Sunday, July 3, 2011

Assault on the Organ Mountains

I don't know why it's taken me so long to write about this. Jon and I had prepared for our assault on the Organs for months, hiking and climbing almost every weekend leading up to the big day when we would attempt all the peaks in one go. We made our bid July 3rd, and now 3 months later I'm finally getting around to describing the adventure. Partly, I put off writing about it because it was so daunting a task. We covered so much ground, pushed ourselves to our limits moving for nearly 24hrs straight. It just doesn't seem possible to put this ordeal down in writing and convey the true feeling of it all. Maybe if I were some genius writer I could, but I worry that it will all come out sounding rather dull or monotonous, "and then we tackled the next peak, and then we drank some water, and then we rappelled down..." Indeed, some of my memories of the trip are just like that. We became machines, plowing down through the granite peaks almost without thinking. Constantly pushing, moving forward, trying to keep a lid on the bubbling up fatigue that threatened to derail us. Well, before memory turns the whole thing into something it wasn't, I better put something down here so that I can go back and get a feel for how it really was, not just how I remembered it.

The trip really started the day before. Our plan was to hike up to the summit of the Needle Friday evening, and bivy the night up there. We'd then be able to start the ridge at or before the crack of dawn. To save carrying a bunch of unnecessary gear, our bivy would be two foam pads and an old wool blanket, shared between the two of us. Food consisted mostly of high-energy snacks, power-gels, cliff bars and the like. I spent the day before resting and eating a lot, hopefully storing up the energy I'd need for the next day. Jon called around and got us a ride up the Modoc Mine Rd. I packed a cooler full of cold drinks and food to leave in my car at the Baylor pass trailhead, where we met at 6pm. Our ride up Modoc Mine Road was provided by John Gallegos and his beefy Hummer.

I can't thank John enough for the ride up this road. It was a hot July afternoon and the Modoc road was in full sun with very little breeze. John's hummer made short work of it, crashing and grinding up the rocky road saving us a lot of effort and sweat. He dropped us off near the final switchbacks and wished us luck. Then we were off, marching up the trail. I've hiked this trail numerous times, once at night, and lead the way. We made good time, but it felt like forever to reach the top. By the time we hit Hummingbird Saddle, the sun had dropped and we were in the last little bit of twilight glow. Instead of taking the regular trail around the east side of the pass, I led Jon up the South ridge. This involved a little bit of exposed solo climbing, but got us up to the top quickly. We were tired and sweaty from our long hike and plopped down at the summit bivuoac spot to eat some dinner and prepare for the night.

Our sweat dried quickly and soon we were cold and putting on all the layers we had brought with us. A breeze was kicking up as we settled down on our foam pads, and tucked the single thread-bare blanket over us. I was counting on it being the hottest time of the year so we wouldn't need to bring extra warm clothing. But as the night wore on the wind picked up and lightning storms passed through the valleys around us. We didn't get rained on, but it was very windy and we shivered. We emptied out our backpacks and put our feet inside of them, but were still chilled by the wind. At some point in the middle of the night, neither of us could sleep due to the cold wind, so we got up and made a wind-break out of rocks. The labor of moving dozens of rocks warmed us right back up, and soon we had a serviceable wind-break to hide behind. It was still cold, but we had enough shelter from the wind to get some sleep.

There's something about upcoming excitement, a big day of climbing, that seeps way back into your brain and governs how you act. Somehow, both Jon and I were up before even the first lightening of dawn. The night had been restless and we were eager to get moving. All our gear was scattered about when we dumped our packs, so we set about organizing and preparing. We filled up our water bottles with the gallon of water I had stashed here several weeks back, and drank the remaining bit, then stashed the empty bottles, foam pads, and blanket under a large boulder near the summit. We wrote some notes in the summit register and were soon ready to go. We descended the North ridge of the needle by headlamp, carefully picking our way down dome steep terrain. By the time we reached the rappel sling I had left, it was light enough to turn off the headlamps. The 30m rappel landed us on a high shoulder, but it was easy downclimbing to the saddle. From the saddle, I led jon up the easy 5th class solo climb to bypass some slabby climbing around the corner. The short pitch gains a nice ledge where an airy traverse leads over to the main gully which ascends to Little Squaretop summits.

We scrambled up to the summit of Little Squaretop in time for the sun rise. The short climb up also served as a nice warm-up. We jotted some optimistic comments in the summit register and scrambled down to the spot that I had used previously for a rappel. The last time I rappelled off the North side of LST, I had scrambled down the blocky summit boulders to point where there was a short 40ft drop down a wide crack and overhang. I had rapelled off a knot-chock and ended up scraping my knuckles when transitioning opver the lip. It was an awkward rappel, and I was hoping to find something a little better this time. But after a bit of scouting around I didn't see another simple place to leave an anchor and since it was such a short rappel I decided we'd just go for it. We set up one of the 8mm ropes through the anchor and rappelled down to a little cave below. I pulled the rope and it started coming down but a large loop fell down into the wide crack above a chock stone and got stuck. Jon and I both tried flicking the rope, and moving to different angles. jon even tried climbing up the wide crack for a ways, but the awkward off-chimney crack and overhang was hard to get up, and he couldn't reach the chock where the rope was stuck. It became apparent that we'd need to climb back up to get the rope unstuck but going back up the wide crack didn't seem that feasible. I scouted around the corner to the SW to a steep gully that Jon and Marta had used a few weeks back when they bypassed around the LST summit. There was a spot in the gully that looked pretty climbable up to a clean corner crack. I put on our small rack while Jon flaked out the 2nd 8mm rope for me to climb on. The climb was pretty short, maybe only 50 ft but was actually really fun. Probably a 5.6 hand and fist crack, and smearing against quarry-grade granite. I was quickly up to a stance where I could squeeze through a gap in the boulders and get our other rope unstuck. I tossed it down and then squeezed back through the hole and set up a different anchor for Jon to lower me down.

