Friday, December 17, 2010

OMTRS: Florida Mountain Rescue Mission

This was an intense mission, so much so that I wrote a short novel on my experience. So here it is:


Putting my son to bed Thursday night, we have a comfortable routine; Levin gets a warm bottle of

milk, and snuggles up with Mom in our bed, while I lay nearby and read from a book. Tonight we were

reading from The House on Pooh Corner, the chapter in which Pooh, Piglet and Rabbit get lost in the

misty forest.

A few hours later I was about ready for bed myself. I was finishing off a generous glass of cheap wine,

browsing the internet when the OMTRS auto dialer rings. There is a rescue mission in the Florida

Mountains near Demming, 4 hikers are stuck on some cliffs. I’m initially hesitant about going, I had work

responsibilities in the morning that I wasn’t keen on missing. But somehow I talked myself into thinking

that we’d be home before sun-up anyways. I told Liz, “3 to 1 we’ll get turned around by the time we

show up at incident base.” I go ahead and pack up some gear, just basic stuff like a harness and helmet,

and an extra layer of warm clothes. I put on the new long underwear my dad got me for my birthday,

and the bright orange mid-weight that Denise got me. I figure that we’ll be bashing through prickly

terrain, so I put on my trusty brown Carharts. This turns out not be such a hot idea…

We arrive at incident base around 11:15 pm. It is crowded with vehicles. We learn a little bit more

during the debrief; the subjects are in two groups, two “little girls” stuck up on a ledge near/on the

summit of a peak. Another two are lower down on an easier to reach ledge, but still unwilling/unable

to come down. Someone from Demming Fire was with them already and starting a fire, and we could

see a smidgeon of light up in the mountains. OMTRS has brought 9 members and one gets co-opted to

work base camp right off the bat. The rest of us are divided into two teams of four. I am teamed with

John (leader), Robert, and Ellie, we are Team 2. Team 1 consists of Grant County SAR members and had

already left as the hasty team. While John gets our team assignment we unload gear from the trailer,

each team took the following; 1 rope, 2 system bags, 2 spare harness and helmets. Both the OMTRS

teams were to follow the hasty team and reach the lower subjects first. Then we were to get to the

upper subjects, lower them down and we’d all be on our merry way. It is about midnight when we leave

incident command, the sky is still fairly clear and the moon is bright. I’m still thinking that this will be a

short mission.

Through the Mist

Instead of hiking up the canyon directly underneath where we could see the subjects, we were informed

that it might be better to follow the Lover’s Leap trail west first and then follow a ridge-line south/east

to the subjects. Only half-way up the trail and our team faces its first decision. Ellie is falling behind. I

guess that means we’re hiking too fast, I take the sweep and encourage her from below, but we’re on

the “easy” trail and our pace is dead-slow. This doesn’t bode well for us to make a rapid ascent through

the “cross-country” terrain. As we’re nearing the top of Lover’s Leap trail, Team 1 radios in that one

of their team members is not comfortable scrambling/bushwhacking off trail and he is going to stay

behind. A quick team meeting and Ellie opts to join him. So now we are three. We can see team 1 at

the top of the trail, and team 3 has passed them and is scrambling up the ridge line. Based upon what

the other teams were saying, the ridgeline sounded pretty hairy, so our team cuts south before the

ridgeline, taking a canyon instead. Going gets tougher but the bushwhacking isn’t that bad. What is

bad is that clouds are moving in. We’re socked in before we reach the top of the canyon, and Robert is

starting to have issues too. Again, are we going too fast? We’re going slow enough where I can’t keep

warm without putting on all my layers. While we stop to regroup, Robert throws up his dinner. Time for

another team meeting. We can see team 1 down below us, and Robert sees that John and I can move

fast and that the clouds/mist rolling in are going to put the stuck girls in even worse shape. We make

the difficult decision for Robert to fall back and join Team 1 who seem to be slower. John takes the

technical gear that Robert had, and we strike off.

As we get to the top of the ridge the wind is really picking up and the clouds are starting to severely

reduce visibility. Robert took our map with him, so we were relying fully on John’s GPS to guide us. At

incident base, we were given a set of approximate coordinates of the subjects, and we were trying to

make to them. Team 3’s lights were visible off to the east trying to get around some peaks. They were

having a tough time getting around some of the cliffs, so we decided to not follow them and instead try

to find a way around to the south of where they were. Once we crossed over the ridge-top on the south

(west?) side the wind was brutal. The terrain also worsened, becoming a series of rock fins that we were

trying to traverse over. We were able to get past a couple of these obstacles but not without class 4

scrambling, on wet scary rock. At one point we had no choice but to get out ropes to rappel, or back-
track. We opted to back-track, but now I was getting completely disoriented. The fog and clouds were

totally surrounding us now, visibility was reduced to 50ft or less. We would consult the GPS for a bearing

and stumble in that direction for 100 ft or so and then run into some cliff/obstacle which would throw

us off again. Still we were slowly making progress, the GPS slowly shrunk from .2 miles, to .13 miles and

we started taking hope.

Team 3 was closer to the subjects and we began hearing on the radio that they could hear voices and

were trying to locate the subjects, but that the wind/terrain made it hard to locate the noise. The

labyrinth of rock ridges bounced noises in weird directions, and the wind and fog seemed to dampen the

effectiveness of any noises made. We got Team 3’s GPS coordinates and started making for them. They

were much more east than I was thinking we needed to go, but I was also getting pretty disoriented.

Our progress was slow, we were again struggling with the terrain to try to go the direction that the GPS

was telling us. It seemed like it was about 3 in the morning when Team 3 radioed that they had made

contact with the lower subjects. They gave out new coordinates of the location. Our GPS was telling us

we were only 800 ft away and we were hoping we could get to them soon too. We started getting closer

to where the GPS was telling us but that’s when things started getting weird. We were on a steep slope

in the leeward side, it was relatively calm, and our GPS was claiming we were only 400 ft away, but none

of our shouting got a response, and we couldn’t see lights anywhere. We were also losing radio contact.

We kept going to where the GPS told us to, until it did an about face on us; after going a hundred feet

towards the bearing it gave us, it spit back at us a different bearing and told us we were further away. I

was seriously starting to lose faith in the GPS unit, which was making me worried. I started asking John

lots of questions about the GPS, probably annoying of me, but he was patient. We double-checked the

GPS datum, and it was correct. We double-checked the GPS coordinates that Team 3 gave us, and found

an error. Either we had jotted down a digit wrong, or it had been mistakenly entered into the unit. The

correct coordinates told us we were more like .1 mile away. Misery!

Did I mention that is was raining? It’s difficult to distinguish being wet from cloud moisture and wind,

and actual rain, but we were getting wet. My cotton Carharts did not seem like such a good idea

anymore. The terrain was wet and slick now, and there even seemed to be some signs of sleet or ice.

We were also getting tired. My legs started cramping up a little bit during some of our strenuous slope

climbs. John was always right behind me, providing bearings, but I could tell he was tired too. We closed

in on the new GPS coordinates but ran into huge rock walls again. At first we tried skirting around the

bottom of the rocks, but heading this way seemed to make us further away, so we about faced and

tried following the rock face up-slope. At one point there was a break in the wall that we could scramble

through, and once we did we were struck by the fury of the winds. On the other side of the rock we had

been skirting, the GPS point us down so we began following the rock wall down slope again. According

to the GPS we were only a few hundred feet away, but were still not seeing any signs of headlamps. We

definitely heard some voices at one point, but with the wind and rocks it was tough to tell where they

were coming from. We descended along the rock face for a few hundred feet and re-checked the GPS

only to find that it was point us back towards the other side of the rock formation that we had just come

from, and that we were further away again. When we could get a clear radio transmission, we could

hear that Team 3 was radioing for us to get there fast. We caught snippets of what they were trying to

do but it was hard to get a clear story. It sounded like Kenny had reached the subjects. It also sounded

like Marta had gone to the top to try to get above them, and a rappel had failed. They kept asking for us

to get there and our frustration level was climbing steadily.

We spent about an hour with the GPS telling us we were 150-400 ft away, but giving us wildly varying

headings. We went up, we went back down. We looked up dead-end canyon. Eventually though we

were beat. I was convinced that our GPS had some kind of fatal flaw and that we could actually be miles

away but wouldn’t know it. Plus John and I were both getting sloppy-tired. There was a little sheltered

spot where we stopped to talk about our options. I thought we were lost and needed to gain some kind

of location information that didn’t depend on the GPS. Basically, drop elevation to where we could see

some of the terrain and try to figure out where the hell we actually were. Before doing this though,

John pointed out that we really wouldn’t be able to tell much until it got light out, and checking the time

this was only maybe an hour away (was it really 5:30 am already!). So we put on all our warm layers

and huddled under John’s reflective tarp/blanket. I doubt I was real comfortable, but the physical and

mental stress was enough where I think I fell asleep for a little bit, one of those sleepy states where

every time you blink your eyes, another 5 minutes has passed.

As it began, to get light I finally notice that it had been very quiet. I actually asked John if he had turned

off the radio, but we were just in a dead zone where we couldn’t get any radio signal. I powered up my

cell-phone and it had reception so I fired off a quick text to Liz, and left a message with my boss at work,

apologizing for not being able to get to work. We were on a serious mission! I knew he’d understand.

