Hungry and thirsty - a solo climb of a new route on Keeler Needle
You’re mouth is drier than a Death Valley dirt road. So you stop in at a convenience store and before you’re five miles out of town, you’ve got an empty bottle between your legs. I wish I had that luxury last week. Unfortunately, I had to make that bottle last for four days. It only lasted two. This is what I had to endure as I attempted a new rock climbing route on one of the Sierra’s most demanding monoliths, Keeler Needle.
Keeler is the sharp point that stands at attention to the south of Mt. Whitney. I first climbed it 26 years ago as my second “big wall”. These days, most strong parties do the classic Harding Route in a day, but back then we were practicing for the Power Stone -Half Dome in Yosemite. We were young and honed from a season of climbing in the Valley. So we hauled a huge sack behind us filled with 4 gallons of water and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and made easy work of it. If the climbing got too demanding we hung on our gear – aid climbing (which is considered cheating if you are sport climbing). The second man didn’t climb the rock, but climbed the rope, another big wall technique. This is a very efficient way to move men and gear up a large piece of rock. The leader concentrate on hauling the bag up through a pulley system and once the load arrives at the ledge, he gets to rest. Since the second man is relying on the rope to ascend, he can move about the face and be there for the leader to free the haul bag when it gets stuck under overhangs or when a bundle of rope dangles into a crack. This was another luxury I lacked. I was attempting my route alone.
When you solo climb a big wall, you actually climb the mountain twice (and then some) since you must go back down and do the work of the second man – retrieving the rock climbing gear the leader placed for protection. However, should the haul bag get stuck, or you jam a tangle of rope, back down you go (that is the ‘and then some’ part). So an exorbitant amount of time is spent coiling and flaking out ropes, finding intermediary haul points and trying to keep everything as organized as possible. That is why my ascent took eight days. Yup. Eight days. You are constantly working. No rests. And that’s why I ran out of food and water. No t to mention that this was completely unknown terrain. In the end I realized I am not 20 years old anymore.
Ironically, the first guy to climb it in 1959, Warren Harding, faced a similar problem. No partner. So he convinced a hitchhiker he picked up on Hwy 395 to come along with him. The guy had never climbed before. More of a ride than he bargained for. They too were up there for many days, but they made it. At the time, it was the biggest rock wall ascended in North America. Half Dome and El Capitan were climbed soon after that and the latter climbed by Harding over a three - year period.
At one time or another, I had some serious Yosemite veterans as a partner, but life being what it is, couldn’t make their schedules jive. I even tried the Harding trick, and convinced a Lone Pine youth with almost no experience to come along. In all his years in Lone Pine, he had never set foot on its famous Whitney trail. Unbelievably I find this is often the case with the residents around here. Once on the trail, the beauty of the backcountry overwhelmed him away. So did the altitude. Hypoxia at tree line brought him down and I was forced to go at it alone. I ferried the two hundred plus pounds of gears in several loads. It took me two days to get everything to the base of the climb. I waited for the snow to soften, than marched up to the bergshrund (the gaping hole where the snow has melted away from the rock). I almost pitched off the top of the snowfield as I slipped on ice underneath rotten snow. I started climbing at 10:00am. The first rope-length went well except for the hauling. Some fasteners ripped off my pack (I am using a backpack with a haul sheath over it), so the bag was off balance and it kept getting hung up. After finally getting it to the ledge, it had to be re-tied and repacked. This time consuming process left me starting the second pitch about 12:30pm. This involved an off-with (a crack wider than your hands but too small to fit your body into) into an overhang. I tried my best to climb it without resorting to hanging on my gear, which also became very time consuming. Luckily I had some good rests (Which are a necessity at 13,000 feet) and it went at the moderately advanced rating of 5.10c with a hang or three on the rope. Finally I made the top of that pitch at 3:30pm. Yes, three hours! Why was everything taking so long? I realized that I was so pooped from the hike-in that I had to continually stop and rest. Of course, the bag got stuck in the roof and I had to free it. I used my body weight as a counterweight to the bag, which worked fine although the bag was being uncooperative. As I ascended the rope back up, it rolled into a crack and was against the sharp lip of the overhang, which meant it was safer to re-climb the roof, backed up by my rope ascenders, than to weight the rope through that section. By the time I got everything back on the ledge it was 5:45pm. I was completely exhausted. I realized that a 46-year-old guy trying to rope solo a high altitude route is certainly possible, but will be very slow going. I decided to spend the night on the ledge, abandon the gear and haul bag for a future attempt and descend the following morning, leaving fixed ropes to my highpoint.
