Wednesday, July 13, 2011

This year's Needles expedition -- day 2, attack of the carabiner

Saturday morning found us sleeping in, so we decided to forgo the hike in to the Needles and opt for the lower elevation and shorter approach of Dome Rock, on which we had an objective, the Anti-jello crack.

The carabiner made love to meAnti-jello crack starts with the easy first pitch of the Tree Route. The second pitch is a 5.9+ fingers-to-tips crack, which I suspect was tips-to-nothing for Dima. He led almost all the way up it, and when the feet ran out, the crack thinned to almost nothing, and the protection got really tricky he had to hang and aid through the last bit of it. It only takes a sentence to say and justify that, but the process of making the decision and carrying it out is actually quite emotionally wrenching and time-consuming. I tried to be a good partner and give him all the time and support I could, but I never quite know whether to speak up or shut up. In any case, I was in the shade of a tree and quite comfortable. Dima finished that pitch via a right-trending variation that took us back to the Tree Route.

As for me, I think that pitch was possibly one of the best pitches I've ever climbed. The size was very suited to me. I had to stop and hang twice while cleaning nuts that were really stuck, as well as liberating a booty nut that someone had clearly used to bail on the route. Another bailing nut was fused and stayed in. During the second "take" to clean a nut I had a little accident. The draw on the piece above the one I was cleaning got jerked violently in the take, the biner at the end whipping around and fluttering and eventually taking a nice big bite out of my left bicep. It took a good chunk of flesh out, and made a giant bruise around it. It hurt a lot, but I was in the moment and didn't pay much attention. Later, at the top of the route I stopped to disinfect and bandage it.

The mountain made love to himAt the top of the second pitch we switched to me leading up to the anchors of the last pitch of Tree Route, since I had the whole entire giant rack of tiny gear on me. It was fun to be, however briefly, on the sharp end. I think Dima either doesn't trust me, or is so concerned about me getting hurt and screwing up his climbing plans, that he almost never lets me lead. He certainly never asks if I want to. The silent arrangement suits me, however, as he is a lot more willing to get on harder things and flail than I am, as a leader.

The last pitch of Tree Route -- in fact the whole route -- is super fun. It's a lowish angle slab, with a single bolt in the middle, a bit like the last pitch of Angel's Fright/Fingertrip on Tahquitz, but easier. Above that are just slabs to the top. We hung out on the slabs, licking our wounded egos and arms and enjoying the incredible view. A lovely breeze had kicked up, really helping in the 80s temps and full-on sun. Eventually we walked off the rock, I took a nap, and Dima went back to the base to retrieve his gear. We finished our day with another visit to the Ponderosa, where the service sucked and the food made us both quite ill. But more about that on the next day's log...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

This year's Needles expedition -- day 1

Reentry from this year's expedition to the Needles, with my friend Dima from Texas, has been the hardest yet!

At the campsite
We took off midday on Thursday, arriving at Kernville in time for some lunner and a beer at the Kern River Brewing Co, as is our custom. We made it to the Needles campsite before dark, which was just as well, since the dirt road had a couple major mudholes that we had to negotiate, so sunlight was definitely a plus. The campsite was quite full, and we snagged the last available official camping spot, as far away from the folks with the television in their Sportsmobile as possible. I slept in my car, as usual. Dima pitched his Nemo tent, which is extremely entertaining to watch. A single PhD does not qualify one to pitch a Nemo tent, no siree!

On Friday we racked up, and steeled ourselves for the long approach. We got to the notch by the Witch only to find several parties already there and racking up, and a party already on the route we wanted to do, Airy Interlude. A little taken aback, and psychologically unprepared to deal with people, we decided to head for another objective of ours, a route named Spooky on the Charlatan formation. Spooky can  be approached either from its base, by dropping down the notch between the Charlatan and the Djin, or by rapping the route from above. Initially we had a hard time locating the notch, and then we were put off by the allegedly 4th class chimney at the notch. Our beta said to expect rap slings at the top, but we found none, and we were not about to downclimb it, though we did see other parties who did later on in the day. (In the evening we spoke with Kris Solem, who is writing the new Needles guidebook, and he confirmed that indeed there are no rap slings, and that the chimney has gotten worse in the last couple of years since a flake broke off and a lot of soil eroded from the base making it deeper.) We set out to get to the top of the Charlatan to find the rap rings for Spooky, and finally succeeded after some time and a whole lot of scrambling. The top of that formation has to be one of the most spectacular spots on earth. There is a feeling of a whole lot of air around you that's absolutely breathtaking and incredibly intimidating at first. You do get used to it eventually, but initially it takes a real effort to walk around.

Me at the base of the second pitch of Spooky. Check out the crazy rock face!
The Charlatan is topped by a rock much like the headstone in J-Tree, but a little smaller, which has a crack on one side called the Lady of the Needles. This is rated 5.7, so we figured it would be a good warmup for the harder Spooky. It was indeed a very fun route, packing at least a couple interesting moves in no more than 40 feet of climbing. The top is very narrow, requiring the climber to either hang from the anchor or straddle it, which I thought was a hoot. The view is amazing!

The forecast had given us 15% chance of rain, and as we warmed up we watched the thunderheads slowly accumulate around us. None were too low or too close, though, so we decided to attempt Spooky. We were a little worried about the possibility of the weather getting worse in a rush, so we fixed our second line so we could bail very fast, if the need arose. We rapped the route, and started up. Dima led both pitches. The first, which goes at 5.8, was a solid hands crack for me, ending with a lieback section. It was a half a rope length long and I was loving every second of it! The second pitch, rated 5.9, starts with a 15 foot off-width, then continues up a sculpted face that looks probably like nothing you've ever climbed. Solidified waves is the closest description I can come up with. I could see that Dima was feeling rushed, and despite the fact that I had my eye on the weather and had persistently tried to take his mind off it, he wasn't paying attention to me. The off-width gave him trouble, and the demoralization from that made him uncertain in the face section of the climb. He finished the climb, but it was pretty clear that he hadn't especially enjoyed it. I couldn't figure out how to get into the off-width, so I started it as a lieback. That worked remarkably well until I got to the #4 camalot that Dima had walked up with him, about halfway up. I couldn't get that out while liebacking, so I tried to transition into the off-width, took a fall, and then thrutched around like a fish out of water for the rest of the off-width. At no point did I manage to regain any control or poise. Use it or lose it! I hadn't climbed an off-width in probably two years! After that I mostly enjoyed the face section, until I got to a spot where my way of doing it was very different from Dima's -- a common occurence -- but the way he had protected a traversing move made my way impossible to pull off. So I had to do it his way, which took a really long time to work out. No falls though! At least that was good.

My adventure mobile, bar and library in one
We finished the climb feeling a bit humbled and a little overwhelmed by the location, climbing and weather. On the hike out we stopped at the fire lookout tower and met the famous keeper, Margee, and Kris, chatted for a while, then hiked out with Kris. We had a beer and a burger at the Ponderosa Inn, not feeling quite up to cooking for ourselves, then read Ed Abbey and drank wine until we crashed.

(Pictures by Dima.)