After 2 years of climbing the long slabs up the backside of Enchanted Rock Shaun and I were looking for a new challenge. We had sampled some limestone climbs at Reimer's Ranch near Austin and found them crowded with stinky climbers and infested with poison oak. To expand our options Shaun began to put together a traditional climbing rack, one made up of removable rock protection devices so that we were no longer limited to the crowded sport climbing bolt routes. "Trad-climbing" fueled a new search for routes. With Shaun's last spring break approaching we looked for something worthy of a multiple-day trip. We wanted a big climb, something we could really look down from, something that would dwarf the 1-2 pitch slab at Enchanted Rock we had grown accustomed to...
Sugarloaf rises from the deep center of the Organ Mountains near Las Cruses New Mexico. The North Face Route consists of 13 pitches (1 pitch = a 60m length of rope) of sloped white granite to a peak of 8,150 ft. The difficulty rating is 5'6+, which is well below what we were capable of. The most difficult part of this climb would be it's length, and the danger would be the 60 ft "runout" sections of remarkably flat slab that offered no holes or cracks for the placement of our removable protection...
3-18-2009, Day 1
Shaun, his wife Ashley, and his cousin Jeremy met at my house Tuesday evening to pack the Jeep and spend the night so we could get an early start in the morning. After waking, we were off in a hurry - stopping once for gas and some breakfast tacos at the Taco Cabana in Boerne, and were back on the road before the sun came up. Driving in shifts of 2 1/2 hours each really made the trip go by fast. The rolling hill country changed into the sweeping scrub plains of west Texas. The hills rising from the desert plain became taller and taller, and before long we had passed into New Mexico. Shortly after crossing the state border the Organ Mountains appeared on the right, with Sugarloaf hidden from view on their east side. Our first view of Sugarloaf was from hwy 70 before we turned off for the campground. I remember thinking "is that it?" before I realized how far away it was still, and how many hills separated the base from the campsites. We pulled in and picked a site (#21), pitched the tents, and prepared for the evening which was still a few hours away. Shaun, Jeremy, and I talked about the climb in detail. We went over our equipment again and again. We packed it in our bags while Ashley made us peanut-butter sandwiches for tomorrow's climb. Shaun and I took some pics of the jagged Organ peaks and some long-exposure pics of the north star so we could see how the other stars swept around it. Realizing that it was already 11:00 we decided it would be best to go to bed. Unconcerned about the amount, I filled my 3L Camelbak to the brim with water, placed it securely in my pack, and crawled into my down sleeping bag. Alarms set for 4:30am.
3-19-2009, Day 2
We woke up fast as our alarms went off, and began putting together breakfast. Shaun and Jeremy wanted bacon and began to fry some up as I prepped the oatmeal and carnation instant breakfasts. Needless to say, it's hard to clean up a bacon mess with no running water and we didn't leave for another hour. Even though we were an hour behind, when we left it was still dark. We began hiking down the Pine Tree Trail. The moon hung eerily over Sugarloaf's Peak, and the moonlight was so bright we didn't need to use our headlamps to see the trail. We were at the walk-in camping area in time to watch the sunrise. From the walk-in camping area (according to the guide book) the trail forks and we were looking for the "obscure left fork" of the trail. We followed this "obscure" trail for about fifteen minutes before we had realized we were probably on a game trail. This is when we should have turned back (at this point we didn't know there were two trails, and the Pine Tree Trail was the wrong one to begin with --- we had been applying what the book said to the wrong trail!) Mad at the book for being so "obscure" about the trail, and the fact that because of it we could miss out on the climb, we stopped and caught our breath in the cool morning mist. We stood in the prickly brush for a minute staring at what we could see of Sugarloaf before deciding to bushwhack our way straight to it - a little bushwhacking never hurt anyone right? Well, every time we would crest a hill, we would gain sight of another that lay in our path. For every hill we crested there was a small valley with a stream to cross. For four hours - FOUR HOURS - we did this huffing and puffing before we finally burst from the bushes onto an obvious trail - the correct trail. We followed it to Sugarloaf's base and began the steep scramble up to where a tree was covered in climbing slings and runners - the obvious starting place for our epic climb. The long route stretching a mighty 13 pitches up from our position seemed unattainable at this point. Though no one admitted it, we were already spent from our bushwhacking adventure.