Let’s see, I made 200 feet a day, and the wall is 2000 feet long. That’s 10 days! I definitely needed a partner to complete my first ascent of on the east face of Keeler Needle.
What would motivate a 46 year old guy to climb a new route on a remote back country wall, alone, when he knows that it might taken him over a week of continuous labor and danger? As any woman knows, four things motivate men: money, sex, food and ego. I would be deprived of the first three on the list, so it must be that seventh deadly sin of pride. I would be a liar to say that the swelling of the chest and boastful stories that will remain didn’t factor into it. But there is more. This is part of a race, a competition that has gone on for over twenty years and I am now its only competitor.
You see, I had climbed Keeler once before and in the same trip climbed the East Face of Mt. Whitney. Day needle, to Keeler’s left, was ticked off in valiant style with my best friend at the time, Scott Ayers. Check it out: we drove up from L.A. (here comes the chest pounding) on a Friday and hiked in that night. The following day we climbed up half way, slept on a ledge, finished the climb on Sunday, walked the 10 miles down the Whitney trail, drove back to L.A. to be at our respective callings 9am Monday morning. Ah, youth! No way could I pull that off these days.
We kept up our furious pace of climbing the nine pinnacles of the Whitney Crest. As Ayers liked to say, we didn’t go up there to check them out, we went there to check them off. By the end of the summer, we had climbed and named three new pinnacles. When we tallied our accomplishments I was winning the race. I had two more climbs than he, since he had never done Whitney or Keeler. So Scott walked in alone and climbed Mt. Muir in a day (an easy route but difficult when you throw in the twenty miles of hiking) and the easiest of them all, Third Needle. We were now tied. We joked that the first person to climb all nine needles would become President of the East Face Club.
Well, the Presidency seemed to elude us as we moved from idealistic youth into the trappings of becoming responsible adults. But the dare sat in my mind and some of those unclimbed faces, like the beautiful South face of Aiguille Extra, gnawed at my sensibilities. Then I moved to Tucson and the candidacy seemed all but out of my grasp - until I convinced Arizona Highways Magazine photographer, Pete Noebels to join me on Aiguille Extra. Perhaps the finest route of all the ones I have done in the Whitney region, I finally was leading in the polls.
Not to be out done, Scott immediately ticked off another easy one, the East Buttress of Mt. Whitney. Damn! Still tie score. So I marched in with Mammoth Pet Shop owner Charlie Byrne and one-upped Scott’s solo ascent of Mt. Muir in a day. I climbed a new route on the South Face of Mt. Muir and walked the obligatory twenty miles in a day as well.
I could see that Scott would soon be addressing me as Mr. President. I had every reason to be cocky. I had only Third Needle, the easiest of them all to win; he still had the two most difficult, Aiguille Extra and my current nemesis, Keeler Needle. As fate would have it, my business was growing as much as my ego that next summer and I had no time to climb. Scott prepared to take the candidacy in a single trip. My hands were tied and honorably I let him go.
But then he failed on Keeler! He was so downtrodden; he didn’t even try Aiguille Extra. There was still hope. I proposed that we do the two together and rule as an oligarchy, but he wouldn’t have it. He had acquired a more sophisticated attitude. To him, competition in the mountains was a silly idea, and he had outgrown ‘the race’. I believe it was because I would have climbed those formations twice, therefore still having a higher score. He disproved himself the following summer when he climbed the toughest two in a single trip.
Again, business weighed me down the following summer. I had high-powered meetings in Hollywood on the days he was up there and it looked like I would have to be content with the Vice Presidency if I could only find the time to complete the last pinnacle. But a sudden cancellation put me driving through Lone Pine on his first rest day after completing Keeler. You should have seen the look on his face as I marched through his camp on my way to climb a first ascent (another one up) on the easiest of them all, Third Needle. Surprise turned to scorn as I walked from his camp. “I told you that I’m not racing.” he called out, “There is no place for competition in the mountains”. His actions told otherwise. The following day he completed Aiguille Extra, by a mandatory new route, thus tying the score in quality of ascent as well as quantity.
