WINTER IN THE ASYLUM
...a story of the first ascent of "Spike Hairdoo"
on Castle Rock Spire
The inmates: Bruce Bindner and Eric Coomer
Bruce begins his story:
Tons of gear threatened to overflow the parking lot at
Hospital Rock in Sequoia National Park, California. We
sat dejected on the asphalt. I sipped a beer and
wondered how it could all fit into the two tiny Dana
Astralplane packs that would be our homes, kitchens,
suitcases, and trash bins for the next five days.
As the mounds of equipment slowly disappeared, the
packs assumed astronomical mass. An incredible amount
of equipment, fuel, food...
Just a minute here. Bruce's "incredible amount of food"
measured out at, to be generous, 500 calories a day
apiece. We barely had enough fuel to melt water to
drink..... As for equipment, Bruce didn't even have an
ice axe for the approach, which turned out to be a crux
of the climb. Nevertheless, our packs weighed in at
about 90 pounds apiece, as we abandoned snowshoes and
ski poles to the back of the truck, hoping they would
not be needed.
The approach to this spire was particularly delightful
this time. A full day brought us to the base of the
ice gully leading up to the spire. We completed this hike
....with most of our shin-skin intact, and only one
tick bite between the two of us. Next morning, out came
the crampons, helmets, ice axe and Bruce's ice
hammer... postholing through avalanche debris, naively
thankful that "the avalanche" had come through before
we got there. After a full day of steep snow climbing
up the shadowed gully we were at a stance below a powder-
infested cliff. Bruce pointed upward. "We go there."
From the stance a long but fairly uneventful pitch of
chest-deep, avalanche-prone snow and steep rock brought
us to our high camp.
Ha! easy for you to say! Long? yeah, like diving off
the Golden Gate Bridge is "going for a dip." And as for
uneventful, YOU weren't hit by an avalanche when you
jugged up the fourth class headwall with a 90-pound
pack. Then I found that the "fixed" line I was jugging
was anchored to Brutus, bracing his feet against a
I was the closest thing I could find to a deadman. And
besides, I was backed up by a #2.5 friend.....
...which was set behind a loose flake held in place by
six inches of snow!
ummmm... can we move on?
Anyway, by the time we got a bivy ledge carved out of
the precipice and finally ferried the last of the gear,
it was dark.
I was completely gripped. There I was on my first
backcountry climb, with a deviate madman who seemed
perfectly at home and happy in a situation which was
already way outside the realm of sanity.
Next morning, we started up the route (if you don't
count the 2,000 foot ice chute and headwall from the
previous day, as a part of the climb.)
"Brutus of Wyde" flew up the first two offwidth
pitches, grunting, squealing and thrashing his way to a
narrow stance. Our arrangement was that he would lead
the Wyde cracks, and I would lead the difficult aid.
Upon reaching the second belay, I realized that I had
been royally suckered. Above was one of the most
terrifying sections of rock I had ever gazed upon. And
no road map. You really need a road map for these
things, to find the right offramp...
Coomer led another forty feet that day, slowed as much
by fear and uncertainty as by the incredibly difficult
thin nailing, hooking, and drilling. When I reached the
hanging belay, I figured that our 200-foot rope should
get us back to the notch with room to spare. The day
was drawing to a close. As I slid down our
line toward the notch, I realized how unique a rappel
this would be. One hundred feet below me, a tower rose
from the main arete, separated by a gap of about 15
feet. Reaching the level of the tower, I pushed off from
the wall, and pendulumed outward into air, across the gap,
to grab the top of this formation.
Straddling its knife-edge, I coiled and cast the
remaining rope another hundred feet down the other side
of the tower, into the notch that we had left 10 hours
We reached the ice in the notch with a whopping three
feet of rope left over.
Another starlit evening. Cramped on our snow-ledge
chopped into a near-vertical slope, we tied to rock
anchors in case the whole locale decided to avalanche
into the darkness. Above, the terrifying south arete of
Castle Rock Spire blotted out the milky way, a knife-
thrust of blackness deeper than the night itself.
"Loose Cannon Coomer" muttered and puttered in a pool
of headlamp, like a mad scientist. He swilled Sapporo
Beer imported from Tokyo, and occasionally erupted into
a fit of maniacal laughter, alternating with dismal
sobbing. Mumbling through mouths-full of dinner, he
burrowed into his bivy sack and babbled about ANYTHING
except tomorrow's commute up fixed lines, into the
The soft whirr of the hanging stove faded into the
rumbling of avalanches, as the fuel bottle froze into
uselessness. I fumbled a matchbook and rewarmed the
butane canister, carving away another chunk of our bivy
ledge and stuffing it into the pot: tomorrow's water
supply. Elvis' "Jailhouse Rock" blared from the radio
as I stood, gazed intently at nothing in particular in
the darkness, did a few demented dance steps at the
edge of the abyss, giggled and sobbed a bit myself, and
settled down for the night, the crashing of icefall and
hissing of snowslides singing us a macabre lullaby.
Sub-freezing pre-dawn: We gulp espresso and choke down
Cliff Bars, loath to leave the warm cocoons and wing
into the day. All too soon, Brutus is again dangling
from bolts at the hanging station atop pitch three,
as I rock on a skyhook 15 feet above and try to drill a
purchase into the blankness. Each blow of the hammer
threatens to recoil me off my skyhook placement and
smash double boots into Brutus' face. He keeps telling
me, "Set a bolt!" Sh*t, I'll be lucky if I can get a
d*mned bat-hook in before I ping, let alone a rivet. A
bolt is out of the question. Sunlight brushes the arete
with soft morning gold as I finally set the bat hook
and, whimpering, begin to quarry the next placement.
