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Sticking Needles in the Haystack

This essay first appeared in Alpinist 55–Autumn 2016 as part of our Wind River Range Mountain Profile.

Kyle Dempster, Hayden Kennedy, Jeff Lowe and Lowe's granddaughter. In 2013 Dempster and Kennedy, along with the late Justin Griffin, established a variation to the North Tower Crack, which they called the Lowe-Spark (IV 5.13 A0, 1,200'). Here Lowe holds one of the pitons that he'd placed in 1969 and that the 2013 ascent team recovered from the original route. [Photo] Kyle Dempster.

Kyle Dempster, Hayden Kennedy, Jeff Lowe and Lowe’s granddaughter. In 2013 Dempster and Kennedy, along with the late Justin Griffin, established a variation to the North Tower Crack, which they called the Lowe-Spark (IV 5.13 A0, 1,200′). Here Lowe holds one of the pitons that he’d placed in 1969 and that the 2013 ascent team recovered from the original route. [Photo] Kyle Dempster.

GREY AND ANGULAR MOUNTAINS, puffy white clouds and sun-jeweled lakes. Yellow rays filter through the pines in the southern Wind Rivers. The North Tower of Haystack gleams on a golden day, bright sun on bronzed granite–on Geoff Heath–on me. Geoff and I are living on the side of the Tower. We have a vertical home for today, tomorrow and the early morning of the next day. Soon enough, we’ll reach the limit of our skill, or the top of the mountain, and as always there will be no place to go but down.

Geoff does a slow dance across a polished slab. He’s not being lazy, but rather…careful. The long-gone glacier was careful also, to grind rugosities off the slab. Smooth rubber-soled PA climbing shoes and practiced skill allow Geoff to tiptoe safely past the three bolts I’d placed on an earlier solo reconnaissance. Like a light-footed wolf, I scurry across the slab to join the shady nest of his rock-horn anchor. I am climbing well and enjoying it.

Then it’s tap, tap, tap–over a big arch and back into the midday sun. Each piton only goes in an inch, between compact shingles. Hanging from better ones above the arch, I yell to Geoff that it looks blank below the crack system leading to the summit and that I hope it will go. Secretly, I know that somehow it will. I reach the sky, and climb into a corner to belay. I doze in my perch. The sound of Geoff removing pitons rings distantly:

ping, ping, ping…

Ping, Ping, Ping…


I awaken startled to see Geoff nearby, jangling with iron. On a previous reconnaissance, I soloed the first four pitches and studied the route for days. I think I’ve spotted a way into the summit crack that will use few bolts. But it needs to be done right. I can’t leave it to someone else. “Would you mind too much if I lead the rest of the way?” I ask Geoff.

The slightest of pauses…

“No man, go for it.”

So my dream can be realized. On this climb, at least.

I lead out above Geoff to where the crack peters out, finesse a beat-on into a dimple, and hang from it. I look down to see Geoff at the bottom of the corner, belaying and gazing west at the falling sun. Shadows are being cast eastward by Warbonnet Peak and the shark’s teeth of the Cirque of the Towers. The valleys are cooling off, but it’s still hot on the wall.

At the first truly blank section, a bolt or two seems necessary–but not so fast. I know from scoping with a telescope that around another corner lies a hidden fissure. I lean waaaay out right: it’s just a seam, but it’s enough. After a couple of knifeblade placements, it’s exhilarating free climbing to a hanging belay.

Higher up, we pull out the hammocks for a bivouac. More accurately, we pull out one hammock and two belay seats. Geoff has forgotten his hammock. Since he let me lead, I offer him the hammock and make do with the two belay seats. I use one belay seat for my feet and sit in the other with a couple of slings around my chest to support my upper body and head.

Soon we’re eating greasy salami and cheese while the stars appear one by one, and then– almost suddenly–the sky is filled with a billion points of light. I spend the night adjusting the belay seats in a futile attempt to get comfortable. My guardian Orion marches across the firmament, and we both get plenty of rest.

The next morning, we’re free climbing, a welcome easy pitch above our bivy. I envision a way to connect a few flakes and fissures on an otherwise blank wall, but become uncertain. Maybe I’ve let my imagination lead me astray. Geoff probably wonders what the hell I’m doing. Well, I’m lassoing a flake that’s flexing, and I’m placing a pin that won’t hold. I use it anyway. It holds. There’s a crack going horizontally left…. Two skyhooks to reach it…. It’s only a RURP crack…. Several RURP placements lead to a loose flake that won’t take pitons but swallows a couple of creaky nuts…more skyhooks…and now a bolt…. A BOLT! Security at last…I can finally relax. Twenty feet higher, I bolt a belay. At my solid anchors, I wipe my forehead with a “PHEW” and holler down to Geoff that this is really FUN!

