- [Announcer] This is a production of South Dakota Public Broadcasting.
(cheery upbeat music) - [Speaker] Support for SDPB and the Ups and Downs of Herb and Jan Conn documentary comes from the Black Hills Parks and Forests Association, a nonprofit public land partner, supporting wonder and exploration for over 75 years.
Donors to the Explore South Dakota Fund support the production of local documentaries and other programs of local interest presented by SDPB.
Friends of SDPB appreciates their support of this program.
(water burbling) (gentle peaceful music) - [Chris] It's very easy for people to get famous, you know, because there is social media, there's the internet, you take a picture, it gets out there, everybody knows what you're doing all the time.
- [Jan] We appreciate you not taking pictures.
I don't know, I think you can do it without that.
- [Chris] The Conns actively tried not to be famous.
- [Herb] We're not proud of the performance we put on for the camera, I guess.
Put it that way.
- [Chris] Because, if you become famous, it becomes about you instead of about the activity.
Their achievements got them noticed, of course.
But it's more about who they are than about their achievements.
- [Jan] My mom said she wanted to raise her kids to go their own way and do their own thing and she thinks she carried it too far.
- [Chris] People, really, when they look at the Conns, they don't just look at what they did, they look at how they lived.
- [Jan] The less you need to live on, the more time you had for climbing.
- [Chris] Because it wasn't about competing, it was about exploration, it was always, primarily, about exploration.
- [Herb] The room we haven't found yet is-- - [Jan] That's right.
- [Herb] Is the exciting one, you know?
(Jan laughs) - And I think that's a very attractive, very pure, very wholesome way of looking at any activity that most people don't view that way.
Most people just never get to a point where they view something like that.
(equipment clattering) - [Speaker] You wanna practice?
- Oh, I can practice on camera, right?
If I get it right, it'll be okay?
- [Speaker] Yeah.
- So this is the sort of rope that the Conns used.
I believe this is a nylon rope, it's not a hemp rope.
But you can see, it's a lot thicker than the new fancy nylon ropes that we have, a lot heavier.
And instead of wearing a climbing harness, like we do, they would just tie a bowline around their waist and it goes something like this.
Jan would be much more proficient at this than I am.
- [Jan] We started off with a manila rope, $3.50 for 120 feet of it or something.
And the rope was just tied round your waist, with a bowline.
So you really did not wanna fall.
- The rope was the weak link.
- [Herb] Manila didn't stretch like nylon does and if you fell very far, it would just, it was pretty sure to snap the rope.
- [Jan] Especially if the rope was old at all 'cause it's a natural fiber and it dies, and after a year or two, you had to fork out another $3.50.
(laughs) - [Herb] 'Cause we started using nylon before we came here, right after the war, we managed to get a hold of nylon ropes.
- [Announcer] Throughout the world, throngs of people hail the end of the war in Europe.
It is five years and more since Hitler marched into Poland, years full of suffering and death and sacrifice.
Now, the war against Germany is won.
- We're waiting for after the war, everything was gonna be fun after the war, and it was.
(gentle strumming music) He got out of the Army in El Paso, Texas in November, and we looked at our map and we saw that there was a place called Big Bend National Park.
And we were looking for a warm place for winter so we went down there.
And we stayed there 'til spring.
(gentle strumming music) Well, we had to earn a living, of course, and our original intention was to get regular winter employment and climb in the summers.
So we looked for something that we could do.
Started out designing wallets and we got into doing mountaineering and climbing patterns.
Herb would design 'em and I'd carve 'em.
Worked out pretty well.
- I first contacted with Herb and Jan was because I was a customer of theirs.
Bought this leather climbing harness without all the jingle jangly things on it, of course, but I bought this from Herb and Jan by mail order and that became my first contact with them.
And met them and we went climbing together.
- [Chris] Impressive in its beauty and its permanence, Devil's Tower is, most of all, a remarkable natural record of geological history, a witness to its own epic story.
- Well, we were coming from the West Coast and we wanted to climb Devil's Tower.
And we went over there in all innocence and wanted to climb it the next day.
Oh no, at that time, you had to have, (laughs) you had to sign your life away, about.
We told 'em we could get a phone call from the president of the Sierra Club.
No, no that wouldn't do.
- [Herb] We'd met him that year, we couldn't get permission.
- [Jan] They said they had to have somebody that would promise to come and get us if we got into trouble.
And they had to go all the way to Iowa to do that.
(Herb chuckles) I know that you wrote that Jan and you were gonna, wanted to climb the tower and they thought Jan was a man.
They were kinda shook up when they, (laughs) found it wasn't.
- It does seem interesting that if you start to tease it apart, there was probably more women climbers than you would have imagined.
