Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Farewell to the Organs

I love the Organ Mountains. For climbing, hiking and geocaching. I combined all these activities into my geocaching series, Organ Saint. Some people, like myself are just drawn to these rugged mountains. So it is sad to say goodbye now that we are leaving New Mexico for the greener pastures of Tennessee. The only proper way to say goodbye would be one last hike and climb. I teamed up with Combatnurse2003, aka Mike, to see how many Rabbit Ears we could bag in a day. You would think a rabbit only has two ears, but not this one, there's the North Rabbit Ear, Middle Rabbit Ear, South Rabbit ear... then there's the Rabbit Ear Massif, and other lesser spires and ridges. No shortage of objectives here. And the hike up Rabbit Ears canyon is one of the best in the range.

We met at 5am at the jeep rd that starts up to the rock hut. I parked my city car, and piled my gear into Mike's sweet 4x4 jeep. We bumped and jostled our way up to the Rock hut, shaving a mile off our hike. It was still dark as we donned our packs, and we wore headlamps until we were well into the canyon. I enjoyed being the chattering guide, pointing out all the rock features and walls, places to camp and general climber's trivia. This was Mike's first trip up the canyon.  Perhaps my chattering frightened the wildlife off, because we saw none, but I was happy to be in my element. At the granite bathtub Mike dropped a gallon of partially frozen water out of his pack to stash for later. I can't believe he carried so much water up here! It probably has something to do with our last big adventure in the Organs on Baylor Peak when he got pretty dehydrated. I don't blame him for carrying so much water after that experience. I should have done the same, but turns out I did almost the opposite. I had meant to take a 24 oz gatorade with me but it had jostled out of my pack on the bumpy jeep ride. So I was short liquids for the day. Bummer, but I wasn't about to let it ruin my fun.

As we hiked higher up the canyon we debated some side objectives. The cache on the Citadel would make a great prize. I was the last find on it a few years ago. We decided that we would wait and see how felt on the way back down. It would be a significant amount of effort either way, what with a few pitches of climbing involved. Another temptation was ORP. Since we were planning on tagging the summit of the Massif anyways, we could almost justify taking the gully that one would take to go to ORP. It would only be a short side trip to that spire, then we could continue up the ridge to the massif. But we nixed this option too, thinkiong that our efforts were best spent on the main peaks. We were making good tme, reaching the saddle around 7:30am. We dropped our packs and made the quick and steep hike up to the Massif, and our first cache of the day, the venerable Labor of Hercules #10. While Mike worked that, I searched in vain for the summit register, only finding an old gatorade-powder lid. I was bummed not to find it, but there was a nice cache of water, 4 12-oz bottles. I grabbed one, knowing my own supply was less than optimal for the hot day we were going to have. Hopefully this doesn't piss someone off later, me steeling their water and all, but it was in a very obvious place where hikers go, so I figured it was fair game.

Our next move was down to our packs and then over to the South Rabbit Ear or SRE as I like to call it. There is a short section of nasty bush whacking here which I had mostly forgotten about. No Organ Mountain experience is complete without this, and I was pleased to get one last taste, although Mike was grumbling somewhat. We dropped packs again at the col between MRE and SRE, had a quick snack and then scrambled up the easy lichen covered north face of the peak. I consider SRE to be an easy peak, and sometimes forget that even it has some serious challenges. The rock gets steep, the plants disappear and you really have to pay attention to what you are doing. This is especially true on the descent. It helped to have Mike there with me, and see the mountain afresh through his eyes. The niceties of being a guide! We didn't dally long on the summit, just enough to grab the cache, and peruse the summit register. Looks like SRE has been getting regular visits. Very cool!

One nice thing about linking up SRE to MRE is that on the descent from SRE you can really scope out the regular route on MRE. I pointed out to Mike all the belay ledges, the crux moves etc.. and he had an absolutely clear idea of where to go. Then he handed me the rack... (just kidding, I was planning on leading the fun stuff anyways!). It's been a little while since I roped up for some real climbing. I was using my twin ropes and thin rack supplied by Mike. I knew the route, had climbed it multiple times but still got that nervous feeling in my gut... and sweaty palms. Well, that's why climbers use chalk right? Powdered courage! I stepped up to the rock and started to climb. Style, well, I've had better days. But man was it fun, and exhilarating. I think I've been missing this too much these past few years, chasing geocaches instead of technical climbs. Maybe I can remedy that in Tennessee? Who knows, but it felt real up there. Alive and one with the mountains in a way you can't get any where else. And as we climbed that sour thought kept popping into my head, "I am probably never going to see these mountains again".

