Pushing the Limits at the Needles

18 09 2009

After many months of great climbing my body is feeling very fit and I have practically recovered all of my strength from the end of 2008.  My crimping power is coming back and my left pinky is relatively pain free. I find a big mental advantage is added when one is feeling strong and powerful. I am more willing to try hard and the extra 10% makes a bigger difference.  I had a big dose of fun Labor Day weekend at the Needles, committing to a few routes that I have thought were too difficult to try in the past.


Looking at the Witch with the three points of the Warlock in the background.

One of the biggest things I deal with in climbing is fear. Fear of failure, fear of falling and fear of not knowing what to do. The more years I climb the more I realize how important a positive and relaxed mental attitude is. There is a time when you need to be able to turn off the brain, control the fear, and just go for it.  I tuned into this mental state this weekend a few times and was happy with the results.

Living further apart now, Lizzy and I made some magical carpool arrangements and both got rides to the Needles. This was pretty weird for us since we had to plan according to others schedules instead of doing everything in Luke and Lizzy time. This worked out well and we had a blast making new friends and hanging out. There was a big crew from San Diego in addition to the many Bay Area climbers that Lizzy came with.


Relaxing on Labor Day in the windy Sorcerer – Witch notch.

I drove out with Robb and Lindsey and Labor Day traffic coupled with a slightly slow  route put us in after midnight.  Even with a late start there was nothing to stop my psyche!  Our normal Needles procedure is to bring out our big climbing packs the first day as well as a small climbing pack. Then the next days we only have a tiny day pack for the 3 mile hike in. This makes it much easier hiking wise and you only have to carry all the gear in and out once.

Saturday was the most crowded day and there were people on all the classic routes. My two main goals for the weekend were Spook Book and Atlantis with some other harder routes lined up if we somehow made quick work of the two main objectives. I had read that the first pitch of Spook Book was pretty serious so Atlantis seemed a better way to get re acquainted with the rock. There was already a party on the route so I waited a while before launching up.


Starting up the unusual first pitch of Atlantis.

A bit of mistiming on my part coupled with some goofing around by the other party and I was biting at their heels for much of the climb. I’m sorry if this approach harshed their mellow but I wanted to do another route after Atlantis and thought they would have been moving a bit more quickly.

Another memorable photo from  RockClimbing.com that I saw many year before I  heard of the Needles.

I linked the first two pitches and got my head in gear for the crux pitch.  The moves are hard right off the belay and its good to just keep laybacking until an obvious jug. This puts you a bit far out from your first few pieces (placed from the ledge) but seemed ideal for sending. I pasted my feet and made it to the jug, placed some gear and kept going  amazed how pumped I was. Sticking the final sloper crux felt awesome since I had seen a dude whip off the same more a year before. Lizzy was able to follow clean and this put us below the last pitch. I opted to do a dead end variation, Lost at Sea, since the other party was still on the final pitch. Lost at sea offers some more laybacking with an exciting hand traverse at the end. The finish is just mental since the flake gets so thin I doubt a cam in the last 10 feet would hold a fall.


Getting high above the gear on the crux pitch of Atlantis.

Photo thanks to Darshan

After lowering back to Lizzy, having sent the variation, I was ready for the final pitch. Some exciting laybacking past some dubious gear gained a ledge and a final cruxy corner. The climbing in this section was phenomenal as I stemmed my way up slapping the right arete which had perfectly sculpted holds. The crack was more or less pinched out so I was crimping on the lip working my way up. The granite was just sooo good! A final reachy move and I found my self mantling the top ledge,  totally psyched to have sent Atlantis without falling.


Josh making the crux throw on Pyromania


Josh Higgins  sticks the dyno!

Lizzy was pretty tired after Atlantis but I was able to hook up with Josh Higgins, one of the many friends who were at the Needles from San Diego, for a final climb.  Josh had been projecting Pyromania and had finally redpointed the climb a few weeks before. In his normal no big deal attitude he decided it would be good to run another lap on lead. With one cam less than normal he fired the route cruising the first dyno crux and keeping it together though the super endurance undercling finish.


Working towards the powerful undercling  finish.

I had never tried a 5.13 trad route before and was curious how I would fare. In my mind there are 3 crux sections with a few other hard moves thrown in. The hardest move of the route for me was a tricky dyno. On my many attempts I couldn’t snag the jug, coming 3 or 4 inches short and couldn’t quite work out the alternate traverse beta.  The finish is quite strenuous with very tricky moves as you undercling a thin flake that makes a leftward arch. The body positions were so strange to me but once the flake became more horizontal I made good progress and made it across. I think with some effort this could be a doable project IF I could stick the dyno…


Luke gives Pyromania a burn 😉


Luke stares at the high first bolt on Spook Book.

