Last year there was some discussion on this list as to what Sierra summit was the most difficult to climb by its easiest route. My guess was Dyer Minaret, but several people came back with Castle Rock Spire. I had never heard of this peak, so I looked into it further, and what I found was impressive. Many say it is the best summit in the Sierra, and a few vote for it being one of the best in North America.
Guarded by a cross-country approach of many miles through constant poison oak, rattlesnakes, and plenty of ticks, mosquitoes, manzanita, and assorted other unpleasantness, it had only seen a handful of ascents since its first in 1950. Adjacent to the CRS was The Fin, an impressive 1000-foot sweep of granite that R.J. Secor describes as having some of the best rock climbing in the Sierra backcountry.
Andy and Jason had never heard of the area and did not know about the approach, so they were the perfect partners. We left San Diego early, hoping to walk in the same day. We parked in the Hospital Rock parking lot and walked up the road to the trailhead in the Buckeye Flat campground. A little before the campground we came upon a big rattler in the road, writhing around like it had just been run over but with no visible wounds. We were to meet his big brother soon after.
After leaving the Paradise Creek trail about 3/4 miles from the car, we were working our way up a steep grassy ridge. I was moving the grass ahead of me to the side with the machete ($7 at the Bakersfield Wal-Mart, must be 18 to purchase) and was suddenly face to face with the rather large buzz worm. It rattled loudly, but according to my partners his rattle was drowned out by my "girl-like scream." Now, I can't say I've ever screamed before, and I don't remember what it sounded like this time, but its tone may have been a little high. However, it is my contention that even a real man, when surprised at close range by a rattler in tall grass, would scream like a girl. Perhaps I protest too much.
Anyway, I passed Snake Boy duty over to Andy and we continued. The approach was all we expected and more, because we didn't make it in that day and had to bivy in a boulder field with no water, surrounded by poison oak.
We finally stumbled into our high camp at noon the next day, thirsty, dirty, covered in bug bites and poison oak, but pretty psyched to have found the place. Plus, the itching had not really started, so we had no idea of the hell in store.
Since we had a few days, we decided to start on a route on The Fin. The west face of this spire is a magnificent wall of granite, starting out at a relatively low angle but then gradually steepening as many granite domes do. It looked to be about 1000 feet tall. We had a very brief verbal description of the Silver Lining route, basically just describing the number of pitches and where it started. Secor also mentions it has some "serious chimneys."
What we found was a fantastic face and slab route, very run out in places, but never harder that 5.9. It wandered quite a bit to keep the climbing at that grade, which resulted in a few traverses with 50+ foot runouts. Over 9 pitches there were four protection bolts (extremely rusty 1/4 inchers), and most the pro was small cams placed in small flakes and overlaps found along the way. All the anchors were trad gear except for two. Most of the climbing was similar to Tuolumne Meadows, with plentiful dishes and edges on very solid granite.
It took us most the day to find our way up the route and by the time we rapped back down it was past 6:00pm. By the way, there were NO chimneys on this route, or anything that could be remotely construed as a chimney. I suspect that Secor meant the "serious chimneys" comment for the North Buttress route, which the first ascent party called the "North Chimney" route in the summit register.
For those interested in a pitch-by-pitch account, I have included a written description of the route at the end of this TR. I also wrote up a topo, which I have in JPEG form, if anyone is interested. I would recommend this route highly to a team into adventure climbing and very solid at 5.9.
During the rappels down we thought we heard voices, but figured we were mistaken because the place is so remote. When we got back to camp, whom did we find but Bob Suzuki and Jim Curl! Not only that, they were planning on climbing the same route on CRS that we were, on the same day. The coincidence was shocking, as this area sees on average about 8 parties every decade!
We all got up early the next morning and made an uneventful ascent of the Regular Route on the Castle Rock Spire. Compared to the Fin it was casual, with no runouts and very straightforward route finding. We thought the 2 crux pitches were legitimate 5.11, and as I can't even think of a Sierra summit requiring 5.10 on it's easiest route, Castle Rock Spire gets my vote as the most difficult Sierra summit by its easiest route.
It took us exactly 3 hours to get back to the car from base camp that night, and the drive home got us to San Diego at about 2:30 am, for a very solid 22 hour day. On the way Jason and Andy were already starting the poison oak process, and by the next morning they had enormous weeping lesions on their arms and legs. Jason also had it in a VERY bad place, but enjoyed using the Technu Outdoor Skin Cleanser (directions: rub vigorously for 2 minutes). It got bad enough that they eventually had to get prescriptions for oral steroids, which seemed to help.
Overall, we thought the area was fantastic and wild with great climbing, but the approach is destined to keep it very unpopular.
PITCH-BY-PITCH DESCRIPTION OF "SILVER LINING" ON THE FIN
P1 Start at a very obvious pine tree on a ledge at the far left side of the west face. Wander straight up the mostly unprotected slab to a gear anchor in a small overlap. 185 feet, 5.9
P2 Continue straight up, then climb an obvious right-facing corner. Continue straight up above this corner past a very rusty bolt, then straight up for 70 more feet (bad/no pro) to a small right facing corner for a gear belay. 180 feet, 5.9
P3 Move right on a ledge, then up a shallow seam to a 3-bolt anchor. This anchor has no slings and is not used on the rappel route. 60 feet, 5.9
P4 Face climb straight up and then traverse right about 80 feet. The traverse is largely unprotected but the climbing is not too hard. Belay at a 3-bolt anchor with slings. 120 feet, 5.9
P5 Face climb straight up on positive holds about 40 feet, then traverse right on a very shallow ramp. OK gear can be found along the traverse in the overlap above the ramp. 175 feet, 5.9
P6 Face climb straight up to a bolt, then up and slightly left to another bolt (both old and rusty). From here traverse left and slightly up to belay at the base of a very large and obvious right-facing corner. This traverse is unprotected and is the crux of the route. The belay consists of two suspect bolts, backed up by gear in the corner. 150 feet, 5.9+
P7 Power up the amazing right-facing corner and belay at its top. The 3-bolt anchor about 30 feet up from the bottom of the corner is part of the rappel route. This is the only pitch on the route that is not runout. 160 feet, 5.9.
P8 Face climb up and slightly right from the top of the corner past a bolt, then straight up to a 3-bolt anchor (used for the rappel). Use a long sling to clip these bolts for protection, then traverse left and up to an overlap. Climb over this and face climb above on lower-angle rock to a spacious ledge with a bush. 180 feet, 5.9
P9 Face climb straight up from the ledge to another ledge, then traverse right to a left-facing corner. Climb the corner and the unprotected, lichen-covered slab above it to the top. 140 feet, 5.9.
DESCENT: Begin by rappelling off slings tied to a large manzanita bush just to the climber's left of the end of Silver Lining. Rappel straight down from here. All raps can be done with two 50-meter ropes. All old webbing tied to the rappel bolts was replaced June 2002, and all stations have 2 aluminum rap rings or a fixed carabiner. 6 rappels will get you back to the ground.