Here is a list of things men have said to me recently:
- “I thought you were giving me signals.”
- [slobbering noises and footsteps as he follows me down the street]
- “Bitch! I would have been nice if you had said hello.”
Here is the same list, but for park rangers:
- “Do you know how to read this map?”
- “You need to bring water with you.”
- “There is absolutely no chance you will make it.”
The contents of the first list are endlessly trying. They are the reason I sometimes cross streets to avoid men, the reason I wince whenever I hear a car horn. They’re a blow to my faith in humanity.
But the contents of the second list threaten my faith in myself. After all, I did not grow up climbing mountains. I have lived six years out west, but I’m still a stranger in this land.
Last November, I decided to go check out Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. It’s a little over two hours away in Las Cruces. I was curious because OMDP was one of the monuments on the chopping block during Ryan Zinke’s insidious, some-would-say illegal National Monument review. (While the boundaries of OMDP are safe for now, Zinke has recommended further study of the monument’s impact on border security.)
As usual, I set out for the high point: Organ Needle. At 8,990’, it’s a 6-mile round trip with roughly 4,000’ of elevation gain. All the commentary online warned me that it was a really hard hike.
That’s fine. I eat scrambles for breakfast, I told myself. I butt-chug elevation gain.
Since I moved to New Mexico last winter, I have done most of my hiking alone. There have been steep, exposed forays into the twisting canyons of the Gila Wilderness, where trail is a scarce commodity. I looked down on the clouds from the talus of Sierra Blanca, sacred mountain to the Apache and highest point in southern New Mexico. These solo accomplishments bring me a whole new kind of exhilaration. After ten months of little else, my calves are as thick as softballs. Yet each time I begin, there is a nagging doubt in my stomach – some ghost of a fear from ages past – telling me You’re going to fail.
But I didn’t expect to hear that from the Park Service.
I arrived at OMDP around 10:30, and drove to the Visitors’ Center to pay the entrance fee. Behind the desk was an older man dressed in an unfortunate green uniform and a nametag that read Chuck.
“Where are you headed?” he asked.
“The trailhead for Organ Needle,” I replied.
He stared at me for a moment, his eyes wide. “I hope you’re not planning to climb it.”
I shifted nervously. “I am.”
He spoke slowly and deliberately, as though talking to a child or a naughty dog. “There is absolutely no chance you will make it to the summit.”
I blinked. Frantically, I ran over my calculations again. 6 miles in 6 hours. I have plenty of time.
“There were a couple guys who did it in seven-and-a-half hours,” Chuck continued. “But they were Army rangers, and they had done it a bunch of times before.”
What? How could that be? Eager to get on the trail, I told Chuck I would hike as far as time permitted and turn around.
He shook his head, indicating that I had not understood. “It’s very dangerous,” he said. “The trail is impossible to follow unless you know where you’re going. You’ll be climbing on exposed rocks. You won’t even have cell phone service if you get lost. Search and Rescue won’t come until the next day; you’ll have to spend the night up there and the temperature could be freezing.”
I was confused – or was I irritated? “I know; I’m an experienced mountain climber,” I mumbled. I had meant to say it louder. But Chuck was on a roll. He led me over to a 3-D map, most likely assuming I couldn’t read the closer topographical one.
“Danger!” he yelled. “The sun like the breath of a thousand dragons! Winds that will carry you to Mexico! I can tell that you come from the ocean, where the elevation is a big fat zero. You’ll find no water here!”
Okay, I imagined that. But Chuck did list all those fears, and more. He mansplained in an endless flow, and ended by saying, IN REAL LIFE, “We had to rescue someone off Organ Needle a couple weeks ago. An eighteen-year-old man.”
A man. A man in the prime of his life had failed to climb this mountain. There could be no hope for me.
I steadied the storm inside and said goodbye to Chuck. He was still spouting warnings as I left the Visitors Center and headed to my car.
Prove him wrong, I told myself. But he had shaken me. For one terrible moment, I considered turning around.