John used his cell to contact Incident Command, give them our status and plan. Again, we were told to

try to get to team 3 as quickly as possible, and that we must be close. I wanted to yell at them, “WHAT

DO YOU THINK WE”VE BEEN TRYING TO DO ALL FREAKING NIGHT!”. But so far yelling hadn’t yielded

much response, so I held my tongue. John was shivering cold, but once we got moving we started feeling

better. For once, we completely ignored the GPS and simply dropped in elevation and started skirting

east around the bottom of the rock formations that had been confounding us all night. The clouds

were lifting somewhat and we may have even been touched by some sun-light as we worked down

and across. We could see some ranches in a valley down below. After feeling lost and disoriented most

of the night, it’s heartening to see some kind of man-made structure, even if it doesn’t help you much

figure out where you are. We continued skirting around the bottom of the cliffs, eventually trending

north a bit, and as we rounded the next shoulder, Incident Command came into view. That was a relief!

We re-established radio communications with the other teams, and checked the GPS again to try to

see where they might be in relation to us, but I still didn’t want to rely on the GPS. So we asked them to

describe where they were. A very exasperated Marta exclaimed, “I’m in a cloud”. Someone else from

Team 3 said they were just below the clouds. We looked straight up the slope from where we were

standing at a massive rocky peak, whose summit was still shrouded in mist. I asked John if he’d let me

look at his GPS, and it also was pointing straight up to this peak. I didn’t really trust it, but we decided to

try heading that way.

The Rescue

We had only been going up the scree slope a little while when we started to smell camp-smoke. We

shouted out and heard a crystal clear response from right above us. Finally! This positive sign was

enough to give us new strength, and we powered up the scree slope. At the top Jim (one of the OMTRS

guys from Team 3) met us at a fire he had been tending in a small oak glade. Just above him in a shallow

bowl were two Border Patrol agents. The bowl they were in is where the lower subjects had been, but

they had already been taken down to incident command by the time we showed up. Jim pointed us to

where Kenny and the other two girls were stuck and we booked it over there.

The two girls and Kenny were perched on a ridiculously small ledge. Despite being three people, they

formed a tight huddled mass, wrapped up in a single small black jacket. I quickly got my pack in order; I

peeled off my OMTRS rescue jacket so that I could give it to one of the girls, John gave me an extra hat

and gloves and his emergency blanket, I made sure I had two harnesses and a system bag with me, I only

had one extra helmet but that would have to do for now. Pack check done I looked up at what I needed

to climb. The cliff was low-angle 5th

up to where they were. I shouted at Kenny for some beta about possible anchors and he said there was

nothing up there that we could anchor to. He asked if we had a rack, but we didn’t.

NOTE: I thought about this later, but we could have told Incident Command about needing our rack and

they probably could have had the helicopter drop it off where we were. I didn’t realize they’d be sending

the helicopter up soon anyways, and this would have improved our anchor building prospects.

Kenny suggested I try a ramp further to the right which would let me climb as high as their ledge, and

then traverse over. This would let me look for new anchor locations that he couldn’t see. I scrambled

over to the ramp and started to climb up it. It was on the corner of the face and the winds were 2-3

times stronger there. My nice 5.10 sticky rubber shoes were slipping on the rock as I started going up,

unusual for that kind of rock and slope (Marta told me later that there was even some ice in some places

out there). Before I got much higher I decided this way would not work and scrambled back down.

Climbing up directly under the girls was better, the rock was a little dryer, the wind was lighter and I felt

comfortable and in control. I reached the ledge, shucked my pack and began grabbing pieces of clothing

to put on them. I was on the left side of the ledge. The girl closest to me, Grace, was a Korean university

student in black jeans and a thin long-sleeved shirt. Her eyes and head seemed to roll around a lot.

Next to her was Brittany in short nylon shorts. Her legs were getting the worst of it, but she seemed

a little more alert. Kenny was huddled up to the side of her, trying to keep the one thin black jacket

around them. He was shivering too, and only in a base/mid-layer. I gave Grace my OMTRS jacket and

some fleece gloves. Brittany got my alpaca hat and John’s over-mitts (somehow I dropped the hat John

gave me, Jim recovered it down the mountain later) . I gave Kenny the emergency blanket which he

got around the three of them . I had a pair of light nylon wind-pants that I offered for Brittany, but she

wasn’t able to stand and get them on, so I stuffed them in my pocket for later.

Next we needed to get harness on them. All three of them actually, Kenny didn’t have a harness either.

I only had two extra harnesses, so we put these on the subjects. They are pretty simple harnesses, with

the benefit that the leg loops can be completely un-buckled, making it easier to get on the subjects legs

without them having to move them much. I was responsible for Grace’s harness, and she was groaning

as I put it on her,, especially when I shifted her around. She was thin as bones, and was holding her arms

awkwardly, probably unable to feel them and control them. Once they had harnesses on, I scrambled

over them to the right and took out the rope and system bag. I got my harness on, and Kenny tied a

harness with a piece of webbing for himself.

At about this time, Bob Cort appeared on a rope off to our left. He had rappelled down from an anchor

above and was only 20-30 ft away. It would have been great if we could have descended his rope, but

we learned later that he had already swung over quite a bit to get to that point, and we weren’t going to

be able to reach or use his rope safely. He disappeared from sight and I turned around to start scouring

the rock behind us for something, anything to anchor off of. There was one spot about 15 ft to the right

of the girls where a decent crack/boulder system had potential. There were some stuck chock-stones

in the crack already so I threaded a piece of 8mm safety line around one and bounced it a few times.

It held. Next I took one of the system-bag prussiks and used its big knot as a chock in the crack. It fit

snugly and I yanked on it a couple of times. It held too. The best “placement” came from a pinch point

near the bottom of the crack, where I was able to thread some tubular webbing behind and tie off. This

looked like the most solid piece of my anchor, but even it relied on the rock it was around to be solid. I

could see the outline all the way around some of these rocks, so it was hard to say if they were separate

rocks jammed into one-another, or part connected to the base-rock somewhere. Basically, I wasn’t too

confident in the anchor, and wasn’t about to try rappelling down off it with the extra weight of a subject

attached to me.

John was calling up to me while I was fiddling with this and when I said that the anchor prospects

sucked he mentioned something about a body belay. This actually struck me as a very good idea. While

the anchor I was building was on suspect rock, all three pieces felt firm to my tugs and would hold

something. There was also I nice stance just below where I could brace myself. I could anchor myself and

then lower the girls one by one, taking most of their weight myself and not stressing the anchor much

at all. It seemed desperate, but it also seemed like our only option. I finished my anchor by equalizing it

and tying it off so that if any one piece blew, there would be no extension.

NOTE: This is not something I usually do in my climbing anchors, and was drilled into me during last

week-ends training, and really makes sense in a non-climbing scenario. The advantage is clear, if any

piece “pops” the anchor doesn’t shift and shock-load the other points. The disadvantage is that the

direction of pull needs to stay pretty constant otherwise the pieces aren’t equalize anymore. In climbing,

the direction of pull is more likely to change, and thus the sliding-x makes more sense.

I told Kenny the plan and we started getting Grace ready to go down first. This was Kenny’s call, she was

in worse shape yes, but she was also further from the anchor, and would need to climb past Brittany

to get to a point where I could lower her down. We clipped Grace in to the rope and I put her on belay.

Kenny also put the spare helmet on her. Neither Brittany nor Kenny were tied off to anything. A horrible

scenario passed through my head, in which Grace knocked both Kenny and Brittany off the ledge. I was

nervous. Kenny coached Grace over, and she was wobbly. At one point he did a sort of bear hug on her

to keep her from toppling over, she moved like a zombie. Thankfully Kenny got her across to where I

could lower her down. This was one of the two scariest points of the rescue for me.

Lowering Grace down was like lowering dead-weight. She was able to make some slight movements,

but it was obvious she didn’t have much control of her body. She was moaning and her eyes seemed

to roll around with her head a lot. I slowly lowered her, yelling as much encouragement as I could. She

sort of hung up on rocks occasionally, and we needed to get her to shift around a little bit in order to

keep her moving down. John caught her in his arms once she got down the 50ft or so to the scree slope.

He initially wanted to keep belaying her down the scree slope, but she wasn’t able to move much and

he was going to need more help, so he settled her down right there and I hauled up the rope to lower

Brittany down.

Lowering Brittany down went much better, as she could keep her legs against the rock and walk down.

The problem was that we kept knocking loose rock off the cliff and they went whizzing down towards

Grace and John. John was sheltering Grace, and they both had helmets on, but there were still a couple

close calls. One rock whizzed by only a foot form John’s head as he crouched over Grace to protect her.

