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