Inside the Custer County Rock Spire Rescue

rock spire

Custer County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team volunteers join Custer Ambulance Service personnel to carry an injured climber on a stretcher down a cliff in South Dakota’s Black Hills on Saturday, July 30, 2022. Custer County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue photo.

Custer County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue photo.

An expert climber with the Custer County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team, Paul Meir was six hours into his hike when he got a call about a man falling from a nearby rock spire.

It was Saturday, July 30, and the victim was a roughly 2-mile drive away, three stories down from a pillar in a part of South Dakota the 63-year-old Meir knew very well.

“This area of the Black Hills is called ‘The Needles,’ and there are granite formations that are like fingers, almost, that go up from 40 to hundreds of feet tall,” the retired locomotive engineer told Coffee or Die Magazine.

Meir parked his car near the Cathedral Spires trailhead and soon saw a man “facedown at the base of the spire needle,” in a small, “sloped, gravelly area.”

rock spire

Custer County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team volunteers and Custer Ambulance Service saved a fallen climber on Saturday, July 30, 2022, near the Cathedral Spires trailhead in South Dakota’s Custer State Park. Custer County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue photo.

Custer County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue photo.

Meir told Coffee or Die the hiker’s climbing rope had saved him from tumbling farther down the needle. The rescuer began scaling the rock to apply first aid.

“He’d have been luckier if he had not fallen, but from our point of view, it was much simpler than if he had not gotten all the way to the bottom,” Meir said. “Rescuing somebody who is dangling from a rope on a vertical cliff becomes much more complex.”

Shortly after 2 p.m., a Custer Ambulance Service crew joined Meir and more than a dozen members of his all-volunteer rescue team.

They built a belay system to bring the injured man off the mountain.

rock spire

An injured climber is loaded into a Black Hills Life Flight helicopter on Saturday, July 30, 2022, near the parking lot for the Cathedral Spires trailhead. Custer County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue photo.

Meir told Coffee or Die the victim seemed to be a man under 30 years of age. He was conscious, alert, and moaning in pain as the rescuers started moving him off the cliff.

Waiting below was a Black Hills Life Flight helicopter that had touched down on pavement inside the park’s cathedral of rocks.

Meir told Coffee or Die the entire rescue took about 45 minutes, from emergency dispatch to the helicopter’s dustoff to Rapid City.

“You would just never know when we’re going to get called,” Meir said. “At this time of year, it’s a real popular tourist area. There are a lot of people here. Calls are almost daily. And you never know when, so even eating meals regularly becomes important, because if we get a call, it might be hours before we’re able to take enough time to get a bite to eat.”

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Noelle is an award-winning journalist from Cincinnati, Ohio, who came to Coffee or Die Magazine following a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has strived to be a military journalist ever since her internships with the US Army Cadet Command in college. She worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military herself and served as a public affairs specialist attached to the 3rd Infantry Division. She deployed once to fill a role as a media analyst for the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Kuwait. She has a passion for sharing stories of heroes and people who are far more interesting than they think they are. She follows where the job takes her, but currently resides on the East Coast in Georgia.
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