REI Community
The Needle
Select Route:
East Saddle T 
Southwest Ridge T 

Southwest Ridge 

YDS: 5.8 French: 5b Ewbanks: 16 UIAA: VI- ZA: 15 British: HVS 4c PG13

Type:  Trad, Alpine, 10 pitches, 1300', Grade IV
Original:  YDS: 5.8 French: 5b Ewbanks: 16 UIAA: VI- ZA: 15 British: HVS 4c PG13 [details]
FA: Reed Cundiff and David Hammack, 6/27/1959
Season: summer to fall
Page Views: 11,808
Submitted By: Christopher Marks on Nov 17, 2006

You & This Route  |  Other Opinions (27)
Your todo list:
Your stars:
Your rating: -none- [change]
Your ticklist: [add new tick]
Your opinion of this PAGE:    [2 people like this page.]
Bill Isenhower on SW Ridge

Juan Tabo Canyon is subject to annual access closures from March 1 to August 15. MORE INFO >>>


Longest route in the Sandias. Around 1300 vertical feet of climbing after a brutal 2+ hour approach. Plan for 10-15 hours car to car depending on your speed. Take a machete for your approach.

[Pitch-by-pitch descriptions below by G.Perkins; numbers coincide with Sandia Rock but I'd recommend linking or shortening pitches as I suggest below]

P1: Beginning at the very bottom of the ridge, climb easy cracks to reach a good ledge where the arete steepens. You can also get here by climbing cracks to the right of the arete (5.6 or 5.7). It's a long pitch (150').

P2: Climb up the arete for 20' or so, step left (airy), and continue up to a large cave/alcove. Belay at the left side of this cave alcove below a finger crack. 5.7, PG13.

P3: Up finger crack escaping the left side of the alcove passing ancient ring piton on the way (5.8 PG13); then difficulty eases. With a 50m rope you'll need to stop at a ledge and set belay; with a 60m rope- you can reach all the way to a tree, and 3rd class ledges- if you link these pitches (recommended), then just move the belay to the start of the 5.7 crack on p4.

P4: (If you didn't extend P3, continue up to the tree, 5.6?). Scramble over 3rd class ledges to a notch below another steep section. Reportedly, a double rope rappel to the west lets you escape from these ledges. Sandia Rock says to continue up a short 5.7 finger crack to another tree in this pitch, but I'd recommend you stop at the notch; then combine the finger crack portion of P4 with P5. If you start at the notch at the base of the steep finger crack- you can link the upper part of P4 and most/all of P5 in a 60m pitch.

P5: Follow a bushy gully, climbing finger cracks, passing a single well-protected 5.8 move over a bulge (which I think is the hardest move on the climb). Belay on a small ledge below a low-angle right facing corner. You might find a hard-to-see piton to your right, at this belay, but don't count on finding it.

This Photo shows Bill Isenhower at the desperate sandbag move previously mentioned. It can be avoided on not bad 5.7 climbing up finger cracks that pass about 8 feet to the right.

(2nd half of P4 + P5: Starting from the notch, these can be combined with a 70 meter rope with a couple meters to spare. – See notes from Bill Lawry below).

P6: Low-angle right-facing corner and continue to another tree. Short pitch, 5.5. Move belay to the notch at the base of the next steep section.

P7: A 50' steep step has two options. You can make slab moves while you hand traverse past 2 ancient ring-pitons- starting out of the notch at the left-most end; alternatively, climb an obvious arching crack in a left-facing corner with a crack for pro to the right of the piton face. 5.8 either way. I've done both. I suppose I'd recommend the left option, but both are reasonable. Belay at the end of difficult climbing.

P8: Scramble 3rd class to the start of the next steep section. Unroping is recommended. From the end of this scrambling section, you can escape on the 5th Avenue ledges to the North- no rappels required- if weather or time recommend you bail.

