Before leaving on my previous climbing trip to Tuolumne I emailed Dima, the guy who originally taught me how to climb cracks two years ago, for beta for that trip. He mentioned his school year was about to start for earnest but that he barely had time for one more trip, and we concocted a plan to head to the Needles for two or three days. Dima flew into LA and we were going to meet in Kernville on Sunday afternoon. As it turned out, not one but two rental cars crapped out on him, so he was running a couple hours late when I arrived at Kernville and parked my butt at the Kern River Brewing Co. I was wearing my new Supercrack t-shirt, and a couple of folks at the brewery had apparently just been talking about the Supercrack, so we struck up a very pleasant conversation. Between reading my book, catching up on beta and drinking, time flew and Dima arrived. We had dinner and took off for the high campground, where we had a quick ceremonial libation and crashed asleep.
The next morning found us not too hurried. While I had only climbed on Voodoo Dome, Dima had been to the top of the Needles before and gotten hopelessly lost trying to find Magic Dragon. So he had decided that we should start by trying to climb Igor Unchained, the shortest, but also hardest of our objectives, since he expected we'd spend part of the day lost. As it turned out, we didn't get lost at all. We hiked in to the base of the tower, then took the trail that traverses the North side of the Needles, then dropped down the notch between the Witch and the Sorcerer, and BLAM! Igor on the left! Atlantis on the right! Figurative climber hard on!
Igor Unchained looks as beautiful and intimidating from the bottom as it does in pictures, but steeper. The backstory is short and sweet: in spring 2009 I was looking at Needles pictures on Mountain Project when I noticed Igor. He took my breath away. I wanted to climb him. So I made a date with my then partner to go to Igor in May 2010 and lead all three pitches of him. In November I was stronger than ever, and it all seemed like it might work out. But then Ben and I stopped climbing together, and in February, and then again in March I tore my rotator cuff and labrum. So my plans to climb Igor, or to climb anything, really, were put off for months. Fast forward to Monday: Dima is rearing to go, and I am at the base, having promised to follow him up anything he cares to lead (and thinking, based on prior experience, that that was a safe bet). I am shaking in my boots in the presence of Igor. What on earth is 5.9"+"? I've researched this climb extensively and I know that people say the "+" is for sustained. To me that means strenuous, and I'm out of shape. We're at high altitude and it's supposed to be hot and I haven't climbed with Dima in two years and I'm thinking, I better not break down and cry, or worse, pee myself now...
Dima racks up and off we go! The first pitch is a left-facing dihedral that requires the leader to make the same move over and over. Dima luckily has doubles, even some triples, in the right sizes, so he slowly-slowly makes it almost all the way up the pitch. Instead of belaying in an alcove, he is forced, through lack of appropriate gear, to build a hanging belay a little lower. I start following and I'm learning quickly. Lesson #1: Dima actually believes he might fall, because he's setting the nuts *really* well. Every time I have to remove a nut I lose skin off one, sometimes two, knuckles. Lesson #2: what is happy hands for Dima is a little wide for me. I'm sometimes on the verge of slipping out of the places where he's placed a #2 C4. I'm camming my wrists in that shallow crack in new and painful ways. About two thirds up that interminable dihedral I have to hang. I call a take and try to catch my breath, massage some blood back into my right hand, recover the use of my left Achilles tendon. Then it's back at it, and I arrive, panting like a dog, at one of the most uncomfortable belays in memory.
The next pitch goes even slower for the leader. There is a bizzarre tiny roof with a wide crack to get over, then some more wide stuff, then a fingers dihedral. Dima overcomes them all methodically, though I can't see him from my vantage point for the second half. In the meantime I'm devising increasingly more acrobatic ways to hang in my harness. I finally start up. It turns out that the beta for me to get over the little roof with the wide crack is completely different from Dima's. Where he could jam his thigh, I can fit my whole hip. I come up with a way to do it that seems like a child's solution to a boulder problem. It involves a heel-toe-hook, the bastard lovechild of a heel-hook and heel-toe jam. By then Dima is insistently providing "belay assistance", though I haven't asked for it, so the whole exercise is a little ridiculous. I get to the dihedral and I finally relax. Fingers dihedral, I know how to do this. Turns out that was the part that had sketched out Dima. Go figure. We're on a ledge now, and there's a place to sit in the shade. It's practically palatial!
Dima agonizes a little about how to rack up for the third pitch, but the printed beta is pretty clear, fingers and hands, so off he goes. I'm belaying him seemingly forever. He runs out of rope and I yell up at him, but I can't hear his response. I don't take him off belay until I can tell he has me on. I break down the anchor and off I go. This is the pitch that had me nearly peeing myself at the base. It's completely vertical. I'm climbing and it's really strenuous, but really really good. After I seem to have climbed a pitch's worth, I start thinking, this may be the best pitch I've ever climbed. But then it keeps going. Another of what seems like half a pitch later, I'm starting to bargain in my head: if you end now, I'll still call you the best pitch I've ever climbed, but if not... It's vertical, so I can't see over the top, and I don't know how much further. I'm having to stop and de-pump my hands every chance I get, which is not often enough. Man! What is this?! I slip and I catch myself. Damned if I'm taking a fall now! Finally, the angle eases off and I pant to Dima. Holy shit! We are both mumbling in ecstasy, telling each other about our mental process, him leading, me following that pitch. We agree that it may be the best pitch we've done. And it's *exactly* 60 meters long.
The view from the top of the Witch, whom we've now earned the right to call the Bitch, is spectacular. We spent a lot of time up there taking pictures and enjoying the breeze. We rapped down and started on the trail back, and somewhere about a quarter of the way back to camp my internal battery ran out of juice. I had to scramble and hike back extremely ... very slowly. But we made it, of course. We headed out to Ponderosa for beers & burgers, but found it had just closed. We drove down to Needlepoint Creek, our bivy on the low road, since the plan for the next day was to do White Punks on Dope, which is on Voodoo Dome. On the way we saw two beautiful brown bears. Over dinner we looked up at the Needles in moonlight.
The next morning we got up at 6, and probably left around 7. We coudn't find the trail, eventually made it to the base of Voodoo, and then followed the base around to White Punks. The heat and bushwhacking misery of this could not be overstated. We got there at 10am, and the sun was already beginning to bake the world. We were destroyed from the approach, and decided we no longer had enough water or time to do the climb and get back with the desired margin of safety. We turned on Dima's GPS tracking and followed the cairns downhill, making a track to the base of the climb on the way -- a little community service, if you will, and a pre-requisite for a future successful attempt.
View White punks on dope approach trail in a larger map
With Dima gone to points North to climb, and the camera with the photos of our trip still with him, I returned home. I've slept at home for two nights since the trip, and I have never slept so soundly in my life. I did not know such depths of exhaustion could be plumbed.
Moonlight Buttress, learning to love the journey
2 years ago