The Harding route on Keeler Needle might be the most classic climb in California that is not included on a “trendy list” of some sort. It is steeped in tradition. Warren Harding established the line in 1960 and Galen Rowell and company freed it in 1976. The east face of Keeler Needle is by far the most aesthetic feature in the entire Mount Whitney area and some could argue for most of California. Although access and descent is rather pedestrian (mostly trail), the mere size and off-width nature of the route keep most of the “Arc'teryx clad” huddled around Mounts Whitney and Russell. I climbed Aiguille Extra, IV, 5.10, (the southernmost “Needle”) via its east face route the same week and both climbs are excellent outings.
We condensed the Harding route into about 13 roped pitches but did not place any pro in the last several. I would not hesitate to solo those last two meandering and long pitches from the top of the 5.10 splitter head wall to the summit. The only real combination of pitches I did with simul-climbing on a 70m rope were the first two pitches since the beginning and end of this one elongated pitch is on relatively easy ground. The cruxes of the route for most folks are no doubt the 5.10c off-width pitches. I led them both and in comparison to desert off-width they would be considered closer to 5.10- then 5.10+. Both of the 5.10b roofs involved short cruxes. Two of the best sustained/ aesthetic pitches were the Red Dihedral and the upper head wall splitter. Both offered fantastic 5.10- crack climbing. We experienced warm temperatures on the entire route and topped out mid-afternoon no worries. The only route finding issues in regard to the topo is the finish. It is nothing as depicted on the topo. Just keep moving right up short problems to the summit. If you get too far left on pitches 9 and 10 and thus end up below the left (southeast) head wall, simply make a fun (but exposed) traverse right on great rock to access the much more reasonable head wall towards the northeast side.
The approach involves the 4000’+/- gain from Whitney Portal to Iceberg Lake or make your own bivy at the base of Keeler Needle. The bivy at the base of Keeler Needle is not that attractive. In July of 2014, running water was difficult to get and full of glacier silt. Level bivy spots are also few and far between at the base. I had already been climbing routes on Mount Russell so did the less than 30 minute approach from Iceberg Lake, mostly downhill. The route starts on a ledge atop the snow/ice glacier patch at the base.
Route DescriptionHarding Route, 2000’+, 5.10c
Approach Pitch- 130’- 5.4/ Somewhere it is referenced that the crux of the route could be getting to the top of the glacier patch without having to haul crampons or axes. An easy alternative is to climb the corner(s) up the middle of the face to reach the starting ledge. This effort requires minimal snow/ice travel. It is dirty as hell but easy climbing. Don’t start in the large right facing (and normally wet) corner, rather move left and start on the slabs with intermittent shallow corners. Angle up and left on easy and protectable ground to the ledge above. Move left to below the obvious left facing corner. I would not hesitate to solo this pitch.
1st-2nd Pitches- 230’- 5.10b/ I combined the first two pitches with little to no simu-climbing. The topo calls it 170’ and 150’ to reach an old fixed station. I don’t believe that can be accurate unless it is including part of the approach pitch. In any regard, the start of the 1st pitch and finish on the 2nd pitch involves relatively easy climbing, so it makes sense to simul-climb to save time. Start up the wide crack in the left facing corner through a small overhang and on to fast and easy ground. Head up to the obvious roof above. Pull the roof (5.10b) protected with a C4#4 at the crux. Use chimney technique until you can get hands. It is a short lived but awkward move. Continue up until you reach a decent belay ledge with a fixed station on top of a block on the right.
3rd Pitch- 150’- 5.10b/ Pull through the next roof (5.10b) with double cracks and move right and up on steep 5.8/9 climbing to the base of the first off-width pitch.
4th Pitch- 120’- 5.10c/ Start up the right and blend back left into the off-width. The crux is at the steep bulge above. Some chicken wings and knee jams help you up the steep wide crack, pulling out over the top on fists. Easy ground at the top leads to a comfortable sitting belay. A single C4#4 protects the crux well.
5th Pitch- 250’- 5.5/ Some 5th class but mostly 4th class terrain. Move right and climb easy ground to below steep dirty cracks that are still well below the red dihedral.
6th Pitch- 100’- 5.8/ I did not follow the topo left here via easy ground, rather just climbed straight up short and steep cracks via several sections that led to the right and several fixed iron pieces at the base of the red dihedral at a semi-hanging belay.
7th Pitch- 210’- 5.10a/This red colored right facing corner is one of the top three pitches on the route and the most identifiable feature on Keeler Needle’s east face when looking at it on approach. Jam and stem your way up the steep corner to the base of the off-width/chimney pitch above.
8th Pitch- 200’- 5.10c/The topo calls this the most sustained pitch. Perhaps it is, but no move is more difficult than the short off-width section on pitch 4. Both of these off-width pitches would be 5.10- in the desert. Climb the right wall hand crack and stem back into the corner and chimney/chicken wing and heal toe your way up through the roof. There are several old bolts off to the right, of which I found zero purpose for. A C4#4 protects well right at the bolts. Not to mention you can stem/chimney more through this top section pulling through a short squeeze onto much easier ground. Set up a belay in the chimney higher up on a C4#3.
9th Pitch- 150’- 5.9/This is where most folks probably get off route because there are just too many options. I liked our version and thought it set us up well for a fun traverse on great rock via neat exposure. Climb the hand crack on the right wall and traverse back left and up a curving chimney to a ledge.
10th Pitch- 200’- 5.7/ Avoid following a right facing corner up and right. I went there originally only to find chossy rock above and a bail nut which I used as well to exit this bad corner (I believe this is what the “no” stands for on the topo). Rather, continue straight up the easy chimney and move left to the obvious right facing corner and climb it to just below a large ledge below a massive head wall.
11th Pitch- 100’- 5.9/Traverse straight right until you hit the arête proper. Climb up and pull the arête to the right via face holds on bomber rock. Place a piece up and center between head walls, down climb a step or two and make an exposed step right to reach the ledge below the correct head wall finish.
12th Pitch- 200’- 5.10a/This is a fantastic pitch and ranks right up there with the red dihedral and the subsequent off-width pitch. Climb the hands splitter with a few lay back moves and fist jams through one small bulge/roof and then another (wide). Continue up easy ground to a high point below a short steep wall on the north side of Keeler Needle.
13th Pitch- 200’- 5.7/The topo is way off here. I soloed all this ground on lead, but as others have noted, it is way more than 4th class (as the topo suggests) and it is not straight up as marked on the topo. Straight up would isolate you on a sub peak. Continue moving right taking on a short 5.7 corner up and then walking across a ledge to the next corner. Climb that next short corner to a higher ledge and belay here due to rope drag which would be impossible even if you tried to simul to the summit.
14th Pitch- 230’- 5.8/Pick any one of three chimney/off-widths cracks off this ledge (I chose the left and passed a fixed hex) to the next ledge above. Continue walking right and ascend to the next ledge when given a chance. Keep moving right to the memorial plaque right below the summit. Ascend the short chimney to the left.