Ascents of "North Spanish Needle" (North Slope, class 3) and Spanish Needle (North Slope, class 3), April 29, 2020.


April 28, 2020. I left LA at 6 pm just after teaching my class. I drove up Nine Mile Canyon and down Canebrake Road to the Chimney Creek BLM campground. It was closed on account of the pandemic, and there was no sign of life. I chose a campsite with a flat parking area and a nice picnic table, right next to the creek, had dinner and went to sleep in my 4Runner.

April 29, 2020. I woke up a bit later than planned, around 6:30, and had a quick breakfast of coffee and cereal bars. I drove the short distance to the spot where the PCT crosses Canebrake Road, saddled up, and left my car at 7:29. Wildflowers were in bloom, and I was in a good mood for my first escape from house arrest since the COVID pandemic started (OK, second). A couple of miles in, in a pinyon pine forest, I saw a dead fox lying on the trail. I made quick work of the 7 miles to the saddle just North of the Spanish Needle massif, reaching a bit after 9:35. My map suggested that, from there, it is a mere 2/3rds of a mile in a straight line to the summit of Spanish Needle. But it is not a straight line!

I first headed up the North slope of the northernmost peak in the massif ("North Spanish Needle"), thinking I might look at a traverse between the various needles that comprise the formation. It was hefty class 3 climbing to get to the top of North Spanish Needle (10:27), where I found a register with only very few names, most of them complaining about how hard the climb was. Looking South, it was clear I was not going to attempt the traverse, as the first obstacle looked like a very steep class 4 descent to the next saddle over. Instead, I descended a steep loose chute on the Eastern side of the ridge, and rejoined the usual traverse of the East slopes toward the summit of Spanish Needle. Don't underestimate this traverse – it took me forever. Difficulties include steep and unstable terrain, rock ridges splitting the slope and forcing you ever downward, and routefinding uncertainty since one can't always see the correct summit. At some point I just gave up, regained the ridge past the main difficulties, and 3rd classed it toward the summit area of Spanish Needle. It was 12:22 when I reached a point where the summit area could be in full view – so yes – don't underestimate how long it will take to get there.

The summit area's 3rd class climbing was not particularly difficult, though there are some steep bits. I found getting to and off the friction slab to be harder than the slab itself. Then once on the summit, there is a fun step across a 2 foot chasm that took me to the summit proper (12:38). At that point I was a bit spent and was starting to feel pain in my right quad (from overtraining, or perhaps for not running enough hills…). I had a long way to go, so it was not the time to get injured. I was also getting dehydrated, this being a very hot and dry day, and I only had a liter of water left. I did my best to eat some food and hydrate, but the lack of water was going to pose a problem very soon. I signed the register, with entries by many Sierra luminaries dating back to 1970. Right then I realized I had lost my trusted GPS unit, which had served me faithfully since 2005. It must have dropped from my pocket when climbing one of the class 3 sections, but I was not able to locate it on the way down. I left the summit shortly after 13:00.

It was a bit quicker getting across to the saddle, since I knew the way. I followed cairns more closely this time, and even found what could pass for a faint use trail in the final portion back to the saddle. I was back at the trail at 14:47 – the traverse to and from the PCT saddle to the summit of Spanish Needle is a 2-hour affair. Now both of my quads were hurting, and dehydration was becoming a concern. I ran out of water shortly after starting back on the PCT, and replenished in a dubious-looking stream around halfway to the car. Hope I don't get giardia.  A bit later, I met a lone PCT section hiker who was refilling his water bottle – my only human encounter that day. He did not look like a typical PCTer, with brand new gear and NB sneakers, not the Altras that the PCTers usually wear. Nice guy, but I did not linger. I regained a bit of my speed on the way down despite the quad pain, and reached my car at 17:32. (a 10:03 hour day, 16.65 miles, about 3,000 feet of elevation gain).

Post-Scriptum: Robert Wacziarg was my uncle. He passed away on February 28, 2020. I had great respect for the manner in which he lived his life, for his deep commitment to his lovely wife and two wonderful daughters, my cousins. In this way he was a virtuous, responsible and faithful man, who dabbled in poetry and used it mostly to express his love of family. He will be missed. This day and this summit were dedicated to his memory.


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