Trip Report: In search of the best crack at the Needles

With our hopes of climbing in Yosemite Valley dashed by the government shutdown, we called an audible and changed course for the Needles. This was more than just a consolation prize though, as the seeds of this trip were sown months before. A harmless Supertopo post on favorite finger cracks yielded a line that stuck with me, The Emperor. Randy Leavitt called it the best crack at the Needles.” Whaaat?!?… I’d climbed many of the classic lines at the Needles, but never even heard of this route before. My curiosity got the best of me and so the adventure began.

Voodoo Dome was a new and unexplored playground for us. If you knew where to go, getting to The Emperor would be a moderate hour-long approach. But the maze of gullies that comprises the southern flank of Voodoo Dome is disorienting. It took us 2 hours to get there, including roping up for a section when we decided we had gone too far to backtrack and try a different way.

The Emperor, 5.12a, Voodoo Dome

The Emperor, 5.12a, Voodoo Dome

The Emperor is a line that demands respect. It captures the imagination and was everything we ever could have imagined. It’s no wonder Fred Beckey and Tony Yaniro felt impelled to climb it for the FA and FFA, respectively. The rock is amazing, the climbing is sustained, and the position is unmatched. The route sits on a pedestal, calling to any climber willing to listen. This route is what dreams are made of.

Paisley belaying Jeff on the classic warm-up, Ewok (5.9)

Paisley Close sending Ewok, 5.9

Paisley Close sending Ewok (5.9)

We warmed up on some nearby routes, which in their own right would be classics at any other crag in the country. After a quick break, Jeff cast off into the unknown on The Emperor. He worked his way through the bottom half of the route, quickly working through the splitter section of 0.5 Camalots. If this route were sandstone, it would live in Indian Creek. Luckily, the crux section gave in to some sustained, but manageable 5.11 climbing which I liken to The Don Juan Wall on steroids. Jeff cruised the upper section to the fixed sling (two-bolt) anchor, making it look casual. We were psyched to find that our single 60m rope barely reached the ground (although a single 70m rope would be ideal).

Jeff working the crux on The Emperor

Jeff working the crux on The Emperor

Jeff cruising the upper section of The Emperor

Jeff cruising the upper section of The Emperor

I steadied my nerves, laced up my shoes, and took my turn leading ground-up. The moves were hard, but the climbing was within reach. Strenuous sequences gave way to some adequate “rests.” I found that I could recover and had the stamina, but this route kept coming. Every move ended with the same question, should I keep moving or place another piece of protection? I went for it and managed to onsight 80% of the pitch.

Aaron Cassebeer on the splitter off-fingers section of The Emperor

Aaron Cassebeer on the splitter off-fingers section of The Emperor

Aaron Cassebeer on The Emperor

Aaron Cassebeer on The Emperor

Both Jeff and I learned on this trip that The Emperor is not just a dream, but a reality. Although neither of us onsighted that day we left knowing that routes of this caliber are within reach and it is only a matter of time. Special thanks go to my wife Paisley for taking pictures, moral support, and slogging the approach so that we could pursue our dream.

-Aaron Cassebeer


  1. Just for the record; I did the first ascent of the Emperor crack back in 1970…..not free, but the OP mentioned the FA. The American Joe Brown followed me up. We nailed it back then. We got about 1/2 way up the first ascent of Pea Soup on that occasion and left fixed ropes. I went back with Fred Beckey to finish the climb months later. I did do some interesting face moves up higher above the little alcove at the top of the Emperor. From the alcove belay I moved out and left and got onto the chicken-head face out over there. There’s a sloping chicken head mantle that I put in a bolt above (only part way in and tied it off) and then climbed the face above. I’ve been trying to get somebody to go up there to see how real it is. It’s relatively difficult above 5.10 somewhere. Anyway, it basically bypasses the easy gully above the alcove and makes a better climb of the wall. I did that section also when I was up there with Joe.

    Thanks, Dan McHale

  2. Thanks Kris. We saw varying accounts in the old guidebook of anywhere from 5.11c to 5.12a for the first pitch. From my perspective, the first pitch felt harder than Atlantis and way harder than Don Juan Wall. In any case, it is one nice line!

    • Yeah the old book is kind of all over the place on that one, and some others. Of course a lot has to do with hand/finger size etc. I think my digits are just the right size for emperor and a tad rattly on Don Juan.

  3. Quick question, at the top of the TR you say your single 60 barely reached. As in the pitch is 30 meters? I’ve only done with double ropes 50M long, so an exact length would be handy. Thanks!

    • Kris, Yes! We were surprised to find that our single 60m rope barely reached the ground with rope stretch. I would guess the first pitch is 105′-108′ long. A 70m seemed like it would have easily made it and we were kicking ourselves for not bringing it.


  4. Kris: The first pitch is a rope-stretching 30m (105ft?), and we did not climb above the first anchor.

    Regardless of the grade, the climb is in a stellar setting, with stellar movement, on stellar rock, and is by far the best crack I’ve been on in the Needles. However, if I had to compare the first pitch to other routes of a similar style and grade in the Needles and in general, I would grade it .11+/12- for my finger size, and I would definitely agree with Aaron about the Emperor feeling more difficult (albeit different) than Atlantis’ crux pitch.

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