Although I had beat him by 24 hours, all did not go as planned on our ascent of Third Needle. It was the El Nino year of 1998, and the base of the climb resembled something out of the Himalayas, not the Sierra. Negotiating the mixed snow and rock began burning beer time. My planned new route offered an incredible Yosemite style jam crack, however we were far from the comforts of the Ahwanee Lodge. We chose speed over aesthetics as thunderheads rumbled above us. Choosing the standard route, we topped out as lightning bolts started to smack Mt. Whitney. We dove for cover a safe distance from the summit lightning rod. Charlie urged a quick retreat. I would have none of it. The climb wasn’t complete unless I stood on the summit. We waited for a break in the weather but the storm seemed to only intensify. Up to this point in my life, I had already been struck by lightning twice, and both times survived getting burned because I wasn’t grounded. “Third time’s a charm,” I said as I ran for the summit blocks. Charlie watched in horror as I mounted the granite pedestal. My hair looked like Phyllis Diller and sparks were shooting off my climbing gear. But I had a plan. The Summit Jump. It had always been our tradition to leap higher than the mountain we climbed. So if I acted quickly enough, there was only a fifty percent chance of being injured on the summit since I would not be grounded doing the Summit Jump. I leaped into the air and as I came down on the rock my gear stayed elevated and sparked as a leader stroke (the negatively charged, but not yet electrically charged energy that comes from the ground to connect with the positively charged cloud and create lightning) worked its way through my body. I ran throwing gear everywhere, but the bolt never came. Scott later remarked that God was screwing with me for my vainglorious addiction to win the race.
But I had won. No actually we both had won. We both achieved the same thing, what did it matter who was first? We would rule together. Scott would have none of it. He still said the concept was silly. I knew it was because his pride had suffered a boo-boo. Because not only had I beat his time in completing the nine pinnacles, but I had beat him in the value-added style of ascents. I had climbed five first ascents out of the nine, where he had only climbed three. Our ascent of Day Needle had mostly been off-route, so he probably could claim another first ascent, but alas, I did it with him so that would not increase his score.
So now, if I could do a first ascent on Mt. Whitney, Keeler Needle, 3rd Needle and Day Needle (so there will be no questions later). I would not only be President, but Lord Overseer of the East Face Club.
The summer was drawing to a close and I needed a partner for my lifelong little competition to climb all nine pinnacles of the Whitney Crest by a new route. It was a competition with my own ego, for I was the only competitor. I was getting close to my goal. I had ticked off Mt. Whitney two summers ago with the appropriately named route “If at first…” It took us seven attempts spread out over a couple years to get that one done. Now I had the bad boy to complete, Keeler Needle and I didn’t want to have this one hanging over my head. Only the easiest, Third Needle would remain. Once I had completed them all I could beat my chest and blow my horn till I looked like a blue baby.
But time was not on my side. Most of those ascents I did as a spirited youth, not a middle aged man. If I took as many years as I did getting the other ones done, I might die before I ever reach my goal. And on my first attempt to climb a new route on Keeler Needle, I was creeping up the mountain. A partner would speed things up. A glimmer of hope suddenly showed interest, in the form of Peter Mayfield, a Yosemite veteran, mountain guide, and all around great guy. Peter probably holds the winter speed record for travel from Mammoth to Yosemite if such records are kept. Yeah, that’s what I need. Speedy Gonzales.
But he was gone as fast as he came due to other obligations. So I posted a note on rock climbing.com and Bishop’s own Supertopo.com for a partner. Many people came out of the hills to tell me how much they wanted to go, but couldn’t. It also was revealed that I was a controversial figure around these here parts with people accusing my proposed route to be a “squeeze”; saying it was too close to the classic Harding Route. Further accusations had me bolting cracks (a definite traditionalist no-no), in the wilderness with an electric drill (not only wrong, but illegal) and finally on a route put up by SP Parker, a mountain guide who is revered and loved by all. I had to tell my accusers that they were wrong. I would never do any of those things. Besides if my worse sin of having an over inflated ego is correct, I would tell someone of such a bold accomplishment.