Sunday was a bit of a late start since we now had a full group. Julie and Josh had arrived midday on Saturday and met up with us at the end of the night.  I convinced them to stick around on Sunday and I lucked out with the awesome photos of Spook Book.  I was pretty scared of this route since I had heard stories about the runouts and even my friend Stein had taken a nice long fall on the second Pitch.


Committing to the crux on the first pitch of Spook Book.

The main idea is that you make a nest of gear and then with no hand holds get your foot up on this big knob. Lizzy made this look casual with a hand foot match but I had trouble committing to the left foot smear. I yelled with joy when my right foot got on top of the knob and I was able to clip the first bolt. While I had placed 3 pieces I was not sure if they were high enough to prevent me from cratering into the granite slab below. Lizzy, aware of my situation, was ready to run down the slab to try and keep me from hitting the ground.  While the following knob mantels were harder I was in a better mental zone and onsighted the first pitch.


Balance and stand up on your feet with no hand holds! A typical move on pitch one.


Figuring out the final moves before  the first belay!

The next pitched involved very cool stemming, smearing and arete moves up a mini dihedral. I placed a ton of small nuts which were too bomber, causing Lizzy some trouble when she cleaned the pitch. I thought the climbing was neither crazy hard or run out and I had a bunch of fun. I did however run out of slings so I was unable to link this pitch with the next one, which was much easier. After the easy pitch which was rated 5.8, though some of the moves off the belay felt almost 5.10, I got psyched for the final hard pitch. As with the 2nd pitch the 4th was quite sustained with no really hard moves. I think 5.10d is fair with every move round 5.10+ making conservation of energy really important. I took my time slowly onsighting and spacing out my gear over the 150 ft pitch.


Lizzy easily does the scary stand up move on P1 of Spook Book aka Welcome to the Needles


Lizzy gets past the many knob cruxes and into a relaxing layback.

The final pitch was really cruiser as the crack opened up and the angled slabbed out towards the summit. I made a belay as high as possible and sprawled out in the sun to belay Lizzy. The first pitch had likely been one of my more bold onsights to date. Before committing I had down climbed to place another piece or two before going for it. I was just on the verge of down climbing all the way but I knew I had to try. Standing on the smear was not that hard technically but mentally it was difficult to not have any hand holds to pull on when I was far above my gear.


Luke leads off on the amazing and thin second pitch.

Five pitches was a good day of climbing and we decided to head back early instead of getting benighted. Our friends Robb and Lin had hiked back in the dark the day before so we opted for dinner and beer. This was a pretty mellow day and I was really happy to have climbed Spook Book. It’s interesting how sending projects can really drain motivation. I was so happy to have survived that I didn’t want to put my self out there for failure…


Robb leads up Atlantis with while a chilly Lin belays

When Lizzy and I showed up on the final day Josh Higgins was in the middle of his onsight of Scirocco. The wind was blowing but he was calmly making his way up the arete. I do not have the cajones to try and lead this route yet but I had been itching to climb it. Josh braved the 20+ foot runouts and clipped the anchors while I frantically made my way down from the notch to give it a go on TR.  Sirocco is a Needles classic and when Tony Yaniro did the first ascent he decided to make a statement with the 15 and then 20+ foot gaps between the final bolts.


What a beautiful route!

Without a warmup the first steep crimp moves were shocking and I took a few times in the “first pitch”. The climb is usually done by linking the two pitches to provide a more continuous experience. The hardest moves are all in the first section and involve technical crimping. I really enjoyed the climbing and it would have been even better after a warmup and without the flash pump.  The second half of the route changes dramatically as the holds blank out and you move onto the arete. The sequences become much less secure as you slap up with you left hand some times smearing both feet on nothing.


Lizzy straddles the summit after climbing Lady of the Needles.

My left arm was getting terminally pumped and my mind could barely wrap around the technical moves. About a third of the way up the arete I encountered the crux, a long sequence of slapping and squeezing with both hands on the arete with both feet trying to apply as much rubber to the wall as possible. This section of arete pinching was started barely above a bolt and moved past another bolt and  is well protected. However as the holds grow, post crux, the excitement builds as you work up the arete further and further from your last bolt. Mentally you hit a peak as you switch sides on the arete (very insecure)  20 feet above the previous bolt.   This pitch is brilliant and with a bit of work on body tension and commitment I plan on coming back to lead it.