P9: A short 5.8 crack to a large ledge. Sandia Rock suggests you continue to the next tree, but I found belaying at the big ledge to be a good idea, since it'd create bad rope drag if you kept going. You can still reach the P10 belay from this ledge.

P10: Climb to the tree (if you haven't already done so). From this tree on the small ledge, go right following a line of large blocks. When those run out wander up roughly 25 additional meters to the large ledge with another tree on the left side. Long pitch. (5.7)

Bill Lawry notes: An obvious weakness trends up and left from the tree on the small ledge. Stay away. Near the end of the weakness waits some unprotectable loose-grained face climbing (5.9R?) - not recommended.

P11: From the right half of the large ledge, a long 5.7 pitch follows a weakness upwards, first passing a pin, then a tree, leading to an obvious stance on the arete, about 30' below the crux moves of the next pitch.

P12: Cruise up to the roof, clip fixed pins or place your own gear, traverse right out the roof. This is the crux of the route, and is really exposed, and tougher than it should be because of the 1000' you already climbed (5.8+). 10' of finger crack lead to blocky and easier ground. Keep going up following the path of least resistance until you run out of rope. Supposedly, you can avoid this lead by escaping to the left side of the ridge blocky 5.4.

A couple hundred feet of easy scrambling (you'll want the rope coiled) lead to the Needle's summit.

Descent: Hike east back to the saddle from the summit and make 1-5 rappels depending on your rope, routefinding, and willingness to 3rd class, dropping back into the loose gully you originally descended. One can also downclimb this descent (listed as 4th class, feels like 5.4), but rappelling is easier and recommended. Details are found on Needle Main Page


Very prominent on the Sandia Crest, the SW Ridge of the Needle is self-described.

In the late afternoons/early evenings, from Albuquerque, this climbs defines the sun/shade line on the Needle.


A questionable fixed pin on the third pitch and a solid one protecting the crux on the last pitch are the only fixed pieces I can remember. Bring a full rack up to 3.5 with doubles in .75-2 camalots.

5.9 or 5.10 climbers will likely be fine with smaller racks and/or be ok with simulclimbing much or all of the route.

Photos of Southwest Ridge Slideshow Add Photo
Rock Climbing Photo: The Needle in clearing late afternoon storm- The 1...
The Needle in clearing late afternoon storm- The 1...
Rock Climbing Photo: The low fifth class scrambling to finish the climb...
The low fifth class scrambling to finish the climb...
Rock Climbing Photo: Needle. SW Ridge is the one on the left
Needle. SW Ridge is the one on the left
Rock Climbing Photo: Tom Breeze Rescue
Tom Breeze Rescue
Rock Climbing Photo: Pitches 4-5 as described on MP
BETA PHOTO: Pitches 4-5 as described on MP
Rock Climbing Photo: Me on 2nd pitch
Me on 2nd pitch
Rock Climbing Photo: Tom Breeze being rescued after he broke his pelvis...
Tom Breeze being rescued after he broke his pelvis...
Rock Climbing Photo: Shows the route and our approximate 4th and 5th be...
BETA PHOTO: Shows the route and our approximate 4th and 5th be...
Rock Climbing Photo: Jordan Ramey starting up the 4th pitch, off the fi...
BETA PHOTO: Jordan Ramey starting up the 4th pitch, off the fi...
Rock Climbing Photo: A look up the third pitch.  Stay in the crack on t...
BETA PHOTO: A look up the third pitch. Stay in the crack on t...
Rock Climbing Photo: One start is to the right of this arete, up the bu...
BETA PHOTO: One start is to the right of this arete, up the bu...
Rock Climbing Photo: Pitch #3 stay left...
BETA PHOTO: Pitch #3 stay left...
Rock Climbing Photo: The needle
The needle
Rock Climbing Photo: Steven VanSickle n Rick McWilliams. MAy2,2014
Steven VanSickle n Rick McWilliams. MAy2,2014