I lowered Kenny down next and he was careful not to send any more loose rock down. The Border Patrol

helicopter had also shown up again, and was hovering level with us. I thought they were just watching

our operation so that they could report back to Incident Command what was going on, but I found out

later that they were assessing options/locations for an emergency pick-up. Once Kenny was down, John

shouted up that he wanted me to continue belaying Brittany down the scree slope and he was going

to tie in too and help her down this section. I shouted back to him that I didn’t want two people’s body

weight on my anchor, I was worried it wouldn’t be strong enough. He assured me that the rope was

just for guidance/balance and that he’d use Kenny as a spotter as well to help support them down. I

asked them if it wouldn’t be better to build a stronger anchor down where they were, and Kenny looked

around a bit to see if that was feasible, but they said it wasn’t. So I kept Brittany on belay as John tied

into the rope next to her. He put one of her arms around her shoulder and I paid out rope as they made

their way down the scree slope and around the corner to the shallow bowl where I had originally seen

the Border Patrol Agents.

They disappeared from my sight, but then I heard the shout, “OFF BELAY”, and hauled up the rope to

prepare for getting Grace down the same scree section. John and Kenny came back up to Grace and

prepared to get her down. Grace wasn’t able to walk like Brittany had, so John did a sort-of fireman’s

carry for her. She was clipped into the rope, and he clipped in right next to her. He then threw her on his

back and bug climbed using his hands and feet , backwards down the scree. Kenny was right there with

them helping keep Grace on John’s back. Again, they disappeared from my sight around a corner, but

shortly after I got the all clear sign and hauled the rope back up.


Kenny came back up to help me tear everything down. I opted to down-climb instead of rappelling off

my anchor, so I tossed the rope down for Kenny to deal with and disassembled the anchor. The down-
climb went fine, it felt good to be moving again, I had gotten cold belaying and my hands were stiff from

holding the rope in the cold without any gloves. We scrambled down the scree and around the corner

and found John and Grace huddled on a broad ledge waiting for a belay down one last steep section.

Marta had an anchor set up higher up the bowl, and they had already finished lowering/belaying

Brittany down to the fire. John did the same kind of carry to get Grace down this section and I was his

spotter, basically scrambling down next to them, keeping a hand on Grace’s back and trying to be useful.

We got her down to the fire too.

I thought maybe we would stop and try to warm them up for a bit, but Incident Command had declared

some sort of medical emergency evac was necessary. The Border Patrol agents were shouting at us

to get Grace onto a rock boulder 50 feet lower than the fire. The rock was maybe the size of John’s

hummer, maybe a little bigger, about 10 ft tall and with a relatively flat top. Things started happening

pretty fast now. John seemed to know what to do, “Get her to the top of that rock!” He still had her on

belay on the rope, but took her off his back and had one of the Border Patrol guys get under her other

shoulder so they could get her through the oak glade. I bashed down the slope in front of them, tearing

down branches as best I could and holding back trees. They got to the boulder and John ordered me to

the top of it to help hoist her up. John and I tugged and pulled Grace up to the top of the rock any way

we could. She was moaning and writhing, being pushed from below by the Border Patrol guys.

Once on top of the rock, John got Grace on his lap and laid down on the middle of the rock. We

unclipped Grace from the belay rope, and I frantically rummaged through my pack for the 8mm safety

line and clipped this to John as a safety line for him. He was yelling at me to get a piece of webbing but

there was no time (and I had already thrown my pack off the boulder), the helicopter was all of sudden

right there trying to hover down and place one ski on the edge of the rock. I half rolled/scrambled over

the edge of the boulder to try to get out of the way of the helicopter blades. They felt impossibly close

to our heads. I somehow quickly found a stance off the edge of the boulder, with my head just poking

up over the top so I could see John and Grace. I had the safety line around my waist as a sort of hip

belay, but it’s hard to say if it would have been much good. The helicopter succeeded in getting one

ski on the edge of the rock, and its doors flew open. John half-stood up and literally tossed Grace into

the helicopter. She was sort of crumpled on the seat and looking pathetic. From behind me, Brittany

appeared on the rock and was scooted into the helicopter as well, closely followed by on of the Border

Patrol agents. The door slammed shut and the helicopter fell away. The blades whipped over us and

I ducked back over the edge of the boulder. This was the second scary moment of the rescue for me. I

need restraint to keep from swearing here.

The whomping noise of the helicopter faded away. I felt still. A rush of adrenaline was still pulsing

through my body and I felt on the verge of tears. We got them down, we were all ok. It’s over. The rest

is just details (as if I haven’t written enough!). We were all on some kind of natural high, but eventually

we got our gear packed up. The helicopter offered us rides down to Incident Command if we could get

down to a lower saddle. We made haste to get to the rendez-vous point, eager for the ride. I had never

ridden in a helicopter before, and it was good fun and a welcome relief from having to trudge back

down the canyon. The pilot had a patch on the back of his helmet that read “Stop Screaming, I’m Scared

Too”, and seemed to enjoy tilting the helicopter at sharp angles and zooming down the canyon.

Debrief, congratulations all around, burritos and water, sorting gear, a sleepy ride back to Las Cruces.

That’s about it. There’s already talk among the members of this rescue operation of meeting up to

rehash events. Last I heard the girls were doing ok at the hospital, and we might even see them again.

This was a night that binds people together, a night that will live long in all of our memories, a night to

be proud of.

Overall route track John and I took

Route track when we were close to subjects

Me climbing up to subjects

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Caballo Lake: Happy Dirt Day!

Covered in dirt, but happy to claim a route as my own!

The thing I most wanted to do for my birthday this year was go climbing, and at our last OMTRS team meeting when Bob Almond dangled the lure of putting up a new route at Caballo during our, I was hooked. Marta Reece joined us and we packed up all manner of first ascent equipment; bolts and drill of course, but also crow-bar and chisel, brushes and work gloves. After all, putting up a new route isn't just about climbing some un-climbed line, it's also about cleaning it of loose and dangerous rock, landscaping any inconveniently growing shrubs and dangling from precarious perches  to slowly hand drill bolts. Sounds like good times!

I took the Honda CR-V instead of the Tracker this time, which was pretty comfortable for the three of us plus two dogs. However, I wasn't as willing to bounce it up the rocky road, so we had to hike about 1/4" mile up the road, before veering off on the trail to the Grey Wall. We started off with a couple sport routes that are new additions to the wall since I was last here. I led up Two Face, which was as good as I heard. A clean and solid 5.8, abundantly bolted. There was a crux bulge section down low but the holds were good. The upper section had beautiful stemming in a water worn groove.

Bob jumped on the next climb over to the right next, what I later learned was The Bat, another Lance Hadfield route. I wasn't watching him that carefully as I was scouting out a new line on the lower angled wall to the left of Two Face, but he cruised up it. On coming down he said it was hard, but I decided to pull the rope through and try leading it anyways. Again it had very ample bolts, but was much steeper than the previous climb, and some of the sequences began to require some good technique. There were a coup[le of good rest ledges though so every time I was getting pumped I could reach one of the eldges and rest up a bit. the final crux cam at a steep and hand-hold-less section, around the 10th or so bolt. I took several hangs here trying to work out a sequence, and finally had something that sort of worked. it was very balancy though and I didn't feel good on it at all, and eventually just ended up grabbing the next draw and pulling myself past. My confidence so shattered we turned our attention to the new line I wanted to try.

The line I had chosen was a protectable looking crack on the lower-angled wall to the left of the route, Two Face. I racked up generously, including a bolt-kit and hook in my arsenal, from below it was clear that the crack system petered out about 75 ft up, and while the angle wasn't steep, there was a potentially blank section below the logical finish to the first pitch, a wide ledge with a large acacia bush on it. Worrying about the upper section almost became a mot point though, I had to struggle at the very start to get around a large bush which blocked the start of the crack. I finally turned the bush on its left side (without decent pro) and established myself in the easier crack above. Protection as pretty good, although always a little odd to place. The limestone crack system isn't like what I'm used to. the cracks flare open in wied ways, and often get wider as you go deeper in, making walking cams a hazard. Even though I felt like I had to fiddle with gear, I felt that there were adequate and strong placements. Small shrubs and hedge-hog cactus were easily cleaned out of the crack system, revealing good holds and fun climbing. A broad ledge about half way up had a ton off loose rock on it so I spent some time cleaning it off. I also spent a long time on this ledge digging the dirt out of hueco that was hidden behind a hedgehog cactus. All of the dirt seemed to blow right on my sweaty face, and the hueco seemed impossibly deep. Once excavated though, it became a good large-cam placement, and protected the "blank-looking" slab above.

I anchored myself on the broad ledge and began the business of drilling a rappel anchor. Bob and Marta took off to explore cliffs to the north as I tap-tapped away. Bob recommended 5" bolts for the limestone, and it took me over an hour to get two bolts installed. On rappel, I cleaned out more of the plants from the route, including the large brush at the start, which I had decided was the crux. Using my rock-hammer, i bashed at it until most of the branches fell away, revealing a large hueco and root system. I dug out a lot of dirt from that hueco, it seemed to be about the size of a 5-gallon bucket, and the plant's roots were stubborn.

On the ground looking up, the line looked completely different, fairly clean, and direct (contrasting my own dirty appearance). And a shiny and inviting rappel anchor glinted about 100ft up. This is my Dirt Day route! I hesitate to grade it, the crux was definitely the start, but with the bush gone this might be easier. I would guess it's only 5.7, but after my schooling on the neighboring sport climb, I'm not sure my grading abilities are on target. I guess people will just have to climb it so I can get a second opinion. Unfortunately, by the time I had finished, the sun was going down and we had to hike out, neither Bob nor Marta climbed my new route.

