The Organ Mountains are situated in southern New Mexico about 15 miles east of the town of Las Cruces. The range, about 20 miles long and running roughly north-south, falls into two distinct parts. The southern part is composed of a number of dispersed and isolated peaks, mainly rhyolite, going up to 9000 feet, and the high ridges connecting them, bush-overgrown to their tops, typical desert mountains. The shorter northern part, with which this climbing guide will be exclusively concerned, is composed of a palisade of spectacular granite needles. The bare rock caps rise usually many hundreds and often a thousand feet or so from their bushy flanks.They culminate in the Organ Needle, which, at 9000 feet, looms a clear mile over the town. The rock is granitic, mainly a solid quartz monzonite. The separate peaks, about twenty of them, lie roughly in a linear chain some 8 miles long. They resemble the Chamonix Aiguilles (on a smaller scale) or, better, parts of the Dolomites much more than any desert mountains in the West; their presence here usually comes as a complete surprise to any mountain-wise traveler (certainly they did so to the author when he first arrived in this part of the country).
The history of climbing in the Organs is soon told. The first recorded ascent of any part of the (northern) Organs was by one Charles Ames, who reached a low point on the main Ridge in the vicinity of what is now called E Faces Pass on May 19, 1891. His account in Appalachia (Charles Ames, "Ascent of the Organ Mountains, N.M.", Appalachia, Boston, vol. 6, pp. 289 - 302), in the style of deSaussure, gives a vivid picture of the horrors of Organ bush as seen by one conditioned to the sybaritic ease of the Alps. (The following quotation from Ames shows that he, like most other prophets of mountaineering, was a bad prophet. He says, in part, "…I firmly believe that the ascent is hardly possible save in the place where I accomplished it, and I think the very summits are quite unattainable, for they are sharp and steep shafts of stone, which afford no foothold whatever.")
There are fragmentary records and local hearsay which affirm that certain students of the (then) A and M College climbed the Organ Needle and the Rabbit Ears Plateau, two of the very few Organ peaks with walk-up routes, between 1900 and 1910; little San Agustin was probably climbed at or before this time, too. Technical climbing began only in the late 1940's, with some ascents by a group of German rocket scientists brought here to work at the White Sands Proving Grounds directly after the fall of Germany. They are called locally the "paper clip Germans" - the story goes that a large paper clip, placed in some significant way on their dossiers, was the code signal to the Allied administrators after the War that they were to be cut out of the flock and shipped to America. In 1955 a group of local mountaineering enthusiasts banded together into a climbing club, which was briefly called the "Tularosa Climbing Club" before it took its present name of "The Southwestern Mountaineers". From then on technical climbing went on apace, until today there are at least several routes up every peak. Nevertheless, compared to the intensive going-over that superior rock climbing areas get in the East or in California or in well-advertised parts of the West like the Tetons, the Organs are almost virgin territory. There are a great number of routes left up there! So much for history.
It is odd that such a grade-A climbing area should have remained unclimbed until so late, and even today remain so little known, in a country which is not oversupplied with rock climbing centers. The reasons are several. First of all, as is usual in unspoiled areas, the native-born are oblivious of the beauty and value which they have by birthright. Alpinism is an exotic bloom which flourishes in far away Europe, the East, and California - heavily populated areas - which has not really had time yet to take root in the Old West. (And the Southwest is the last stronghold of the Old West.) The situation here is roughly like that of Switzerland around 1850, just before the advent of English climbers. It takes a crazy "foreigner" from outside Las Cruces to entertain the incomprehensible notion of getting up into that hostile high country of granite needles. Hence you will be able to buy no alpenstocks along the Main Street of Las Cruces, and will listen in vain for a pair of old-timers discussing the latest routes up the East Faces. Added to this natural indifference of natives you have the special reason that the Organs have always enjoyed the reputation of being inaccessible. Ames was told this when he first arrived in 1891; the "paper clip" scientists were, I am sure, assured that the Organs were absolutely impregnable and kindly urged to abandon their folly. 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. In addition, one picks up all sorts of helpful hints and advice: the location of nonexistent torrents which gush from rocky summits and other natural wonders, the sites of lost gold mines, the best way to avoid being eaten by mountain lions, etc. And indeed, the Organs are difficult terrain, steep, bushy, and without discernible trails (that is, to the uninitiate).
The peaks form roughly a linear chain and so are conveniently numbered here consecutively, from the Needle at the southern end to San Agustin at the northern end. Sugarloaf, #22, forming a splendid exception out-of-series, is numbered last. The two sides of this mountain chain are conventionally called the East and West Sides. Actually, the Organs run more NW-SE so that the semi-north facing "East Side" is more heavily forested, the rock walls ( which are generally higher and steeper than those of the West Side) are battleship grey in color, due to their spotty coat of silver-grey lichens. The "West Side", inclining toward the sunny south, is generally yellow or pink in hue, the color of good bare granite, chiselled looking, with patches of vivid ochres due to another variety of lichen. The changing colors of the Organs, in various lights and weathers, are marvelous to see. This is the country of light.
Much of the longer route descriptions are taken up with a detailed description of the approach. This is necessary in the Organs, where the approaches are generally long (perhaps 2.5 hours on the average), over complicated topography, with no trails or only those recognized by the practiced eye. The approaches generally go up "welts", which, for want of a familiar name, is what we call the gently inclined whaleback ridges of soil mixed with rock and sparsely covered with desert bush which rise from the desert floor and finally abut on the steep rocky flanks of the mountain proper.
