It’s not the most popular route in the most popular area. It wasn’t put up by the most famous climbers of yesteryear. It’s not the hardest, the gnarliest, or the most splitter. But Spook Book at the Needles in the Kern River Valley of Southern California is—for reasons I find difficult to define—one of the best routes I’ve ever climbed.
On July 9, 1978, Herb Laeger and Bob Kamps walked past the old fire tower to the col above the beautiful lichen-streaked spires of the Needles. Laeger—then 33—was a Needles regular. So he asked Kamps, who was making one of his first visits, what he wanted to climb. So little had been climbed there by 1978 that first ascentionists like Laeger and Kamps were still picking plums. Kamps looked down the gully and on the west face of the Witch saw an elegant left-facing corner splashed with lichen and studded with beautiful patina. “Well,” he said, “let’s do that corner!”
“So we went down the gully and did the corner,” Laeger told me, just shy of 42 years later when we chatted on the phone. No big deal. Just a couple of young(ish) punks going ground-up and hand-drilling on routes that still give solid climbers the heebie-jeebies today.
When I climbed the route in 2015, I sure thought it was a big deal. To start, I just about emptied my bowels getting the first bolt clipped on the blank, insecure slab leading up to the corner on pitch one. You’re 45 feet up, and the pin and nuts well below your feet are marginal at best. I pictured myself ragdolling into the talus, mustered up some 5.12 strength (for the so-called 5.10 moves), clipped, and breathed a sigh of relief.
Of the bolt in question, “It was a little bit dicey to drill,” Laeger recalled breezily. “There’s a little decent stance below the stance that
I used to drill. It took a while. You go up, hit the hammer a dozen times or so, and then you have to step down.” If Laeger’s recollection was cool as a cucumber, it may be because he didn’t actually drill the bolt! It was instead Kamps, as I learned while looking over Kamps’s notes and which Laeger later said was likely the case. (Sadly, Kamps passed away in 2005 from a heart attack, so I was unable to corroborate the details.)
It ended up taking Laeger and Kamps two trips over two weeks to finish the four-pitch route. Laeger remembers that he felt “pretty stoked” when he and Kamps topped out Spook Book because it was “just a beautiful line.” He remembers that the incredible corner, which is deceptively steep, requires 5.12 brains if only 5.10+ brawn, takes small but quality gear, and stretches on luxuriously like the best kind of dream. And he remembers the exposure—how the Needles’ gullies seem to peel away from you, tumbling to the Kern River thousands of feet below.
He also remembers the lichen. “That iridescent green lichen is just a glorious thing,” said Laeger. “When the sun hits it just right, you open your eyes and say, ‘Man, am I lucky to be here.’”
Like I said, I have a hard time putting into words precisely what makes Spook Book so good. Maybe I was just there at the right time, the sun hitting the stone at the perfect angle, looking at the lichen and feeling profoundly lucky to be alive … and to have clipped that bolt.
West face of the Witch, the Needles, California
Herb Laeger and Bob Kamps; July 1978