This year's WSTF Organ Mtn hike had a small turn-out. Last year, OMTRS/WSTF had probably 30 people summit, and a dozen or so camp out on the summit. Josie and I climbed the Organ Needle North West Ridge and also SqaureTop then. This year, we were only nine, and I was not among those sleeping on the summit. Despite not spending the night on the summit, I still brought climbing gear because Bob Cort had enticed me by suggeesting we do a route near the top. However, depending on how many people showed up, especially those who might need encouragement through-out the climb we hadn't planned on anything concrete. When I showed up this morning and there were only 5 other hikers in the Pan-Am parking lot, all seasoned hikers, we decided we could get away with a route.
We settled on Minerva's Temple as our goal. From the ORgan Needle Summit, this appears to be a small peak-let off to the South-East, but is actually a gigantic rock tower when viewed from Aguirre Springs. I remembered reading about it in Ingraham's Guide, something about the Yale Mountaineering Club doing the first ascent and that it was 5th class climbing up from a small gap between it and the "Retaining Wall". I figured it could only be 3 pitvhes at most, and if the Yale Mountaineering Club did it back in the 60's or something, it probably wouldn't be that hard.
We split off from the rest of the hikers at Hummingbird Saddle, ~10am. To get to the small saddle between Minerva's Temple and the Retaining Wall, we had to descend into the canyon/gulley on the east. This canyon was pure bliss, a perfect glade of 20-30ft tall mountain maples, in various states of fall foliage. Yellows and Oranges, thick layers of fallen leaves under-foot, that wonderful autumn smell. It made me miss fall in New Hampshire. And it was especially nice to discover that I can come here every fall, for my own little deciuos heaven.
We started our climb about 100ft uphill from the gap between Minerva's Temple and the Retaining Wall. Ingraham descibes a 75ft rappel from this gap into our canyon, but a quick look at the drop showed that it didn't look like the best climbing. By starting 100ft uphill we were able to traverse right into the gap. A Maple growing against the side of the wall makes a good marker for this traverse starting point. The traverse itself is 5.5 or easier, but fairly exposed and with loose mossy steps and lichen. We roped up anf I led the traverse to be on the safe side.
The pitch climbing up from the gap to the top of Minerva'S Temple W ridge is the crux. I could immediately see several variants, some of which looked very challenging indeed. I opted for what looked like the easiest route, climbing twenty feet up to a weakness and then turning the corner to the south face at a bush. This move ended up generating a lot of rope drag, which a payed for later. ONce established on the South face, I was on a sloping ledge that had 4-5 parallel crack systems going straight up to the top. The first was a burly looking off-width. The second a narrow un-protecable seam. The 3-4 looked like something I could on-sight. They were close enough together where it looked posisble to use features from both, and had sections of thin hands to fist size cracks. I started up the left one, got about 10 ft up it and starting losing my nerve. I wasn;t having difficulty with the mves yet, but the way the cracks were situated on the wall, I didn't feel like I had good feet, ubnless I smeared on the granite. The protection was good but it felt much harder than I was feeling comfortable with. I felt my way about making the move to jump over to the right hand crack, but this also felt more strenuous than I had bargained for. I started grunting and sweating more and wishing I had brought my chalk and a full set of cams (I only brought a light "alpine rack" consisting of chocks, a set of tri-cams, and Camelots #1-3). When faced with the decision to push myself or back down, I chose to back down. I cleaned my top peice and down'climbed-slithered back down to the ledge.
Fortunately there was an easier way to the top. A few more feet to the right was the last crack which als looked hard, but from this crack I was able to make an exposed traverse move over a knobby face and get into an easy corner. From here it was a cake-walk up to the top of the ridge, except for the fact my rope-drag now felt like I was hauling up a 50 lb weight. The exposed move turned out to be the crux, and even spit off Bob as he followed up. I couldn't see him from my belay, but he was stuck at one spot for a few minutes and all of the sudden yelled "Falling!" and the rope got tight. Fortunately, he picked a good spot to fall, where the pendulum from the traverse was almost negligable. He quickly established himself back on the wall and joined me on the ridge-top.
From the ridge we had an excellent view of the rest of our party over on Organ Needle. For a while it seemed as if they were spectators, grouped together on an overlook facing our way. While belaying Bob, I watched as they cajoled Sasha into getting up to the summit. To reach our summit, Bob and I still had to negotiate the exposed ridge. Bob took the lead and did a full rope-length of 4th class scrambling, over a mini sumit and to a nice clearing with low aspens. From here, he led another short 40 ft pitch to the true summit. This pitch actually turned out to be tricky, involving a steep final 10 ft in an awkward corner, and stemming out to a crack on the face. The summit was a beautiful slab of granite, gracefully sloping down to the easter side of the moutain, where it abruptly drops off. We looked around for signs of previous ascents and for a fixed rappel. I found some tattered pieces of blue webbing and an old biner, but not in the location we wanted to rappel. I was a little disappointed not to find a summit register. It would have been really fun to read about the Yaler's first ascent. But no register was found, and I doubt this peak sees many summiters anyways.
Now we just needed to find out how to get down. With no obvious signs of a rappel route, and no beta, we were on our own. Bob then played the rookie card and left it up to me how we were to get down (well, it was also my rack that would be at risk of attrition should we ahve to leave gear). I decided our best bet was to re-trace our ascent route, because this way we at least knew what were getting into. I left a small loop of webbing and biner at the summit to rap back down to the aspens, then we roped up and simul-climbed back over to the west end of the ridge. I almost chose a spot at the top of the ridge to set our final rappel, but ended up down-climbing about 10 ft where we were able to find a suitable place to leave a double-length runner and biner to rappel back down to the gap. It's a good thing we descened that extra ten feet, our rope only barely made it to the ground. From the gap, we roped up and traversed back over to where we started rather than leaving more webbing/biners to rappel the 75ft down from the gap. I didn't mind down-climbing the traverse, bu Bob said it was for the birds, and he had a point, on second he had a pretty decent fall potential.
We parted ways at Hummingbird saddle. It was 2:30 pm. The rest of the group had already made it's way down, except for the two who were spending the night. Bob climbed up to join them for the night, and I hustled my way down. The whole time I was hiking down, I was thinking about whether or not I would catch up to the rest of the group. They must have had an hour or more of a head-start, but one of the members in their group was sure to take a slower pace on the treacherous sections of the trail, and I played out the ope of over-taking them. At each point in the trail that offers a view of the trail below, I paused and tried to make them out, but never saw them. It wasn't until I got back on the Modoc Mine road and their car came in sight when I spotted them at the car. They were sitting back, and waiting for the last member of their group, Ilene, who was a few hundred yards away. I caught up to them at the car only a few minutes after her, and found out that I had done the entire descent in 1hr 40 minutes. Not bad at all, but my knees were aching. My car was still parked another two miles down the Modoc Mine rd, but Grady offered Sasha and I a ride. Sasha looked in worse shape than I, her pads were all beaten up and she barely had enough energy to get up. All in all, a very succesful day.
When I got home, I felt naseous. I had pretty much forgotten to eat all day. Lucky for me Liz had baked a fresh batch of molasses cookies, and whipped up a batch of turkey soup to calm my stomach. She sponged off Sasha's feet while I cuddled with Levin, relaxing and shaking of the fatigue from a long day. I'm thinking next year, if I turn this hike into a climb, it might be better to spend the night. But if I do that, I also know that I'd end up just doing more climbs, and being even more exhausted when I got home. At least now, I have a full dya of recovery before having to go back to work.