Herb and Jan Conn met as kids during summer vacations in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the 1930’s. They discovered at that time that they shared a love of exploring the wild places of the world. Later they learned the thrill and excitement of climbing vertical rock along the Potomac River. After they married in 1944, they roamed the United States seeking rocks to climb. They earned their living with odd jobs, anything to finance their next adventure in the vertical world
In 1947, they wandered into Custer State Park in South Dakota. There they found more rocky crags than they would ever have time and energy to climb. They bought land and built a crude shelter to protect them from the weather. For the next ten years, their life was centered around rock climbing, mostly in the Needles area of the Black Hills, although they wandered as far as Devils Tower in nearby Wyoming, where Jan became the first woman to free-climb the Tower. Their climbing activities have been written up in Lindsay Stephens 2008 book, “The Adventure Climbs of Herb and Jan Conn.” During this period the Conns earned their living in a variety of ways. For a dozen years, Herb did the annual maintenance on the four faces of Mount Rushmore. Jan, who had a strong interest in music, played string bass and sang with the Kaiser Serenaders, a weekend band from Hot Springs. Hand-carving leather goods was a further occupation.<o:p></o:p>
In 1959, geologist Dwight Deal lured the Conns into Jewel Cave, and their lives took a different turn. Here they discovered one of the world’s biggest natural jungle gyms. Exploring and mapping the cave became a project that suited their strange desires. As a kid, Herb had roamed the streets of his home town on his bicycle, to see how they all fitted together and make a map. That was child’s play compared to mapping the three dimensional maze that Jewel Cave turned out to be. <o:p></o:p>
At that time, the National Park Service was a bit doubtful that the primitive tour being offered to the public was up to park standards and had thoughts of discontinuing the Jewel Cave tours. They waited, however, to learn what more might be found in the new exploration. For the next 22 years, the Conns made almost weekly trips into the cave, mapping over 65 miles of passages hitherto unknown. Their book, “The Jewel Cave Adventure,” published in 1977, is still on sale at the cave. The new discoveries of beautiful rooms and cave formations never before found persuaded the Park Service to provide access with an elevator into a new scenic area in 1972, with a paved trail and electric lighting, and a new Visitor Center building at the top of the elevator.<o:p></o:p>
In the early 1980’s, the Conns, suffering from aging muscles, turned over the exploration to Mike Wiles. He with other eager cavers have continued the exploration, and Jewel Cave now has 153 miles of passages, the second longest cave in the world. <o:p></o:p>
With serious caving behind them, Jan returned to her other love, music. She composed and orchestrated a tone poem, “Paha Sapa,” which was played by the Centennial Orchestra, directed by Robert Merrick in 1976. She composed and performed the background music for three films for Nauman Films. She wrote a musical, “Run to Catch a Pine Cone,” that was performed at the Black Hills Playhouse, directed by Wayne Knutson in 1984. It was also performed in Rapid City. She still plays flute with the musical group, the French Creek Folk, and with the Phantom Flutes.<o:p></o:p>
Jan has given hundreds of slide shows on Jewel Cave, and continues to do so. Once a year she performs at Devils Tower, a program of climbing the Tower 60 years ago in song and story.<o:p></o:p>
It has been a wonderfully satisfying life for the Conns, just doing what appealed to them, and they are grateful if their fun has brought things of value to others.
Caving legend Herb Conn died Wednesday, February 1, 2012, at the age of 91 after a lifetime spent climbing the peaks and mapping the underground passages of his beloved Black Hills.
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