The Oldest Living Dirtbag – Jan Conn
Now that Fred Beckey has passed away (RIP), folks will undoubtedly start clamoring about who now owns the title of “The Oldest Living Dirtbag.” You may be surprised to find that it is a climber with a much lower profile than Fred – a diminutive subject named Jan, who makes her home in the inconspicuous Black Hills of South Dakota…
I did not know a lick about Jan until I got an email from a friend of a friend: Elliott Becker.
“On our trip to North Dakota in Sept. 2016”, Elliott wrote, “we climbed in the Needles with a guide up some old Conn routes. We also did a long interview with Jan… I want to edit together the Conn interview, and put together some presentations on that, as well as an online version…but I keep not getting around to it, because I continue to prioritize actually climbing over writing/editing about climbing… I’m sure you understand.”
But Elliott did eventually get around to it, and the result is a beautiful interview, and short article about a truly remarkable human.
Unfortunately, I have no way to embed the audio into this story… But you can CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD IT.
Without further ado, I give you Elliott Becker, on Jan Conn.
Jan Conn: Always Improving
Jan Conn, invariably connected with her longtime husband, the late Herb Conn, is a legendary climber, particularly for climbers in the D.C. area. That’s where Jan and Herb started their career, and local D.C. crags like Carderock (Sterling’s Crack is Jan’s favorite) and Great Falls on the Potomac River are filled with routes named for them, such as Herbie’s Horror, one of the first 5.9s in the U.S., and Jan’s Face. (Another climb is Ronnie’s Leap, named for a neighbor’s dog who decided to go from the top to the bottom of the cliff via the direct route.) When Jan and Herb started climbing there they could take the trolley to Glen Echo and then hike out to Carderock from there.Beyond the D.C. area, lots of climbs throughout the U.S. have been named for the Conns. The great knifeblade ridge of Tuscarora sandstone that is Seneca Rocks sports two classic Conn routes, Conn’s East and Conn’s West, although Jan demurs that she and Herb were merely following old army routes when they first did them. Further from the D.C. area, the Conncourse was a classic route at Cannon in New Hampshire, but rockfall has swept away the original route (climb Moby Grape for some of the experience). However, the East coast could only hold the Conns for so long.
In the mid-1940s the Conns set out across America, climbing where they pleased and working seasonal jobs to support themselves— they were some of the first dirtbag climbers. Through Texas, Arizona, California and other places, the Conns put up new routes, the history of which is now lost to time. But the place to find the most Conn routes is the Black Hills Needles of South Dakota. These spires of coarse-grained granite are littered with first ascents by the Conns (e.g. Conn Diagonal, East Gruesome, to name a miniscule fraction).The reason for the many Conn routes there is simple: after traveling around the U.S., they discovered the Needles and decided that there was enough climbing there to last a lifetime. When they arrived there were essentially no other climbers there. They spent the late 1940s through 50s climbing and putting up first ascents on the endless spires. In the 50s, they built a tiny home in the side of a hill in Custer, South Dakota — the Conncave — and lived there, off the grid, for decades. Jan still lives there, still off the grid, to this day.
Jan and Herb climbed with a variety of partners when they were in D.C., but once they left the area, they mostly climbed with each other. However, piqued by a remark suggesting women had to be “hauled up” climbs, Jan was inspired to do the first all-female ascent of Devils Tower (Bear Lodge) with another D.C. climber, Jane Showacre, via the Durrance Route in 1952. Her article about the first “manless” ascent is available online at the Devils Tower website. Jan was also the first woman to climb Devils Tower, with Herb in 1948.
While Jan and Herb are well-known in the climbing community, it turns out that their great love was caving. In 1959, a friend turned them on to spelunking in Jewel Cave near Custer. They spent the next 22 years meticulously exploring and mapping more than 60 miles in Jewel Cave, one of the longest caves on Earth. As they aged out of that pursuit, they began exploring and developing hiking trails in and around their property. As time passed, Jan focused more on teaching music, giving flute and guitar lessons. Music was one of Jan’s great passions since she was very young, and it was a hobby she shared with Herb. She still remembers many of the 38 original verses of the song “Jam Crack Joe” that Herb wrote and often enjoyed playing during their travels. She wrote the musical Run to Catch a Pinecone, and three CDs of her compositions have been compiled by friends.Herb passed in 2012 at 91. Obituaries document his and Jan’s life together (Paul Piana for the American Alpine Club, Climbing magazine, Daryl Stisser). Jan still lives on her own, quite contentedly, with the friendship and support of many long-time friends, including Daryl and Cheryl Stisser, local climbers and owners of Sylvan Rocks Climbing School & Guide Service. More recently, as Jan’s hearing has declined, she has focused on learning photography. That, and caring for a little cat that adopted her, which she named Vixen. She also draws and makes rubber stamps. From climbing, to caving, to music, to photography, Jan has always pursued activities that interested and challenged her.
Jan was kind enough to talk to me and my partner Ally when we traveled to western South Dakota from D.C. in September 2016. She was generous with her time, and showed us around her property, from the tiny Conncave to the more spacious Knot Hole where she normally entertains guests.
I hope you enjoy this interview with a true climbing pioneer: CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE AUDIO.
Up Not Down (Black Hills climbing documentary, interview with Conns ~2:00-4:30)
Various overviews of the Conns’ lives are available online:
- The Conns’ friend Hollis Marriott
- Daryl Stisser
- The Conns wrote a book about their Jewel Cave adventures
- There is a guidebook to the Conns’ climbs in the Needles
And finally, here is a video of Jan playing guitar and singing for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club – Mountaineering Section’s 75th anniversary in D.C.
Elliott and his partner Ally are climbers and attorneys based in D.C. Elliott wants to thank the members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club – Mountaineering Section, especially John Gregory, Jeanette Helfrich, Greg Christopulos, Mark Fletcher and John Christian, for their help learning about the Conns and the Needles. Similarly, Hollis Marriott of Laramie, Wyoming, provided invaluable information and editing. And also many thanks to Sam Levine who was kind enough to take time away from being a new parent to provide audio editing. In addition, I am very obliged to everyone who agreed to host or disseminate this interview and article. Finally, none of this would have been possible without the interest and generosity of Jan Conn, a true living legend.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Fringe’s Folly, of course, was always intended to be a site where folks like Elliott can contribute their work, and share it with the climbing community. If you like what you read here, and are a creative yourself, consider sending something in! Just use the CONTACT FORM and shoot over a query or a draft.