Friday, May 13, 2011

Organ Mountain Summit Blitz

Ever since we moved to las Cruces, the idea of linking all the Organ peak summits in a day has intrigued me. Since then, I've had the chance to summit individually many of the peaks and have gained a pretty decent familiarization with this rugged and beautiful range. But until recently I haven't given a whole lot of serious thought to the endeavor. It seems impossible, and it may yet be. But a new member of the rescue team, and a passionate climber is keen to give it a try and I've been sizing it up again.

Despite having climbed most of the peaks, there are still regions of the ridge line that I am unfamiliar with. Therefore the first order of business is to scout out these areas. Also it is clear to me that any attempt will need to travel fast and light, a near impossibility with the desert heat. Water caches are a must, so these scouting hikes should also serve to cache water in strategic locations throughout the ridge.

With those ideas in mind, I struck out for a solo trip to link up Organ Needle to the Wedge, with a possibility of going even further with time permitting. I left Las Cruces a little after 4am and after a quick gas stop, was leaving my car on Modoc road at 450 am. The quiet cool morning is perfect for hiking this easy stretch. I got my first surprise at the BLM gate, where someone was camped out. I startled him awake and he yelled "HEY!", making me jump as I hadn't really noticed him. "I'm just hiking, no worries" was my reply and hike on I went.
Feeling Good at Juniper Saddle
As I neared the top of Modoc road, I was able to put my headlamp away, the morning twilight was enough light. I flew by the regular landmarks on the trail up to the needle; Yellow rocks 6:06am, Juniper Saddle 6:37am, Dark Canyon Pine Tree 7:07, Organ Needle summit 7:26am. The cool morning and fresh legs made the going smooth. even so, I was happy to unload a gallon of water on the top of the Needle as a cache for future use.

I took a short break on the summit, and rifled through the summit register. There were several full notebooks filling up the container and I decided to take them down with me for archiving. It will be quite a project to log all these books, but I usually enjoy reading all the different accounts of who travels these mountains.
Organ Needle Full Logbooks, coming along for the ride
The summit was also my first chance to survey the extent of the recent fires. Large portions of hillsides were charred, but there were also untouched slopes. The fire had been very selective, constrained by geographical and meteorological forces no doubt. I tried snapping some pictures but with the morning sun glaring right at me I wasn't able to capture it very well.

I descended the NW ridge of the needle, a route I had climbed a few years back. The down climbing was a bit exposed but solid. I left a poot sling to make the single 30m rappel down to the saddle. Once in the sadle between LST and the Needle, I climbe dup a short rocky headwall rather than traverse into the main gully. This followed the way I had descended from LST previously during the Lost Carabiner Route fiasco.  It involves some low fifth and fourth calss moves, but is a quicker cleaner way to get over to LST.
Scramble traverse into LST gully
I was on top of LST by 8:33am, still making good time. The next part was the section I was least familiar with. I scrambled around the summit blocks for a while trying to find an easy way around, but ultimately decided on a short rappel to get down off the summit blocks to the north. I rappelled down a off-width crack which ended in an overhanging cave-like area. While transitioning to the overhang, my rope slipped into the crack and I grated a bunch pf skin off my left knuckles. Painful, but not serious. Also, looking back it did not seem that this would be easily reversible. One of the things I was keeping in mind is whether to try the organ ridge North-South or South-North. certain sections are easier one way or another, for instance the Low Horns work better North to South. Travelling from the Needle to the Wedge seems to work better South to north, especially because of this section. If we were to attempt a North to South, we'd still need to route-find a way to get to the top of LST.
My painful rappel spot off of LST
The rest of the way between LST and Square Top was pretty straightforward, and actually pretty nice. I was able to stay up on the ridge for most of the way. At one point I had to descend on the west side into a gully byy a large pine, and there was a bit of brush to negotiate but nothing serious. The final down-climbing to the Square Top headwall was exposed but comfortable climbing. Actually summitting Square Top requires climbing an exposed fifth class pitch and I wasn't about to attempt this on my own, but it probably would only take 30-60 minutes to accomplish. I didn't stay long by Square Top, and headed down the familiar terrain of the regular ascent route. This involves some down-climbing on the west side. The rappel anchors John Bregar and I had previously used were still in decent shape so I utilized them to rappel the short "4th" class section and then down-climbed the rest of the way down the Square Top gully.

At the bottom of the gully was more new terrain for me, I would have to traverse out of the gully to the north and find a point to cross over onto the east side of the ridge to reach the Wedge's standard route. The initial bush whacking to get out of the Square Top gully was the worst of the day, consisting mostly of dense and dead brush oak scrub. After only a short ways, i opted to ascend back up to the ridge-top following a faint climbers trail. This placed me on a nice perch between Square Top and the Wedge.
Looking North with the Wedge behind me
In between me and the Wedge was an un-named peaklet that I would need to negotiate. Going around it to the west didn't seem like an option, and it looked like I would have to descend a steep gully on the east side and meet up with the gully that runs to the Wedge lower down. but on closer look, there appeared to be a brushy ramp which led directly from this little saddle around the peaklet to the east. I scrambled down the ridge-line to this little saddle and on closer examination this little ramp looked perfect. It let me maintain elevation on the ridge, and skirt around the rock obstacle. Once I turned the corner at the end of this ramp, I was in an oak/maple forest typical of the shady east side gullies. This one had been hit by the fire, and had a powder soft layer of ash blanketing the ground. the trees themselves looked like they survived, but the fire had torched all the leaf litter and small shrubs.
Burnt Forest
Hiking down this short section of forest was kind of surreal. The ash was very much like fine powdery snow. The smell of fire hung in the air. Only a week or two ago this area was burning, and now it was still and calm. Once we get some rains I have no doubt that the plants will come back with a vengeance.