The trail was wide and obvious, and only slightly working its way uphill. The biggest challenge was sliding in between the cacti and yucca, which seemed perfectly positioned to impale my knees.
After a mile or so, I met another hiker. “Did you make it to the top?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Only to the canyon. But you look tougher than me.”
I tried not to smile too hard at that. As I continued on, my footsteps fell into a rhythm. Fuck Chuck, I chanted along. Fuck, Chuck, fuck, Chuck, fuck, Chuck. It propelled me as the trail got steeper.
But I wasn’t going to be dumb, I told myself. After all, there was a chance that Chuck was right. The gates closed at 5, so I was turning around at 2. No matter what.
I have to say that this trail was not well built. It shot straight up the mountainside, switchbacks be damned, and sheets of loose scree cascaded down. The slope was insane; it had to be 100% grade in parts. Between the thorns and cacti, it was getting gnarlier. I panted and panted as I hiked. Too many cigarettes this week, I admonished myself. I’m always failing somehow.
I reached Juniper Saddle at 12:10, ten minutes behind my projected goal. I stopped to eat some salami and cheese and found another hiker, a man who had stayed behind while the rest of his group attempted the summit.
“You’re about to start the hard part,” he told me, almost smirking.
By that, I assume he meant that the trail disappears. But someone had tied pink flagging to the trees, so I followed it, weaving back and forth up the only passable spots on the shear hillside. It was best to hug the rocks, I found.
As I floundered my way through the prickly plants, I checked my phone obsessively. 12:45. 1:00. The rock towers were still stories above me, and I kept going the wrong way.
I was dumb to think I could do this. Preemptively, I tried to soothe my disappointment. Chuck was right.
I passed the group on their way down: four men. “Think I can make it before 2?” I asked.
“It’s possible,” one said.
I knew I had to descend before the final ascent, but I hadn’t expected such a thick grove of prickly bushes. I went too far down, north of the peak, and bushwhacked my way back towards it. I found a crack that looked doable and began to climb.
Halfway up, I realized I had made a mistake. This could not be the way. It was too exposed, too high a drop if my fingers failed me. This is what Chuck was afraid of.
I started panting again, this time out of fear. There was no going down, I decided. So I stretched my body, arms and legs reaching for solid rock, and climbed up.
I reached the summit at 1:36pm.
It was a gorgeous view, unlike any so far on the hike. I was shot through with adrenaline and triumph, and I sat, shaking slightly, in the wind. As is often the case in New Mexico, there was junk on the summit: old tattered socks, and cans, and a circular bunch of tiny gnomes.
I imagined what I was going to say to Chuck when I showed him my summit selfie.
But as I hiked back down, slipping and sliding over scree, I kind of forgot about him. I was gloriously buoyed by the dramatic landscape, the beauty of the desert, and how mountains in New Mexico rise so sharply from the dusty floor. I felt power coursing through my limbs and a song ready to spring from my lips. I put my hand on a cactus, by accident, and barely felt a thing. This hike wasn’t about Chuck, and it never had been.
Shortly after the saddle, I overtook the group of men. “Did Chuck say anything to you?” I asked one of them.
“No,” he replied.
I stopped at the Visitor’s Center, but he had gone home for the day. I left a note:
Dear Chuck, 5.5 hours is now the time to beat. Thanks again! Jenny G.
Now, I’m sure OMDP sees a lot of recreationalists who are not experienced hikers. I’m sure Chuck thought he was just doing his due diligence. But he didn’t bother to ask me about my experience, my preparation, or literally anything. He saw that I was a woman and assumed I had never climbed a mountain before.
Chuck didn’t stop me from hiking Organ Needle, but he tried. And when I look back at that day – and I NEEDED that day – I’m angry that he tried to take it away from me. I’m more angry that there could be someone else, another sad and hopeful girl, that might listen to Chuck. She might turn around and drive away. I know her. She is me a couple years ago.
Listen to yourself, I want to tell her. Do your research, bring maps, and be safe. Maybe don’t climb that crack.
But go. Go as far as you can. When you look out from the highest point and see the whole world, you will know how beautifully small you are.