by Eric D. Coomer

Spike Hairdoo, Castle Rock Spire (VI, 5.10, A3)
Sequoia National Park, CA
March, 1996


"...fever, in the morning, fever all through the night ­p; you give me fever."

There we were; gear strewn all about Bruce Bindner's apartment. The pigs were being fattened up for our winter attempt of Skull Queen in Yosemite Valley.

"So, what do you think about Castle Rock Spire the last weekend of winter?" Bruce's voice mixed with the pounding sheets of rain outside.

"How about we take it one climb at a time?" But the plan had already been set in motion.

Three days later as we drove back from the valley high on success, the Castle Rock Spire plan came up again. "It's an amazing spire," Bruce explained. "I'm pretty sure the regular route hasn't been done in winter. The whole thing has probably seen less than 40 ascents since it was first climbed in 1950." This should have been my first warning. But the adrenaline was pumping. The plan was solid. We would go. I still wasn't even sure where the hell this climb was. It didn't matter, the mad man clearly had a vision.

The weeks wandered by. As the day approached, the plans suddenly changed. After another night sleezing in the gym sitting at our favorite apres pump-fest bar, Brutus calmly looked over, "Man, if we're going to hike *all* the way back there, we might as well do a new route. Whaddya say?" I sat there motionless; the grip on my Guinness tightening. I had never done a first ascent before. And certainly not in winter. Hell, this would be my first real backcountry climb.

"Where is this climb again?"

"Sequoia National Park." The familiar tale of the long and arduous approach followed. "I have a xerox of a xerox at home. I think there are two good lines possible."

The following day, the plan was rehashed over email. We tried to track down any info, or better photos of the route to no avail. The following night, I arrived at Bruce's to stare at the faded xerox, and to sort our gear.

"I noticed a possible off-width route on the east face above where the regular route lies. There's also this thing (pointing) on the south arete. I say we take gear for both routes and see what looks good when we get there." Bruce's eyes were wild. I was frightened. The packs were huge.

We packed as light as possible. We reduced the amount of aiders, pins, nuts, food, non-essential items, bolts, rivets. Everything was scrutinized. Still, the bags weighed in at a hefty 90 lbs a piece. I went home terrorized and tried to sleep.

Two days later we were on the road. Neither of us had gotten much sleep that week due to hectic work schedules and last minute planning. Half way through the trip, I took over the driving as Brutus slumbered in the passenger seat. At 12:30 a.m. we arrived in the park. The main campground that sat at the foot of the trail head to the spire was closed forcing us to stay at a campground farther down the road. It also added another half mile or so to the approach since the road was blocked off. The clear night air was cold. I hoped that the minimal clothing we had would be enough for the climb.

All too soon the alarm sounded as Bruce and I oozed out of the truck for breakfast. I savored the coffee and Bavarian Cream coffee cake we had picked up the night before. The day had dawned cold but clear. Slouching in the truck we drove as close to the trail head as possible. A quick run down of the packs and they were soon weighing heavy on our shoulders. The first steps along the paved road were agonizing. I was not looking forward to the next several hours of approach. We had already planned on at least a day and a half to walk in. Breakfast beers in hand, we plodded along gasping for breath.

At the end of the road we took our first sit down as sweat poured off our brows. From the campground, we scraped along the paradise creek trail for a short 3/4 of a mile. Then, we picked up the non-existent, long since abandoned Castle Rocks trail- a true leftover from the Great Society days of FDR. The first part of the "trail" was a steep loose slog up the rolling grassy hills occasionally thrashing our way through the burned out cinders of trees. The hours melded together as we watched the first high cirrus clouds pass above. Over the ridge to the North West I could sense the stormy cauldron of the California Valley boiling over.

Eventually we picked up the more obvious parts of the Castle Rocks trail as the sky started to thicken with storm clouds. Our first views of the spire showed it to be completely engulfed. Once again, the weather forecasters had shown great consistency in being wrong. At least the sun was not burning as hot on our backs. At the many stops along the way, we checked each other for the hitch-hiking ticks looking for a free ride, and a free meal. I was still convinced that we were heading in the wrong direction. The Castle Rocks trail is perhaps the most convoluted trail I have ever hiked. At any moment, one can be convinced that you are on the wrong ridge, the wrong mountain all together as the trail meanders back and forth, contouring the brush heavy country side.