We took a break (our legs were already wobbly at this point) before eating some peanut-butter sandwiches. Now high above the sweeping desert plains, the view was already rewarding us for the hike. We donned our gear and Shaun led the first pitch easily. Jeremy and I followed, cleaning out his trad-placements as we went.. Knowing the climbing would become progressively more difficult a few pitches up above, I tied in to climb the second and third pitches so Shaun could save his strength for leading. This is when Shaun accidentally dropped his walkie-talkie. It skipped briefly on the rock before getting caught in a grassy spot about 20m down from us. Already tied in, I went to get it - and almost made it all the way back up before dropping it again. This time it skipped quite a few times before landing in the east gulch about 40m down from us. After a choice expletive I picked up my walkie and pressed the call button on it, and sure enough Shaun's answered from the gulch with a ring. Shaun justified getting it, and tied into the rope. Fifteen minutes later we were all back at the tree tying those bastards to our shoulder straps (which was a good thing because I proceeded to drop mine all day).
I led the next two pitches. The climbing was as easy as ever, and then I began to experience the serious "runout" problem the book was talking about. I would climb 50-60m and only be able place 2-3 pieces of protection along the way (mostly camalots and tri-cams). Here's a quick climbing lesson: if you climb 30 feet higher than the last place you put protection and fall, you fall 30 feet back to your protection and then keep falling another 30 feet until the slack in the rope catches at the protection (for a total of 60 feet). A 50 ft runout could mean a 100 ft fall. So as the runout length increased, we turned the leading over to Shaun as he is the more experienced climber.
Shaun began leading full-time at the 4th pitch. Somewhere during that pitch he made the decision to skip the belay station and head to the right instead, his aim were a pair of old bolts. By doing this he avoided an unprotected lateral traverse (climbing up is a lot easier than climbing sideways). Since he was to the right of our route, he climbed through some much more difficult moves nearly 100 feet above his last protection placement. As he made it to the bolts I radioed to him that he was, without contest, the official "Runout King" of the day. At the bolts we found a brand-new 8.2mm rope rigged for a single-rope rappel where some other climbers must have bailed and left the climb. There must have been a good reason (this was a $150 rope), and the thought of other climbers bailing was not comforting. At this point we were hot and exposed in full sun, less than halfway up, and were already getting tired.
After the 5th pitch we no longer had bolts to use as belay anchors, and were forced to use our camalots and tricams as "protection anchors". This, along with the four hours of bushwhacking we had done, made the climbing slow. It was frustrating to climb so slow up such an easily rated climb, and it wore on all of us. Shaun had to climb slow because he had insane distances of runout and we didn't need someone going head-over-heels for 120 feet down a 5.6 rated climb. Jeremy and I tried to make up for the caution Shaun climbed with by tying in about 10 feet apart and climbing quick as Shaun pulled in the rope from above. We kept pace well (as slow as it was) for the next few pitches. The fear of the sun setting drove us harder and harder for the summit. The fast pace drained my camelbak, and I was out of water by pitch nine - I recall joking about it.
Somewhere up on the 11th pitch or so the sun became obscured by the Organ mountain peaks to the west. Desperation for the summit grew and grew. I was able to get a text message sent to Ashley, who was back at camp, it reads: "2 rope lengths from the top, we will be back late, 10ish" - the time stamp was 7:28 pm. At this point Shaun was just climbing straight for the summit, and in his fast ascent accidentally loosened a flake about the size of a dinner-plate. It tumbled and skipped down the steep slope heading straight at Jeremy and I. I positioned my body, trying to hide under my helmet. Luckily, the the flake hit the slope about 8 ft above and it skipped harmlessly over our heads, flying down ten pitches and finally crashing into the trees below. There's nothing like a thirty-pound rock flying straight at your head. Needless to say, Jeremy and I shouted in a "My-God, I'm still alive... and that was awesome!" sort of way. Shaun kept climbing.
We climbed in the shadow of the Organ mountains before the sun went down completely during the final pitch. Let me say here that the book describes this climb as 8-10 hours "car to car". I am sure it is, given that the climbers start on the correct trail, hike and climb fast, and know how to get down the backside and back to the trail. For us it had been 17 hours since we left our tents, and we made the summit with our headlamps on. The only things we could see from the summit were each other and the brilliant lights from the White Sands Missile Range. The celebrations were minimal due to the fear that crept in when we realized we were surrounded on all sides by very steep slopes which led into very black nothingness. Shaun took 3 pics as I tried to organize the giant rope knot that was created by our fast climbing in the dark. With the freezing wind tearing at us we began the search for the 2 rappel anchors that are off of the south edge of the peak. Making our way south as a group all tied together we came to the edge of the ridge. I had been carrying the rest of the rope as a giant knot so I could keep up.
