North Face - Adventure Climbing!
From Crawford, you can see the volcanic plug of Needle Rock (think Lizard Head) sticking up out of the ground with its almost 700’ of prominence. When you get closer to it driving east, it dominates your view, as your eyes are drawn to its severe and overhanging SW face. This SW face hosts a route listed as the SW Arete, once as 5.11 or 5.12 5 pitches and once as 4 pitches. Regardless, it is an intimidating face, and I’m not sure I’d be up for climbing it, even assuming I could climb 5.11, which I cannot. There is a distinct crack on the left hand side of this route, which I suspect is the main line going up it. To the right of the crack are several hundred large huecos, ascending most of the way up the face. According to the summit register, the first ascent of Needle Rock and the majority of the following ascents went up the “NE Gully” or “Brady Gulch”, which is a steep, bush-choked gully that supposedly goes at 5.2R. I suspect it is also filled with dinnerware.
As you drive past Needle Rock, you get an up-close view of the rotten nature of the basalt, and it looks less and less likely that it will go. There is a small TH with a few picnic benches and an informative sign showing the geology of Needle Rock to the east of the plug itself. There is a small single track that switchbacks steeply up the east then northeast and finally north sides of the rock which provides a good view all the way around the peak. We donned our packs and gear and headed up. After about 550’ of gain and .75 miles, we bushwacked from the trail south to the talus and then the ridiculously steep scree/dirt approach up to the base of the rock. This was the first time I’ve actually set my hands on the rock itself, and I was a bit intimidated. A beautiful line up horizontal hexagonal basalt columns exists to your left, but it is impossibly thin for pro (maybe some knife blade pitons?). Then there is a shattered face which looks more akin to dragon scales than rock (not climbable), followed by a left-overhanging soft dihedral, a bulge, and a soft arête before the approach area drops away dramatically towards the west. We didn’t see any lines available past ½ way across this north face, but Aaron thinks there might be a route up the NW arête; if there is, it would put you on top of the incredibly thin ridge (think Eolus’ sidewalk, but shattered loose dinner plates instead of solid, flat rock), which you would have to traverse over to the true summit. No thanks. We decided that the most obvious line (the soft arête) might go, so we roped up on Aaron’s half ropes. Aaron, fresh off some harder trad leads (5.8+) was thankfully willing to lead, and I set up a belay anchor while my dad cleared the area.
The first 30’ or so are easy and mostly solid 5.2R, with highly questionable blocks everywhere. Aaron was able to get a #1 cam in about this point in a downward facing crack. From here, he spied a piton with some white cord on it, and made his way to it, clipping in. He spied a bolt about 8’ above the piton, and made his way up to it, somewhere around a 5.5. From the bolt, he spied another piton another 8ish’ above, and followed it up, clipping into the laterally bent knife blade piton. Thinking he was on the line (since obviously someone had been here before) he kept pushing the route up, following a soft notch on the left hand side of the arête. This was where things began to get spicy. Originally, looking from below, we had discussed traversing left into the soft dihedral at this point and going up a gully from that point. When Aaron saw the piton, he (as I would have, also) figured the route must go up, so up he went. He got into a tight spot, standing on sloping moss covered rocks, not able to get any gear in, and struggling to go any higher. At this point, he was about 10’ above the (bent) piton. My dad and I suggested from below that maybe he should try the traverse, and Aaron slowly downclimbed, always the scariest part of climbing (IMHO). I thought I spied a bolt where the traverse went, and Aaron began coming down and over. My dad stepped around me to get his glasses to see if he could see the bolt, and then “UGH!!!!” I flew forward as Aaron popped off the rock, so quickly and unexpectedly he didn’t have a chance to yell “FALLING”. I only saw him go as I was watching him downclimb, and was taking up rope as he was coming down. This was the first time I’ve arrested a leader fall, and it was Aaron’s first leader fall, all of this taking place on questionable pro on rotten rock. Fortunately, I had a belay anchor, I was managing the rope correctly, the piton held, and when Aaron fell somewhere north of 15’, hitting face first into the rock, scraping his cheek and wobbling a couple of molars, he didn’t hit anything excessively sharp, despite the fact that the vast majority of the basalt fractures incredibly sharply. He also received a few consolation scratches on his elbows and hands for his troubles.
