Spanish Needle

31 Mar 2001 - by Dana Chaney

My cousin and I climbed Spanish Needle in the far south Sierras on Saturday. On the way there I got to see the northern lights while driving through Bakersfield headed for Highway 178. I have never seen the northern lights before and Bakersfield was not were I had hoped to see them. In addition to a general redness in the northern sky after sundown, there were two vertical shafts of light that hung around for an hour or so, courtesy of the recent notable solar flare.

A few notes about past trip descriptions. Believe it or not, there are two stores in Onyx named Onyx Store. The driving instructions are from the old, original store which, at least at this time of year, is not open until noon. The other Onyx store is about a half mile further up the road, has a gas station, and I was able to get hot coffee there at 7:00 AM.

The turnoff onto Canebreak Road is marked "Chimney Creek" in big letters, and "recreation area" in small letters.

The dirt road up to Lamont Meadow was quite good, washboard in places but no potholes, and easily driven with a Toyota Corolla.

We hiked up the four wheel drive road across Lamont Meadow. My cousin had a four wheel drive vehicle but didn't like the look of the mud in the creek bottom so we elected to hike in from the road. We didn't see another person or vehicle in the area while we were there and it would have been unfortunate to get stuck.

There are two barbed wire gates at the beginning of the four wheel drive road and they each have two large no trespassing signs which look new and have not been reported in prior trips reports. We felt comfortable hiking past these signs but the road does run through private property in the middle of Forest Service land and I would be uncomfortable driving a vehicle past those signs. More to the point, the gates were chained shut with a padlock. I estimate the distance up to the wilderness boundary to be a good two miles on the four wheel drive road so there would be a significant round trip savings by driving in.

We followed the route description up the four wheel drive road to the end as given by Jenkins in Exploring the Southern Sierra: East Side. Where the old four wheel drive road ends, you are supposed to take the south fork of the drainage up to the Pacific Crest Trail. We just stayed in the more obvious main gully bottom and took the fork that heads south-east. It was an easy hike and dumps you out on the PCT almost exactly opposite the saddle at the north-east end of Spanish Needle where you need to drop off the trail to traverse. I did not see an obvious place to turn south in the gully as recommended by Jenkins and his recommended route would actually be longer.

As promised by other trip reports, the scramble across the gullies on the east side of the mountain, the climb up the gullies to the ridge, and the scramble along the ridge to the peak itself were all difficult and tiresome. I think the assumption I made is that the climb is not that hard if the best line is followed. I'm not sure there is a best line and it was a workout any way you do it. I found the brush to be thick and nasty stuff off the west side of the ridge. The best line on the ridge alternated between traversing around the pinnacles on their east side or climbing right over the top.

There were snow patches here and there but, unfortunately, one of them was sitting on top of the Class 3 downsloping ledge at the summit block. I did not like the look of that ledge at all, but the mushy snow drift covering it eliminated it as a source of access to the summit. We went up the Class 4 gully just to the right of the keyhole.

The register demonstrates that only the determined get to the top of this mountain. The last couple of years had only about six groups sign in a year and there were recent years with two groups. The register goes back to 1970. That is the Sierra Club register in the nice ammo box, the Forest Service register in the plastic tube was moot in that we could not unscrew the ends. We were the second climbers of the year. Some guy soloed the mountain in January, bemoaning the lack of snow in the high country.

I was not comfortable down climbing the Class 4 gully so we made our way over to the Class 3 ledge and belayed ourselves down. I had brought 80 feet of seven millimeter backup rope and it turned out to be just the thing to get off the summit block.

We had started late and the sun went down just as we made our way back across the gully traverse and onto the PCT. We had flashlights but did not need them as there was a half moon directly overhead. We dropped off the trail again and hiked in the dark down the hill and through the gully to the start of the old four wheel drive road. It was easy enough to do by moonlight. The weather was warm, the sky was clear, and it was a pleasant night hike out to the cars.

I was frankly surprised that one could find a peak as challenging as Spanish Needle and climb it in March in good weather and without much snow. That's the Southern Sierras in the winter.

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