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 MP.com 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 mountainproject.com.