Friday, July 21, 2017

A Trip to the California Needles

(Photo: View of the Magician (on the left) and the Djin Needle (on the right), from the top of the Charlatan.)

Why the Needles?

Several years ago I came across some photos of the area (On Denis O'Connor's website) and I was immediately smitten. Ever since then, I've been dying to pay a visit.

It is a beautiful place, located in Sequoia National Forest at an elevation of over 7000 feet. The otherworldly, pointy rock formations seem to leap out of the surrounding hills, offering sweeping faces of flawless granite, broken only by perfect vertical cracks. The stone seems to glow with patches of fluorescent-green lichen. The surrounding landscape is filled with majestic green trees. Way off at the horizon, snow-capped Sierra peaks provide a backdrop.

(Photo: View of the summit of the Warlock, from atop the Witch.)

I've long been drawn to the Needles. But I've also been a little bit afraid. The area has a reputation as a hardman's crag, a destination for serious climbers. The remote location leaves you alone to manage your own affairs. Help is miles away. And the climbs are hard. The faces are steep and the climbing is sustained. The cracks go on and on, making for long pitches with move after move of the same difficulty throughout. There are only a few entry-level classics in the 5.8/5.9 range. Most of the climbs are harder, and the grades are super old-school.

The style of climbing is what you'd expect from granite: vertical cracks and slabs, i.e., not what I'm used to. I'm not confident on granite. I don't trust my toes the way I do when I climb on Gunks conglomerate. I need more practice on granite than I've been able to get.

(Photo: The upper portion of the West Face of the Witch, with the Warlock peeking over her shoulder. Taken from atop the Sorceror. If you click to enlarge, you can make out a climber (dressed in white) seconding the last pitch of Igor Unchained (5.9).)

This year I figured it was time to check out the Needles, whether I was ready to "crush it" there or not. I was sure that with the help of my longtime partner Adrian (who loves crack climbing), we could get up whatever we chose to climb, one way or another. Between the two of us we had the experience and the knowledge to deal with whatever challenges the Needles would throw our way.

If only we could get there! We planned our trip for Memorial Day weekend. As the date approached I kept seeing posts on Supertopo and elsewhere suggesting that the roads around the Needles would not yet be open. It had been a snowy winter and there were a lot of armchair rangers on the internet predicting a late start to the season.

Adrian and I almost called the whole thing off, but ultimately we decided to have faith. Even if we had to walk a few extra miles, we could still climb at the Needles. We'd just have to work a little bit harder for it.

(Photo: Adrian standing on the old staircase to the fire observation deck atop the Magician, which burned down several years ago.)

My plan was to fly in to LAX and then drive the three-and-a-half hours to Camp Nelson (where we'd rented a cabin) that same night. My flight was supposed to arrive at around 7:00 in the evening. Assuming an on-time arrival and a little bit of luck at the rental car counter, I hoped I could get to our cabin before 1:00 in the morning. Adrian was driving in from Vancouver at the same time. Once we both arrived, we would climb for the next four days.

My brilliant plan was thwarted from the get-go when my flight out of New York was delayed by six hours, for no reason that I could discern. No one at the airline seemed to feel the need to explain, even when I asked. I ended up arriving in Los Angeles just after midnight.

I decided to soldier on and to drive through the night to our cabin.

But first I needed to pick up my rental car, and the counter was a nightmare. There was a line winding around the inside of the rental office and then out the door. I ended up waiting there-- no exaggeration-- for TWO HOURS.

I finally hit the road at 2:40 a.m.

With no place to stay in Los Angeles, it seemed pointless to do anything but drive.

I made it about an hour outside of LAX before I decided I just couldn't keep going. I was exhausted. I pulled into a gas station and crashed in the back seat.

When I awoke about an hour later, I bought myself some terrible coffee and got back on the road. The day slowly dawned as I tore up the highway towards the Needles.

As the sky brightened, I got a gander at the surreal landscape through which I was driving.

California's long drought had clearly devastated this part of the state. The land was so brown, I felt as if I'd landed in Saudi Arabia. I even spotted some oil rigs!

But occasionally citrus farms would appear, in perfectly rectangular islands of irrigated wonder. These green oases seemed out of place. To all appearances, this was not an agricultural land of plenty. It was a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Soon enough I was through it, ascending a very windy road up a pretty river valley towards Sequoia National Forest.

I arrived in Camp Nelson at 7:00 a.m. I was fashionably late, but I'd made it.

I crawled right into bed and grabbed two more hours of sleep. Then Adrian made me breakfast and we headed for the Needles.

