We arrived back in the Valley yesterday night after a fun few days down in the Needles. The climbing was amazing when it wasn't raining; here's a quick TR of how it went down:
Wednesday the 3rd: We left the Valley in the afternoon. The crew was Scott E (of Canon City, CO), Graham (of Seattle and New Zealand), and Adam (of SoCal). Greg was also gonna join us, but ended up reversing direction shortly after we left the park and heading up to Squamish. Scott E had some truck trouble on the way, and Adam stayed to help, so Graham and I (both in Graham's truck) made it down and set up a hasty camp in the dark.
Thursday: Scott E and Adam roll in early, but we don't get to climbing right away since we decide to move camp. The main campground at the trailhead is surprisingly full, and we spot a prime spot about a half mile back up the road. We finally hit the trail mid-afternoon, riding our mountain bikes with our full packs of gear. One of the cool things about the Needles is, despite the 3 miles from trailhead to the rocks, the trail is very easy, and it goes quickly on bikes. Our climbing goal that day is just to get a feel for the area, so we get a short 5.10, "Airy Interlude". Graham and I climb together, as do Adam and Scott E, and we climb 2 different starting pitches, racing up to the base of the shared 2nd pitch. Scott E wins, so he starts leading up the crux pitch, which features a stellar diagonaling crack. Thouroughly impressed with the rock and it's great texture and friction, we finish up the climb. We had brought a big dry-bag, and we stuff all of our gear in it and stash it under a boulder. This will allow us to make the approach hike even easier, carrying nothing but a little food and water. The trail is mostly downhill on the way back, so it goes super-quick on the bikes.
Friday: The weather takes a turn for the worse, and we wake up to one of the most depressing sounds in the world: rain falling on a tent. Oh well, a good excuse to sleep in. The Needles is perched up on a high ridge in the Sierra; our campsite was at ~8000 feet elevation. Consequently, we staying in a cloud for most of the day, with light rain on and off. Absolutely everything was soaked to the bone. Luckily, our chosen campsite had an abundance of firewood, so we stoked up a massive fire and sat around, making food, telling stories, willing the rain away, reading, and generally being lazy.
Saturday: More of the same... Scott E and Adam decide to leave.
Sunday: Killer day! Blue skies greet us, and Graham and I are the lone survivors. The campground that had maybe 5 different parties three days earlier was empty, and we have the Needles to ourselves. We decide to try "Atlantis" a four pitch 5.11 route.
I take the first lead, a awesome dihedral/flake system which eats up bomber cams, and then Graham quickly dispatches the second. At the base of the crux third pitch, it looks like the hardest climbing will be the first few moves off the ledge. I spend a few minutes trying to fiddle in some tiny cams as high as I can reach, and then commit to the strenuous lie-back. It's both powerful and balance-y, really engaging and rewarding. This was another short pitch (we like the easy little "bite-size" pitches in the Needles), setting Graham up for the final 5.11a pitch. This pitch delivered more killer climbing, starting out with a desperate underclinging move, and finished up a rad arete with perfectly shaped holds. I make sure to keep up the concentration while following, since I don't want to foul my clean ascent. The top out is definitive, and we've sent! Yeah, that route made waiting around in the rain worthwhile!
Next up is Sirocco, a bolted 5.12a up a steep face to arete. After some serious engineering to construct a stick clip (I'm not psyched on the giant fall down a gully) we're ready to go, and I take the lead. The "first pitch" (we ended up linking the whole route into one) featured hard pulling on a steep face; really well protected. This leads to a small ledge, and from here the character of the route changes. The angle eases back a bit, but most of the holds disappear and you're forced to use the arete much more. The bolts also get much further apart. Oh well, the topo said that this part was only 11a. Hmm, not so much. I find the tricky and balance-y arete moves to be just as tough as the first pitch, and take a few (short) falls. Up higher, the bolts are really space-y, and I get pretty gripped when I find myself about 15' above my last bolt, with the next one just a few feet to my left but unreachable. I guess I got suckered off on some holds leading nowhere, so I had to carefully dowclimb and get back on route. Even higher, I clip a bomber new bolt, which inspires confidence, but I can't even see the next one. Taking off onto the arete, I quickly make progress, but with my feet about 15' above the last bolt, I start to lose balance and "barn-door". Desperately looking for some micro-hold to regain balance, I find nothing, and grease off... Weeee! Pulling back to the bolt, I set out again, this time easily regaining my high point. I make a few more moves up, but then get gripped. The last fall was huge, and now I'm going higher, I'm too scared and start to downclimb. Of course downclimbing isn't easy, and I fall again, about the same spot as last time... Wooo! Pulling back to the bolt this time, I'm hesitant to take off again and I start to consider bailing. This route is too good, though, and bailing from this high would be complicated, so I decide the easiest option is to sack-up and finish. I regain my high point, make one last hard move, and then the climbing gets easier for the last 10' to the next bolt. Then it's just the anchors, and they're not that far, so I finish without incident. I guess I need to go back to send this beast, it's certainly worth it. Definitely one of the best "Sport" routes I've ever had the pleasure of falling off.
