Climbing trip to Pinnacles National Monument, California

Morgan Brown

Canadian Rockies
Sequoia/Kings Canyon

Books that Morgan

Climber's Guide to Pinnacles National Monument
By David Rubine. An excellent, thorough guidebook. Even easy climbs are well-documented. Routes with bad bolts and/or loose rocks are notes as such.

Selected Photos...

Reservoir panorama

"The Sponge" overview

View from High Peaks

Summary Image Gallery Trip Map
  • Date: May 3-4, 2002
  • Routes: Toprope Wall (5.4 TR), First Sister, Center Route (5.4), Sponge: Regular Route (5.2), Holes (5.6 TR)

Click Here

Other Trip Reports...
Kim and I...well, I, played hooky from work to do some spring climbing in Pinnacles National Monument. A month before the trip, I knew nothing about Pinnacles, save for the fact that it was really the only large collection of climbs less than two hours' drive from Palo Alto. However, David Rubine's excellent guidebook inspired a serious exploration of the area. Among the first climbers to scale the monument's eponymous pinnacles in the late 1940s was John Salathe, known for the route up El Capitan bearing the same name. These early climbers literally invented the sport of face climbing as they went, hammering pitons into rocks and though gritty leads, putting up then-undreamed routes up nearly featureless rock. Less poetically, Kim and I had just purchased our own gear, and one of us had to lead the climb. So we were happy to see that Rubine included many seemingly-nice easy routes.

We camped at the Pinnacles campground on the East Side, and made an early start on a cold, foggy friday morning. We cut our teeth on Toprope Wall, a 40-foot crag with an assortment of 5.4-5.9 routes, with easy access to three new anchors. From there, we made our way to First Sister, the first in a series of miniature Flatiron-type rock formations with the picturesque background of a small reservoir and the Monument's namesake crags. I led my first climb, an enjoyable jaunt (partway) up First Sister's Center Route. The fog had long since melted away after our success on First Sister, and we slunk back to our campsite, exhausted by the heat but intensely self-satisfied at our accomplishment.

Saturday morning, we sought to avoid weekend crowds, a hot sun, and the NPS's raptor closures, but still somehow find good rock. The Sponge answered our call. Situated in the midst of Pinnacles's High Peaks area, we found exciting climbing on amazing Swiss cheese-like rock, with shade, solitude, and incredible views to boot! After an exhiliariating-if-strenuous lead up The Sponge's 5.2 Regular Route, we toproped 5.6 Holes, a sustained, long, and very enjoyable romp up the East face.

While a seasoned veteran would laugh at the accomplishments of our two days of climbing, Kim and I drove back to Palo Alto on a high that has stayed with us all day long, and inspired me to write this account on the very same day. The climbing bug has bitten, and I think we'll be back to Pinnacles before long! Below I present more detailed descriptions of each of the routes. We found a major discrepancy between Rubine's book and Center Route on First Sister -- an intermediate anchor and apparently missing bolts above it.

Toprope Wall

Access to this little wall is via the Rim Trail. It's kinda hard to pick out initially. We went too far south, but recognized the distinctive rock called The Camel. A class 3 route from the south of Toprope Wall brings you to a fairly flat plateau with three anchors. The anchor at the top of a well-worn gully is for the 5.4 route up the wall. You'll find an odd arrangement, with an old rusty bolt next to a new one, with another new one about 6 feet away. We spent thirty minutes or so fiddling with the anchor -- our first -- before downclimbing and toproping the route. The climbing on this little route is pretty sustained, though I thought it harder than 5.4, at least by gym standards. Back in the "olden days", I suppose there actually was a difference between 5.2 and 5.5. Nowadays, it seems as if the ratings start at 5.6. Kim's thoughts:We had a good chat about anchors when setting up the toprope for this climb. We read John Long's book, How to Rock Climb! as Morgan tied different combinations and equalizations of the anchor. Morgan is much better with the rope than I am! Still I did make one useful contribution, with the book's help. One combination I recognized from a picture in the book: "It's an American Triangle," I said. And then I read the book out loud "Considering that the physics are all wrong with this setup, it's a wonder that more of these rigs don't fail."

Anyhow, the climbing on the lower part is sustained and fun, over rock that looks loose, but which has been quality-tested by thousands of climbers over the years. The bulge just below the anchor is quite awkward, so I wonder if the 5.4 rating includes this last little bit. In summary, a good place to warm up if you've not climbed in a while, like us. Also, the route is totally shaded, and thus a perfect bet anytime before 10-11 a.m.

First Sister Center Route

Rubine rates the 5.4 Center Route with 3 stars (out of 3) and calls it a "perfect introduction for beginning climbers". I hoped that this "perfect introduction" extended to first-time lead climbers, which was me! After some initial confusion as to whether the route was too long to rappel (Rubine says 2 ropes are required), I took the sharp end of the rope and started my first lead. There are two variations. The first begins on top of an obvious boulder (class 3 climbing to the top) and goes directly up the rock. The second starts about 20 feet lower and traverses to the right. While the traverse seemed awkward, I noticed that this variation was at least bolted, albeit with the first bolt about 20 feet off the deck. This route also had a nice anchor tree for Kim. I elected to climb the second variation.

