The Ascent: Pete Cleveland's Climb of Superpin Still Baffles and Astounds Nearly 50 Years Later
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Who is Pete Cleveland? A Google search won’t yield much information about the retired family physician of Baraboo, Wisconsin. Yet, nearly 50 years ago, through some combination of wanton bravado and sheer talent he negotiated a solo route to the summit of a Black Hills pinnacle called Superpin that hasn’t been reproduced, and probably never will.
Superpin stands among a copse of ten crystal-crusted spires, just off the Needles Highway, that “loom like a medieval counsel of warlords and necromancers” — in the words of climber/photographer Harvey Kennan — against the wide South Dakota sky.
The regal Ten Pins have likely inspired reverence since time immemorial. They’ve beckoned climbers since at least the 1950’s. But their stature isn’t their draw.
In the late 50's and early 60's, while most climbers sought soaring heights, John Gill, the godfather of bouldering — a sport that tackles complex problems on shorter ascents that require little or no “pro” (protective gear) — quietly developed a technical style that valued the artistry in mastering problems closer to the ground. With his gymnast's agility, extraordinary strength and mathematical mind, he slowly won the respect of his peers, but some some still sniffed at bouldering as a stunt. “At first, when Gill’s bouldering in the Tetons and in the Black Hills became known, it was believed by some that such routes had no intrinsic importance,” fellow climber Pat Ament wrote in his Gill biography Master of Rock. “Size, elevation, and glorious summits were more in the spirit of the mainstream focus at the time.”
That all changed after Gill's 1961 ascent of the sheer, overhung side of the Thimble, a 30-foot pinnacle right off the Needles Highway. A solo climb rated then as a 5.10 (the Yosemite Decimal Scale used to rate the difficulty of climbs maxed out at 5.10 at the time, his route was later upgraded to a 5.12), a fall would have landed him on the guard rail below. The Thimble marked the dawn of the Gill legend. Stories of that climb, and of his physical feats, like his famous one-fingered pull-ups, began to circulate widely in climbing circles.
“Gill was two grades ahead of everyone at the time, which is almost inconceivable,” says Richard Goldstone, who climbed with (and was one of) the best of the era. "Nobody could properly appreciate what that means. I mean, climbers now are chipping away at a fraction of a grade and celebrating ‘leaps’ forward — one tiny fraction of a grade harder, because there’s no way that any one is two grades away from the rest of the world. Gill was two grades ahead, so far ahead that nobody understood."
As the physical art form that Gill was actuating gained respect, more climbers keened to the unique challenges posed by the Needles. The great mountain climber Royal Robbins, who pioneered the (2000 foot) Northwest Face climb of Half Dome in Yosemite, tried but never could duplicate Gill’s Thimble route, an effort he said, "I consider my greatest failure." It would take decades till Gill's route was repeated (and there's some dispute over which of the following ascents actually qualified as a second of the Gill Route).
Needles rock is ingrained with its own lithic challenges. John Sherman, climber and author of Stone Crusade: A Historical Guide to Bouldering in America, describes the stuff as “studded with crystals ranging from microscopic to milk-carton size, from sharp-pointed feldspars to greasy lumps of quartz.”
“Ninety percent of the holds are sharp: well-executed dynos leave hands with a cube steak impression. Botch it and you’re looking at ground chuck.”
The Ten Pins' slender spires offer a scarcity of options for ascent. “The feeling of exposure, even though the heights are modest,” says Gill, “coupled with the necessity of standing on tiny nubbins that may pop off unexpectedly… It's a very nervy place to climb.”
Always a plucky kid, Pete Cleveland started bouldering at a young age around his hometown of Arlington, Massachusetts.
“As a kid I was always interested in mountaineering," Cleveland recalls. "Rock climbing was sort of a satellite to that. There were little rocks in town, and I rigged a belay with a clothesline and tried to use that. Those things turned out to be ground falls. Fortunately the distance was very short, so I never injured anything.”
Later at MIT, Cleveland joined a mountaineering club that did weekend climbs in the White Mountains and the Appalachians. This crew were not your average Eagle Scouts. During the dead of winter, they would snowshoe New Hampshire’s Mount Washington — the record-setter for wind speeds not caused by a cyclone.
“The winds… you wouldn’t believe how often they average 85-125 mph, just incredible. It seems the jet stream comes down from on top of it at times. That’s part of the magic of that mountain. If [wind speed] changes one mile an hour, you can feel that when you’re trying to make progress. 72 is the definition of hurricane force. You know the beginning [of 72 mph winds] and you cannot move. You’re leaning into the wind and it’s almost impossible. You try to stagger. Just staying upright takes all your attention.”
Cleveland started graduate school at Des Moines State in 1963 and started focusing more on climbing than mountaineering, mostly at Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin, with occasional jaunts to the Tetons, and an annual extended stay in the Needles.
