Saturday, January 29, 2011

La Cueva: OMTRS companion rescue and a few climbs with NASA co-op John

One of the skills I was most interested in learning from folks on the rescue team is slef-rescue and companion rescue. The full-on, 10:1 safety factor rescue stuff is important to know, nad working in large teams to raise and lower a litter off of high-angled terrain are all well and good, but I want to know what to do in "climbing situations". Somethine has happenned to you or your partner on a climb. How do you get yourselves safely down? One of the OMTRS team leaders had solicited for ideas for our next "on-rock" training and thought this was a good topic. Espicially in light of our recent mission in the Floridas, where the techniques we used were more in-line with companion rescue techniques.

Because of a concurrent Winter Skills training in northern NM, I had thought that not many people would show up to this training, but was surprised when there were over a dozen folks, many of them new. We were split into to groups, one more advanced group led by Bob Cort would work on companion rescue techniques, while Bruce would lead the newer people in basic equipment use, rappelling and climbing. This worked out very well for our group, 5 of us were enough people to have redundant safety lines while we experimented with new techniques, but also small enough where we could each try out the techniques.

The first skill we worked on was lowering yourself down to an injured partner (if you were belaying a second up at the top of a pitch), and then using a counter-balance rappel to lower yourself and partner down.

  1. Bob Cort demonstrated this first, using an auto-blocking belay device. The advantage of this device is that he already has his hands free and the weight of his second on the anchor to start with. 
  2. Next he placed a prussic on the loaded rope and attached it to the anchor with a load-releasing device. In this case, he used his purcell prussic system, a didn't have to tie a fancy rescue knot on the spot (although a purcell prussic is a fancy rescue knot, most of the rescue guys have these already made and ready to use). 
  3. Prussic inplace it was simple to feed some slack into the belay device and transfer the weight of the 2nd onto the prussic. 
  4. This accomplished, you can then clear the belay device and rig it for rappel. 
  5. Once rigged for rappel, the load can be transferred onto the belay device (lengthening the load release). The weight of the 2nd is now counterbalanced by your weight.
  6. Rappel down to the 2nd. If you're careful, you can prevent the 2nd from slipping down.
  7. Once at your 2nd, you can clip directly to them, and then continue to rappel. The rope slips thorough the anchor and lowers the 2nd with you.
It's easy to see how you could then re-build an anchor, tie bot of off, and then continue down, using the same kind of counterbalance rappel, or using a tandem rappel. All five of us got to try this technique, with minor variations. For instance, if you are belaying your 2nd up through a directional on the master-point of the anchor, then you are already set for a counterbalance rappel.

The second skill we worked on was carrying a subject piggy-back, using a simple sling made from 15ft of webbing. It worked pretty well, and we all took turns carrying someone on our backs and rappelling/lowering with someone on our backs.

Both of these skills were good to practice, and seem much more applicable to a pair of climbers operating on their own, than many of the other trainings that OMTRS runs. I do worry though that I lack a certain required judgement. Essentially this boils down to me making decisions that I know are not the safest, but that I deem appropriate for the situation at hand. For example, when practicing one of the techniques above, I opened up a locking carabiner that connected me to the anchor. To most this is something tht would be obvious to avoid, and if I had an extra locking carabiner and sling on me, I wouldn't have bothered. But with what I had on my harness, it simply made sense to me to perform this "risky" operation, in order to achieve a certain desired goal. I guess that's what my apprehension boils down to, the people I see excelling at this rescue business (and for that matter, safety culture at work) do not compromise an operation by taking a risk in order to achieve a certain goal. It is drilled into our heads that this is the source of countless avoidable accidents, and yet I continue to assess certain risks as acceptable.

After the training was done, John and I jumped on a few climbs.John is a new NASA intern and is gung-ho to climb. He led up Piton Power and Hive Mind, making the latter look easy. I always struggled on Hive Mind, and today was no exception. I struggled again, even on top-rope, and after a few minutes of frustration, grabbed the crux bolt to pull through, and cursed myself. I'm woindering if my climbing skills are at a low-point. I've only jumped on a few difficult climbs in the last year, and mostly they freak me out, even on top rope. Mostly, I've been peak-bagging, and scrambling on 4th and low-5th terrain when i do go out. It saddens me a bit, because I know I won't be getting out any more this next year, and regaining my climbing ability will take just that.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Spire: NW Face Direct route, sort of...

