Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Farewell to the Organs

I love the Organ Mountains. For climbing, hiking and geocaching. I combined all these activities into my geocaching series, Organ Saint. Some people, like myself are just drawn to these rugged mountains. So it is sad to say goodbye now that we are leaving New Mexico for the greener pastures of Tennessee. The only proper way to say goodbye would be one last hike and climb. I teamed up with Combatnurse2003, aka Mike, to see how many Rabbit Ears we could bag in a day. You would think a rabbit only has two ears, but not this one, there's the North Rabbit Ear, Middle Rabbit Ear, South Rabbit ear... then there's the Rabbit Ear Massif, and other lesser spires and ridges. No shortage of objectives here. And the hike up Rabbit Ears canyon is one of the best in the range.

We met at 5am at the jeep rd that starts up to the rock hut. I parked my city car, and piled my gear into Mike's sweet 4x4 jeep. We bumped and jostled our way up to the Rock hut, shaving a mile off our hike. It was still dark as we donned our packs, and we wore headlamps until we were well into the canyon. I enjoyed being the chattering guide, pointing out all the rock features and walls, places to camp and general climber's trivia. This was Mike's first trip up the canyon.  Perhaps my chattering frightened the wildlife off, because we saw none, but I was happy to be in my element. At the granite bathtub Mike dropped a gallon of partially frozen water out of his pack to stash for later. I can't believe he carried so much water up here! It probably has something to do with our last big adventure in the Organs on Baylor Peak when he got pretty dehydrated. I don't blame him for carrying so much water after that experience. I should have done the same, but turns out I did almost the opposite. I had meant to take a 24 oz gatorade with me but it had jostled out of my pack on the bumpy jeep ride. So I was short liquids for the day. Bummer, but I wasn't about to let it ruin my fun.

As we hiked higher up the canyon we debated some side objectives. The cache on the Citadel would make a great prize. I was the last find on it a few years ago. We decided that we would wait and see how felt on the way back down. It would be a significant amount of effort either way, what with a few pitches of climbing involved. Another temptation was ORP. Since we were planning on tagging the summit of the Massif anyways, we could almost justify taking the gully that one would take to go to ORP. It would only be a short side trip to that spire, then we could continue up the ridge to the massif. But we nixed this option too, thinkiong that our efforts were best spent on the main peaks. We were making good tme, reaching the saddle around 7:30am. We dropped our packs and made the quick and steep hike up to the Massif, and our first cache of the day, the venerable Labor of Hercules #10. While Mike worked that, I searched in vain for the summit register, only finding an old gatorade-powder lid. I was bummed not to find it, but there was a nice cache of water, 4 12-oz bottles. I grabbed one, knowing my own supply was less than optimal for the hot day we were going to have. Hopefully this doesn't piss someone off later, me steeling their water and all, but it was in a very obvious place where hikers go, so I figured it was fair game.

Our next move was down to our packs and then over to the South Rabbit Ear or SRE as I like to call it. There is a short section of nasty bush whacking here which I had mostly forgotten about. No Organ Mountain experience is complete without this, and I was pleased to get one last taste, although Mike was grumbling somewhat. We dropped packs again at the col between MRE and SRE, had a quick snack and then scrambled up the easy lichen covered north face of the peak. I consider SRE to be an easy peak, and sometimes forget that even it has some serious challenges. The rock gets steep, the plants disappear and you really have to pay attention to what you are doing. This is especially true on the descent. It helped to have Mike there with me, and see the mountain afresh through his eyes. The niceties of being a guide! We didn't dally long on the summit, just enough to grab the cache, and peruse the summit register. Looks like SRE has been getting regular visits. Very cool!

One nice thing about linking up SRE to MRE is that on the descent from SRE you can really scope out the regular route on MRE. I pointed out to Mike all the belay ledges, the crux moves etc.. and he had an absolutely clear idea of where to go. Then he handed me the rack... (just kidding, I was planning on leading the fun stuff anyways!). It's been a little while since I roped up for some real climbing. I was using my twin ropes and thin rack supplied by Mike. I knew the route, had climbed it multiple times but still got that nervous feeling in my gut... and sweaty palms. Well, that's why climbers use chalk right? Powdered courage! I stepped up to the rock and started to climb. Style, well, I've had better days. But man was it fun, and exhilarating. I think I've been missing this too much these past few years, chasing geocaches instead of technical climbs. Maybe I can remedy that in Tennessee? Who knows, but it felt real up there. Alive and one with the mountains in a way you can't get any where else. And as we climbed that sour thought kept popping into my head, "I am probably never going to see these mountains again".

