I grew up fishing and hiking the Kaweah Rivers in the shadow of the Castle Rocks massif and have been eying the Spire as long as I can remember. On a clear day the towering walls were visible from the driveway of the house I grew up in. I didn’t learn to climb until I went to college and as soon as I returned to the Central Valley I began making plans to finally climb Castle Rocks.
People familiar with the area have probably heard of the legendary approach and curse hanging over the spire. Ticks, heat, bush whacking, poison oak, route finding, rattlesnakes, bears, four-thousand feet of elevation gain, no easy climbing route and general misery are some of the things that give Castle Rock Spire the reputation as the “most difficult summit to reach in the Sierra.” There were even stories of broken legs, giardia and diabetic ketoacidosis! Pfffff. I arrogantly figured those people just didn’t know MY mountains like I did. Probably a bunch of bay area or SoCal babies who sweat through their diapers every time the thermometer hits 90!
August of 2012 I was prepared to make the trip. Tom, a climber from the central coast, was in and wanted it perhaps even more than I did. After looking over my maps and pictures from previous hikes I decided to take the southern approach via Mineral King road to avoid the poison oak. A week before our planned climb I hiked out to look for water and stash gear. Seven miles and four and a half hours after leaving the car I had stashed a rope and rack, pumped three gallons of water and was standing on the Fin. Ha! Not so tough after all! I pounded my chest and screamed at the mountains, begging them for a challenge! Well, not exactly, but I was having a good day and pretty proud of my time.
About half a mile into the return hike, as I trudged up the boulder field toward Castle Peak, I felt a sharp pain in my right knee. I paused in the shade to take a breath, thinking it would pass. A couple minutes later, now in the dirt and pine needles, it happened again. Another pause. I took a step and had to weight my trekking pole, another step and I collapsed into the dirt. A few more minutes and the pain grew worse. I had broken nine bones in my life before that day, and each step hurt worse than any one of those injuries. Every step was electric and felt like a hot ice pick was shoved through the back of my knee. Clinching my jaws I fell to the ground again and pulled out my space blanket to wait for search and rescue. While lying in the dirt under a red fir watching clouds go by I noticed that the pain would subside if I didn’t move for a couple minutes. I got up, bit down and made it another 50 steps before I collapsed again. This process repeated for six of the longest miles of my life. Unknown hours later, in the dark with bloody hands, I crumpled into the car, humbled and with a new respect for the people that had successfully climbed Castle Rock Spire. My climbing season ended that day.
Castle Rocks: 1
At the base of the climb I had the usual pre-climb nausea and nerves, but a few moves into leading the first pitch my nerves relaxed, my lanky arms loosened and I remembered why I liked this stuff. Pitch one is actually the start of the regular route and is rated at 5.9+ but felt more like 5.8 at the time. On our last trip it felt harder, maybe because of the backpack. Right then, as I cleared the shadows and climbed into the warm sun, it was just plain fun. Before I knew it I made the clean finger crack traverse left onto a ledge and was ready to belay Tom up.
By the time Tom reached the belay we were in full sun and it was getting warm. The absolutely beautiful splitter crack of pitch two cut into the clean rock above. Tom wanted to free this pitch this time but was a bit worried about the heat. He unloaded the heavy pack onto my shoulders and headed up. Getting established in the crack proved to be the crux, but he still freed the pitch. Well, freed it like a Frenchman, but who’s counting?
I knew I couldn’t free a pitch with a heavy pack if Tom couldn’t lead it clean so I clipped the jumars on and awkwardly ascended. I’m no aid climber and I fumbled through the cleaning process on the overhanging and traversing pitch. I passed by the crack with a tinge of guilt, it was one of the best looking splitters I’ve had the honor of seeing and I jugged right on by.
I reached the large blocky ledge above and was sure that this time we were headed all the way to the top. We were on schedule, it was warm with a slight breeze, and we had everything we could need. We even brought along good attitudes and psych!
It was months of physical therapy and doctor visits before I finally got knee surgery. That was a pretty low point for me. I quit competitive snowboarding because I didn’t want to be crippled by the time I had kids and there I was, sitting in a recovery room with arthritis and a pregnant wife at home. Fortunately, with a brace and the use of walking poles, I was able to recover reasonably quick and was looking towards Castle Rocks yet again.
We planned a trip for May and this time we added an internet wonder boy to our team. It was to be me, Tom and Vitaliy via the legendary lower approach and guided by René Ardesch. I had eaten a big piece of humble pie on my last attempt and René knew the lower approach better than anyone so I was more than happy to learn the way from him.