The Spire, one of the distinct Organ mountain peaks, has long been on my list of things to climb. I figured I'd get to it eventually, but I guess my desire to go up it was known well enough, some OMTRS guys were climbing at Caballo and when one of them mentioned he wanted to tackle the Spire, my name came up as a potential partner. Dan Carter emailed me early in January about tackling the Spire, and we tentatively agreed to make a bid for it Jan 22nd. I had climbed with Dan before, although I'm a bit fuzzy on the details. I think we climbed together at Percha Creek along with Ben Naddler, and I've run into him a few times since, at the Farmer's Market, or at OMTRS events. He's a civil engineer with the BLM, which had one special advantage for us, he had a key to the locked gate at Aguirre Springs. This meant we could get an extra early start. As things would go though, we only showed up at the gate 15 minutes before it would normally be opneed, but I still felt privileged.

We had opted to approach from the east side. Dan had tried the approach from the West a few times, and encountered the worst bush-whacking the Organ's have to offer. Ingraham describes the approach for The Spire from the west, but I've recently learned not always to trust Ingraham's approaches. Marta Reece showed me a couple east side approaches (for The Wedge, and the Low Horns) which were fast, comfortable and mostly brush free. She had mentioned that the big rock-slide gully on the east side goes all the way up to the saddle between Low Horn #6 and The Spire, and was an easily obtainable, so this is the approach we opted for.

We cruised the approach, and the ascent up the rock slide was a wonderful hike. Much of the gully is washed clean and smooth, with exposed granite. There were little ice-blobs along the way, reminding us that we were in "deep winter", and we reached the saddle in about 1.5 hours. Next time, we could probably even bring the dogs, nothing we hiked up would have been too difficult for a trail-dog to handle. Once at the saddle we gawked at the impressive and steep south face of Low Horn #6. There are some really hard looking lines that might go free, but not by me. Turning our attention to The Spire, we reconnoitered a bit to look for the best place to start. The wind was howling pretty well from the west, so we opted for a start a little further to the east that would hopefully be out of the wind. Dan picked a lichen-covered crack system to be our first pitch. The crack would gain easier climbing above which seemed to match up with descriptions for Ingraham's NW Face Direct route.

Dan is a solid climber, and carefully made his way up the crack. At a point near the top, he committed to some harder moves and I started getting nervous for him. Still, he kept cool the whole time, and delicately reversed the moves, and then found an easier way to the right. If the face hadn't been so lichen covered, he may have gone for the harder top-out, but I can understand not wanting to trust feet on lichen covered nubbins. Following up his lead, I was impressed by his climbing. The warmth was quickly sucked from my fingers by the ice-cold rock, and the delicate exit moves at the top felt hard with stiff fingers. Just after I had cleared the crux (~5.8 or 5.9?) I grabbed a hold which promptly broke off and almost sent me flying off with it. No worries on top-rope, but I made sure to thank Dan for leading that pitch.

For the next pitch, I followed a path of least resistance trenidnng left. I kept eyeing some decent slab/crack seams on the face to the right of me. Maybe if my fingers weren't so cold, or I wasn't such a timid climber I would have struck out on these and found a clean/beautiful line. nope, I stuck to the easy ground, and quickly ran out the rope over low 5th class and 4th class climbing. About half a ropes length, I had gained a shoulder which looked out on the NE side of the face. From here I trended back right along brushy crack systems and ledges and finally found an awesome belay ledge. It was big enough for two people to sleep on, and protected on its outer edge with shrubs and bushes. I enjoyed the protection from the wind as Dan came up.

Dan took the third pitch which finally had some nice clean rock. A shallow right-trending corner system led up to a big ledge below a steep 12ft wall. A nice crack on the left side of the ledge offered a way up to another ledge above where a pair of rusty old 1/4" bolts were found. All the time I was following up this pitch, I was peering off to the big slab on my left, wondering if there was a direct line up it. At the belay, it was obvious there was a line heading out left onto this smooth and airy face. But I had no confidence about what kid of protection I'd find, and if I could keep myself composed on thin, icy cold slabs. I resigned myself to scrambling up the easy gully directly above the belay, about 150ft of 4rth class scrambling up to the exposed summit ridge. The only protection I placed was near the top, and when I realized that I could give Dan a top-rope to try the alluring face directly, I back-cleaned that piece and set up an anchor for him to try the nice looking slab. After a few tries, we were able to flip the rope over a bulge and onto the slab. Dan quickly gained a stance where he found an old angle piton, roughly matching up the description of the final pitch from Ingraham's NW Face Direct route. rather than traverse around to his left, Dan was enticed into climbing straight up from the piton. He asked if my anchor was solid (of course!) before committing to the thin slabby moves. After about 20 ft, he gained a horizontal crack and easier climbing up to the top. It looked like a great pitch, and he offered to lower me down to try it, but it was already starting to get later in the afternoon, and we had to figure out to get down still, so I passed on the opportunity.