Comments on Southwest Ridge Add Comment
Show which comments
Comments displayed oldest to newestSkip Ahead to the Most Recent Dated Jan 23, 2015
By John Kear
From: Albuquerque, NM
Dec 10, 2007
rating: 5.8 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c

This is a classic outing in the Sandias. The rock quality itself isn't exactly classic but the climb and the experience are top notch for sure. Highly recommended adventure climb.
By longfeather
From: Albuqurque ,NM
Apr 13, 2008

There is a cool VAR if you start right 9ish

Long Loose worth it better after next ice age

caught a bowling ball while a a belay lucky it was slow mover
By Daniel Trugman
From: La Jolla, CA
May 20, 2009
rating: 5.8+ 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c

Unless you do some weird intermediate pitches out of the alcove (belay stance at the top of pitch 2), the fourth pitch will have the hardest move on the climb and is a desperate sandbag at 5.8 IMO. It is, however, well protected and is the only move on the climb that I thought was harder than 5.8.

The approach really isn't that bad. The variety of moves, length of the climb, and incredible views more than make SW ridge a classic. The rock is a little dubious and it is neccessary to tread lightly and test holds.
By Daniel Trugman
From: La Jolla, CA
May 21, 2009
rating: 5.8+ 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c

No problems George - old school ratings are fun! I think it might be possible to avoid that move by moving right and climbing over some dubious-looking but juggy blocks, but I didn' try it.

Notes on the approach - descend into the gully that is adjacent to the Needle (to it's south). Thrash down the ravine, passing the incredible looking Hidden Wall. Find an extremely wide looking ridge/face with an obvious cave about 250 feet up. This is the SW ridge, start near the right arete of this wall, and have fun.

Notes on the descent - find a steep, loose gully that has trees with slings around them. You will not be able to reach the bottom of the steep stuff from the first or second highest tree with a rappel off a single 60m. Either downclimb to the third tree (off to your left) or do a short rappel off the first tree to reach it. You will be able to reach a flatter area from a rappel off this tree, and a third-class downclimb will bring you to the ravine you descended on your approach.
By Daniel Trugman
From: La Jolla, CA
Jun 23, 2009
rating: 5.8+ 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c

Bill Lawry said: "P10: An obvious weakness trends up and left from the tree on the small ledge. Stay away. Near the end of the weakness waits some unprotectable loose-grained face climbing (5.9R?) - not recommended."

We took this line. I followed it and it felt like 5.8 (R) but it looked like a terrifying lead. The mantle onto a giant block that doesn't look attached to the wall was very exciting! Best avoid is right!
By Bill Lawry
From: New Mexico
Jun 23, 2009
rating: 5.8 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c PG13

Daniel, My son led the P10 left-trending weakness and beyond; his partner followed with a hang or two. I then led to the end of that weakness ... and promplty down climbed back to the tree with my tail tucked between my legs - then followed the more reasonable line going rightward. Anyway, my hat is off to your and Jason's car-to-car time which was about half of ours! Bill

P.S. I deleted the route beta I posted earlier as it has been captured well enough in the description. Thanks!
By Charles Cundiff
Aug 4, 2009

Bringing out the old man in September for a 50th anniversary ascent! Can we get a 69 year old in shape in a month?
By Reed Cundiff
Sep 15, 2009

My son Charlie hauled me up this on 8 September 2009 as a 50th anniversary climb. Dave Hammack (79 years)had hoped to watch us do it but he had hip operation planned for following Tuesday. Charlie spent 5 weeks getting me in shape. Hadn't done the climb since 1971. I wasn't much help in route finding (he led every pitch) and we wound up in 5.8 and higher when we didn't want to and had 10 hours on the rock.Gave up on trying to find the 3rd class descent and followed cairns down rappel gully. Got off the last down climb in time to turn on headlamps (15 1/2 hours car-to-car). Sure was a lot harder and longer than I remember at 19 (1959) and 30 pounds lighter.
By Chris Wenker
From: Santa Fe
Jun 14, 2010

