Castle Rock Spire, Spike Hairdoo
Well, 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, or the local bar, it's easy to play
first ascent hard man. Out here it was different. But I did not hesitate.
"Let's leave 'em fixed. I can't promise anything, but I want to come back
tomorrow." It had been decided. I waited as Bruce rappelled down the line.
We had lucked out as the bottom three feet of line scraped at the snow at the
base. I stared at the blankness above that would be tomorrow's lead one more
time before heading down. The adrenaline was still full throttle.
I babbled incoherently all the way back to our bivy. I have never been in
such a state. I think I was starting to worry Bruce as he pulled the
one large can of beer from his pack. He had snuck it into the gear without
me noticing. I madly grabbed the can as the cold contents cut through the
fear in my throat. The avalanches that had provided entertainment the whole
day continued to rumble down the gulley as dinner was warmed.
"There's going to be a lot of drilling tomorrow to get through that blank
section." I said matter of factly.
"We can always shift on and off til we reach the next crack." This made
me feel a little better.
"Yeah, but what if that crack is like all the rest? We're doomed man." I was
rapidly becoming fatalistic.
I could barely close my eyes as the dark shadow of the spire towered above me
that night. It was the same ritual in the morning as every morning- coffee,
a Cliff Bar, maybe a few Starbursts brittle with cold until the heat of my
mouth softened them. I could feel my numbed hands shaking as I pulled on my
"Well, in all honesty Bruce, do you think we have a chance?" It was all I
"I think we do."
"Well then, I guess we should get going." We made another trip across the
steep snow to the base of the fixed line. With only one set of ascenders
between us, Bruce headed up the line first. At the detached pillar half way
up, he tied in and sent the jumars down the rope where I clipped in and began
the morning commute. As I approached our high point from the day before,
I began to get a familiar feeling. I couldn't quite place it at first,
but then it became clearer. I remebered when I was little, sitting in the back
seat of my parent's Pinto heading for swim practice. I had this same feeling
on "test" day, the day when we had to swim the full length of the pool without
stopping. It wouldn't go away. I had to swim the full length, sink or swim.
I drilled the first rivet from the belay. Then set off on a hook move, another
rivet, another hook. This hook was on a friable ledge. I looked down at
Bruce, my forearms bursting. I was scared again. I had lost my grip; I
was slowly sinking to the bottom of the pool. I quickly drilled a bat hook
and stepped up on to it as I watched the frantic bubbles escape my mouth and
head for the surface. The rock had started to overhang ever so slightly.
I began to drill for a real bolt. Once again, every blow of the hammer
threatened to pitch me off into the void and directly on to Brutus. As the
sun beat down hard on the back of my neck I realized that I had been drilling
the same 1/4" hole for almost 40 minutes. The bit had gone bad and I hadn't
noticed. I fished around the bolt bag and fitted a new bit into the holder.
One whack with the hammer and I realized that the slightly oversized drill
was now stuck in the hole. It was the final straw. I wanted down. But I
was not quite ready to give up. I screamed at the bit as it finally pulled
out of the hole. Instead of a nice bolt, I was once again placing a rivet.
"I'm blown Bruce. You're going to have to take over for a while." The sun
was already arcing it's way across the sky. The top was no closer than
when we started. I drowned in self pity and depression as I listened to Bruce
hammer his way up the blank section of rock.
"So, how do you place the head things again?" I was jolted out of semi-
"What? Haven't you placed a head before?" I shouted back.
"Well, yeah, but that was like 10 years ago."
So I commenced with the standard, place 'em, x 'em, rock 'em thing as Brutus
hammered the blob into submission. "Testing!" The rack was coming close
to his ears as he bounced wildly on the piece. "Looks good. One more
rivet and we'll be at the main crack. I'm sorry, but you're going to have
to lead from here."
I didn't know what to feel. I felt rested from that morning, but the doubt
was still heavy. I wanted to beg Bruce to continue leading. However, I knew
the feeling in his arms from the drilling. Slowly I lowered Bruce back to
the belay and pared down the rack to it's minimum. I carried only the smallest
gear, all of the pins, heads, hooks and a few rivets and bolts. Back in the
driver's seat, it was time for redemption.
As I neared the last rivet, I still could not tell whether the crack above
was just more of the same insidious bottomed seemed. But once again, our
luck had turned. I scraped the shallow entrance of the crack and drove
the first of several tied off pins. Four moves later, I was presented with
the most stunning key hole slot I have ever seen. I quickly grabbed one of
the few nuts we brought along and slid it into a new home. The hungry
crack devoured the nut. No way was this baby coming out.
"YEEEEEHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAAAA!!!" My voice echoed madly about the gulley.
"Welcome to the valley baby!" I was at last having fun. The next 50 feet
of climbing is what I live for. Tied off pins between the smallest of cams.
