Saturday, February 27, 2010

The CWM: the 4rth or 5th class debate

A perfect day for Organ mountain climbing. Overcast and calm, cool temps but not cold. I wish it could be this good all year. I struck out to climb the CWM (Welsh spelling, pronounced COOM) with a co-worker and fellow engineer Chris Benic. He's been interested in hiking in the Organs for a while now, and this week-end just seemed to work for us. He hasn't climbed or hiked for a while, so we chose something in Rabbit Ears canyon because it is an area I'm very familiar with. Still, I've never summited the CWM so we would have our fair share of new ground to cover. I brought my trusty 30m 8mm rope, and a handful of slings, biners and nuts, in case we got into a situation which would require a tricky descent. Sasha came along too, and Chris brought his yellow lab, Buddy. we had a slow approach, but conditions in the canyon were excellent. There was more water than I've ever seen running down the canyon. Large green pools provided ample opportunity for the dogs to splash around. We ended up leaving the dogs tethered at one of the nicer pools at the start of the gully which leads up to the saddle between NRE and the CWM.

We didn't encounter snow until almost at the top of the ridge. The final 100m or so was up a steep snow gully. It was consolidated enough, and steep enough where an ice-axe would have been prudent. Unfortunately I hadn't brought any. I forged ahead kicking steps, but Chris quickly reached the limits of his comfort zone. I offered to tie him into a rope and belay him up, but even this didn't ease his mind. He opted to wait at the bottom of the gully as I pressed forward to the summit.

At the top of the steep snow was a short 20m chimney section. It seemed about as difficult as the chimney in Boyers chute, although Ingraham describes this route as medium 4rth and Boyer's as 5.4. I really couldn't see much difference. At the top of the chimney is a short section of face climbing before the saddle between NRE and the CWM is gained. The north face of the NRE is beautiful, covered in a stubbly grey lichen, and slashed by numerous crack systems. There could be a lot of potential for routes here. Turning to the CWM, a short headwall of slabby climbing gained the summit slab. Again, I'd call this bit of climbing 5th class, but it probably was chalked up as medium 4th. The summit slab was like walking on a pitched roof. It was not too steep that I couldn't walk around fairly comfortably, but it was steep enough where a fall would be difficult if not impossible to stop. It is a beautiful summit, and worth a repeat trip.

I was able to down-climb most of the ascent route, but set up a short rappel for the chimney section. In drier conditions, I probably would tackle down-climbing this as well, but since I had a short rope it wasn't a problem to rappel.

So now that I've got another of Ingraham's "4th class" routes under my belt, I think I'm getting a better picture of his grading scheme. Its my guess that many if not all of his medium-hard 4th class descriptions would go by low fifth in today's standards. These kind of routes can be readily scrambled by a climber of skill and competency at higher grades. It also appears that many of these routes were roped up, which agrees with my interpretation of a 5th class route as something most people would rope up for. As for Boyer's, I think it may ahve received a more modern grade in the writing of Ingraham's guide after the fact. Many of the NRE routes have actual YSD grades, as opposed to the more obscure routes which merely say low/mid/high 3rd/4rth/5th. Now all I've got to do is climb a handful more of these old trade routes to verify this hypothesis.