Castle Rock Spire, Spike HairdooWell, Brutus posted his account of this first ascent a little while
back. Here's my stab at it. I think it's a different enough of a
perspective that it's worth a read.
Hope someone enjoys it, I know I did.
by: Eric D. Coomer
"...fever, in the morning, fever all through the night- you give me fever."
There we were; gear strewn all about Bruce Bindner's apartment. The pigs were
being fattened up for our winter attempt of Skull Queen in Yosemite Valley.
"So, what do you think about Castle Rock Spire the last weekend of winter?"
Bruce's voice mixed with the pounding sheets of rain outside.
"How about we take it one climb at a time?" But the plan had already been set
Three days later as we drove back from the valley high on success, the Castle
Rock Spire plan came up again. "It's an amazing spire," Bruce explained.
"I'm pretty sure the regular route hasn't been done in winter. The whole
thing has probably seen less than 40 ascents since it was first climbed
in 1950." This should have been my first warning. But the adrenaline was
pumping. The plan was solid. We would go. I still wasn't even sure where
the hell this climb was. It didn't matter, the mad man clearly had
The weeks wandered by. As the day approached, the plans suddenly
changed. After another night sleezing in the gym sitting at our favorite
apres pump-fest bar, Brutus calmly looked over, "Man, if we're going to hike
*all* the way back there, we might as well do a new route. Whaddya say?" I
sat there motionless; the grip on my Guinness tightening. I had never done
a first ascent before. And certainly not in winter. Hell, this would be
my first real backcountry climb.
"Where is this climb again?"
"Sequoia National Park." The familiar tale of the long and arduous approach
followed. "I have a xerox of a xerox at home. I think there are two good
The following day, the plan was rehashed over email. We tried to track down
any info, or better photos of the route to no avail. The following night,
I arrived at Bruce's to stare at the faded xerox, and to sort our gear.
"I noticed a possible off-width route on the east face above where the regular
route lies. There's also this thing(pointing) on the south arete. I say
we take gear for both routes and see what looks good when we get there."
Bruce's eyes were wild. I was frightened. The packs were huge.
We packed as light as possible. We reduced the amount of aiders, pins, nuts,
food, non-essential items, bolts, rivets. Everything was scrutinized.
Still, the bags weighed in at a hefty 90 lbs a piece. I went home terrorized
and tried to sleep.
Two days later we were on the road. Neither of us had gotten much sleep that
week due to hectic work schedules and last minute planning. Half way through
the trip, I took over the driving as Brutus slumbered in the passenger seat.
At 12:30 a.m. we arrived in the park. The main campground that sat at the foot
of the trail head to the spire was closed forcing us to stay at a campground
farther down the road. It also added another half mile or so to the approach
since the road was blocked off. The clear night air was cold. I hoped that
the minimal clothing we had would be enough for the climb.
All too soon the alarm sounded as Bruce and I oozed out of the truck for
breakfast. I savoured the coffee and Bavarian Cream coffee cake we had
picked up the night before. The day had dawned cold but clear. Slouching
in the truck we drove as close to the trail head as possible. A quick
run down of the packs and they were soon weighing heavy on our shoulders.
The first steps along the paved road were agonizing. I was not looking forward
to the next several hours of approach. We had already planned on at least
a day and a half to walk in. Breakfast beers in hand, we plodded along
gasping for breath.
At the end of the road we took our first sit down as sweat poured off
our brows. From the campground, we scraped along the paradise creek trail
for a short 3/4 of a mile. Then, we picked up the non-existent, long since
abandoned Castle Rocks trail- a true leftover from the Great Society days
of FDR. The first part of the "trail" was a steep loose slog up the rolling
grassy hills occasionally thrashing our way through the burned out cinders of
trees. The hours melded together as we watched the first high cirrus clouds
pass above. Over the ridge to the North West I could sense the stormy cauldron
of the California Valley boiling over.
Eventually we picked up the more obvious parts of the Castle Rocks trail as
the sky started to thicken with storm clouds. Our first views of the
spire showed it to be completely engulfed. Once again, the weather
forcasters had shown great consistency in being wrong. At least the sun was not
burning as hot on our backs. At the many stops along the way, we checked
eachother for the hitch-hiking ticks looking for a free ride, and a free meal.
I was still convinced that we were heading in the wrong direction. The Castle
Rocks trail is perhaps the most convoluted trail I have ever hiked. At any
moment, one can be convinced that you are on the wrong ridge, the wrong mountain
all together as the trail meanders back and forth, countouring the brush heavy
At last we hit the first of three gulches- the last leading directly to the
spire. We had decided to bivy at the base of the last gulley knowing full
well that we would not make it much farther before night fall.