As I mentioned, the first bolt is around 20 feet up, but the climbing is very easy, over good, solid rock. Clipping into my first bolt was a relieving, but at the same time, exhiliarating experience. The second bolt is out of view from the belay station, just over a rock bulge, and probably 10-15 feet above the first bolt. I tried not to think too much about the runout, but for some reason, I didn't feel too bothered, since the climbing wasn't terribly difficult. After the second bolt, the slope relents momentarily, which gave me a chance to look for the remaining bolts. Scanning, scanning, scanning...nothing. Feeling a bit nervous, I ascended to a prominent chickenhead and slung it, as if I knew what I was doing.

Hoping my first piece of placed pro would hold, I set off blindly, in the hope that the bolt hanger was too rusted to see. All I could see was a bare, rusty 1/4" bolt, sans hanger. Holy shit, I'm 30 feet above the last bolt, and some wiseguy has removed all the other bolts... the idea crossed my mind, but for some reason, I kept climbing. Soon I came across a confusing, but quite welcome sight: a very new two-bolt anchor! I clipped into one bolt, thinking that I'd keep climbing straight up to where the route should be, before reality caught me. This was my first lead and I had pushed my luck long enough. I clipped in directly to the anchor and belayed Kim up. The belay "ledge" was hardly a ledge, more like a 30° recess from 60° rock. It was pretty crowded, but somehow we managed to sort out all the gear and rappel down, this time to the large boulder at the bottom.

Success! What a feeling! All-in-all, a great climb. Excellent scenery, excellent rock, and sustained easy climbing. We plan to return soon, so we can do this Pinnacles classic as a 2-pitch climb. Hopefully there is still an anchor up there...

The Sponge: Regular Route

Rubine rates The Sponge's Regular Route a 2-star 5.2. Since we were based on the East Side, and we had to contend with raptor nesting restrictions, this route seemed like the best shot we had. The approach was long, but hell, we had run the Big Sur Marathon the previous week, so 3 miles with 1200 feet of climbing seemed like child's play. The Sponge also had a 5.6 toprope opportunity and reputedly some interesting and high-quality rock, so that settled it.

I led again, and again, the first bolt was about 20 feet up, over pretty solid, 5.0 or so rock. Still, my heart rate was up a bit when I clipped into the bolt, a rusted beauty. The next bolt is a "mere" 10 feet or so above the first. I tried not to do the math behind a potential groundfall, but the climbing was tough enough to keep me interested. The rock seemed considerably looser, and pretty darn steep. I thought it was tougher than the "5.4" stuff we'd seen yesterday on The First Sister. After clipping the second, I saw a strange thing: another ratty, rusty bolt, in between the two and offset by a few feet. I only had to look at the other two to convince myself to quickly clip in. Unfortuntately, the rope zigzagged, which probably caused considerable drag that plagued me higher up.

After passing the "second" (really the third--the guide only mentions two) bolt, the slope relents, and I was able to take in the spectacular and airy nature of this climb. It is really a wonderful feeling, making your way up the narrow northeast shoulder of the rock. But the reality of a fairly challenging, and unprotected, final section quickly drew my attention back to climbing. Again, I was able to sling a chickenhead. Luckily, this one was bomber, as it would have to be, since falling would not be fun. I was really fighting rope drag at this point, so my biggest concern was to traverse to the belay station in such a way as to minimize the drag. I first tried to traverse around the final steep section on the east, but the loose, lichen-covered rocks, in addition to markedly increased drag, discouraged me. I crossed my fingers and climbed the little arete, reaching the summit pinnacle without incident. From there, you traverse 10 feet or so to the anchor.

I tied off to the anchor and prepared to belay Kim. A little over half of the rope had been required, so rappelling the route we climbed was out of the question. I mightily hoped that we could rap directly off the east face with our 200-footer, but I didn't tell Kim, hoping that it wouldn't be a problem. The rope drag was extreme as I hauled in the slack, and the lower parts of the belay were pretty taxing. Before long, though, Kim joined my on the comfortable and wonderfully airy summit. We set up a rappel, and much to our satisfaction, the rope did reach the ground, with no more than 5 feet on either side to spare.Kim's thoughts:Actually, I would say that Morgan did share his fears. When I had gone about 10 feet down the rock, Morgan asked me if I could see the rope reach to the ground. The rope was all gathered at a ledge, far above the ground. I would have to kick the rope off the ledge to see if it would reach to the ground. Morgan helpfully suggested that I practice wrapping the rope around my leg in the manner described in "Freedom of the Hills" to keep myself stationary while freeing the rope. I thought that it was too late for practice and I just kicked the rope off the ledge as best I could. Thankfully, it reached to the bottom. I think that if it hadn't, I could have stood on that ledge safely for a pretty long time.

The Sponge: Holes

This well-worn route, true to its name, sports some amazing pockets of varying size, and no protection. At 5.6, this is a toprope for us, but probably a sporting solo for others. While keeping an eye on the herds of folks passing our stance, we managed to each climb this very fun route once each. By this time, the temperature had risen considerably, and as we were exposed on the east face of the rock now, we had little desire to linger for much longer.

Holes is a sustained affair, and very much a 5.6 climb, for the first 40-50 feet. Unfortunately for me (long-armed with poor balance), I was able to horse my way up the rock, skipping many moves by clumsily probing at the limits of my reach for monster pockets.

The climbing is uneventful for the remaining 30-40 feet of the climb, mainly mid-angle slabs. We had a bit of a scare with a stuck rope after Kim lowered off her climb. It is amazing what can hang a rope when it runs (under tension) over so much rock, totally out of view.

© 2008 , Stanford Exploration Project
Department of Geophysics
Stanford University

Modified: 11/09/08, 20:12:52 PST , by morgan
Page Maintainer: morgan `AT'