We relaxed on top of MRE for a while. Mike was famished and tore into his lunch. My first priority was to look at the summit register. Marta had warned me that the jar had broken a while ago and she had replaced it, but it didn't occur to me that because it had been broken that pages would be damaged. A small animal had eaten away at the pages I left up here, making fractaled edges. And several pages were completely missing including the ones from my visits in 2011. I was a little bummed, seeing those entries is a cheap way to wax nostalgic about past achievements. The logs that caught my eye were from last weekend when Jon Tylka, Nate Fry and Glen Melin had attempted the full traverse of the Organ Needles. They ended bivying before the low horns, then fighting 70 mph winds.. all the way to NRE before finally calling it. Amazing! Another entry that caught my attention was one from March 28t where two climbers named Luke and Chance had written "Full Traverse". I wonder how many of the peaks they had actually nabbed, and if they had completed the full traverse? These thoughts distracted me for a bit, but eventually, the urge to check on the geocache I left up here grew too strong and I goaded Mike, who was comfortably relaxing, into making a search for it. He was doing what veteran cachers do, not relying on his GPSr and searching plausible locations. Except up on top of the MRE, every square foot is a plausible location. My impatience got the better of me and I pulled out my GPSr just to "check where GZ was". I was immensely pleased to see the numbers on the display drop down to zero ft as I stood directly over the cache. For only my second cache placement, I had marked coordinates very accurately!

The cache itself was pristine. I don't know why I would worry about it, but for some reason I had imagined that either climbers would mess with it. Or maybe I had thought that the effects of ice and snow from the mountain top winters would allow water to intrude. Completely unreasonable it turns out, the little water-proof matchstick holder was untouched, and dry as a bone. The paper was still crisp and neat. There wasn't even a chew mark on the outer portion. This give me good hope that the cache will survive for many years. And why wouldn't it? Only I probably will not know because another geocacher might not be up here for several years s well. Mike sat down at the cliff's edge and signed the log in the coveted FTF spot. Today is his 39th birthday, so this is my birthday present to him.  A worthy FTF prize if ever there was one.

Eventually we felt rested and ready for some more and started our way to the north side descent. This involves a very steep down-climb to a faded orange rappel sling I vaguely remember from 3 years ago. I checked all around it and decided it was good to use, but we probably should have added a piece for back-up. I hoped on the rope first, and was quickly down to the churchkey. A bit lower I found a pair of shiny bolts, anchors that Jon had told me he had placed. Having well placed solid rappel stations made the next two rappels much nicer. I could have linked them up into a single 60m length rappel but I was worried about rope getting stuck on the stunted trees covering the middle ledge, so we broke it into two rappels to have more control over the rope-pulls. The rappels off the churchkey are fantastic, with free hanging sections, and an immense neon green lichen roof system off to climber's-left. A great mountaineering experience. As we went I pointed out route features on the north face of MRE. Mike wasn't interested in tackling the North Face directly. The long day was starting to wear on him and he was only up for the easiest possible route which would be the Davis Route. We checked the time, 2pm, and did some thinking. If we were to tackle NRE as well, it would probably be 4hrs to get up and down, plus another 3 for the return trip. That put us back after dark. Definitely doable, and perhaps if we had been younger, or more gung-ho we wouldn't even have hesitated. But the thought of a 15hr day, getting home after the family had already gone to sleep, and missing any further birthday celebration (for Mike) made our decision for us. I know we could have completed the MRE this day, but we made the wise decision to call it a day.