Day One: Igor Unchained (5.9)

We thought that the road to the Needles was still closed, which would necessitate a five mile hike just to get to the climbing. Since we were getting a late start, we decided to skip the Needles for the time being and instead spend our first day at Dome Rock, a nearby formation with much quicker access.

But as we drove towards Dome Rock, we passed the Needles road and found the gate wide open-- probably for the first time in 2017! This was a great surprise, and proof you should never trust the internet. We changed plans.

I turned onto the dirt road and found that for the most part it was in pretty good shape. We moseyed on down it just fine in our little Chevy Cruze. But about halfway down the road, we reached a big muddy rut that we decided we couldn't pass. A couple in front of us had just ripped a drip pan off of the bottom of their SUV trying to get by it. We didn't think it was worth the risk of doing the same to my rental car, so we parked and walked the mile and a half down to the end of the road, and then the two-mile trail to the Needles.

We had arrived. And it was beautiful.

(Photo: First view of the Magician as you approach the Needles from the trail.)

I didn't know where to start. As we worked our way around the huge slab known as the Magician, I tried to figure out how to approach the climbs I'd read about. Looking into the notches between the formations, I (mistakenly) thought I spotted some climbers on Spooky (5.9), one of the climbs on my list. So we went a little bit further and scrambled down to the start of Igor Unchained (5.9), a four-pitch climb on the formation called the Witch.

I volunteered for pitch one, an endless hand crack.

Not long after getting off the ground, I realized I was looking at 150 feet of placements for blue and gold Camalots and little else. But I was carrying just two of each.

I was also feeling nervous, which made me want to place gear constantly.

(Photo: That's me, leading pitch one of Igor Unchained (5.9). Photo by Adrian.)

At least the jams felt good. The rock was perfect and the climbing was great. I was just very slow. I kept leap-frogging pieces, trying to conserve gear. Eventually I started hanging to retrieve gear from lower down, and then I started hanging just to hang. This pitch was a slog. I'm not proud of my performance.

But by the end of it I started trusting my feet on the textured granite, and I hoped the rest of the climb would go better.

Adrian tackled pitch two, which started with a brief off-width crack and then some thin, slabby moves up a corner. He handled it well, attacking the off-width directly. When I followed I found some footholds on the side wall which enabled me to basically climb around the off-width. The thin face moves that followed were thought-provoking, to be sure, but Adrian found good gear in the corner so there were no worries. It was another great pitch and totally different from pitch one.

(Photo: Adrian's outfit eerily matches the rock/lichen as he gets past the offwidth on pitch two of Igor Unchained.)

I led pitches three and four in a long single pitch, and by this time I was getting much more comfortable. I loved the steep, juggy climbing at the start of the traditional pitch three, and then felt pretty good about negotiating the technical climbing to the finish up a finger crack. The climbing seemed to go on and on; I placed almost our entire rack on this double-length pitch.

(Photo: I'm in the steep early going on pitch three of Igor Unchained. Photo by Adrian.)

As I reached the top of Igor Unchained, I wondered if I'd ever experienced a better 5.9. Every pitch had been fantastic. The climb has a bit of everything: hands, fingers, slabby moves, and juggy steepness, with great gear throughout. And the scenery was gorgeous beyond belief.

(Photo: Adrian topping out on Igor Unchained.)

Adrian had complained a bit about feeling the altitude while we were doing the climb. I hadn't noticed it at all while we were climbing, but as soon as we got back on the trail it hit me hard. I suddenly felt very tired and I was not psyched about hiking the three and a half miles back to our car. It ended up being a bit of a struggle but I managed to trudge all the way back, feeling like I couldn't catch my breath whenever we had to go uphill.

I collapsed into bed right after we got back to the cabin.

Day Two: White Punks on Dope (5.8+)

This six-pitch climb is often described as the best multi-pitch moderate route in California. Like Igor Unchained, White Punks on Dope is a varied affair, with many challenges. I was most excited to lead the crux fourth pitch, which ascends a smooth corner with a finger crack at the back. The fifth pitch, a blank slab pitch with only four bolts, also appeared to be quite exciting-- but I figured that after the crux pitch I would hand the lead off to Adrian for that one.

No need to hog all the best pitches, right?

White Punks on Dope is on a large formation called Voodoo Dome, which is part of the Needles but is most easily accessed by driving away from the usual Needles road for about an hour around the Kern River Valley, approaching the rocks from the opposite side. The hike in to the dome is less than a mile but it is an uphill, sandy path and it took us almost an hour.