Rob and Lin top out Atlantis.

While I climbed this route Robb and Lin went up Atlantis which was awesome. They sent and in the mean while I got sun burned and onsighted the very fun Tradewinds. This climb is similar to Scirocco but a bit more closely bolted and easier. It would be a good warmup since it is so close. With our energy running low Lizzy and I hiked up and climbed Lady of the Needles. This was a fun summit and a relaxing way to end the weekend. My ride, Robb and Lin, were still going on Atlantis so I lowered down and did a TR lap on Spooky. This is a must do route and while the offwidth section is hard and slick  the rest of the climb makes up for it.


On top of the Charlatan with the fire tower in the background.

I am very happy with the progress that we made this trip and how far I have come in the last year. I am very excited to go back and work on some of the harder routes including The Don Juan Wall, Ankles Away, Davy Jones Locker, The Raven and Romantic Warrior. There is still a full helping routes to do and I am psyched!




Fourth of July at The Needles

7 07 2008
It’s Monday again and we’re again recovering from another trip to the Needles. This time, we headed out with Stein, Luke’s friend from the gym, and Stein’s visiting friend Traian. After a brutal 9+ hour drive from San Diego (complete with horrendous LA traffic) and a stop at Bakersfield’s sketchiest grocery store and gas station, we arrived at the trailhead camping just before midnight. Luckily for us, Traian’s friend Olivier, who had driven down from the Bay Area, had already arrived and staked out the last campsite for us.

The next morning, we packed up the gear and water and headed off on the long approach (the first hike is always the hardest because there are more hills on the way in and you have all the gear the first day). Luke and I left with a little headstart so we could rest and wait at the base of the Fire Lookout stairs.

Taking a break on the hike in.

After finally reaching the Charlatan/Witch notch, Luke and I racked up and walked up to the top of the Charlatan, where we rapped in to the base of Spooky, a classic, wild 5.9. Stein, Traian, and Olivier headed up the 3rd class approach to the base of the 2nd pitch of Airy Interlude, which they planned to do as a warm-up since their objective on the Sorcerer was still in the sun.
Luke at the base of Spooky.

Since we managed to rap to the base of Spooky in one 60m rappel, we figured we could probably climb it in a single pitch (although it’s usually 2 pitches). Luke headed up the initial handcrack/layback corner, grunted up the offwidth, and had a blast on the money part of the pitch, wild climbing between granite tufas. I struggled on the offwidth, but still enjoyed the upper part – quite unusual climbing for granite.
Looking up at Spooky from the base.

Meanwhile, the trio made good time on Airy Interlude. We had a great (though distant) view of them from our position on the Charlatan. I was pretty tired from the approach hike and grunting past the Spooky offwidth, so we relaxed on the summit of the Charlatan for a bit to eat our sandwiches.

View of the Witch from the top of the Charlatan.
Chillin’ atop the Charlatan after climbing Spooky.

Afterwards, we all met back in the notch and headed over to the east face of the Sorcerer to try 2 classic routes. Stein and crew planned on climbing the Don Juan Wall (5 pitches, 5.11b), which had a reputation for being challenging and sustained. Luke and I wanted to do Ice Pirates (2 pitches, 5.11b), a dead-end variation to Thin Ice, which we climbed last weekend with Gordon. The first pitches for both rope teams went well and Stein and Luke set off on their respective crux pitches. Stein powered and finessed his way through a pumpy layback for the send! Traian took a big whipper on the next pitch (pulling out a cam), but Olivier finished the lead for him. After this, the route took the trio around the corner, so they were out of view until summiting. Meanwhile, Luke was making good progress on the crux of Ice Pirates, managing the fiddly gear and balancey layback moves. However, near the top, the gear became sketchier and more spaced out (the flake becomes quite thin and fragile) and Luke became worried about falling and ripping pieces, so he pulled on cams a few moves until he could do the last move to the anchor, a crimpy sport-climbing-ish move. I was able to follow cleanly until this move, but fell here once before reaching the top. The route was definitely challenging and a little weird and intimidating (with tricky, questionable gear).
Olivier leading the first pitch of the Don Juan Wall.

Stein, Traian, and Olivier on top of the Sorcerer.