Before cleaning: The line follows the shade border

After cleaning, now go climb it!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Low Horns #1-#4

Marta Reece and I had a wonderful, but windy day traversing the Low Horns. Neither of us had done them before, although Marta has been up to some of the saddles between them. A group of OMTRS climbers had made the traverse (getting as far as #2) a few weeks back and it was still fresh in my mind as something I really wanted to try. Instead of approaching from the west as the previous group had done (and Ingraham describes), we started from Aguirre Springs, hiking up the Pine Tree trail's northern side for about a mile before striking off towards a shallow canyon which leads up to Low horn #1. The going was not bad at all, Marta had scouted it out earlier and we only had a couple short sections of bushwhacking through apache plume before we were on scree/rock underneath the north-eastern walls of the Low Horns. Skirting underneath this wall was pretty easy going, if not steep. Near the top, there was a bit of 3-4 th class scrambling options but getting to the summit was pretty straightforward. So far so good, we were on top of Low Horn #1 at 10am, only 2hrs after leaving the car. The only problem we were having was wind/cold, the recent warm weather led us to expect a calmer day and Marta was visbily shivering while we were on the summit. I donned my wind-breaker and was ok, but Marta had neglected to bring a wind-breaker, so I gave her my extra fleece layer and hat to keep her warm.

There was a funny pyramid-shaped wooden sculpture at the summit of Low horn #1, but no register or rappel gear (aside from a suspect and rusty piton). I recalled that Bob Cort had retrieved their rappel gear from a few weeks back, so we left our own sling and rapped down to the saddle between 1&2.

#2 looked a bit harder than it's northern sister, a couple of wide/dirty cracks went directly up the north face. These are what the previous party had climbed, but I thought there might be an easier climb on the NW sid eof the face, so I racked up and led that way. Turns out the NW side wasn't easier, and had a crux section to bypass, a steep angling 4" crack. I portected this with a small nut (my only piece of pro for the pitch), and carefully led through what felt like a 5.7 move. Maybe it wasn't this hard, I was in my approach shoes (5.10 Exums),but I was worried a little bit about Marta, she seemed hesitant to take on technical climbing. I set up a top-rope belay so that I could coach her through the crux, but she cruised it without much help from me at all. We left another new summit register at the top and then continued north to #3. The time was 12:00.

We were fortunate to have the previous parties rappel gear to use, and made the short rappel down to the saddle between 2&3. While Marta was rapping, I scrambled down the west side of this saddle and retrieved some more of Bob Cort's webbing/rap-ring, gear that would come in handy for us later. #3 was only a short pitch, but instead of taking a direct line up to the top, we opted for what appeared to be an easier route via scrambling left on mossy steps and gaining the peaks east ridge. I remained roped up for this, but the climbing stayed below 5th class. It was however very loose and quite dirty to gain the east ridge. Once on the ridge though, the rock was better, and formed a perfect 3ft wide ramp up to the summit. Marta came up without a problem, and then a belayed her down to a rappel point down a ledge to the SE. A couple old pitons/slings were here, but we scrambled even lower and left our own sling. My 60m rope was not quite long enough to gain the saddle, but there were a series of ledges at different heights which one could scramble down from. As it was, we ended up only 2 m above the saddle, and simply down-climbed to it. Marta had a hard time with the rappel due to the high wind; the wind put tension on my thick rope and acted like a fireman's belay, and iot took her a few minutes to move down from the anchor, forcing the rope through her ATC a foot at a time. The time was 1:00.

Low Horn #4 looked easier than the previous two, and we decided to tackle it un-roped. Again we stayed to the east, and turned onto the east side just below the summit. Nothing was harder than 4th class, but the moves turning around the corner had excellent exposure, and I stayed close to Marta to help her if needed. She appreciated my coaching but refused any help of rope, so I guess she felt fairly comfortable, despite the exposure. the summit of #4 was larger than the previous 3 and we took some time to eat and relax in the sun. the wind was still moving pretty well, but we found a relatively sheltered spot. While we were relaxing we were scoping out Low Horn #5, which seemed much more massive than anything we had climbed yet, From our vantage point, we could see a section of smooth slabby boulders which might be difficult to scramble over (or protect). On top of these an old rappel station was visible, further evidence that this section would pose some technical difficulties. It was 1:30 and we were beginning to think about a descent, especially if the next peak was going to be extra difficult.

the south side of #4 wasn't steep enough to warrant a rappel right away, but still had some challenges. I ended up belaying Marta down a 15 ft hand/fist crack, and then down-climbing it myself. This put us on a little shoulder 60ft above the saddle where we found an ancient looking rappel anchor, a twisted hemp rope! Lichen was covering it, and the knots looked like they had mostly disintegrated, but it was certainly the rappel anchor. We used our own webbing for the rappel, but I was almost out of webbing, having only 24" left. Down at the saddle, we decided not to press on, and descend down the gulyl between #4&5. A short 30ft rapel was needed to get past an overhanging chimney, but fortunately, we found a perfect spot for my 24" of webbing and Marta busied herself making the rappel anchor. While she was setting up the rappel, I scrambled up the North ridge of #5 to see how bad the slabby-looking section really was. Turns out, it wasn't bad at all. I was able to extend myself on the slabby bulge and was only 2-4" shy from a good hand-hold/crack. A little hop was all it took and I was up at the rappel anchor, and easy sailing to the top of #5. I didn't continue on though, time was getting late and we were committed to going down, so I took the rappel anchor carabiners (2) and rope (old and sun-faded) and down-climbed back to Marta.

By the time we rapped past the little chimney it was almost 3:00. The descent down the gully between #4&5 was pretty decent. Not as nice as the ascent up #1, but not too much bushwhacking and hardly any thorny plants. We were back at the car by 5:00. Overall, a very nice outing. It would have been extremely pleasant had it not been for the wind, but this added difficulty made the traverse more interesting. I can see how adding on the remaining two horns would take 2-3 more hours, but it is definitely worth trying. I left new summit registers at each of the peaks we hit, and found no evidence of any old registers on them (James Stockton had already removed the one they found on #2, and gave it to me last week). I was very impressed with Marta's abilities, she certainly is getting some legendary status on the rescue team. I thought someone had told me she was 72 years old, and during the descent I mentioned this to her. She quickly corrected me in her brusk style, "I'm only 59". Only 59 and as fast a hiker/scrambler as anyone on the team, remarkable. We could all aspire to be as tough as her.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Wedge and Lost Peak: Peak Bagging

Due to the happy alignment of a holiday from work, but my son's day-care being open, I had all of veterans day to myself. I learned that a few OMTRS climbers would be attempting the Wedge's Normal Route, and they let me tag along.

We left Cruces at 7:30, kind of a late start for these short days, but Marta was going to guide us on a "secret" trail that start's near the Aguirre Springs camp-ground, and since the gate doesn't open until 8am, we couldn't start any earlier. the "secret trail" probably isn't much of a secret to area climbers that frequented the Organs 10 or so years ago. But to Bob Cort, James Stockton and myself, it was brand new. Instead of hiking along the Pine Tree Trail, Marta showed us a faint path into "Ghost Fire canyon", a canyon which neatly bisects the Pine Tree Trail loop, cutting the distance nearly in half. It never would have occurred to me to try to take this short-cut, since I would assume that off-trail bush-whacking would be difficult in this area. But Ghost Fire canyon was easy going, not too steep and easy to follow. Somewhere along the canyon was a neatly made fire-ring atop a boulder. Kind of an odd place for a fire ring, and there wasn't any evidence of recent fire, thus we learned of the canyon's namesake. The canyon intercepts the Pine tree trail at a huge boulder near the half-way marker.

from the half-way marker, the going gets a bit tougher, but was still not as bad as I expected. My previous experiences trying to get to the Lost Carabiner route had me thinking that approaching from the east was foolish. And if we hadn't had Marta as a guide, indeed it could have been. We wanted to get into a drainage tumbling down from underneath the Wedge, but instead of starting up this drainage where it intersects the Pine tree trail, we hiked up the ridge-line just south of the drainage. This avoids a terrible thorny bushwhack in the lower portion of the drainage. About half-way to the base of the cliffs, at a beautiful stand of flaming red maples, we dropped into the drainage and struggled through a short section of thorny underbrush before emerging into easier terrain, namely steep scrambling on rocks and through maple forests. The drainage we were in continues up to a the ridge-top between Lost Peak and third Peak, so before we got too high up it, Marta showed us a spot where we could traverse south into the next drainage system, which climbs directly up to a saddle on the south side of the Wedge. We were almost entirely hiking up through steep mapled forest, a week or so past prime foliage. Yellow leaves blanketed the ground, kept us from seeing our footing, and provided soft cushioning for any miss-steps.