White Sands from the top of Sugarloaf. In the distance you can see headlights on highway 70 driving south-west from the distant Alamogordo (60 miles away). The red light is from our headlamps.
Shaun (self portrait) and Jeremy's freezing face in the background.
Me on the summit and in the dark. Nowhere left to go but down...
Too dangerous to descend it all tied together (as if one person fell - we all would have dragged down our deaths) I forced the other two to stop while I organized the 130 meters of knot in the freezing wind. After coiling the ropes neatly I set up an anchor near some large boulders and steadily fed Shaun rope as he descended. Ten minutes later he radioed that he had found the bolts and that he had us on belay. Shaun pulled in the rope as Jeremy and I down-climbed to his position. Once at the bolts we had a small area where we could sit. I fell in and out of sleep while Shaun rigged the double-rope rappel. Jeremy checked his knots because at this point we were so tired and cold it was hard to form complete sentences, let alone tie the familiar knots needed for climbing. Shaun threw the loose ends of the ropes out against the wind and the blackness. We looked for their ends with our high-beams, but could only see 20ft or so before the darkness swallowed them. Shaun clipped in with his rappel device and slowly made his descent, disappearing from sight. Jeremy and I huddled near our anchors struggling to stay awake in the howling gusts of freezing wind.
Shaun called through the radio that the ropes reached all the way to the ground, and shortly after that Jeremy was on his way down. I sat alone in the dark marveling at the White Sands Missile Range far below. Shaun then radioed that Jeremy had made it down, so I prepared my rappel. After double checking my rap system, because I had no one else to check my work, I slowly and safely made my way down the 200 ft of rope, finally resting on a large flat boulder. I took my climbing shoes off after wearing them for nearly twelve hours and massaged the life back into my cramped feet. My toes welcomed the socks and spacious hiking boots. We sat there eating what was left of the peanut-butter sandwiches while contemplating the new challenge: hiking back to the campground. The book reads: "from the backside follow the obscure trail back around to the base of the slabs" we talked about it, and decided by doing this we could re-unite with the proper trail and hike out relatively easily. I was able to get off a text message to Ashley. Looking back at the message now, it reads " Safe, down the backside finally. 3 hr hike ahead :( we're tired" - the time stamp was 2:50 am.
We pulled the rope down, packed it up, and began our hike out down a steep slope towards the west. We soon came to a steep drop-off where there were another set of rappel bolts, so out came the rope and rappel gear all over again. Thirty minutes later we were all safely down the steep point and on our way back to the trail. Doing our best to hug the mountain on our right we scampered down some steep sections of slab, eventually making our way into some woods. At this point I noticed that Jeremy had gotten pretty far behind Shaun and I, so we sat down to wait for him - immediately falling asleep. Jeremy woke us up and we were on our feet and moving again. The forest gave way to more slab and a stream, which we followed for some time before Jeremy suggested that we take a nap for an hour. So we laid down and were fast asleep. I woke up after probably fifteen minutes due to uncontrollable shivering. I had to get up and keep moving. After waking the others we were all back on our way down the slopes. We came upon a huge boulder with obvious stacked rocks on two ends of it. In our exhaustion we were both united in celebration, and torn in debate. Shaun saw the stacked rocks as a symbol that we were heading in the right direction and should keep following the stream. I saw the twin stacks as a sort of "arrow" to head to the right - following the curve of Sugarloaf, as they were perpendicular to the stream. We re-read the instructions to "follow the obscure trail" and debated a few minutes more before moving on. Whichever way I thought they were "pointing" I will have to find out another day, as the grade was much too steep to return and we continued following the stream... never seeing any stacked rocks after that.
We scrambled down the slopes and trickling streams for another half hour before we came to an impasse. The slope became a sudden vertical drop for 30 meters, with the stream becoming something of a waterfall. With no rappel anchors to be seen, and surrounded on all sides by extremely steep terrain we scrambled back up to a flat spot in a crevice between 2 boulders. I began to notice my headlamp was fading, even on the lowest setting. Jeremy, thoroughly dehydrated at this point, began to fill his Camelbak with the stream water - "sanitizing" it with iodine he had in a first aid kit. The label on the iodine says it expired in 1981 - 2 years before any of us had even been born! I figured I would rather get sick from drinking the water than become dehydrated, so I drank some too. At this point it was 4:30 am. We mulled over our options while shivering and drifting in and out of sleep, finally all agreeing that we should start a fire and get some real sleep. We gathered plenty of dead wood, sticks, and grass. The fire was started easily with the help of a lighter, and we picked our spots around the fire and fell asleep. Down in the crevice I was out of the wind, and slept well with my back up against a boulder and my pack as my pillow.
