Plans and Preparations
After the first encounter with the ridge several weeks prior, an itch to revisit ate at me constantly. I set out on a campaign to find someone to accompany me on another attempt at its wild backbone. I sent numerous e-mails including several to the UNM mountaineering club, and inundated friends with texts but all to no avail. I then sought advice on solo techniques from good climbing pals in Germany who advocated further time in study at the local crag before such an objective in solo style. Then, the day before another scouting operation to the ridge, two of my med-school classmates inquired and quickly agreed to come along on this sure-to-be outrageous ride.
I had taken Nizhoni to the gym once and to the local crag at Big Block on another occasion. Her skill and strength as a beginner impressed me, which made me confident in her ability for this undertaking. Tu had never been climbing before in his life, but I witnessed his power in the weight room on several occasions. Judging by their condition in relation to those of other novice climbers I’ve taken into alpine terrain, they seemed up for something as simple as what I thought to be a 5.4 ridge.
Monitoring of the weather became our main priority as the forecast fluctuated between 20% chance of snow, 10% chance of rain, and partly cloudy. Uneasy about the situation, I packed the bags with gloves, jackets, and water-resistant pants as precautionary measures. Beyond that, things seemed set for the following day.
Start of Domingo Baca Trail.
We met at my house at 6:30 and arrived at Elena Gallegos around 7. We emptied bladders and put on a layer to protect us from the absurdly cold morning. The fact that the sun burst over the Sandias as we stood there made little difference in terms of temperature. I left all my keys except for the one for my car as well as my wallet in the trunk, a decision which would come back to bite us. We left on the trail at 7:15 am.
The hike into the canyon was uneventful, and thanks to the scouting trip earlier in the month, route finding posed no problems.
We stayed close to the stream as we went up canyon and enjoyed the pleasant music of the stream and pranced around the waterfalls flowing over the chilled granite. One such granite barrier required a hard left turn up the slope to give access to the upper ledge of the rock. Tu came into contact with his first cactus of the day at that point. As he cleaned the needles out of his pants, we enjoyed the view down-canyon and gulped down the cool mountain air. We soon passed the great granite gates and took another break on a massive piece of granite over which the stream flowed. The time was 9:00 am.
Rather then ascend the cacti-covered, boulder-strewn, yucca-infested slope up to the second tram tower; we elected to travel up the gully on the left side of the canyon just upstream from the great granite gates.
Though Tu had further run-ins with cacti, the path proved much less strenuous and challenging than the slope I explored several weeks prior. I must commend Nizhoni and Tu for making an excellent choice.
The ETA I gave at the trailhead for reaching the tram tower was 10:30, which proved just about right as we finally reached the beginning of the rock section of the ridge at 10:45 am.
The Ridge Proper
The initial scramble on the ridge went by without a hitch. The extra rock shoes I let Nizhoni and Tu borrow seemed to work well. They both started off brilliantly, moving deliberately and talking each other through it. Still I felt uneasy having them unroped so I pulled the ropes out and we got our harnesses on.
As they rested, I descended with the ropes to the first mentally challenging section where the ridge narrowed to a couple feet with high cliffs on both sides. I lead by example and they showed the confidence to follow without ropes. I cringed, but they made it through fairly easily. We continued through some more similar terrain until we came to the area near to where I turned around on the last attempt. We got stuff organized and Nizhoni put me on belay. The first pitch meandered left and right between and around large boulders attached to the ridge. One solitary boulder about 3 meters wide shifted and rocked disturbingly, but wasn’t much of a problem otherwise.
The walkie-talkies worked wonderfully and I had clear communication with Tu and Nizhoni from belays I set up on lead. We’d get interference from kids messing around and mechanics in the valley but it wasn’t bad at all. The first pitch I ran short intentionally so I could watch the two of them come up and guide them if necessary. Once I clipped them into the belay, I went on ahead free-solo for a bit (the terrain wasn’t very steep) and checked out what lay before us. I decided to continue with the setup, which in retrospect seemed rather silly. We could have gone to a running belay, but I thought they should get more experience before we turned to that.
