Excerpted from Jim Thornburg's Stone Mountains: North America's Best Crags. This 320-page tome features the best of Thornburg's work, spanning 35 crags across the North America, from Squamish to the Gunks. For the perfect climber Christmas gift, buy it here.
Mornings at the Needles’ ridge top campground provide inspiration in heavy doses. It’s a psyche fueled by the crystalline sunshine and the scent of the endless pine forest that surrounds you. The feeling intensifies for most of the friendly, hour-long hike (or bike ride) along the remote, wooded ridge to the colorful domes. Nearly there, as you round the steep shoulder of the needle called Magician, you might notice a change in the warm summer breeze: cold drafts waft up, hinting at deep canyons ahead, at a benevolent land changing into something darker, wilder. Inspiration dwindles, and new feelings prevail: Respect? Maybe. Wonder? Probably. Terror? Definitely.
Some say the Needles’ wild green domes are haunted by the spirits of Native Americans, or by something even older. You’ll feel it at the airy notch between the intimidating spires called Sorcerer and Witch. The elements are intense: the metallic odor of skull-crushingly hard, sun-baked granite, the perfume of Ponderosa pine, giant Sequoia, and ancient decay mingle and waft on a tireless wind, full of spirits, some friendly, some not, whispering invitations and warnings, caressing the steep walls, giving voice to the exposure. All but the craziest human spirits realize the Needles is a place to stay well within your limits. And as is often the case in climbing, many Needles climbs were pioneered by people with spirits tending toward the wild side.
But there are offerings less wild, as well. Cracks that eat protection and sunny, wind-sheltered faces and climbs of mellow character and length -- welcoming portals to another world where you move with greater thought and respect.
The Needles granite might be the best in the world for climbing. In plentitude, you find chocolate-colored faces sparingly featured with small, cutter edges, or soaring thin cracks on huge faces glowing with lichen. Between the domes, cavernous chimneys exude frozen air in the heat of summer.
Whichever route you choose, the rock will likely be flawless; solid and painted in enchanting colors. If you climb to the top, a 360-degree panorama affords views of the tips of many Needles, the 5,000-foot-deep Kern River Canyon and the distant, looming peaks of the High Sierra. In the warm afternoon, inky shadows creep across the green and yellow walls below. The low sun reveals new perspective on the stone: ancient dikes now look like teeth and give shape to ghoulish faces. The names of the domes make more sense in the darkening light: a witch, a sorcerer, a demon, a warlock, a charlatan.