This whole time spent rescuing my rope I am thinking about how we are losing time for the rest of our enchainement. Overall, we lost about an hour. Didn't seem like that much, but later on I was wishing we could have gained that hour back. Ropes safely stowed we scrambled down the ridgeline over to Sqauretop. Jon led up the easy pitch to the summit, although "led" is pretty generous. He placed some pro for the intial crux, and maybe one other piece a little higher up, but then he cruised to the top, not seeming to mind when he entered groundfall territory. I quickly joined him and once again we were jotting down optimistic notes in the summit register, and setting up the rappel.

The descent from Squaretop over to the Wedge involves one of the longest sections of scrambling without hitting a summit for the entire day. We used one more rappel in the gully beneath Squaretop but mostly just 4th classed. The bushwhacking between the Squaretop gully and the saddle underneath the Wedge slowed us down, but not all that much. We had both traveled this route recently, and knew exactly how to shortcut around the east side of the saddle, into the stand of scorched maples and over to the ascent gully on the Wedge. The climb up the Wedge is one of the longest of all the peaks, and it also was starting to feel hot. I was sucking down my water, and sweating profusely. It was a great comfort to find the stash of water that Marta and Jon had left on the wedge and add it to our packs. We soloed up to the top of the Wedge and made our mark in the register. It was already 9:49 o'clock and we had quite a ways to go. Is this still feasible? No time to worry about that, we had to get a rappel set and press on to Lost Peak.

For Lost Peak we broke out the rack and ropes and Jon led up, taking a corner system. We stowed one of the ropes and the rack, but left the other rope out to make a short rappel down to the saddle next to Third Peak. There, we dropped packs entirely and scrambled up the 4th class terrain to the picturesque knife-edge that is the summit of Third Peak. One hour had elapsed since the Wedge, which was only a short distance away. We quickly and carefully down-climbed back to our packs and set off for the 3rd class climb to Dingleberry.

It took a purposeful effort to remember to eat and drink. I knew we were sweating off lots of water and losing salts, and would try to keep the camelbak tube stuck in my mouth during the easier scrambles. I also was trying to keep a steady flow of "food" in my mouth. You know, all those gawdy wrapped marathon-runner foods like "gels" and "chews" which would somehow supply all the energy we would need to keep moving, and keep our electrolytes in balance. Still we needed to break to get some real food in our bellies. We finally topped out on Dingleberry at 11:28 o'clock and left our mark in the register, then started scrambling down towards Wildcat and our next water stash.

Previously, I had managed to down-climb most of the Dingleberry North Descent gully, but I opted for a couple short rappels this time. With two of us it just seemed safer and not much longer. While I was messing around with the second rappel we heard a voice and some movement from the Wildcat gully. Then we were surprised to see Marta coming down the gully! She had biked all the way up Dripping Springs road that morning, and hiked up Wildcat to try to meet us at our "half-way" point. She had beaten us to wildcat by an hour or so, and had just decided to head down when we finally came down off of Dingleberry. Now I knew we weren't making as fast progress as we had hoped. She graciously refilled some of our water and gave us encouraging words, something like "you guys are it!". It was nice to see a friendly face and get that encouragement because we still had a long ways to go. With a hug we left Marta to descend, and turned ourselves back up the easy scramble to Wildcat's summit. Here we picked up a nice water cache that we had left a month ago, hastily signed the register and then picked our way over to Razorback.

The terrain between Razorback and the Spire is where we knew we would get bogged down. Getting down from Razorback involves a couple long rappels, and then we needed to break out the climbing gear for the South Face of the Spire. Even though we had opened up that route a few weeks ago, it still took time to climb the two pitches up to the Spire, and by the time we were scratching our names in the register it was 1:40 o'clock. Somewhere around this time is when I started a conversation with Jon about what are prospects of finishing this epic really were. In my mind, we were only going to continue until it got dark, and if we hadn't finished the peaks by then... well we probably wouldn't finish. Jon was in a different frame of mind, one of we go until we drop from exhaustion. There is definitely something heroic [naive] about pushing on through the dark to reach a goal, and I could tell where he was coming from.

The Low Horns, or as Jon likes to call them, "the Slow Horns" are not terribly difficult, or high, but each one requires either some careful soloing or a short roped pitch up or down.We knocked them down as quick as we could, but it just wasn't quick enough. Low Horn 6.... 2:57pm... Low Horn 5.... 4:24pm... Low Horn 4... 4:53pm... Our daylight hours kept ticking away and we pressed as fast as we could... Low Horn 3....5:20pm... Low Horn 2 .... 5:31pm... Low horn 1.... 5:51. At least the last 3 horns went quickly. But shadows were growing long and we still had the Rabbit Ears to tackle. Exhausted as we were, it looked like it just might be doable, especially if we could just get past the Middle Rabbit Ear which is the hardest of the bunch. If we had been making better time, we would have considered tagging the summit of Gertch, which isn't really a mountaintop, but is an impressive cliff when seen from the west. Absolutely no thoughts of doing that in our fatigued state. Just a waste of effort.

