prayer cloths are everywhere.

The Tower was first climbed in 1893 by two local ranchers who built a ladder to the summit, and some of the early classic climbing routes were put up by Jack Durrance in 1938, while a student at Dartmouth. Durrance’s 5.7 route remains one of the fifty classic climbs of North America in Roper and Steck’s eponymous classic, and remains as a fading possibility on my bucket list – but not for this trip.


Prayer cloths at the base of Devils Tower



Simply magnificent

A night of recovery, fueled by buffalo steaks, was followed by a rest day – touring the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore by automobile, including a quick lunch of buffalo burgers at Wall Drug.

The geology of the Dakotas is a story in two parts. Most of the area is covered with poorly consolidated sediments, the product of a former inland sea that came and went over the last 150 million years. The defining geographic feature of the area is the Black Hills Complex, a groups of much older rock lifted up through the sedimentary pile by more recent volcanic activity. The area saw no recent glaciation, despite its latitude, probably due to limited precipitation rather than temperature differences.

The Badlands were made a National Monument in 1929 and a National Park in 1978. Because the severe topography limited the movement of large mammals, they were a favorite hunting ground for early Native Americans, who did not have horses. Today they are home to bison, big horn sheep and antelope, which roam throughout the Park.


The Interior Sea


Crazy Badlands topography


Geologic map and cross section of South Dakota

The Badlands are comprised of the White River Group of rocks – between 25-55 million years old. The rocks are generally poorly consolidated and nutrient poor in potassium, phosphorus and iron – therefore are not hospitable for supporting vegetation. The climate in the area has dry, cold winters with very hot summers – and precipitation totaling only 15-16 inches per year; classic dry steppe climate. Furthermore, the precipitation in the area normally comes episodically, as violent summer thunderstorms, fostering high levels of erosion. The erosion is limited by the underlying Cretaceous rocks, which are both more mineral rich, support erosion resistant grassland, and much better consolidated.


Poorly consolidated and nutrient deficient rocks


One of the coolest features of the Badlands is the incredibly rich fossils that they contain – particularly early mammal fossils (Eocene and Oligocene) in the Brule Formation. These fossils include camels, three toed horses, oreodonts, antelope-like animals, rhinoceroses, deer-like mammals, rabbits, beavers, creodonts, land turtles, rodents and birds. There is a terrific walk in the Park which passes through much of this formation, where the fossils are abundant and highlighted.


Upper Brule formation Nimravus


Badlands, Defined by erosion


Big Horn Sheep in the Badlands

We left the Badlands, headed for Wall Drug and a buffalo burger. Wall Drug is an exquisite piece of Americana. Ted Hustead purchased Wall Drug in 1931, at the depths of the Depression. Business was terrible, and he was questioning the entire undertaking, when his wife suggested giving away free ice water to travelers on nearby Route 16 – and promoting it with road signs. America was headed West at the time in un-air-conditioned automobiles, and free ice water was a great draw in the oppressive summer heat. Today the signs are everywhere, and Wall drug is a national icon.


Mr. Hustead’s unfailing optimism about his success is a lesson to live by, “Free Ice Water. It brought us Husteads a long way and it taught me my greatest lesson, and that’s that there’s absolutely no place on God’s earth that’s Godforsaken. No matter where you live, you can succeed, because wherever you are, you can reach out to other people with something that they need!


Wade celebrates the visit to Wall Drug

Next on the day’s agenda was a visit to the National Monument, Mt. Rushmore. Mt. Rushmore was conceived by SD historian Doane Robinson, funded through the efforts of Senator Peter Norbeck and executed under the direction of Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln. Construction began in 1927, and was completed in October of 1941. The project was originally conceived to portray heroes of the American West including Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud and Buffalo Bill Cody. Federal funding dictated a more nationally inclusive theme, and the Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln were chosen.


