Yosemite Classics
Cruising the Zodiac
Climbing in Autumn

The Golden Spires
Jason Campbell at the Needles, Then & Now

The Needles
My climbing partners were always older than I was for two reasons: first, I needed a ride to the cliffs; second, my elders enjoyed freedom from parental restraint, allowing for a more open climbing schedule. Just released from my first year of high school, I was legally unable to drive a car. Lucky for me, growing up in Yosemite, the big wall capital of the world, there was no shortage of licensed drivers or climbing partners. Well, climbing partners anyway. Most starving climbers did not own cars, or have licenses for that matter.

"I thought of my cuticles working overtime, stuffing my fingers into the tight cracks over and over again. The repeated stabbing, slowly peeling back skin from the nailbeds..."

I remember my first trip to the Needles in California's southern Sierras. The Reagan administration was developing Star Wars (a satellite armed with lasers used to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles), glam-rock had reached its peak of popularity with Bon Jovi rocketing to the top of the charts, and it was no longer cool to keep a jumbo comb in your back pocket. I had three months of summer vacation ahead of me and enough testosterone-generated psyche to fuel an Everest expedition. Rock climbing was consuming more and more of my free time, and I was hungry for new adventures. One day, Joe, a favorite climbing partner of mine (fulfilling the schedule and license requirement), suggested a trip to the Needles. I responded with an exuberant, "Yes."

The Needles
After four hours of driving, we pulled into the Needles campground. Charged with adrenaline, we jumped out of the car, stretched our hamstrings and forearms and then touched our toes. Our backpacks clogged to the gills with food, water and climbing gear, we hit the trail. I'd heard so much about the Needles, I could hardly wait to check out the legendary climbing area.

Along the grueling hike, the cliffs remained hidden until we rounded the very last corner. After descending the trail to a saddle between two prominent hillsides, we were rewarded with one of the most awesome vistas I had ever experienced. On either side of us was a gigantic granite spire sweeping hundreds of feet below and looming hundreds of feet above. The two granite monoliths sit perched on a mountainside giving the feeling of exposure even more power. I remember thinking to myself, "Needles?" These cliffs are more on scale with the great pyramids of Egypt! Between the two formations, a view of the Sierra Nevada mountain range below extended as far as the eye could see.

We dropped our packs and took in the view. My eyes immediately settled on the walls themselves. Deeply fractured crack systems seemed intentionally set, allowing climbers access to the otherwise seemingly sheer walls. Dense patches of bright yellow lichen freckled the white granite faces, giving them a surreal look. Thumbing through the guidebook, we found a topo map for the five-pitch crack system splitting its way up the right tower, ending with a jutting roof finish.

The Needles
I thought of my cuticles working overtime, stuffing my fingers into the tight cracks over and over again; the repeated stabbing slowly peeling back skin from the nailbeds. I felt my pumped forearms and tired feet cry between every belay station, then the sweet feeling of success in capturing the summit. Shedding all diffidence, we excitedly gathered our gear and scrambled down to the base of "Don Juan," the Needles' answer to Yosemite's "Astro Man."

After three miles and eight pitches, Joe and I stumbled back to camp hungry, tired and bloodied, but deeply satisfied. My mind racing, I stayed up late that night thinking about our adventure. With so many climbs in such a unique setting, the Needles is truly amazing. Our three-day road trip could barely scratch the surface of what this place had to offer. I knew I'd be back some day.

More than a decade later, I have just returned from a climbing trip to the Needles. A lot has changed since my first visit to the great golden spires: electronic mail, techno music and baggy pants trademark the last year of the 20th century. Now, my main climbing partners are my wife Tiffany and dog Cayla. What hasn't changed though, are the long adventure-filled days, ended staggering back to our camp hungry and with bloody fingers, but deeply satisfied. Or the way I feel rounding the last corner that drops into the saddle between those two towering spires.

I feel like a kid again.

Jason Campbell, Correspondent

Jason Campbell's dedicated road tripping has placed him at the forefront of American rock climbing for almost a decade. He's amassed numerous 5.14 redpoints and 5.13 on-sights in both the U.S. and Europe, as well as a top record in competition.

[ Home] [Climbing Home]