A moaning stream of expletives and invectives spews
forth from the Cannon's foaming mouth. This deviation
from his usual crooning incantations reveals that all
is not well. Replacing a drill bit mid-hole, the new
bit is now jammed. An eternity later (still balanced on
the self-same bathook) he finally sets a rivet and
gingerly lowers off, completely wasted, a mindless
zombie husk of his former self.
Bruce's turn. With the solid rivet to work from, he
plays Mr. Spineless and immediately sets a 3/8" sport
bolt. Half a day later he, too, zombies-out above a
string of hook, rivet, copperhead and bolt placements.
But the blank section has been bearded.
As an energetic Eric, fully recharged by a boring belay
session, blasts up the featureless, I find within my
numb soul a spark of renewed hope. Maybe, just
possibly, we have a chance of reaching the summit. Our
last chance. Running low on food, fuel, and bivy ledge,
tomorrow we will have to head out. Out through the
death gully, where we now watch ice blocks the size of
Buicks tumbling headlights-over-taillights, shattering
the walls of the gully with piercing shrapnel. Constant
freight-train avalanches of heavy wet snow roar through
the chute, filling it wall-to-wall with an unstoppable,
rushing white death.
Loose Cannon Coomer is on a roll. Above me, the flip-
side of His Royal Madness sings, cackles, and smashes
pins and copperheads. Completely in his element, he
slithers and squirms up the wall on hooks, tied-off
Lost Arrows and the luck of the criminally insane. The
sun sweeps across the sky. "Off Belay!"
As at last I start jumarring this pitch-from-hell, I am
grimly aware of how far out on a limb we have
confidently pranced. Every pin on this pitch is tied
off. Barely-usable copperheads clean from the crack
with a single, gentle tug.
Another pitch like this one will shut us down. But the
ledge where I anchor the belay has possible free
climbing above, and the lengthening shadow of Castle
Rock Spire across the gully shows lower angle rock near
the summit. With this small encouragement, I call down
to Brutus that I'll dig his free-climbing shoes out of
As I arrive at the belay, my hope fades. Above, blank
overhanging walls bar upward progress. To the left are
discontinuous aid cracks, more of the same time-
gobbling technical flared seams that ate most of our
day. The only other option is a decaying ramp of flakes
leading out to the arete on the right, grinning at me
like broken teeth in a lopsided mouth. Eric must be off
the deep end if he thinks I can climb this. I start the
Once on the arete, prospects are even more grim. A
smooth, near-vertical face drops away into afternoon
shadows, a stomach-wrenching gulf of exposure.
Hopeless. As I turn away, a set of thin edges out on
the face catches my eye. Maybe.
"Watch me. I'm gonna go for it!"
"How does it look?"
(glazed expression) "Bad. Scary."
With these encouraging words, Bruce disappears around
the corner, the rope trickling out in small, tentative
tugs. The sun has plummeted well toward the horizon.
We're doomed. I continue to pay out rope, the sun
continues to drop.
Suddenly Brutus' foolish, grinning face appears 50 feet
directly overhead, above the top of the overhanging,
blank wall. "looks like the next part will go" he says,
"I'm not sure. I think there's a crack. Watch me!"
With that the head disappears again, leaving me alone
in my solitary world hundreds of feet up an unclimbed
route on a spire no one ever visits. How the h*ll am I
supposed to watch him, I muse. He doesn't even exist,
except as a sporadic movement of the rope.
Occasional garbled commands echo off the granite towers
below. I respond appropriately: "WHAT??"
garble, garble. Hmmph. Glad we cleared that up.
Somehow it all fits together. Heel hook here, mantle
there, above big air. Whack in a baby angle while
dangling from fading fingers; the exposure eating away
at my soul; distant roar of avalanches far below
through the gully we must descend; the last grains of
sunlight dribbling through the hourglass of our day.
Above, a crack catapults me forty feet to a huge horn.
Somewhere in here Eric calls "Halfway!"
Climb on. Protection fades. Daylight fades. I call for
slack, hear "what?", call again, yard with both hands
in the middle of 5.8 face, rope in teeth and now its
only 5.4 unprotected slabs up to an unfamiliar, unusual
place where there is no more rock, no more avalanche
chutes, no more climbing above, nothing but the deep
As Eric and I stand at last on the summit, the sun
sinks into the western rim of the world, then vanishes.
The rappels were fairly routine....
....Us forgetting the haul line as I downclimbed to the
first rap station, and Brutus' blind rope-toss in the
darkness hitting me in the face; Bruce telling me what
signals we would use if the ropes dead-ended in the
middle of nowhere; one of our 1/4" anchors at the
hanging changeover spalling out of the rock....
...but backed up by a better, 3/8" bolt! [smile.] It
was what some of my partners fondly refer to, as a
Camp. More Elvis on the radio. As the avalanches blast
down the gully, Brutus says, "We have to go down
(duh. we've done the climb, we're out of food, we have
just enough fuel to heat the last cup of coffee and
brew a teabag we found in the summit register...)
"...Because this is our last beer..."
With that, Bruce pulls one more can of Sapporo out of
Winter in the Asylum. Life is good.