In the descriptions the routes leave from two jumping off places: the Cuevas and Topp Hut. They serve respectively the southern branch from the Needle up to Wildcat (as well as the many walking routes in the southern Organs, which cannot be covered here) and the northern branch, embracing Razorback to San Agustin. To get to the Cuevas, a prominent yellow rock at the foot of the Organs some 250 feet high, drive east on the extension of University Avenue in University Park for some 12 miles, then turn off left for a hundred yards or so and park near the Cuevas. To get to Topp Hut, take Route 70 from Las Cruces east toward Alamogordo, turn off after some 10 miles through Butterfield Park, and continue on the dirt road east to the old Isaacks ranch. The road swerves to the southeast; follow it to a gate, 100 feet beyond this gate there is another gate on the left. (This may be locked; permission to pass through must be sought at the ranch. ) Beyond this gate a fairly good road, suitable for jeep, pickup, or hardy stock car wends northeast for about 1.5 miles to Topp Hut, formerly a miners' dormitory in the heyday of mining in the Organs. Topp Hit is infrequently used by the Southwestern Mountaineers as a clubhouse, bivouac, or picnic site. It was named for Bernard Topp, who was killed on Shiprock. Park here. Or, for some routes it is better to continue on the road above Topp Hut for about 1.5 miles to the Mine. (Again, permission must be sought from the miner to park there.)
All climbs in the Organs, with negligible exceptions, are one day climbs. The following is standard equipment: rope (150 feet is best), climbing shoes (better than boots in the Organs), sturdy but light pants (no alpine tweeds), light windbreaker, light sweater, 1 quart canteen of water (2 in the summer months or for those unused to the Organs), flashlight, small snake-bite kit with tourniquet, gloves, food, hardware. In the winter or early spring, a cap which can be pulled down to cover the ears, and an extra sweater or perhaps a down jacket. For food, light things like hard candies, candy bars, jerky, small cans of beans or meat preparations, cold meats are good. Best of all is a number of oranges or small cans of juice. As for hardware, the best pitons for the Organs are short thin spoons and angle pitons up to medium size "bong-bongs". Organ cracks are sparse and tend to bottom out, especially on north sides. But carry a reasonable assortment. There are a few pitons the Organs simply don't take - mainly very long horizontal and most vertical pitons.
In this book I have used the local grading system, which assigns a number and then prefixes "low", "medium", or "high" to 4th and 5th class routes. Climbing here has not yet been intensive enough, or become enough of an exact science, to justify a more elaborate classification. The climb is graded according to the difficulty of its hardest pitch. There is no numerical indication of the "overall difficulty" (as in the NCCS for example); I've tried to indicate this in the text. As far as I can tell, the grading system in this book corresponds roughly to the California system, and exceeds the Teton system by, say, half a unit. Our ratings should be interpreted as follows: "easy fifth" = up to 5.4, "medium 5th" = 5.5 to 5.7, and "high fifth" = 5.8 and above. From this, the knowledgeable can deduce its relation to the NCCS and the European system. The times given for the various routes are those for two good, but not exceptional, men from the start of the approach to the summit. "Left" and "right" in the route descriptions refer to a climber facing the mountain.
There are a number of delightful walks in the southern Organs, to Sugarloaf, Organ Peak, Victory Peak, Organ Baldy, Little Annapurna, or into Ice Canyon to the ruins of the old resort hotel at Dripping Springs, or up Soledad Canyon. Some of these require permission from the rancher who owns the land or from Fort Bliss. In this little book we will not have time to go into these. These may not appeal to all - it may be that it takes a special mentality to appreciate the beauties of desert mountains, so different from, say, the lush green carpeting of rain forest areas. The beauty of the Organs is austere and Apollonian. Not for nothing do they appear on old Spanish maps as la Sierra de la Soledad ("the Mountains of Solitude"). Around here no rain and blizzard wash away the works of man in a few brief years. Things endure - only the omnipresent sun, which penetrates everywhere, gnaws imperceptibly away on the time scale of eternity. As it was for thousands of years before Ames set his foot on the inviolate mountain, and as it will be for thousands of years after the ultimate direttissima will have been forced up the E Face of the Needle, these amazingly sharp ridges and pinnacles will hover, electrically sharp, over the Great River, against the perfect blue of the New Mexican firmament.
For the careful typing of this manuscript I am very indebted to Barbara Goedecke - no stranger to the Organs, she.
This Guide was written in the late Sixties, with some minor additions and corrections since then. The reader should naturally be aware that this Guide is not up-to-date. For new routes added since the original work, the reader is referred to other websites or articles and publications in the mountaineering literature.
It has been my very distinct priviledge to have been able to adapt this Guide for use on the Internet. It was a joy to read through the descriptions of routes we climbed almost 50 years ago! We have added maps, sketches, and pictures, where possible, but have not touched the original text other than to provide linkages.
In keeping with the spirit of this project, most of the pictures used date from the late Fifties, and we are indebted to Bill Martin for the use of many of his excellent slides. We would also like to thank Dr. Jeffrey Amato at NMSU for his assistance in the posting of this material.