On P7, to find the line with the fixed pins, you should start out of the notch as far climber's left as you can (stemming out over the abyss). Once you are established on the face, there is a vertically fissured weakness directly above, with the 2 pins. The top pin backs up ok w/ a small cam.
At the end of P9, for some it might be worthwhile to continue past the big ledge and end at the next tree. That would cut down on potential bad rope drag on P10, since it wanders so far right and then cuts back left.
By CaseyE Eales
May 17, 2011
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a PG13

Rock quality was terrible, the crux pitches where pretty fun but everything else to get to those pitches is kind of repetitive. I enjoyed how high everything feels but I don't understand why this is considered a classic.

Bottom line, huge ordeal to get up early and make the approach for low quality climbing/mountaineering. Not worth the trouble in my book.

No offense to the locals who rate it so well.
By Eric Whitbeck
May 18, 2011

Welcome to the Sandias. If you want cleaner rock then you have to climb harder routes. Try Mountain Momma and link it with a route on Muralle or another on the Torreon and you can stay on the good stuff.
By Paul Davidson
May 18, 2011

Sandias bite another one.
John's first comment is pretty clear as to what this climb is all about.
By William Penner
From: The 505
May 18, 2011

Hilarious. Too bad you did not have a good time Casey.

The SW Ridge of the Needle is just something you have to do in the Sandias so you never need to go back. Like Eric said, the rock starts to improve the harder the route is. 5.10 and up are better bets for the Sandias and even then you'll still find choss.

John Groth used to say anybody could climb good rock but only good climbers could climb bad rock--a classic back-handed compliment to the value of the Sandias. Based on Casey's response evidently not everyone can appreciate choss.
By LeeAB Brinckerhoff
From: ABQ, NM
May 19, 2011

CaseyE, the Sandias are definitely not Yosemite, but then again where else is?

Classic for length, feature and history. You will hit some bad or questionable rock on almost anything longer than a single pitch. As others have said though this can be minimized by getting on generally harder routes that climb cleaner rock. Remember that the old classics follow weaknesses in the rock while the newer routes tend to climb the best looking rock that seems climbable.

You almost have to suffer through some of the bad before you find the good, but try these:
Mountain Momma-The last pitch will have questionable rock
Little Yellow Jacket-I found route finding a not entirely straight forward but reasonable
Wizard of Air-just do the first 4 pitches and rap, possible to link with Mountain Mamma or Voodoo Child
Top Flite and Splinted and Screwed-Link both for a full day
The Promise Land-Just pull on a bolt here and there and it will be completely reasonable, wait for the fall when the closure is lifted

On all of these the harder bits are bolted.
By Mick S
From: Utah
May 19, 2011

Texans ... welcome to the Sandias!
By perropirana Santibanez
Jun 20, 2011
rating: 5.8 5b 16 VI- 15 HVS 4c PG13

Finally did this route, I think it's a great work out. I am heading to the bugaboos next month, so good perp for it. As far as quality, I can say it's the worst route I have done in the Sandias ( I have done many routes in the dias). I think as a whole package it was great!
We found some gear on the route contact if yours.
By CaseyE Eales
Jul 3, 2011
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a PG13

Thanks for the suggestions guys, and no offense if you are in love with the route. I will be going back to the Sandias soon just not for this climb. I guess I was wrong to expect the quality to be like The Second Comming or Aviary(also classics?).


