All things wild and granitic, in one 300-foot rock climb
Every story you've heard about the Needles (California) is true: the place does feel haunted, and the climbing is that good. Towering cones of granite claim the horizon of this wonderland, perched at 8,000 feet in the Sierras near the edge of the Kern River Wilderness. You earn your summits here, given the Needles’ fluctuating temperatures, howling winds, and constant exposure.
Although you might not notice it at first, one of the Needles’ better domes is the Wizard, a narrow, 300-foot formation just downhill from its better-known sibling, the Sorcerer. Beneath the Wizard’s distinctive, cone-shaped “hat” (sometimes home to peregrine falcons), a perfect swath of yellow lichen streaks the west face. Yellow Brick Road ascends this via varied, quintessential Needles climbing face, offwidth, thin (splitter) crack, and roof all in two (or three) pitches.
Do the up-down, up-down-again trot to the formations, drop down the gully between the Djin and the Charlatan needles, and then cut across slabs to the route’s base. Begin climbing at a small, twisted pine 15 feet left of the Yellow Brick Road crack itself, traversing into the fissure via flakes and edges. The first pitch typically ends where the crack widens, but if you have the juice, link on through the offwidth for a 200-foot monster pitch. Legend has it a member of the second-ascent party, while following, lodged his knee irretrievably in the wide crack. His partner rappelled to earth and ran to the nearby fire lookout, where he begged the tower attendant for a squeeze bottle of salad oil. He soon returned to orchestrate a saucy rescue, and the bottle remains wedged in the offwidth to this day.
To begin the final pitch, belay from the ledge splitting the west face, heading into a right-facing corner. Thin gear leads to large horizontals below the “hat,” surmounted via a few strenuous moves through the bulging rim. The views of the Kern River Valley from here are epic.
To descend, rap (north) 50 feet to chain anchors, and then make a 165-foot rappel to the ground. Find yourself on the route at dusk, and you might just witness the vibrantly lichened Wizard glowing in Technicolor around you a haunting glimpse of the wild and windswept Needles at their finest.
Five More Classic Routes at the Needles, California
By Majka Burhardt / majkaburhardt.com
Airy Interlude (5.10b) This is perhaps the most obvious crack in the Needles: a brilliant horizontal on the west face on The Witch, the formation opposite the Sorcerer in the main gulley. 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 to join airy on the last pitch. Gear to three inches, massive pin is the first belay, ledge for second belay, small gear for third belay, rap anchor fourth.
Thin Ice (5.10b) The east face of the Sorcerer is home of the a dense array of Needles classics. Start with Thin Ice, a three pitch finger and hand crack splitting the face in the middle. The northern reaches of the face go into the shade soon, so layer up if cold is a possibility and you want to feel your fingers. Standard rack to a #4, doubles .2-,75. A rappel descent is possible down the face, or the standard Sorcerer descent route. After finishing the descent route off the Sorcerer, you'll arrive at the bottom of Spooky, which makes for a great end-of-the-day link-up.
Atlantis (5.11c) Step it up post Thin Ice to Atlantis. The 5.10c starting pitch combines laybacking, flake pulling, and stemming to warm you up for the off the belay crux (the second or third pitch, depending on how you do it). Mirco cams and an attentive belayer keep you safe as you power through shallow liebacks and highsteps into a dreamy handcrack above.
Spooky (5.9) Don’t be fooled by the name, this 5.9 is the Needles exemplified. Tucked into the east face of the Charlatan Needle, this three-pitch face and crack climb winds its way to yet another dome summit. Read the Classic Climb description by Jim Thornburg HERE
Also, check out Michael Reardon's Five More Classics at the Needles
The BetaGuidebooks: The out-of-print Southern Sierra Rock Climbing: Needles (1992), by Sally Moser, Greg Vernon, and Patrick Paul. More easily, find a mini-guide at monsteroffwidth.com (Cummins and Cooper).Equipment Shop: Mountain River Adventures (Kernville): (800) 861-6553, mtnriver.comSeason: May through OctoberRack: Thin nuts, cams to four inches (optional to five); tagline or double ropes
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