Twitch… Twitch… Twitch… I could tell, it was time to go to THE NEEDLES! Who better to call than Roberto? I hadn’t really been climbing outdoors all summer due to full time work and full time class, and I had just received brand new shiny Totem Cams to review. Where better to test them out than the Needles where Roberto and I both intended to whip?
Roberto had never been to the Needles, so I would have the privilege of devirginizing him and boy did I do a good job! We hung around San Diego til close to 7pm since I was representing ACSD at the Bouldering and Brews climbing competition at Mesa Rim and then we hit the road. We blasted up to the Needles, slept a little, and started the hike.
When the Sorcerer and the Witch came into view, our excitement grew. Dropping our packs we headed into the gully to give Roberto his first taste of The Needles. He onsighted the first pitch of Airy Interlude (10a), and I took over for the first pitch of Ankles Away (10d R). The gear was as tricky as I remembered, but the climbing wasn’t too hard and soon Roberto was on his way up.
When he got to the stance, I handed him the rack of thin gear and gave him the chance to start getting used to the insanely sustained style that characterizes Needles climbing. He boldly headed off to attempt an onsight of the crux pitch of Ankles Away (11c sandbag). The ultra-thin crack cuts up right across an otherwise blank face looking intimidating and nearly impossible. Roberto charged it plugging microgear and gunning for it until he finally whipped while on an insecure tips lieback of the seam. He whipped about 25′ onto a 00 Metolius Ultralight TCU! Woot! Then he went right back up there!
Roberto is my hero. He just keeps on going. He bogged down again higher, taking the first lead fall (and 2nd and 3rd?) on the smallest of the brand new Totem Cams, but he battled his way to the top and persevered through all the runouts and falls on tiny gear. What a champ. We did the mandatory summit tag and I pointed out routes and features from the spectacular viewpoint on top of the Witch. Then, Roberto humored me while I did something I’ve wanted to do for years….
We set up the 70m rope for a single line rappel and we bailed back down to the ledge below. There was no one on the upper half of the Witch, and just a single party starting up Igor Unchained. We walked off, grabbed some food, drink, and Roberto grabbed his good camera. We scrambled our way back onto the ledge, and Robero top rope soloed with his gri gri and got into position.
I started up for a free solo of Airy Interlude, which years ago was my first 5.10a trad lead attempt, and I’ll never forget it. The climb is unbelievable in quality, everything from the initial double cracks in the corner to the completely unique lighting bolt crack that splits the face that must be traversed. The line looks outrageous for the grade, but if you know how to climb it, it’s trivial! There are features and holds where you need them, and perfect jams the rest of the way. I had such a grin huge grin on my face. It was one of the most enjoyable free solos I’ve ever done. Roberto took many photos, which turned out great. Thanks Berto! It was fun to get non-butt shots of such an enjoyable ascent.
After lunch in the notch, we dropped back into the gulley again, this time for Don Juan Wall. Roberto wants to lead Romantic Warrior next year, so it was my obligation to get him on sustained crack leads out there. I took the easy first pitch, and Roberto lead the 2nd pitch which is the 5.11b crux. He took a nice fall on this one too, but finished it easily next try with the right sequence.
I took over for the 3rd pitch. According to the guide, this pitch is only 10d. I, however, disagree. It’s just weird, and for me it’s the crux of the climb. There is roughly 15′ of scuzzing a corner that is highly technical and insecure, protected with tiny gear. I barely managed to pull it off, redpointing the pitch, and I brought Berto up. We swapped again and he headed off, up the wickedly sustained 5.10 finger crack above. He was starting to tire after the lack of sleep, hard leads, and most likely swinging around on the rope taking pictures of me soloing Airy which is much more physical than you might think. I led the last pitch and we rappelled into the notch between the Sorcerer and the Charlatan.
I wanted Berto to get as much climbing in on his first trip out to The Needles as possible. He warned me he was tired, but I didn’t realize that he REALLY meant it. I sent him up the 5.7 first pitch of Spooky, thinking he’d link the whole thing, but when he yelled “off belay” at the ledge I realized he was done… I started soloing, instead of waiting, and joined him on the ledge. He was literally lying there ready to puke. Roberto knows how to push it better than anyone I know.
He threw me on belay and I blasted the final pitch. Coming up he looked a little haggard. I pointed this out and he flipped me off. Ah… comradery! We returned to our packs and hiked out exhausted. Little did we know that was just a taste of what was to come the next day.
We woke early on Sunday, headed back out, and racked up for Nautilus. It’s a “5.12” in the guidebook on the back of the Witch. I’ve never actually met anyone who has climbed it, but I’ve read ominous things about the upper pitches about broken bolts and lack of protection. We dropped the gulley between the Sorcerer and the Witch, and started soloing up toward the base of the climb. The climbing isn’t difficult, so there’s not much of a point in roping up, but you do cover hundreds of feet of rock. It turned out that it was Roberto’s first solo! I heard Jenn wasn’t going to be too happy. I scampered up ahead of Roberto and let him take his time while I took pictures of the amazing positions and features we were climbing.
Higher, I traversed a ledge, made an airy step across, and wrapped around the back of The Witch. Once around the corner, I yelled back that I’d be happy to belay Roberto for the insanely airy step across if he wanted. He took me up on the offer, and I started building an anchor.