We picked out a nice spot and set to making a fire. All of the wood around
us was soaked. But the master fire man Brutus soon had a roaring blaze.
As the fire crackled, the storm clouds began to dissipate and stars shown
through. Maybe we would luck out after all. My only worry now was the
rest of the hike tomorrow, and the salmon smell on my breath. Maybe it was
still too early for the bears to be active. The last thing I needed was to
have some bear trying to slip me the tongue in the middle of the night.
Once again, the morning came all too quickly. As I wrestled myself from my
bag, I noticed a very intense pain in my upper calf. I thought I may have
pulled something on the hike in, but the pain was far too localized.
"It could be a tick," Bruce offered cheerily. It hurt too bad for that.
But sure enough, as I rolled back my long underwear, I discovered a nasty
little tick buried more than half way in my leg. It took several tries along
with a healthy dose of DEET to get the the tick to release it's grip on my
leg. The day was off to a fabulous start.
We filled the water bottles with fresh melt from the gulley and once again
shouldered the stifling loads. I had swapped my tennis shoes for plastic
double boots and was still wearing my expedition thermal underwear under my
levis as we post-holed our way up the first snow of the trip. From time to
time we had to head into the forest on the west side of the gulley to
bypass steep rocky steps looming above us. Already we had climbed several
sections of fourth class terrain on mixed snow and rock. At the next stop,
the crampons finally came out of the bags and were clipped to our feet.
We were happy to have brought them along. Ahead of us, the gulley steepened
and the heavy avalanche debris provided a more solid path to walk along compared
to the deep wet snow behind us.
As the gulley steepened to 40 degrees, the packs became even more unweildly.
I at least had a 70cm ice ax to help me along. Brutus had brought only his
small hammer with pick attachment for self arrest. We took frequent breaks
along the cold gulley. The hours were passing quickly. The spire was in
view, but like a nightmare, never getting closer.
"Well, we're going to go for the south arete climb. The offwidth is in
the shade all day, and it'll be too cold up there." I was relieved to
hear Bruce say this. I was sort of dreading a long climb up wet cold
chimnies and offwidths. The south arete climb held the promise of thin
aiding, which was the only skill I could offer. Not too mention sun.
"It's a good thing we make such a great team," Bruce offered again. I thought
silently about this statement as I cramponed my way up the smooth avalanche
path. It was true; Bruce is a master free technician, an offwidth guru
with many first ascents in the Sierra backcountry. Me... well, I guess I
was the only one stupid enough to follow the vision of a lunatic. The fear
was starting to swell inside of me.
At last we neared the notch at the southern end of the Spire. Overhead, the
object of our desire soared into the sky for miles- or so it appeared. Bruce
headed up the last section of fourth class snow covered terrain. For the
first time, he dropped his pack and tied into the end of the rope. After 200
feet of climbing, he still had not reached the notch so I had to tie on our
other rope. I watched as the knot soon jammed up against our first piece of
protection. "Rope is fixed!" echoed down from above. The avalanches continued
to calve off of The Fin behind me as I clipped my jumars on the line. I grunted
my way up the chest deep snow as my crampons occasionally sent sparks flying
from the exposed rocks in between. Suddenly, I heard Bruce shout as the snow
poured over my body. Instinctively, I ducked under the overhanging rock above
as the rest of the avalanche rumbled by. As quickly as it had started it was
over. I was still on the rope with my heart in my throat as I continued
up the line. At the top, I got a look at the faint possibilities for a
comfortable bivy in the notch, and the terrifying belay for the fixed line.
We did not have adequate pro for the deep snow. Brutus provided the main
anchor for the line. Of course, he had backed himself up with a frightening
cam stuck behind a loose block. I was happy to untie.
As Bruce headed down the rope to retrieve his pack, I waded up the deep snow
to find a bivy spot. We had shot the whole day in the 2,000' of gulley behind
us. We were no longer on the approach. This had become part of the climb.
A fine alpine objective in itself. I worked my way along the knife edge
ridge up to an outcropping of rock and pine trees. I finally dropped my
pack and began stomping out the platform that would be our home for the next
three nights. It was not the most spacious ledge in the world, but it would
do. By the time I had finished, Bruce had arrived and we both slumped on
our packs under heavy breathing. In front of us, the sun was reflecting
brilliantly off of our intended route.
Good fortune had granted Brutus of Wyde what he most desired. The first
section of the route would start in a dark, cold chimney which lead to a
pinnacle of rock at the base of the smooth granite face which marked the
beginning of my lead. From our view, many small cracks
lead toward the summit. It looked thin, but doable with only a few sections
of completely blank rock. We knew there would be some drilling in those
areas, but were assured by the thin cracks which linked everything together.
