Organ Needle, Organ Peak, Sen Agustin Peak
By: Bob Michael
Fugueing Around in the Organs
The Organ Mountains east of Las Cruces, New Mexico, beckoned us from snowy Boulder this past New Year's week. As it turned out, winter followed hard on our heels, and we didn't go far south enough. But, the minor nuisance of new snow on the routes was far surpassed by the dazzling magnificence of the craggy, Organs in en unexpected robe of white.
The city of Las Cruces has surely the most spectacular of all desert ranges in the country in its backyard - truly a desert Chamonix of towers, aiguilles, and stark granite talons rising four to five thousand feet above the town. This awesome section of the Organs, carved out of a granite intrusive, is called the "Needles". Most of the spires in this group would be of limited interest to peak-bagger...types, as the easiest routes are still fifth class. Luckily, the highest, Organ Needle (8,990'), is third' class. We climbed two other fine peaks in the range, Organ Peak (8,860') and Sen Agustin Peak (7,025").
Driving down from Santa Fe on Tuesday before New Year's, we had time in the afternoon before sundown for a quick bag of San Augustin (Organ 7-1/2' quad) from San Augustin Pass (5720'), where the highway to. Alamogordo Crosses the north end of the Organs.. This delightful little peak, a mile north of the pass, has a non-trivial granite dome for its summit. The peak goes most easily on its southeastern side, where some easy, bushy third class puts you on a little eastern buttress which leads to the top.
Next day we climbed Organ Peak (Organ Peek 7-1/2' quad) in a terrific windstorm which blew the roof off a church in El Paso. The trip is about 8 miles RT and took us 7 hours.. The roadhead area ("Heyner Resort" on the topo map) is privately owned but the proprietors are only too happy to let you wander around at a fee of $1.50 per-car. From the ranch house one hikes north over a low divide to enter Fillmore Canyon. It's fairly bushy going around a deeply entrenched waterfall.. In fact - if I may digress for a moment - the Organs are surely the brushiest desert peaks I have ever experienced. With the sole exception of the jumping-type chollas, every conceivable variety of stabbing, slashing, sticking, clawing, and' jabbing vegetable is right at home there.
After the waterfall is passed, it's possible to drop into Fillmore Canyon, which is pretty good going all the way to the base of Organ Peak. At 6-7000' the cactus and thornscrub lifezone is supplanted by savannah grassland with live oak and magnificently big alligator-bark Juniper. Above 7,000', scattered stands of Ponderosa mixed with Douglas fir appear. Unfortunately, another component of this forest ecotone, is oak-brush, which forms the "upper brush zone" of the Organs, a non-thorny but fiercely tangled mass of branches which often must be just muscled through. At 6,760', the main Fillmore Canyon is left, and the route turns up a side canyon to the north through an overhanging rock gateway called the "Narrows" on the topo map. This canyon is followed to the NW base of Organ Peek. Any of several steep spurs can be climbed to the north ridge of the peak, whence a struggle over, under, around, and through the oakbrush brings you to the summit. The wind nearly blew us off the top; otherwise, it would have been a great place to relax and enjoy the view, especially that of the Organ Needle, which looked very much like the Crestone Needle in the Sangre de Cristos from that angle.
The scudding angry clouds visible ,on the northern horizon developed overnight into a cold snowstorm on New Year's Day. The hardier souls ventured out for a climb of Baylor Peak, 7721', a minor non-technical summit of the northern Organs. The next day dawned clear and cold (17°), with a couple inches of snow in Las Cruces. The Interstate to El Paso was closed to all vehicles without chains because of heavy icing. About noon, the ice melted off, and charged with energy from a case of mass cabin fever, we went out to knock off Squaw Peak (6820'), a minor summit accessible from the Heyner Resort. The rough cactusy scramble up the north ridge gave us tremendous views of Organ Needle and its companions, a wild array of snow-slathered pinnacles glittering against the cold hard blue of the sky. Although it was obvious that much snow had fallen high up, already the desert sun was melting the south-facing slabs clean. We decided right then that we would go for the Needle tomorrow.
The next morning, after again enriching the local economy with our "admission fee", we headed for Fillmore Canyon. The route goes up from the canyon to the base of the Needle towards some prominent pinkish-yellow rocks low down on the peak. Here, we made a serious mistake. Instead of keeping to the broad, fairly open shoulder to the south, we went up the steep side gully which drains the SW flank of the Needle. Immediately we were confronted with a hellish array of vicious vegetation. A species of maguey agave forms thick clumps of bristling lances with surgically sharp points backed up by heavy, fleshy nonbending leaves. This plant is famous in local climbing circles as a knee-killer. We were warned about the possibility of running one of those points up under the knee cap. This can puncture the fluid sac which cushions the knee joint and more or less retire a climber. However, it was not the agave but a thicket of Torrey yuccas, aptly named Spanish Bayonet, that drew first blood. One of us was stabbed perilously close to the eye, which made us decide we had better wear our sunglasses - for eye protection! Completing the picture are head-high cholla, and little mammileria cacti, growing on holds, that go unnoticed - until too late.
We cussed and ouched our way up the southwest ravine, staying on the south side on ledges, cactus, and sliderock, until we came out at a broad saddle at 7,700'. From here, the route takes advantage of a concavity on the SW face of the peak, up granite ramps and vegetated slopes covered with live oak and bayonets, to a shadowy, steep, sheer-walled cleft with the fitting name of Dark Canyon. More cussing ensued as we wormed our way through the thick oakbrush which jams the cleft, in a foot of snow. (Incidentally, do not expect any help from the USGS quad in finding the upper part of the route. The contour lines are an inchoate mess. I sure would like to know what gave the Survey the idea to put some of the roughest country in the Southwest on 20-Foot contours!
Dark Canyon tops out at a narrow col. From here, the best route descends 50 or so vertical feet on the east side. The upper-third-class route up the summit tower is obvious on the left. The sunny granite holds were a joyous deliverance after the cold, snow, and brush of Dark Canyon.
We stepped out onto the pinnacle of the Needle, and looked across at the rockclimber's Valhalla of granite to the north. The glory of the view was well worth our acquired cholla spines and prickly pear prickles. For those with leather hides, there's a lifetime of beautiful climbing in the Organs.
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