The Needles of California dish out inspiration in spades. It’s a feeling that intensifies during the hour-long approach atop a remote, wooded ridge. The warm summer breeze quickly gives way to cold drafts that hint at deep canyons ahead, at a benevolent land changing into something darker, wilder.
Then, when you see the towers, new emotions prevail: Respect? Maybe. Wonder? Probably. Apprehension? Definitely. Some say the wild green domes in the Needles are haunted by the spirits of Native Americans ... or by something even older. I like to think the two-pitch Spooky is an offering by these spirits. Rich Smith and Herb Laeger made the line’s first ascent, in 1976. Laeger, still active and cranking in the Needles today, pioneered many of the Southern Sierra’s backcountry climbs. Now, 30 years after its FA, Spooky has solidified its status as the classic 5.9 at one of California’s finest climbing areas.Spooky’s allure begins with its perfect positioning: An easy slab provides elevation and views of the surrounding walls before the hard climbing begins, with a flawless, 5.8+ corner splitter to a spacious belay. The second pitch starts with a challenging section of offwidth (this can be avoided, at stiff 5.10, via a three-bolt arête on the right) that leads into a stunning and exposed face with thin cracks before finishing with unique, airy, granite rib pinching. As you near the summit, a 360-degree panorama opens up on the tips of many of the Needles, the 5,000-foot-deep Kern River Canyon, and the distant, looming peaks of the High Sierra. In the afternoon, inky-black shadows creep across the green and yellow walls below, and the low sun gives new perspective to the stone: Formerly benign dikes morph into teeth sprouting from ghoulish faces. Indeed, the names of the domes and spires make sense in the waning light — a witch, a sorcerer, a demon, a warlock, a charlatan. Welcome to the Needles.
Guidebook The out-of-print The Needles, by Sally Moeser, Greg Vernon, and Patrick Paul.Gear Mountain River Adventures in Kernville has a small selection of essentials; (760) 376-6553.Rack Bring a full set of nuts and TCUs; also, #1 (2), #2 (2), #3 (2), and #5 (1) Camalots.
Five More Classics Near Spooky in the Needles of California.
By Michael Reardon
Stars and Stripes Forever (5.8/5.9) - Located on the west face of The Sorcerer. Just as you are about to get into the notch, drop down the gully on the west side of Charleton. About 100 feet down from the base of Spooky, near a large tree, is the start of this great line. You'll climb along these massive fins/plates for a total of two pitches with an obvious belay stance at a tree — or gear protection near it if you have something less than a 70m rope. Further down the gully are various 5.5 and 5.7 pitches that you'll be rappelling over, all of which are fun, indiscriminate lines. Gear up to 3".
Airy Interlude (5.10b) - obvious horizontal crack on The Witch. When you get to the notch, The Witch is on your left. An obvious horizontal crack is the line you want to get to, but I recommend starting down in the gully to get the full flavor of the route. Need a little 5.8 sandbag pitch before getting to the dessert of what is likely the best ride of the park. Gear to #2, need three 1/2" to really make the traverse pitch safe for the follower. Small gear for third belay. Rap anchors at the top.
Igor Unchained (5.9) - When you walk down the gully to the base of Airy, you'll see an obvious crack that goes straight up four pitches (Airy joins the last pitch), that is Igor. Gear to three inches, massive pin is the first belay, ledge for second belay, small gear for third belay, rap anchor fourth.
Inner Sanctum (5.9) - Seriously, this is one the better routes out there. Ton of exposure, and a helluva crux that you won't fall from, but you'll do some thinking. Walk down the gully until you see a wide crack up on the slab to your right. A bit further and you'll see an obvious crack that goes up to a slight roof, then blanks out a bit, before becoming a fantastic crack to the summit. Gear to 2", bring one #3 for second belay. I'd suggest a couple of small wires...
The Howling (5.9/10a) - Walk past the notch over some blocks and over a dead tree and you can't miss two obvious cracks heading up on your right. First pitch is a perfect hand crack (gear to 3"), second pitch is bolts. Full two 60m rope raps down.
More on Spooky (5.9) - Hike to the top of Charlatan dome (just before the main notch) and rappel down from the rap anchors. Two 60m ropes, or two raps will get you to the base of this two pitch fun ride. First pitch is a bit ofslabby face followed by a perfect, thin hands crack. Second pitch starts on a wide ledge and you can either go right to the exposure and bolts, or follow the obvious off-width of ankle-biting disaster. Above that, head left along the tufas until you reach the rap anchors. Gear up to 2", with a 5" for the off-width.