I had had enough of these small-minded climbers. I would go at it alone. As I stuck my tongue in my cheek I thought, why should I share the glory with anyone else? Because it might take you too long, you stupid idiot. So I packed rations for three days on the wall that could be stretched to six if needed, and set off.
I had left a sleeping bag, climbing gear and two gallons of water on the wall. So I had a light pack as I hiked in, planning to reach my highpoint in a single day. But the truth be known, I was terribly out of shape since my last time up. I had to take a nap half way up the trail and darkness found me just entering the Whitney cirque. By the time I reached the snowfield at Keeler’s base it was well past 10 o’clock and well past my bedtime. It didn’t look like I would be joining my sleeping bag that evening. But I had my bivouac sack with me and figured I would be warm enough if I slept in it with all my clothes on. But by 1a.m. I was shivering like an unbalanced washing machine. I had to get warm. I had to keep going.
The snowfield was as hard as a polished granite counter top. Yet the angle wasn’t really that steep. I used the sun cups for hand and footholds. Where there were none, I found that if I made fifty kicks in the same place, I could get two toes to bite. In the darkness, I didn’t realize that I was ascending so high and that the angle was steepening. The sun cups ran out and I had to carefully move very slowly. I finally reached another set of sun cups and rested. Even though I had gloves on, my hands had entered the first stage of frostbite and I screamed in pain for twenty minutes as they warmed up. As the first light of dawn spread over the cirque I could see that I was too high, and kicked steps back down to my fixed ropes. I had been climbing the snow for four hours. Balanced between snow and rock, I clipped my bivouac sack to my gear, and promptly fell asleep as the suns golden light warmed me up.
Soon it was back to business. I reached my highpoint and re-packed the haul bag. This single task was a big time consumer. I had to be absolutely sure of what I wanted out of it for the day, for it was almost impossible to get into it after it was covered with its protective sheet of ballistics cloth. Above my highpoint I immediately ran into an overhang that I dispensed with not much effort. Looking to my left, I saw a perfect little ledge that I could haul to and avoid the inevitable bag caught under the overhang. More time spent not moving upward but worth it. Another overhang greeted me, but this one looked malicious. A giant loose flake hung from its cracks. So I found the finger ledge of contentment that allowed me to traverse right into another crack system. This looked very doable, but the crack was continuously wide. It looked like another ledge at its end, where I hoped to sleep that night. By the time I had reached that part of the crack, I had used up all my gear and had to just go for it, climbing high above my last piece. I threw every ounce of strength into it only to realize that it wasn’t a ledge at all I was going for. Dejected, I descended back to the ledge where I started, having made no progress in moving the camp higher.
The next morning I felt renewed and refreshed. Unfortunately, my first task was to repack the haul bag on that little ledge on the lip of the overhang. This took a while since it was a very easy place to drop an item of equipment. Climbing once again, I decided to move back into the original crack and found the most exquisite hand crack in superb granite. I also found pitons and slings from climbers who had gone the wrong way on the Harding Route or were descending off of it. So my new route wasn’t that new after all. Thunder, rain and hail spurred me upward to a magnificent ledge and the promise of low angle scrambling for the afternoon. But no, the haul bag wouldn’t budge. Since this was my first haul where the bag had to be suspended, I taped a carabineer open and hung it on a piece of protection. When I got back down to the bag, the carabineer had flipped around in the opposite direction of my pulling. The low angle scrambling would have to wait until tomorrow.
I could see a very steep corner leading to the massive ledge that juts out in the middle of Keeler Needle. I thought this might be avoided, but as fate would have it, was the key to gaining the ledge. What a beautiful corner it was with double cracks that were perfect for hand jams. At its top was a massive quartz dike with beautiful milky quartz reflecting off the sky. But that didn’t last long as storm clouds started spitting rain and lightning over Lone Pine Peak. I actually hoped for precipitation, as now I was getting tired and could use the rest. The thunder intensified but no rain. I gathered everything metallic and put it as far away as possible in case of a strike, but the bolt never came.