We tried to get an early start but when we arrived at the base we found another pair of climbers hanging out, just getting ready to start the climb. I was momentarily miffed that we'd been beaten to the base, but it soon became clear that these two would not slow us down. They were a married couple and the husband was obviously some kind of 5.12 climber just doing this climb as a sort of rest day. He moved quickly and had no intention of falling. He started out with no belay at all. When he got about fifty feet up the 5.7+ pitch one, he placed his first piece, and only then did he ask his wife to put him on a "loose belay," which meant that she put the rope through a Gri Gri and periodically pulled out about twenty feet of slack. Then she continued to organize her pack, with neither hand on the rope.

The wife described herself as the tourist of the pair but she was obviously quite comfortable following and seemed very capable in her own right. I was proud that we managed to catch up to these two a couple of times during the day but eventually they pulled away from us and we didn't see them again until we ran into them near the bottom of the descent trail.

(Photo: Adrian on pitch one of White Punks on Dope.)

Adrian took the lead for pitch one, another long (190 feet!) hand crack pitch. He handled it well, although for some reason he decided to be on belay and to place gear at intervals of fewer than fifty feet. (What a chicken!) Following the pitch, I felt good, casual. I would kill to have crack pitches like this in the Gunks. In the Needles, this was just another hand crack, going on and on for miles in solid granite. At the end of the pitch came a surprise, a few polished face moves right before the belay stance in an alcove.

I led pitch two, which starts with a funky boulder problem right off the belay to escape the alcove. It is steep and in-your-face for a minute and then it is over. I elected to keep going into the pitch three chimney as well. It was fun and easy, with only a few 5.7 moves. I didn't experience much of any rope drag combining the pitches this way, and though combination was long it wasn't as long as pitch one-- it was probably 175 feet or so.

(Photo: I'm looking back at Adrian after doing the bouldery start out of the alcove on pitch two of White Punks on Dope.)

Now it was time for the 5.8+ crux corner pitch. I had already put dibs on it so I took the lead again.

It went well, though my tense state throughout made it more tiring than was necessary. The thin crack in the corner provided good finger locks-- and I locked my digits in there as much as I could! There were not many footholds on the off-vertical left wall. I suspected that a more gallant climber than I would have simply walked up the smooth face. But this was not my style. Instead I did my best to contort my body to take maximum advantage of little indentations for my left foot and tried whenever I could to torque my right toe into the corner for a little extra security.

My strategy worked. By the time I reached a rest stance at the halfway mark I started to feel like this pitch was going to work out just fine. At some point the angle started to ease and my lone remaining anxiety became whether I would run out of finger-sized gear before the crack ended. This was another pitch into which I dumped practically our whole rack.

(Photo: Adrian's photo of me most of the way through the crux pitch of White Punks on Dope.)

I thought I was out of the woods when I moved to the left for what the guidebook describes simply as a "5.6 lieback off a wide crack" which "runs it out to the belay."

Imagine my surprise when I saw that this so-called 5.6 lieback involved walking up the slick, featureless granite with no pro (the crack is too wide) for about forty feet to a ledge. As I got started, I could see that this was pretty easy climbing. Still, I found it terrifying. Slipping out of the layback seemed possible. The chance was not that high, but it was definitely above zero. This wasn't like a 5.6 runout in juggy territory in the Gunks; it was far more insecure, at least in my mind. And the runout was really long. The offhand, blase guidebook description didn't begin to do it justice.

There was nothing to do but to carry on. I got through the runout by telling myself to "just keep going" with every step. I tried to put out of my mind the length of the potential fall I could take if I slipped. Forty feet, fifty feet, sixty feet.... I couldn't help but think about the potential cheese-grater fall down the face, and when I finally grabbed the belay ledge I announced to no one in particular that I'd just done the scariest thing I'd ever attempted.

But I'd done it! Now I could relax, as it was Adrian's turn to lead the run-out slab pitch. I'd planned things out perfectly so that I would not lead this pitch.

Imagine my surprise (again) when Adrian arrived at the belay, turned to me and asked "You wanna lead this next pitch? I hate slab."

My first thought was that some impostor (perhaps a pod person?) had replaced my Adrian. The Adrian I know has spent his whole career climbing at Squamish, where slab is on the menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

My second thought was that if Adrian wasn't feeling it today we were surely screwed. I had no slab experience!

My third thought was "I should lead this. It will be good for me."

Pure slab climbing scares me, for the obvious reasons. There are no handholds and the gear tends to be widely spaced. I could see that the slab pitch we were now confronting was typical of the genre: a full-length pitch of utterly blank, slippery granite with just four lonely bolts.

