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Herb Conn

Herb and Jan Conn

Caving legend Herb Conn died Wednesday at the age of 91 after a lifetime spent climbing the peaks and mapping the underground passages of his beloved Black Hills.

Conn and his wife, Jan, are best known as the pioneering explorers who mapped Jewel Cave. The southern Black Hills cave, now known to be the second largest in the world, was thought to be a small cave back in 1959 when the Conns first started exploring it. More than 22 years, 6,000 volunteer hours, 700 trips into the cave and 60 miles of passageways later, they became caving icons who motivated succeeding generations of spelunkers to map Jewel Cave to its current 155 miles, Mike Wiles, chief of resource management at Jewel Cave, said Friday.

"They've just been the most amazing inspiration at Jewel Cave since 1959, when they first arrived," Wiles said. "They were legends among the caving community in their own time."

The Conns first came to the Hills in the 1950s as rock climbers, but they gave up their passion for the peaks of the Needles once they found Jewel Cave when they were in their 40s, Wiles said.

They named many geographic formations in the Needles and Jan Conn was the first woman to complete a Devils Tower ascent.

"They were climbers before climbing is popular the way it is today," Wiles said.

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To help finance their caving adventures, the couple lived off the grid at a unique stone home in the Custer area without running water or electricity for more than 50 years. They were friendly and outgoing people who shared their love of Jewel Cave with many, but they were also "intensely private people" who deferred public accolades for their contributions to caving, Wiles said.

The authors of "Jewel Cave Adventure: 50 miles of discovery under South Dakota," they were inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2011.

McColley's Chapels of the Hills in Custer is in charge of arrangements, but no services are planned at Conn's request.

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com

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