The hike out was at a leisurely pace. Part of this was by necessity, the gully we had to descend was steep, loose and full of Organ Mtn vegetation. Mike took a couple of spills and bloodied himself from a close encounter with a cholla. No Organ mountain adventure is complete without someone getting intimate with the veg! At one section Mike lost his footing and came careening down on top of me, nearly bowling me over. He managed to shift his center of mass just enough to avoid a nasty collision, and halted himself without any injuries himself. This kind of stumbling is another typical feature of a long day in the Organs. Fatigue and dehydration add up and make the feet clumsier and clumsier as the day goes on. Another good reason to have called it a day instead of doing the MRE. But with plenty of afternoon daylight we could afford to take breaks, numerous relaxing breaks at several scenic spots in Rabbit Ears canyon. The ice water that Mike left by the bathtubs was divine. We chugged half of it, then decided to leave the rest as a water cache for future hikers and climbers. It is hidden away, but in a spot that is likely enough to be discovered by those who would need it. A bit further down we stopped at my favorite tree, a stunted broad-leafed tree with a canopy just my height, creating a perfect shady rest on one of the hottest parts of the approach around the Citadel. We chatted and laughed the whole way down, and I quietly said my goodbyes.

Goodbye ringtail cat, that looted our food when we camped here with a 7 month year old son.
Goodbye finger-singer, that slick 5.10 slabby test-piece that I so bravely led years ago.
Goodbye Lambda Wall, where I climbed with an Air Traffic Controller when we first moved to the area.
Goodbye Mexican buckeyes, with your startling rattles every time you are brushed.
Goodbye lonely spires, visited by the rare few who love to roam harsh terrain.
Goodbye rusted mining equipment, slowly decaying but still alluring.
Goodbye ocatillo blooms, flashing bright red buds against a see of browns.
Goodbye golden eagles, gently soaring from lofty perch to lofty perch.
Goodbye Organ mountains. My hear will forever ache for you.

 Goodbye Organ Mountains....

Friday, April 27, 2012

OMTRS: Gila by Night

It's been quite a while since I participated in a rescue mission. Partially this is because there haven't been as many call-outs in the past year, but also family has kept me closer to home. When a mission call-out for the Gila happened to coincide with a regular off-Friday at work, I jumped at the opportunity. The missions involved searching for some day-hikers who had not returned. We would be searching through the night for the first operational period, so I packed up lots of warm clothing and plenty of light/batteries.

5 OMTRS members responded, enough to field one team, plus provide some base support. Our field team consisted of 4 strong hikers, Gary, James Robert and myself. The other three had recently been in the Gila searching for Micah True only a few weeks earlier, so they all knew the area pretty well. This was a major plus considering we would be hiking in the night on wilderness trails. We were searching for a 50-something year old couple who were out for a long dayhike to some hot springs. Three other teams were already assigned the main trails that would lead to the hot springs, so we were assigned a side trail of the Middle Fork of the Gila River. Actually, we were assigned a "social trail". I had never heard this phrase before but it became instantly clear. A trail not marked on any maps, but it known through social circles. It turned out to be a pretty well maintained trail, even had a gate at the wilderness boundary.

Our main objective was to gain a large mesa simply titled, Gila North Mesa, and to run a loop of trails around the top. the idea being they could have got off on this spur trail to try to find higher ground to signal some help. Once we were on the proper social trail, it was easy going, but we were all pretty tired. We hit the top of the mesa around 1 am and stopped for a "night-lunch". James, ever prepared, brewed up a cup of Ramen noodles. I sucked some power-gel. Robert promptly fell asleep. All of us had worked full days already and the hike and late-hour was beginning to take its toll. Robert seemed especially tired, and kept dropping his flashlight on the trail, practically sleep walking. I gave him a caffeinated gel which seemed to help.

 Our loop trail around the top of the mesa turned out not to be so straight-forward. Basically three trails looped around the mesa forming a sort of triangle. The first leg was no problem but we couldn't find the trail that was supposed to be the second leg. After wasting a bunch of time looking for where the trail was supposed to be, we eventually decided just to go cross country following the location on our maps where the trail was supposed to be. This roughly corresponded to a fence-line. Once we picked up the third leg it was easy going again.

