Peak(s):  Gray Needle  -  13,430 feet
"Noname Needle"  -  13,620 feet
Date Posted:  09/18/2020
Modified:  10/08/2020
Date Climbed:   08/15/2020
Author:  Boggy B
Additional Members:   GK83
 The Real Gray Needle, Noname Needle and The Mystery of the Missing Tat  


All of the major peaks in the Needle mountains had been previously climbed, but there are still numerous unclimbed pinnacles offering challenge to the rock climber. One of these, Gray Needle, at the west end of Jagged Mountain, was first climbed by a party from the [1953] outing. Expansion bolts were used on one 30-foot stretch of the climb. -- American Alpine Club, A.A.C. and C.M.C. Joint Outing, Needle Mountains, Colorado, July 19 - August 9, 1953

Will the real Gray Needle please stand up? -- Jim DiNapoli, August 26, 2012

Gray Needle is a peak surrounded by mystery. According to the 1953 brief, it should be found on the west side of the Jagged massif, and the climb should entail a difficult section perhaps yet sporting a number of 70-year-old bolts. The USGS topographic maps indicate no less than eight independent towers on the Jagged massif west of the summit, and in reality there are more than that. Only unranked, unnamed Noname Needle has a degree of prominence when viewed from most perspectives, and though it has been mistaken for Gray Needle, the climb is too easy to fit the description.

Maybe a roster of the 1953 outing to Noname Basin was kept. Were such a document produced, the names could be checked to determine if any of the party are still alive, and of them, who might have participated in or know further details of the ascent of Gray Needle and its precise location.

What is certain is that Gray Needle has been bureaucratically misplaced. Officially named by the USGS, it was assigned an elevation of 13,330 feet (recently upgraded to 13,366 feet) and located at the point labeled 13,430 on the USGS maps; thus the latter is the elevation typically used. This location was most likely bestowed by an unappreciated, underpsyched, bleary-eyed government intern racing a hard deadline to finish the everloving map.

Overview topo

And so we have the official Gray Needle, the middle of five rugged towers at the western terminus of Jagged Mountain. Decreasing in elevation from east to west, these are bookended on the east by Noname Needle with its impressive tabular capstone and on the west by the "Chess Piece" or "Bishop" as nicknamed by Steve Gladbach and Jim DiNapoli. They presumed this to be Gray Needle but, while distinctive, it is the lowest and has perhaps the least real prominence of the five towers. It does not appear to be a trivial climb, though an array of pitons should be more conducive to an ascent than a bolt ladder. Gray Needle is in fact the "Coke Bottle Needle," so called by Jim and Steve for the large bottle-shaped rock standing on its south flanks. It is more easily identified by another striking feature on its east shoulder that I have come to call the "Lizard's Head," in keeping with the San Juan tradition of unique and creative names.

Ridge of needles (not to be confused with Needle Ridge) viewed from Peak Ten


Gray Needle seen from the south

The Bishop seen from the north

Grant and I consider the sea of needles to the west of Jagged from our camp beside the little alpine lake just below Jagged Pass. They're all gray, but after scouting efforts last fall I am confident in my knowledge of the correct summit and how to efficiently access the upper reaches of the ridge upon which it is perched. Gray Needle stands just 1,200 feet above our camp--a modest climb by Weminuche standards--and so, sore from porting an outrageous amount of technical gear from Beartown, we decide to sleep in.

Minor scrambling on a variation of the Kodiak High Route

Bench above Leviathan Lake

Leviathan Lake, Peak, and pass (photo Grant)



Jagged from Leviathan Pass (photo Grant)

Needles in silhouette from Jagged Pass (Gray Needle at left)

A gray needle at the NW corner of the Jagged west ridgeline

Camp below Jagged Pass

Campside views (photo Grant)

(photo Grant)

Noname Needle and Gray Needle can be accessed by a short, steep hike up the cirque that joins Gray Needle and Peak Ten. The key to this approach is encountered 400 feet below the Jagged-Peak Ten saddle: a narrow, grassy ramp that rises north to intersect the southwest-facing gully beneath Noname Needle. From this intersection, steep grass, sand and boulders in the gully lead to the south face of Gray Needle after a few hundred feet and finally to Noname Needle at the very top of the gully. It is also possible to continue on the ramp past the gully, following the ledge around the west end of the ridge to a narrowing goat trail that eventually dead-ends in a terrific drop on the north side.

Gray Needle south face

After a subalpine start we find ourselves beneath the south flanks of Gray Needle at 8am. Leaving the southwest gully, we scramble another 200 feet of 3rd class boulders and gravel to a grassy patch below the jumble of rocks that comprise the peak. Perhaps even more so than nearby summits, Gray Needle is not a monolith but rather a federation of tall, oblong boulders and slabs stacked one upon the other, leaning uniformly to the east, and standing mostly by virtue of crowding. From a distance such broken terrain appears navigable by any number of boulder-hopping routes, but its scale is wholly unappreciated until one draws near.

