Bruce Bindner and I were able to complete our route, Cinco de Mayo (V 5.10+ A3), on Castle Rock Spire in Sequoia National Park, California, during our second attempt between May 2-6, 2002.
I first saw the north arête of Castle Rock Spire about 6 years ago from Moro Rock. After looking at the Sequoia/Kings Canyon guide I figured it was the Herbert/Frost route and that it had been done. So, I played with the idea of going in there, repeating the route and hopefully freeing some of the pitches.
One of the first people I asked about this route was Eddie Joe. This is when I learned the Herbert/Frost route did not go up the north arête nor did any other route. My objective was clear now, to put a free route up the north arête. But who would want to hike up there for a new route? Just repeating the regular route would top a climber’s backcountry resume for their entire career. I figured I’d have some time to find the right partner, nobody would be hiking up to the spire anytime soon. Who would want to hike through head high poison oak, rattlesnakes, tick infested brush and steep trail-less hillside to an extinct approach trail?
More people than I thought. In the next few years I heard of several plans to go up and do the route. There was one attempt that involved 4-6 people with many ropes and much food to spend 2 weeks putting up the route. Luckily, they didn’t find the trail and had to abort the attempt. I knew it was time to act. Eddie had interest in doing the route so we made a mid-July attempt. Eddie had been up there at least 3 times, so I felt confident that we wouldn’t have a problem with the approach.
5 hours after we left the Buckeye Flat parking lot, we still hadn’t found the trail. We both had taken tumbles down the steep dry hillside though poison oak, foxtails and thistles. We finally found a small trail that looked bigger than the animal trails we had been following, Eddie confirmed it was the trail. Eddie was having an allergic reaction to all the plants, so we ended up retreating to the market and drinking beer for the rest of the day. The approach to Castle Rock was tough.
The next year I met Bruce Bindner. He had been looking at the north arête too. Bruce and I planned to make attempt in the Spring with a third person, Dave Nettle. (Eddie’s work commitments had kept him from a second attempt... or perhaps it was his visit to the hospital emergency room after his poison oak flared up.)
At any rate, on Cinco de Mayo weekend 2001, Bruce, Dave and I started from the parking lot with enough gear and food for 4 days. When we encountered the poison oak section, we put on Tyvek suits and gloves. About halfway up the hillside Dave outran us. We didn’t see him for the rest of the day. Bruce and I eventually made it to a climbers camp at the base of the Castle Rock gully. It had level sleeping terraces and a place to have a fire.
That night the extremely competent and experienced Dave Nettle had not made it to camp. I thought the worst, that he broke an ankle somewhere in the forest and we were going to need a helicopter to find him. Bruce and I decided that if Dave hadn’t shown up by 9AM the next morning that we would start hiking back to the car. The next morning, we were packed and physically ready to start hiking back… that’s when we heard Dave yelling for us. He had hiked from the parking lot to our camp that morning, in about 4hrs. Bruce and I were happy to have him back again and we were ready to start scoping the route. We searched around the gully for a way to access the base of the arête. Dave found a 4th class way to the base. This eliminated the need to hike all the way up the main gully and come down the other side of the spire.
Dave’s feet were extremely blistered from looking for us the previous day. Since he had to be in double boots in Alaska the next month, he decided to hike back out. Bruce and I examined the north arête for a free route. After much scrutiny we decided there wasn’t a chance the arête would go free, at least for us. We found another line about 200ft up the gully and right of the arête. The first few pitches looked free.
The next day, Bruce and I roped up and started climbing with low expectations of finding a lot of free climbing. Bruce made a 5.7 traverse to the base of an hourglass flake. I then led a 5.10+ handcrack with stemming to the top of the flake. It was really good, clean climbing. Bruce led the next pitch up a 5.6 ramp to a stance. My next pitch kept arching right with only moderate 5.8 climbing. Bruce led the next pitch up a steep 5.8 dihedral to a stance.
The rock was very steep and it did not seem likely that our route would be free except for all the large features we were finding. We rappelled back to the gully from here, fixing 2 ropes. We were paralleling the arête only a ropelength away and we had done 5 pitches of freeclimbing. That night we drank Gatoritas and had fish tacos grilled (on an old, rusted shovel blade) over the fire. We were excited that the route was turning out to be so good.
