Border Country: New Mexico's Organ Mountains
I used to say it wasn’t real bushwhacking until you put your helmet on. During my second day of route-finding in the Organ Mountains, I decided it wasn’t real bushwhacking until you also ripped your pants and lost a fully tied approach shoe while battling vegetation.
We had picked perhaps the worst approach possible, heading straight up a gully on the west side of the Organs instead of angling around back. Our path, up Rabbit Ears Canyon, should have taken 2.5 hours—it was the short way, right? With the limited beta available, I’d deduced this was the best way to get to our climb. But it took us 3.5 hours just to find the base—this was without getting lost. It’s easy to feel off-course here, though: There are only a few miles of established trails in this convoluted, 15-mile-long range in southern New Mexico.
It was like no human had ever tried to move on foot through these mesquite and creosote bushes. I felt it (ripping at my clothes, shoes, and skin), heard it (branches snapping), and tasted it (wind blowing dust into my mouth). But when we finally found our route, Orgy (5.6), on a spire called ORP, we quickly forgot about the bushwhack. Five pitches of fun moves on high-quality granite led us to a summit with a view of the entire range, the jagged pinnacles looking like Chamonix, sans glaciers.
Our experience was apparently par for the course, as I found out when I emailed local climber Marta Reece the next day.
“I do find it sort of amusing that you got to do what we call ‘organeering,’” Reece wrote. “It would not have been the full Organ Mountains experience without it.”The author downclimbs to the rappel station after summiting Sugarloaf.
There’s not a lot of info out there for the Organ Mountains, a range 10 miles east of Las Cruces and about a 90-minute drive from Hueco Tanks in Texas. But if you glanced up from Las Cruces and saw the 26 granite peaks and spires packed into the six miles of publicly accessible terrain in the range, as I did when bicycling through New Mexico three years ago, you’d tell yourself there has to be climbing up here. And there is. Probably a lifetime’s worth—much of it unexplored.
Las Cruces doesn’t really have a climbing scene. There’s no climbing store, or even a regular gear shop. Outdoor Adventures, a bike shop, has a few ropes and carabiners in the back. There’s no climbing gym, besides a wall at New Mexico State University. Local climbers aren’t easy to find, especially in the Organs; in five days of climbing, we didn’t see another hiker, let alone a climber. Apparently, few of Las Cruces’ outdoor enthusiasts have much interest in technical terrain in the mountains. The more climber-centric New Mexico towns of Taos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque are at least three hours away, with a surfeit of easily accessed and fun rock climbing.
But there are lines of sorts in these mountains: months worth of established routes, and years of untouched granite—an optimist might imagine the Organs as a smaller, drier Tetons. By and large, the rock is clean, solid granite, albeit with the typical loose flakes and blocks of relatively unclimbed terrain. A guide to the area exists only online (I heard the NMSU library has a hard copy) and was penned in the 1960s by R.L. Ingraham, who climbed and explored fervently in the ’50s and ’60s. Ingraham wrote, “I myself have been told many times by old-timers and other townsfolk that ‘you can’t get into them mountains,’ that ‘no one has ever been on top of them’ and so on.”
Ingraham went on to put up more than 70 routes all over the Organs. The grading system in his guidebook is as follows: “easy fifth” means up to 5.4, “medium fifth” means 5.5 to 5.7, and “high fifth” means 5.8 and harder.Hilary Oliver and the author enjoy a leisurely breakfast at the Aguirre Springs Campground.
Ingraham’s Organ Mountains were a mostly untouched playground. But after the early exploration by Ingraham and a few contemporaries, climbing never took off here the way it did in other areas. Local climber Aaron Hobson says the Organs went through its own “golden age of mountaineering,” during which all the peaks, between 6,500 and 8,900 feet, were summited and a handful of additional routes went up, from one to 10 pitches. Now, Hobson says, “There’s so much out there that hasn’t been done, or it hasn’t been done for a long time. You go out and you might be the first person who’s done [a route] in 30 years. You always feel like you’re pioneering.”
Hobson, a chemical engineer for NASA who moved to Las Cruces from New Hampshire in 2006, relishes the exploration of his backyard range: finding a summit register with a single signature on it, or starting up what he thinks is the first ascent of a 5.7, only to find a couple of old pins on the route.