Grant is the ideal partner for this adventure. While my enthusiasm tends to fade when faced with venturing upwards into unknown technical terrain, especially with partners who rely on me for safety, his confidence that we will make the top is backed by much alpine experience, and thus with stoke to spare we don't dally at the technical threshold. We pause only to harness up. 50 feet up, Grant hikes a right-angling 5th class chimney; I toss up my pack and move deeper into the chimney to climb an easier 5.4 squeeze. Above this we find a small platform below a gently overhanging refrigerator of a chockstone blocking progress up the loosely defined chimney system. Beyond is a chossy rabbit-hole that looks like it will go. The Lizard's Head looms directly above.

3rd classing beneath the Lizard's Head

We rope up. Grant places a cam, overcomes the chockstone and decides to traverse left around a huge boulder instead of continuing into the tunnel. He soon reappears atop the boulder and sets a belay in cracks there. For me, this chockstone presents a challenge with good but awkward holds and physical moves to surmount, around 5.8. Following Grant's lead, I move left around a sloping corner, which features a bizarre tumorous outcrop of disintegrating granite forming a handrail of questionable utility, and up to the belay.

Here we face another chockstone, rounded and smaller than the first, protruding over a gap to our left. I take the lead and waste a minute poking around for protection before deciding to just go. The football-sized rocks wedged in the gap shift as I sportily bearhug the dinosaur egg to reach holds above. This feels a tad easier than the lower crux, maybe 5.7. I place a cam and continue up easier terrain. At first I scramble out left, where I'm faced with a difficult wall to the left or a flaring offwidth to the right. Behind me, a wide chimney comprised of stacked blocks beside a smaller crack looks more user-friendly, so I back down a few feet and step across into the chimney, which leads easily to the ridge midway between the summit and the Lizard's Head. I scramble up to a platform below the summit blocks and sling a boulder for the belay.

Easier terrain below the east ridge (photo Grant)

Grant tops out the E ridge

Grant quickly joins me to ponder the twin summit blocks, which are anything but. The left one is ten feet tall, rectangular, and solid; the right one is a rounded, crumbling boulder seated on a platform. We are able to scramble easily to stand atop the solid block, but we jump to tag the other. Though we can't tell which is taller, it is clear that we are at least a few feet higher than the Lizard's Head, which comes as a relief to me since it looks terrifying. My GPS reads 13,460 feet and Grant's reads 13,390. We find no evidence of a prior ascent--no cairn, register, pitons, bolts, nor anchor material--although if we have made the first ascent of this point it is surely thanks to lack of interest rather than the difficulty of the climb.

[Author Edit: Peter Stabolepszy says of Gray Needle "Grey needle was a blast. We did several pinnacles that day which proved to be challenging. [...] Grey Needle was a challenge (not as much as the index climb wise) but more of a challenge figuring out which needle it was. It took us two days of climbing to climb all the points to ensure success." Given that, we can assume he climbed this point, too.]

Grant on the summit

Summit scramble with view to Peak Ten (photo Grant)

View to NE over the Bishop (photo Grant)

View upridge to Noname Needle (photo Grant)

We debate how to rate it. My overall impression is old-timey 5.6. Grant half-jokingly suggests V0 would more accurately describe the nature of the climb. I write "5.6 / V0" in the register we leave in the pile of rocks beneath the summit blocks. The next party are welcome to their opinion.

We make two rappels back to the patch of grass where we left our poles, the first around 110 feet and the second 80 or 90 feet.

2nd rappel (photo Grant)


The day is still young, so we opt to make a side trip to Noname Needle. When Kylie and I climbed it last fall, I took the wrong crack and pulled on gear to pass an overhang, so I'm wanting another shot at a fair-means ascent. Grant and I return to the southwest gully and continue up steepening grass, then scramble left to the keyhole in the ridge, and finally meander right to the staging area below the southwest cracks. Grant leads the correct (left) 5.8 crack smoothly and I follow, finding his route much better than the one I had taken. This reasonably fun 80-foot pitch, more sustained than the climbing on Gray Needle but less cruxy, leads to a boulder-choked gully that marks the saddle between the twin summits.

After his climb with Steve in 2012, Jim wondered at the lack of a rappel anchor for the first pitch. Likewise, Kylie and I found no anchor in 2019; and today there's no trace of the cord we left less than a year ago, though the chockstone it wrapped is still firmly wedged in place. It seems unlikely that goats or even marmots frequent this peak, so my best guess is strong winds rake the saddle between the twin summits, fraying and eventually severing cordage, which then just blows away.