Turning to Adrian, I said "It's only 5.8, right? I should be fine."

"Right," he said.

I tried to will myself to believe it.

After placing a piece as high as I could above our anchor, I stepped to the right onto the blank face and ventured upward towards the first bolt, which seemed very far away.

(Photo: Adrian's photo of me leading the slab pitch on White Punks on Dope.)

It wasn't so bad. I tried to be precise and found ripples and edges to stand on. Moving slowly and with increasingly intense focus, I continued upward, taking it one small step at a time, until I eventually reached the first bolt, clipped it, and breathed a great sigh of relief.

Having established a rhythm, I repeated the process three more times. As the pitch continued it moved diagonally up and to the right, which meant that if I fell I would travel in a pendulum arc down and across the slab. As I'd done on the previous pitch, I tried to push the possibility of a fall out of my mind, but the potential negative outcomes relentlessly crept back into my head. 

Nevertheless everything went fine. I kept on moving and didn't shake too much. By the time I reached the fourth bolt the climbing got a bit easier, up a shallow feature with some real holds to the belay ledge.

(Photo: Adrian near the end of the slab pitch on White Punks on Dope.)

I arrived at the ledge exhilarated and mentally exhausted. If pitch four had been the scariest thing I'd ever attempted, then this would have to have been the second scariest. But I'd gotten through it and now I could really relax.

The final pitch, which Adrian led, ascended another beautiful finger crack. It was quite steep for a few moves, with good gear, but then the angle kicked back and it was easy going to the top of the dome. Since I was done leading I considered the pitch an afterthought, though it is good and worthy of consideration in its own right.

(Photo: Adrian leading the final pitch of White Punks on Dope.)

As we descended around the back of the dome I felt deeply satisfied. This had been a great day. White Punks on Dope was one of the best multi-pitch routes I'd ever done. The climbing wasn't hard, exactly, but it had been challenging for the mind-- for my mind, anyway. This was a real granite climbing experience. Our team had handled it well and I had taken on all of the hardest bits. It was something I could build upon.

Day Three: Dome Rock

Adrian and I headed to Dome Rock for our third day of climbing. This big dome isn't technically a part of the Needles, but it is close by and would be a worthy destination all by itself, even if the Needles did not exist. There are several high-quality full-length routes to the top of the dome (in four pitches or so) and a number of classic single-pitch crack and slab lines.

I had my eye on a multi-pitch route called the Anti-Jello Crack. This seemed like a good route with which to up the ante to the next level. So far we'd done some 5.8 and 5.9 pitches. The Anti-Jello Crack has a pitch of 5.9+ and then the next one is 5.10a. I wanted to lead at least one 5.10 before we left the Needles. This seemed like a good route with which to do it.

Adrian handled the short, pleasant 5.6 first pitch up a hand crack to the base of the obvious, slanting 5.9+ pitch two finger crack.

I led pitch two and it was probably my best lead of the trip. It is a gorgeous pitch with sustained technical difficulty and great gear up the whole crack. I got it done cleanly but I probably made it harder for myself again, by milking the crack for footholds whenever I could, rather than simply trusting my feet on the slab. At the crux, just before the crack ended, the finger-locks shrank to virtually nothing and I had no choice but to smear my feet on the smooth face. I was unnerved but once I committed to the moves my feet stayed where I put them and I made it to a stance. 

(Photo: That's me leading the Anti-Jello Crack. Photo by Adrian.)

The pitch still wasn't over. After the crack ended I had to run it out through easier slabby territory to the bolted anchor. This climbing wasn't hard and I got through it just fine, but by this point all of the runout slab climbing had begun to take a toll on me. 

As Adrian followed the pitch I kept looking up at the corner ascended by the 5.10a third pitch. I couldn't see the crux-- it was around the corner. I had no idea what it would be like. 

(Photo: Adrian following the Anti-Jello Crack.)

I decided I wasn't up for the 5.10 pitch. My brain felt tired. Everything we'd been doing was so sustained. The 5.9+ we had just done was hard enough for my tastes! Adrian didn't want to lead the next pitch either so we descended.

We rounded out our day with a bunch of easier pitches. Adrian led the interesting first pitch of Arch Bitch-Up (5.8), which features a low traverse and then fun climbing up a corner. 

(Photo: Adrian making the thoughtful traverse on Arch Bitch-Up.)