We relaxed on top of MRE for a while. Mike was famished and tore into his lunch. My first priority was to look at the summit register. Marta had warned me that the jar had broken a while ago and she had replaced it, but it didn't occur to me that because it had been broken that pages would be damaged. A small animal had eaten away at the pages I left up here, making fractaled edges. And several pages were completely missing including the ones from my visits in 2011. I was a little bummed, seeing those entries is a cheap way to wax nostalgic about past achievements. The logs that caught my eye were from last weekend when Jon Tylka, Nate Fry and Glen Melin had attempted the full traverse of the Organ Needles. They ended bivying before the low horns, then fighting 70 mph winds.. all the way to NRE before finally calling it. Amazing! Another entry that caught my attention was one from March 28t where two climbers named Luke and Chance had written "Full Traverse". I wonder how many of the peaks they had actually nabbed, and if they had completed the full traverse? These thoughts distracted me for a bit, but eventually, the urge to check on the geocache I left up here grew too strong and I goaded Mike, who was comfortably relaxing, into making a search for it. He was doing what veteran cachers do, not relying on his GPSr and searching plausible locations. Except up on top of the MRE, every square foot is a plausible location. My impatience got the better of me and I pulled out my GPSr just to "check where GZ was". I was immensely pleased to see the numbers on the display drop down to zero ft as I stood directly over the cache. For only my second cache placement, I had marked coordinates very accurately!

The cache itself was pristine. I don't know why I would worry about it, but for some reason I had imagined that either climbers would mess with it. Or maybe I had thought that the effects of ice and snow from the mountain top winters would allow water to intrude. Completely unreasonable it turns out, the little water-proof matchstick holder was untouched, and dry as a bone. The paper was still crisp and neat. There wasn't even a chew mark on the outer portion. This give me good hope that the cache will survive for many years. And why wouldn't it? Only I probably will not know because another geocacher might not be up here for several years s well. Mike sat down at the cliff's edge and signed the log in the coveted FTF spot. Today is his 39th birthday, so this is my birthday present to him.  A worthy FTF prize if ever there was one.

Eventually we felt rested and ready for some more and started our way to the north side descent. This involves a very steep down-climb to a faded orange rappel sling I vaguely remember from 3 years ago. I checked all around it and decided it was good to use, but we probably should have added a piece for back-up. I hoped on the rope first, and was quickly down to the churchkey. A bit lower I found a pair of shiny bolts, anchors that Jon had told me he had placed. Having well placed solid rappel stations made the next two rappels much nicer. I could have linked them up into a single 60m length rappel but I was worried about rope getting stuck on the stunted trees covering the middle ledge, so we broke it into two rappels to have more control over the rope-pulls. The rappels off the churchkey are fantastic, with free hanging sections, and an immense neon green lichen roof system off to climber's-left. A great mountaineering experience. As we went I pointed out route features on the north face of MRE. Mike wasn't interested in tackling the North Face directly. The long day was starting to wear on him and he was only up for the easiest possible route which would be the Davis Route. We checked the time, 2pm, and did some thinking. If we were to tackle NRE as well, it would probably be 4hrs to get up and down, plus another 3 for the return trip. That put us back after dark. Definitely doable, and perhaps if we had been younger, or more gung-ho we wouldn't even have hesitated. But the thought of a 15hr day, getting home after the family had already gone to sleep, and missing any further birthday celebration (for Mike) made our decision for us. I know we could have completed the MRE this day, but we made the wise decision to call it a day.

The hike out was at a leisurely pace. Part of this was by necessity, the gully we had to descend was steep, loose and full of Organ Mtn vegetation. Mike took a couple of spills and bloodied himself from a close encounter with a cholla. No Organ mountain adventure is complete without someone getting intimate with the veg! At one section Mike lost his footing and came careening down on top of me, nearly bowling me over. He managed to shift his center of mass just enough to avoid a nasty collision, and halted himself without any injuries himself. This kind of stumbling is another typical feature of a long day in the Organs. Fatigue and dehydration add up and make the feet clumsier and clumsier as the day goes on. Another good reason to have called it a day instead of doing the MRE. But with plenty of afternoon daylight we could afford to take breaks, numerous relaxing breaks at several scenic spots in Rabbit Ears canyon. The ice water that Mike left by the bathtubs was divine. We chugged half of it, then decided to leave the rest as a water cache for future hikers and climbers. It is hidden away, but in a spot that is likely enough to be discovered by those who would need it. A bit further down we stopped at my favorite tree, a stunted broad-leafed tree with a canopy just my height, creating a perfect shady rest on one of the hottest parts of the approach around the Citadel. We chatted and laughed the whole way down, and I quietly said my goodbyes.

Goodbye ringtail cat, that looted our food when we camped here with a 7 month year old son.
Goodbye finger-singer, that slick 5.10 slabby test-piece that I so bravely led years ago.
Goodbye Lambda Wall, where I climbed with an Air Traffic Controller when we first moved to the area.
Goodbye Mexican buckeyes, with your startling rattles every time you are brushed.
Goodbye lonely spires, visited by the rare few who love to roam harsh terrain.
Goodbye rusted mining equipment, slowly decaying but still alluring.
Goodbye ocatillo blooms, flashing bright red buds against a see of browns.
Goodbye golden eagles, gently soaring from lofty perch to lofty perch.
Goodbye Organ mountains. My heart will forever ache for you.

 Goodbye Organ Mountains....