“I’m gonna drop in this nut and downclimb!” Frozen snow cemented granite into widowmaker piles, a slabby and discontinuous vertical world that, for us, began at daybreak. Wind howling, my bright red frozen hands padded along the lichenous surface. It was a turning point – less than a rope-length from the summit – and the exact moment of my decision to bail with our party of four after an interminably cold day.
“Are you sure?” yelled Laura from our belay tree, who had just watched me scratch up 100 feet with 2 gear placements in the retreating sun.
“Yeah, get them up here,” I replied over the wind, meaning Tedi and Justin, our climbing partners below. They were simulclimbing on our second rope, belayed by Laura. “And watch me as I come down!”
And so began a 12-hour descent into darkness.
It started as a quick desert jaunt to escape the Northeast winter, a week of climbing beginning in Hueco Tanks, TX and ending in Tucson. The plan had us stopping over in Las Cruces, New Mexico, home to the Organ Mountains: remote, alpine, and adventurous. Between the bouldering of Hueco and splitter desert cracks in Arizona, the Organs seemed like a perfect mid-trip adventure, and as a team we decided to take on the North Face of Sugarloaf – an 1800 foot 5.6R slab to the top of the 9000-foot peak.
There wasn’t a ton of data on the route, put up in 1960 by P. Wohlt and J. France, but we did find a few topos and a sufficient-enough route description after digging around online. Seemed like a long adventure at a moderate grade, perfect on the heels of some V-hard thrashings in Hueco.
Las Cruces, New Mexico’s second largest city, is a sprawling border town that has somehow escaped modern cinema as an idyllic backdrop for indie films with its storied avenues and dramatic mountain backdrops. We grabbed a cheap hotel nearby and packed our day gear in the back of our cramped rental. Alarms were set for 5am to get us to the trailhead by 6; we were only two weeks beyond the winter solstice, and knew we had the shorter day working against us.
Our semi-alpine start went accordingly, and after a bleary-eyed coffee stop we pulled into the campground road leading to the trailhead. Our headlights illuminated what would be our first objective: “Winter Hours: Road Open 8am-6pm,” with tire spikes barring entry down the paved road. Our unsuccessful recon led us back into Las Cruces, where we awoke more formally over IHOP pancakes.
7:45 had us back at the entry road – as the hour passed, unseen gnomes unlocked the gate and granted our entry to the eerily empty pavement ahead.
Packs and ropes shouldered, we cast off on foot for the three-mile approach, morning sun casting long shadows in the tall desert grasses. In the distance our objective towered, the apex of which broke the horizon in a sunlit granite bell curve far above the snowy slopes gently angling towards the base. Barring a little backtracking in snowy talus fields, the approach was straightforward and led us to the base in about two hours.
The start of the route would have been simple in the summer months, but we were faced with a few hundred feet of class 3/4 slabs, covered in part by a thick layer of ice and snow. Sensible parties would have brought ice axes or at least microspikes – we had soaking-wet approach shoes and bare hands. Laura and I soloed in our approach shoes, and after about a pitch we dropped a rope down to Tedi and Justin, bringing them up the cold slab to a belay tree.
Here I harnessed up with a small alpine rack and some draws, my pack and climbing shoes still on my back. The first technical challenge was spent navigating a small bergschrund below a roof, with pretty spacey gear placements. As Gunks climbers we were all confident pulling through overhangs, but having to clear one, even low angle, onto a snowy slab with little gear presented the day’s first legit climbing situation.
Much of the route was this way, made much trickier by extended areas of snow and ice veiling the lines of least resistance. Our 5.6 romp was quickly turning out to climb more like 5.10 with all the circumnavigating.
We had originally intended to break up into two teams of two climbers, but conditions dictated I would lead the entire route and Laura would follow each pitch. If I assumed the leader role she took on executive producer, faced with the day’s belay duty: she would put me out on lead while simultaneously bringing up Tedi and Justin on our second rope, offering her little relief between pitches.
I started up pitch four or five, below a huge overhanging corner, which I mistakenly continued up until the crack dissipated into harder terrain. Figuring I was off-route, I downclimbed and started heading across the slab, recalling the topo called for a pretty big traverse at some point and this was likely it.
The climbing was mostly friction, which for the uninitiated is climber-talk for “no holds.” There was the rare rounded knob, aptly called chickenheads, to grab hold of, but mostly it was just hands, feet, and your soul pasted on the featureless rock. The granite offered surprising tack, but even that did little to disarm the fact that I was continually running out the terrain at 50-75 feet between gear placements. One later pitch would be an entire ropelength without gear – a slip would have been a 300-foot fall.
During the long traverse I got off-route, a common occurrence on Sugarloaf according ton online trip reports, and was literally drawing near to the end of my rope. I yelled back to the belay and asked how much I had left, to which a far-away voice answered “25 feet!”