The sun soon faded behind the horizon as we split our one freeze dried dinner.
The food may not have been plentifull, but it was hot and warmed our insides.
The avalanches continued to pour down the gulley as a tortured sleep overcame
As the morning arrived, we brewed coffee and hot chocolate and munched our
one Cliff Bar a piece. The pit in my stomach had grown to basketball size.
We still had a hundred yards of steep snow climbing to get us to the base of
the rock which was made even more difficult by the huge racks we carried.
Finally, the moment had come. Bruce had suited up with all of the wide
gear hanging from his harness- two #5 camalots, a #3 big bro, a #4 big bro,
two #4 camalots, a #6 friend, it was mind boggling. I stamped my feet
trying to stay warm hoping for the sun to finally rise above the ridge as
Brutus took off up the intial 5.5 offwidth. As he turned the arete, I
could only sit there and ponder my chilled feet.
"You're going to have to follow this. I don't think you can jug it because
it's too traversing." Now I could ponder not only my cold feet, but the
fact that once again, I would be free climbing in plastic double boots.
I continued to pay the rope out.
At the halfway mark Brutus called down that he was off belay. I shouldered
the day pack which contained all of our small gear, warm clothes and food for
the day. The initial moves felt akward but doable as the first rays of
sun hit my face. I gained the block that sat on the corner of the arete.
As I slid around to the other side I was soon facing the fun part of the
pitch. I followed the rope up the gaping offwidth which lead directly into
the bowels of the chimney. I could not see Bruce or the belay, only the
dark cold shadows of the gaping maw. Brutus was kind enough to haul the pack
up the last 30 feet of chimney to allow me to fit inside.
At the belay I crammed myself in between the cold walls to hand the wide gear
back to Brutus. It was an eery felling being stuck 20 feet inside the chimney.
I stared blankly out at the sun warmed slopes as Bruce plastered himself up the
walls. His grunting continued to float down the chimney long after he was
out of site. All too soon, I knew he would be at the belay. All too soon,
it would be my turn to climb.
"Yeeeehhhhaaa! Off belay!" I scrambled to dismantle the belay and start
the torturous jug up the ever narrowing chimney. We had resorted to the
leader hand hauling the day pack as it would be impossible for me to carry
it myself. Even so, the chimney proved extremely strenuous to jug. As I
cleaned the second big bro, I swung out of the end of the chimney over the
abyss at the start of the crux off-width section. A masterful slice through
the granite leading to the next belay ledge. A perfect sized crack for the
Elvis of all camming devices. Bruce later confessed that he had slid the
#5 camalot along with him for the entire length of the off-width. The sweat
was pouring over my body as I reached Brutus smugly standing at the belay.
At least I no longer had to tow the wide gear. We dumped all of the big pieces
as I strapped on all of the thin aid widgets we had brought. The first
section didn't look too bad. Wish I could have seen what was back around the
corner. I placed my first piece and akwardly set off to the left. For the
first time in my life, I had no map. I alone would chose where this route
would go. I placed the next piece and stood up. The rock was turning blank.
I placed my last solid cam on the pitch. A hook move brought me to the
next puzzle. Then I drove the first pin of the day. It quickly bottomed with
more than 3/4 of it's length hanging out. I stepped up to test as the pin
started to shift. I conned myself into believing it was solid. From there
I got the first good look at the insipient seams we had spied from below.
Not only were they shallow, they were basically non-existent. What appeared
to be cracks were more akin to folds in the rock. Not even a sliver of crack
in the crease, just blank, flaky rock. The pin shifted again. It was slowly
oozing it's way out of the placement. I was scared. This is not what I had
hoped it would be. Bruce continued to remind me of the drill we brought along.
I had so wanted to use it only for belaying. But I was faced with no other
choice as I began hammering in the first rivet.
As the hole neared completion and the blood had swelled my forearms, I
smashed the rivet home. From there, more hooks and a shallow copperhead
brought me to the brink. The hook I was on was tenuous at best. Every
blow of the hammer on the drill threatened to catapault me into space.
As I drove the 1/4" button head, the rock bagan to shatter below. What
else could go wrong? I looked at Bruce with terror in my eyes. He did his
best to calm me. I was teetering on the edge of not coming back. But slowly
I regained myself. The depression started to hit. Two more tied off pins
brought me to a belay stance a mere 40 feet and 3 hours away from the previous
belay. It was all I could do to sink the two belay bolts.
As Bruce arrived, he knew what I was thinking. The day had dwindled into the
beginning of dusk as we threaded the bolts for a rappell back to the ground.
"I'm pretty sure we can reach the notch on one 200' line. The big question
is, do we leave it fixed, or pull it and go home?" Bruce's words hit me
hard. In the soft confines of home,