3-20-2009, Day 3
I awoke in the morning light to find Shaun adding wood to the fire, making it nice and warm. After we all woke up and drank some more stream water along with what little trail mix we could split, we began to asses the situation. We looked out across the valley and were surprised to see just how high we still were, how far the campground looked on the GPS, and how many hills lay between us and safety. Shaun was able to call Ashley on my phone and she was brought up to speed, and told we would be back in an estimated six hours given our condition. That phone call probably saved us from a very embarrassing and expensive helicopter ride - as Ashley was probably ready to call for help after spending all night at base camp alone. We buried the fire and made our way down to the impasse we discovered in the dark a few hours before. There was no way down it. After some searching, I found an alternative that was not as vertical, although still very steep around to the left. After some sketchy down climbing and sliding on my butt I made it down safely with little more than scraped wrists. Shaun followed and seemed to avoid the wrist-scraping. Jeremy began to follow when his pack caught and loosened an 80lb rock. Rather than have the rock come loose behind him and crash down on us all, he climbed up and around it, paralleling our route further down to the left. Safely down, we easily followed the stream-bed, our eyes peeled for any marker signifying where the "obscure" trail crossed the stream. We easily followed the stream, walking in the shade for a few hours before we came upon something that made us excited. There in the dry mud was an obvious boot-print, left God knows how long ago by another person. The prints followed the stream, and we followed the prints. We did this for another hour, making our way down and into the valley. I can't remember when the boot-prints went away, but I do remember when the stream suddenly disappeared into the ground. The stream was clouded by mud and stinking with moss, and we opted not to get a last drink - which turned out to be a bad idea. At this point we had been heading pretty much due north all morning, and needed to head west to get back to the campground. Shaun voted for the route with the least amount of elevation change and we hiked toward and around a large hill.
By now the day had grown hot, and we were all made very aware of our lack of water. To make matters worse we had been hiking in direct sunlight since we left the stream. The bushwhacking was slow, hot, and very thorny. I would pull ahead of the group and try to find shade to sit and wait for them to catch up. We did this slowly for about two hours before we found ourselves facing what we knew was the last hill. We aimed for the lowest point and began to hike up and out of the valley. This is where things begin to get hazy for me. Every ten steps up I would have to stop and catch my breath, my heart struggling to pump my viscous blood through my lungs. My oxygen-deprived brain wasn't thinking, but my legs somehow kept moving one after another up and up. A renewed energy hit us all when we came across a boulder with a stacked-rock marker next to what looked like an "obscure" trail. We followed the trail up for a way, burning up this new-found energy as we followed the rock-markers. We came upon a couple of oak trees, where we stopped for a break.
We sat there in the shade for a good ten minutes before anyone spoke. I was trying to push the other two, telling them that we were not far from the Pine Tree trail. Once on the trail I knew it would be fast and easy hiking until we got back to water. Shaun said that he was having trouble feeling his arms, saying that he couldn't go ten feet before he felt nauseated. Jeremy said he felt the same, and they both decided to cut up and eat a cactus that was there growing out of the rock. Not wanting to eat some damn cactus, I told them I was going to go a few markers ahead - as the trail was difficult to see and I wanted to make sure we didn't loose it in the underbrush. I made it another 30 yards before I lost the trail completely and was up to my hips in thorny plants. I cursed and stood there in the sun, not even sweating anymore, looking at the hilltop that was so close. My heart was pounding in my ears, but my resolve was still strong. I turned back in the direction of the trees and shouted with my dry throat cracking "Im going on ahead to make sure the trail is up there". I didn't hear a reply but continued on anyway, aiming straight for a large tree on the crest of the hill.
The last valley we hiked out of. We came from that small bump off the hill to the right and went right through where the camera is. This was taken right where they ate the cactus.
I tore through the brush and cactus, falling over dead wood, scratching at the crushed granite slopes with my fingers while my feet sank. I was gasping for air through my mouth, my heart nearly beating out of my chest. The tree got closer and closer, and I made one final rest before the last push. About ten yards before the tree I stepped out from the brush onto the wide and well-travelled Pine Tree Trail. In my excitement I shouted down to Shaun and Jeremy: "I've found the trail! Head straight for the tree, it's up here!" A few seconds later I heard Jeremy shout back: "We're coming!"