The route from the Low Horns down and over to the Rabbit Ears is not fun, consisting of thick bushwhacking through hostile plants. Oh how nice it would have been if there was an actual trail here! We did have another water cache though, which we took advantage of, stopping and drinking as much as we could. The Low Horns were especially hot and had dehydrated me a bit. We needed every drop of the cached water here. The summit of South Rabbit Ear is just a scramble, and we could even leave our backpacks at the saddle between it and MRE, which felt amazing. Amazing but still exhausting. We tagged SRE at 7:22pm, then made our way down to our hardest climb.

Funny that a 3 pitch 5.7 route would be our hardest climb. That's not really that stout a grade. But in my exhausted state, it was all that I could muster just to get up. I faintly recall my limbs burning as I pulled through the crux moves, and then struggling even more on the easier moves above, which should have been a piece of cake. I was clearly drained, but we topped out just as the sun was going down, just after 9pm. I was so beat that I demanded a rest before we tackled the tricky rappel down to NRE. And I practically fell asleep right there on the windy summit. Night set in. I dozed but soon it was time to get down. We dug out our headlamps and forcefully propelled ourselves down to the tricky rappels off of MRE. To make matters more difficult, the wind was picking up. Actually it was hard to tell if was picking up, or if the narrow gap between MRE and NRE was funneling a normal amount of wind. It didn't really matter though, the wind made communication during the rappels harder, shouting with hoarse voices to be heard over the wind. But make it down we did and the massive NRE loomed in front of us. The last, big obstacle of our assault. It was 10pm. And it was getting stormy.

We debated a bit about whether to head up or not. The storm blowing around us did not make for good conditions for us to complete our traverse. And we were already exhausted. but we were also so close. One more big climb, one more tough rappel, and then the remaining peaks were fairly small. Still tiring, like the Low Horns had been, but small. Then the long bushwhack to Baylor's pass. Actually, the more I thought about it, the more I doubted I could manage. But Jon was willing. The biggest concern though was this storm. If it hadn't been storming about us, we were both willing to press on. But in a storm? Could we handle the remaining challenges in stormy conditions, with high winds and rain? I didn't think so. And Jon reluctantly agreed. But it wasn't raining yet. We decided to go for it, but if it started raining we would reassess and see if we could bail somewhere. Jon took the lead, heading up the Davis route, the easiest, but meandering route up NRE. As he climbed lightning began flashing around us and the winds whipped up even more. He reached the first anchor point just as droplets of water were starting to hit us. He climbed fast and confidently, but the rain was the last straw. Writing now, with so much time elapsed, I honestly can't remember if I even climbed that pitch. I don't think I did. Jon probably set a rappel anchor and cleaned on his way down. And then we were bailing down into Rabbit Ears Canyon. It was past midnight.

Making the decision was both terrible and immensely relieving. We were having to turn away from this long envisioned goal, admit that we didn't quite have what it takes to complete this crazy traverse, and hang our heads in defeat. At the same time, a giant burden was lifted from us, and we seemed to have new energy the lower we got down the rough trail that constitutes the route up and down Rabbit Ears Canyon. In an odd echo, the stormy tension surrounding the Rabbit Ear peaks also lifted as we descended. We didn't get rained on, the winds died down, and the sky cleared up to be a beautiful summer night. We could have pushed forward, the storm was just a feint, a test of our resolve as it were. And our resolve had faltered... so we faltered and stumbled down, down, down. Down the rough trail to the modoc Mine Road. Down the miles of rough jeep trail to the paved Baylor Rd. Trudging one step after another along the paved highway, miles to go until we reached the Baylor Pass trailhead. We stumbled up to my car at 2:38am. And collapsed. The cooler had some cool beers in it though, but even better, was the fried chicken. We slumped to the ground, utterly spent, and looked up at the mountains behind us. They appeared peaceful and quiet. Where would we be if we had continued to push? Would we have already come off of NRE and be in the last final peaks? Would we have gotten by those already too, and be thrashing our way down to Baylor's Pass? Would we be giggling and giddy from exhaustion while trundling ourselves down the Baylor Pass trail? There was no way to know. The one thing that was certain was that if we had pressed onwards, we would still be up there somewhere. Struggling to keep our wits about us as we navigated the treacherous terrain. And we both felt a sadness at that thought. We could have completed this, we were so close. It wasn't meant to be.

Pictures from The Organ Mtn Traverse

Starting up

Jon Decked out

Losing our sun on the climb up Organ Needle

Final dark solo to summit of Organ Needle

Cold July Bivuoc

Down climbing off the Needle

Jon Greeting the Sun from Little Square Top

Sunrise on the Organs

Feeling good in the morning

Looking North towards our end goal

Jon leading up Squaretop

Jon topping out on Squaretop

Getting late

Coming down from Squaretop

Backdoor traverse towards the Wedge

Behind the Wedge

Climbing up to the Wedge

Top of the Wedge or Lost Peak

Careful traversing... somewhere

Modoc Mine Hut... after bailing down Rabbit Ears Canyon

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Third Peak Summit Register

On a lot of the "minor" Organ mountain summits, I cannot find an old summit register. I was pleasantly surprised when I found this old film cannister on the top of 3rd Peak back in May. The 3 tiny sheets of paper in it date back to the 50s. Nothing more recent than 1972, wow!

Little Squaretop Summit Register

I retrieved the summit register from Little Squaretop back on May 13th 2011. There was an old metal kodak film cannister tucked inside a newer plastic container. The old container had a sheet which had been recopied from a previous register, but it had information dating back to the first ascent parties in the 50s. always cool to read that old stuff.

