We had been planning this trip for months. Katie and I had mentioned going to the needles earlier in the summer to Gleason, and he seemed interested. It was a good trio because none of us had ever been there before. We tried to find a fourth, mostly in vain. Most of the other people we asked had already been there, and didn’t seem to keen to go back. They generally looked at us with a gleam in their eye that indicated some sweet memory that was just out of reach. They would tell us how great the climbing was, how beautiful the trees were, how cool and improbable the lookout tower was…but they couldn’t quite find the drive to make it back. Rudy came through as our “fourth” at the last minute, and together we converged on the needles campground on a cool september evening.
To say that we’d been planning the trip for months, is probably an overstatement. It would be more realistic to say that we were talking about it all summer, trying to find out information about the routes, the guidebook, and where you can get water in the vicinity. Mostly I found all the available info couldn’t educate my “hands on” mind, so I decided that a trip to the needles shouldn’t need much planning. Just throw a bunch of food and water in the back of the car and go!
As the summer progressed, and our departure became imminent , we learned that the needles had been closed due to a fire. Initially the reports seemed to indicate that the whole place had gone up in smoke and only after the dust settled did we learn that only the lookout tower had burned. However, a few weeks later we learned that the needles were re-opened, so we proceeded with our plan.
After all the talk, we were finally there, amongst the huge trees and expansive views. But the needles were nowhere in sight. We packed our bags with fat racks, ropes, and snacks and set out. After a half-hour of walking, Eric looked back and said: “this is the big moment, from here we can actually see the needles, and we’re about half-way through with the hike. ”
Soon we were in the shangri-la of granite. There were no airplane crashes, only burnt out lookout tower wreckage and massive granite spires. The first day in the needles was a bit confusing for me. The main entry point accesses the gully between the sorcerer and witch and is as far as most climbers go in the needles. It is stacked with classics such as Airy Interlude, Thin Ice, Atlantis, and Spooky. Katie and I started out with the Don Juan Wall. The thin corners and slots proved to have some of the best rock we climbed on the whole trip. Topping out the Sorcerer, I began to grasp the layout of the spires beyond and around the central gully. The warlock, magician, sorcerer’s apprentice and voodoo domes all lay scattered about around us, their shapes all morphed into one giant monolith. It would take a while to really get to know what the needles has to offer.
We spent day after day exploring and climbing. We ticked classics and we tried to make it off the beaten path. As we familiarized ourselves with the guide book and the possibilities it became clear that besides the many classic accessible routes there are many obscure R and X rated routes that are destined to die a lonely death. This, I am learning, is true of many California crags where a mix of climbers with evolving ethical codes developed the routes. I find this legacy of development to be one of the most ironic parts of American climbing history where some of the most outspoken proponents of ground-up climbing switched gears or quit climbing in the 90’s as sport climbing tactics began to take hold. What we are left with is a bunch of routes that were essentially pissed on by their first-ascenionists as if to mark their territory.
Speaking of marked territory, did i mention that there is burnt out wreckage of the needles lookout tower on top of the magician needle? The iconic needles fire lookout was built in the 1930’s. The access road and trail to the needles climbing was built originally to access the fire lookout. This lookout seems to have been the backbone of the whole regions economy. It was the single largest visited area in the whole kern river national forest area. Hikers in all forms teemed to the fire lookout atop the needles. Most importantly they passed the regions few businesses along the way…they purchased gatorade and consumed hamburgers. They gassed up in Porterville. They waited in lines at the base of the stairs. When finally in the lookout they felt the dizzying exposure of the glassed panorama and talked politely about the vista. Among the variety of stories we were told about the lookout, the most repeated is that on Sunday you could get home-made cookies if you were a visiting climber. Now all you get is a view of some charred metal no matter which day of the week you go.
During our stay in the needles we were joined by a variety of other climbing parties. There were a few Americans, but mostly there were climbers from far away lands who were there to climb the classics. We wondered, where are all the locals? After a few days of being there we seemed to be the group at the campsite who knew the most. You could pretty much split the groups into two categories…those who would do Igor Unchained into Airy Interlude and then leave, and then everyone else. Gleason even spent an evening giving detailed beta to a visiting climber on how to climb the Nose.
It wasn’t until our last day in the needles that we met an actual local. We could tell that he had some stories to tell when he came up to our picnic table in the dark just after we’d gotten back from climbing. We were tired and not in the mood, and frankly suspicious of this new-comer…would be local / regular…
The next morning we properly met Kris Solem and chatted with him for a while. It was just what we needed. Finally, after ten days we could get some perspective on what was happening around the needles these days. It turns out that Kris is writing a new guidebook to the Needles area. About the new guidebook, Kris says:
“This has been a huge undertaking, a real labor of love for me. A few folks have given me flack over it, bringing in crowds or taking away from the adventure sort of stuff. I really think that’s a non-issue here. The place is no secret, being world famous, and I don’t see people staying away due to there being no printed guide. There’s a ton of stuff on line, although most of it perpetuates errors from the old book both regarding climbs and history. What Kevin and I hope to accomplish is to set the record straight as far as who did what and when, and to shine some light on the literally hundreds of great climbs other than the same ten everyone always does.”
Along with his knowledge of the climbing we also learned about the management of the land in which the Needles lie. In 2000, President Clinton set up the Giant Sequoia National Monument, managed by the US Forest Service. The management of user groups is largely hands off and is governed by a 2004 plan that has been under constant revision driven by lawsuits from environmental and varied user groups. Lately, a movement originating in Santa Cruz with Representative Sam Farr hopes to change the management of the Giant Sequoia National Monument from the Forest Service into the National Park Service. This change would likely restrict the freedom that campers, climbers, and other user groups (motorized and non) have had in this area.
The take home lesson here is that the future of access in the Needles is in limbo. There are many sides to take in the process of managing the Giant Sequoia National Monument. I personally love free camping, un-restricted climbing access, and a limited law enforcement presence. Consequently, along with all that freedom comes snow-mobiling, atv traffic, and other more impact-full land uses that I would not mind facing limitation.
Along with these management challenges is the question of what to do with the lookout tower. A significant group of users want to re-build it. When the tower went up in smoke, so did a significant part of the region’s economy. Many climbers argue as well that the access to the needles climbing is dependent upon the fire tower, its access road, and its trail.
After my very fulfilling experience in the needles I can’t say I would want anything to change. I never got to see the lookout tower. I have no emotional attachment to it’s being there. I am more attached to the feeling of remoteness and the intense quite that exists between those towering granite spires. To me, that is the thing most worth maintaining in the area.