Climbing In Black Elk's and Custer's Footsteps

Steve and Tom Fagin en route to Harney Peak in South Dakota on March 10, 2012.

After slipping and sliding over an icy trail and scrambling up steep stone steps last week, my son, Tom and I gazed beyond pine, spruce and fir trees at a majestic expanse of plains and prairie that spread to the horizon.

We at last reached the 7,242-foot summit of Harney Peak in South Dakota's fabled Black Hills, near where General George Armstrong Custer once stood and where an Oglala Lakota Sioux Indian named Black Elk claimed to have received a "great vision."

Though Tom and I could peer out at four states – South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana – we would need more than Black Elk's great vision to see the anything taller. To the west no mountains rise higher until the Rockies; there's nothing of greater elevation eastward until the French Pyrenees.

"An elegant peak," I remarked, and Tom nodded, sipping from his water bottle.

We clambered up stairs to an abandoned fire tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938 and then perched on a pile of rocks while basking in ridiculously but deliciously warm sunshine during the waning days of winter.

Tom and I had driven to South Dakota the day before from his new home in Gillette, Wyoming, where he works as a newspaper reporter. The apple hasn't fallen far from the tree.

Loyal readers who have followed my dispatches over the years may recall the father-son adventures I've chronicled, including our climbs together of all 67 of the New England mountains that rise above 4,000 feet, long kayak expeditions and a 272-mile hike of Vermont's Long Trail from the Massachusetts border to Canada.

My wife, Lisa, and I are thrilled, of course, that Tom is now making his own life, even if it's 2,000 miles from Connecticut.

The Harney Peak expedition, which we followed with a visit to nearby Mount Rushmore, was the first of several outings Tom and I enjoyed during my weeklong visit; I'll write about others in next Saturday's blog.

But before I sign off, a few more comments about Harney for those who may be contemplating a journey to the Black Hills.

The peak was named for Gen. William S. Harney, a so-called hero of the 1855 Battle of Ash Hollow in which U.S. forces vanquished a group of Brule Sioux Indians in what is now western Nebraska.

If it's any consolation to Native Americans, at least Harney Peak lies within a vast expanse now known as the Black Elk Wilderness. Then again, this region also contains Custer State Park, so go figure.

Two years before he made his last stand at the Little Big Horn, Custer led a party to the Black Hills and reported finding gold, which prompted the U.S. government to break its treaty with the Lakota Sioux that would have given them ownership of the Black Hills. During his travels Custer and his band rode horses close to the top of Harney Peak but stopped just short of the summit because of the difficult terrain.

The Rev. Samuel Hinman, member of a Special Sioux Commission, also found the climb challenging and in an 1874 letter suggested Harney Peak really should be called a "mountain, for such it really is."

"We found everywhere a country mountainous, rough, and ragged, cut up by deep valleys and steep ravines, and thickly covered with pine in various stages of growth," he wrote.

Modern-day hikers will find the route to the summit challenging but not overly daunting, particularly if they follow the well-marked No. 9 Trail from Sylvan Lake.

If rises moderately through thick evergreen forest before dipping into a valley and then ascending more steeply to the summit in 3.3 miles. Most hikers return via the same route, making it a 6.6-mile round trip that takes four to five hours.

More ambitious trekkers can extend their itinerary by detouring on the descent via Trail No. 4, which branches from Trail No. 9 a half-mile below the summit. This scenic route passes through rock formations known as Cathedral Spires and past Little Devil's Tower.

More information about the Harney Peak trails and others in the United States and Europe is available on the excellent website hikemasters.com.

Whichever route you follow, a climb up Harney Peak rewards casual as well as experienced hikers and who knows, may even evoke one of Black Elk's great visions.

Black Elk, said to have survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Wounded Knee Massacre, first ascended the peak at age 9 and returned as an old man with writer John Neihardt.

Neihardt quotes the Native American medicine man in his book, "Black Elk Speaks": "I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being."

Next week: The Badlands, Spearfish Canyon and Devil's Tower.

The trail to the summit passes beneath a giant boulder.
The trail to the summit passes beneath a giant boulder.

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