The Black Hills is home to beautiful granite peaks and spires that wow us as we drive through the hills or hike our favorite trails. Sylvan Rocks Climbing School and Guide Service offer families an alternative way to experience the Black Hills: by climbing them.
Brandon Emery has been climbing since he was fourteen years old. His parents grew up in Custer and both enjoyed climbing; their stories and photos were what initially attracted Brandon to the sport. Friends of his parents took Brandon out and taught him the ropes, which turned into outings with friends, and eventually a job as a guide with Sylvan Rocks Climbing School and Guide Service.
Now, as the new co-owner of Sylvan Rocks, Brandon enjoys sharing his love of the sport and the outdoors: “I feel like climbing is a great way to bring people to the outdoors and let them experience the beautiful scenery and nature that Custer State Park provides.”
Get ready to climb
Taking your family climbing may seem intimidating at first. It turns out that there aren’t any skills required upfront, and it’s not as hard as most of us think. Brandon reassures families that want to try it out that if they’re fit enough to walk around Sylvan Lake — or even a simple flight of stairs — they’ll be able to rock climb. Tailoring a climb to each person’s skill level is key. “Climbing is an inherently risky sport,” Brandon says, “but we mitigate something like 95% of that risk by wearing proper gear and teaching good climbing techniques.”
Finding a good teacher ensures families learn how to climb safely. Sylvan Rocks offers Discover Climbing Adventures where families learn the basics, and all necessary climbing gear is provided. These classes make up about half of their guiding schedule, and roughly 80% of them involve kids younger than 10. Kids must be at least 5 years old, and all kids must have their parents with them, whether the parents climb or not. After years of working with families who are first-timers, Brandon says, “A lot of times at the end of one lesson we’ll have parents belaying for their kids. The trust climbing builds between families is amazing.”
For kids who might be scared to try climbing, Brandon says there is no pressure to do anything they don’t want to. In fact, every climb starts out by determining what success means. Whether it’s making it to the top of a cliff, or simply scaling up 10 feet, the crew at Sylvan Rocks makes sure the primary goal is to learn something new and have fun.
Giving back to the community
Sylvan Rocks takes pride in being the only outdoor climbing school and guide company based in the Black Hills of South Dakota. They’re also the only guide company in eastern Wyoming, eastern Montana, and South Dakota accredited by the American Mountain Guides Association. Living locally allows the team at Sylvan Rocks to support and grow the climbing community in the Black Hills, and they hope to grow their local youth programs in the future. Brandon says, “I wish there had been more opportunity when I was growing up for things like a two day beginners class where you can learn those basics early on. We really want to start providing opportunities for local kids to be introduced to rock climbing so that they can enjoy the Black Hills the same way I was able to.”
At the end of the day, Brandon says the best part of his job is “when we have those kids who are scared, and we get them to the top, it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever done. It’s cool, because whatever the top is for each kid — if it’s 15 feet up or 2,000 feet — you know they’ll never forget that feeling.” Rock climbing is truly a sport kids can learn early, and the entire family can enjoy throughout the years. The trust and teamwork involved make it the perfect sport to bring your family together while enjoying our beautiful backyard.
Grab the right gear
Getting started in any sport can be expensive, but climbing doesn’t have to be. If you start out climbing with other more experienced climbers, they will have some of the more technical gear on hand. After taking a lesson or two with all gear provided, the equipment beginners should acquire first are those items that are more personalized or fitted.
Shoes. While a basic tennis shoe will get you by on beginning climbs, investing in a pair of climbing shoes will help you climb safely. Climbing shoes are made with a specific type of rubber sole that increases your grip on the rock’s surface. Sports stores in the hills offer affordable options for kids starting out, and there are consignment stores that carry them as well.
Helmet. Wearing a helmet protects your head if you slip or fall and impact the rock, and also from falling rocks — whether you’re climbing or belaying. Finding one that fits comfortably and will protect your head from impacts is important. Luckily, some helmets are rated for multiple sports, so you can get more bang for your buck.
Harness. There are many options with a harness, but starting out your focus should be on fit and comfort. You can find a harness suitable for beginners for a reasonable price, and generally, they’ll last you quite a while.
Sylvan Rocks has been taking families climbing for over 30 seasons now, and believe everyone can enjoy climbing with friends and family in the Black Hills. Visit them at their shop in downtown Custer or online at www.sylvanrocks.com.
WORDS: ASHLEY JOHNSON PHOTOS: COURTESY OF SYLVAN ROCKS