On the way down off the mesa it began to get light. To perform a thorough search, we took the spur trail all the way down to the Middle Fork (not the way we came). Again there was some confusion here because the maps showed the trail junction at the wrong place. We found out later from Gila Rangers that this trail had been moved 10-20 years ago but that most maps were not updated. Too bad Incident Command didn't know that. Below is our team at the trail junction of the spur trail and our "social trail".
 Once down on the Gila we verified that we were on the right trail (White Rocks trail), then followed the river a little ways. We passed by some campers and figured we should check to make sure they weren't who we were looking for. Unfortunately we couldn't radio Incident Command this deep in the canyon or we would have found out that one of the other teams had already stopped by and questioned these campers. So the campers got an early morning wake-up call. I think they said something like "you guys are still searching for them?".
 We had to cross the river a few times. One benefit of our assignment is that it was almost entirely in high-dry terrirtory. Some of the other teams had dozens of crossings. Since we only had a few to negotiate, we did our best to stay dry. Below Robert negotiates one of our sketchier crossings.
 We rolled back into camp tired after a 12+ mile loop hike through the night. No sign of the subjects. About 1/2hr after we got back, news came in that the subjects were located, and that there had been a misunderstanding, turns out no one was lost after all. To quote the incident Commander, "It is better to search for somone who is not lost, than to not search for someone who is."
Well, I for one enjoyed the night-long hike in an area I've never hiked before. It really made me want to come back and hike some of these trails again.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Checkerboard wall with my Dad

I'll be the first to admit that I haven't been climbing much lately. But when my dad came down to help out around the house before our Daughter was born, I couldn't resist taking him out climbing one day. We had a pleasant climb up the Crosstrainer on Checkerboard Wall.
 Above: Dad racking up for the crux pitch.

It felt good to be out traversing stone once again. the route was easy, the day was warm and we both felt good scaling up the wall. Since my Dad's been climbing more than me recently, I gave him most the leads. He also got to play with me double-rope system which was fun. 

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Third Peak Summit Register

On a lot of the "minor" Organ mountain summits, I cannot find an old summit register. I was pleasantly surprised when I found this old film cannister on the top of 3rd Peak back in May. The 3 tiny sheets of paper in it date back to the 50s. Nothing more recent than 1972, wow!

Little Squaretop Summit Register

I retrieved the summit register from Little Squaretop back on May 13th 2011. There was an old metal kodak film cannister tucked inside a newer plastic container. The old container had a sheet which had been recopied from a previous register, but it had information dating back to the first ascent parties in the 50s. always cool to read that old stuff.

Middle Rabbit Ear Summit Register

I retrieved the old summit register from Middle Rabbit Ear May 21st, 2011. It consisted of a PVC tube. The contents were not in good shape, and haven't been since 2007 when i first found it. I left some fresh paper (our route description) in order to sign, because the only other stuff in the tube was a moldy, wadded up piece of "paper" crammed in the bottom. I wasn't able to decipher much from this old sheet of paper, but what I could decipher is transcribed below. I plan on placing a copy of this transcription back up on the summit this weekend.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sugarloaf: Simul-climbing with Jon Tylka

I've been going strong the last 5 week-ends, piecing together portions of the Organ-peaks-linkup, and this weekend was to be a break from that. Jon and I are going to try our big day next weekend. So instead of climbing or scrambling along the Organ Needles, we struck out for Sugarloaf today. We went to have fun and practice using my brand-new set of half-ropes, which we'll be taking with us for our big day. After some previous weekend trips, we decided two ropes were necessary and I was leaning towards getting a new rope anyways, so I bit the bullet and ordered a set of 8.1mm half ropes. Sugarloaf was our proving ground.

A few other OMTRS climbers, Bob Cort, Marta Reece, Matt Wotford and Cat Wu, were also wanting to climb Sugarloaf so we decided to head out as a big group. Once again, Eddie South agreed to let us in the BLM gate early, and we met him promptly at 5am to be let in. It was forecast to be a hot day, and it felt hot even at 5am. We spent a little while gearing up but were soon on the trailhead and flying up the trail. It took us 1h20m to reach the base of North Face route. Jon and I stopped here, planning to simul-climb this route first and then try another route later in the day. The other two parties had their sights on the Left Eyebrow and continued up a little bit further to the base of their route.