Middle Rabbit Ear Summit Register

I retrieved the old summit register from Middle Rabbit Ear May 21st, 2011. It consisted of a PVC tube. The contents were not in good shape, and haven't been since 2007 when i first found it. I left some fresh paper (our route description) in order to sign, because the only other stuff in the tube was a moldy, wadded up piece of "paper" crammed in the bottom. I wasn't able to decipher much from this old sheet of paper, but what I could decipher is transcribed below. I plan on placing a copy of this transcription back up on the summit this weekend.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sugarloaf: Simul-climbing with Jon Tylka

I've been going strong the last 5 week-ends, piecing together portions of the Organ-peaks-linkup, and this weekend was to be a break from that. Jon and I are going to try our big day next weekend. So instead of climbing or scrambling along the Organ Needles, we struck out for Sugarloaf today. We went to have fun and practice using my brand-new set of half-ropes, which we'll be taking with us for our big day. After some previous weekend trips, we decided two ropes were necessary and I was leaning towards getting a new rope anyways, so I bit the bullet and ordered a set of 8.1mm half ropes. Sugarloaf was our proving ground.

A few other OMTRS climbers, Bob Cort, Marta Reece, Matt Wotford and Cat Wu, were also wanting to climb Sugarloaf so we decided to head out as a big group. Once again, Eddie South agreed to let us in the BLM gate early, and we met him promptly at 5am to be let in. It was forecast to be a hot day, and it felt hot even at 5am. We spent a little while gearing up but were soon on the trailhead and flying up the trail. It took us 1h20m to reach the base of North Face route. Jon and I stopped here, planning to simul-climb this route first and then try another route later in the day. The other two parties had their sights on the Left Eyebrow and continued up a little bit further to the base of their route.

Instead of the light alpine rack Jon was used to seeing me bring, I had a full compliment of cams and nuts, and loads of runners. We discussed simul climbing details before starting up, such items as good communication, keeping solid pieces between climbers, and clipping both ropes through each piece (using them as twins). this last item is important because while simul climbing you cannot feed the ropes at different speeds, so they both need to move together. I racked up first and started up the immense and beautiful slabs, still in the morning shade.
Jon cruising up the North face
We made a steady and good pace up the route. I paused a bit at a slabby run-out variation on the "3rd" pitch, clipping both 1/4" bolts along this section. For the most part, simul climbing is about being comfortable and confident on the rock, climbing fluidly together. After a little while, my world narrowed to a focus of climbing movements. Eyes darting to each good hand and foothold, stepping up and feeling for slack or tension in the rope, and always moving upward. I ran out of gear a little over half way up the route, on the huge grassy ledge. I set an anchor, but Jon on belay and brought him up quickly. He already had most of the gear with him, but I gave him the remainder and tried my best to point out the route for him to lead us to the top. "It goes right to that block," I pointed. He nodded and agreed, and then proceeded to climb straight up well left of the normal route. I reminded him a few times that he was off route left, but he was already on his way. That's one of the beautiful things about leading, is you can pick your own way, travel up whatever looks best to you. In this case, it meant a little dirtier climbing, more lichen covered sections, and some loose rocks, but overall decent climbing. Jon eventually met up with the normal route near the upper pitches, and when i reached him at the top he was all smiles.
Jon tossing the rope for the east side rappel
Our ascent had taken 2 hours, it was about 9:30. We rested a bit on the top and then talked about the descent. I have always rappelled down the south side, but we had noticed a newish looking suing on the East side and decided to give this descent a try. We were able to scramble lower than this first sling to another rappel station, and set up the ropes for a double-roped descent. I went first, sliding quickly down the two brand-new half ropes. 60m put us on a large ledge where there was a single 1/4" bolt rappel point. It looked to be in decent shape and we were sure to be able to reach the ground from there, so we pulled the ropes, only to get one of them stuck. The orange rope had caught on a flake and was not budging. We tried all manner of flipping the ropes and gently tugging, but I was worried about damaging my brand-new ropes, so I had Jon put me on belay on the purple rope, and I climbed up to free the stuck loop. Turns out it had wedged into a small flake and came out easily by hand. No harm done to the rope, I down-climbed back to jon and we set the 2nd rappel. This time Jon went first and immediately tacked right when he spotted a nest of climbers booty. He is still building his rack, and any gets super excited about finding climbing gear. Since he wanted to work on cleaning the two wires and tricam (plus 5 carabiners), I went ahead and rappelled down. Attached to the booty-anchor was a ratty old rope, sheath completely missing and totally coming apart. I tugged it down while rappelling so that we could trash it.
Bottom of 2nd rappel on East side
Jon was successful in cleaning one nut and the tricam, but couldn't get the last nut. Still a nice find, he was over the moon about it. We packed up the ropes and scrambled down the east side gully of Sugarloaf. This area was pretty heavily burned out by the recent Abrams Fire, and there were some large felled trees as well. some sections require a bit of down-climbing finness but overall it was a decent route. Still, after getting a stuck rope, my preference lies with the cleaner South side rappel route.

Our decent had taken nearly two hours, almost the same amount of time as climbing the route. Still, there was plenty of time to get on another climb, and the other two parties could still be seen high up on the mountain. We rested a bit, and refilled our water from the generous water cache the Bob and Jon had hiked up last Wednesday. I can't stress how utterly awesome it was to have 4 gallons of water here at the base of the cliff for us. I'm sure we all could have done with just our own water, but we were in oh so much better shape with it. Despite the heat, I was feeling good, not fatigued at all.

