Sunday, October 26, 2008

OMTRS: Overnight on Organ Needle

The Organ Needle was assaulted this weekend, with close to 50 people reaching its summit. Not only did the rescue team bring a large crew up there to spend the night, but the annual WSTF hike also brought a dozen or more folks up to the top. The trail is well beat-down right now, all the late summer growth being beaten back by the onslaught of hikers. Some folks who had never been able to surmount the short technical section of the hike were able to summit for the first time thanks to OMTRS volunteers fixing lines and coaxing people up and down the exposed climbing.

I took advantage of the swarms of hikers and climbers by fishing for tunas; I posted an invitation to the OMTRS email list for climbers interested in doing technical routes on the peaks. I got three bites; Ashley, Bruce and Josie. Between the four of us, we carried two racks and two ropes and set out for the NW ridge of Organ needle. The rough plan was to climb this route and meet up with the rest of the team on the summit. They were then planning on descedning the west ridge and exploring Little Squaretop and the peaks beyond. The one flaw in the plan is that we all had heavy packs and not all of us were used to the additional weight of warm clothes, sleeping gear and climbing gear. Bruce and Ashley fell behind under the weight of their packs, and we didn't end up seeing them until the reached the summit around 4pm. Josie and I however made good time and reached the saddle between Organ Needle and Little Squaretop ahead of all the hikers. We dropped our packs and got ready to climb.

The descrition of the NW ridge from Ingraham's guide is very short (I've since posted on for a bit more detail). It describes the route in a single sentance, "... steep, narrow, rather holdless, unprovided with piton cracks, and not altogether solid in its first half." This along with the vague rating of "medium 5th class" had me slightly anxious. We looked up at the NW ridge headwall and it matched the description perfectly. The wall was steep enough and exposed enough where I wouldn't dream of climbing it without some decent protection, but there were no visible cracks or blocks which could provide that protection. I geared up anyways and Josie belayed me up to its base for a better look, and still I couldn't read the route. from what I could see, it could be 5.6 or 5.9, and it was quite possible that it didn't have any protection for large sections of it, making a ground-fall possible. Off to the left was a brush filled crack which meandered off around a corner. I was hopeful that this would provide a protectable alternative to the arete, but on closer inspection it didn't look any better. Turning around and looking for another route wasn't a favorable option so I started climbing up the arete proper. I could see a rest stance 15ft up on the arete where I could place some gear. It was the next 45 ft which worried me, which appeared steeper and without any protection. I reached the small ledge and placed two pieces of protection, thinking they might be my last. From this stance though, I could see some better holds camoflauged among lichens. Another 10 ft up the arete and there was a small black which accepted a small wire behind it. 8 ft further and another small block, this time a pink tricam could be slotted behind it. I was exhilerated. Here I was on the narrow edge of the arete, with hundreds of feet of air below me on the right, but the fear was wiped away by finding solid holds and decent protection. I practically danced my way up the arete. From my belay stance, I could see the first hikers to gain the summit and waved happily to them. I belayed Josie up and we made short work of the two 3rd class pitches to the summit where we were greated as intrepid adventurers by the WSTF hikers.

We relaxed on the summit waiting for the OMTRS crew. The WSTF hikers eventually departed, but the only OMTRS folks to reach the summit were Grady and John (not counting OMTRS/WSTF crossovers like Bob Cort and Mitchel). To kill some time, Josie and I climbed up a small summit next to the Organ needle which might be called Buzzards Peak. I lead up a short 20m corner which was about 5.7. John joined us on the summit and anopther OMTRS climber, Josh decided to climb our rope as well. Both John and Josh climbed in mountain boots and did a superb job. The summit was a broad boulder spot, with great views of Minervas Temple to the north and a nice look at the steep eastern face of Little Squaretop. We found a piton to rappel off just as the rest of the OMTRS crew was arriving.

By this time it was close to 4pm and it was not looking likely that any OMTRS expedition over to the Little Squaretop peaks would occur this day. However, Josie and I had left our packs down on the saddle below, so we decided to descend our route with some ascenders and climb back up with out packs. Grady and Josh accompanied us down the ridge. We traveled on a rope down the two 3rd class pitches and made a rappel off of a black at the top of the NW ridge head-wall. My 60m rope was just short of reaching the ledge at the bottom of the wall, requiring a small amount of down-climbing. Grady also came down, but he fixed the ropes and offset them so that he could descend and ascend on a single line and the rope was long enough to reach the ledge. I scrambled down to our packs and we got ready to ascend the ropes.