The week before the trip I got a call from a biologist in Sequoia and he told me that the water was so low this year that I had to start my thesis research that weekend, no later. Crap. I sent out texts to Tom and Vitaliy because I was too ashamed to call and ruin the trip over the phone. When Tom let us know that his shoulder hurt anyway the trip fell apart and we chalked it up as another failure.
A couple weeks later Tom and a friend made a valiant attempt from the Mineral King road approach. Unfortunately it was not meant to be. My directions got them lost (read: Tom doesn’t know what west means :) so they were in trouble right from the start. When they tried to rappel down the fin to access the spire the bolts looked terrible and the rope got stuck so they had to retreat without a victory.
Castle Rocks: 2
Daniel and Tom: 0
I remembered losing my nerve and stoke on this ledge last time, but now I was excited to lead up the next pitch. Tom said he was fine with letting me take the sharp end because it was getting hot and he found a comfortable spot in the shade. The pitch was steep and I resorted to aiding right off the bat. It was slow going because I had never lead any aid, it was overhanging, and one ladder and a daisy chain were the extent of our aid gear.
Place a cam, clip the daisy, clip the rope, move the ladder, unclip daisy, step step step, repeat. The blinding sun straight above mixed with lichen and dirt to fill every pore and crease on my face. About 30 feet into the pitch the sun flared up and slipped out of sight behind our destination another 300 feet above. Ahhh, shade. When it wasn’t overhanging I freed a few moves into territory that was likely untouched by human hands. I knew I didn't deserve to be in a place that that, I'm not of the same caliber as the climbers who pioneered the other Spire routes. At the same time I was grateful for the chance and thoroughly enjoying myself! The exposure was awesome and so was the feeling of exploration and adventure on my personal vertical playground.
I was getting all nostalgic and thinking about the history of the route as I searched out my next placement when I froze in place. Directly above me was a loose block. Loose as in it might fall if I farted too loud and block as in the size of a mattress. It was probably eight feet tall, three feet wide and looked to be at least a foot thick. Oh no, was this it? Were we going home unsatisfied again!? I wanted to trundle it but knew I shouldn’t. There was no place to hide, no way to climb around and I promised my wife and six week old son that I wouldn’t do anything stupid.
“Tom, put the bolt kit on the tag line.”
“Pull it off.”
“It’ll probably just kill both of us, you want to do it?”
“The bolt kit is on!”
I pulled the kit up, stepped high in my aider and placed a bolt as high and to the right as I could (deep enough to remove the hanger and pound the bolt in later). With the bolt in place I tied directly into it and Tom cleared the ledge below. Hanging just off to the side, adrenaline pumping, rope tied out of the way and Tom hiding, I gave the bottom of the block a tug. It shifted an inch.
Another gentle tug and time slowed as tons of rock and debris lowered out into space. I prayed it would stay away from myself and the rope and hoped physics would work with me as I watched the comet hurdle towards the ledge, sucking dust and lichen in a vacuum trail behind it. The climb was so steep that it sailed all the way to the gully below without so much as glancing off the spire. It was the most amazing trundle either one of us had ever seen and I was still alive!
After the thunder subsided and my adrenaline wore off I realized it was time to climb again. I couldn’t. Resting my head against the cool rock I just couldn’t work up the nerve to lead again.
“Tom, I don’t know man, I don’t feel right, I’m kinda freaked out.”
“Can you go like 30 more feet to the start of the chimney?”
Tom jugged up, we sorted our cluster and he took the lead. There was still a bit of debris but he made quick work of it while I hung in the most hanging belay my butt cheeks had ever experienced. It was overhanging and there was no foot ledge so my feet decided take a nap. Before too long I climbed the last 30 feet to the belay and the stoke was back. The climb above looked better than we thought from below and I didn’t have to lead it!
Alright, to say Tom and I were frustrated about not getting to climb the spire because of my thesis would be an understatement. We set another date and were bound and determined to get on the rock this time. While sending emails back and forth to plan the trip Tom suggested an obvious line ascending the east face that he had seen from the fin. I did a bunch of research and found no evidence that it had ever been climbed.
As if climbing the spire wasn’t already hard enough, we decided we would beat the spire on our own terms. Plan ample time? No, we would do the first ever one day car to car ascent of the spire. Take the regular route? No way! We would do a first ascent. Carry two ropes? Not a chance, we would bring one rope and descend the fin on our own route somehow.