Mt. Rushmore is solid granite – famous for the chemical weathering of feldspar, which produces a weak and friable rock on the surface, and along cracks. Consequently, thousands of tons of rock were removed to get to a hard and viable surface for a sculpture. A team of 400 workers produced the sculpture with dynamite and impact hammers – and the result is amazing.


Mt. Rushmore

We finished up the day with a visit to Custer State Park to see the animals. Custer State Park has one of the largest buffalo herds in the world – around 1,400 animals. Additionally, there is a herd of feral burros, the progeny of burros released into the wild after the burro rides up Mt. Harney were discontinued. Seeing these animals was a lot of fun, although by this point seeing the buffalo just made me hungry.


Wild burros biting each other


Buffalo up close, getting roadside salt




Buffalo grazing in the Park

The next day started out cold, with a howling wind, and Martha, Donna and I were headed to the summit of Black Elk Peak – formerly Harney Peak. Black Elk is the highest point east of the Rockies in the US – in fact the highest point between the Rockies and the Pyrenees at 7,242 feet. It is only a 7 mile hike, and the elevation gain is only around 1,000 feet, so we set off early with the hope of getting done early. Black Elk Peak is the heart of the Black Hills, and has been sacred ground to the Native Americans. Walking up the hill, it is easy to understand the animist appeal of this place – the scenery is spectacular and unique among the mountains that I have climbed. The entire area is covered with gigantic granite spires – weathered along fractures, but never disturbed by glaciation.


Sylvan Lake – the start of the hike


Typical granite spire


Donna and Martha – and Little Devils Tower


First glimpse of Black Elk – note tower on the summit


Prayer cloths on Black Elk

Black Elk Peak was called Harney Peak until this past summer, named after General William Harney. Harney was a native of Nashville, and remained loyal to the Union in the Civil War. He was a friend to the Indian his whole life, and was named “Man-who-always-kept-his-word” by the Sioux. From their perspective, he was unique in that regard. Black Elk was a cousin and contemporary of Crazy Horse, a noted spiritual leader of the Lakota and warrior – particularly at Wounded Knee. He participated in Buffalo Bill’s Show, and converted to Catholicism later in life.


Ladies at the summit

We came rolling off Black Elk, headed to our last buffalo burger and a visit to the Crazy Horse Memorial. The Crazy Horse Memorial was the lifetime consuming passion of Boston born sculptor, the Polish American Korczak Ziolkowski. He was commissioned to develop and build the memorial by Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear in 1948, but given neither funds nor other support. Somehow, he lived in a tent, set up a 501(c)3, and started to take out some rock with a hand drill and dynamite. He fathered 10 children with his wife Ruth, all of whom bent to the family project, and continue at it today. The Crazy Horse Memorial is designed to dwarf Mt. Rushmore, but the statue design is probably impossible to execute, given the weight and multiple fracture zones in the granite. In any event, the statue is gigantic, and the beat goes on.


Ziolkowski smoking on the job, while sitting on a box of dynamite


Crazy Horse Memorial

This was a terrific trip, and the Dakotas are vastly more interesting than I could have possibly have imagined. Traveling with Donna and Wade was a real pleasure, and Donna proved a successful and happy hiker. This is a fascinating corner of America, and really worth a long weekend.


Adios, from Black Elk Peak

Wes Chapman
Written by Wes Chapman

6 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    September 30, 2016

    Now I want to go there!! Great blog Wes.


  2. Avatar
    September 30, 2016

    Lots of information.


  3. Avatar
    September 30, 2016

    Great blog, Wes. Very interesting and informative.


  4. Avatar
    September 30, 2016

    Jill and I have been enjoying a slow binge-watch of ‘Deadwood’. Thanks for providing a 21st century perspective.


  5. Avatar
    October 02, 2016

    Never met Standing Bear, but served in high office with Sugar and named Running.


  6. Avatar
    April 19, 2017

    I always learn so mnay things. Beautiful picture. Sorry we missed the adventure.