Once we got closer to the ridge-top, I recognized the route from the time Scott Jones and I had descended this way after climbing Shillelagh. A steep gully climbs up the east side of the wedge, topping out on a shoulder near the summit. This section gets pretty steep, and the scrambling gets more interesting. One section, which Ingraham's description calls a 3rd class jam-crack, would probably be a 5th class climbing move if it were higher off the ground. Marta needed some assistance from a rope to get past this move, which involved an awkward off-width/chicken wing transition. Once at the shoulder, the last bit of climbing to the summit was pretty straightforward, but also the most exposed. The climbing was 4th class, but for almost 100 ft up an exposed face. Marta opted to put on her climbing shoes, and even James seemed a little nervous, but all 3 of us managed to get up it without too much worry. I say "three", because Bob Cort had diverged from the Normal route a little lower down. He took a left leaning ramp up onto the South ridge of the Wedge. We were speculating whether he'd need a "rescue" from us, but he met us on the top happy as a clam. The route he took involved some exposed climbing, probably more exposed than what we had done. I can picture the huge drop off to the west over the immense west face of the Wedge, and I can imagine what Bob had had to pass over. Something for next time. Our summit time was 12pm, not bad at all.

We didn't spend too much time at the summit, just enough to eat some lunch and look around. We left a new summit register, and took the old ones down (hopefully I'll be posting them up soon on this blog). Then we rapped off the summit on the east side, and scrambled north to the saddle between the Wedge and Lost Peak.

We were all pretty eager to summit Lost Peak and the route up the South face looked pretty straight-forward. Marta was a little uncertain about it though, not having much experience on 5th class rock. I was offered the lead (thanks guys, just what I wanted!), and meandered up the route with out too much fuss. The climbing was easy, but there seemed to be hidden cactus in all the cracks and ledges, which kept things interesting. The summit was pretyt small, and a bit windy, I had a hard time communicating with the rest of the group below, which made me a bit nervous because I was going to belay up all three climbers on the two ropes I had led on. James had given me his BD guide, so I rigged it up to auto-lock and waited until climbing started. I thought that they would put Marta in the middle of a rope and send her up first, but instead they put Marta on her own rope, and Bob tied into the middle of one rope and started up first. Marta cam up behind him and James took up the rear. Marta was doing great, and at one point I had to warn her to slow down because she was right at Bob's feet. Even on top-rope, if Bob took a fall, the rope would stretch/settle and he could knock Marta off, hurting her and possibly putting that much more strain on the anchor system. Simply avoided, Marta hung back while bob neared the top, and that is when our near-miss disaster occurred. Right as Bob was cresting the top, a loose rock about the size of a large dog cam loose. Amid our screams of "ROCK" both Marta and James hunkered down. The rock missed Marta by not more than a few feet, leaving a rock-scar right next to where she had been climbing. James was in a better spot and was missed entirely, but Marta was a little shaken and had been hit by shards/smaller rocks. Thankfully no-one was hurt, but we all became sober-serious real fast.

While we were recuperating on the summit, Bob Cort had scoped out the descent off the north side and we were already eying Third Peak as our next possible goal. However, by the time we had the rappel set and were all down on the saddle between Third and Lost, it was 3pm, and we decided we'd better start heading down unless we wanted to do some serious head-lamp hiking. the "4th" class route up Third peak was right in front of us though, tempting us to try it. It looked pretty reasonable, only a half-rope length to the top, but fairly exposed to the east. We would have probably had to rope-up for it, which would have taken too long, so down we started. The gully/canyon between Third and Lost Peak was similar to our approach hike, steep and mapled. Near the bottom of Third Peaks cliff face, there was a steep section to negotiate, which we did by passing our packs down, and climbing underneath a huge boulder/chimney. this spot was one of the most beautiful spots of the hike, a sheltered boulder/chimney with a flat landing zone, guarded by a towering lone fir tree, surrounded by yellowed maples. Perfect! I almost forgot I was in the arid/hostile Organ mountains.

We made it back to the Pine tree trail at 5pm and opted to take the trail down rather than the "secret short-cut". With light fading, it made sense to take an easy trail, even if it meant an extra mile or so. Bob set a furious pace down the trail and we were back at the parking lot in about 30 minutes, almost without incident (or head-lamps). Just as we were about to congratulate ourselves on getting down without anybody getting hurt, Bob twisted his ankle a mere 100 yards from the trail-head. I guess if there was a place to get hurt, he picked it pretty well. He was able to hobble out on his own power, and luckily, is not seriously injured.

Bob Cort posted pictures, see his link.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween SAR mission

It's been a long time since OMTRS has had a good mission. We got a call the night before Halloween, and it was supposed to be "just outside Silver City". This is pretty far, but reasonable, so I opted to join in. Turns out the mission was closer to the Cat-Walk trail, an hour past Silver City. Oh well. Another piece of mis-information from the middle-of-the-night call was that we were searching for 3 gay hikers. Our sleep-deprived brains didn't realize until 2 hours into the drive out that this was actually "3 day hikers". At least we had lots of laughs about it.

We arrived at the trail-head to Mineral creek around 8:30 am. The hikers had spent a chilly night somewhere out on this trail. They were attempting a thrrough hike, hiking a few miles up MIneral creek, and then taking the log canyon trail out of the canyon to the south. this would have put them on a rd a mile or so east of the town of Mogollon, where they were staying at an inn. When they hadn't come in from their hike, we were called out. Due to another SAR mission the same day, not many teams had responded; OMTRS brought 7 people, and 2 other people from Grant county had also arrived. The initial plan was to send a team up the Mineral Canyon trail, and another team in from the other end (log canyon trail). I was to be on the team starting at Log canyon, so we hopped back in the car to speed off to Mogollon, about a 40 minute drive on circuitous roads. Not 5 minutes after leaving, we got a call on the radio that one of the hikers had made it out and was at the Mogollon Inn. We were to interview him and report back.

The hiker who had made it out was Bud, an 80 year old hard-man. His daughter and son-in-law were still out. The group had made slow progress and the hike up the steep log canyon trail had really taken something out of them. His son-in-law (who also has a prosthetic leg) was immobilized by leg cramps near the top of the canyon's rim. It was about 4 in the afternoon. Bud left them at a spot near the top of the canyon rim to go get help. The trail back to Mogollon wasn't that far, but somehow he got off trail. When it got dark, he hunkered down for the night with his dog, and in the early morning, bush-whacked his way south until he reached the road. He told us his companions did not have warm weather clothing nor matches to make a fire, and were not in good enough shape to descend back down the log canyon trail. Based on this information, the entire SAR team opted to move the incident base to the trailhead to log canyon. I was put on a hasty team with Bob Cort and Marta, and we were to quickly locate the subjects and bring them warm clothes, hot food and drink. A second team was on stand-by and was prepared to help with extraction. Due to their close proximity the the trail, we were guessing that they were in pretty bad shape and would need assistance getting out. We also learned that two locals had already headed down the trail to try to locate the subjects.

Bob, Marta and I found our first "clue" only a short ways up the log canyon trail. A note had been written with rocks on the ground in a clearing. It stated "Went To Car". It was very close to the log canyon trail-head, and din't make that much sense to have come from our subjects. Why would they turn around here and go all the way back down into the canyon to their car when they were so close to getting out? We tried to determine if the sign was fresh, but could not tell. It is possible the sign could have been left earlier by some other hikers and be completely un-related to our search. We let the Incident Commander puzzle this out and kept going. At the rim of the canyon, we found a second clue, a ginger-chew candy in its wrapper. It did not look old, and was probably dropped by someone in the last day or so. It also roughly corresponded to the location where Bud said he had left them the day before. However, there was no sign of the subjects. We continued on, descending down the to the canyon floor.

Near the base of the canyon, we ran into the two locals. They were heading back up the log canyon trail, and had not seen any signs of the subjects. Our team was directed to search for clues along mineral canyon. We searched a short ways east up the canyon and found no evidence of recent passage. Going west down the canyon, we found a couple foot-prints, but it appeared to us that they were heading up canyon. These could have been from the day before when the group had hiked up. While the Incident Commander was digesting this information, we became less certain that the foot-prints were heading up. They were not very clear, and were only a single set. We were thinking that we would be told to continue down the canyon back to the subjects car and verify they were not somewhere in the canyon, but the Incident Commander told us to head back up the log canyon trail. We learned later that perhaps our communication from the canyon had been misunderstood. This is understandable as radio communication deep in the canyon was a little spotty. Apperently, the incident commander thought we had ruled out the possibility that the subjects had come back down canyon. This agreed with Bud's assessment as well. The search was then re-assigned to a series of gullies and ridges between the log-canyon trail on the town of Mogollon.

This Google-Earth map shows the rough route our search team took. As teams searched but did not find any clues in the terrain near Mogollon we began to worry we would not find the subjects at all. A helicopter was flown in and made fly-bys up mineral creek and over all the nearby ridges, but did not find anything. We were finally called back to the incident base around 4pm. They were just starting to make calls for more search teams when a phone call came in that the subjects had been located in an RV park. Somehow, they had managed to hike all the way out Mineral creek, and down the road without being detected by us (and they didn't have the keys to their car at the trail-head). relieved the search was concluded.