At the time (and probably still today) there was a kind of hierarchy of climbing arenas. “Devil’s Lake has always been a backwater almost,” says Goldstone, “for strange, various reasons. The standards were extremely high there, but it wasn’t the center of any kind of scene. It’s not near other climbing or mountain areas. It just happened to have some really good climbing. The standard was high or higher than any other standard in the country, but nobody knew about it. It wasn’t a scene at all.”
The Tetons were still the center of the climbing world at that time, although the spotlight was shifting toward Yosemite.
Then there were the Needles. “Also kind of a backwater,” says Goldstone. “Fritz Wiessner was there in ’37 or something like that and he said this is destined to become one of the major venues to climb in the United States, but he was wrong. I don’t think it has. One of the reasons is that it’s not near any population centers, so you kind of have to make a trip to go there. There’s certainly a long climbing history there now, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s not close to a center. It was almost a parallel universe. Like things were going on there, but nobody was noticing. ”
Given that the spotlight was elsewhere, the Needles drew a special kind of climber.
By the early 60s, climbers like Gill, Goldstone, Ament, Cleveland, Bob Kamps, Don Storjohann, Bob Archbold, Mark Powell, Yvon Chouinard, Dave Rearick, along with longtime locals Jan and Herb Conn — who established many of the early climbing routes and were instrumental in establishing the Needles as a climbing destination — would gather every summer at the November Mine area or the old Oreville Campground to test their wits and stamina against the Ten Pins by day, then enjoy some good conversation, maybe a beer or two by moonlight, with each other, locals and fans. Rumor has it a couple climbers had a “sex cave” where two-backed shadows were often cast against cavern walls.
A cohesive group of regulars began to rally annually. “The most active climbers were a geographically diverse group who for one reason or another fell in love with the Needles and congregated there every year,” recalls Goldstone. “We had me coming from the East, John Gill coming up from the South and Bob Kamps and Dave Yearick and Martin Powell coming from California. So we had this agreement to show up there together and we’d have about two weeks in August, year after year, for 10-15 years.” The crew became a tight knit group, enjoying each other's company as much as their shared passion for climbing. “The best part of climbing is cocktail hour afterwards,” says Cleveland. “I personally have never met a climber I didn’t like. We seem to have a natural affinity.”
There was a small but significant scientist-contingent among the group that descended on the Needles in that era — Gill and Dave Rearick are mathematicians, Herb Conn was an electrical engineer, Cleveland studied chemistry, then got his M.D. and started a family practice in Baraboo. Not all of the great climbers in the Needles were scientists, but perhaps the technical challenges posed by the pinnacles found a finger hold on scientific minds.
"Climbers were sort of a counter-cultural group, or at least they liked to believe they were,” recalls Goldstone. “But for whatever reason [the Needles group] weren’t an especially countercultural group. All of us had some sort of academic thing that allowed us to have the summer to climb.”
Cleveland was primarily a Midwestern-based climber by that time, spending a lot of time at Devil’s Lake — the backwater where standards were so high that what might be a 5.11 anywhere else would only score a 5.10 — and pushing himself to new levels of sketch. His solo climb of Son of Chimney there is still legendary. John Gill recalls him as “the gutsiest lead climber I knew.”
Like Gill, Cleveland had a reputation as a humble, even self-effacing athlete. He was driven to compete, but mostly with himself, sometimes Gill. One day as the two competed to solve the Outlet Boulder in the Needles, Cleveland ended up on his back in a cloud of dust while Gill found a solution to the problem. It was one of the few times people recalled him getting upset, not because of the fall but because what Gill saw he had missed.
Newcastle, Wyoming native Paul Piana was introduced to Superpin at the age of 14 by climbing pioneer Renn Fenton. “Renn would take me to climbs and say let’s see if you can do this. And I always could. So one day he took me to Superpin and he said you can climb this. He put me on Superpin and I actually climbed up to grab the handhold that signifies the end of the crux and chickened out and climbed down, which was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done then was climbed down.”
In his climber’s guide to the Needles, Touch the Sky, he described Superpin as “the pinnacle of perfection in the Ten Pins area and one of the most beautiful summits in the Black Hills. Virtually unmarred by cracks or other distinctive features, its flawless walls flow smoothly upward to a tiny rounded summit.”
But like a film noir vixen, all that unmarred pinnacular glamor signaled danger. “Compared to, say, an adjacent rock like Hairy Pin," Piana says, "Superpin doesn’t have stellar rock. [Some of the] pinnacles in that group are a little bit ricy, a little granular, and others have bomb-proof holds on them. Superpin, man, you just don’t want anything to go wrong on that. And the holds aren’t positive, some of them are slopey and you’re more out of balance. And there’s no fallback of surviving a fall.”