As I haul one of our packs, Geoff begins jumaring with the other. He has trouble in the spots where the route zigzags between pitons, but he manages to collect all the pins and soon arrives at the belay. By afternoon, I’m feeling like an alpine animal on flawless fine-grained granite. Our conversation, quiet and almost reverent on this mountain steeple, is tinged with optimism about our progress. We’ve stowed the Jumars away. Now we are free climbers.

I’m feeling focused and aggressive, sure that we’ll succeed. I lead the first pitch of the summit crack free. Geoff does well following the initial part of the lead, but near the end, he climbs the rope hand over hand. He asks to lead the next pitch as soon as he arrives at the belay. Perhaps, I think, he wants to atone for what he might consider a poor performance on the last pitch, or maybe he feels I’m secretly gloating over my free-climbing abilities. This is our first climb together, and he probably wants to do an equal share. What can I say? I let him have the lead.

It’s a mistake. Things only get worse for Geoff. In his present state of mind, he appears to have trouble concentrating on the climbing. He goes immediately on to aid. Twenty feet up, the crack suddenly splits, and he’s faced with a crackless wall of twenty feet that needs to be free climbed on small, but good holds to reach the continuation of the crack system. It’s a stretch that Geoff would normally walk across. Now, though, he backs off the lead.

In the glow of the setting sun, I’m climbing really well, feeling tuned in to the rock and infused with the energy of this beautiful place. I free the twenty feet of aid to the blank wall, and then the blank wall itself, very quickly. Established in the summit crack again, I encounter the most difficult section of the route. I imagine that in his seemingly demoralized state, Geoff won’t be able to free the overhanging hand and fist crack. But I can’t bring myself to use aid. I have my own needs. I’m climbing in my own myth now. I push myself right to my limits when aid would have been easy and just as fast.

We spend another night under a blanket of stars, sitting side by side on a little ledge several hundred feet below the summit. We’re dehydrated and uncomfortable, but as night wears on, Geoff and I shift against each other, trying to find some position to relieve the ache in our bones. We start talking. Geoff confesses his frustrations. I reveal my admiration for how well he’s doing on his first big climb. I could barely keep up as he loped, wolf-like, on the approach. I’m impressed by his deep knowledge of the trees, flowers and wildlife of the Wind River Range, wishing I could discipline myself to study those things I love dearly, too.

Gradually, the tension between us dissipates. As the last iota of heat leaves the stone, the transfer of warmth reverses direction: now the mountain sucks warmth from our bodies. Our egos finally take a rest and allow us simply to deal with the self-inflicted chore of making it through the night.

Morning arrives, creaky and cold. We take the last sips from our water bottles, stretch our arms, and bend from side to side. I’m still groggy as I wriggle up a ten-inch squeeze chimney. Fifty feet above Geoff, I grab a chockstone and start to pull myself up, thankful for the respite from groveling. The boulder dislodges from the crack, grazes my hip and plunges toward Geoff. “ROCK, ROCK,” I scream. Geoff looks up, and I see the stone will score a direct hit if he doesn’t react. With little sign of fear, in what seems like slow motion, he casually leans to one side as the missile whizzes past.

I finish the lead shaking with the knowledge that my carelessness has almost killed my friend. When Geoff arrives at the belay, he brushes off my profuse apologies and accepts my request that he take over the lead to the summit. He throws the hardware sling over his shoulder, climbs past me in a flurry of arms and legs and disappears from view.

The rope moves faster and faster through my hands until I can’t feed it out fast enough. Then it stops, and after a minute a distant “Off belay” floats over the void, over the meadows and forests below, over the shadow of Haystack and into the bright rays of another brilliant sun. “Come on up, Jeff, we’re on top!” he yells.

Twenty minutes later, I plunk down next to Geoff on the summit. The whole range is a stormy, white-capped sea of peaks. We talk quietly, soaking in the warmth of the sun. My satisfaction is doubled by Geoff’s mellow tone and contented smile. We’re out of food and water, though, so we soon head down. When we hit a stream, we plop on our bellies and lap like canines at the cold current. On our way to base camp, Geoff promises to teach me how to tickle trout from under the banks.

Life couldn’t be better for two young wolves moving silently through tall marsh-grass, eyes alert for silver flashes in the crystal clear meandering stream. They’ll have fresh fish for brunch.

[Abridged from an essay published on Supertopo in 2006.–Ed.]

Read more essays from our Wind River Range Mountain Profile.

This essay first appeared in Alpinist 55–Autumn 2016 as part of our Wind River Range Mountain Profile. Subscribe today or order your own copy in the store.