A few minutes passed before I began to hear the metallic sound of their gear "clinking" as they scrambled up the slope, but could not see them due to the thick brush. I waited patiently for them, before the sound of them hiking dwindled and disappeared. Assuming they had stopped for a break, I laid quietly in the shade of a boulder, and promptly fell asleep in my exhaustion.
Awoken by a buzzing fly, I sat up and wondered how long I had been asleep. Was it one minute or fifteen? I called down the slope to them, and received no reply. I waited a minute before shouting down again - and again all was quiet. I tried my radio, which was now dead and useless. Were they taking a nap? I shouted some more with my dehydrated voice, and heard no response. Confused about the situation I walked back and forth along the hot and exposed trail to try and see through the thick brush before sitting back down in the shade and contemplated what to do.
If they had somehow passed me up, connecting to the trail further down from me, they may have assumed I left them and went for water. They could be hiking back to the camp by now, thinking I was in front of them, and all I am doing is sitting here shouting to nobody while becoming even more dehydrated. They could have also passed out in the shade back at the tree (something not too difficult given our predicament) and are now unable to be aroused by such a distant and weak voice. Even if I went back down the hillside and found them asleep, would I have enough energy to climb back out of this situation? Thinking about how foolish it was to split up I looked down the trail which curved out of sight and into the brush. After thinking it over, I decided to head back to camp. If they were ahead of me, I would catch up to them. If I made it to the tent and they were not there, I would leave all my gear and return with Ashley and all the water we could carry. The decision to go was made, so I stood up and my feet began to move.
Hiking along the trail was easy enough, it was down hill the whole way and wide and flat. Given my condition though, it was quite the cardiovascular challenge. My heart was pounding in desperation to meet my body's demands, churning through my thick blood, and I couldn't seem to catch my breath. My arms began to tingle before turning entirely numb (something I would look up later to indicate the onset of severe dehydration) and my mouth dried out as now I was heaving for air. I couldn't think of anything other than water, and prayed for a stream crossing. I tried stuffing my hands into my pockets, pumping my fists, and even slowing my pace, but I could not bring feeling back into them. I kept my pace though, knowing how important it was to get to some water. It's strange to feel so hot and have no sweat at all. I was thinking about what would happen if I suddenly fainted, and even contemplated sitting down and waiting for a passer-by hiker for help. Little did I know how close help really was.
I followed a curve in the trail and came upon a resting family. The dad saw me, and I must have looked horrible because he asked me if I needed help. Without hesitation I asked them If they have any water, which they gladly gave me. I explained my plight as he opened my camelbak, pouring in a liter of fresh, cool water. I began to drink it before they were even done pouring. I told them that I was with two other climbers, and we had climbed Sugarloaf the day before. They said that two guys had passed them ten minutes earlier. After confirming their description I finished the water and thanked and blessed the family before moving on. I now knew for certain that Shaun and Jeremy had inadvertently passed me up. With the new strength from the water, I pushed on easily back to the campground.
When the camp came into sight, I was relieved to see Jeremy and Shaun. They saw me, and Ashley came running with an ice-cold Gatorade which I promptly drank. I found out that in their desperation Shaun and Jeremy hid their packs under a large boulder back by he oak trees where we had separated. They then hiked out without the added weight and connected with the trail, passing me by accident. We decided to return for the packs in the morning and we broke camp fast to leave for Jeremy's parents' house in El Paso, just a 30 minute drive away. They opened up their house to us, and we decided to stay there the remainder of the trip. I took a long shower and washed off all the dirt - one of the best showers of my life. I had to scrub my feet for five minutes each to exfoliate the skin enough to remove all the dirt! It felt so good to be clean finally. After that we had a delicious steak and chile dinner followed by ice cream with toppings. We all ate till we were too sleepy to eat anymore. Then I was off to bed.
3-21-2009 Day 4
As we left the Organs for the last time.
We then drove to White Sands because it was so close, and had fun taking it easy sinking our sore feet into the cool white sand. Shaun took lots of pictures to make up for the surprisingly few he was able to take of our whole ordeal the day before. We lounged in the sun eating peanut-butter and apple-slice sandwiches. After that we returned to El Paso to stay the last night, organizing our gear in the living room while recounting the trip. After another amazing dinner with home-made refried beans (I always thought they came in a can) we went to bed.
3-22-2009 Day 5
The sun rose and we packed the jeep full with all the gear that had been laid out in the living room the night before. We left for home, switching drivers often enough to make the trip go quick. Home safe and sound, we vowed to do it again under more prepared circumstances - with more water, and on the proper trails.
To be continued, some day...