Then we took the Tree Route (5.6) to the top of the dome (and the parking lot). This is a varied and beautiful route, with nice climbing throughout on cracks, flakes, and slabs. It is the only quality route in the whole area that is this easy.

(Photo: Adrian is all smiles as we cruise up the Tree Route with our packs on. The Needles are in the distance.)

I would advise caution, however, to any beginning leader out there who might want to hop on the Tree Route. Whenever it gets slabby-- particularly at the end of the first pitch and the beginning of the fourth-- the route has runouts. We weren't bothered by them, because the climbing was so casual.

(Photo: Adrian through the run out slab start to pitch four of the Tree Route.) 

After feeling stressed on Anti-Jello Crack, I was relieved to cruise through the rest of our third day. I hoped that maybe I'd feel refreshed on day four when we returned to the heart of the Needles.

Day Four: Spooky (5.9)

By this time the dirt road to the Needles had been smoothed out so we were able to drive all the way to its end. The two-mile hike seemed so much easier now that I'd adjusted to the altitude and gotten a few good nights' sleep.

Our first target was a two-pitch 5.9 called Spooky. After we finished with that I figured we might finally try a 5.10. There were a whole host of classics at that grade to choose from.

Despite the three days we'd spent in the Needles, we still didn't quite have our bearings and it took us a bit of wandering to find the top of the Charlatan, the formation from which we would rap to the base of Spooky. 

We wasted some more time searching for the rap bolts, which were hidden over an edge. When, after all of this, we were ready to descend, I peered over into the gap between the Charlatan and the Magician and felt a chill go through me. I could see how Spooky got its name. The wind was howling through the narrow canyon as Adrian lowered himself into the space between the formations.

(Photo: Adrian rapping in to the base of Spooky, with the Magician behind him.)

One of our ropes got stuck in a crack on the rappel, but with some work Adrian got it free. I rapped in without incident and we were finally ready to climb.

The route turned out to be great, and a pretty casual 5.9-- so long as you bring a big cam or two and aren't too upset about a little bit of offwidth.

(Photo: Adrian on pitch one of Spooky.)

Adrian led the first pitch, an excellent 5.8-ish handcrack in a corner.

Then it was my turn lead the crux 5.9 offwidth. It is only about twenty feet long, and then you reach a ledge and transition to face climbing.

(Photo: I'm testing the offwidth crack on Spooky. I'm still standing on the ledge but I've already placed a big cam over my head. Photo by Adrian.)

I wanted some real offwidth practice so I purposefully stuck my side into the crack and attempted it with offwidth technique, although I suspect many people lay it back the whole way. I fought with the crack (fun!) until I was about two thirds of the way up the thing, and then, upon finding a good edge inside of the crack, I said "screw it," stopped grovelling, and switched to laying back for the final bits. I had both a Number 4 and Number 5 Camalot with me and with a little bit of pushing the cams ahead of me I was basically on top rope for the whole excursion. You could get by with just one of these big cams; having two made me very comfy.

(Photo: I'm enjoying the weird knobs on the second half of Spooky.)

The rest of the pitch was wild and probably no harder than 5.8. The face above the off-width is covered in these crazy, fin-shaped, tufa-like knobs. From below it looks like there might be limited gear up there but actually there is plenty. Climbing the strange features on the face was great fun and I found it to be very different from everything else we'd done in the Needles.

After Adrian joined me up top we ate lunch, snapped some photos of climbers across the way on Igor Unchained, and watched with awe as some pilots in fighter jets did exercises up and down the canyon, corkscrewing their way past us with engines roaring.

We had time for another route, but at some point we both looked at one another and we knew we were finished. We were satisfied. We hung out atop the Charlatan for a while, soaking up the atmosphere one last time, before hiking out and getting ice cream sandwiches in Ponderosa.

I really loved the Needles. It was everything I hoped it would be. It is a wondrous, beautiful place, with outstanding climbing, and the remote location keeps the crowds at bay. In our four days there, Adrian and I got a great introduction to the area. We basically did all of the entry-level routes. I got some much-needed mileage on cracks and slabs, and I felt like I climbed reasonably well.

On our next visit, I'd like to work into the climbs at the next level.

Every time I go out west, I come back home saying the same thing. I need to get more practice climbing on granite. I have to make myself take the long drive to New Hampshire so that I can get the experience I want and need. If I can do it even a few times a year, I can go back to the Needles more confident the next time around and hit the 5.10 classics without hesitation.

I suspect it will be a few years before I can make it out to the Needles again. Until then, I'll go back to staring at photos of the place and daydreaming about these magical, glowing towers of rock, and the incredible climbs contained therein.