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Trip Report - Magic Dragon - Needles, CA
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Aug 1, 2002, 7:18 PM
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Registered: Mar 14, 2002
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Trip Report - Magic Dragon - Needles, CA
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Eluding the Magic Dragon, Needles, CA

Wanted to thank those that responded for beta request in routes database for the Magic Dragon - the climb was most excellent, especially the first three or so pitches of 5.7 "Black Magic" variation start that we chose. This is just to the left and around the corner to the vegetation-rich regular start. The lie-back/crack climbing was extremely fun and fairly easy to protect.

I climb with a laid-back dude so our start was later than I expected. It is probably fortunate though, we would have been delayed anyway due to an early morning thunderstorm that soaked our camp for 30 minutes or so. Unknown to us was that the storms' sister would join us high on an exposed slab later in the day. Literally a "hair-raising" experience that I'll get to later. We stumbled out of camp and made the easy but long 50 minute approach to the base of the climb. By this time that early morning storm cell had moved westward and dissipated over the Central Valley giving way to a warm summer day. Only harmless looking fluffy white clouds drifting by.

I started up the first pitch and chose the smaller seam crack above the large crack that looked a little too big and consistent to fully protect. I would have needed (in my typical over-protect-it attitude) five or six #4 Camalots - way above my weight limit for hauling, and above my pocketbook too. At the top of the pitch there was a funky (freaky?) unprotected block to climb over that brought me to a decent three trunk tree custom made for setting up a bomber anchor.

My buddy then led the next pitch and set up a hanging belay just below a rap anchor that consisted of red webbing and cord (the only one we found on the route). The anchor was constructed of an old, hopelessly stuck cam and a knotted piece of cord wedged in a crack. Definitely not to be trusted. I led the next pitch that worked over a block and onto a ramp. The block was, to me, the crux of the climb. You really had to trust your feet and a chossy crummy crack for one of your hands. Balance-y. The sweat in my eyes made me realize that, by this time, the sun was down right hot. The reflected heat off the rock made it feel like we were climbing in an oven.

The top of that pitch brought us to the head of a triangular block that extends from the base of the route about a third of the way up the dome. The accompanying breeze started to cool us right down. It also gave us a good view of Voodoo Dome to the East and Dome Rock to the West. It didn't give us a look toward the South though - the direction that the California monsoonal storms come from this time of the year. Ugh. We took a few moments to take photos and have a bite of Clif Bar. My buddy and I snapped photos of each other in various manly poses but this hid panic-rooted thoughts deep inside as I heard distant rumbling of thunder and "smelled" the impending rain. I kept thinking, "You can't smell rain, can you?". I expressed our need to keep moving to my casual bud but he had lost the cap to his Camelback hose and didn't want to leave the belay ledge until he found it. Images of us struggling up poorly protected (i.e. bolt every 50 ft) slick, wet slabs in a full-force gale soon filled my mind. I finally convinced him to move on and in the heat of negotiation I promised to buy him a new cap - compromises. My actions became a blur and were coming from the burning sensation of raindrops on my bare skin ("Rain drops can't burn you can they?") and the louder-by-the-minute rumblings of thunder in the unseen distance. Rumblings like the talons of a dragon, shifting his weight on the granite floors of the castle.

My buddy led the next pitch that consisted of a calf-burning slab. Once at the belay stance we had our first clear view to the South and observed the storm, bearing down on us in it's full, maddening glory. Every lightning strike that we saw left in it's path a thick plume of smoke and, ultimately, a forest fire. A total of six in all. A sight that I won't soon forget. Each fire grew with flames reaching high into the air, as if a fire breathing dragon was clawing its way up from the underworld.

Through moments interspersed with alot of fear and a little logic, I realized that we were on a dome that was at the near-highest point in the area. I kept thinking of that crummy rap anchor we saw earlier on the route. Man!, along with a few of my own carefully placed ditch 'em stoppers, it would be a damn-sight better option than what we had now.

We wouldn't have time to retreat without leaving the relative comfort of the belay stance and moving across the extremely exposed slab pitches immediately below or above us. I looked around and decided that we needed to make the best with what we had, a small gravel covered ledge tucked up against a dihedral that stretched 10-20 feet above and blocked us from the main area of the storm cell. My mind started reeling, what was the next step - the only step - that a climber should take in this situation as outlined in the manual, "Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills"? I probably had enough room in my pack for the book - why the hell did it have to be so damn heavy? I looked at my partner and began to explain the extremely high potential for a lightning strike. I also blurted out, in graphic detail, the slide presentation of hapless lightning strike survivors that I remember from my safety orientation during a summer stint with the NPS. I had his full attention as the storm took us both into it's grasp.

Then, it started coming back to me... We both kneeled down together on the small ledge with only a few inches to spare. We then removed whatever metal we could from our harnesses (cams, carabiners, etc.) and clipped them to a sling and hung them off a rock-bound tree root as far away from our ledge as possible. And, without an ounce of hesitation, we both began to pray. You know the typical "...if I live through this..." stuff. But this time it wasn't typical, even though neither of us came from a religious background, we meant it.

We both kneeled there for a few minutes, periodically looking up in helpless amazement to see these fast moving fires devouring the forest below us. By this time the storm was directly above us. I glanced over at my buddy and, to my horror, saw his hair standing on end! I let out a gasp. I took stock of the weather conditions, no wind. I then held his hair down with my hand - only to see it rise again when removed. I asked him if my hair was doing the same and he gave me the obvious answer, "Your hair is too short". We both braced for the worst - which to our amazement and relief never came. In fact, the storm clouds began to thin and the thunder was moving farther away. We didn't move though. For what felt like forever.

Eventually we both mustered enough courage to stand on the prow of the ledge and peek over the dihedral, relieved to see that the storm had moved on to the West. I can't say that it spared us though, we were both pretty shook up, actually, scared shit-less. The entire ordeal only lasted about twenty minutes.

My bud, well I might as well admit it, my new best friend, chose to lead the next pitch that followed the dihedral we were huddled against up to the few remaining slab pitches above us. Even though we encountered strong wind gusts and hail/rain mixture almost all the way up those unprotected slabs, they went off without much trouble, that is, compared to eluding the Magic Dragon.

[ This Message was edited by: muleypt on 2002-08-01 19:21 ]

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