But I think, especially because we know Jan, you know, you start hearing more about that stuff and you start hearing more about the friends that she was climbing with that were there during the, you know, back in the day.
- It was something like rock climbing in its extreme is more like ballet.
(gentle classical music) Girls are good at it.
They're light weight and if they have upper body strength, they can do about as well as a guy.
Some of 'em can do a lot better.
It's kind of nice to put people in their place once in a while.
(chuckles) - I do find that there's some guys, in particular, who really have a hard time with dealing with the fact that there might be, that this woman might be just as good or better than they are, and it's real interesting sometimes, the egos that, the male ego.
(laughs) - [Jan] Spire one, up in the spires, it was a climb that was one of our favorites.
And one time, we decided we really should have some pictures.
So it was a guy I didn't like, (chuckles) so, Herb and the other guy went up.
And I was running around taking pictures from one side and then the other.
I had more exercise than they did.
And I had, just for the fun of it, when they got down, I went over to this other guy, and I says, "Congratulations, "you made the first woman-less assent."
It was spire one.
(everyone laughs) He was kind of put out about it, I think.
(everyone laughs) - I find that the people who I teach, women tend to be better climbers initially, for sure.
There's no doubt about that.
- Just beginning, their balance is better, and they think and climb smarter 'cause they don't try to pull themselves up.
A guy will look at a route and go, "Okay, "I can grab that and that and pull myself up," and a girl will go, "Well, "I can put my foot there and there and stand up."
And the way you wanna do it is by using your feet and I think that women climbers use their feet better, and they maybe think more, as opposed to just pull.
- I would like to see more women get into the sport, and I think that it's just this preconception that climbing is a male sport and you have to have these big, you know, muscles to be able to climb, and it's certainly not the case.
(film reel rattles) - [Herb] In 1947, was the first time.
We were just driving through and we found the needles and actually, we were set to climb Devil's Tower and couldn't get permission.
- I remember we came back and we took the Harney Peak Trail and came down behind the spires there and looked at all of those towering rocks around us and we said that it's more than just in our head, this is the place we wanna live.
(gentle strumming music) We went up to Silvan Lake, drove to Silvan Lake and went out to the Needle's eye and looked up at all of those needles around there and we go, "Boy, that looks beautiful, "but it can't be good rock for climbing."
But we went over to it and it was and we were hooked.
(gentle strumming music) People just didn't understand why you'd do anything like that.
So we kinda just did it on our own and kept quiet about it.
We didn't pay any attention, we just knew what we wanted.
We didn't pay any attention to what the world thought.
(gentle strumming music) - They were always free climbers, in other words, they didn't pound pitons in and put a sling in there and stand on that, and put another one, they just felt that you should use your hands and your feet and your mind and then chose climbs that they could actually climb.
- We never considered ourselves bold climbers.
What you want is that fine line between exhilaration and utter terror.
(gentle strumming music) If it got too hard, we'd go down and think about it a while and come back another day and be a little braver and get a littler higher.
We did a lot of climbing that way.
- [Speaker] Not only were Herb and Jan, separately, individually very fine climbers, the team, they were remarkably coordinated because they knew each other so well.
I was watching not two people, one person connected by a short length of rope, they were in harmony with themselves and the rock.
(gentle strumming music) - We climbed over 200 needles that we left registers on.
We didn't begin to get to the outlying areas.
I think there were probably still masses of rock out there that nobody's ever laid a hand on.
- Believe it or not, when the Conns were climbing, they were doing some of the most difficult free climbs being done on the planet.
In fact, East Gruesome, which was their crowning achievement, that climb really could be considered the most difficult climb on the planet at the time that it was done.
And we've built on top of that since then, on top of their techniques, their ideas.
They were some of the first ones to actually change the idea about equipment to be used.
- Tennis shoes, the cheaper the better.
I know we got one for $1.98 once, which was pretty good price.
- At the time, when the Conns started, people were frequently using, like mountaineering boots, with like a really hard ridged sole, and the Conns were some of the first ones to think about using a soft soled shoe that conforms to the little small crystals on the rock and gets you more friction.
And so they actually climbed in Keds.
They got the tightest Keds that they could find.
And so, in my mind, Herb and Jan invented the climbing shoe.
'Cause they were the first ones to do that.
I know you're kinda trying to take being the first out of it a little bit, but being the first is actually a big part of it.
You know, there's a reason that the world records for swimming and running and these things, they get broken by a fraction of a second, and another fraction of a second, and another fraction of a second, and another fraction of a second, and you don't go from here to here, it's like that with climbing.
You know, they laid the groundwork for climbing, I mean, not just locally, you know.
It's not just a local thing.
(laughs) Like they were doing some of the most challenging free climbs on the planet.
