The Needles (Big Methow Needle)

September 27, 2022


North Cascades Highway, WA

The name “The Needles” is official as one can see from USGS topographic maps, but this peak is more commonly known as “Big Methow Needle” in the recent era. The unofficial name was given by a group of peak-baggers back in the early 2010s. The reason is obvious as “The Needles” sounds rather unattractive. “Big Methow Needle” can also be considered as the highest spire in this group of peaks called The Needles. There is no “easy” way to reach this summit as the easiest option (East Face) involves 3 pitches of rock climbing up to 5.7 and there’s no established trail to facilitate the access meaning some degrees of bushwhacking is also required. A few other towers in this group of peaks seem to be even harder to climb and in fact I don’t think those had been climbed more than a handful times. By contrary the second highest in this group is a walk-up summit as a consolation prize or a bonus bag for many parties in the past, but for me it’s either the true summit or nothing, so I’m only interested in tagging “Big Methow Needle” and that’s it.

I had seen this peak from various summits in the vicinity of Washington Pass but I never actually put in time to research until recently. I learnt that the easiest route was 5.7 and I immediately put it up on the agenda. I reached out to a few rock climbers and two eventually signed up for the challenge. Francis needed no introduction. I had never done anything with Sarah R. but I knew she just did the Chehalis group VRC Traverse, and that’s enough of a resume for me to believe in her ability. There are a few good trip reports on and the general consensus was the earlier the season the easier that first pitch would be. In fact all but Eric Gilbertson’s 2021 ascent were done with significant snow coverage to shorten the start, but then I talked to Eric and his honestly thought the first 6-7 meters of Pitch 1 was actually not the crux so the 5.7 rating would still be legit even without snow. I usually trust Eric’s judgement so that’s why I decided to do this peak in late September. After the trip I would totally agree with Eric that the bulge (higher up on Pitch 1) and the layback crack (start of Pitch 3) are the actual cruxes and they would never get covered by snow. This further means that I would actually recommend to climb this peak in dry conditions. Not needing to worry about snow-to-rock transitions (moats) and not needing to bring ice axe and crampons is definitely appealing.

The three of us grouped in White Rock at 9:30 pm on Monday evening and we drove down south across the border in my Corolla. I drove us to Rainy Pass trail-head and car-camped there. Both Francis and I opted to sleep in our respective tents while Sarah slept inside the car. I was planning to also sleep in the car but only the passenger seat was comfortable. The next morning we woke up at 6:30 am and drove to the “trail-head” an hour later. We parked at the tiny pull-out on the immediate north side of Pine Creek (space for 1 vehicle) and started the day there. The other option was to park at Lone Fir Campground but that would add a few minutes of walking on the highway.

The Needles/Big Methow Needle via Pine Creek. GPX DL

We walked back to the south side of Pine Creek and dived into the bush right away. I knew to find the start of the unofficially maintained trail would be next to impossible so our strategy was to basically treat this as a bushwhack. Sarah volunteered to lead us through this initial sections of the approach and got us onto the trail after about 15 minutes of light bushwhacking. I think we travelled too close to the creek as otherwise we could have found the trail even earlier. The quality of this trail was actually quite good. Near the creek crossing we briefly lost the trail in a field of dead-falls but then we were very close to the creek crossing anyway. The crossing was trivial at this time of a year and to our surprise we actually picked up the trail on the other (north) side of Pine Creek and nobody had mentioned that in the trip reports. This trail brought us to some garbage dumps in the forest and continued through the avalanche path with alders. We were expecting at least half an hour’s thrashing to power through this stretch but the trail kept travelling towards the direction we wanted and we ended up getting through the alders in under 15 minutes. The trail disappeared on the far west side of the slide path but that’s also where we needed to ascend straight up the forested slope anyway and the forest was mostly open without underbrush.

Sarah leading us into the forest. We found no trail at the beginning
One of the few annoying dead-falls that we had to duck under
We found a trail later but sections were chocked with dead-falls
A very cool pond at the creek crossing spot
We found the trail to be continue onto the other side through the slide path

From here it was a 1000 vertical meters of straight-up grunt to the base of the summit tower and the strategy was to break it into stages. After ascending the lower, mature forest we came to a section of slabs. We likely could have walked around the slabs but these slabs didn’t seem to be difficult so why bother to walk around. It turned out that we had to do some class 3 scrambling but nothing exposed. The slabs then yielded back to the ridge crest with some loose rocks and dead-falls. The going was rather monotonous for the next hour and we took several breaks along the way. There’s a bowl showing up to the right and Francis led us traversing into that bowl with some cool larches views. The natural way was then to ascend out of this bowl on the far side, but we made a spontaneous decision to ascend leftwards onto the ridge crest. This added distance but we were doing great on time and we assumed the ridge would offer some different views. This turned out to be a good call as we got some great view of The Needles from this SW Ridge.