I started digging in our small pack for the rope, but Roberto had stuffed it in there quite efficiently. It literally took me about 2 minutes to get the rope out, I was tugging, pulling, yanking, and then suddenly POP! Out came the rope. I was holding the rope in one hand, and the bottom of the pack in the other. The pack immediately went limp and inverted. I watched in horror as our single liter of water plummeted 400′ of pure air to the ground below. While this normally wouldn’t be the end of the world, the day was much hotter than expected, and Nautilus wasn’t getting nearly the shade I had hoped! Oops…
We decided to suck it up and get on with the suffering. I lead the first pitch of Terrorvision to warm up. Roberto passed since it’s such a spectacular climb. He wanted to save it for a lead and was still destroyed from the day before.
After warming up clipping bolts, I grabbed the rack and cast off onto almost 100′ of brutal fingercrack. It was leaning, overhung in places, feet were non-existant, and I haven’t had my ass handed to me so bad in YEARS. I’d been studying hard, but not climbing hard, and I learned I was way out of shape for such a climb. It required such insane lockoff strength that I couldn’t link more than 2-3 moves through most of the climb. It protected fine, but I was destroyed. I actually pulled all the 5.12 moves eventually, but dropped into pathetic aid on the 5.10 – 5.11 moves near the top. It was baking in the sun, we were dehydrated, and all the hard moves wasted me beyond belief. I got to the anchor eventually and brought Roberto up. Between the heat, dehydration and rumor of broken bolts and scary climbing above, I decided to bail.
We rapped back down to the ledge below, and debated what to do. Rapping back to the ground would be miserable since it would entail hiking back up out of the gulley in the heat without water. There was a climb somewhere left of Terrorvision called Wicked West of the Witch rated 10+. I figured climbing up and over the formation would be quicker and easier than rappelling and hiking and I tied in and headed up.
I saw what I thought were two bolt lines, but I read it wrong and they were all the same line. I skipped the bolt on the left and ran it out about 30-40′ of 5.10 climbing to the 2nd bolt and clipped that. After another short runout there was another bad bolt above. Looking around, I thought I was supposed to go straight up, but the route actually traverses hard left 50′. As I worked my way up the tenuous slab, the wind was picking up and the holds were thinning. About 20′ out from the last bolt, looking at a massive fall, I ended up at the base of a bulge. I tried to climb over it, and then eventually around it. I was up there on horrible holds, baking in the sun, getting blown by the wind, for 5-10 minutes.
Finally, after reversing my path for about the 4th time, a huge gust of wind almost blew me off the rock. I was making a move with my right hand, and the wind was strong enough that it started to spin me off the rock. I felt my right foot lift off the rock and locked my core trying to hold on tight and fight the swinging barndoor sensation as the wind kept blowing. I screamed, half in effort, and for the first time I can remember in my climbing career, a little bit of terror. I honestly thought I was going to take a 60′ fall, possibly onto a ledge below. It would have been really ugly. Somehow, I managed to fight the swing and bring my hand and foot back onto the wall. I held on panting for a while, and managed to down climb all the way to the bolt below.
Once there, I attempted one last path and actually made a 40′ runout traverse out left. While I was on the right path, I still couldn’t find anything that resembled protection or an anchor and I reversed the whole thing. At this point, I was mentally fried, physically exhuasted, dehydrated from half a day in the sun and wind with no water, and I was beyond done. I left a bail biner on the top bolt and had Roberto lower me back to the ledge. We rappelled to the ground, coiled the rope, and got the hell out of there.
By the time we were done, I was crawling up the gulley back to the packs. We just crashed out in the shade of the trees and searched for the motivation to dig through our packs for food and water. I don’t even remember who found the energy to retrieve the food and water. I remember that Roberto shot some footage of us, but we deleted it because he couldn’t hold his hand steady enough to stop the shaking. It was pathetic.
We ate, drank, rested, and decided to go home early lacking the energy to move, let alone climb. It literally took me 15 minutes to build the mental momentum to repack my bag. The slog out was painful in the sun after hitting “the wall” so hard.
We truly had our tail between our legs and were tasting a fat slice of humble pie, but honestly, that’s part of the reason I love the Needles. It challenges on multiple levels, both physically and mentally. Each trip is unique, and the further off the beaten path you go the more committing and difficult the climbing gets. Having done the classics a few times, it’s been fun exploring new routes. Some are great, some are scary, some are hard, but they all are amazing and you never forget a day at the Needles. I always leave exhausted. I was proud the first 3 day weekend I managed to climb all three days out there.
This last trip was extra memorable though. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect out there, but I was still caught off guard on multiple levels. I underestimated the heat, and how much water we would require. I should have brought more than one liter, even if we hadn’t dropped it. Also, I thought I was in better shape for Nautilus than I was. Last, but not least, I really shouldn’t have started up The Wicked West of the Witch because it was “just 5.10+.” I can’t remember the last time I fell on a 5.10+, but once you’re off route the grade doesn’t matter anymore. I almost went to the hospital, or worse, when the wind almost blew me off up there. I run it out a lot, but that was one of the only times I’ve ever felt out of control in that kind of situation.
Roberto and I both found our limits that weekend, and in our own way we both had successes and failures. Sometimes that’s how you get better. Mark Twight says you learn more from the failures than the successes, and I’d agree. We both know our weaknesses a little more intimately now, and what we need to do to train for the respective routes we want to climb. We will be back next summer, harder, faster, stronger, wiser, and we will send.
P = G