P.S. On the descent from the ridge down to the SW Ridge I noticed what looked like the most perfect splitter I have seen in the Sandias. Is this an established route? It was off to the left down a gulley, on one of those smaller features. Probably nor more than 160 feet tall. Just wondering.
By Mick S
From: Utah
Aug 1, 2011

Most likely unclimbed. Let me know how it goes, I'm always on the lookout for clean cracks up there.
By Nick Dolecek
From: Denver, Colorado
Aug 17, 2011

Great route! The approach is easy, with very minimal bushwacking if you stay against the hidden wall on the way down the drainage. The rock quality on the last few pitches is grainy, and there are some bushes to contend with, but overall this is a great day out, and the belay ledges are really nice.
By Bill M
From: Fort Collins, CO
Sep 4, 2011

Must not get climbed very often. Did it yesterday, on a Labor Day weekend and had the whole place to ourselves. I'm certainly going to do it again.
By Evan Belknap
From: Placitas, NM
Oct 6, 2011

A quick epic for yall.
By Mark Johnston
Jun 7, 2012

Just went up this route 6-7-2012. My partner and I went right-ish after the first pitch, ended up having to pull a scary (but protectable) roof to a balancy UNPROTECTABLE (for 25 feet) traverse... anyway anyone done this before? If not is should be called the Dumbasses didn't read the guide book variation.

Other tips:
1) drive up to the Crest, don't hike in from the bottom
2) this is ligitly 12 - 14 pitches
3) You can get by with a small rack (a few c3s, .3 - 3.5 and a double here and there)
4) climb fast
5) We had hiked in so didn't know the way back to the Crest very well.
a) head NORTH and east for the walk to the rap rings which are on the saddle on the north east of the needle
b) using a 70m was great here, 2 raps to the bottom
c) after 2nd rap, stay right (west) until you get to a better spot to head east
d) walk east to a decent saddle, you will find a trail
e) it gets rocky and difficult to find, keep going UP! (mostly straight east), don't drop down right or you will have to climb limestone to get back up to the trail!

Enjoy! What an epic climb, beautiful, aesthetic from afar, shity shity rock;)
By Creed A
From: Salt Lake City, UT
May 31, 2013

Ive spent most of my life in Utah, but have never been to New Mexico!

Would this route be more enjoyable in July or October?
By Mick S
From: Utah
May 31, 2013

October, cooler temps, no thunderstorms.
By Paul Davidson
Jun 6, 2013

June, longer days...
By Mark Dalen
From: Albuquerque, NM
Mar 12, 2014

The SW Ridge is classic the same way some old movies are classic. Not as measured against sound & visual effects or acting styles today but for the leap in possibilities they represented at the time. For some the sight of the SW Ridge silhouetted against the setting sun is compelling enough to overcome the mediocre rock itself, for others that won't matter a darn. Top-to-top approach is highly recommended. Also recommend simul climbing for those inclined - huge stretches in between the first few pitches & the midway point, as well as from there to the top may be climbed quickly & hence more safely in this manner. Fall is my favorite time in the Sandias. Settled weather, temperate days & those golden aspens ... !
By Chris Walden
From: Soldotna, Alaska
Sep 10, 2014
rating: 5.9 5c 17 VI 17 HVS 5a PG13

The approach somewhat long and has a "faint" climbers trail so be prepared for some route finding. We spent the day before our SWR attempt climbing Estrellita (5.8) and Miss Piggy (5.8) to get a feel for 5.8's in the Sandias. Overall felt a few of the pitches were harder than the 5.8's we did the previous day.

Climbing notes:
  • Bring lots of water
  • Plan to clean out some cactus & brush in the cracks
  • There is a bailout spot before pitch 7 on the east face. Rapping down ~4 times on trees
  • Beware of chossy rock
  • Recommend camping the night before right before you drop down into the crest. This will shave off 45 min on the approach and provide closer refuge on the descent
  • Get your alpine start on this is a long climb
By Charles Cundiff
Jan 23, 2015

Dad seems strong still. Only 4 more years and I can drag him up for the 60th!!

Mountain Project

The Definitive Climbing Resource

MTB Project

Next Generation MTB Trail Maps

Powder Project

Backcountry Ski Maps & Secret Stashes
FREE Stickers · Gyms · RSS · School of Rock · Contact · About