Instead of the light alpine rack Jon was used to seeing me bring, I had a full compliment of cams and nuts, and loads of runners. We discussed simul climbing details before starting up, such items as good communication, keeping solid pieces between climbers, and clipping both ropes through each piece (using them as twins). this last item is important because while simul climbing you cannot feed the ropes at different speeds, so they both need to move together. I racked up first and started up the immense and beautiful slabs, still in the morning shade.
Jon cruising up the North face
We made a steady and good pace up the route. I paused a bit at a slabby run-out variation on the "3rd" pitch, clipping both 1/4" bolts along this section. For the most part, simul climbing is about being comfortable and confident on the rock, climbing fluidly together. After a little while, my world narrowed to a focus of climbing movements. Eyes darting to each good hand and foothold, stepping up and feeling for slack or tension in the rope, and always moving upward. I ran out of gear a little over half way up the route, on the huge grassy ledge. I set an anchor, but Jon on belay and brought him up quickly. He already had most of the gear with him, but I gave him the remainder and tried my best to point out the route for him to lead us to the top. "It goes right to that block," I pointed. He nodded and agreed, and then proceeded to climb straight up well left of the normal route. I reminded him a few times that he was off route left, but he was already on his way. That's one of the beautiful things about leading, is you can pick your own way, travel up whatever looks best to you. In this case, it meant a little dirtier climbing, more lichen covered sections, and some loose rocks, but overall decent climbing. Jon eventually met up with the normal route near the upper pitches, and when i reached him at the top he was all smiles.
Jon tossing the rope for the east side rappel
Our ascent had taken 2 hours, it was about 9:30. We rested a bit on the top and then talked about the descent. I have always rappelled down the south side, but we had noticed a newish looking suing on the East side and decided to give this descent a try. We were able to scramble lower than this first sling to another rappel station, and set up the ropes for a double-roped descent. I went first, sliding quickly down the two brand-new half ropes. 60m put us on a large ledge where there was a single 1/4" bolt rappel point. It looked to be in decent shape and we were sure to be able to reach the ground from there, so we pulled the ropes, only to get one of them stuck. The orange rope had caught on a flake and was not budging. We tried all manner of flipping the ropes and gently tugging, but I was worried about damaging my brand-new ropes, so I had Jon put me on belay on the purple rope, and I climbed up to free the stuck loop. Turns out it had wedged into a small flake and came out easily by hand. No harm done to the rope, I down-climbed back to jon and we set the 2nd rappel. This time Jon went first and immediately tacked right when he spotted a nest of climbers booty. He is still building his rack, and any gets super excited about finding climbing gear. Since he wanted to work on cleaning the two wires and tricam (plus 5 carabiners), I went ahead and rappelled down. Attached to the booty-anchor was a ratty old rope, sheath completely missing and totally coming apart. I tugged it down while rappelling so that we could trash it.
Bottom of 2nd rappel on East side
Jon was successful in cleaning one nut and the tricam, but couldn't get the last nut. Still a nice find, he was over the moon about it. We packed up the ropes and scrambled down the east side gully of Sugarloaf. This area was pretty heavily burned out by the recent Abrams Fire, and there were some large felled trees as well. some sections require a bit of down-climbing finness but overall it was a decent route. Still, after getting a stuck rope, my preference lies with the cleaner South side rappel route.

Our decent had taken nearly two hours, almost the same amount of time as climbing the route. Still, there was plenty of time to get on another climb, and the other two parties could still be seen high up on the mountain. We rested a bit, and refilled our water from the generous water cache the Bob and Jon had hiked up last Wednesday. I can't stress how utterly awesome it was to have 4 gallons of water here at the base of the cliff for us. I'm sure we all could have done with just our own water, but we were in oh so much better shape with it. Despite the heat, I was feeling good, not fatigued at all.