“If you’re comfortable on low fifth-class terrain, you can go all over the Organs,” Hobson says. “My favorite things in this range are not really the routes, but the mountaineering aspect and feel of it, hitting all these little remote peaks.” It’s possible to scramble or climb between many of the summits, although a full traverse of the range would require plenty of rappels and 5.9 climbing.
Hobson says that though the local population is a little less outdoor recreation–oriented than a lot of places with mountain ranges 10 miles from downtown, that might be a good thing.
“There are some loose rock, no good approaches, and no good way to get people out if you get hurt,” he says. “Fortunately, not many people get hurt because not very many people go up there.” But those who enjoy more unknown than known and those who dream of accessible adventure climbing will find it here.
There are a few semi-developed crags and a handful of somewhat well-traveled routes in the dusty Organs. The West Ridge (5.8) of the Citadel, the West Ridge (5.7) of the Wedge, and several routes on the Tooth see plenty of traffic. One of the more popular areas, the Southern Comfort Wall, hosts a dozen one- to two-pitch traditional routes at the end of a mere one-hour approach, mostly on an old road. Improved trails lead to the most-traveled crags, but they sometimes still require a little bushwhacking.
One of the true gems of the Organs is Sugarloaf, an enormous dome sitting on the backside of the range, invisible from Las Cruces. It’s unlike the rest of the peaks in these mountains: a round-topped ghost of white granite that could have been plucked out of Tuolumne and dropped here. The classic out-of-towner route is the 1,800-foot North Face (5.6+ R), a romp with 50- to 60-foot runouts most of the way up. Sugarloaf sports nine routes, some good, some a little dangerous if you don’t have a solid idea of where the route goes. Many bolts are worth checking before clipping (some are old quarter-inchers), but when you’re on-route, the pro is generally solid.Leonard tackles the middle pitches of the North Face (5.6+ R) of Sugarloaf.
We climbed the first three pitches of Left Eyebrow, a 5.7 on the west face, and thrashed over to the North Face after rappelling off the Left Eyebrow’s fabulous, less-than-vertical, 250-foot fist crack-—climbing so good that you fantasize about jamming all the way to the top of Sugarloaf.
Twice we stood on the summit of Sugarloaf in the golden light of a late April afternoon, and I thought of the crowds on Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne or the First Flatiron in Boulder. We had the summit and the views of the east side of the Organ Mountains, the rolling San Andres Mountains, and the glowing White Sands National Monument in front of us. We probably had the whole range to ourselves. I couldn’t help but feel like there should be more people here.
The tough and scrappy Marta Reece is one of the few regulars in the Organs: She’s 62 years old and wanted to learn to climb only three years ago, when her husband passed away. The problem? It was hard to find climbing partners in a city with a climbing community as small as the one in Las Cruces. Plus, she says, “When you’re 59, female, and look like you’re 30 pounds overweight, people don’t tend to take you climbing.”
After moving to Las Cruces in 1994, Reece spent weekends hiking around the Organs; the terrain often treaded into fourth- and fifth-class and required a rope, which she always brought with her. For five years, she scoured the landscape, realizing she wanted to explore technical climbing. She joined the Organ Mountain Technical Rescue Squad, the best way to come across climbers in town. She met a few, convinced them to take her out, and studied how to place trad gear on her own. She started to find other climbers on Mountain Project, and she’s now ticked 40-plus named routes in the Organs and even established a few “adventure climbs” in the past five years.
Reece teaches at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and spends her weekends climbing or on search-and-rescue missions. Her enthusiasm for the Organs is obvious as she catalogs its nuances: The ratings are all over the place. Rappels can be off scary anchors. It’s windy in the spring. There are rattlesnakes. The bushwhacking is so stout that sometimes it’s best to crowd-surf the bushes.
“The Organs are so untouched in places that you run into things you normally do not find anywhere else,” she says. “You can find a solid, good-size oak tree, but then you grab it and it’s like papier mâché. You find stuff like that because there are no large animals and no people. I find anchors I left eight years ago.”
Reece describes the time she blew through a “dirt cornice” on a descent, stepping on what she thought was solid ground between a gully wall and a chockstone, only to discover it was dirt that had blown up the gully from below as her foot shot through it. Fortunately, she emerged relatively unscathed.
“Take it seriously,” she says. “It’s backcountry. It may be near town, but it’s backcountry.”Leonard on Glad We Came (5.9), the Citadel.