On June 15th we left the car at dark o’clock at night from the Paradise Ridge trailhead on Mineral King road. By then we had three approaches between us and stumbled through the night without much trouble, arriving behind the fin in the dark.
We took a nap and finished the approach at first light. Most of the morning was spent bolting a few anchors and rapelling tree to tree down the fin to reach the gully right at the base of the spire. Tom lead the first pitch and set belay at the base of the splitter. It looked good but really hard so to save time and strength Tom aided the second pitch to the big ledge.
Once on the ledge we took off our shoes to stretch the toes and have lunch. Then the sight of a piton put a dagger through our excitement and slayed our motivation. We were tired, thirsty, and now believed that someone had already climbed the route. Tom led a little of the third pitch but the thought of the hike back to the car sent us home with our tails between our legs. 25 hours after leaving the car I threw up in the parking lot and Tom collapsed into the passenger seat of my Forester.
Castle Rocks: 3
Daniel and Tom: 0
At the top of the third pitch we knew that only two pitches lie between us and success. More than just success on this climb, but it would make all of our work up to this point worth it. Our mid-climb doubts faded and our smiles returned as Tom made the fourth class moves off the belay and dove straight into a beautiful chimney. It looked like the kind of chimney that’s actually fun to climb, and it took good gear to boot! He worked his way up, making it look easy but getting closer to the roof that I had been worried about the whole time. He hung now and then but did most of the roof moves free with a complicated looking mixture of crossed feet and liebacks and jams and arm bars and whatnots and whositz and whizzles.
He called down that the rope was fixed and I jugged up. How do I clean a roof traverse? I figured it out, it just took a lot of yelling and complaining and grunting, no problem. At the fourth belay I felt a wonderful sensation; a breeze coming over the top. We were so close I could almost taste it, even through the cotton-mouth metallic taste of dehydration and fear!
After Tom an I returned from our 25 hour suffer fest we vowed to only return with plenty of time and only do the Regular Route instead of the East Face. 36 hours later, after doing research until my eyes bled (much of it on supertopo), we were planning our next assault on the East Face. Here’s what I learned:
1. In 1949, one year before the spire was climbed in 1950 via the Regular Route, Salathé had attempted a route 100 feet left of the Regular Route. The piton, and a bolt ladder beneath it, were 100 feet left of the regular route.
2. The bolt ladder must have been old because it was directly between two perfect crack systems.
3. Salathé was known to use home made hangers with nails just like the ones we saw.
4. Salathé had bailed one and a half pitches up in a dirty gully. The highest piton we found was one and a half pitches off the 4th class ledge next to a dirty gully.
5. The first climbers in the area approached from the Mineral King road and were looking at the steep south arête (now the Spiked Hairdoo route) and the east face as possible ways to the summit. We were on the east face.
Some people thought that Spiked Hairdoo, climbed by the late Bruce Bidner, was possibly the first route attempted by Salathé, but we were convinced that we had located the true original. The idea of completing the historic route and getting a first ascent on Castle Rock Spire was too much to resist, not to mention that we were stubborn and didn’t like bailing halfway up.
So we headed back, up the dusty trail through the familiar smell of chinquapin, pine and manzanita. We wound through the forest, down the gully and back to camp behind Castle Rocks.
We were determined not to fail and excited to follow in the footsteps of the man himself; Inventor of the modern piton, pioneering climber, and legend of Yosemite climbing, John Salathé.
I eagerly took the gear from Tom and prepared for the final pitch of our adventure. We were a mere 60 feet from the summit and it looked easy. I dug my torn up hand into the crack and found purchase through the lichen. The pitch went quickly at 5.6 (Yeah Tom, not 5.5, I have more experience at the grade than you. It was hardcore 5.6 :)
Before I knew it the gray rock I had been face to face with all day vanished, all that was left in it’s place was the late afternoon sun hovering over the San Joaquin Valley! We made it! Such a pointless feat in the grand scheme of things can feel so amazing at the time, and this was no exception. We signed the summit register (thanks Dave Daly) and noticed that we were the third group (including mooch and munge) to sign the register since it was placed in 2010. It was such a special place that so few had visited, the view was outstanding and I felt like I did my 10 year old self proud. I was finally on Castle Rock Spire.
The End. Thanks for reading if you did, sorry it was so long. If you didn't read it I hope you enjoyed the pictures we took with our cheap cameras!