High Mountain Outfitters is introducing beginner climbers to a whole region of rock.
Sheer, limestone cliff faces in Spearfish Canyon; parallel cracks and hexagonal columns at Devils Tower; slick, abrasive granite surrounding the iconic Mount Rushmore National Memorial—all of these diverse climbing environments can be found in South Dakota. Despite all of these rock climbing options, there was one thing missing. There were no climbing gyms in the area where climbers of all skill levels could train year-round.
That’s what inspired High Mountain Outfitters to open two climbing gyms in the western part of the state, with the goal of creating a climbing community that included everyone, from beginners to advanced climbers.
High Mountain Outfitters, owned by Justin Stephens, operates three outdoor stores throughout the Black Hills region of South Dakota—one in Hot Springs, one in Custer, and one in Spearfish. The company started in 2016 and is passionate about getting people outside to enjoy the beauty of South Dakota’s seven National Park Service sites, 1.2 million acres of Black Hills National Forest, and 70,000+ acres of Custer State Park.
High Mountain Outfitters is Changing Rock Climbing in South Dakota
Pat Fackler moved to South Dakota from Bakersfield, California to pursue an outdoor education degree at Black Hills State University in Spearfish. Shortly after his move, he began chatting with Justin about something that was missing from the region’s outdoor scene.
“There was a lack of recreation opportunities within the Spearfish and Rapid City areas,” Pat said. “We wanted to create opportunities for kids to not have to hang out in a parking lot, or hang out at home watching TV all day. So, we came up with this idea—maybe a climbing gym would be good for us to work on.”
Pat, who had managed a climbing gym in California, soon became the new Climbing Gym Manager for High Mountain Outfitters, and plans were put in motion to turn this dream into a reality. By May 2018, they had opened a state-of-the-art climbing gym at the High Mountain Outfitters headquarters in Spearfish. Despite being a region known for distinctive outdoor rock climbing opportunities, this was the first official climbing gym to open in the area. It didn’t take long for the neighboring town of Rapid City to want in on the fun.
“We opened in Spearfish and just thought, let’s just start here. If the community reaches out to us and shows us that they really want the gym here, then we can move towards expanding the effort. And sure enough, they cried out, like, ‘Hey, yo! Why does Spearfish get a climbing gym and not Rapid? We want one, too. Bring one here!’”
High Mountain Outfitters launched its second climbing gym in Rapid City this past December, just in time to keep the rock climbing stoke going as the temperatures began to drop into the single digits.
How High Mountain Outfitters Prepares Climbers for the Black Hills
“The Black Hills are such a treasure trove of so many different types of climbing,” Pat said.
From limestone to granite, Black Hills climbers experience a range of climbing holds and have to practice different techniques to get up the rock. High Mountain Outfitters aims to prepare these climbers as best they can for navigating common climbing challenges they may encounter in the area. Pat splits his time between the Rapid City and Spearfish climbing gyms, switching up the different climbing and bouldering routes in each gym on a weekly basis to provide ongoing opportunities to be challenged and learn new skills.
“Climbing indoors is really about training you for circumstances outdoors,” Pat said. “Outside, there isn’t going to be a lighted path or colored holds to show you the correct way to go. I want to train people how to do a technical move here in the gym, repeating it over and over again, so they can go outdoors and be, like, ‘Oh, I know exactly what to do here!’”
While the way a person chooses to climb a route varies by body type and personal style, High Mountain Outfitters tries to simulate routes in the Black Hills as much as possible. By doing so, potential outdoor climbers can familiarize themselves with the techniques that will work best for them in those circumstances.
“We have these really cool crack volumes that we can set up for people who want to go climb Devils Tower, or the Needles in Custer, which both involve a lot of crack climbing,” Pat shared. “We hope to prepare them by practicing their techniques, so that once they’re actually there, they can do their problem, no problem.”
High Mountain Outfitters hopes to plan some summer youth trips, where participants can take what they’ve learned in the gym and apply it outside in their Black Hills backyard.
Beginner Rock Climbers are Welcome at High Mountain Outfitters
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For many, rock climbing can be an intimidating sport. Between its unique physical challenges and navigating the jargon of seasoned climbers, a newbie might be nervous to step foot in a climbing gym. Recognizing this, High Mountain Outfitters is actively working to foster the supportive space needed to initiate new interest in the sport.
“What I really hope for these gyms to become is basically a beacon for people to come together and be, like, ‘Hey, it’s totally OK not to be good at something your first time trying it’,” Pat said. “That’s why we’re here. We want to work with you and support you, and hopefully bring you up to the level you want to be at.”
Beginner climbers can rent all of the gear they need to get started at each of the High Mountain Outfitters climbing gyms. For those who want to learn how to work the ropes, High Mountain Outfitters offers a belay class for just $15 for two people, allowing new climbers to come in with a buddy to learn.
“We’re also going to shoot for the first Wednesday of every month to be beginners’ night,” Pat said. “So, if you’ve never done rock climbing before and don’t want to show up when there are a lot of people climbing super hard, Wednesday nights are dedicated to the basics of rock climbing. We all have to start somewhere. We have to build ourselves up to eventually get to that point where we’re climbing really hard.”
What You Need to Know to Start Climbing at High Mountain Outfitters
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If you’re looking to start toeing the waters of rock climbing, or wanting to gain some great “beta” for your summer Black Hills climbing trip, High Mountain Outfitters should be your first stop.
- Day Pass: $12 (able to leave and come back throughout the day)
- Month Pass: $40 for students and military / $50 general public
- Punch Pass: Buy 9 day passes, get your 10th one free!
- Shoe Rentals: $4
- Harness Rentals: $4
- Belay Class: $15 for two people
- Price for an absolute beginner to try out climbing for the day: ~$2
- Location: 1930 North Ave., Spearfish, South Dakota
- Hours: Monday-Friday, 4pm-8:30pm; Saturday-Sunday, 10am-8pm
- Details: 800 square feet with 5 ropes, a Traverse Wall, and a 40- and 45-degree bouldering section
Rapid City Gym
- Location: 3010 Cambell St., Rapid City, South Dakota
- Hours: Monday-Friday, 10am-8pm
- Details: 4,500 square feet with a pro shop, birthday party space, 6 ropes, technical climbs ranging from 5.6 to 5.11, freestanding bouldering section, and a MoonBoard
- Follow the High Mountain Climbing Gym Facebook page for all of the latest information.
- Like beer? Head over to Hay Camp Brewing Company in Rapid City, buy a Crowler or a growler, show them your High Mountain Outfitters climbing pass, and they’ll donate a new climbing hold for the gym. Drink local, climb local!
(Editors Note: Since writing this article, former gym manager Pat Fackler has moved back to California and is no longer with the High Mountain Climbing Gyms.)