Once 25 became zero, Laura would have to start simul-climbing up behind me on the other end of the rope. Simuling is a technique used for speed in the mountains, with climbers at each end of the taunt rope. As the leader moves, so does the follower, trying to keep the rope as steadily-tensioned as possible, with gear placed in between to arrest falls. But falls here become more consequential, potentially fatal, especially on routes with no gear. Just like the one we were climbing. Conscious of every shift in my weight, I willed my feet to hold purchase on the featureless rock with each breathless move, my climbing shoes hanging helpless still attached to my pack.
I located a thin dike which I followed towards a tree that I hoped I could reach before Laura would have to start climbing. As thin as things had become, I crossed over to the east side of the peak where I met the rays of the sun with gratitude after the freezing morning, leaving the shade in my runout wake.
In the delicate transition from the face to the dike I spied a set of bolts above; the climbing feeling like 5.9 in my approach shoes. With less than 5-feet of rope left I hit the anchor and nearly vomited as a result of fried nerves from the runout – and put Laura on belay.
At this time I had the luxury of having her belayed on 2 ropes to prevent her swing, mine from above/aside and Tedi and Justin’s from below. At least if she peeled the swing wouldn’t be as tragic as mine would have. I called down the directions, and midway I yelled down to have Justin and Tedi put on their climbing shoes.
I was met with a sigh as she reached the anchor, taking her time to pick her way across the face as I had. Tedi and Justin soon followed, all of us happy reinvigorated by the sun’s rays piercing the cold heavy armor of morning we had worn until this point. Composed, I started up again into more runout terrain, and stitched another 2 pitches together with the 70m rope, having to dig into the snow for gear placements. Along the way I navigated a featured corner and recognized a solitary homemade bolt hanger from one of the previous trip reports – thankfully we were back on route. After clipping this it was another long runout to a belay ledge, from where I brought Laura up on a gear anchor.
As near as I can tell, this is where I managed to get off-route with more consequence. The climbing was steeper, and the upper portion had a good deal of snow covering the route. I frictioned and edged through chickenheads and slabs, and ultimately made off left for a slung tree. Arriving back in the wind and shade, I watched the sine-wave peaks off to our east go from full sun to edge highlights – beckoning the arrival of nightfall. Shivering at the belay, I brought Laura up and started thinking of our escape plan.
Looking up it seemed the summit was within a ropelength, but the terrain was broken slabs, vegetation, loose rock, and lots of snow. If we managed to get up there (it was still dusk), we’d have some 4th class navigating in search of the proper rap anchors – all in darkness and strong winds. Midway up the pitch I decided to get the party down, deciding it’d be safer to retreat, even without an established rappel line, than to attempt our dark descent in virgin terrain.
The nut I placed in questionable rock above was staying put as I delicately reversed the 100 feet or so of tense climbing back to Laura and rejoined her at the tree.
“Hurry up – I want to get as far down as we can before dark!” I called to our two followers.
Once they arrived, we swapped out our climbing shoes for the still-wet approach shoes from the morning’s hike, and put on a few extra layers. I think it was the first time I sat all day, and Laura’s first rest.
The tree island we were huddled on was on the west shoulder of Sugarloaf, and had a single piece of webbing on it, indicating another party’s decision to retreat from this point. My plan was to get us down the face, which from the morning I remember as dotted with the occasional tree, and was marginally hopeful in following another’s path. I began down, just as the last remaining light burned off from the sky.
At this point, I had turned on the reserve switch – I knew I had a long night of leading raps ahead, followed by finding and navigating the icy trail – if we made it down that far. But presence overtook me, and I focused on advancing ropelength by ropelength, getting the party down safely. Laura was tasked with prepping Tedi and Justin, both strong climbers but not as experienced with long routes.
From here on it is a blur of rap stations, ranging from full-size trees to slung blocks, shrubs to thickets of alpine saplings. Leading each rap by headlamp was taxing on both nerves and body, and frustrations would quickly rise from our icy breath. Ropes were often tangled, makeshift belays would be in waist-deep snow. We were soaked, freezing, miserable, and a long way from home. At one point I clipped only the tails of two joined ropes together, and was about to rap, until Laura caught my mistake and saved me from dropping over a thousand feet to the base. Accidents happen in moments like these, and mine was a sobering reminder to keep my head on straight.
Once I cleared the ropes and found a suitable rap station Laura would follow; as her headlamp drew closer so was I comforted by her presence, warming frozen limbs and dulling tested nerves. She did all she could in her state to keep me going, and keep Justin and Tedi following safely. At one belay point a shower of softball-sized rocks rained down from above, accidentally dislodged by a team member, and fell to within a bodylength of where I was hanging from a tree.
As the hours went by distant mirages of huge trees would appear, luring me into thinking we were close to the start of the route. We stopped counting rappels after a dozen or so, but moved on with slow and steady progress – the ground is somewhere down there I kept telling myself each time I re-threaded my rappel device. For much of the route I tried to keep a system of rapping a single line, and having Laura follow with the second coiled around her shoulders. This served three purposes: first we always had a spare in the event the line we were rapping got stuck, second it was much easier to manage on the way down, and third we were all kept moving in the freezing night air.