By the time I joined up with the Wedge's regular route it was getting hot, and I was slowing down. I finally summited the Wedge by 11:28am. Good time, but not fast enough to do the entire Organ Mountain ridge. My legs were beginning to ache, and my camelback was already empty. I only had one more 32 ounce water bottle left and considered heading back to the car. To go on would surely mean I would run out of water while still high in the mountains. While I was having these thoughts, I holed up under a boulder, the only decent shady spot on the summit and tried to eat some food.
My shady nook on top of the Wedge
Somehow ambition got the better sense of me. I decided to keep going towards Dingleberry. I had previously covered the terrain from the Wedge to the saddle between Third Peak and Lost Peak, but there was still some unknown terrain to be scouted out. I rappelled off the Wedge and scrambled down beneath Lost Peak. Lost Peak is another summit that from the south requires a rope and partner to get up (at least, i wasn't going to solo it) and since I knew this already, I decided to try to bypass Lost Peak. I did this by descending the steep gully on the east. This down-climb  turned out to be steeper than I was hoping, involving 4th class scrambling. Still it put me almost right where I wanted to be, in the saddle on the south of Third Peak. the last time I had been here the group I was with decided to head down without trying this little peak, so today I decided I'd give it a shot. It turned out to be a very nice albeit exposed scramble, probably only high 4th class. The summit is a small sharp knife-edge, with a decent little belay spot to put my pack down. the time was 12:37pm. There was what appeared to be a small summit cairn about 30 feet out on the knife-edge, so I scrambled over to see if there would be any signs of a summit register. Sure enough, a small yellow-metal Kodak film canister was stashed in the cairn. In it were 3 neatly folded sheets of note paper containing the first ascent parties' log and the next 4 ascents as well. The last record was dated 1972. I love finding these kinds of logs. A little bit of Organ Mountain history, getting to a place that maybe no one has touched in 40 years. It's a great feeling.
Third Peak's little summit cairn and knife-ridge
It looked like a double-roped rappel off of Third Peak's north side might work, but I didn't have that kind of rope with me, so I down-climbed my ascent route. ASctually, the elevation of the saddle between Third Peak and Lost Peak is a little bit higher than where I wanted to join up with the regular acent route of Dingleberry so this worked out pretty well (and would work in the opposite direction as well). Lost Peak also looks to be easily scrambled from the north side which is good to know if we end up trying a North to South trip of the ridge.

My route to the summit of Dingleberry was unremarkable. I had to bushwhack a bit to get over to the ascent gully, but it wasn't very bad. The main thing that was getting at me was exhaustion and dehydration. I was nursing my last water, but the heat of the day was sapping me quick. I took advantage of every shady spot to rest and try to recuperate, but I was still slowing down. I finally reached the summit of Dingleberry at 1:21pm.  The summit log I replaced a year or so ago is in good shape, and there has even been some traffic up here.
Dingleberry, the 5th summit of the day for me!
My memory was telling me that the Wildcat gully would be a better descent route, and since I was going to be going down Wildcat gully, I might as well tag Wilddcat too, since it is not far to go. I was able to down-climb most of the descent off Dingleberry to the north (passing by one rappel station that Bob Cort and I had previously used), but the final 20ft boulder drop stopped me. I set up this short rappel, and only after getting down did I see that there might be a way to bypass this drop without needing a rappel. Again, this would work well for a North to South excursion.

Once down in the Wildcat gully I decided to shuck my pack and go light up to the top of Wildcat. I still was nursing my water but I knew it was down to the last few sips. I was exhausted, but I slogged my way up to the top of Wildcat. the time was 2:30pm. I brought a copy of the old summit log to leave, so future parties will have a chance to read the history of this little peak. Then I turned around and started my descent.

Despite travelling on familiar terrain, the exhaustion and dehydration made the descent very trying. I sucked my last few drops of water down while still high in Wildcat gully, and the whole rest of the way I was fixated on nothing but water. I sang songs to myself to try to keep my mind occupied. I cursed myself for leaving an entire gallon up on the Needle. By 4pm I was at the top of Wholt's Welt. By 4:28pm I was back on Modoc road. One foot after another I just kept moving on. The lower I got, the hotter it was and I began to feel some of the signs I'd felt before.Nausea, cotton-mouth, tingling limbs. I held a glimmer of hope that the guy camped at the BLM gate would still be there and I could beg some water from him, but no such luck. I finally made it back the car at 5pm.
Shady spot in Wildcat gully where I tried to regain my composure
When I finally got home, I was useless for a few hours. I slowly re-hydrated, washed all the salt off my face and took a well deserved rest. The 6 summit loop had clocked in at 9.47 miles with around 5300 ft of total elevation gain, and was about a 12-hr trip car-to-car. So is the entire ridge doable? Maybe, maybe not. This portion represents about a third of the ridge-line, and I had to skip two of the peaks. Also my I'm beginning to doubt my physical condition for taking on the whole ridge. This "little" portion nearly did me in. Still I can see how it would be possible, and am already thinking about the next "scouting" trip.


Eugene Smith said...

Wow! 6 summits in 12hrs.? You're a beast, that has to pump the arms and legs. Thanks for sharing your words and pics.

Ryan Conklin said...

Great effort! Thanks you posting this possibility and some tips. That's so cool that the one register was last entered in 1972, wow.

5,000+ft and 9 miles in 12 hours on that rugged of terrain...AWESOME.

Let me know about your next hike, I've been doing some smaller trips the last four weekends. Would like something more...maybe Gila with the hot springs...