When Cleveland began his ascent of Superpin, he didn’t start out solo (minus protection). “I did have one piece of protection in the beginning, which I did fall on,” says Cleveland. “I only saw my route hanging upside down looking up at the climb. And then that’s what I set about doing and that’s what I did.” At some point when he got back on, he became “run out,” too far from any pro for a good shot at any more second chances, and had no choice but to go for it.
In a letter accompanying a slide — the only photo evidence of the ascent — given to Piana for Touch the Sky, Cleveland wrote of the image that: “The slide was taken by my belayer, Ron Cox, who was too nervous to belay after I had gone beyond both the point of no return and my protection against falling to the ground. We certainly felt it would be better for him to be in the best position should I succeed rather than in the best position to witness my failure. Looking up from the bottom after the climb, the route I chose [appeared] to be the most unlikely way, especially since it [required] climbing a near-vertical section, all the more memorable [because several of the moves] could not be reversed, the holds were small and occasionally loose. I can still remember the sensation of my fingers starting to perspire and the holds feeling moist and less secure. I put all thoughts aside and climbed with full commitment and intensity over the new difficulties to the top, to the considerable relief of Ron.”
Most climbers rate the Pete Cleveland FA (first ascent) of Superpin a 5.11x. The Yosemite Decimal Scale used to rate difficulty assigns climbing routes ratings beginning with a 5 followed by a decimal. Starting at 5.10, they're broken down into further subsets of difficulty with a letter (5.10a, 5.11b, etc.). The scale maxes out at 5.15c (there are only a few of those in the world). A 5.11x ascent is not something most people could achieve in their lifetime, but the rating probably doesn’t capture the gravity of what Cleveland accomplished that day.
“It’s just not something like, oh, I’ll give it a try,” says Piana. “If you’re going to try it, you better have your ducks in a row, because if you fall you’re dead. It’s rare when people get themselves in those situations. Sometimes that happens accidentally, and very rarely somebody chooses to go up on something so improbable. It was quite a remarkable contribution. I don’t know any rock climbers that aren’t inspired by Pete’s climb.”
Ten years passed before legendary climber Henry Barber made a second ascent of Superpin, but via a different, slightly less sketchy route. Cleveland’s ascent has never been seconded. Barber himself, in an interview, refused to compare his own ascent to Cleveland’s. “Pete Cleveland's ascent of his route… has not been bettered. Every year that passes without an ascent makes his climb that much more impressive. What he did was so inconceivable. It was a statement to the world. When I climbed my route on Superpin, I actually thought I was doing Pete's route. It wasn't until I climbed past the mangled pin and got higher that I realized I wasn’t. I didn't have the cojones to do his route. And I was a good climber then — nothing in the world stopped me.”
The Barber route has been repeated, though 35 years after Barber climbed it, he returned to remove some bolts and essentially made Superpin a solo climb again, a move that stirred some controversy in the climbing community. (There’s been some discussion of replacing, or even adding to the hardware).
Pete Cleveland’s Superpin ascent may never be seconded. And while his exploits are known in the Needles climbing community and on online climber's discussion boards, the Cleveland legend kind of faded into a fog of Wisconsin obscurity by the dawn of the ‘70s. Cleveland ran his family physician practice, raised his kids, held some local offices. He did all the solid citizen stuff. And climbed. It's possible that he's silently equaled or bested his Superpin triumph a thousand times, but that day in '67 seems fixed as the summit of the Cleveland mythos.
He still hasn't stopped climbing. Now retired from his practice in Baraboo, Cleveland climbs every day he can at Devil’s Lake. “Last year I didn’t miss a day from the end of February all the way into November. I do 11’s regularly, even a 12. Our climbs here, whatever the grade is you add a number to it to equal to what it would be out West. An 11 here is a 12 everywhere else. It’s a conservative tradition.”
“What [Cleveland and Gill] did... I think everybody will always look up in awe,” says Daryl Stisser of Sylvan Rocks Climbing School. “When you stand there and look at where [Cleveland] went up, you kind of… that solidifies in your mind why nobody has ever done it again. He chose what I think he said [in an interview] was one of the most 'unfathomable' lines, and I would have to agree after looking at it. It just doesn’t make sense where he went.”
The mystery of how he did it, perhaps intensified by Cleveland’s mystifyingly quiet, upper Midwestern life will linger among that "counsel of warlords and necromancers" for how long, no one knows.
“I guess the best compliment I ever had,” says Cleveland, “was a couple years ago [Devil’s Lake climber] Dave Groth took me aside and very solemnly said, ‘Pete, I got to tell you. I’ve been to South Dakota three times to do your route,’ a big pause… ‘I can’t do it.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Because we’re almost 50 years now and no one has succeeded yet to complete the climb without a fall. I’m not happy about that. I have an internal sense that says holy crap I could’ve been killed. How can you be proud of something when it was such a stupid thing?”