A note here on the packs: Josie's pack was heavy. I didn't notice how heavy it was during our hike up, because she hiked swiftly with it, and barely had a word of complaint. There was one section of our approach though that required a few climbing moves and I offered to help lift her pack up the section from above. She unstrapped and passed it to me and I gasped under its weight. I could barely lift it up by its handle. We later learned that she was carrying over 10 liters of water, on top of her climbing gear, sleeping gear, cooking gear etc.. My pack on the other hand was like a feather. Yes, I had a rack and rope, and 5 liters of water for my weekend, but I didn't have cooking gear, and barely had any extra warm clothes.

Grady chivalrously offered to take her pack up the fixed rope, and it was possibly the slowest ascent of a fixed rope I had ever seen. I on the other hand opted for a belay from above and re-climbed the route with a pack and approach boots. It was nice to go over the holds again, and recall the anxiety I had held earlier about the route. Now the holds seemed obvious and plenty. Even without climbing shoes and with the weight of a pack, the route felt easy. When I reached the top of the pitch, we re-distributed some of the weight from Josie's pack into my bag and a small day-sack that Grady had, and climbed the 3rd class pitches alpine style.

We had stunning weather for our night on the summit. The famously windy summit was calm and still, the sky was bright and starry and we had a cosy camp-fire to sit around and exchange climbing stories. The hike up had taken a lot out of most of the team, but there was still talk of exploring Little Squaretop the next day. Josie used her abundant water to make hot drinks for everyone and we all found cozy little niches to lay down our sleeping gear and bed in for the night.

Morning dawned and Josh and I were already up and about. the rest of the team took a more leisurely pace to getting out of their bags, waiting for the sun to start warming them before venturing out. The team decided we'd descend via the normal route through Dark Canyon and drop our packs at the bottom of Dark Canyon to go explore Litle Squaretop. This time, Josie and I could act as guides, at least as far as the saddle. Grady, John, Elly, Josh, Bruce and Ashley all hiked over to the saddle. Progress was fairly slow though and Josie and I were out ahead again. Since we had a rope and gear, we decided to start up a nice looking crack on the South Ridge of Little Squaretop Massif while the rest of the crew was coming up. This way we'd have a good view of them as the scrambled up the main gully.

I was half-way up the crack when the rest of the crew arrived at the saddle. Instead of everyone heading into the gully, Grady was leading a party of climbers up after us. Bruce and Ashley followed him and found the first pitch up to a large ledge challenging. By the time they were all gathered on the ledge, I was at the top of the crack and belaying Josie up. I guess some spirited debate was occurring down there over whether to continue or not. Josie was at the top of the pitch and we were all set to continue up to the summit, but both of us depended on getting rides from the climbers down below, and were a little nervous about getting split up. Eventually, they shouted up to us that they were all heading back down, but that we should continue to the summit. We were assured that someone would wait for us by the cars.

What else could we do, we gunned for the summit. We were presently on top of a broad shoulder off the southern ridge to the summit. I wanted to stay directly on the ridge, but to do so required a bouldery move up a steep headwall. After some close inspection, I decided to look around the corner to see if an easier scramble to the top was available and we ended up mking a long exposed traverse along the west side of the ridge. Almost a full rope length of traverse lead to a nice belay spot in a niche just to the right of a smooth slab with a splitter finger crack slicing up it. Again, I wasn't feeling confident about tackling what appeared to be a 5.10 crack, so I found an alternate route to the top, via some wide chimneys. This crack though would make an excellent two-pitch climb to the summit, and I'll have to give it a go next time around.

We relaxed a bit on the summit. I couldn't find any summit register, or any fixed rappel gear but there appeared to be some sort of 4rth class down climb off the North East side. The problem with this descent was that it would put us in a steep gully on the east side and we might have to do some technical climbing to get back up onto the West side. A little more searching on the North West side of the peak yielded a tight passage under a large boulder which descended to a ledge with a short rappel directly down to the saddle between LIttle Squaretop and Little Squaretop Massif.