For our next route we were both interested in the hard slab route, Science Friction. We made our way up to the base of it, and stared up at the intimidating blankness. Unlike the North Face route, this one is steep slab, thin 5.10 moves between widely spaced bolts.It didn't take me long to balk at leading it. I told Jon I'd belay him, but didn't think I was up for leading. He was seriously tempted still, but ultimately decided that he wouldn't want to fall on the initial pitons. Our eyes then turned to the large right facing corner just to the left. My topo called this 5.8 corner Banana Peel, it didn't look easy. 
Attractive right-facing corner of Banana Peel
The right leaning corner looked like a powerful layback climb, with almost no feet or rest stances. Jon though was game for it, and racked up. This time we decided not to simul climb, letting Jon place as much gear as needed, and use the half-ropes as they are intended, clipping either rope as needed to reduce rope drag. This worked beautifully, as seen in the picture below.
Half-rope technique displayed, on Banana Peel
Jon muscled up the layback, and looked to me to be confidently sailing the route. Right above a small rest-stance, he dropped the set of nuts while trying to place them, and by some lucky break they stopped short in a flake just below him. He was able to retrieve them and continue up. He did appear a bit nervous in one section and took a rest at a stance above to recover. I discovered why on seconding, the layback was committing and draining. There were some good stances though that couldn't be seen from the ground, the key is all in the footwork. But even with good footwork, placing gear from the layback position is strenuous and I can see how he could get a pump trying to work in a piece. At the crux section, a fixed cam was overcammed way back int the crack. Jon had clipped it, but it was difficult to even clip because the wire-;loop was deep in the crack. This is where Jon had exerted the most effort, and I could certainly understand what was going through his head on lead. Above the crux section the climbing got a bit easier, but it also worked over this hollow huge hollow sounding flake. Easily a couple body-widths across, it resonated with each step I took on it. It didn't appear to be in danger of falling, but that ringing boom is enough to make anyone nervous.

At the top, Jon had set his belay right at the corner of the ;edge, but there was a bolted belay 20 ft back and at a better stance so I went straight for that, and then pulled the rope over to me. Since the rope was then stack for Jon to climb again he took the next lead. We decided to get back to simul climbing, the corner above us looked very easy, and then it joined right up with the Left Eyebrow. Matt and Cat were still high up on the route, and we exchanged a few hollers before heading up.
Easy middle pitches of Left Eyebrow Route
Jon made it all the way up to the large dead tree beneath the crux pitch, but a poorly planned gear placement had left him with terrible rope drag and he decided to set up his belay there. I racked up at the tree and got to lead the high quality upper pitches. The only other time I had climbed this route was with John Hymer years ago, and again we had simul-climbed it. I didn't really remember the route, but had a good enough idea. plus a fresh trail of chalked holds had been left by the party above, so i could always just follow their lead.

The exposed crux pitch was awesome, and as good as it gets for a 5.7 multi-pitch route. Probably 1000' above the floor, you swing out to a committing move around a roof/prow, not being able to see what's on the other side. You can swing your feet and out, and yelp away, then pull over and find bomber jugs to haul up on. really a stellar feeling, maybe even the best move on all of Sugarloaf. Above this move the climbing stays interesting, with run-out slabs, gneiss intrusions dotting the rock and providng holds, and the opccasional old 1/4" bolt. I took my time threading through the terrain, searching out the best rock and most protectable features. I also made sure to holler back down to Jon to make sure he let me know when he reached the crux moves. I knew he wouldn't have a problem with them, but I also wanted to make sure I had a decent stance when he got to this section. With simul-limbing, communication is key to avoiding sticky and uncomfortable climbing.

I reached the summit just a minute behind Cat. 10 minutes later bob Cort came into view atop the north face route. He and Marta had heard Matt complaining about a loose pitch on the Left Eyebrow, and decided to switch over to the North Face route at the large ledge. The timing was perfect, with all six of us on top together. It was around 3:00pm, it had taken us a little over 2 hours to climb another route on Sugarloaf. Once agian I forgot to birng up a proper summit register, but thanks to a geocache on the summit, I left a make-shift tiny register in the summit cairn. It should last 6-12 months, by which time maybe I will be back to put a proper log-book up here.
Myself and Jon, with the ridge-line we hope to conquer in the background
After the requisite summit tom-foolery, we set-up a fixed line down to the South rappel. With 6 people and 4 ropes, we made good time setting rappels and getting down. Once again we all refilled our water and drank the last of the 4 gallons of water. We took a leisurely pace on the hike out, making it back to the cars by 7:30pm. Bob had a cooler of ice cold water and beer waiting for us, now that's what I call prepared!
Left to right, Top: Jon, Cat, Marta, Matt. Bottom Aaron, Bob