Unnerved and more than a bit scared, my dad and I talked to Aaron, who was remarkably unfazed. He decided that instead of coming down (which is what I probably would have done), he was most assuredly going to get up it now. After collecting his wits about himself, he set off across the traverse (I think the technically hardest part of the climb, 5.7), which ended up being the right line after all, and then the angle relented a bit and the climb eased in difficulty a bit, dropping to the 5.5 range. Unfortunately, as the grade relented, it became shallow enough that it could hold debris. Aaron moved up and as he went for a handhold, the rock, somewhere around 50lbs+, came completely loose in his hands. He grabbed it and pushed it up and out of the way where it was stable enough and safe, but all the loose rock underneath gave way and came down. He gave out a “ROCK!!”, and my dad and I ducked as best we were able to avoid the rockfall. The majority of the debris came down the other arête, but a few small rocks came down around my dad and I. (In case you don’t remember my Dicker’s Peck TR, my dad and I haven’t had the best of luck around rock fall. He took a big one on the shoulders/upper back last June, and another friend of mine took a couple big rocks to the wrist and thigh.) Needless to say, dad jumped way clear as fast as he could. I moved as much as I could while tied into the belay anchor, which wasn’t much.
Past that fun part, Aaron pushed the route to within sight of the summit disaster. He briefly considered going to the summit while on lead, but figured seeing an easy ascent route and a place to build an anchor, decided to stop where he was. It was about a 130’ pitch. He built the anchor, and then I followed up. My dad was tied into the second rope, but wasn’t sure he was going to climb. After I got to the bolt, I was sure he wouldn’t be at all comfortable, and I was worried about communication issues with him from above (I had a hard time communicating with Aaron already, and my dad is a bit hard of hearing). Not wanting more of an epic, dad untied and ducked around the corner to safety. I continued on, unclipping both ropes and removing the gear Aaron had placed. This put me in a bad spot – I had to upclimb to his highest anchor, the bent piton, but my rope was snagged on a large (500lb+), loose sharp rock that was pulling me to my left. So as I went up, the rope I was trying to free was whacking one end of the death boulder 8’ above my head, and my rope was slowly prying the other end loose. I about crapped my pants. I couldn’t reach high enough to push the boulder away from me if it came loose, Aaron couldn’t hear me, and now I had to weight the rope because I had climbed past my holds and was in the area of Aaron’s fall. Great! I was concerned that when I weighted the rope to get to the traverse, it would finish prying off the death boulder and it would be daggers for me. Freaked out, I slowly weighted the rope and completed the traverse as quickly as I could, getting into the easier, albeit still terrifyingly loose garbage rock around the left corner. I continued up, and was grateful to see Aaron at the belay. Happily, he had constructed a bomber (as it could be on this rock) anchor, and I stayed on belay while I scoped out another bolt below us that still had a bunch of webbing on it, trying to determine if it was our rap station or the end of a route. We never really figured out which it was, because while I was spotting that, Aaron spotted our savior – a double bolted bomber rap anchor, one of the best I’ve ever seen, even if the angle of the chains was a little greater than perfect.
I unroped, scrambled east and down to the saddle with the NE “pinnacle”, and then back up and SW around 70’ vertically to the summit “block”. I was surprised to see a register, and took photos of all the references inside, and will fill in more detail later. I scampered over to the SW point (20’ away), and looked down as close as I dared over the shattered summit block down the huge overhanging south face. Scary. I went back to the summit, and was grateful I didn’t have to climb the NE pinnacle – more giant, fractured garbage awaited there, although someone had done it, because a cairn sits on top. I waited for Aaron while he broke down the anchor and wound ropes, and then he made his way up for our photos. We enjoyed our aerie rest for a few minutes, and then I scrambled down to pick up the ropes and rig our rappel. Aaron followed shortly, and we expressed our gratitude to whomever had set the rap station. We threw the ropes down and I was grateful to see my dad below me, safe and awaiting our descent. I rigged a prusik, checked my knots again, and rapped down the dragon’s back to meet up with my dad. Fortunately, no blocks came loose. Aaron followed shortly, and we pulled the ropes uneventfully. When measured against rope length, the rappel is about 110’, so you would need a 70M rope for a single rope rappel, or a 60M rope might stretch enough when weighted to reach the ground, although you’d better hold on when you release your rappel and don’t whip your rope back up the face. We celebrated at the bottom, grateful to be safe and (mostly) sound, and took off our climbing gear, flaked the ropes, packed up, and hiked out. I’m not sure I’ll ever do Needle Rock again, but I can’t count it out. I still want to get my dad up it, just maybe not that route (North face). That was one big little checkmark on my list.