We rapped to the saddle and then turned our attention to the summit of Little Squaretop. It was realy close and the scramble to the top looked very easy, but both of us were concerned for time. The responsible thing was to head straight down. We looked up at the peak, and then at eachother and decided not to be responsible. The climb up to the summit of Little Squaretop was as easy as it looked. The summit was actually a single boulder with a spine-like ridge. The two of use only just barely could sit on top. From up here, we could see that getting to Squaretop was out of the question. At least one rappel and probably some roped travel would be required to navigate the ridge between us and that peak. 15 ft bekow the summit of Little Squaretop was a small cairn and summit register. This one is similar to other Organ Mtn registers. Very few entries and poor condition writing material. We managed to scribble our names onto a blank spot on a page.

The descent went pretty quickly. We barge straight down the main gully until we were stopped by some short slabs. We ended up rapping one of these slabs, but once down saw a way that they could be surmounted via 3rd class climbing. By the time we were on the saddle between Organ Needle and Little Squaretop we got our first view of our comarades on the descent. They had just reached Juniper Saddle and were resting. Either we were making extremely good time, or they were making poor time. Probably a little of both. We ended up catching up with them under the grey eminence and joined them for the last bit of the descent.

As usual, more complete route descriptions can be found at

Monday, October 13, 2008

Middle and South Rabbit Ear Peaks in one day

I'm starting to get a bad habit: I see a climbing route that looks fun. I jump on it. The climbing starts to get hard. I panic. I fall. I lose my confidence and bail on the route. I tell myself it is 5.10 climbing. I go climb a 5.6. This is how the climbing day started out. Ross and I hike dup the Rabbit Ears canyon with no real route in mind. Once we got close to the Middle Rabbit Ear, I spied a few bolts heading up a fairly steep face. Above this face are improbably looking overhangs, and I should have taken a cue from those and set my sights somewhere else. but what's the fun in that? I rope up and tackle the route:

The start seems ok, a short corner where I clip a good bolt. Past the bolt is a delicate move to the left to gain a shallow crack system. I place a good wire and blue TCU in the crack system. More delicate moves are pass the crack but I still feel pretty good. I get 5 ft past my pro and gain a stance where I can clip the second bolt. The moves above this bolt are thin, and I take few false starts trying to decide on a sequence. Eventually, I commit to doing a hard sidepull on a shallow corner. I get high enough and reach up to what I hope is a good hold in a shallow crack, but turns out to be not that great. I'm about 10 ft past my bolt (CG speaking) and starting to not feel so good. I know what I need to do, make a smear with my feet and continue side-pulling on the shallow crack until I can gain a stance (and hopefully pro) but I can't make myself do it. I start cursing, and then shout "falling". Ross catches me all the way below my wired-stopper, about a 25 ft fall. My knee is alittle banged up and my arm is scraped, but I'm otherwise ok. I decide I don't want to try again though, and clean my gear and bail off the high bolt. Ross top-ropes up to the bolt and makes it look easy. My climbing esteem is pretty low.

Ross doesn't lead trad yet, so I get to pick the route we do next. I pick the easiest closest route to where we are, which is the Normal Route on the Middle Rabbit Ear. The route is fun, but it's not much. There was really only two pitches of climbing, and considering we hiked a considerable distance to get up here, it didn't leave us totally fulfilled. There were supposedly some harder variation finishes that I thought we would give a shot, but as soon as I got close to them, I balked. The one variation that looked do-able to my ego-weakened state had ants coming out of the holds.

Ross down-climbing to the bottom of the 3rd pitch.>>

At the summit, there still isn't a working pen at the register. the last entry is from June 2007 when Scott and I climbed the West Face route. Fortunately, I had a pen with me, so we sign the register and leave the pen. The register needs to be replaced badly. The PVC tube is not water tight and the pages are molding. I know those pages are only a year old too, because I left them there. Once agian I vow to bring a new register on my next summit bid.

After we rappel down to our packs, I'm starting to feel like we need to do something else before hiking out, so I suggest we run up an easy route on the South Rabbit Ear. After checking to make sure he has his head-lamp, Ross is game. I shed part of my rack and we strike off up the West Ridge of the South Rabbit Ear. We make short work of the route and I'm starting to feel better. Two technical summits in a day is pretty good. And an idea occurs to me: Both the North and middle Rabbit Ears have descent routes on the south, there is a very logical link-up which could summit all three rabbit ears.

