Trip ReportNM - North Face of Sugarloaf
A bit long and written for mixed audiences, excuse the verbosity, my first go at a TR...
The Gates of Dawn
"I'm gonna drop in this nut and downclimb!" The rock was slabby, loose, and covered in parts with ice and frozen snow. Wind blowing strongly, my frozen hands padded bright red along the lichenous surface. It was a turning point, less than a rope-length from the summit – and the exact moment of the decision to bail with our party of four after an interminably cold day.
"You sure?" yelled Laura from our belay tree, who had just watched me scratch up 100 feet with 2 gear placements in the fading sun.
"Yeah, get them up here," I replied over the wind, meaning Tedi and Justin, who were being belayed by Laura. They were simulclimbing on the same rope, belayed by Laura. "Watch me as I come down!"
And so began a 12-hour descent into darkness.
It began as a quick jaunt to the desert, a week of climbing planned between Hueco and Cochise, to escape the cold NY winter. Planning the trip I saw an opportunity to get some climbing done in New Mexico as our route to Arizona would take us through the state, passing directly through Las Cruces, which after some research I discovered was home to the Organ Mountains: remote, alpine, and adventurous. Seemed like a great stop along the way, and as a team we decided on the North Face route 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 on mountainproject.com. Seemed like a long adventure at a moderate grade, perfect on the heels of some V-hard thrashings in Hueco.
We left after a few days of bouldering to get on some long routes further west, with Sugarloaf our first stop. Las Cruces, New Mexico's second largest city was a sprawling bordertown - 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.
The semi-alpine start went accordingly, and after a 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. Unsuccessful recon led us back into Las Cruces, where we woke up 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 road.
The morning sun had illuminated the trail and backlit the waist-high fields of high desert grass in postcard fashion. We set off on the snow-covered trail towards our towering objective miles away, the apex of which broke the horizon in a granite bell curve. The trail was relatively easy to follow until near the base, until about an hour and a half in we got off route in the snow-covered talus. Some backtracking remedied the error and we were standing at the route proper within 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. Laura and I climbed 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 spacy gear placements. Coming from the Gunks we were all no stranger to roofs, but having to clear one, even low angle, onto a snowy slab with little gear presented a legit climbing situation out of easier terrain. Pulling through on lead took some focus to avoid the snow and find good holds delicately. Following up behind, Justin didn't manage as well - he peeled and bounced into the snow. He's a strong dude (leads 12s on sport), shows what kind of shape the route was in.
Much of the route was this way, made much trickier by extended areas of snow and ice veiling the route proper.
Laura was faced with the day's belay duty: she would put me out on lead, then bring up Tedi and Justin on the same rope, barely giving her chance to rest between pitches. As I started up pitch 4 or 5, I was below a huge beautiful 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 at this point was mostly friction, with the rare chickenhead to grab hold of, most of which were rounded. The granite offered surprising friction, but even that did little to disarm the fact that I was continually running out the terrain at 50-75 feet between placements. I got promptly lost, a common occurrence on this route, and was nearing having to have Laura start simuling up behind me - nothing I was looking forward to with the nauseating runout between me and the last cam I placed 20 minutes prior on my extended routefinding expedition.
I located a thin dike, and followed the path of least resistance towards a tree, which I hoped I could reach before having Laura start up behind me. As thin as things had become, midway in the traverse I crossed over to the east side of the peak, where I met the rays of the sun with gratitude after the freezing morning.
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 from my nerves being fried 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, after taking her time to pick her way across the face as I had. Tedi and Justin soon followed, all of us happy to have the sun for a while. I started up the next pitch, more of the same runout climbing, to stitch another 2 pitches together with the 70m, including a dug-out #1 placement in the snow. Along the way I navigated a featured corner and recognized a solitary homemade bolt hanger from one of the previous trip reports - thankful 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 slab, 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 to do in search of the proper rap anchors - all in darkness and strong winds. Midway up the pitch I decided to get the party down, and had them prepare for the rappels.
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 fled 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 to it. 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 experienced climbers but with not as many long routes under their belts as Laura and me.
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 the nerves and body, as the low angle had the ropes tangled despite efforts to use rope sling baskets. At one point I clipped only the tails of two joined ropes together, and was about to rap, until Laura caught my mistake - she saved my life. 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 each suitable rap station she would follow, and as her headlamp drew nearer I was comforted by her presence, warming frozen limbs and dulling fried 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.
Four or five hours later my headlamp (actually Justin's - I borrowed his because it was far more powerful than mine) caught site of some pretty tall trees below. I felt we must be nearing the base of the steep face by their presence, and had hoped to rap one to the 3rd class terrain at the start of the route. I at first attempted this with a single rope, but it proved too short. For much of the route I tried to keep a system of rapping a single line, and having Laura follow with the second. 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.
I skated back and forth across the face looking for suitable trees, but no luck. Ice slabs 40 feet across took some effort to traverse - I ultimately resorted to a tension swing to reach some of the trees, but the rope was far too short. I jugged the line and met the crew at the last tree, where we tied the ropes together for hopefully one final rappel to the base.
I started down, and reached the large tree. Calling down, I realized we still had more vertical terrain to cover, and after Justin and Tedi pulled the ropes as they had been doing all night, I rapped the final tree to what I had hoped would put me on solid ground. The face was indefatigable, 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 from which to rappel. Below me the slab turned into a cliff, a vertical drop 30 feet straight down.
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 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. The 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 where the ropes got caught up, we had a jumble of red and blue cord ensnared in our tree.
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 were soaked through.
I'd estimate it took another 4-5 raps to get to familiar looking terrain over 3 hours, 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, 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 together as a group 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.
2-3 hours of hazy hiking through snow brought us back to the trailhead, all of us diligent in our tired state not to lose the trail.
Dirty, soot-covered, cold, exhausted our four 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. And although I was first, we were all together as a team, reliant upon each other. I needed each team member as they needed me. Towards the end of the hike back I looked towards the clear and cold heavens and saw the Milky Way for the first time in my life - 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 drawn 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 relieved from 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 more correct 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 net moment we were back in the car, thermometer reading in the high 20s, and driving back towards dawn.
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