Needham peak has been denied to Bob twice in the past, by circumstances not entirely in his control. And Needham is not a difficult peak. Bob was not amused. So on the portentous Sat'day morning of 12th May, 8 fearless mountaineers, Bob Suzuki, Arun Mahajan, Alex Sapozhnikov, Jeffrey West, Christopher Franchuk, Noriko Sekikawa, Robert Yang and Amit Bedajna assembled at the Sawtooth Pass trailhead at Mineral King, dour determination writ large on their faces. There was a mission at hand. A peak had to be tamed. The mood was somber. The group was raring to go.
We started at 11am. Robert Yang suddenly developed wings and seemed to effortlessly fly up the trail. The rest followed at a whopping pace of one mile per hour, which probably left Bob a little doubtful of the group's abilities, so much so that at the Crystal Lake campsite, where we arrived 5 hours later, he delivered a small lecture on the necessity of maintaining a quicker pace next morning (-:) The hike in was however pleasant. Distance covered was about 5 miles, with 3100ft elevation gain. Temperature was in the high seventies, and remained that way till we hit the sleeping bag. Total lack of winds resulted in a curtain of haze and smog hanging over the valley. The ranger had mentioned that we would the first people to be camping at Crystal Lake this season, at least legally. We found some nice spots between the Crystal lake and an unnamed lake at the base of the Mineral Peak, which, some of us fancied we had a little more energy left to climb that afternoon.
Sunday morning saw everyone ready by 6:30am. We gained the low point on the ridge between Crystal and Amphitheatre lakes by traveling east over nice slabs, scree and snow patches. The top of the ridge required one class 3 move. The east side was steep; however a succession of ledges provided class 2 descent opportunities. We traversed to the left, crossed a small low angled snowfield (crampons were not really necessary, although some of us used them for safety). I found it surprising that snow should be so soft that early in the morning, all of us were prepared for worse conditions. Upon reaching the meadow north of the Amphitheater Lake (10992 ft), we took a small break and stashed extra gear like ice-axe and crampons that wouldn't be necessary for the rest of the hike.
The south slope of Needham looked too full of scree, bearing slightly to the west provided opportunity to hop over boulders, interspersed by sections of scree. Although it was mostly class 2, we could choose our pleasure among several easy to moderate class 3 variations thrown in for good measure. We gained the saddle west of the peak and followed the ridgeline to the summit. The summit block required a few exposed class 3 moves and wasn't too difficult to locate. We reached there at 9:30am. The pinnacle was an exposed piece of rock. Some of us were quite content just "touching" the top, while the more enterprising ones climbed on the top of that block and posed for summit shots. Ours was the first entry in the summit register for 2004!
And it was there at the summit that for the first time the usual stoic-faced Bob burst into a smile. It was a beautiful moment.
It took us three hours to get to the summit from camp. An hour at the summit, and we reluctantly decided to return, following the same route back. A few class 3 downclimbing opportunities provided entertainment when we were cliffed out on our traverse of the Amphitheatre lake on the east face of the ridge separating it from Crystal lake. We had reached a point too high, and had to downclimb to the snowfield. We crossed it and four class 3 moves later we were at the notch. By the time we reached camp it was 1:30pm. The marmots had just finished a sumptuous lunch where Chris' hiking pole straps were served for appetizer followed by a main course of Robert's backpack straps. We packed out at 2:00pm. Robert fired up his nitrous cylinders and bang, he was gone. I met him at the trailhead at 6:00pm.
This is my first peak climb with the PCS. For the past one year my friend Heyning and I have heavily relied on climber.org trip reports written by PCS climbers for our summit attempts. So probably it was an eventuality that I'll join PCS for a chance to climb with those very people. I do have a lot of good things to say about the group I hiked with, especially about leadership qualities, mountaineering skills and strength of Bob and Arun. I appreciated their patience with the novice climbers (Bob and Arun would be there at every hard class 3 move to spot climbers), and their abilities to keep the group together for the whole 2 day adventure. So far I have climbed most peaks as dayhikes. My friends believe that dayhikes, contrary to popular opinion, is less strenuous than a multi-day backpacking climb. After this trip, I felt dayhiking probably would have indeed been a less straining option for this peak. However, I loved the fact that I did the summit hike on a fresh day, which definitely gave me an opportunity to enjoy the summit more. I look forward to doing more outings with the PCS.