For our next route we were both interested in the hard slab route, Science Friction. We made our way up to the base of it, and stared up at the intimidating blankness. Unlike the North Face route, this one is steep slab, thin 5.10 moves between widely spaced bolts.It didn't take me long to balk at leading it. I told Jon I'd belay him, but didn't think I was up for leading. He was seriously tempted still, but ultimately decided that he wouldn't want to fall on the initial pitons. Our eyes then turned to the large right facing corner just to the left. My topo called this 5.8 corner Banana Peel, it didn't look easy. 
Attractive right-facing corner of Banana Peel
The right leaning corner looked like a powerful layback climb, with almost no feet or rest stances. Jon though was game for it, and racked up. This time we decided not to simul climb, letting Jon place as much gear as needed, and use the half-ropes as they are intended, clipping either rope as needed to reduce rope drag. This worked beautifully, as seen in the picture below.
Half-rope technique displayed, on Banana Peel
Jon muscled up the layback, and looked to me to be confidently sailing the route. Right above a small rest-stance, he dropped the set of nuts while trying to place them, and by some lucky break they stopped short in a flake just below him. He was able to retrieve them and continue up. He did appear a bit nervous in one section and took a rest at a stance above to recover. I discovered why on seconding, the layback was committing and draining. There were some good stances though that couldn't be seen from the ground, the key is all in the footwork. But even with good footwork, placing gear from the layback position is strenuous and I can see how he could get a pump trying to work in a piece. At the crux section, a fixed cam was overcammed way back int the crack. Jon had clipped it, but it was difficult to even clip because the wire-;loop was deep in the crack. This is where Jon had exerted the most effort, and I could certainly understand what was going through his head on lead. Above the crux section the climbing got a bit easier, but it also worked over this hollow huge hollow sounding flake. Easily a couple body-widths across, it resonated with each step I took on it. It didn't appear to be in danger of falling, but that ringing boom is enough to make anyone nervous.

At the top, Jon had set his belay right at the corner of the ;edge, but there was a bolted belay 20 ft back and at a better stance so I went straight for that, and then pulled the rope over to me. Since the rope was then stack for Jon to climb again he took the next lead. We decided to get back to simul climbing, the corner above us looked very easy, and then it joined right up with the Left Eyebrow. Matt and Cat were still high up on the route, and we exchanged a few hollers before heading up.
Easy middle pitches of Left Eyebrow Route
Jon made it all the way up to the large dead tree beneath the crux pitch, but a poorly planned gear placement had left him with terrible rope drag and he decided to set up his belay there. I racked up at the tree and got to lead the high quality upper pitches. The only other time I had climbed this route was with John Hymer years ago, and again we had simul-climbed it. I didn't really remember the route, but had a good enough idea. plus a fresh trail of chalked holds had been left by the party above, so i could always just follow their lead.

The exposed crux pitch was awesome, and as good as it gets for a 5.7 multi-pitch route. Probably 1000' above the floor, you swing out to a committing move around a roof/prow, not being able to see what's on the other side. You can swing your feet and out, and yelp away, then pull over and find bomber jugs to haul up on. really a stellar feeling, maybe even the best move on all of Sugarloaf. Above this move the climbing stays interesting, with run-out slabs, gneiss intrusions dotting the rock and providng holds, and the opccasional old 1/4" bolt. I took my time threading through the terrain, searching out the best rock and most protectable features. I also made sure to holler back down to Jon to make sure he let me know when he reached the crux moves. I knew he wouldn't have a problem with them, but I also wanted to make sure I had a decent stance when he got to this section. With simul-limbing, communication is key to avoiding sticky and uncomfortable climbing.

I reached the summit just a minute behind Cat. 10 minutes later bob Cort came into view atop the north face route. He and Marta had heard Matt complaining about a loose pitch on the Left Eyebrow, and decided to switch over to the North Face route at the large ledge. The timing was perfect, with all six of us on top together. It was around 3:00pm, it had taken us a little over 2 hours to climb another route on Sugarloaf. Once agian I forgot to birng up a proper summit register, but thanks to a geocache on the summit, I left a make-shift tiny register in the summit cairn. It should last 6-12 months, by which time maybe I will be back to put a proper log-book up here.
Myself and Jon, with the ridge-line we hope to conquer in the background
After the requisite summit tom-foolery, we set-up a fixed line down to the South rappel. With 6 people and 4 ropes, we made good time setting rappels and getting down. Once again we all refilled our water and drank the last of the 4 gallons of water. We took a leisurely pace on the hike out, making it back to the cars by 7:30pm. Bob had a cooler of ice cold water and beer waiting for us, now that's what I call prepared!
Left to right, Top: Jon, Cat, Marta, Matt. Bottom Aaron, Bob

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Last Peak, Nordspitz and Baylor Pass

The North rabbit Ear looms behind a yucca from the summit of Last Peak
I reached a special milestone today. Ever since we moved to Las Cruces, I have wanted to climb up all of those jagged peaks on our horizon. Today I reached the summit of the last two. Well, to clarify, the last two of the jagged "needles". I still haven't been on Baylor Peak, or even Organ Peak (restricted are). No matter, I am happy anyways. Reaching these last two peaks also gives me a little more confidence about the upcoming Organ peak Marathon. I have a basic familiarity with all the peaks on our route, ways to get up and down, information which is key to our attempt to link all of these peaks in a single day.

My hike today started before the sun came up. I bade my sleeping family a quiet "goodbye-morning" and jumped in the car around 5am. I parked at my usual spot a mile or so up the Topp Hut road, and started hiking up. I decided not to bring any climbing gear with me, but my pack was still heavy because I was carrying an extra 4 liters of water to cache. I was also solo today, Marta and Jon had decided to team up and hike up the Organ Needle and familiarize themselves with the northward route from their (they made it all the way to Lost Peak). Being solo is nice sometimes, and I took a several extra geocaching diversions on my way up.

