Notorious is what it’s known as. The front approach to the Castle Rocks is considered the most heinous and abusive of all destinations in the Sierras. But even with its snakes, poison oak, ticks, and a check of your navigation craft, it still holds the allure of a totally untouched wilderness attainable in a day. Then there’s the climbing, The Spire has only seen around 50 ascents since its first in 1950, and the Fin even less. But it’s the approach that guards these huge medieval towers and domes from any but the most willing.
My mind had long since dulled of remembering the 3 times I failed. My friend Brandon called, he wanted to climb a route called “ Silver Lining” on the Fin, the 1000’ granite face right next to the spire, and asked if I wanted to go. I knew of Brandon’s long climbing resume and of his already first ascent of a new climb on the spire, I was on! The planning and logistics lead us to invite (con) 2 more friends along and by middle of this last May (the best time to go for water) we were ready. We got our backcountry permit, and headed down the road to Buckeye campground. The stereo blasting a tune that would stick in our heads for 3 days! We needed to go; the build up of angst over the last week was making us all jittery. Knowing the abuse ahead we mounted our packs of climbing gear, water, food et al (mine weighed 56 pounds and was the lightest) and headed up the paradise creek trail, with our ski poles tapping along, going into the unknown; a welder, a software analyst, a Lindsay high school teacher and a ranch hand…. we were an expedition.
Our first test was to find the old Castle Rock trail, which starts just after the Paradise trail leaves the creek, about a mile or so up. Even having been here before, we still had trouble. Some parties have never found it. Friday luck was with us and after spotting the pile of rocks marking the spot, we stepped through the bushes and found the non-existent trail, showing in some areas, and then disappearing as nature takes back. What was once the Castle Rock Trail slowly traverses from the Paradise Trail to the hillsides along the front of the Castle Rocks, and then up the east side to meet the trail coming from Atwell mill. Long stretches have rockwork that now looks like the remains of some past civilization. The views are great when you come out of the bush and tree cover. But, you don’t come out much, and without visual landmarks you have to really pay attention.
We had finally got to the part where the Poison Oak gets totally eyeball deep. All along the P oak was everywhere, but now it was total commitment. We had brought disposable paper spray suits for just this section, which we promptly put on, and looking like some kind of alien wildernauts we dove in. The last few hours were spent up over and under the section of fallen trees. By now our white suits were tatters, and scratches and cuts covered our arms. Everything was so dry that we were starting to wonder about the water in the creek ahead. We were running low, and no water at the base of the rocks meant we would have to turn around and go back, waterless. This was looming in our minds, as we rounded our final ridge and the camp we would stay came into view. There was a water seepage here, which we promptly started filtering. In this Amazonian jungle of foliage there were no flat areas, the old trail was to become our bed, lying lengthwise along it. We had made it in 8 hours, and it had lived up to its name as the worst of the worst.
Saturday morning woke to the sound of a stove cooking oatmeal. Brandon and Derek were getting ready to climb the route, while Bruce and I would do a recon of the area between the spire and the Fin. We helped sort-climbing gear, passed the aspirin, and as the climbing team headed up the last 1500 ft to the base of the route, we gathered the food to hang in the trees, as bear scat was everywhere. Up the trail from our camp was a bigger creek, which we drank from freely figuring it was only minutes from the source. When we got to the base, Brandon and Derek were already way up on it. We could hear their voices echo off the spire wall. This was a lonely place, with not a sign of man anywhere, except on the rock. Swinging in the wind were the sun-bleached ropes of some past escape epic. To far up to reach, but eerily close…. We watched, took pics and did our hike, and then headed back to our little bit of flat area. As we cooked, ants were everywhere, having gotten into all the gear, the mosquitoes came down in droves, as we swung rags around. Bruce reminded me that this was his vacation, we had to laugh… We would give the boys till 8 pm before we started thinking the worst. We all knew that any sprained ankle or other incident becomes serious here. Just at dark, we heard rustling, then 2 big grins walking the trail, success!! We made dinner, drank mixed gatoritas (tequila and Gatorade), and listened to their tale.
The first ascent of “Silver Lining” was done in 1985, and theirs was the 12th according to the register on the top. The last ascent was 2 years ago. The quality of the rock is the best in the Sierras, the climbing made easier with modern devices of protection, and the view is one only a few get to see. We went to sleep in 48* weather under a starry night. We woke to the sound of birds of all kinds in the canopy. We packed to face the hike out. This was the last piece of the puzzle to solve. You never go out the same way they say, and that proved to be true. After going down too far, we came out on a grassy hill where we could finally get a GPS waypoint. Checking the map we decided to go straight down. Although very steep dirt, we made it out in 4 hours, and jumped in the pools at the trailhead. We had about a gallon of Technu (Poison Oak remover) between us and rubbed it all over. Our first entrance into the world as we know it, took us to Serranos, where we ate, drank cold drinks and knocked our glasses in the air!
Final outcome: 3 cases of Poison Oak, One tick buried deep, 1 case Guardia
Saw no Rattlers……..