At last we hit the first of three gulches- the last leading directly to the spire. We had decided to bivy at the base of the last gully knowing full well that we would not make it much farther before night fall. We picked out a nice spot and set to making a fire. All of the wood around us was soaked. But the master fire man Brutus soon had a roaring blaze. As the fire crackled, the storm clouds began to dissipate and stars shown through. Maybe we would luck out after all. My only worry now was the rest of the hike tomorrow, and the salmon smell on my breath. Maybe it was still too early for the bears to be active. The last thing I needed was to have some bear trying to slip me the tongue in the middle of the night.

Once again, the morning came all too quickly. As I wrestled myself from my bag, I noticed a very intense pain in my upper calf. I thought I may have pulled something on the hike in, but the pain was far too localized.

"It could be a tick," Bruce offered cheerily. It hurt too bad for that. But sure enough, as I rolled back my long underwear, I discovered a nasty little tick buried more than half way in my leg. It took several tries along with a healthy dose of DEET to get the the tick to release it's grip on my leg. The day was off to a fabulous start.

We filled the water bottles with fresh melt from the gully and once again shouldered the stifling loads. I had swapped my tennis shoes for plastic double boots and was still wearing my expedition thermal underwear under my levis as we post-holed our way up the first snow of the trip. From time to time we had to head into the forest on the west side of the gully to bypass steep rocky steps looming above us. Already we had climbed several sections of fourth class terrain on mixed snow and rock. At the next stop, the crampons finally came out of the bags and were clipped to our feet. We were happy to have brought them along. Ahead of us, the gully steepened and the heavy avalanche debris provided a more solid path to walk along compared to the deep wet snow behind us.

As the gully steepened to 40 degrees, the packs became even more unwieldly. I at least had a 70cm ice ax to help me along. Brutus had brought only his small hammer with pick attachment for self arrest. We took frequent breaks along the cold gully. The hours were passing quickly. The spire was in view, but like a nightmare, never getting closer.

"Well, we're going to go for the south arete climb. The offwidth is in the shade all day, and it'll be too cold up there." I was relieved to hear Bruce say this. I was sort of dreading a long climb up wet cold chimneys and offwidths. The south arete climb held the promise of thin aiding, which was the only skill I could offer. Not too mention sun.

"It's a good thing we make such a great team," Bruce offered again. I thought silently about this statement as I cramponed my way up the smooth avalanche path. It was true; Bruce is a master free technician, an offwidth guru with many first ascents in the Sierra backcountry. Me... well, I guess I was the only one stupid enough to follow the vision of a lunatic. The fear was starting to swell inside of me.

At last we neared the notch at the southern end of the Spire. Overhead, the object of our desire soared into the sky for miles- or so it appeared. Bruce headed up the last section of fourth class snow covered terrain. For the first time, he dropped his pack and tied into the end of the rope. After 200 feet of climbing, he still had not reached the notch so I had to tie on our other rope. I watched as the knot soon jammed up against our first piece of protection. "Rope is fixed!" echoed down from above. The avalanches continued to calve off of The Fin behind me as I clipped my jumars on the line. I grunted my way up the chest deep snow as my crampons occasionally sent sparks flying from the exposed rocks in between. Suddenly, I heard Bruce shout as the snow poured over my body. Instinctively, I ducked under the overhanging rock above as the rest of the avalanche rumbled by. As quickly as it had started it was over. I was still on the rope with my heart in my throat as I continued up the line. At the top, I got a look at the faint possibilities for a comfortable bivy in the notch, and the terrifying belay for the fixed line. We did not have adequate pro for the deep snow. Brutus provided the main anchor for the line. Of course, he had backed himself up with a frightening cam stuck behind a loose block. I was happy to untie.

As Bruce headed down the rope to retrieve his pack, I waded up the deep snow to find a bivy spot. We had shot the whole day in the 2,000' of gully behind us. We were no longer on the approach. This had become part of the climb. A fine alpine objective in itself. I worked my way along the knife edge ridge up to an outcropping of rock and pine trees. I finally dropped my pack and began stomping out the platform that would be our home for the next three nights. It was not the most spacious ledge in the world, but it would do. By the time I had finished, Bruce had arrived and we both slumped on our packs under heavy breathing. In front of us, the sun was reflecting brilliantly off of our intended route.

Good fortune had granted Brutus of Wyde what he most desired. The first section of the route would start in a dark, cold chimney which lead to a pinnacle of rock at the base of the smooth granite face which marked the beginning of my lead. From our view, many small cracks lead toward the summit. It looked thin, but doable with only a few sections of completely blank rock. We knew there would be some drilling in those areas, but were assured by the thin cracks which linked everything together.

The sun soon faded behind the horizon as we split our one freeze dried dinner. The food may not have been plentiful, but it was hot and warmed our insides. The avalanches continued to pour down the gully as a tortured sleep overcame us.

