Sometimes It Ain’t Rocket Science

Herb and Jan Conn developed almost all of the early climbing in South Dakota’s Needles with a 60-foot rope, almost one-fourth the length of contemporary ropes. Because of their efforts and style in the ’40s and ’50s, the place has a reputation for being quite adventurous—a little runout, and requiring moves that are thoughtful today in sticky-rubber-soled shoes (and must have been downright horrific in the shoes Herb and Jan wore back then). They put up more than 200 routes in the Needles over the span of a decade.

Herb passed away in 2012, and Jan is now 88. I’ve never met them, but I have always remembered a quote from an interview Climbing Magazine ran in 2008 when Jan was 83 and Herb was 87. They talked about their early climbing career growing up in Washington, D.C., where they were pretty much the only climbers anyone knew (or saw on the trolley), and their later travels that landed them in South Dakota. This one quote stuck with me, but I could never remember the exact wording. A couple months ago, I rifled through the archives of the magazine in the Moab library and found it, there on the back page.

“I know sometimes people think we had this high dream of living like this, in a place like this … it wasn’t that way. We just kept backing away from the things we didn’t like. This is where we landed.”

I think sometimes we believe life changes have to be this huge thing—I’m going to sell all my stuff and hit the road, or I’m going to quit my job and tell everyone what I really think, or I’m going to lose 75 pounds. We put these huge goals out there and maybe we try to get to them, but partway there we get intimidated by the enormity of the task and give up. Instead of trying something small, like eating a spinach salad every day, we announce to ourselves that we’re going to shed a fourth of our bodyweight in four months. We fantasize about running away from our houses full of stuff instead of just getting rid of a few things and simplifying a little bit. Ever wonder if football coaches tell their players to focus on the Super Bowl at the beginning of the season, or if they tell them to focus on the team they’re facing in Week 1, then Week 2, and so on?

What I like about Jan’s take on her life with Herb is the notion that it wasn’t some grand vision from the beginning—it was just a natural progression of small things that led them to where they finally realized they wanted to be. They were probably some of the first dirtbag climbers, long before “dirtbag” was even a word. They climbed and traveled all over the U.S. from 1942 until 1959 before they finally stopped in South Dakota. They never tried to be anything in particular, but followed their hearts to do the daily things they loved, and by that, managed to put together an amazing life.


[original photo by Cody Blair; Climbing issue #263]

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11 replies on “Sometimes It Ain’t Rocket Science”
  1. says: Mat

    Thanks for the shout out to our local legends, Brendan. Come visit us in the Black Hills—there are plenty of us living the semi-rad life and we’d love to have you. I hope you can one day meet Jan and maybe even hear one of her songs!


  2. says: jacob mader

    I live near the needles and I have done a few conn routes. I like seeing these guys getting respect cause they were doing stuff way ahead of their time. not to mention they mapped the majority of jewel and wind cave.

  3. says: sam

    Theres a really good video about these two and the needles on vimeo somewhere. I saw it a while ago but cant find it anymore

  4. says: Joel

    Awesome post! I am so guilty of that over-the-top behavior it’s ridiculous. I think I read about Herb and Jan in the new Needles of South Dakota guide book, which is an awesome guide book.

  5. says: meade

    The two put up some classic routes at Seneca Rocks, WV years ago…Conn’s Direct is the first one to pop into my head (surprise)…

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