So a couple days ago I had the pleasure of reuniting with Super Pin in the Black Hills Needles of South Dakota. Super Pin is one of the Ten Pins, a tightly packed bushel of 60 – 100 foot tall granite spires literally spitting distance from the Needles Highway. It isn’t the hardest of the lot, but along with Hairy Pin, it has the reputation as the proudest to summit. This is due to the hefty runouts on both these classics.
I’d been up Super Pin once 20 years ago, albeit on toprope (Mark Wilford grudgingly let me lead Hairy Pin that day, so I grudgingly let him lead Super Pin). But as a lifelong lead hog, I always felt the need to go back and send it on the sharp end. Fortunately for me, the State of Wyoming changed its laws this year to where a dude living in a van could no longer be a resident. They returned my vehicle registration check, leaving me a man without a state, or valid plates. A bit of research revealed that the Great State of South Dakota would be happy to have me as a resident, hence a road trip to the Rapid City DMV was in order and it so happens, the Needles are on the way.
The fixed pin had broken since I climbed it in ‘91 and been replaced by a hefty bolt. The 5.10 technical crux is right near the bolt and the ten feet above it. As with most Needles climbs it involves pinching and edging on sharp protruding feldspar crystals, in the case of Super Pin, ranging in size from peanuts to ping pong balls. The crystals can be bomber or fragile and it’s near impossible to tell which are sound. I’d like to say my choice to lead it in the 90-degree midday heat was a savvy ploy to sweat off a few pounds and lessen the risk of snapping off a crystal, but in reality is was my standard mix of stupidity and hubris. I had waited until the sun was off the rock face, but angled such to taser my eyeballs at every move. Half a chalkbag later I’d made it through the crux and onto the vague ridgeline. Here the angle eases, but every move takes you further from your pro. The climbing stays amazingly consistent at 5.8 as you get higher and higher. Eventually you get to the point where a delicate step over to your right gains a stance and a pair of decades-old quarter-inchers, one a rusty number with one of the recalled Leeper hangers, and one a buttonhead with an SMC “death hanger.” And here is where the debate starts: Super Pin, does it deserve R, R/X or X?
I guess first we need some definition of the R and X grades. We could go back to the original definition where R means you’ll get hurt bad in a fall and X means you’ll die if you fall. Or we can use the modern definition where R means “oooh, I’m pooing myself” and X means “waaah, I got an owie.” For the purposes of this Super Pin discussion let’s go with the old school definition.
A fall at the technical crux, assuming an attentive belay, should be safe. If you can bust off that move, you shouldn’t have any problem with the remainder of the moves. Unless of course runouts make you nervous, and Super Pin has one of the most famous in the business. I can only imagine how mortifying it would be to lose your cool at any point during the runout, and how, if you’re reading this, these words will lodge in your psyche, making those moves all the much harder as you overgrip the greasy nubbins and your legs start to vibrate and a few mica crystals crumble while you heart is beating so hard you feel it in your ears and for the life of you, you can’t let go to chalk up, but I digress. A few moves after the crux and you’re looking at an ankle-busting fall into the notch below the bolt (you stem onto Super Pin from a large fin and get right into the meat of things). Or if you’re lucky (???) you’ll launch off to the right and just cheesegrater down another Needles “bed o’ nails” face. I’d say you’ve got a 50/50 chance that a fall would fuck you up in genuine R-rated fashion so that you wouldn’t be climbing for awhile. Now let’s continue up the blunt arête.
Each move takes you further from your only pro, but should you fall, the odds of missing the notch increase and it’s a long way to the ground to the right of the notch. Could be a doable fall midway up the runout. Sure a lot of gouges and abrasions would be expected, but unless you were hemophilic, you probably wouldn’t bleed out. How about the top of the runout? Some sketchy looking crystals up there…. What if one snaps and you pitch just before the step across to the bolts? With a good belay, I think there’s enough vertical real estate down the face right of the notch that you wouldn’t deck. So 70 to 80 feet of bouncing down a near-vertical slab of sharks’ teeth – in and of itself, not really X-rated material, but wait, there’s a sloping ramp partway down the face. Is it sufficient to bust a femur on the way by? And how about the odds of flipping over and going headfirst? Let’s say it was a handhold that snapped. You might launch off headfirst. Or maybe a foothold blows, you’re whistling down the forest of knobs and one catches your toe, does it flip you over or just snap your ankle or both? What if the cameras were out and you were too vain to wear your helmet? Yeah I could see a lot of potentially fatal scenarios. If we go to the actuary tables, we discover that the odds of dying in a ground fall increase by about 10 percent with every ten feet. So let’s say we hit that ramp hard after 45 feet of free fall – hey, that’s a 55 percent chance we’ll live to tell the tale from our wheelchair. Can we maintain a clean conscience and still call this X?
Well, nothing broke and I rolled to the summit where the real crux of the climb lies, standing up on top. I’m guessing half the people who climb Super Pin never stand on the pinpoint summit. Of the rest, I’m guessing half of them shart themselves standing up. Even with modern advances in laundry detergents, by today’s standards that easily rates a solid R/X. But hey, that’s beside the point. It’s all rated G until you fall.