My mind reveling in the moment. All had ceased save for the climbing. As
I neared the broken ledge above, the cracks once again dissappeared
into a mass of creases and bottomed nothingness.
"Shit Bruce, we're screwed *again*! The crack is nothing above. I'm heading
out left. I think there's something over here." I worked my way gingerly
along the 5.5 traverse. My clunky boots skating over the crisp edges.
"Well, I don't know man. I see the belay above. We'll just see what's up
after that." Over the next several minutes I dispensed with the final
akward aid moves to a beautiful stance in the middle of the face. I could
smell the top; it's rank stench taunting us. The sun was well on it's way
to the end of the day. If the next section was as blank as before, it would
be dark by the time the first holes were drilled.
Bruce began jugging the line as I pulled his free shoes out of the pack.
"Hey man, it looks free climbable... at least for the first part. I can't
see anything around the corner though." It was the most hope I could offer.
I had resigned myself to knowing we would not make the summit. So close,
yet we were an eternity away. Bruce dumped the majority of our gear
with me. If he needed anything else, I would send it up the haul line.
In a rush of sweat and grime, he was off around the corner. Communication
was impossible. I had no idea what was happening on the other side.
Occaisionally, hard tugs on the rope confirmed that Brutus was both alive,
and fighting rope drag. I watched the sun dipping towards the horizon.
Shouts of "Oh Gawd!" would occaisionally find their way to my ears.
"Hey. Hey!" I looked up to see Bruce peering over the headwall 60 feet above
me. "You're not going to believe this!" His voice took on an air I had
not heard before. "You'll have to climb this section again. It'll be too
hard to jug it. Man, is it exposed."
I looked down again at my plastic boots. "Bruce, CAN I climb this pitch?"
"You'll be fine. Remember, you're on a top rope anyway." It didn't offer
much comfort. His head popped back over the edge and the rope moved in
jerks as Brutus forged his way to the top. Out of earshot once again,
we communicated by echoes off the steep walls around us.
"What? I... can't... hear... you..." rang out in staccato voice.
"I'm... not... at... the... top... but... you're... on... belay!" I sent
the pack on ahead of me and worked my way over the opening moves to the
arete. Finally, I knew what Bruce had meant as I peered around the other
side. Below was a straight shot of 1,000 feet of air clear to the gulley
below. The only hope was the dismal collection of chalk marked thin edges
leading further around the corner. I had no idea where they lead. As I started
out, I realized how exposed this position was. Surely, Bruce had no idea what
lay around the corner either. The rest of the pitch was like this. One
weakness to the next flip-flopping from one side of the arete to the other.
Never knowing if the rock was suddenly going to blank out, or if salvation lay
ahead- 5.8 had never seemed so hard, or so "out" there before. I was ecstatic
with glee. Everytime I turned the corner, there was at least a decent ledge
to grab. At last, I was at the base of the last 60 feet of low angled friction
slab leading up to Bruce's smiling head.
"Outstanding! Absolutely one of the finest pitches I've ever followed!!!"
This pitch was fantasy. I was happy to follow it. A pitch
like this should never be jugged. I clawed my way up the last of the slab,
my right hand pinching the razor sharp arete, my feet oozing over the friction.
At the top, across the last section of fourth class terrain, lay the true
summit. I felt the emotion well inside of me. At last, I felt as if we
might make the top. The sun was fading fast as Bruce was put on belay for
the short exposed walk over to the summit. I followed in suit to be greeted
by a scrumptious bagel with cheese on the other side. We pulled the register
from it's cozy home among the summit blocks. Unraveling the paper inside
the names hit me like a sledge: "Steck, Wilson, Salathe', Roper, Beckey,
Frost, Pratt, Herbert..." it read like a who's who book of pioneers. As we
wrote our names underneath the heavy weight of previous parties, still
numbering less than 40, I felt that I had cheated my way to the top of this
"Spike Hairdoo, 5.10 A3, First ascent March 18, 1996 Bruce Bindner & Eric
As the sun set, I waved to the last dying rays. I would pay my
admission yet as we toiled our way down in the dark. Good fortune would
continue to smile on us as our ropes would reach each of the planned rappel
stations. Two and a half full raps later, we were once again back on top
of the snow that we had left a lifetime ago. The adrenaline had returned,
but in a much more pleasant way this time. After reaching the bivy, Brutus
confessed that he had lied. He reached deep into his pack to remove a second
beer smuggled into the backcountry. Once again, the dark outline of the
Spire towered over me that night, but I was safe from it until the next time.
In the morning we would retrace our steps down the gulley as the
avalanches continued, and hack our way through the brushy steep countryside that
is the Sierra on our way home.
"Now you've listened to my story.
Here's the point that I have made.
[Rocks] were born to give you fever,
whether Farehnheit or Centigrade."
(with apologies to Peggy Lee)
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