After scrambling to the summit, we return to the saddle and leave a new length of bright orange cord for our rappel.

Gray Needle with the "Coke Bottle" on the left

Grant leads Noname Needle

View downridge from the summit of Noname Needle (photo Grant)

Gray needles at the west end of Jagged

Descent from Noname with Needle #2 at left

Needles above camp (photo Grant)


Hoping to climb at least The Index, we start before dawn the next morning for Ruby Basin, which requires first descending steeply 1,500 feet into Noname Basin. By the time we make treeline on the subsequent 2,000-foot bushwhack to the Peak Twelve-Monitor saddle, my knee has decided I should return home, so Grant continues on to explore upper Ruby while I go soak in a cold pool along the route back up to camp.

Knife Point from Noname Basin (photo Grant)

The business above Ruby Basin (photo Grant)

Later that afternoon, we decide to break up the hike out, so we pack our camp and return along the Kodiak High Route to camp on a nice ledge below the Peak Seven-Eight saddle with a fantastic view of the Trinitys.

Returning to Leviathan Pass

Camp below Peak Eight

Trinitys (photo Grant)

The final morning as we descend the talus towards Lake Silex we're stalked doggedly by an ermine behaving as if taking prey our size is routine.

Ermine standoff (photos Grant)





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 Comments or Questions
09/19/2020 09:22
Hey Boggy,

Congrats on your climb(s)! That's a pretty rugged area, obviously a lot of work. Curious: Did you ever see any evidence of the "bolt ladder" referenced in past reports? I've always wondered where that was. Oh, and maybe birds took your tat? I've read they'll pick apart rap materials for their nests. Just a guess. Congrats again!


gore galore
09/20/2020 20:05
There is an existing roster to the AAC-CMC joint summer outing in the Needle Mountains of 1953 when the Gray Needle was climbed. There are 93 names listed reportedly from 7-70 years of age. Some notables are Barry Bishop of future Everest renown, Orrin Bonney author of the Wyoming mountain field guides, Dr. Henry Buchtel of the first west buttress ascent of Mount Mckinley with Bradford Washburn in 1951 and the McClintocks, Frank and Henry of the old San Juan Mountaineers. All of the principal climbers of the outing are no longer living with the possible exception of one or two Denver Junior members who would be in their late eighties. I do not know of those climbers on the outing who might have made the first ascent of the Gray Needle.

Boggy B

09/21/2020 09:28
Ah good point, Tom. That's probably it. Maybe we should have left webbing instead. At least the cord is getting put to good use!

I have yet to find the bolts. The official Gray Needle cannot be the original one. We identified a tower ("a gray needle" pictured above) that I now believe could be it. A climb directly up the north-facing ridge from Jagged Pass might discover the bolts.

Gore, thanks for the insight! Is this roster available online? The McClintocks were prolific in the San Juans and, based on their route selection elsewhere, I would bet they took part in the Gray Needle climb.

Kent McLemore

Hat’s off!
09/27/2020 22:14
Terrific write-up. I happened to be in Noname Basin when Steve and Jim were there. They had climbed Sunlight Spire and backpacked over Twin Thumbs Pass to aim for Gray Needle. I had the coolest visit with Steve at our camp in Noname and feel fortunate to have encountered him out there.

Iâve admired those Jagged Ridge Needles from the south (Knifepoint) and north (the unnamed Basin below Jagged Pass and Peak 10 from which you climbed.) They are impressive features. I canât imagine climbing them. Well done!

Boggy B

09/28/2020 10:40
Thanks Kent. Great that you got to meet Steve.

The ridge of needles seen to the north from Knife Point actually is an extension of the west ridge of Peak Ten and is not the ridge that contains Gray Needle. I think it's unlikely this ridge contains the original Gray Needle, either, since Peak Ten was known as a distinct summit in 1953 and the report should have described GN relative to Peak Ten instead of Jagged, were it on the southern ridge.

Note the original photo of Gray Needle on LoJ is of the wrong ridge (the one you saw from Knife Point) as well, though they appear similar from the south. And the GN cover photo here is actually of The Bishop. Confusing eh?


Nice, write up
09/29/2020 13:12
Glad you got it. Or maybe got it. Or got something near it. Actually, I'm not sure. At least there was an ermine.

Boggy B

09/29/2020 13:24
Exactly. We climbed the official, USGS-named Gray Needle which for all purposes is Gray Needle until someone finds the bolts and manages to convince the USGS to correct their mistake. By that point in time I might enjoy rock climbing.

Beautiful report
09/29/2020 16:58
Thanks for this excellent report and the wonderful photographs.


Been waiting on this one for a while
10/12/2020 17:21
Great job, thanks for adding another piece to the puzzle.

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