I napped anyway and then started up the steepest section of Keeler. Fortunately easy ramps lead to a slightly less than vertical wall of vertical fins. The climbing at 5.8 was exceptional require balancing lay backs and stems. I found that the entire 200 feet of climbing could be accomplished in two hauls, and another piton greeted me at one of the ledges. This was obviously from someone a long time ago climbing upward, not descending. Could my new route have already been ascended?
I got my answer at the top of that pitch. A soft iron ring angle piton from the forties or fifties had been placed. Around the ring was a faded day glow sling from the mid-eighties. Two parties had obviously descended from this point. The day glow crews probably were backing off the Harding route from above. None other than Warren Harding himself probably placed the piton. He was trying to avoid the time-consuming act of placing the expansion bolts that adorn the crux of the Harding route today. But he took one look at the pitch above and continued in his original crack. I too wondered how I would fare tomorrow on this horror show, which I deemed, the ‘miserable pitch’.
That night I was treated to a spectacular sunset. From my position on the ledge, I realized that I was in the exact center of a giant half-sphere formed by Whitney and the Needles. It was as if I was looking out from the inside of a crystal ball. This is why we climb in the mountains.
The next day, after packing, cleaning and hauling, I attacked the miserable pitch. The rock quality abruptly changed to scaly loose flakes and flaring hard to protect seams. My fingernails had become so worn down I would feel sharp pain when I reached into the flare as those scales tried to get under my fingernails. Also, I had been going on half rations and the food was just about gone. I maybe had one swig of water left. Mentally, I noticed a change. The entire climb I had a mental jukebox playing songs in my head. But now that jukebox had stopped. I was starting to lose it. I felt fatigued, confused and kept messing up simple yet essential tasks. Trying to get the haul line off of my harness I unclipped one of my ascenders for climbing the rope. Fortunately, as almost an after thought, I had brought a spare that matched. As it bounced and clanged down the cliff, I decided I really needed to take a rest now. Then I looked up at the next pitch. Downward pointing loose flakes on a deteriorating overhanging wall. My spirit was completely dismantled.
I decided it was time to tell the outside world of my predicament. The battery was low on my cell phone and I wasn’t sure if the call would go through. What would I say? I certainly didn’t want a rescue. I knew I could make it to the top. I practiced what I would say to my friend Alice before I called. I dialed her number. “ Hi this is Mike. I have no food or water. I probably will not summit until Saturday, Maybe you can convince Timmy into hiking in and helping with carrying out the gear.”
She cut me off. “I’m not going to be responsible for convincing him…” The cell phone died.
She seemed more concerned with having to persuade this person than with my lack of food or water. But ultimately she did the right thing in regards to my predicament.
Four days climbing Keeler Needle alone and I was out of food and water. A ledge ran over to the popular Harding route. I remembered that there was a perfect ledge where I had taken a picture of my partner doing a handstand 26 years ago. With much effort, I spent the rest of the afternoon getting to it and avoiding that demonic face above me. When I finally got the haul bag and myself over to it, I realized that this wasn’t the ledge at all. On this ledge I slept with my feet dangling and the continuous feeling that any minute you would roll off the ledge into the black night.
Morning came all to soon and I got moving early. My attitude had changed. Goddamn it, I said to myself, I am going to attack that crack. It turned out to be far tamer than it looked. Except for an awkward move trying to step onto a ledge on the overhanging wall, I easily got through the pitch that morning.
I was greeted by a ledge of loose blocks stuck in sand. If I had too, I could arrange the blocks to make a sleeping place. But I was determined to go higher. The ‘no food and water’ situation was becoming critical and if I had energy, I had to move. I climbed a long continuous corner that was right on the edge of where the south and east faces met. I climbed past sunset, past exhaustion. Somehow I managed to move a 200-pound slab of rock to create a very comfortable sleeping ledge that night.
In the morning, I discovered that I had quit only 10 feet from a good ledge. I could traverse this ledge over to the Harding Route where there was a small cave with a sandy bottom. Starting to feel fatigued again, I took a half hour nap. The rappelling, cleaning and hauling of the last pitch seemed to take forever. Once completed it was afternoon and I really didn’t feel up for climbing. I checked a photo enlargement of the route. I was very close to the ledges that could possibly get me off the formation early. I immediately started climbing.