I stretched out almost all the 70 m of rope before I made the next anchor on a large bench. When they arrived I went forward again to survey the scene, shuddering at the sound of thunder overhead—a cloudburst was sure to come soon. Having no choice but to keep rolling, we elected to go on a running belay, which worked blissfully. The next difficult section, which included a few 5.6 moves with relatively great exposure, demanded another anchor above for security. I decided we could do this in the running belay setup except with three-piece anchors to keep us on the rock. I placed one piece at the bottom above the belay anchor and climbed the 20-foot section without placing another piece until I built the second anchor above. Nizhoni climbed up to me next while Tu waited below. I had Nizhoni belay him up as I walked back and sat on the edge to talk him through it. They both performed beautifully.
Things Get Complicated
We continued on with the running belay until the complex section loomed before us, sinking and rising like rough surf. We down climbed on 4th class terrain and were met with another 5.6 section of loose rock. This is when the hail and snow in the form of a beautiful cloudburst came through and hit us.
The scene was mystical; snow seemed to rise from the ground as it blew over the ridge and the distances to the neighboring rocks became more vivid.
I put us back on the original setup with Nizhoni on the blue rope and Tu on orange. After Nizhoni was secure and had me on belay, I placed one piece at the bottom of the section to prevent a total wipe out and climbed it without any more protection. We repeated the steps from the last pitch with Nizhoni belaying Tu up again while I watched.
Once on top of the rock, we walked to the next lip and saw a 5.4 down-climbing section with loose rock covered with gravel that made things spicy. Since Nizhoni was a mom, we decide she should go in the middle. Tu had to play the hero and clean on a down-climb during his first time alpine climbing, but I had complete confidence in him and he demonstrated no fear. I placed as many pieces as possible to reduce the distance of a fall if one should occur, putting the other two at ease.
I got across the gap quickly and established myself at the rappel anchor made of one chord and two pieces of webbing. Nizhoni, though hesitant, came over smoothly and sat behind me to recover from the mentally taxing exposure. Tu came soon after and we talked constantly to pinpoint every move and identify every loose rock. He came up and sat next to Nizhoni who was already rope managing.
I walked further down the ridge and looked over the next section to discover a bear sitting on ledges below. It was only a little guy sharing the
wonderful view with us, but it was quite a sight in itself. Realizing it was already 4:50 pm, I placed the bear in the back of my mind and continued on.
The rappel was on an 8-foot wide stack of granite maybe 40 feet high. I returned and we set to work untying from the ropes, flaking the ropes, and setting up the rappel. Nizhoni had already received a lesson on rappelling 3-4 weeks before at Big Block, but both she and Tu paid close attention to the procedure.
Being medical students like myself, they figured it out quickly and were soon set to go. I went first and placed a couple of pieces to prevent an unlucky rappel to either side of the ridge in the unpredictable winds. I stopped as soon as I could so I could aid them as they came over the lip and down the rock on rappel. Right after I built the next anchor, I realized I completely forgot to set up their prussiks. Over the walkie-talkie, I talked them through the steps of making a Kleimheist knot, which was easier to explain than a prussik. With votes of confidence over the walkie-talkies, Nizhoni began her descent clipping out of the pro I left and clipping the rope behind her for Tu. She came down and attached to the anchor before she put Tu on a fireman’s belay. Tu came down soon after without a glitch. As he stood there still on rappel, I lowered Nizhoni onto a platform below us, which would give us a better shot at going up the ridge rather than climbing over the next bulge from the position of the anchor. Once she was down and out of the wind, Tu clipped into the anchor and waited as I made a figure-eight on a bight for him to lower him as well. Once he was comfortably on the platform, I undid the anchor and free-climbed down to their position. With some toiling, we finally organized the ropes and did a running belay once more.