The hike in was nice and cool, and stayed cool all the way through Rabbit Ears Canyon. There was an unfound geocache on top of the Citadel which I decided to go for. I dropped my heavy pack in the canyon and took a 30 minute detour to grab it; Normally, the Citadel can only be topped out by 5th class routes, but I was pretty sure I could find a scramble up it. I remembered a hidden gully to the west of the route Wish You were Here, which was an easy scramble. It topped out on a large shoulder a few pitches up on the West Ridge. This left me with a little bit of  exposed climbing, but after looking at it carefully, I was confident I could get up it. I did have a few second thoughts about coming back down. After all, I had no rope or gear to rappel with. Pushing those thoughts aside I summited anyways, thinking there was probably another descent/scramble on the south side. I did find nice rappel chains on the SE side side of the summit, but no easy scramble down. However, down-climbing wasn't as bad as I had feared and I was soon back down to my pack, and on my way up to Last Peak.

My approach was up the main gully on coming down from the north end of North Rabbit Ear. About half way up a rocky ridge divides the gully. I had been up the right-hand side before, on a previous trip up to the CWM, so I decided to try the left-hand side this time. It had a few sections of tough bushwhacking, but was pretty easy and direct. I was soon up to the saddle between the CWM and Last Peak. I stashed 2 liters of water and scoped out the potential routes up Last Peak. There was a promising route right up the south face that I was interested in. I could see a way to scramble up some ramp systems to a shoulder mid-way up the face. from here I could only see a 5th class corner to the top, but the rock around the corner was hidden from view and I was thinking that it might have a scrambleable gully. I decided to have a look. The initial "scramble" section involved a 5th class move, and once again I worried about reversing it. Still, I went up hopeful for the nice gully around the corner. I got up to the shoulder and looked around the corner, and was dismayed. Not only was there not an easy corner, but it was actually steeper over there. right above me though, was a very attractive route up a narrow rib. It looked in the 5.6-5.8 range, but there was no way I was going to solo it. Lucky for me, I did not have to reverse the hard move I had done to get up here, instead finding a secure (but 5th class) down climb in a crack system with good holds. Safely back at the saddle I made my way west around the base of the wall to look for the regular route up.
South Face of Last Peak, and my aborted route attempt
Only a few hundred feet away was the 4th class (3rd class Ingraham) route, up a nice weakness to the top. I quickly ascended and was on the lovely summit ramp in no time.
4th class route up Last Peak
I found a small summit register left by a recent Geocacher, and added my name to it. The log was only a single sheet of paper, so I think I'll bring up a proper notebook when we come here next. It was still early in the morning, so I found a nice spot to sit and eat breakfast. I had birds-eye view of the summit of The Citadel where I just was an hour ago. I took my boots off and let my feet air out, munching on trail mix and gulping water.
Dry feet are happy feet
Agave blossom/fruit on summit of Last Peak
After a suitable rest, I peered over the north side of the peak to scope out the descent down to Nordspitz. A jagged ridge led directly towards the saddle. There were a few spots that looked like they might be difficult to negotiate, but overall it looked doable and direct. I started down the exposed ridge-line, carefully climbing over blocks and down boulders. About half-way down I was stopped by a steep section. It would be a short and easy rappel (although I saw no rappel gear from previous parties), but I had no rope. However, there was a weakness on the east side which i thought I could down climb and I decided to go for it. I had to be extremely careful here, using the crack for solid jams and carefully placing my feet and testing the rock as I lowered myself down. It was indeed down-climbable but when Jon and I come back this way on our big traverse, I think we'd be better off rappelling.
Looking down the North Ridge of Last Peak
Getting up Norspitz was a cinch, a simple 3rd class scramble up the south side. There was another new register placed by the same Geocacher. I looked around for signs of an older one, but didn't find anything. It's pretty unlikely that this peak sees many ascents anyways.
Summit shot on Nordspitz
I didn't stay on the summit long, and started scrambling down the North side of the peak. The scramble off was nice, over some beautiful slabs and past some nice old trees. I had to zig zag a bit to avoid a large steep wall, but it was all very straightforward and actually quite pleasant. Minimal brush-beating, not too much slippery gravel, and slightly shady from the North-facing aspect. When i finally got to the bottom and looked back up, Nordspitz actually looked like quite a nice peak, with gently slabs growing up into a nice little summit. It would probably be a nice hike to come up this way from Baylor pass, but my goal today was to do the opposite.
North Side of Nordspitz
The first 1/4mile along the ridge towards Baylor was the worst of the bushwhacking. I delicately threaded myself through mahogany, cholla and yucca, eventually reaching a small summit. From there it was a bit easier although still brushy. There were occasional faint traces of "trail" and I was before I knew it I was down at Baylor pass. I cached another 2 liters of water under a shrub, and pondered my next move. Getting back to my car on the Topp Hut road would take some doing, I could go back the way I came but what fun would that be? Another route I considered is a sort of ridge-line which goes from the top of the Lambda to somewhere near the pass. Ultimately though, I opted for a lower elevation route, skirting around the base of the some unnamed cliffs. Partially this was motivated by a few more geocaches, which I picked off lower down, but I also was interested in checking out the impressive cliffs on the North side of the Lambda Wall massif. I've often stared at these cliffs while driving along Baylor road. There are some obvious corner systems which beg to be climbed, and I was interested in some reconnaissance.
All smiles before I left Baylor Pass trail
I left the Baylor Pass trail a little bit below the camping spot, and aimed for a small pass to the south.from there I was able to scramble over maintaining my elevation to another little pass, overlooking the canyon beneath the unnamed wall. So far the brush hadn't been very bad, but I could see that traversing around the base of this wall was going to be tough. The steep slope beneath the wall was boulder-strewn and choked with vegetation. I didn't see any possible easy route, so just forged ahead trying to maintain some elevation. I got a good look at the corner systems, they look like they could be really awesome routes. The approach from Baylor Pass would be reasonable, although it would be better in the cooler months.
Unnamed Cliffs North of Lambda Wall
My water was running low, it was the hottest part of the day and I was in the worst terrain the Organs can throw at you. It seemed like forever, but I finally rounded the corner underneath the Lambda Wall, and made my way back into Rabbit Ears Canyon. To my surprise there were hikers there, two guys coming down from Rabbit Ear Massif. they had just passed by the campground and lost the trail. I helped them get back on track, and then hiked out with them. One of the guys, Andre, actually grew up near the Gunks, and went to school at Plymouth State, right near where my Dad lives in NH. Small world. I enjoyed the company for the last hike out, we commiserated about our lack of water, and the hostile Organ mountain plants, and cruised back down the Topp Hut road. Overall route stats: Hike came in around 10.8 miles with a total elevation gain of about 2500 ft. Car-to-car in about 9 hours.
Hot and hazy looking South-East from the Nordspitz