The next part was easy and enjoyable. I reached the ledges, set an anchor for hauling, and then ran out the rope to the top of the ledges. My weariness was getting to me. I began hearing voices. I turned towards day Needle where the voices seemed to be coming from. “No Jeff, I think this is the highest point.” Some trail hikers were summiting Day Needle next to Keeler. They would surely see me.
“Hey, Jeff!” I called out. “I have had no food or water for two days, do you think you could help me?”
“Yes, but how?”
“Got a rope?” I knew the answer to that one. “Then leave it where the trail meets the notch between the two needles.” With the sun descending, I had to move fast. First I got the haul bag up to the bottom ledges, because I didn’t want to deal with rappelling onto the face in the dark after I got the food. Next I assessed the route off. A ledge ran across the face, with many up and down sections. Seemed easy enough, but I anchored my 200’ rope just in case. I reached the end of the rope in no time and realized the ledge was a lot longer than I thought. I didn’t want to waste time trying to rope thru this terrain, so I untied and climbed free solo. At times, the ledge looked like it would peter out, but miraculously I’d find a way around. About a thousand feet later, I was on the talus field of Keeler’s west slope. I ran down to the trail as the sun balanced on the horizon. There was a quart of water, some energy bars and salami and cheese. I burst into tears.
But I needed to move fast. I still had to free solo back across the ledge. I had neglected to bring my headlamp. I arrived just as true darkness fell over the needles and began to haul the bag to my sleeping spot. Of course, it got stuck. But at least I had food.
I awoke to a continuous roar of white noise like a jet that did not move. As I got up and moved around I realized it was the wind funneling between the notch of Keeler and Day Needle. I started to pack the haul bag for a big impact. It would be too time-consuming and tiring to try and get it across the ledges. It will be jettisoned 2000’ to the snowfields below. I dragged it over to the east face and checked to be sure no one would be clobbered.
“Hello!” I yelled, “Can anybody here me?”
“Yes!” came the reply.
“Where are you?”
“Pitch 4 of the Harding Route.”
“Damn! I wanted to throw my haul bag off. Can you do it for me?
No one had been on the route for eight days until the moment I want make my quick exit. I left the haul bag and climbed unroped again. However this time I was very tired and had about a thirty pound pack on my pack. The climb went without incident and I yelled out to the first people on the trail that I needed more food and water. The next thing I did was find a cell phone and try to stop any rescue attempts. But a helicopter was already in the air. A ranger I met on the trail made an official call to stop any rescues and he assured me I would not be charged for the helicopter time. But the helicopter still came. I was afraid it would land on Mt. Whitney and hand me a bill
When the hikers on the trail heard my story, I became a bit of a celebrity. The word traveled up and down the trail about the guy who was on the wall for 8 days with no food and water for the last two, Beautiful women offered me their gorp and others wanted to know the answer to that one question - how do you go to the bathroom? (Same as other Whitney hikers, in a bag and take it with you.) The first guy to come to my aid offered to carry my climbing gear down and then suddenly I was alone again. Quietly and with much reflection I hiked down the mountaineers gully and out to my car that day.
I arrived back in town with a beard, burnt lips, sore muscles, hands that wouldn’t close and fingertips that were numb. A friend asked me a very poignant question.
“Did you learn anything?”
I learned that I could do it.
14 Comments Add a Comment
|would be better with pictures...|
|this is an amazing story. puts to shame any other story i've read on this site. pictures? its called imagination. get into it.|
|Did you get the bag back?|
|I loved the story, thanks for sharing!|
Nice, thats truely a hard man! Thanks for sharing. Been there and done something simular while in mountian warfare school years ago. It's funny how the mind can work with you & against you when you're short of water & food.
Very well written. Sounds like a beautiful Climb. Keep going!
|Now you're definitely a perfect example of a true beast.|
Amazing... it's good that you could do it, and I'm glad you came out OK.
how long is it gona take to forget about how miserable that was to do it again? type 3 fun man. or was it type 4?
|You have a climbing history to be very proud of!|
|Food and water are like firewood. When you think you have enough, double it.|
|Minus the epic I want to climb with this guy!!|
|Damn good climb!!!!|
|Amazing story, thanks for sharing!!|