As the morning arrived, we brewed coffee and hot chocolate and munched our one Cliff Bar a piece. The pit in my stomach had grown to basketball size. We still had a hundred yards of steep snow climbing to get us to the base of the rock which was made even more difficult by the huge racks we carried.

Finally, the moment had come. Bruce had suited up with all of the wide gear hanging from his harness- two #5 camalots, a #3 big bro, a #4 big bro, two #4 camalots, a #6 friend, it was mind boggling. I stamped my feet trying to stay warm hoping for the sun to finally rise above the ridge as Brutus took off up the initial 5.5 offwidth. As he turned the arete, I could only sit there and ponder my chilled feet.

"You're going to have to follow this. I don't think you can jug it because it's too traversing." Now I could ponder not only my cold feet, but the fact that once again, I would be free climbing in plastic double boots. I continued to pay the rope out.

At the halfway mark Brutus called down that he was off belay. I shouldered the day pack which contained all of our small gear, warm clothes and food for the day. The initial moves felt awkward but doable as the first rays of sun hit my face. I gained the block that sat on the corner of the arete. As I slid around to the other side I was soon facing the fun part of the pitch. I followed the rope up the gaping offwidth which lead directly into the bowels of the chimney. I could not see Bruce or the belay, only the dark cold shadows of the gaping maw. Brutus was kind enough to haul the pack up the last 30 feet of chimney to allow me to fit inside.

At the belay I crammed myself in between the cold walls to hand the wide gear back to Brutus. It was an eery felling being stuck 20 feet inside the chimney. I stared blankly out at the sun warmed slopes as Bruce plastered himself up the walls. His grunting continued to float down the chimney long after he was out of site. All too soon, I knew he would be at the belay. All too soon, it would be my turn to climb.

"Yeeeehhhhaaa! Off belay!" I scrambled to dismantle the belay and start the torturous jug up the ever narrowing chimney. We had resorted to the leader hand hauling the day pack as it would be impossible for me to carry it myself. Even so, the chimney proved extremely strenuous to jug. As I cleaned the second big bro, I swung out of the end of the chimney over the abyss at the start of the crux off-width section. A masterful slice through the granite leading to the next belay ledge. A perfect sized crack for the Elvis of all camming devices. Bruce later confessed that he had slid the #5 camalot along with him for the entire length of the off-width. The sweat was pouring over my body as I reached Brutus smugly standing at the belay.

"Your lead."

At least I no longer had to tow the wide gear. We dumped all of the big pieces as I strapped on all of the thin aid widgets we had brought. The first section didn't look too bad. Wish I could have seen what was back around the corner. I placed my first piece and awkwardly set off to the left. For the first time in my life, I had no map. I alone would chose where this route would go. I placed the next piece and stood up. The rock was turning blank. I placed my last solid cam on the pitch. A hook move brought me to the next puzzle. Then I drove the first pin of the day. It quickly bottomed with more than 3/4 of it's length hanging out. I stepped up to test as the pin started to shift. I conned myself into believing it was solid. From there I got the first good look at the insipient seams we had spied from below. Not only were they shallow, they were basically non-existent. What appeared to be cracks were more akin to folds in the rock. Not even a sliver of crack in the crease, just blank, flaky rock. The pin shifted again. It was slowly oozing it's way out of the placement. I was scared. This is not what I had hoped it would be. Bruce continued to remind me of the drill we brought along. I had so wanted to use it only for belaying. But I was faced with no other choice as I began hammering in the first rivet.

As the hole neared completion and the blood had swelled my forearms, I smashed the rivet home. From there, more hooks and a shallow copperhead brought me to the brink. The hook I was on was tenuous at best. Every blow of the hammer on the drill threatened to catapault me into space. As I drove the 1/4" button head, the rock began to shatter below. What else could go wrong? I looked at Bruce with terror in my eyes. He did his best to calm me. I was teetering on the edge of not coming back. But slowly I regained myself. The depression started to hit. Two more tied off pins brought me to a belay stance a mere 40 feet and 3 hours away from the previous belay. It was all I could do to sink the two belay bolts.

As Bruce arrived, he knew what I was thinking. The day had dwindled into the beginning of dusk as we threaded the bolts for a rappel back to the ground. "I'm pretty sure we can reach the notch on one 200' line. The big question is, do we leave it fixed, or pull it and go home?" Bruce's words hit me hard. In the soft confines of home, or the local bar, it's easy to play first ascent hard man. Out here it was different. But I did not hesitate.