The next rappel station off a tree proved much simpler, but it was now 6:35 pm, which put some fire under our butts. On the 15 by 8-foot platform after the rappel, we gathered before Nizhoni belayed me through the next section. Basically a loose, 18-foot tall pile of packed boulder, I only place one piece at the bottom of the feature and flew up without placing anything in the rock to prevent anything from falling on us if I should fall. The other side gave a bit more of a challenge as a down-climb with only one or two solid holds—the rest were loose and covered in dirt.
Once I made the anchor and took a couple minutes to put on my remaining layers, I gave the go ahead to the other two. Nizhoni came over first testing every hold before placing any weight on it. She walked by me a little shaken but otherwise okay. She came around the tree where I set up the belay and sat down a distance from the cliff to start managing the rope and gear. Soon after, Tu came over on real shaky rock that somehow loosened a bit with our passage. Tu sat down in the dip to take out the last piece and I think that let him get his head (a confidence in his ability to negotiate and maneuver on the rock). As soon as he clipped into the anchor I took him off belay, set up, and was off on a running belay again.
I placed gear sparingly on the 3rd/4th class section and bolted, pulling Nizhoni along a bit. The view stunned me, but I had my eye set on topping out before it got too dark. I feared a re-take of the Half Dome incident back in 2007. Eventually, we summited at 8:00 pm almost exactly.
Tu called a friend to see if we could get a ride, I turned on my SPOT II, and Nizhoni took in the view for a minute. Yet, we had to start going down and Nizhoni was eager to get moving. After some gulps of water and a bite of CLIFF bar, we began our descent.
The ridge proved quite simple, probably 3rd class down to the saddle between Whiskey Ridge and the Thumb. At that point we took off the climbing shoes, dawned headlamps, and packed the ropes.
I had completely forgotten how restrictive my shoes were and when combined with the cold for 10 hours, I ate it. The itchy, burning, needle-like pricking in my toes consumed me for the next hour. Nizhoni moved into the lead to take us through the woods in the dark while Tu struggled to maintain balance on the dirty, muddy, snow-patched mountainside in sneakers. The steps I kicked stepped into the snow and trekking poles seemed to help, but it still gave him a challenge—what a trooper he was.
We traveled through the dark and eventually came to steep snow slopes where we placed ropes around trees and rappelled 3 times at 35 m per rappel. At that point, I realized I left my gloves higher up in the woods, but it was far too late to try and get them so we pushed on. By the illumination of the city lights, I could make out the rock formations above La Luz so we traversed around the bottom of the Thumb and worked our way down. At first we came across a trail at the bottom of the gully that I thought could be La Luz. After five minutes of walking I decided we should turned around and head straight upslope. Through the cacti, yucca, and thorn bushes we worked until finally, the trail opened before us at 11:00 pm. What a relief is was to be on known terrain, but the elation became somber as we calculated the time and distance remaining before the La Luz trailhead.
A couple phone calls and mass texts later on the hike down, we finally reached someone to give us a ride. My cousin, Chris, had just returned home from being the designated driver agreed to pick us up from the trailhead. I put it in high gear so he wouldn’t have to wait long and managed to get there 30 seconds after he pulled up. The time was 1:15 am. Five minutes later, Tu and Nizhoni arrived and threw their stuff in the trunk before we rolled on out.
Unfortunately, the Elena Gallegos Picnic Area closes their gates at 9 pm so I hoped to just spend the night on Nizhoni’s couch, but as we approached the house, she realized her keys were in my car as well. Since Tu couldn’t help any further, we allowed him to go home at that point. My cousin, being the awesome nice guy he is, volunteered to drive us the 20 minutes back to Elena Gallegos so we could attempt to get the keys from my car, but the city closed the gate about a mile down the road from the parking lot. Complete failures, we headed back to my place where my cousin helped me break into my house. After some food and juice, with hit the hay around 3:15 am.