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Traverse of the Low Horns

 This week-end's Organ Mountain challenge was to complete what we had set out to do last week-end, namely traverse the low horns from #6 through #1. This time it was just Jon and me. We got an early start thanks to meeting th BLM host Eddie South, who met us at the Aguirre Springs gate a little after 6am, and let us through. Starting up the Pine tree Trail early makes a huge difference. Most of our elevation gain is getting up the ridge-top, and the cooler monring temps definitely helped us not sweat our brains out. We reached the saddle between Horn #6 and The Spire a little after 8am. We left another water stash to lighten our load.
Jon at the high-point of our aborted route on the S face of #6
While I was pretty sure we'd end up scrambling around the west side of the base of Horn #6, in search of the normal route up, we had made good time and after gazing at the south face Horn #6, decided we'd try a route. A series of cracks and ledges seemed possible, so I racked up and started up. Only about 40ft up, I ran into a crux move where the wall got steeper and there was an awkward pull up into a thin corner. I approached the move from a few different angles, but ultimately decided I wasn't up for it. Maybe the extra weight of the pack worried me, or my lack of much recent climbing... either way, I balked. Jon wanted to give it a go though, so I left my high piece in and down climbed. When Jon got up to the high-piece, I was sure he would get passed. He pulled up on the hard move, and was almost established in the corner, where easier climbing lay ahead. but then he too chose to back down. He was able to clean the gear while down-climbing.
Jon on the sketchy slab traverse
Thus thwarted, we scrambled to the west around the base of Low horn #6. The west side was still shady and cool, which felt great. We dropped a bit of elevation, but were then able to traverse across a smooth slab and get into the gully which leads up to the saddle between #5 and #6. I made it up there first (Jon thought the slab traverse was SKETCH) and relaxed a bit, checking out the potential routes. When Jon reached the saddle, he realized that his water bottle had become unclipped somewhere between us and the Spire saddle. Since I was all rested up, I volunteered to scramble back over and look for it. I took a different slightly better traverse of the slab this time, and found the water bottle right where Jon had though it might be. This ate up a little more time, but it was still early. The scramble up the north side of Low horn #6 was easy and clean. The summit was pretty large and we spent a little time searching for a summit register, but not finding one. I left a new register and we headed back down to the #5/#6 saddle. The time was 10am. On the way down we scoped out possible routes on #5.

The South flank of #5 did not appear to have a 4th class route up it. There was a short 5th class section to reach a shoulder, then a final headwall broken by what appeared to be a chimney. I was referring to the Ingraham description and was convinced an easier route must be around the corner. We scouted to the east side, but nothing looked easier there. To get around to the west, we would need to drop down in elevation again, and take a ledge north to unseen terrain. We put our packs back on and headed that way. Once we turned the corner, we were confronted with steep, blocky and dirty terrain leading up to the mini-saddle on the south side of #5. It looked scramble-able, and indeed it was, but it had a few scary moments for me. It was the kind of terrain that ends up being steeper than you expect, with less positive holds, and more exposure than you bargained for. Also, there was a lot of lichen, dirt and vegetation in the cracks. The only positive was that we were still in the shade, and it was nice and cool. We eventually made it up this section, but I don't think we'll go this way again.