Monday (or "The day Scott and Graham thought they could climb 5.12"): Our big goal for this trip to the Needles was "Romantic Warrior", a mega-classic and one of the biggest, hardest routes in the area. With 2 pitches of 12a, one of 12b, and one sandbag 11d, this is probably the hardest big route I've gotten on anywhere (aside from El Cap route which we planned on aiding).
The day starts with customary sleeping in, big breakfast, slow start. We've got the approach hike dialed, though, so we reach the base of the route quickly. Nearing the start of the route, we find disturbing signs of some unknown past epic: 2 new-ish but torn up ropes tangled in the bushes, a couple biners and a big stopper, all lying on the ground. It might just be normal climber trash, but perhaps somebody had to leave in a hurry? We don't know...
Anyways, we decide that our fate will be better, so we rack up and Graham leads the first pitch. Not an auspicious start, the supposed "10a" turns out to be slippery, funky, and difficult. We get through it, though, and the next pitch lifts our spirits. The "Living Corner" pitch is the best 5.7 pitch I've ever led, with gorgeous neon green lichen decorating the white granite. The climbing is great too, with not only a friendly hand-crack, but also tons of incut jugs on both side of the corner. And it's dead vertical!
Graham leads the first hard pitch (11a) which is straight-forward but strenuous lie-backing. This puts us at the base of the first 12a pitch, which is reassuringly short (maybe only 50'). This assurance dissapears, though, as I try to pull the first moves off the hanging-belay and quickly fall. So much for our glorious on-sight... Those first moves turn out to be some of the hardest, though, and once I'm actually moving I make up the corner with only one more fall. That is, I make to just below the end of the pitch, stopped short by a heinous blank-looking mantle. A few falls here before I spot the hidden holds and decipher the sequence. We'd been talking all morning about Micheal Reardon's on-sight free solo (rope-less) of the route a few years back, and at this point it seems beyond belief. To get up that hard corner and reach the sloping ledge, only to be faced with that tricky and desperate mantle move, it must have been a head-trip.
Next up is a hard (12a) traversing pitch. Though it's steep, it looks more comforting than the last pitch, since this one actually has hand-holds! Alas, it has no foot-holds, and again the moves off the belay turn out to be the hardest. Graham has to aid out a few feet before he can start moving, and I have tons of trouble figuring out the first few moves on follow. One short, but engaging, 5.8 traversing pitch leads us to the base of the route's crux: the "Book of Deception" pitch.
The pitch is a steep, blank corner, with a tiny and incipient crack in the back. It's my lead, and I have trouble again figuring out the first few moves up the corner (that seems to be the theme on this route). Finicky small RPs (tiny stoppers) protect the intimidating corner, and I fall a few times before making any upwards progress. The secret seems to be a combination of lie-backing (off non-existant holds), stemming (between non-existant footholds), and generally pretending and hallucinating holds into existence. Man, this thing is HARD! The pitch is short, though, and I reach the belay (not before another devious mantle-type move, damn...). Only one more hard pitch... "11d"? It felt just as hard as the 5.12 pitches, and Graham ended up taking a good size fall and ripping some gear. Shaken up, he offers me the lead. By now the stemming feels a little better (I guess we've had some practice), and I make it up the pitch with only 2 falls.
Graham take the final lead, and we're soon on the top... sort of. The formation (the Warlock) actually has three summits, and we're on the lowest of them. Easy scrambling leads us up to the 2nd summit, but the highest one is steep. It's getting late, and in the fading light I have trouble spotting the three bolts that lead the way to the top, but Graham sees them once he arrives. At this point we just want to get down, so we pull on the bolts to gain the summit. I guess we should have read the descent beta better, because I thought it was just one rappel, but we're much too high for that. I start rapping off the summit, and it's now dark. Luckily, I spot a shiny new set of bolts, and one more rap leads to another set. One final rap sets us happily on the ground, and the hike back to camp was thankfully familiar and easy. Wooo! Romantic Warrior! We were far from sending, but we had a great time and I'll for sure be back on this mega-classic!
So, today's Wednesday the 10th, and Graham and I are back in the Valley. Gearing up for.... the Salathe Wall! We're headed up tonight, maybe spending 3 nights on the wall, so I'll check back in a few days.