I learned some good things on this search. This was the first search I had been on where we had found legitimate clues. Our team became proficient at recording the GPS coordinates of each clue and then radioing them in when we could get a good link. We covered a pretty good amount of terrain (~5 miles according to google earth) but not too quickly that we couldn't look for clues.  The poor radio communication from us to the base turned out to be one problem that may have falsely led us to not search the rest of mineral creek canyon. We were relaying messages through other teams, but this can tend to create mis-information. Our other clues has also led to some false information; the locals in Mogollom were questioned about the rock message, and suggested that the message had been there for a while. We learned later that the subjects had indeed made this message as a not for Bud/searchers. Despite being so close to the log canyon trail-head, they had no clue how close they were and opted to turn around and go back down familiar territory rather than risk an unknown. With hind-sight, it is apparent we should have left someone at the mineral creek trail-head to "contain" the search area.

Overall, a very nice day hike through beautiful canyons and with a happy ending.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Little Squaretop: The Lost Carabiner Route?

Scott Jones following the chossy and deceptively difficult 4th pitch.

This is a placeholder until I can do complete justice to this climb. Scott Jones, Bob Almond and myself had a crazy long day to climb the "fabled" Lost Carabiner Route on the east face of Little Squaretop (LST). Despite my good intentions of setting a "high" base-camp to reduce the approach to the route, we still had a horrendous 3-hour bushwhack to reach the base of the route. We also summitted late (4:30 pm) and Scott and I had both run out of water already. The descent took over 5 hours and half of it was through the same terrible bushwhacking as the beginning of the day, only on the return it was dark and we only had one head-lamp for the three of us. We collapsed into camp at 10pm. I was retching and severly dehydrated. Scott had muscle spasms that kept him from being able to walk. Bob, the only one to carry enough water for himself, took care of use for a few hours while we decided that our original plan of hiking out that night was not feasible. Labor-day morning we high-tailed it out of there.

Would I do it again? Yes! Maybe bring more water and try a different approach, but hey, I love a good adventure.

A cool moss covered piton at the top of the 1st pitch. While I'm not sure we were on Ingraham's Lost Carabiner Route, we found several "lost carabiners" along the route we took.

East face of Little Square Top. We roughly followed the distinct line directly up the middle of the big white face.

Scott Jones, who crazily did not wear his shirt during  bushwhacking

Bob Almond, who wore his shirt during bushwhacking

Sunday, June 27, 2010

NRE: West Face Corner Route

I set out with a bunch of OMTRS climbers to the North rabbit Ear (NRE). The exact route we were planning on wasn't set when we started hiking up, but once we got close to the base of the cliffs we settled on a plan. Zach and I were to try a line up the West Face. the rest of the group were going to cruise up Boyer's Chute.

The line Zach and I chose was a large corner system on the far right side of the west face. It didn't look overly steep or difficult from the ground and we were hopuing we could meet up with the rest of the team on the summit. We separated from the rest of the team in the Rabbit Ear Canyon and headed up the gully between NRE and MRE. Right at the point where we were about to pass the south arete of the West Face, we took to the rock. We scrambled up a left trending ramp system which opened up onto a huge ledge on the west face. This is probably where the Ingraham "West Face" route starts. From this ledge, we could look down on the other team at the start of Boyer's chute. We racked up on the spacious ledge, then scrambled up the right trending ramp until we were at the base of the corner system. Here we set an anchor and I started up the first pitch.

There were two bulges in the corner system I had to overcome to reach a big roof. The first one wasn't too hard, but the second one was hard for me, like a V0 problem. The crack provided good jams, but the feet were awkward and the bulge made it so you could not easily see you foot placements. I was breathing heavy at the top of the 2nd bulge and rested up on the nice ledge. An old piton and rappel slings were here. The undercling out the roof looked intimidating. There was a line of holds on the face that could be used to bypass the roof, but I couldn't reach them without doing a crazy dyno, something I wasn't keen on. So instead I tested out the intial moves to the roof, placed high gear and down climbed to the rest-stance. With gear already placed high, I was good to commit to the undercling. It was strenous, but straightforward. To do it right, I had to get my feet up high and smear in the face, putting a lot of weight on my arms. Fortunately it was only 12ft long. At the end I took a breather, than placed a piece back in the undercling behind me to help protect Zach, before setting up my belay anchor. This pitch wasn't too long, but I was tired and at a perfect belay spot to watch Zach. Besides, trying to press on would give me terrible rope-drag.

I had a great spot to watch Zach and took several pictures of him through the crux. He peeled off in the undercling, and jerked me off my feet, slamming my head into the rock near the roof before the anchor held me. I had stupidly given myself a long tether to be more comfortable on the ledge and had not anticipated the direction of pull from a fall. I was stunned but managed to hold onto Zach. He was fine, but I looked battered and was bleeding in a few spots. Thankfully I had my helmet on, if not I could have been seriously hurt. Zach fired the undercling on his second go and by then I was ready to tackle the steep corner/crack above us.

The first 40 ft of the second pitch were perfect, nice jams and stems, good protection, beautiful rock. At the top of a steep 5.9 section of crack there was a low-angled slab beneath a roof/headwall. I rested up and checked my options. To my right there was a steep crack that broke through the roof, but it looked hard and I was already tired. Directly in front of me was a shallow corner system that went right up to the roof and I climbe dup this to see if I could then undercling/traverse left to escape the roof. A fixed wire was at the top of this corner, but the traverse left did not look good. The rood did not provide any undercling holds. I clipped a long runner to the fixed wire and down climbed to the rest stance. A faint seam/slab lead off left from the rest stance and it looked like a few balancy moves would gain a nice ledge system and an easy exit. I committed to this slab, and quickly found it very sketchy. Almost nothing to hold onto, and very thin feet, my pro further than I'd care off to my right, I sucked it in and stuck it out, breathing hard and sweating loke mad. Somehow I managed to get past the few crux moves. it felt like 5.11 slab, but I'm pretty out-of-shape, so it probably wasn;'t that bad. Either way, I was super-psyched to ahve on-sighted this and quickly srambled up to a ledge and belayed Zach up.

After un-clipping from the fixed wire, Zach down-climbed and looked at the slabby moves I had led, and then decided he couldn't do it. He pendulum-ed off to the left to try to find another way, but ended up having to prussic up.

After these two difficult pitches, I was looking for easier climbing above. We were on a nice ledge beneath a big headwall, and I picked my way up weaknesses in the headwall, zagging left, then right, until eventually I trended right far enough to get around the head wall and onto the shoulder which joins with the Davis route. This may not be the most aesthetic pitch, but it worked for us. The upper portion of the Davis route was a steep brushy gully. Steep enough to have some 5th class climbing, but not hard enough to need a belay. We simul-climbed up the gully, weaving around trees and boulders. At one point I spotted a piton and headed towards it only to be thwarted by a steep headwall and too much rope-drag to commit to the move. Instead I traversed around the difficulty and continued to the top of the ridge. At the top, we were in time to spot the other OMTRS team on the final headwall of Boyer's Chute. Zach and I coiled up the rope and scrambled over the last knife-edge like ridge to join them on the summit.

Thunder-claps threatened our relaxing stay on the summit and the whole group descended down the South Face. We had enough ropes to set up the rappels simultaneously which made the descent pretty quick. The hike out seemed to take fore-ever, we were all pretty beat, but we had a great day, and were all in high spirits.

Friday, June 4, 2010

La Cueva: Purple Poot Revisited

I made a short trip to La Cueva after work today, something I'd like to start doing more regularly. I got to la Cueva around 4pm, but had to park all the way up at the visitor's center due to some road construction being done at the La Cueva picnic loop. Checking in with the "ranger", I learned that with the construction going on, the park/gate is closed at 5pm. Fortunately for me, he offered to leave the outward gate open as long as I closed it on my way out, so I headed out to climb.

The trail from the visitor center takes you right to the Hermit's Cave, which is pretty close to where I wanted to go anyways. I had invited some other climbers to join me, but no one was around so I took all my rope-soloing gear with me. I found some nice shade on the easy slabs under the route I had dubbed "Purple Poot Slab". This is a low-angled, broad lichen covered slab, with several route possibilities leading to the summit ridge. I had climbed it once before on January 13th, 2006 with Liz, and found a single old 1/4" bolt to rappel off of. It had a small purple poot sling on it at the time. Right now, the whole slab was well shaded, and it felt perfect for climbing. Despite the valley getting into the low 100's, and not much breeze being present, the well shaded wall was pleasant climbing temps, a little warm but not hot or oppressive (unlike last weekends sunny melter on Rabbit Ear Slabs). When climbing Las Cruces in the summer, shade is key.

On my own, I decided to explore the left-hand side of the slab, a dirty corner. I rigged up the soloist and started up to the corner. Before even reaching the corner I had some misgivings, I couldn't place any pro until stepping up on some loose foot-holds, and it looked even chossier the higher up I could get. After fiddling around a little bit, I opted for traversing a little to the right and up the heavily featured and easy looking face. this time my judgement was spot-on. the face was very easy (5.4ish) and had slightly better rock. I was able to place a few tri-cams in pockets along the way although I would hardly call it well protectable. There was a logical anchor point before the summit on a broad ledge roughly level with the top of the left-hand corner system. I decided to anchor here, clean the route I had climbed and attempt to top-rope the dirty corner back up. I had nearly rappelled down when Bob Cort showed up around the corner.

