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.