Skunked in the Organ Mountains

February 29, 2024.

9.7 mi. | 2650′ ele. gain | 6 hrs.

Photo album

In the spirit of Hike366, I knew I couldn’t miss hiking on leap day. It only comes around every four years, and even though I’d already done a hike on February 29 for my project, I was excited to get another one.

I scoured the map and reached out to a friend in the area to get some ideas for what I could do, without any technical gear and starting from a campsite. I settled on Nordspitz, which is a local name for one of the many blobs on the main ridgeline in the Organ Mountains. I’d been in the area once before and remember drooling over all the spires, faces and canyons in this impressive range. I packed for a full day.

When I left the parking lot, the mountains were so socked in with clouds I couldn’t see any terrain features in front of me. I hoped that the weather would clear in a few hours, so I put my head down and headed up the trail. The desert vegetation, glistening in the recent moisture, formed a beautiful backdrop for my hike. Cows grazed between the towering sotol and yucca.

Once I reached the saddle near Baylor Peak, it was quite windy and still very much still cloaked with clouds. I added my wind layer, scouted the start of my route and left the trail, walking uphill. Moving slowly, I picked my way through the cactus, thorny shrubs and loose rock. I paused at a large and beautiful colony of hedgehog cactus growing straight out of a bouldery face. There were so many different types of cactus, present in such large numbers, that the inclement weather didn’t even bother me. I was in cactus heaven.

There were a few rocky bumps along the ridge I had to decide whether to go left, right or over the top. I stuck to the ridge as best as I could, but there was one huge rock feature I could not get around. I stopped abruptly at the base of a large, wet slab that disappeared into the misty beyond. To either side of me, steep gullies dropped down into cactus- studded lowlands. I took a few tentative steps on to the slippery rock and decided I would go no further unless the weather cleared. The wind blowing ferociously, tugging at my precious heat, forced me to find shelter as I waited out the weather and made some plans.

I looked at the sky and saw dark, dense clouds that were nowhere close to blowing off. I had to admit defeat.

Cold, annoyed, frustrated and with wet feet, I began descending the ridge. It did not take long to get disoriented in this terrain in these conditions. Generally, ridgewalks are quite straightforward because you follow the highest points to your destination. But this ridge had enough obstacles and side arms that I found myself walking entirely in the wrong direction. I triple checked my mapping app, used my compass to confirm that I was indeed facing *toward* the mountain I was trying to descend, then found a place to get off my feet for several minutes. I needed a snack, some water and rest since I had been nearly in constant motion all day.

But I was in no good place to stop. And, I really wanted to start moving in the correct direction before sitting down. I fumbled back up to a spot I could turn around, then checked my direction of travel on my phone. Yes, that looked much better. I plopped down, put on every layer in my pack, pulled out a foil packet containing yesterday’s pizza and rested until my brain returned to normal.

When I continued moving, I forced myself to go slowly and look at my phone often. The visibility was so bad, I had almost no context clues to keep me oriented. I prefer using landmarks to help stay on route, but that wasn’t possible today. Once I got down low enough, I could see the trail and I let myself relax a little. But, it still took some effort to figure out how to get there without getting stabbed by a lechugilla or becoming entangled in a bush.

Back at the saddle, I took another rest break. At least the return hike was brainless from here. The weather remained cool and windy, although eventually I emerged from beneath the clouds. Just as the van came into view, I turned back and finally got to see the peaks that were hiding all day. They were gorgeous, yet menacing. Even from this angle I thought, “that looks like an intimidating route.” I felt completely justified in bailing. I’d never attempt it without knowing the route ahead of time and/or having excellent visibility. Dry rock would be a must, also.

I know that turning back is not a failure, but I recognize that it is still really difficult to make that call, even after decades of doing this. I like telling these stories as a reminder that things don’t always go as planned and that’s okay. Knowing when to alter the plan or abandon the plan are important skills for any hiker. I still had a really great hike and I am now armed with more ground-truthed information for next time!

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