Low Horn #6 as viewed from the NW along our route around #5

We roped up for the final chimney, and I took the lead. I was a little worried at first, as it was hard to tell if the chimney was wide enough to squeeze into, but it turned out to be perfect. I had to dangle my pack beneath me, but could comfortably put my back to one wall and climb up features on the other. A small crack on the left wall provided ample protection and I was soon at the top. I think this is probably Ingraham's Chimney Route, but I wouldn't call it 4th class, more like 5.6. Jon quickly joined me on the top and we spent a while relaxing and enjoying the summit. It was about 11:30am, and we still had a ways to go, but I was hoping the hardest climbing would be behind us.
Myself on the Summit of #5

After our nice rest, we loaded up the packs again and started scrambling north. We had been warned about several false summits, and indeed there seemed to be a few of these along the way, but we were able to scrable along the top of the ridge without much problem. We passed a new-looking rappel station closer to the northern flank, but didn't use it, down-climbing all the way down to the #4/#5 saddle.
Jon on the beautiful ridge-line north of #5
The rappel station Marta and I had used last Fall was still in good shape and we could clearly see it from the saddle. Climbing up to it didn't look too hard. There was one steep crack section near the bottom, which involved a little grunting but was quite manageable, and didn't pose a serious fall. We were able to 4th class all the way up to the top of #4, nabbing the rappel gear as we went.
Jon does the "grunt" move up the S Face of #4
We didn't hang out on #4 very long, just long enough to scope out the next peak. We down-climbed the same route that Marta and I had scrambled up. I left another water cache on the #3/#4 saddle. There appeared to be an exposed 4th class route up the south face of #3, but we decided to rope up for it just in case it was harder than expected. Jon took the lead this time, and made short work of the face.
Jon leading the S. Face of #3
It was indeed as easy as it looked, although Jon opted to make a few 5th class moves instead of taking an easier ledge system, which saved him from potential rope-drag issues.I quickly joined Jon on the knife-like summit of #3. There wasn't much room to hang out, and #2 is so close, so Jon looked for a down-climb while I coiled the rope. He found a good 4th class down-climb on the NW ridge, and before I was even finished with the rope he was on his way up #2.
Jon scrambling past the crux boulder problem of the S. Face of #2
The south face route up #2 is very straightforward. from the saddle, there is a single 10ft boulder problem move, and then it's easy scrambling up to the top. Marta and I had rappelled this section before, since there was already a rappel station available, but it could probably be done without a rappel. I caught up to Jon on the summit of #2, and he was already scoping out routes up the south face of #1. getting down the North side of #2 though didn't look trivial, but there is a good rappel station already there, so I broke out the rope and we made a 30m rappel down to the #1/#2 saddle.
Me showing off a cool geocache container on the top of the Horns
The time was 2:30, we were finally starting to pick up the pace over the last few horns. After scrutinizing #1's south face, we opted to scramble around to the east, and then up the easy 3rd class East Ridge. We topped out on #1 at 3:00, completing our run of the horns! Our water situation was pretty low, but we were both feeling good. Jon really wanted to "tag" Gertch since we were almost there already. I didn't really get this, Gertch doesn't even have a discernible summit. But we down-climbed #1 and went over there anyways, and lo and behold, found a "summit" register. It was only recently left in 2007, and was marked by a dead branch stuck in a pile of rocks. It was logged a few times by apparently the same group of hikers, always coming up from Aguirre springs. I never really thought of Gertch as a destination hike, but I guess it would be pretty fun.

From Gertch we made the brushy descent down to Big Windy Saddle. Marta had added to our water cache here, and I quickly found the bottles she had left, but it took a good search to find the original 2 quarts we had left. I had tucked it way under a rock so that it couldn't be seen from any angle. We decided to put it next to the other water bottles to make it easier to find. the time was now 4:00 and we were down to less than 1 liter of water between us. Still Jon wanted to press on and tag Rabbit Ears Massif, and maybe even the SRE. I knew this would cause us to run out of water. It was hot, and that is a long detour. There also wasn't much of a point in bagging those peaks either, we know the way up them already, and Jon had already tagged the SRE. Still, there is a certain appeal to being "hardcore" and pushing ourselves. Against my better judgement, we started off towards the Rabbit Ears.
View South from Big Windy (#1 flank in back-ground)
We made good time getting to the top of Rabbit Ear Canyon, but it was still very hot and we used up almost all our remaining water. We dropped packs at the saddle there, and scrambled light up to Rabbit Ear Massif. There is a geocache up there that I was hoping might have a little stash of water, but no luck. Just the regular Geocaching type knick-knacks. We scrambled back down, put on our packs and started over to SRE. It actually made sense to go to the SRE/MRE saddle and then descend to Aguirre, rather than try to go back to Big Windy and descend. I've never done this descent before but Marta has mentioned several times that it is her preferred trail to the summit of SRE, and it would probably save us time. in getting over to the SRE saddle, I got ahead of Jon and lost sight of him. I found a shady spot on the saddle and waited and waited, trying to resist drinking my last ounce of water. When he didn't show up, I started to worry. I dropped my pack and started back down the SRE west gully, calling out for Jon.  Eventually I got a reply, from way over at the NRE/MRE gully. He had somehow missed the SRE gully and traversed too far north. Serves me right for not sticking close, but I still wonder how he could have missed the SRE gully. We weer here only a few weeks back...

The rest of the descent down the east side of the SRE gully we were dehydrated. our water was gone, and we were tired. At least it was shady though. The gully is mostly bare rock until it reaches the bottom of the SRE cliffs. I seemed to recall that it exited the gully down here, adn followed a ridge-line. I struck out on the wrong ridge-line for a short ways, but then we doubled back and found the correct ridge-line and a faint trail marked with cairns. We followed this trail all the way down, losing it only a few times near the bottom, where it meets up with the Baylor pass trail.
Happy to be back on Baylor trail, and almost to the car.
It was an exhausting day, we were back to the car at 7pm, making for a 13hr car-to-car trip. We were both a little dehydrated when we reached the car, but we also felt pretty good. Our speed over the Low Horns had been reasonable. The first two took the longest, and Jon nicknamed them the "Slow Horns". Now that we know the routes though, I think we'll be able to make good times across this entire section. Plus, we now have a few more water caches to help us along the way. A ver successful day!