We hunted around for a summit log, but didn't find anything. There weren't signs of climbers really at all, the summit was a 50 ft long ridge, consisting of blocky chunks of granite maybe 5 ft wide, and fattening out near the ends. The exposure to the south was superb, the wall just droped away out of sight, and the shaded and lichen covered North face of Razorback loomed in front of us, close enough to spit at (well, not really, but it seemed close). I found a nice spot to leave a new summit register, then we scrambled down the 4th class gully to the rappel anchors. Instead of doing a long rappel straight down, we opted to do a short rappel and scramble down the 4th class Normal Route. It was exposed scrambling (high up on the wall), but a nice series of brushy ledges, and weaknesses allowed for 4th class scrambling all the way down to the Spike. By this time, the wind had died down and we could bask in the sun on the west side of the Spike, so we relaxed here for a little bit and scoped out the routes. The Spike has a killer crack splitting its south side, overhanging finger to thin-hands down low, it was well beyond what I am capable of. Still it is a beautiful looking short athletic climb. By scrambling around the west side of the Spike, I was able to get onto the north side of the small tower where another crack system ascended. This one was not as steep, and looked more like something I could handle. There was even an old fixed nut (slung with rope) down low in the crack.

Instead of continuing to scramble down the Normal route (west side of the Spike), we tried scrambling down the east side, more directly to our packs. We ended up needing one rappel to get down to the bottom of the Spike. It was about 430pm by the time we were packed and ready to hike out. the hike out was a little over an hour, and it was just starting to get dark as we pulled out of the parking lot and headed back home.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Lesser Spire and attempt on ORP, a quick afternoon scramble

Due to my wife's teaching schedule at NMSU, we are putting our son into daycare on Fridays now. every other Friday I'm usually off from work, and I can either stay home with Levin for some quality father-son time, or spend some time to myself for some quality "me" time. Today I opted for the latter, although only half-heartedly. With Levin in daycare, I am the one who usually picks him up, so I have not been doing any over-time at work. This hasn't yet been much of a problem, but I've started to fall behind, or rather bite off more than I can chew, so my new found "free Friday" is a perfect time to go into the office. I got to work at 7 this morning and worked on reports in the peaceful quiet of an empty office building. But by 11 am I had enough, and headed out to Rabbit Ears Canyon for some hiking/scrambling.

I brought a rope and harness with me and set my sights on Lesser Spire's Normal Route, which some OMTRS guys had climbe dlast week-end. They mentioned the peak was lacking a Summit Log, so I thought I'd see if I could scramble up it and place one. I also had to keep close track of the time, because I needed to pick up Levin by 4:30. Hiking by myself, in the cool winter sun, I made really good time:

  • 11:30 Left car at  low on Topp Hut road.
  • 11:50 At the mine
  • 12:05 At the base of Southern Comfort Wall
  • 12:40 At the north saddle next to Lesser Spire
  • 13:10 Summit of Lesser Spire
The Normal Route was a good scramble, plenty steep and some pretty good exposure. I didn't quite remember the description the Bob Cort had posted, and I ended up going to the right side of the roof on the first pitch.
Bob's picture from last weekend, showing the lichen roof
There was one cruxy section to this pitch, an 8ft head-wall above a small ledge with an old rusty piton.
Rusty piton on 1st pitch variation
There were excellent holds to pull over the steep wall, but I could see how some people wouldn't want to tackle it without a rope, the exposure and consequence of a slip was serious. Above this section was a large brushy ledge where I cleaned up a bunhc of old tattered webbing. Most of it had already been cut, and I'm guessing that last week's party had cut this off, but not taken it down with them. I stuffed it in my pack, and also cleaned off some of the nicer looking slings and bail-biners from their rappel point. Maybe this is a bad habit of mine, but usually when I'm doing routes in the Organs, I never miss an opportunity to take bail gear with me. Most of the time I end up having to leave it somewhere else, or even back in it's original spot, but I do end up gaining a few extra slings and biners. I guess it all evens out, because I've had to leave gobs of webbing and rings/biners on many of the routes out here, but I still feel a twinge of guilt for cleaning off someone's rappel anchor. 

