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!

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