"Let's leave 'em fixed. I can't promise anything, but I want to come back tomorrow." It had been decided. I waited as Bruce rappelled down the line. We had lucked out as the bottom three feet of line scraped at the snow at the base. I stared at the blankness above that would be tomorrow's lead one more time before heading down. The adrenaline was still full throttle.

I babbled incoherently all the way back to our bivy. I have never been in such a state. I think I was starting to worry Bruce as he pulled the one large can of beer from his pack. He had snuck it into the gear without me noticing. I madly grabbed the can as the cold contents cut through the fear in my throat. The avalanches that had provided entertainment the whole day continued to rumble down the gully as dinner was warmed.

"There's going to be a lot of drilling tomorrow to get through that blank section." I said matter of factly.

"We can always shift on and off til we reach the next crack." This made me feel a little better.

"Yeah, but what if that crack is like all the rest? We're doomed man." I was rapidly becoming fatalistic.

I could barely close my eyes as the dark shadow of the spire towered above me that night. It was the same ritual in the morning as every morning- coffee, a Cliff Bar, maybe a few Starbursts brittle with cold until the heat of my mouth softened them. I could feel my numbed hands shaking as I pulled on my boots.

"Well, in all honesty Bruce, do you think we have a chance?" It was all I could ask.

"I think we do."

"Well then, I guess we should get going." We made another trip across the steep snow to the base of the fixed line. With only one set of ascenders between us, Bruce headed up the line first. At the detached pillar half way up, he tied in and sent the jumars down the rope where I clipped in and began the morning commute. As I approached our high point from the day before, I began to get a familiar feeling. I couldn't quite place it at first, but then it became clearer. I remembered when I was little, sitting in the back seat of my parent's Pinto heading for swim practice. I had this same feeling on "test" day, the day when we had to swim the full length of the pool without stopping. It wouldn't go away. I had to swim the full length, sink or swim.

I drilled the first rivet from the belay. Then set off on a hook move, another rivet, another hook. This hook was on a friable ledge. I looked down at Bruce, my forearms bursting. I was scared again. I had lost my grip; I was slowly sinking to the bottom of the pool. I quickly drilled a bat hook and stepped up on to it as I watched the frantic bubbles escape my mouth and head for the surface. The rock had started to overhang ever so slightly. I began to drill for a real bolt. Once again, every blow of the hammer threatened to pitch me off into the void and directly on to Brutus. As the sun beat down hard on the back of my neck I realized that I had been drilling the same 1/4" hole for almost 40 minutes. The bit had gone bad and I hadn't noticed. I fished around the bolt bag and fitted a new bit into the holder. One whack with the hammer and I realized that the slightly oversized drill was now stuck in the hole. It was the final straw. I wanted down. But I was not quite ready to give up. I screamed at the bit as it finally pulled out of the hole. Instead of a nice bolt, I was once again placing a rivet.

"I'm blown Bruce. You're going to have to take over for a while." The sun was already arcing it's way across the sky. The top was no closer than when we started. I drowned in self pity and depression as I listened to Bruce hammer his way up the blank section of rock.

"So, how do you place the head things again?" I was jolted out of semi- unconsciousness.

"What? Haven't you placed a head before?" I shouted back.

"Well, yeah, but that was like 10 years ago."

So I commenced with the standard, place 'em, x 'em, rock 'em thing as Brutus hammered the blob into submission. "Testing!" The rack was coming close to his ears as he bounced wildly on the piece. "Looks good. One more rivet and we'll be at the main crack. I'm sorry, but you're going to have to lead from here."

I didn't know what to feel. I felt rested from that morning, but the doubt was still heavy. I wanted to beg Bruce to continue leading. However, I knew the feeling in his arms from the drilling. Slowly I lowered Bruce back to the belay and pared down the rack to it's minimum. I carried only the smallest gear, all of the pins, heads, hooks and a few rivets and bolts. Back in the driver's seat, it was time for redemption.

As I neared the last rivet, I still could not tell whether the crack above was just more of the same insidious bottomed seemed. But once again, our luck had turned. I scraped the shallow entrance of the crack and drove the first of several tied off pins. Four moves later, I was presented with the most stunning key hole slot I have ever seen. I quickly grabbed one of the few nuts we brought along and slid it into a new home. The hungry crack devoured the nut. No way was this baby coming out.

"YEEEEEHHHHHHHAAAAAAAAAAA!!!" My voice echoed madly about the gully. "Welcome to the valley baby!" I was at last having fun. The next 50 feet of climbing is what I live for. Tied off pins between the smallest of cams. My mind reveling in the moment. All had ceased save for the climbing. As I neared the broken ledge above, the cracks once again disappeared into a mass of creases and bottomed nothingness.