The sun has set by the time we get down the steep gully underneath the peaks and we have to use head-lamps all the way out Rabbit Ears Canyon. Once we hit the Topp Hut road, a big moon rises over the rocks we were just at the top of, and the rest of the walk is casual and relaxed.

Another great day out in the Organs.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

OMTRS: Achenbach canyon

The rescue team had a huge turn-out for the high angle training at Achenbach canyon waterfall. So many people, a lot of them new, and it was not uncommon to see people with nothing to do, waiting their turn to learn rescue rigging techniques. Fortunately for them, I brought a top-rope. The cliff underneath the waterfall is crumbly igneous stuff. After knocking off the worst of the loose blocks, we had a decent top-rope with a 5.5 route and a 5.7 route. The crux moves were getting around a large hedge-hog catcus.

I didn't actually get much training in myself, but on a whim, I jumped into the litter to see what it feels like to get lifted up. The waterfall was dripping so I got cold and wet. I also learned that even though the patient is protected by a metal cage, he can still feel rocks poking into his back. The litter rigging looks pretty complicated, but is actually pretty straight-forward. The team has a fancy litter with color coded straps so as to help you remember which ones go where. Even after all the straps are in place, the patient is tied directly to the ropes as a double-back-up (in case he falls out of the litter!). I mistakenly made this tie-in too short. While going up in the horizontal position, this wasn't a problem, but as soon as they tipped the litter vertical, the haul-line pulled me directly from the harness instead of pulling the litter. Very un-pleasant.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Southern Comfort Wall: Rain melts away ego

I was really looking forward to climbing with Bob Almond today. I had climbed with Bob before, as part of OMTRS groups, but never just the two of us. He is a strong, cautious climber, with a strong sense of adventure, and he has an inexhaustible store of climbing tales. We met at our house for breakfast of grated zucchini omelets, then struck out for the Organs. Clouds were rolling in, and I vaguely remember waking up at 5am to the sound of rain, but we ignored these signs and kept on going.

The approach was cold, beckoning autumn. It was windy and misty and I hadn't brought warm clothes figuring that we'd have the typical sunny New Mexico days I've grown accustomed to. By the time we got to the wall, two clouds had allready passed around us, leaving a fine dew on every surface. Oh, and there was thunder and lightening nearby. Somehow though, one of the climbs looked dry enough to jump on. The alcove on the far western end was protected from the winds and rain. I had climbed this route with Scott Jones a while back, so Bob got the lead. By default, he would also get the piece of booty high up on the route, a yellow runner.

As Bob ascended, it got colder. I was shivering pretty steadily, and even Sasha was looking pretty miserable pawing at the damp earth for a dry spot to curl up. By the time Bob was near the crux, it began to rain on us. But instead of just a fine mist like the previous cloud crossings, the rain grew steadily in volume, until the entire slab was dripping. Luckily, Bob had just reached the booty, which provided a perfect bail out spot. The moves past the booty/bolt were the crux slab moves, and at first I was incredulous as it looked like Bob was going to try to surmount this spot in wet and freezing conditions. Good sense got the better of him, and he bailed, cleaning on the way down so i wouldn't have to subject myself to the wet route.

By the time we had packed up the rain had stopped, but more clouds were on the way. We thought about walking back to the car, and getting hot-chocolate. But our curiosity got the best of us and we ended up hiking up to the Lesser Spire to check out the big chimneys and offwidths which grace the northwest side of the tower. The chimney route didn't look to bad, and even had a bolt before a crux-looking spot. The offwidth looked hard and also sported an old 1/4" bolt before the crux section. When we get bigger gear or bigger balls, we'll be back.

Sasha was getting pretty beat-up by all the scrambling. She also had her first close encounter with a rattler. despite all our yelling, and me leading her around the snake, she managed to back-track right over it. Luckily the snake was pretty cold and sluggish and was happy to sit quiet while clueless Sasha stepped right over it. Today she's lucky, but I worry about her snake-sense.