I had invited Bob along and was hoping he would show up. It's not that I don't like rope-soloing, but it certainly leaves something to be desired. Bob was interested in leading directly up the middle of the slab, so I left my rope on the left-side and flaked out Bob's rope over to the right, at a thin seam/crack in the middle of the slab. Looking back on my journals now, I think that the start the Bob did was not the one that I had climbed before. I had started at the far-right corner. The start where Bob led up had a "crux" 5.6 move at the start about 10ft up but without any prop. Actually Bob was able to place a wire at this spot, but it was a very marginal placement. After the start though, the climbing was pretty straightforward. Bob led pretty much up the middle of the slab. After the big ledge 2/3 of the way up, he opted for climbing the face instead of staying in the right corner as I had done. He ended up a little bit beyond the purple poot and belayed from the hidden alcove above.

I seconded up and also cleaned my solo-anchor on the way. I brought up my rope as well so that we could descend in s double-rope rappel. When I got to the belay, we both explored the summit a little bit. The summit is a great ridge to explore, you can scramble pretty far off to the west, and there are ways to get up to the other summit blocks as well. despite scrambling around and searching, I didn't find any fixed gear for rappels.

From the alcove belay, a short crack/face climbed up to a summit point and we decided we'd check it out to see if there was a better rappel station from up there. I started out leading up a steep finger crack, but after realizing that it involved a tricky move, (probably wouldn't have been that hard, but I'm still a nervous kleader on steeps) I opted for the more straight-forward route up to the top. It looked like it would be possible to down-climb east and perhaps reach the anchors at the top of Banana Splits, but this seemed a little out-of-the-way and it was starting to get late. We rappelled off a horn of rock back down to the alcove, and then did a double-rope rappel to the ground off of the single 1/4" bolt with the purple poot. The route can no longer be called the "Purple Poot" though because I cut the poot off, and tied on a new piece of bright orange webbing for our rappel.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rabbit Ears Canyon Climbing with Andrus the Lithuanian

There is a foreign exchange student in my wife's lab named Andrus. Liz has mentioned a few times that he was eager to get out and climb in the Organs, and we finally connected today on his birthday. Originally, I had suggested Sugarloaf as our destination, something very memorable and one of the areas best. But with the heat-wave coming through, my lack of much real climbing this year, and Andrus' telling me he has never done trad climbing, I opted to take us into Rabbit Ear Canyon to chase shade on whatever walls we could.

We left Las Cruces at 7:15 and were in the Canyon a few hours later. The Rabbit Ears slabs were completely shaded so I selected a route that I had done with Scott Jones a few years back to be our first climb. I think I had called this route 5.7, and in hind-sight that is probably pretty accurate, but I wasn't feeling strong or confident on the first pitch. There is a nice variation finish to the first pitch, which doesn't skirt around the large block under the tree, but goes directly up it. It looks pretty doable, and protectable, but I opted for the easier, rotten way around to the left, which Scott had done before as well. Andrus also climbed it this way. The 2nd pitch was pretty much how I remembered it, with a crux move past a bolt out on the left and then easier climbing up to a nice ledge underneath a headwall. We only had a single rope with us, and attempted to descend in two rappels, but the rope was about 5 meters short of the first belay ledge and we had to swing off to a side, build a small anchor and scramble down to the 1st belay ledge. To make things even more fun, when we pulled the rope from the 2nd pitch belay, it got stuck in a flake 10 m above our make-shift anchor, and I had to climb up and un-stick it before we could head down. At least I was giving Andrus a feeling of trad adventure!

The slabs were just coming into the sun as we finished this route, so we packed up and bushwhacked around the corner to the east to try to find a shady climb on the west face of Citadel. A short 5.8 corner was just barely still in the shade so we jumped on it. This route was called Iron Worker, and while the climbing was pretty fun, was very short, had poor protection placements and was a little chossy. I usually had decent stances to fiddle some gear in by stemming the corner, but the gear placements were never that good; wire stoppers that didn't contact the rock well, cams that barely work but have the lobes at awkward angles. And the climbing moves between the "rest" stances involved pulling up steep sections, making me worried my out-of-shape arms would get pumped. Fortunately, they didn't. However overall impression of the climb was not great. We didn't find any fixed rappel gear at the top, although the route tops out on the ledge which connects to Finger Zinger and the West Ridge routes. We could have tried descending one of these routes, but I opted for leaving an old sling and rappel ring above Iron Worker for a simpler rappel.

By now it was past noon and there wasn't a bit of shade in the lower Rabbit Ear canyon. Despite no shade, it didn't feel too hot yet and there was a light intermittent breeze, so we scrambled up and over to the Shortline area. This small wall had two beautiful crack climbs and was our best climbing of the day. We started off on the right-hand crack, "Shortline". The start was a clean and easy hand crack. The crack steepens at a spot where it splits. The upper split had two great hand-jam moves, and then 2-3 perfect finger jams before the crack disappeared at the crux. A bomber nut placement protects the crux 5.9 moves, which are delicate slabby moves past the crack. The slab eases up after the first crux moves, but there wasn't any protection, so I had to keep focused up the final 20 ft to the bolt anchors. This is a fantastic short route, with nice climbing, solid protection and a good spicy slab up top.

The second crack was similar although the climbing easier and the crack a little less pretty (plants in more places). It was still a good climb though. The 3-bolts on the anchor were all old 1/4"ers with thin SMC hangers. they were adequate for top-roping, but could use replacing. I top-roped the thin face between the two cracks, probably a low 5.10, possibly harder if you can avoid using some of the crack features you pass by.

After these 3 climbs it was really getting hot, and we were about ready to call it a day, but before leaving, Andrus wanted to try out trad leading on an easy pitch on the Rabbit Ears Slabs. It was mostly a scramble, but he basically has the idea and his placements were decent. However, it was really starting to get hot now, with climbing shoe rubber burning through, and our water supplies depleted, we quickly cleaned Andus' little climb and hiked out. It took us an hour before we were on the road and could stop at a gas station for some cold refreshments. We were sun-burnt and Sasha was wiped.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Two days of climbing with my dad in the Organs

My dad came to visit for a week. I was expecting a leisurely visit with some climbing high-lights. This changed a bit when the first day he was here, the conversation turned to painting our house, something my wife has been wanting to do for a year. My dad seized on the idea, "I'll help you paint! You'll need this, this and this..." The next thing I know we are spending our time together painting the house bright yellow. After 4 days of painting, I had enough. There was still some trim-work to be finished, but if we were going to have any father-son climbing adventures, it needed to happen right then.
Dad low down in the Chute

Despite my Dad feeling sick with bowel troubles, we took two days to climb in the Rabbit Ears. Our first day turned out to be frigidly cold and windy. By the time we had hiked up through Rabbit Ears canyon, we were being buffeted around by the wind like rag-dolls. Not wanting to admit defeat, we opted to climb up Boyer's Chute. This turned out to be an excellent choice, as the chute was very well shielded from the wind. It is also simply a fun scramble. My dad soloed the first "crux" 5th class section by going on the right side of the chock-stone. I attempted to bypass this by climbing a bit further to the right, and what looked to be an easy ramp. This is what John Bregar had climbed before and said was kind of sketchy. After climbing it I agree, while none of the climbing was difficult, the rock was a bit crumbly and it involved some awkward balancy steps.
Dad at the first "crux"                            Dad climbing up the crux chimney

Dad let me lead the crux chimney, not feeling up to snuff himself. We then simul-climbed the rest of the way to the top. I was pleasantly surprised to see 5 or so new entries in the Summit register that I recently had replaced. A couple parties had climbed Boyer's Chute and someone had done one of the West Face routes, but wasn't sure which one.

Dad near the top of the chute
We descended back down the chute, and I replaced the bolt rappel station at the top of the chimney pitch. Dad timed me, it took 20 minutes for me to drill and install a bolt. I wasn't able to cleanly remove either of the existing bolts. I was able to shear them off though, so they are unusable and not so conspicuous. Overall, thoe choice to climb Boyer's chute was a good one, it was probably the only route well protected from the howling winds and allowed us a great day out despite the weather.

The next day we had much nicer weather, calm and warm and headed back up Rabbit Ears Canyon to attempt our original goal: The Church Key route on Middle Rabbit Ear. This route is described in Ingraham's guide as being "5.7"" and with a possible pendulum move on the first pitch. The first challenge was just making sense of the route description. The route starts at the saddle between NRE and MRE, by scrambling upa mossy 3rd class slope.
Dad on the 3rd class
From here the description says to head directly up a chimney, or take steeper rock on the left until climbing becomes "impossible" and then pendulum into the corner.