(gentle strumming music) Something that I've always thought was interesting about the Conns was when they transitioned from climbing to caving.
(carefree cheery music) - [Jan] We didn't think about it, we just thought it was someplace to keep warm in the winter.
We wanted to be physically active.
But it sure got into our blood and we just couldn't stop.
- They, pretty abruptly, left the climbing world and went underground into Jewel.
And it seems like they never looked back.
It seems like they never had regrets about it.
It seems like, even though there were still spires left to climb out there, they didn't think of those unclimbed spires that they never got to or never found, they didn't think of those as ones that got away.
- I remember it was a real shock when we had a choice of going up to climb the spires or going down into Jewel Cave, that we wanted to go down rather than up.
That really shocked us.
But we accepted that, (laughs) and had a ball.
- You know, it was just like, "Okay, on to the next adventure."
And the ease with which they were able to make that transition just always really impressed me.
And Jan told me something that I'll never forget, she said, "If you fully commit yourself "to anything it is that you find meaning in, "you will never have any regrets."
And that's just really beautiful, you know.
So they just went, literally, they went from being fully committed to climbing to fully committed to caving.
And that's one thing that I think people notice about them is that they had no regrets.
- A climber came through one summer, Dwight Deal, he just graduated from college back East, he had been a geology major and he went back to school at the University of Wyoming, and he got his masters in Jewel Cave, working there, and that's how we got started was with him.
And after that, he pretty much left us on our own and we had gotten the bug by then, (chuckles) wanted to know what was around that next corner.
- When you're a climber, a mountaineer or rock climber, your goal is pretty obvious, it's up there, it's that peak.
Caving is a totally different philosophy, particularly virgin cave, caves that nobody's ever been in before, nobody knows where they go.
- [Herb] That's right, you don't know what's ahead.
When you're climbing outdoors, you know pretty much what you're headed for.
You don't know in the cave.
- [Jan] When you try it, you either like it or you don't like it.
Well the same thing's kinda true with climbing too, but I think there's a little bit more of an intermediate stage before it gets its hooks into you and that's what you've gotta do.
- [Herb] And you're on your own in there.
Nobody's gonna come rescue you with a helicopter.
- [Jan] Or even listen to a cell phone.
Nothing down there works.
You're really on your own.
There's nothing like it.
(cheerful upbeat music) - I do remember the first time into the cave, Jan, somewhere along the way said, "Oh gee, this is just like night climbing."
And indeed it was.
- The Conns just stayed.
They all but gave up their first love of climbing in order to go caving.
They did that for over 20 years.
There was only about two miles of passages known when they started, and in 20 years, they discovered over 62 miles.
- [Herb] We figure 65.
I think Mike says 64.
(group laughs) We were overlapping there a little bit.
- There was a sign at the entrance that said it's a small cave, which they thought it was at that time.
But they just didn't look under the right rock (chuckles) to find where it went.
- [Herb] Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, I think-- - [Jan] No, they're saying, you don't even leave footprints-- - [Herb] Don't wanna leave footprints.
- [Jan] We've been a lot of places where you don't wanna leave footprints.
It's extremely challenging, physically.
I'm under five feet tall and Herb was not much over five feet.
I mean, you think of cave explorers being somebody big.
The bigger you are, the harder it is to get through the cave.
What you use for your guide is your hand span.
If you can span it like that, you should be able to get through it.
Course, you have to exhale and you have to wiggle a lot, but the big husky people, you bring 'em down to size when you take 'em caving.
(chuckles) - [Herb] Oh, the second or third year we were working, we found a place that we called Hurricane Corner, a little hole with a lot of wind.
But when we came out, the rangers at the cave said it had been exhaling all day, which meant that wind had been in our face so it was coming from more cave.
That made us curious enough to wanna know how much cave must be there.
- [Dwight] What we typically did was try to follow the breeze, whether it was blowing in or blowing out.
Following the breeze was the way we tried to find more cave.
And ultimately these led to the great extent of the cave and some big rooms.
- Herb priced an anemometer, a thing that would measure the speed of the wind and they were $1,500 or something.
So he built one for $10.53.
From that, he could figure out what the volume of the cave was.
He figured out that there must be over 1,000 miles of passages, and that was conservative.
Later, people who had better instruments to work with said that it's probably about 15,000 miles of cave passages.
(gentle peaceful music) - [Chris] I think they both, actually, are very talented, but definitely Herb was more heavier on the engineer side and Jan was heavier on the artistic side and they were able to kind of bring that together into some beautiful things that they created.
- [Speaker] Over the next two decades and more than 700 caving trips, the Conns discover and map more than 60 miles of new passages.
