First Trip to the Needles

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Dustin and I hadn’t been to the Needles yet, so we decided to go last weekend. We left around 7 on Friday in Dustin’s modified sedan, the passenger seat replaced with a sturdy wooden table, allowing plenty of leg room and surfaces to lay books and snacks. North a ways and at the end of a long forest road, we arrived around 11:30 in a clearing in Sequoia National Forest. Dustin slept on the homemade bed stretching from behind the driver’s seat through the trunk, We had eaten in the car, and I cowboyed on some flat ground by the picnic table. I underestimated how cold it was already!

After a quick breakfast of oatmeal, we headed off for the domes. I feel like every time I go to a new area I’m going to discover some type of mountain so wildly different from what I’ve experienced that it will throw me off, and I’ll find myself pleasantly surprised when nature, even with its dynamic personality, has the continuity of a self. This was the first time I’d been in this part of the Sierra, south along the Kern River, and everything felt fresh and brisk.

The trail roughly follows the spine of a series of domed hills and notches, progressively sharper until reaching Lookout Notch, just below the old burnt-out wildfire lookout atop the needle-shaped tower Magician. From there we scrambled down and around 3rd class terrain on the back (North) side of Magician to arrive at the Warlock.

We climbed on the East side of the Warlock, on Imaginary Voyage (4 pitches, 5.9-). We rock-paper-scissorsed for the first lead, and I set off up a sustained vertical crack, complete with a chimney, hand crack, and a few face moves. It was one of my favorite leads, and I even had the sun on my back. As Dustin climbed up, a cloud blotted the sun and just sat there, so we were a bit chilly. Still Dustin led a fun dihedral on pitch 2 followed by some face climbing I was glad not to lead. The next pitch was a chimney that I made way harder than it had to be. I stayed too far inside the chimney to have the security of the hand cracks in the back, but the face climbing and stemming farther out ended up being much easier. The last pitch wound up and right of a big block then topped out on an arete.

It was 4:00 by the time we submitted and ate lunch, and the three rope-stretching rappels down the back face took some time. We hurriedly made our way to the West side of the Witch to catch the late afternoon sun, and racked up for Igor Unchained (3 pitches, 5.9+). The first pitch was a nearly 60m sustained hand crack in a left facing corner. My right bicep was wiped from the number of bicep curls, and I was impressed that Dustin led it placing so little gear—I rested several times. I led the second pitch, very slowly and with a bit (plenty) of French Free. There was one quite blank bit of slab climbing around a bulge above gear that had me scared—I gripped the #2 in my mouth and placed it in the same motion that I reached my hand, the pocket just tall enough for the cam. I guess it probably wasn’t that bad… I should build some endurance! Dustin led the last pitch, which I found super challenging. The book warned of ‘hero moves’ off the belay, but I found the awkward small hands crack just above it more challenging, and had to do it a few times after peeling off just before slotting my right hand in a v-shaped crack barely out of my reach. In all I guess the climb was a bit too sustained for me, or I was climbing too sloppily early in the day, but Igor was definitely one of the best climbs Dustin and I had each done.

We descended a steep-looking (but turned out not bad) 4th class section on the back side of the Witch and dropped our gear in the main notch so we could lighten our load on the way back to the campsite. The stars caught our attention for about 15 minutes; Dustin pointed out a bunch of constellations, many the kind you know if you know many more than 10 constellations, so that was pretty cool. The Milky Way was especially clear with just a crescent moon. We used vegetable fried rice I brought and canned chicken, tomato paste, and vegetables Dustin brought to make a delicious kind of hearty stew.

We climbed on the South face of the Magician on Sunday, which unfortunately meant that we had to traverse the steeper terrain past Lookout notch to get our gear, then return to descend from the West side of the Magician. For descending into the forest through a long approach, we were rewarded with a spectacular view south along the Kern River. We climbed Strange Brew, a 12 pitch 5.8 that is really mostly easier climbing, but with substantial unprotected slab. It was super enjoyable. Dustin linked up the first two pitches, then the next two. We ran in to a group that had started around the same time as us where our climbs converged. I then led the next four pitches, which involved one pitch that was an entirely unprotected 5.5 slab. It turned out to be less heady for me than I expected, I felt pretty calm. However, after that was some more unprotected slab climbing that got progressively steeper, but every time I felt sketched out I found some new depression in the rock and ridge for my fingernails. The last four pitches were 4th class, so we simulclimbed with me going first. It was mostly more unprotected slab, so it went pretty quickly and we never had to exchange gear. The last bit of climbing to reach the lookout was up epic-looking flakes and blocks, and the views from the top were awesome. We had some lunch, took some photos, then headed down.

I was definitely motivated to build some endurance for more sustained Needles climbing!