Castle Rock Spire
By: Ron Hudson
I wanted to do this ascent because of the technical and physical challenge of this impressive blade of rock. One time I asked R. J. Secor what was the hardest peak in the Sierra (by its easiest route) and the answer was "Castle Rock Spire". Of course there are other pinnacles and spires, such as the Lost Arrow, but what is really a peak is a subject for debate elsewhere.
My climbing partner, Joe King, and I started at the Hospital Rock parking area (2800') near the southern entrance to Sequoia NP. We used directions in Secor's book, Sequoia and Kings Canyon Climber's Guide, and an article in Rock and Ice. We hiked the road 1/2 mile to Buckeye Flat CG, then took the Paradise Creek Trail. Went over a permanent bridge over the Middle Fork Kaweah River and proceeded up Paradise Creek about 1 1/2 miles to where the trail departs the river and follows a side canyon on the left. We checked that canyon for a half mile but saw no distinct trail on the left. So we left the trail about 150 yards from where it departed Paradise Creek up the side canyon. There are many game trails, but the route is basically head straight up the sleep slope. It was very green; many wildflowers in the mainly open forest. Up above, keeping on the ridge top and then along its north side avoids brush. We traversed and went upward to the saddle (5000'el.) located 300 yards NNE of point 5170T on the 7.5' topo. Up high on the way to the saddle there is about 150 yards of considerable poison oak, but otherwise it is mostly avoidable, or only 6-12 inches high. It was just starting to leaf out. I wore jeans (just for the hike in and out) and washed off with Fels Naptha soap afterward.
From the saddle the old trail is then mostly visible and is followed for 1.5 miles (but took two hours with stops) to where it intersects the rocky gully that drains the area between the Fin and Castle Rock Spire. There are a lot of obstacles - fallen trees and erosion on this route that hasn't been maintained and barely used for perhaps 40 years. A trail is shown on an old 15' USGS topo that I have. There were no sign of humans; just deer and bear tracks. There is a large cairn at the trail-gully crossing. Come back 150' and take the ridge up about 1000' in altitude to about 100' below the lowest headwall below the Spire base, and there is a huge boulder and campsite, still in the forest. Plenty of wood for a fire. We camped there; it had taken 6 1/2 hours from the car, carrying 35-40 pound packs. Included was 30 pounds of climbing gear: 2 ropes, a large rack with friends, hexes, double sets of stoppers, and 50' of slings for rapelling.
I had seen snow below the Fin from an airplane 10 days earlier, so we brought one ice axe. We started at 6:00 the next morning, but found a long, long tongue of hard snow and ice that really needed axes and crampons. We then climbed along the sides of the icy gully and placed pro every 30 feet or so. But it still took 4 hours to get up the ice - 6 pitches of leading and following. We didn't start climbing from the notch just S of the Spire until 11:00. Then the first two "fourth class" pitches took us hours, placing pro and finding our way across the blocks. We started the aid pitch not until about 3:00 pm and still had 4 pitches (about 400 vertical feet) of climbing to go. I knew we wouldn't make the summit but wanted to try some of the difficult climbing to see what it was like. It was hard and slow. It took me 45 minutes to get up the first 30 feet of the main aid pitch - a 5.10 vertical crack and 5.11 roof. I hadn't done much aid before and was slow, but I liked it and would have continued if we had enough time.
We then turned around and retraced our route. The snow was much softer at the end of the day. Joe with the ice axe was able to down climb the snow unaided. I was lowered or belayed ahead of him down the 1000' feet of 40 degree snow. The last hour was by flashlight through the brush, back to camp at 10:30 pm. The next morning we packed out; it only took 4 1/2 hours to the car. The weather was good the whole time: 30's at night to 60's during the day.
The scenery from up there was really impressive. The 1200' high broad face of the Fin loomed across the gully from us reminding me of the Apron in Yosemite. We looked across the River Canyon to Moro Rock. There are other spires, Sleeping Beauty Tower and Ampitheater Dome nearby. And no other people around these seldom climbed crags. One could easily spend a week exploring and a climbing in the area. The next time I would plan to sleep right where we start climbing. And bring ice ax and crampons or climb later in the season. Also, it may be faster (even though harder) to do the 2 lower pitches that Migual Carmona and Alois Smrz pioneered instead the 2 traverse pitches. Another approach route, for the more southerly Castle Rocks formations is from the Mineral King road - from Atwell Mill campground and the Paradise Peak trail. Paradise Creek was a real paradise with its wildflower display, large trees, and pools and falls of the creek.
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