(gentle peaceful music) - [Chris] To map a 3-D space to represent it on a 2-D piece of paper is very challenging and you do have to have, sort of, an engineer's brain, but you also have to have an artistic brain 'cause you have to make it look good.
So it's actually a beautiful balance.
And Herb and Jan worked really well together in that way.
- [Jan] The mapping is fun.
A lot of people who cave don't like to map, but we always thought it was a real fun challenge to find the best place where you could see the furthest from one station to the next and then to get the thing down in black and white.
- You've gotta know how to put that on paper and draw the cave walls around it, you know, represent all the different things that are in the cave with different mapping symbols.
It's not like having computers where, (chuckles) you can just erase stuff now, you know?
They made their maps on Mylar, sheets of Mylar.
- Herb, in particular, was a meticulous engineer, and literally, he became fascinated with the problem of sorting out this complicated maze of Jewel Cave.
- I mean, if you just explore a cave, you could go almost all the way around in a circle and not even know it and be right back where you started.
So you just about have to map it to explore it with any intelligence.
And we used to really like that.
- Most of the caves in the world are explored by groups of people and sometimes very complex organizations.
The thing is, you need Herb and Jan and Jewel Cave, which essentially was two people doing this over many years.
Yes, there were more people involved, but it was the impetus of Herb and Jan. (upbeat cheery music) (gentle peaceful music) It never became cave explorers.
They were Jewel Cave explorers.
They never really expressed much interest in any other caves at all.
But Jewel Cave was a very personalized sort of thing.
(gentle peaceful music) - [Jan] We got started in Jewel Cave 'cause they needed somebody to find the end, but we didn't succeed.
We didn't find the end and they still haven't found it.
(gentle peaceful music) The world's longest cave has to be somewhere.
Might as well be here.
(chuckles) (gentle peaceful music) - [Herb] We just like to get in there and wander around.
We used to go in on our anniversary.
10 years or so ago, we went in on such a trip and it was so much harder than it used to be that we decided that wasn't the way to celebrate.
(gentle peaceful music) - [Jan] I talk about us, but I'm used to Herb and me, and even though Herb died a long time ago, and the us is me and my cat, it still feels like we.
We learned a lot about cave geology during our 22 years that we were in there working.
But there's plenty more to learn.
The closer you look at a thing, the more you see.
That's true outside too.
- [Herb] One thing that I always kinda proud of, (chuckles) we named, oh hundreds of the needles and we named hundreds of rooms in the cave and I'm just wondering how many explorers have that many original names on published maps.
(pair laughs) I mean, Lewis and Clark maybe not even that much.
- We were just kinda doing what we wanted to do.
We weren't necessarily thinking about future generations.
Let them do what they wanna do.
- I was still pretty darn young and I was still sorta trying to find my way around the world and what I wanted to do, and I did not know, really, very much geology at that time, but with Herb and Jan, it was so important to me, and the cave was important to me.
I learned many things from that combination.
But the attitude of life that Herb and Jan had and the cave and its complex geology really conspired to set a stage for my becoming the adult that I became and the geologist that I became.
- I don't know, I'm just a firm believer in people doing what's in their heart to do.
So few people do that.
They do what other people do and they don't think for themselves.
- I have a few examples of this, the most recent example was in a conversation with Jan about her music.
And we're hosting a caving convention in Rapid City this summer and I thought what a great opportunity to share Jan's music with a whole bunch of cavers and share our culture.
♪ When I heard a wild shout ♪ ♪ I turned around and gazed above ♪ And so I asked Jan if we could distribute her CD at the event.
She kinda said no.
Tried to talk her into it, well while I'm trying to talk her into it, you know, I was saying, "Jan," you know, "you're a foundation of the caving culture here "and we wanna share that with people."
And she said, "Well you know, "I think it'd just be best "if you looked at things with fresh eyes."
♪ There were three little climbers ♪ ♪ The same little climbers ♪ ♪ And each one crazy in the head ♪ (audience laughs) And we kinda kept talking, and I said, "But we've built off of everything "that you've done and if you're building something new, "you gotta know where you came from," and you know, "like standing on the shoulders of giants."
And I'll never forget this, she said, "Well, it's okay to stand on me and Herb's shoulders, "but you don't wanna get stuck there."
♪ They had been there in the morning ♪ ♪ They were still there that evening ♪ ♪ And they'll still be there when I am home in bed ♪ (audience laughs) (applauds) And I just thought, that's just so amazing.
You know, even after everything that they achieved, they have no real attachment to having achieved that, honestly.
(gentle strumming music) And those words provided unlimited freedom for future generations of explorers to do things their own way.
I mean, what better gift is there?
(laughs) It's a pretty incredible way to view life.
(cheerful carefree music)