Spanish Needle

11-May-97

By: Matthias Selke


The summit area of this peak provides one of the more enjoyable scrambles in the Southern Sierra, but the peak is rarely climbed and there Is no write-up in the SPS climbing archive.

The best way of climbing to the summit area is undoubtedly the approach from Lamont Meadow up to the saddle north of the summit, then a cross-country traverse on the east side of the peak to the summit area. This was the route taken by Al Conrad, Shawn Bauer, and the author on the way up during the author's first attempt on March 8, 1997. There was patchy snow above 6500 ft. on north-facing slopes, but it did not provide any real obstacle until the summit area. However, an exposed slab was covered with ice, and we turned back about 100 ft. below the summit. That's when the real adventure began, since we chose to descend the first gully to the north of the summit area on the west face of the peak. The 7-1/2 min. topo showed the Pacific Crest Trail less than 1000 ft. straight below the summit area. The trail is not anywhere near where the map indicates it is; it is much lower and further to the west. Just before darkness, we found a trail that was going in an east-west direction. We first headed westward, and realized that this was a mistake when the trail turned southward after several miles. After following the PCT in the other direction, we finally reached the car after 11pm.

The second attempt on May 11 with Miklos and Krisztina Peterfy turned out to be less eventful. We followed the same route up as on the previous trip, found no snow or ice anywhere on the peak, and reached the summit within about 4.5 hours. To our surprise, we found no entries from the SPS group that was attempting the peak during the previous weekend. (I was later told that they tried the west side of the peak and chose the wrong gully.) Thunderclouds seemed to be moving in and we rushed off the peak, which resulted in a minor fall by the author (just scratches). Other than that, the hike back was uneventful: it cleared up, and we were back at the car within 3.5 hours.

A detailed description of the easiest route is as folows: The trailhead is at Lamont Meadows, which can be reached via the dirt road leading to the Chimney Creek Recreation Area. This dirt road connects Highway 58 (Walker Pass) with the Kennedy Meadows road west of the Sierra Crest. The correct trailhead is about 300 ft. south of where a road to Long Valley and the Rockhouse Basin branches off the Chimney Creek Road. It Is not marked. and one must park on the side of the dirt road. The "trail" is actually a 4-WD road for about 2 miles. (On the first attempt, we drove down this road with Al's Explorer - no problem, but a 2WD would not make it.) It descends to cross a creek on Lament Meadow, then follows the south side of the meadow with good views of the pinnacles on Lamont Pk. After 2 miles, the road enters a pine forest, and it is blocked off for vehicular traffic. The road goes up the forested valley west-northwest of the broad saddle north of the Spanish Needle group, and then disappears. Just where it ends, there is use-trail on the right that leads up and right to the Pacific Crest Trail. This use-trail is steep, but it is in excellent shape and easy to follow. It meets the PCT about 0.5 miles southwest of the afore-mentioned broad saddle. A quick stroll on the PCT through a pleasant mixed forest of pine and fir brings one to the saddle. From the saddle. one leaves the PCT and drops down about 100 ft, on the east side of the saddle. To the south, Spanish Needle is visible, but the summit area cannot yet be seen. Traverse southward across five chutes filled with loose rock and dirt. This is the most unpleasant section of the climb. There's a fair amount of brush too- long pants are strongly recommended. It is best not to go up or down by very much on this section and staying too high during the climb is even more tedious.

Eventually, climbers will arrive at a very large chute (much larger than all previous chutes), filled with huge talus blocks. This chute leads to near the low point on the crest between the lower northern pinnacles of the Spanish Needle group and the true summit area. It is best to climb the rib on the south side of this chute. (very little loose rock.) About 200 ft. below the crest, the rib becomes more shallow. Traverse diagonally up and south (left) through a mixed forest, eventually reaching the rocks just below the Sierra Crest. At this point stay below the rocks and move southward until progress is block by steep rock. From here it is an easy climb to the very crest, cross over to the west side and move up on the west side for a few hundred feet. Then the very crest itself is followed for about 200 ft. (some easy cl. 3). From the crest, the summit rocks are finally visible. Drops down into the notch just north of the summit block, where the climbing begins. Just a few yards to the east, a series of steep blocky ledges are followed up to a low-angled but exposed slab There is a small pine tree half way up the ledges. The slab is climbed and followed toward the esst for about 8 yards. At the east end of the slab, a block could provide a reasonable anchor for belays or rappels. (The exposure on the slab is such that some people might want to be belayed.) Then climb up a low angled crack with a tree in it to the west into another small notch and then follows easy cl.3 rock on the right side of the crest to the very top. The total length of the cl. 3 section is about 150 ft. The register goes back about 30 years: the peak sees very few ascents each year. The class 3 section is a fun scramble on good rock.

It is best to retrace your steps for the descent. A gully descending the west face from the notch north of the peak looks inviting, but it leads into nasty brush and it is necessary to descend almost 2000 ft. and hike across miles of tedious terrain to reach the PCT. Here the route climbs back up 1000 ft. and it is neccssary to hike several more miles to meet the use-trail going back to Lamont Meadow. Supposedly the old PCT was only 1000 ft. below the summit, but no trace of this trail could be found. The west face of this peak should definately be avoided!

Final note:
Jenkin's Book "Exploring the Southern Sierra: East Side" has a good description of the class 3 portion below the summit. However, no details at all regarding the traverse from the saddle on the PCT north of the peak to the summit are given.


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