Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pinnacles National Monument

Pinnacles National Monument is one of the most unique and adventurous of all the climbing areas in Northern California. Located along the San Andreas Fault near Soledad, Pinnacles is the former site of a once 8,000 foot volcano that has eroded and separated along the fault line over the last 23 million years. What remains are dozens (if not hundreds) of free standing spires of rock and rock faces up to 600 feet tall. Due to the erosion, and the very porous, almost conglomerate nature of the rock, the climbing here sports a great deal more objective danger than the perfect, clean granite of the Sierra Nevada range that makes California the envy of the world crack climbing scene. Loose rock, rock falls, questionable bolts, and a long tradition of ground up only first ascents means that it takes a special kind of climber to make Pinnacles a regular destination. That said, there are a number of well bolted, fantastically enjoyable sport climbs here for the fledgling leader, thus making Pinnacles a great destination for those looking to hone their skills while experiencing a great and unique location just over two hours from downtown San Francisco.

Climbing here began in the early 1930s. Famed conservationist and climber, David Brower began climbing here in the 1930s and according to guidebook author, Brad Young (A Climber's Guide to Pinnacles National Monument), Brower placed the first ever bolt on a rock climb in the United States here on Condor Crag in 1933.

Other famous climbers to put up first ascents in the Pinnacles include, Jim Bridwell, Steve Roper, Ax Nelson, John Salathe, Dick Leonard, Jim Beyer, and many more.

A note about the ground up ethic: In Pinnacles, all climbs were done first on lead, with the first ascentionists drilling bolts from stances. As a result of this ethic, many of the climbs feature runout sections or require slinging horns of rock for additional protection. There are very few cracks and so trad gear is usually not an available complement to the existing bolts. Additionally, because all rock at Pinnacles is to an extent friable, no single bolt should ever (here or anywhere else for that matter!) be entrusted with the climber's life. Further, many of the bolts remain from decades ago and finding 1/4" buttonheads with rusted out hangers or the old SMH hangars is not only probable, it is highly likely!

I've topped out on several climbs in Pinnacles only to find the fixed anchor bolts to be half-drilled, loose, 1/4" death jobs and had to downclimb to my last protection bolt and leave a locking biner or two to lower from. I've also had to once employ the "Pinnacles Rappel" which is a simul-rappel with your partner going off either side of a pinnacle with the rope running over the summit. I can tell you that this was not a 'pleasant' experience and one I'd prefer to never have to do again if I can help it!! Therefore, it pays to know as much as possible about your intended route before casting off on the sharp end.

Also, important to note is that under no circumstances whatsoever should anyone ever climb at pinnacles without a helmet (and this goes for both climber and belayer!!!!)
Recently I'd taken a friend from the east coast to Pinnacles for his first ever outdoor lead. I decided that Big Bad West (5.5) on the Pinnacles West Side would be ideal...well bolted, short (approx 40-50 feet), and aesthetically pleasing as the climb ascends out of a stream bed gully up a beautiful and distinct black water streak. As this climb is very popular, I assumed that most of the loose rock should have been dislodged by previous parties, and so I offered him my helmet (the only one in our possession at that moment) figuring it'd be more likely he'd need it in case of a fall than I would as the belayer. NOT SO! After dispatching the route without any trouble, he stepped back to be lowered and dislodged a microwave size block. Disintegrating as it fell, it rained six or seven grapefruit size blocks at my head. Stuck in the streambed I could only hold tightly on the belay and say an nondenomenational prayer for both of our lives! My prayes answered, we both survived unscathed but the obvious lesson was learned: DON'T EVEN THINK OF CLIMBING AT PINNACLES WITHOUT HELMENTS!!!!

Additionally, more experienced climbers who have a sense for how hangars should be tightened down (flush with the rock, never in a way that increases leverage on the bolt, etc) may wish to have 1/4" and 3/8" wreches on their rack should the climber reach a summit and find loose hangers on otherwise decent bolts.

Directions: From San Francisco, take 101-S all the way to Soledad. Exit onto 146 and follow the signs all the way to the West entrance station.

Fees: $5 per vehicle for a pass good for seven days. Annual passes are $15. All interagency national parks passes are accepted at the Monument.

Other: Falcon closures are common on some of the climbs in Pinnacles. For updated information re: closures visit either the National Park website at: http://www.nps.gov/pinn/planyourvisit/advisory.htm or Clint Cummins' Friends of the Pinnacles website (also replete with great information about climbing and routes) at

Also worth checking out are the Balconies Caves. The caves require a headlamp or flashlight. The caves are relatively small, but are quite fun to explore.

Nearby: After climbing and on your way back to the 101, make sure to stop into the small Mexican food eatery and bakery. The tacos and burritos are amazing and very inexpensive!

Seasons: Often wet and mossy in the winter, and much too hot in the summer to climb. Best to climb here in the late Spring or early Fall.

Favorite climbs for beginners on the West Side include:

* Big Bad West (5.5). This is a 4 or 5 bolt climb to a three bolt anchor. Approach from the West Side Parking lot. BBW is located on the first slab encountered on the left hand side of the trail leading into Pinnacles from the parking lot. Belay out of the obvious stream bedc.

*** Corona (5.6). Approximately 90 feet of well protected slab climbing ending at belay chains. (Note: Please do not lower from the chains. Rappel from them to avoid unncessary and dangerous wear on the chains!!!) Approach up the climber's trail marked with a carabiner symbol from the main Balconies Caves Trail to Badman Mezzanine. After a short ascent, you will reach the rock face. The first climb on you see is Corona. To its left in the black water streak is Dos Equis (5.8 R).

* Walk the Plank (5.6) Chockstone Dome. The large rock over the start to the Balconies Caves. This route is appropriately named as the climb traverses left over a chasm, then heads up.

* Photographer's Delight (5.2). A free standing pinnacle of approx 25 ft. This route is high on the ridge along the High Peaks Trail and provides an opportunity for that once-in-a-lifetime photo of the climber standing on a very small needle point spire high above the base of the mountain. While the climb is only 25 ft, if appropriately cropped, it will make you look as though you've climbed 1800 ft up a tiny spire. (For those who like to brag and overstate their climbing achievements this is an ideal place to begin! ;)

* Costanoan (5.4). Three pitch route up the left skyline of The Citadel. Well bolted but with difficult(ish) descent down over 4th class terrain or several double-rope rappels.

No comments:

Post a Comment