The following day we jugged up to our high point. My pitch continued up the dihedral, through a short roof to a blank section. I placed a bolt and made a long stretch move left to a flake. The pitch continued past a small hanging pine tree, steep chickenheads to a short wide crack. I belayed at the end of the wide crack. The crack turned into a seam and traversed right. Bruce led this aid pitch and belayed 110’ out on a ledge. He had to nail and use small nuts on the traverse, but he said it was only A1. From this point is was hard to retreat, so we left a rope fixed in case we didn’t make it to the top. I started up the next pitch, some clean aid to steep 5.8 freeclimbing. It was a short pitch that ended at another small ledge at the base of some steep difficult looking flakes.
It was later in the day and I was sure the next pitch was going to be aid. Bruce and I decided to go down as we didn’t have enough aid gear or bolts. We couldn’t tell how far we were from the summit. It was our last day, we would have to wait for next year to come back. From the base I could spot our rappel slings, it looked like we were only 2 pitches from the top of the arête.
Bruce and I made plans to come back the next year. In mid April 2002, Bruce and his lady, Em, hiked up gear to the camp a few weeks before we were supposed to climb. They brought ropes, gear, food and a huge jug of tequila. On the way down a bottle of sunscreen they left on the way up had been chewed by a bear. Several cars had been broken into at the parking lot by bears. When they reached their car, they were convinced the ropes, food and tequila at the camp would be consumed by the time we got there.
Cinco de Mayo weekend, 2002: Bruce and I brought an extra rope, food and tequila when we made our attempt, in case the cache was destroyed. When we arrived at our camp, the food and gear had been undisturbed. We had mixed feelings about this. It was nice to have an extra rope, but what were we going to do with two 1.75L containers of tequila?
The next day we fixed to pitch 6, all of which was familiar territory for us. Back in camp, we drank strong Gatoritas and talked about how good the route was. The following morning we decided to go for the top. Bruce led the pitch above our high point, which turned out to be difficult aid. A few cams, a few tied off pins, hooks, a head, and a Lowe ball brought him to a ledge at the end of the short, difficult pitch. "A3, man."
From here it was knobby friction face to the notch on the arête. This is where the regular route joins in. I placed a bolt and started up the face. Big thunderclouds were developing and started to spit rain. I placed 4 more bolts and reached the notch. It was nice 5.10d climbing but I was more worried about the weather. We were tied to the largest lightning rod in sight.
Just as Bruce was completing the pitch out of the notch, it started to hail and thunder. I felt there was a likely possibility that we were going to get zapped. I led the final 4th class pitch to the top, where it was sprinkling. We quickly found the register, removed the thong from a recent ascent and signed in our new route. The register read like a who’s who of climbing. It had the first ascent party of Steck from 1950 in there.
It was easy to believe that the spire had less than 40 ascents in the last 50 years, this was a hard place to get to. After hearing more thunder, we hurried up and started to descend. Bruce started down the descent for Spike Hairdoo. It begins off the south summit and downclimbs 5.4 on toprope to a block with slings around it. From here we rappelled 160ft to a hanging belay on the route. Bruce backed this belay up with a 3/8” bolt. Meanwhile I was at the block stressing out about the lightning, I was still close enough to get zapped if lightening hit the summit.
With the new bolt finally installed at the hanging station, I rapped down to Bruce with the haul bag. We then rappelled 200’ to the notch and pulled the ropes. I was happy with the fast descent, by that time we would have only been halfway down the regular descent.
Back at the camp, we drank more Gatoritas and drew the topo. Bruce, having done the regular route and the FA of Spike Hairdoo(in the winter), said this was the best route he’s done on the spire. I feel its one of the best backcountry routes I’ve ever done. Two days later we hiked back with close to 100lb packs, living to tell our story.
Cinco de Mayo, V 5.10+ A3, Castle Rock Spire, Sequoia National Park California. May 3-4, 2002. Bruce Bindner and Brandon Thau completed a 12-pitch route slightly to the right of the north arête. The route parallels the north arête to the right by 150’. The route features mostly moderate climbing up steep features with less than 200ft of aid. The final attempt was made over two days, with fixed ropes to pitch 6. The quickest descent is off the south arête, on Spike Hairdoo. The route required approximately 16 bolts, (mostly for belay anchors) and close to a gallon of tequila.