Sarah negotiating that slabs section
Francis plodding up the typical terrain on our approach ridge
Sarah plodding up. It’s like this for at least 2 hours long
Upwards and onward. Silver Star Mountain behind
Our first close-up view of “Big Methow Needle”
The larches season is definitely around the corner!
Sarah and the larches with Big Kangaroo behind
Francis leading us into that larches bowl
We then plodded up the west side of the bowl to access the SW Ridge
Sarah onto the SW Ridge now
Our first view of Tower Mountain, highest in this group of peaks
Sarah plodding up the SW Ridge in front of The Needles
“Big Methow Needle” being the highest in The Needles
Me posing in front of The Needles

Traversing back to the “standard route” involved some scrambling over a few broken towers. We then plodded up some loose terrain to the base of the rock climb. The climbing appeared rather easy for the 5.7 grade. Sarah and Francis played some rock and scissors as they both wanted to lead the supposedly challenging Pitch 1. Sarah won the game so took the lead, and reported this pitch to be easier than 5.7. Francis and I followed and we both thought that bulge feature would deserve this grade, but there were only two or three moves involved to work around that bulge.

A lone larch tree on the ridge. Definitely some unclimbed lines behind
More about Sarah plodding up the ridge
Sarah nearing the base of the climb
At the base of the technical summit climb
The terrain is definitely vertical on other faces of this peak
Sarah staring up the first pitch
Sarah working around the tricky bulge
Me starting up Pitch 1

I then took over the lead on Pitch 2 as this supposed to be the easiest pitch. The climbing was mostly 4th class and I could have soloed it, but placed a #2 cam anyway. The second pitch involved climbing upwards towards climber’s left followed by traversing a broader ledge to the right to a rappel anchor. There’s some rope drag and that cam actually served as a redirection point for the rope. Francis led the 3rd pitch which started with that 5.7 layback crack. We all thought this was the crux of this entire route as the climbing moves were rather sustained for a few vertical meters. The crack soon gave way to easier terrain but I couldn’t get one of the nuts that Francis placed. I told him to deal with that on the descent and resumed the climbing. From the top of this pitch we just needed to scramble some 4th class broken terrain to the summit, which itself wasn’t very spacious. I found this register to be another cool one enriched with Washington’s mountaineering history in the past 50 years. There are definitely far more entries than on West Fury but most of the names are well known in this community.

Sarah belaying me leading Pitch 2
Francis coming up the second pitch along that wide bench traverse
Francis then leading the crux layback
Sarah following up the layback crack on Pitch 3
This nut was temporarily stuck as I could not retrieve it
Me coming up Pitch 3 above the layback crack
Francis scrambling above the third pitch
Other bumps on this Needles massive
Me climbing up onto the summit
Francis on the true summit of The Needles/Big Methow Needle
Tower Mountain with Black Peak behind on the left horizon
Azurite Peak and Mt. Ballard are the two obvious peaks on the left
Golden Horn with some fires behind
Meshachie Peak, Kimtah Peak etc. with Eldorado Peak behind
Sarah on the summit of “Big Methow Needle”
Francis on the summit with Silver Star Mtn. behind
In the foreground are other needles in this group of peaks
We scrambled along the narrow ridge to explore
Another photo of Sarah on the summit of “Big Methow Needle”
Me on the summit of “Big Methow Needle”

We all down-climbed to the top of Pitch 3 and did three rappels from station to station using Sarah’s 70m single rope. In the end we only used a few cams and a nut. Sarah also couldn’t get Francis’ nut but Francis eventually managed to yank it out using blunt forces so we didn’t leave anything behind. All of the anchors seemed secure and we did not add more tats neither. I was thinking to tag that bonus point but the terrain seemed rather shitty. I could not claim that as a separate summit anyway so didn’t bother. We descended straight down into the larches bowl and then slowly followed our own way out. There wasn’t much worth documenting about the descent other than being patient to stay on the GPS track. I think we made a very efficient track for this route so stick to it and you’ll find the trail. Our round trip time was under 9 hours on a leisurely pace and we eventually got back into Canada exactly 24 hours after crossing the border the night before. Overall this was a satisfactory trip bagging an obscured and technical summit.

Sarah preparing for the first rappel
Sarah on the first rappel
At that tiny belay ledge with the second highest needle behind
Francis yanked that nut out eventually. We together probably spent 20 min there.
Sarah leading down the second rappel
Me starting down the second rappel
Francis on the second rappel
Sarah led down the 3rd rappel
Lots and lots of fires burning even in late September. That’s crazy…
A review shot and our rough route shown
About to commit to the 1000 m plunge into the valley
Another photo of Tower Mountain and Golden Horn
Sarah and Francis about to descend into the larch bowl
The terrain was loose and unpleasant
Our objective behind looking impressively
Silver Star Mountain in the background
Sarah descending boulder fields
Traversing back out of that larch bowl
The typical terrain on the ridge descent.
Francis walking down the slabs section
Entering the alders but we stuck to the trail, not too bad
Taking a needed break at the creek crossing as we were all low on water
Some dead-falls on the return hike. We soon found the trail on the other side.