The Don Juan Wall was a much longer route, so Luke and I finished early than the other three. We waited for a while in the notch, which was getting quite cold, before attempting yell-o-phone communication with the other party that we were taking the car keys and hiking back so we could start cooking dinner (tofu and veggie stir-fry, one of my favorites!). It was a nice time to be hiking back – not too hot anymore and beautiful, pre-sunset views!

Beautiful view on the hike back to camp.

After struggling a bit on Ice Pirates, Luke and I decided to take an easier day on Saturday. We started the day with Witch Doctor (3 pitches, 5.10a), a route recommended by some other climbers we met. Although we were wishing we had brought our 70m rope, the pitches were fun and varied. Luke struggled a bit with route-finding on the last pitch, which wandered through crazy, often questionable rock. As we were summiting on the Witch, we saw Stein, Traian, and Olivier, who had left camp a little later than us that morning, topping out on the Wizard after climbing Yellow Brick Road, which is a classic 5.9.

On top of the Witch after climbing Witch Doctor.

Luke and I ate our sandwiches and headed back down to the notch to wait for the other three. Stein had gotten a look at the classic Tony Yaniro route Scirocco (5.12a) from the Don Juan Wall and had wanted to climb it with Luke while I took a midday break and photographed. However, when the trio finally reached the notch (they had decided to climb Spooky on their way back), Stein said he was too tired for Scirocco today. Since I had gotten a break and a short nap anyways while waiting, Luke and I decided to go for our planned 2nd route of the day, Fancy Free (3 pitches, 5.10b) on the Charlatan while the others squeezed in one last pitch (the first pitch of Thin Ice). Although the first pitch of Fancy Free was a little weird (there was some oozing at the base of the crack), the crux pitch was amazing! After a weird start, the pitch ascends a beautiful thin hands crack in a corner. The corner then changes (from left-facing to right-facing) and the crack shrinks to fingers (yellow and grey aliens, so big fingers for me) and powerful moves with only smears for feet lead to the anchor. My calves were so pumped from pushing on smears! It was definitely nice to climb a normal jam crack after doing so much laybacking on all the other routes in the Needles. The last pitch was a little weird, but it brought us to the summit just before sunset. As always in the Needles, it was beautiful.

View just before sunset from the top of the Charlatan.

Although tired, we were both psyched to have climbed such a cool route. We headed back towards camp with full packs and arrived exhausted. We were excited to find Traian and Olivier still awake, with warm dinner ready for us (returning the favor from the previous night). We enjoyed a relaxing morning of sleeping in on Sunday while Traian and Olivier woke early to hike out for one last route. Thankfully, the drive back was much less traffic-y, taking only 6 hours.

Overall, it was a pretty good weekend. I didn’t end up doing any leading, which I think was due to me being especially tired from the altitude and the hiking and especially intimidated by the Needles (I do hate being so easily intimidated – I really need to work on this), but I had a lot of fun on the routes we did.

Also, I recently got a new camera to replace my dropped Olympus. I got a Canon Powershot SD1100 IS Digital Elph (in pink!!) and a sturdy waterproof and shockproof hard plastic case for it (the kind they make for kayakers). Although I still have some work getting used to the camera, we’re pretty happy about the quality of the pictures we took. Hopefully this camera will accompany us on many adventures to come.



Needles Trip Report

30 06 2008

I’m just now starting to recover from the exhaustion of our recent weekend at the Needles, which was fun and challenging at times.

We started our trip Wednesday night, picking up Gordon at LAX around 9pm and heading straight towards the Needles. We stopped in Bakersfield for gas, somehow avoiding the terrible air quality that the fires up north have caused there (the smoke gets blown towards and trapped around Bakersfield). After a little bit of hallucinating on the Great Divide Highway (seeing deer or other small animals…), we finally reached the campground some time after 1:30am.

Needless to say, we were tired. So we took a more relaxing morning on Thursday, not worrying too much about sprinting out to the crag. After organizing and divying out gear, we headed out the 2.5 miles of hiker trail to the fire lookout.

At the fire lookout
We stopped on the climbers’ trail between the Magician and the Charlatan to warm up on Poof, a 3-pitch 5.7 on the east face of the Magician.

Gordon follows the 2nd pitch of Poof

Luke and Gordon shared the leads, with fun moves and manageable, but still exciting, runouts. There were also tons of tiny reddish orange mites that we got squished all over our hands and feet.

West Face of the Sorcerer and Charlatan from the Magician. The air is hazy because of the fires.