Somewhere after midnight my headlamp’s beam caught more substantial trees – not a mirage this time. That has to be it, I thought, has to the the one to get us to the ground. I at first attempted to reach the beckoning giant with a single rope, but it proved too short.
I skated back and forth across the face looking for suitable trees as a midway anchor but no luck – the rock was bare. I jugged the line and met the crew at the last tree, where we tied the ropes together for a longer rappel in hopes of reaching the big tree below.
I started down, and reached the large tree, instantly shut down by reality as I had been all night. It wasn’t the base, we still had more to go.
The team joined me, and with numb hands I set up another rappel, tossing the ropes into the dark night.
The face was indefatigable to this last moment, and I found myself about 30 feet above solid ground, hanging from the two ropes. Tensioning left and right I could find nothing to rap off of, and looking up I only saw a few shrub islands that didn’t enough inspire confidence as suitable anchors. Below me the slab turned into a cliff, a vertical drop 30 feet straight down to the ground.
I was stuck. There had to be an option, but nowhere within range of my headlamp could I find anything on the face from which to rap.
Looking over one more time I saw another tree, one growing straight up from the ground below. Why not? We rap off trees all the time, and this one was a beast growing straight up from the earth. With no other choice I swung over and built a nest of slings in its thick branches, effectively creating a hanging belay nest midway up the tree. It was thick, but charred from a fire – not a place I wanted to hang around for long. After a lot of bounce-testing, I decided it was solid enough and called up to a nervous team that had been waiting endless minutes to hear from me: “Off rappel!”
Second down was Laura, who met me with disbelief as she tried to figure out what was going on. I put her on an independent anchor and hanging side by side we called up for Tedi and Justin. They met us in the tree, anchored in, and we took turns with the delicate task of pulling the ropes. This was the last place I wanted to get stuck – a clean pull on the ropes was critical. After some coaxing down the lower-angled face and a few threatening moments ,we had a jumble of red and blue cord ensnared in our tree.
We rigged our descent to more gentle terrain. Laura rapped first, and I went last off a double-length sling in the tree, to which I tied an end of the rope, enabling us to retrieve it as we hit the slope below us.
Physically I was tired, but still felt okay. Laura had slipped into mild hypothermia, shaking uncontrollably. It lasted for about an hour or so, and we later attributed it to her lack of calories throughout the day. She warmed eventually, but I kept a watchful eye on my partner – she was my lifeline throughout the long night, and I would do all I could to keep her going. Plus I made a promise to her mother I wasn’t about to go back on…
I had the team leave the harnesses on as we began picking our way down the snow-covered terrain, in parts glissading between trees. The going was extremely slow, and we decided to start rapping again to speed things along. It moved our progress faster, but clearing the ropes down the talus slopes was a nightmare, as was trying to rap in thigh-deep snow pockets between icy boulders. My hands were okay, but feet would come in and out of feeling, and all our clothes were soaked through.
Another four or five raps below the giant tree and we were in familiar-looking terrain, where we began the climb with the solo up icy slabs. One last rap through heavy brush deposited me near a large boulder, on top of which laid a cairn and the promise of the route back to our car three miles away.
By now it had been about 20 hours since we awoke the morning before, we were all fighting fatigue, 20-degree temps, and hunger. Laura had warmed up fortunately, and we started down the trail, moving side by side for the first time in countless hours. Spirits elevated – we were on solid ground – and the trail was looking familiar. Major objective hazards were hurdled – now all we needed to do was keep moving towards the car.
21 hours after they started, four soot-covered and frozen bodies emerged from the woods to hike on solid ground to the car, which blinked twice to welcome us inside.
Every serious climber/mountaineer has experiences like these eventually – for me it was the first I had to lead through. I’ve been up steeper, harder, and higher – but navigating this terrain both up and down was enough to bleed my adrenal glands dry.
Towards the end of the hike back I looked towards the clear and cold heavens and saw the Milky Way hanging high above – sharing that moment with Laura by my side I felt for a second what it means to be alive, and to exercise the power over your existence and lead to moments like these. Being alive, truly alive, charged with frigid breath by the power of my own being.
It’s a feeling that is hard to qualify, extending far beyond the reaches of simple relief, even as I was freed of the colossal weight of anxiety upon my shoulders all day. It is love and it is gratitude; a love for being a part of this greater planet, a wordless love for the companionship I have the fortune to share. The gratitude was for the experience, or maybe the opportunity to have such an experience – confronted by fears and suffering, and to meet it head-on in this grand arena of the alpine.
At that moment, I knew what existence felt like.
The next moment we were back in the car, thermometer reading in the high 20s, and driving back towards dawn.