"Shit Bruce, we're screwed *again*! The crack is nothing above. I'm heading out left. I think there's something over here." I worked my way gingerly along the 5.5 traverse. My clunky boots skating over the crisp edges. "Well, I don't know man. I see the belay above. We'll just see what's up after that." Over the next several minutes I dispensed with the final awkward aid moves to a beautiful stance in the middle of the face. I could smell the top; it's rank stench taunting us. The sun was well on it's way to the end of the day. If the next section was as blank as before, it would be dark by the time the first holes were drilled.

Bruce began jugging the line as I pulled his free shoes out of the pack. "Hey man, it looks free climbable... at least for the first part. I can't see anything around the corner though." It was the most hope I could offer. I had resigned myself to knowing we would not make the summit. So close, yet we were an eternity away. Bruce dumped the majority of our gear with me. If he needed anything else, I would send it up the haul line. In a rush of sweat and grime, he was off around the corner. Communication was impossible. I had no idea what was happening on the other side. Occasionally, hard tugs on the rope confirmed that Brutus was both alive, and fighting rope drag. I watched the sun dipping towards the horizon. Shouts of "Oh Gawd!" would occasionally find their way to my ears.

"Hey. Hey!" I looked up to see Bruce peering over the headwall 60 feet above me. "You're not going to believe this!" His voice took on an air I had not heard before. "You'll have to climb this section again. It'll be too hard to jug it. Man, is it exposed."

I looked down again at my plastic boots. "Bruce, CAN I climb this pitch?"

"You'll be fine. Remember, you're on a top rope anyway." It didn't offer much comfort. His head popped back over the edge and the rope moved in jerks as Brutus forged his way to the top. Out of earshot once again, we communicated by echoes off the steep walls around us.

"What? I... can't... hear... you..." rang out in staccato voice.

"I'm... not... at... the... top... but... you're... on... belay!" I sent the pack on ahead of me and worked my way over the opening moves to the arete. Finally, I knew what Bruce had meant as I peered around the other side. Below was a straight shot of 1,000 feet of air clear to the gully below. The only hope was the dismal collection of chalk marked thin edges leading further around the corner. I had no idea where they lead.

As I started out, I realized how exposed this position was. Surely, Bruce had no idea what lay around the corner either. The rest of the pitch was like this. One weakness to the next flip-flopping from one side of the arete to the other. Never knowing if the rock was suddenly going to blank out, or if salvation lay ahead- 5.8 had never seemed so hard, or so "out" there before. I was ecstatic with glee. Every time I turned the corner, there was at least a decent ledge to grab. At last, I was at the base of the last 60 feet of low angled friction slab leading up to Bruce's smiling head.

"Outstanding! Absolutely one of the finest pitches I've ever followed!!!" This pitch was fantasy. I was happy to follow it. A pitch like this should never be jugged. I clawed my way up the last of the slab, my right hand pinching the razor sharp arete, my feet oozing over the friction. At the top, across the last section of fourth class terrain, lay the true summit. I felt the emotion well inside of me. At last, I felt as if we might make the top. The sun was fading fast as Bruce was put on belay for the short exposed walk over to the summit. I followed in suit to be greeted by a scrumptious bagel with cheese on the other side. We pulled the register from it's cozy home among the summit blocks. Unraveling the paper inside the names hit me like a sledge: "Steck, Wilson, Salathe', Roper, Beckey, Frost, Pratt, Herbert..." it read like a who's who book of pioneers. As we wrote our names underneath the heavy weight of previous parties, still numbering less than 40, I felt that I had cheated my way to the top of this climb.

"Spike Hairdoo, 5.10 A3, First ascent March 18, 1996 Bruce Bindner & Eric Coomer."

As the sun set, I waved to the last dying rays. I would pay my admission yet as we toiled our way down in the dark. Good fortune would continue to smile on us as our ropes would reach each of the planned rappel stations. Two and a half full raps later, we were once again back on top of the snow that we had left a lifetime ago. The adrenaline had returned, but in a much more pleasant way this time. After reaching the bivy, Brutus confessed that he had lied. He reached deep into his pack to remove a second beer smuggled into the backcountry. Once again, the dark outline of the Spire towered over me that night, but I was safe from it until the next time. In the morning we would retrace our steps down the gully as the avalanches continued, and hack our way through the brushy steep countryside that is the Sierra on our way home.

"Now you've listened to my story.
Here's the point that I have made.
[Rocks] were born to give you fever,
whether Fahrenheit or Centigrade."

(with apologies to Peggy Lee)

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