After eating a late lunch, we headed up the fire tower stairs to chat with Margee for a while. Afterwards, we re-hiked the climbers’ trail to our packs and continued to the notch between the Witch and the Charlatan, where we re-racked for an afternoon/evening ascent of the classic Airy Interlude (5.10a, 3 pitches). I got the first lead of a long (Luke and Gordon had to start climbing so I could reach the belay ledge and we were using 60’s) 5.9 pitch that was marred by some intimidating moves above questionable gear and long-ish runouts near the top. This really tired me out, so I asked Luke to lead the crux “Airy Interlude” pitch, which was pumpy, wild, and fun. I definitely want to go back (skipping the first pitch via a 3rd class scramble) so I can lead it. I did lead the final pitch (5.9), which Luke and I had climbed before via Igor Unchained. It was fun, with interesting moves and nice fingerjams, much more fun and less stressful than the first pitch.

After successfully rappelling to the ground after sunset, we headed back to the campground (with the car keys, this time), arriving around 10:30pm to cook dinner – another late night.

Gordon leading the 3rd pitch of Poof

The next morning had another slightly late-ish start because of our late return on Thursday. However, armed with only our refilled camelbaks and more food (we stashed our packs at the Witch-Charlatan notch), the hike went much faster. Our plan was to climb Thin Ice, a classic 5.10b (3 pitches) on the Sorcerer, Fancy Free (5.10a, 3 pitches, on the Charlatan), and Spooky (another classic, 2 pitch 5.9 on the Charlatan).

Luke and I at a belay on Poof

Another party was just starting on Fancy Free, so we decided to start with Thin Ice. Luke headed up the tricky layback, rested on the ledge, and pulled through the powerful 10b crux sequence for jugs that lead to the anchor. As Gordon and I followed the pitch, my camera somehow unclipped from Gordon’s harness and fell at least 40 feet to the ledge we’d started on. (R.I.P. camera… although it wasn’t totally obliterated, the lens cap mechanism is broken and the compartment that holds the memory card was damaged). Oh well. I’ve always thought that one should never be really attached to anything that you clip to your harness, so I didn’t let it stress me out.

Leading the 1st pitch (5.9) of Airy Interlude.

Gordon hasn’t done quite as much crack and trad climbing as Luke and I have, so he found the steep cracks a little challenging, but still managed to make it up the pitch with only one fall. The second pitch started up an intimidating-looking flare. Luke thrutched his way up the flare before it yielded to easier moves. I had a size advantage on the pitch since my narrow shoulders allowed me to reach both hands and both feet into the finger and thin hand jams in the crack in the back of the flare, while Gordon’s wider shoulders meant he had to use the insecure layback instead of the flare. The last pitch headed up some easier, though still awkward, corners to the top of the Sorcerer, where we relaxed for yet another late lunch. By the time we got to our packs, it was already past 5pm and we were pretty tired from the route, so we decided to call it a day early and get back to camp before dark.

Luke leading the 1st pitch (10b) of Thin Ice

We decided to try something a little easier for our last day so Gordon could lead more pitches, so we selected Magic Dragon, a 9ish pitch 5.8 that heads up the long southwest face of the Magician. Having re-stashed out packs in the saddle before the fire lookout, we had even less far to hike, which was nice. We managed to make our way to the base of the route without too much trouble. Luke lead up the first 2 pitches, which had a ton of loose rock on the belay ledges. He also nearly pulled off a torso-sized block at the top of the second pitch. Worrying that it would become dislodged on Gordon or I, he decided to trundle it (there were no parties below us). Although Gordon and I were out of the fall line of the block, I still got hit on the nose by a high-velocity ricochet fragment, which lead to a little cut and some bruising, but thankfully no broken nose. Gordon lead the next pitch to the base of a 5.4 slab. Although I had planned on leading this, I was getting a headache from my rockfall collision, so I asked Luke to lead it instead. With a little confusion about belay placements, we made our way onto the easy slabs on the upper part of the Magician and one final, fun pitch right up onto the fire lookout (to the surprise and pleasure of the tourists up there at the time). We stopped there to have lunch at 4pm (late again) before heading back to the campground for a final time.

Since we had some extra time (back at the campground by 5:30pm), we decided to take advantage of our location in Sequoia Nat’l Forest to go see some giant sequoias. We drove down the highway a bit to the “Walk of 100 Giants”, where we saw a ton of HUGE trees.

Luke in front of a huge Sequoia
All of us inside one of the trees!
A final early morning on Sunday got us on the road back to LAX, with a few stops on the way, including a trip to In-N-Out to complete Gordon’s California experience. It was a great trip!