We got back to our packs stowed on the west end of Southern Comfort wall and it was finally sunny without clouds in sight. However, the wall was still pretty wet so we started heading down. On our way down we passed by a short headwall a little to the north of the main Southern Comfort wall. This short headwall has two obvious routes, a 5.10 crack and 5.11 overhanging roof system. The wall was getting full sun and appeared dry, so we decided to try the routes out. We opted for the 5.11 first because it was drier. Neither of us felt up for leading it though, so I scrambled around to the top where I found a pair of bolts (one 1/4" one 3/8") for top-rope anchors. The climb was burly. It starts with 20 ft of moderate crack face climbing up to the first roof. Strenuous lay-backing gets around the corner to a decent stance and then more strenuous lay-backs get around the next corner, where your left to haul yourself up jugs to the top (total length ~20m). The moves were all straight-forward, but neither Bob or I could send. We repeatedly flamed out getting around the lay-back corners.

After burning ourselves on the 5.11, I foolishly though I could lead the 5.10 crack. It looked simple and short. The inital 15 ft of climbing was steep hands/fingers to a rest. than another 10ft crux past steep fingers lead to easy climbing to the top. Almost a high-ball boulder problem. I got 5 ft off the ground and placed a cam while hanging off a hand-jam. Then I got another five feet up and had my hands on the jugs which would let me gain the rest-stance. but I couldn't pull up. My arms were lead, and I panicked and grabbed the cam, and took a short and awkward swing-fall managing to skin my fingers pretty badly. Utterly deflated we called it quits.

This day left me wanting more, but also feeling like I lack the strength and resolve I once had. I am attempting to train at home, but it's not too serious and I am skeptical about the results. My goal is to do 30minutes of "climbing training" at least four times a week for a month. This can entail hang-board work-outs, pull-ups, core body exercises, whatever. I just want to get my arms used to holdiong my weight again for extended periods of time. I'm hopung that by the end of the month, I'll be able to hang for a little longer on jugs, and won't pump out after a mere 30 seconds of effort. I'm dangling a carrot in front of myself too, if I complete this training regime, I'll splurge on a new cam, a #2 camelot or equivalent (a serious hole in my rack).

Bob and I will be back soon, and have our glorious reprise of these routes.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sugarloaf: Flea Tree Dihedral

Sugarloaf has a special appeal to Las Cruces climbers, it's uninterrupted North face stands out from all the jagged Organ peaks. Once again I found myself heading back to Sugarloaf to roam the expansive slabs. This time, with a fellow co-worker and OMTRS member, Ross Allen. Ross is at WSTF as part of an internship with NASA. I hadn't met him until an OMTRS event for some reason. Once I realized we'd both have the same off fridays, I invited him climbing. He was gung-ho about doing Sugarloaf, even though he's never climbed trad, and never done multi-pitch. I figure, he's frsh tuna I can exploit to do some new routes. So off we go.

I end up picking the Flea Tree Dihedral because it is shorter (only 6 pitches) and has easier route finding. That pretty much sums up the climbing on this route as compared to the other routes on Sugarloaf. To make things a little more interesting, I only brought five cams and relied on wires and tri-cams for most of the routes protection. This saved a lot of weight, and I rarely missed having the cams. I'd say that for most "moderate" Organ mountains routes, a light rack will suffice.

Route Description
P1: 60m of 4th and easy 5th class scrambling. I ended up belaying in a corner above a tattered poot sling which was cleverly threaded through a hole in a granite shelf. Easier scrambling looks possible more the the west where a broad ledge sports a couple trees.
P2: Another 60m of low fifth class climbing put me 15 ft below a two bolt anchor. Above the anchor is a sloping ledge and then the crux head-wall.
P3: At the far right end of the sloping ledge is a vertical head-wall. Hand cracks and good holds surmount the headwall (5.7) and an additional 60ft of 5.7 climbing gains a spacious alcove for a belay spot. To the left of the initial 5.7 crack is a very clean and appealing finger crack which slices up a smooth and steep slab. I'll ahve to look into this harder variation another day.
P4: Continue up the brush filled corner system with easier climbing. Off to the left, the steep face looks like it could offer a more challenging variation. A full 60 meters put me 25 ft short of the "Flea Tree" on a nice ledge.
P5: A few slabby 5.6 moves are required and then climb past the flea-tree to a final headwall. We climbed the head-wall direct, which felt 5.8 and was fairly exiting on lead as the pro is at the bottom of the headwall (which is 5 ft high). An easier exit to the right exists.
P6: 4th class to the top (only about 30 m). You end up on the summit close to the descent ridge.