From the brushy ledge I was confronted with the final headwall. Bob's team had tackled this head on, but I didn't like the looks of this for a solo scramble. I checked around the corner to the right and there wasn't an easier path that way. But off to the left was promising. The brushy ledge continued over to an exposed perch and met up with grassy ramp. A single 4th class move was all it took to get up onto the ramp, and while the exposure here was greater than anything previously climbed, it was pretty straight-forward to dispatch. Once on the ramp, scrambling to the summit was easy.

I relaxed on the summit only for a short while. I was actually a little cold, the wind was blowing pretty steadily and the climb had been entirely in the shade. I took out my jar/summit register to leave up there and then realized that I had forgotten to bring a writing utensil. Pretty dumb, I thought about leaving the register anyways, but decided not too, what's the point in leaving a register without a pen/pencil? What are the chances that someone else coming up here would have those with them? And I still had some time left, maybe, just maybe, I could scramble myself up to the summit of ORP and if there is already a register there (I seemed to think there was) I could replace that one. Maybe not my brightest idea, but I decided to go for it. I down-climbed Lesser' Spires east side to the rappel slings that I remembered from when Charlie Cundiff and I had climbed this tower a few years back. The rappel consisted of webbing lopped over a flake, and one piece had blown completely off the flake and was just lying on the ledge. I kept this piece, and backed-up the other one with one of my other booty slings, and made the 100ft rappel off of the Lesser Spire. I down climbed to the saddle between ORP and Lesser spire than set off down the brushy slope towards Rabbit Ears Canyon. The brush on this slope is pretty thick, but not thorny. I wouldn't have enhoyed whacking up it, but I was down in no time, and looking up at my chosen scramble on ORP. The time was 13:45.

ORP has a beautiful eastern buttress which is bounded on the left side by a deep gully. I had this vague recollection of John Bregar saying that either this gully or one a bit further up Rabbit Ears Canyon, was a fun scramble. I started up this gully and was quickly faced with a large overhanging chock boulder. I surmounted this by climbing out onto the buttress, probably on the starting section of a 5.6 route called "Orgy". I stayed on the buttress up to the level of a second large overhanging boulder in the gully. This required some fifth class scrambling on perfect granite with some nice cracks, but I was starting to feel the exposure, so I got myself into the gully and underneath the boulder to see if there was a less exposed way to scramble up. Alas, there didn't seem to be an easy way.
The Chock which turned me back
My summit bid thwarted and time running out, I down-climbed back down the gully/buttress. I took alittle extra time looking up at the east buttress of ORP.
Looking up at the 2nd pitch of "Orgy"

The time was 14:20, ample time for me tog et back to the car by 16:00. In fact, I was down much faster even, reaching the car by 15:10, and picking up Levin early. In less than 4 hours I had summited Lesser Spire and made it 1/4-1/3 of the way up ORP. None too shabby.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Wedge Summit Register Part 2

I finally finished transcribing what I could from the Wedge's summit register. It provides pretty good history between 1989 to present, but many of the pages were in bad shape. it's too bad I don't have the history before 1989. I was able to read about the first 3 ascent parties from the laminated articles included with the summit register. Maybe NMSU archives can shed light on this? I will try to remember to birng the laminated pages back up to the summit on my next trip, along with this transcription.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Wedge Summit Register: Part 1

I climbed the Wedge back in November and replaced the Summit Register. I am just getting around to transcribing it now. One of the neat things about this register was a largish PVC tube containing several laminated newspaper articles which relate some of the history of the first ascents on the Wedge. I've posted them here so that folks can check them out. The transcribed log is coming soon...

Low Horn #2 Summit Register

Back in November I replaced the Summit Register on Low Horn #2, but did not find one currently up there. Another local climber, James Stockton, had retrieved it a few weeks earlier and gave it to me so I could post it. The log consisted of one sheet of "paper" that was in decent shape, and another two terribly brittle sheets which I immediately destroyed in removing frmo the glass vial which housed them. I can't really decipher what these papers had, but there are some dates and names on them which I can share here. One of the dates goes back to 1956 and I'd guess that this brittle sheet of paper recorded the first ascent party as well as the next few decades ascents. Of the 4 Low Horns I climbed back in November, this one (#2) was the most challenging to summit, and it is pretty reasonable to say that it doesn't see many ascents. The names I can make out are familiar from the annals of the Southwestern Mountaineers club; Hahn, McCalla, Boyer, Erhardt, Amato. Even the stationary that the newer sheet of the register is on is pretty cool, some kind of official club stationary conveying membership proviledges to Dan Erhard. A glimpse at the initialization rituals of times-past.

Photos of Summit Register