I tried the direct approach first, climbing directly up the corner crack pictured below. This was surprisingly steep, and I ended up below the wide section of crack and scratched my head. I was hoping it would be a squeeze chimney, but it looked too small for me to squeeze into. I hadn't brought my off-width cams, and I'm not even sure if they would fit, but after scopung it out up close a few minutes, I though "No way this is they way they went" and I bailed off a chock stone to try to find the alternative 1st pitch.
The "steep rock" to the left was up this blocky arete. The climbing was pretty easy up to the last step, at which point it became nearly blank. This matched the Ingraham description where the climbing became "impossible". It actualyl looked pretty doable, slabby but not impossible, The only problem was that there didn't appear to be any protection if I continued up the arete. The alternative was to place a pendulum peice here and move back into the corner. However, it was clear that this would land me at precisely the same spot under the wide off-chimney that I had decided not to attempt. After some deliberation, I decdide to bail again, this tiome simply down climbing.
By the time I had bailed off both the first pitch attempts it was getting close to 2pm, and we decided we'd pack it in for the day. While dissappointed that we hadn't climbed the route it was still a nice day out with my dad. The whole way down I was thinking about how I should have tried harder to squeeze into the off-chimney, or if I had only brought a bolt kit I could have mustered the courage to attempt the arete. This will have to be added to my list of "next times". 

Dad scrambling down on the descent. The large chimney shown above him is bypassed by going around the left and up to the NRE/MRE saddle. The mossy 3rd class scramble puts you on tom of this chimney/shoulder where the climb "actually" starts.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Squaretop Summit register

Below is what I was able to retrieve of the Squaretop summit register last week-end. I was glad to find one, but it is apparent that the original register has already been removed, lost or destroyed by weather. There were some remnants of a glass bottle, indicating what might have been the original register container. The existing register only had 4 ascents recorded dating from 1996 through 2001. Not a lot of traffic for this little square. I'll still copy the entries out and place the history back up with the new register, but its sad that I cannot find the complete history.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Square Top: South East Arete

John Bregar, whom I had climbed with last November on Boyer's Chute had mentioned that he would be up for coming down to Las Cruces again this spring to attempt Squaretop with me. Squatetop has been a goal of mine for a while, ever since I attempted in in January 2006 and was thwarted by the snow-covered slabs at the entrance to the Squaretop gully. While this winter has been particularly snowy for the Organs, the route appeared to be pretty dry and John contacted me saying he could come down this week-end to make an attempt. He picked me up at 7am and we were off. Below is a blow-by-blow of the trip. for a shorter version, see the description on Mountain Project.

We made short work of the approach, using the familiar trail up to the tooth and then traversing south through some brushy terrain to reach the base of the Squaretop gully. This gully is protected by a 250 ft slabby section, that is steep enough to merit attention. There are weaknesses on either side, I opted for the left side which was more direct. John took the right hand side which looked more gentle. As it turned out, the right hand side got pretty steep near the top, steep enough where we almost considered having a rope. I helped John unlock a small series of ledges and holds on the right-hand side which while not difficult, were exposed enough over a clean 100 ft slabby drop to merit caution.
Entrance Slabs
Above this slab the gully became pretty choked with Apache plume, scrub oak and yucca. We pushed our way up slowly. Sometimes we'd cling to the left hand side and find some respite on the rock, only to be thwarted a few dozen feet higher by dense shrub. then we'd move to the other side. I checekd ingraham's guide which recommends to follow "deer trails" in this gully. Maybe the organ mountain deer population was higher in his day, but deer trails we found not. We grunted and shoved our way up, looking for the top where we were supposed to find "three gullies". Turns out, this was pretty accurate. We passed one gully on the right early, and wondered for a minute if this was to count as one of the 3 gullies, but once we got higher up it became immediately apparent; the main gully stayed brushy and trended left. In the middle was a clean rocky gully, and to the right was a pine-tree studded gully. We took a pause at the base of the middle gully to put on our harnesses as the top of this gully appeared steep.

Looking up the middle gully.                            John gearing up at the base of the gully.

Since we were all geared up, we opted to simul-climb the gully in case the going got steep, with me in lead. The gully had immaculate rock, perfect for scrambling up, and with hardly any loose or chossy stuff. The slabby wall to the right was gorgeous and would be worth making a trip back to put some lines up, despite it not being too tall. As I scrambled up it began to get steep, enough so where I had to pause and think about where to put my hands and feet. About 120m up, I reached a nice ledge, to the left was a way to gain the ridge-top by crawling underneath a huge boulder, to the right was a steep headwall continuation of the gully we were climbing.  I was pretty sure we were to continue up the headwall, but I wanted to check out the ridge to the left, so I belayed John up to this ledge. Scrambling over to the ridge involved crawling underneath a giant boulder, with barely shoulder room to crawl through. As I was attempting to worm into this spot, a giant boulder i was stemming off of wiggled loose. It didn't fall, but it was loose enough and in a weird enough position where I decided to abandon crawling underneath the boulder.

Turning our attention to the gully's headwall, it looked steep, Enough so where I had John belay me from the ledge and even placed a few pieces of protection. There weren't any hard moves, but a slip would send us tumbling down for hundreds of feet so we played it safe. I belayed John up to a grassy brushy area underneath the main Squaretop cog and with a nice view of the S-1 spur. the spur was supposedly only 4th class to its top, but looked more like 5th to us. Only the week-end before I was debating

John checking out the S-1 Spur

The S-1 spur was dwarfed by the over-hanging summit cog of Squaretop. There were some cracks up this face that might me climbable, but not by me. We followed the brushy ledge around the summit cog and climbed up and easy 3rd class open book, passing under a giant boulder to reach the saddle.
John climbing out from underneath the boulder-saddle

We ate lunch at the saddle and admired the view; the Tigerfang was right below us begging to be climbed, the North/East sides of LST/LSTM also showed themselves to us. I was contemplating a traverse over to these peaks. It must be doable, but I could not see the whole route. There were too many jagged spurs between us and those peaks. However, it would be a nice goal to come back and climb Sqauretop, and then continue over to the LSTM area and down the regular Organ Needle trail. Or why stop there? we could continue up the Needle's NW ridge and bag all 4 summits. Maybe next time.

Looking down on Tigerfang from the ST saddle

Checking out the final pitch up Squaretop, we both agreed that we'd want to be roped. It alos appeared to be harder than 4th class, although there is certainly room for debate on this. My theory is that back in the 50s, rock pitches like this were climbed with ropes and protection, but if the overall angle was not too steep, they were still deemed 4th class. By "modern" standards, this pitch seems to fit a low 5th class rating, being as steep as other 5.3 and 5.5s in the Organs. And steepness aside the starting move did not look trivial; it looked like we'd have to stem into a corner underneath a small overhang, and then hand-traverse out right until we could mantle up onto easier territory. the traversing over though exposed one to a big 40ft drop over the east-side gully. Not exactly something that we were willing to try un-roped.

the crux move started in the shadowed corner and traversed on the crack out right until you could step up. Due to hidden edges and holds, it's easier than it looks.
In the crux-corner, we found an old piton for protection. Cams/wires also fit, but I still clipped the piton as a back-up.

I led up the last pitch which was indeed easier than it looked, despite being exposed. Above the crux move, there were good crack systems and a gentle angle making it a cruise to the top (time ~130 pm). We didn't stay on the top long, taking a few pictures and replacing the summit register. The old register was in a pill-container and was only two pieces of paper, with 4 recorded ascents going back to 1996. There was also some broken glass from an old jar. no doubt the previous register was already swapped out years ago, or perhaps was destroyed when the glass container broke.

<< summit register and broken glass

We found poot slings at the top for a rappel, but they were probably as old as the last recorded ascent in 2001, and looked pretty beaten up, so we swapped them out for some new webbing. Our single 60m rope got us down to the saddle without a problem. We then down-climbed the 3rd class open-book and walked down to the top of the 4th class gully. The rappel anchor we found at the top of this gully was an old piton and a giant tangle of mangy webbing. At first I thought that the piton was the only anchor point, but buried in the nest of webbing was an old wired hex. By cutting away all the old webbing, we were able to create a two-point anchor using the hex.

Cool old-style hex. I was tempted to keep it as a souvenir

The rest of the descent was pretty straightforward. We rapped another rope-length down the rock-gully and then down-climbed the rest of the gully. Bush-whacking down went quickly and we rapped the entrance slabs off of a gnarly juniper snag. I used up all 25ft of brand new 5/8" webbing that I had just ordered from REI. I should have order a bunch more, we had to replace the webbing on every rap-station we used. I also should have brought more water, my single 3-L camel back was empty before we reached the car at 530pm and I was feeling dehydrated and beat. Lesson learned right? despite feeling totally exhausted and dehydrated, Liz dragged me out to a barbaque at our friend Matt's house where he fed me Oryx burger and made me feel all good again. Thanks Liz.

One of the most interesting aspects to this route was how to grade it. Ingraham describes the last pitch as high 4th, and all the earlier stuff only 3rd class or easier. This felt sand-bagged to me, but is starting to feel kind of consistent to some of the other old 3rd and 4th class routes described by Ingraham. I'm, beginning to think that the definitions used for 4/5th class back in the 60s were a little different from what is now used. And that grades such as 5.3 didn't even really exist. I'm guessing that anything below 5.5 was simply called 4th class in those days, and there is some logic to this. This kind of grade does not demand much technical skill, and many modern day climbers walk right up these climbs. But there is also a point where roping up on this grade makes sense, where the fall potential is serious and real. I bet even back in Ingraham's day they roped up for the same pitches that John and I roped up for. John and I both found this interesting to discuss as we climbed this route.