The Hike That Almost Killed the Dog

Once back in Cruces I was working quite a bit. Still, I regularly got out one day a week to hike for at least a few hours – though it was usually a place close by that I’d been to before. By the end of January however I ventured out to explore a section of the Organs on the east side that I hadn’t been.

I think at some point the trail I started on was a more official trail but I’m guessing with the designation of the national monument that it became more of a social trail. The beginning was both easy to walk and easy enough to follow except for some slick rock crossings where I needed to find where the trail picked up again, and seeing the new angles of the Organs was exciting. Abbs and I crossed creek beds and ascended up the boulder-strewn route for a few miles until we reached the boundary of the ponderosa pines which coincided more or less with the start of steeper terrain. Here the shade and slope created dark and wet conditions that, because of the temperature, meant some snow and ice. Unbeknownst to me, this is also right about where I lost the hikers trail and got off on a climbers trail. But I didn’t know that at the time, so Abbs and I started scrambling up the canyon, following cairns and heading for the top.

The snow and ice were a bit of an issue in this section but the bigger problem was that the jumps between levels were consistently over 4 feet and there were a few times that Abbs couldn’t find a way around so to her dismay I had to lift her up. When we emerged from the boulder-filled canyon onto bare granite I thought we’d be good, but this is where our real trouble began. For awhile the slope was well within my shoes’ ability to grip the rock (that changed further up the trail) but water flowing on the entire surface of the rock was iced over forcing us to climb along the steep sides of the gully or pick our way across snow patches or the occasional dry rock. There wasn’t a lot of picture-taking of all this for obvious reasons.

When we reached the base of one of the bare, dry granite peaks I thought that this must be the way to the top and so I tried to scramble only to discover that even my momentum couldn’t carry me far (see last picture in first set). Even Abby, with four paws and exceptional athletic ability, wasn’t too successful and she began giving me questioning looks. So we crossed back over the gully and looked for a route up the next ridge, and then the next, but it was pretty rough going. It was at that point that I realized how difficult going down the icy canyons was actually going to be and so I decided to turn around.

We picked our way carefully and slowly though the large rocks in our first section of descent but its when we reached that iced-over granite that calamity struck. I had no intention of crossing the gully here and I was looking at my feet climbing down some boulders just above but Abby must have assumed that our route was across that innocuous-looking bare rock. I of course can recognize the ice on the rock but Abbs, not having stepped on it on the way up (I had directed her off to the side) must have assumed it was water. Before I could even open my mouth she was on the sheet of ice and sliding, very quickly, straight down the canyon. My heart rose in my throat as I could see she was only 100 yards away from one of the 20 foot drops and I watched as she was spun 180 degrees, picking up speed and now sliding backwards down the steep ravine. It was one of those moments when time lengthened and I could see she was looking right at me. I gave her a command to GO! pointing to the other side of the canyon and she turned her head, got herself spun around facing back down canyon, and started working her feet cautiously, trying to get herself closer to a snowbank coming up on her right. I’m nearly positive it was a coincidence that she started moving when I gave her the command but it was the only thing I could do.

Anyway, as she skated past the stretch of snow she made an incredible jump to it – and the started sliding down the snow, albeit at a slower speed. Unable to slow her descent enough before the snow transitioned back to ice she positioned herself to jump again making a leap onto some smaller rocks which she hopped across, gaining her balance. Finally she stepped off onto a pile of leaves where the side of the canyon met the bottom and looked up for me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved since all I could picture was her going over the drop and ending up smashed at the bottom. It took me at least 5 minutes to get to her and when I did I received a big kiss on the face as I reached to hug her. Needless to say we were both more careful on the rest of our descent.

Since our original route had obviously not been the trail I pretty much immediately decided to return – though I made a firm decision to not do it when there would be a possibility of ice or snow; the abundant ponderosas, rugged granite, and proximity to the peaks made the area too beautiful to not hike there again. So on a much warmer morning at the beginning of March Abbs and I headed up again, but this time I paid much closer attention as I approached the treeline and found an alternate path marked with cairns. Unlike the climbers route this trail was definitely more suited for hiking and we steadily gained elevation without the need for prolonged scrambling.

The trail alternated between the treed hollows and the brushy, sun-exposed ridges but at one point we encountered a small meadow where we spent a fair amount of time while I was scouting for a route to the top; as luck would have it there was already an established social trail so we went with that. Soon after however the trail deteriorated as it required a steep climb for last 500 feet but we didn’t have too much trouble other than needing to stop for a couple breathers on the 30 degree-plus inclines. Just below the saddle at the top of the mountains we encountered another lovely grove of ponderosas and some gentler terrain and then suddenly we were at the top, able to look west over Las Cruces and east back over White Sands. We were also greeted then by a ferocious wind so strong that it forced me to wait to take any pictures or shoot video.

Despite the wind we spent close to a half hour walking along the spine of the mountains, scouting out possibilities for future trips and basking in the 360 degree vistas. Our descent was thankfully uneventful, unlike the last time and we even found another small clearing with some blooming tree cholla and monsterous alligator juniper.