Organ Mountains Hit List
Orgy (5.6, 5 pitches), ORP
A great introduction to climbing in the Organs—a two- to 2.5-hour approach to varied pitches. Sheltered on windy days.
North Face (5.6+ R, 9 to 11 pitches), Sugarloaf
A fun but runout lark up slabs and knobs to the summit of Sugarloaf, with a few bolted belays. Bring two ropes to rappel.
Left Eyebrow (5.7 R, 8 to 9 pitches), Sugarloaf
A 250-foot hand-to-fist crack on pitches two and three is the standout. Route-finding up top can be problematic; instead, finish on the North Face route after the third pitch.
West Ridge (5.7, 5 pitches), the Wedge
Fun fact: The first ascensionist was none other than Royal Robbins. Reece says, “The line is as sharp as the edge of a brick in some areas. And you go on climbing one false peak after another—basically one peak per pitch.”
West Face (5.7, 4 pitches), Middle Rabbit Ear
It looks stout, but it takes the path of least resistance to the summit. “I suppose one could make it go at 5.7 the whole way, if one were perfect at route-finding in a wavy, broken, often-obscured sea of granite,” Reece says. “It’s a challenging climb.”
West Ridge (5.8, 4 pitches), the Citadel
Lots of wandering and route-finding keep this one at 5.8, which is fairly typical in the Organs. The summit register has entries going all the way back to the first ascent of the Citadel (copied by hand from the originals in 1975).
Gertch’s Folly (5.8, 5 pitches), Gertch
Originally rated 5.7 by R.L. Ingraham when he climbed it in the 1960s, this exposed route’s crux comes on the triple roofs on the last pitch—long reach and a strong head help. Plenty of people say it should be rated 5.9.
Tooth Fairy (5.9, 4 pitches), the Tooth
Sustained climbing up an aesthetic line. “The consensus is 5.10, and I’d go with that,” Reece says. “There are some awkward moves and some reaches, but most of the difficulty lies in very small holds, including a sideways transition into a shallow finger crack.”
Tooth or Consequences (5.10, 5 pitches), the Tooth
This shares the first two pitches with Tooth Fairy, and then heads up sustained 5.10a terrain for the last three pitches. “The bolts are generously spaced,” Reece says. “It’s climbed less than the Tooth Fairy, since it’s considerably more committing, but it’s definitely a classic.
Science Friction (5.11, 4 pitches), Sugarloaf
It’s almost all “upper-5.10 slab so clean it looks perfectly smooth to the uninitiated,” Reece says. It’s intimidating but “a classic climb, and the rock is as good as ever.” Atop pitch four, join Left Eyebrow or North Face to the top.
A typical approach scene unfolds in the Organs: slogging along Topp Hut Road for a few hot hours under a cloudless sky.
Get there: The Organs are 10 miles east of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The nearest major airport is El Paso, Texas, 45 miles south. Sugarloaf: From the intersection of US 70 and I-25 in Las Cruces, drive 14.5 miles east on US 70. Turn right onto Aguirre Springs Road and follow it 6.2 miles, through the campground, and turn right into the large paved parking lot for the group sites—trail is on the south side. The Tooth and the Wedge: From University Avenue and I-25 in Las Cruces, drive 8.8 miles east on Dripping Springs Road, and then turn right onto Baylor Canyon Drive; take it for 1.4 miles. Turn onto the first dirt road on the right; drive 0.3 miles to the first road on the right. Go as far as you can, or park and walk up the road.
Camping: BLM Aguirre Springs Campground is first-come, first-served with pit toilets and water; $7/night, blm.gov.
Food: The Las Cruces area is rife with legit Mexican restaurants; Miguel’s serves inexpensive sit-down meals, has an extensive salsa bar, and is open later than many other local restaurants. In La Mesa, Chope’s Bar and Café is a local favorite, with four-star chile rellenos and enchiladas.
Guidebook: R.L. Ingraham’s 1960s guide is online at web.nmsu.edu/~amato/ingrahamguide. The most up-to-date beta is on mountainproject.com (including descent info). A short section in Dennis Jackson’s Rock Climbing New Mexico covers a few areas in the Organ Mountains ($30, falcon.com).
Season: February through April, and September through November. Summers are brutally hot. Climbing is possible in December and January, but snow often covers many of the peaks.