LAS CRUCES — Jonathan Tylka and Kevin Boyko might be the first people to climb all 30 peaks of the Organ Mountains — and they did it in just 38 hours without stopping or sleeping.
Tylka, 29, and Boyko, 28, are experienced climbers, doing so since each was a teenager.
Tylka, originally from St. Louis, Missouri, is a flight systems test engineer at White Sands Test Facility. He has lived in Las Cruces since 2011 and said the challenging mountain climb has been eight years in the making.
“I moved to Las Cruces from the Midwest and I had never seen mountains like this before. I was a really active rock climber in Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas and I was just completely captivated by those mountains,” Tylka said.
“I actually broke my leg when I first moved here at Ski Apache and I was completely cooped up. I lived up Baylor Canyon Road and I woke up every morning and looked up at those mountains. I needed to set a huge goal for myself to keep me from going crazy not being able to go out and about.”
Determined to get back on his feet, Tylka said he sought out several different climbers in the small climbing community to accompany him on his endeavor.
This was not Tylka’s first attempt to climb all of the Organ’s jagged peaks. In 2014, he and another group of climbers mounted 22 peaks but were forced to stop due to bad weather. Their journey was documented in the American Alpine Journal.
“At the time I was climbing with a guy named Aaron Hobson and I told him about my idea to climb all— the peaks in a push because he was one of the most active Organ Mountains climber and he thought I was crazy. He said it wasn’t possible,” Tylka said. “This was the fifth attempt that I’ve pushed on. Even though we climbed 22 peaks I was still unsatisfied knowing the weather was so terrible that we were kind of hampered. I was looking for a really strong partner because my partner for that moved away.”
That’s when Tylka met Boyko through a mutual climbing friend.
“When Kevin moved into town he had heard about the traverse and he approached me and said he was really interested in doing that. We became really good friends and climbing partners,” Tylka said. “Kevin is a really strong climber and we were able to do this last attempt.”
Boyko, 28, born in Venezuela and raised in Florida, is a graduate student and research assistant for the water science and management graduate program at New Mexico State University. He has been living in Las Cruces since 2016.
On Friday, May 3, at 5:45 p.m., Tylka and Boyko started their adventure to successfully climb all 30 peaks of the Organ Mountains.
The rugged, majestic Organs rise precipitously to the east of Las Cruces.
“People travel all over the world to do big alpine traverses like the Tetons Range in the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. People even go to Chile and Pakistan to do linkups and this one in the Organs has never been done which is crazy,” Boyko said. “It doesn’t have its shortage of people who are good climbers that’s coming though. They try but they think it’s too hard.”
According to “A Climbing Guide to the Organ Mountains” by R. L. Ingraham, the first documented climbs of Organ Mountain peaks were in the early 1890s, but most were done in the mid 1950s by climbers stationed at nearby Fort Bliss Army Base.
On day one, it took the duo almost two hours and 25 minutes to climb up the Organ Needle, which, at 8,990 feet, is the highest peak in the skyline.
Most would call climbing the top of the needle a day, but for Tylka and Boyko they kept on trekking — hitting every high point of every formation.
Overnight, they traversed to the base of Third Peak and on the second day they climbed to the summit of the middle of the Rabbit Ears. That night they climbed to the Nordspitz Peak and on the third day the climbers went on to Baylor Pass Hiking Trail and then to the Aguirre Spring campground.
Only the essentials
Tylka and Boyko’s backpacks came in at just under 40 pounds and each said it was important to pack light so they could move at a faster pace.
“We brought all of our climbing gear, started with nine liters of water each and some food and that’s it basically,” Boyko said. “I also brought four sets of batteries for our head lamps and we brought two jackets and some leather gloves.”
Boyko said climbing in warmer temperatures could sometimes be more brutal than climbing in colder temperatures because your body needs more water — a crucial resource in the harsh desert climate.
“Accomplished climbers have been here in Las Cruces but a lot of people that do this kind of stuff are in much colder terrains. With snow, you can melt it and drink water and you don’t need to carry a lot of water that will hold you down,” he said. “That’s why we didn’t bring any sleeping bags, we just brought an emergency blanket and packed as light as possible.”
Physically and mentally fit
Tylka said he spent hundreds of hours scoping out the Organ Mountains before he was even ready to attempt to climb all the peaks and said he trained at the Bataan Memorial Death March to be physically prepared.
“It’s not a technical rock climb and it’s not something you can just hike,” he said. “I trained extra hard for this to be physically fit because the Organs are unforgiving. It doesn’t care about people.”
Boyko said to climb mountains like the Organs, climbers must always be calm and relaxed to avoid dangerous situations.
“If you’re doing everything right, you’re fine, but you have to be attentive,” Boyko said. “Most of the nerves happened beforehand. I couldn’t really sleep the night before, but it wasn’t that bad once I was there.”
Both climbers said safety is the number one rule, not just for themselves but for their friends.
“The good thing is we had service the whole way. We sent text messages every so often and Jon is part of the search and rescue team,” Boyko said.
Tylka, who is part of the Organ Mountain Technical Rescue Squad, said he and Boyko made sure to tell their loved ones and search and rescue members where they were heading.
“We had a group text that included my wife, Kevin’s girlfriend and a leader of the Organ Mountain Technical Rescue Squad,” Tylka said. “I wanted to make sure my family and friends knew exactly where we were. It’s also important to go climbing with a professional or someone who really knows what they’re doing. A twisted ankle is the same as a broken ankle up there and there’s no fast rescue. It would take forever to go down.”
After two sunrises and two sunsets without sleeping, at about 8 a.m. on Sunday, May 5, Tylka and Boyko finally accomplished their mission.
“I don’t remember being that tired even though we were up 38 hours, until we got to the car and it hit us,” Boyko said. “Everything started hurting and my feet were really swollen. Overall, it wasn’t that bad, it could have been much worse. I just wanted to go to sleep in the dark.”
Boyko said his girlfriend met the two at the bottom and brought them both a victory beer and two chicken sandwiches.
Tylka said his favorite part of the whole experience is how smooth it went.
“Our ropes didn’t get caught and we didn’t get hurt,” he said. “Mountain climbing might not be for everyone, but it’s a great way to stay healthy and stay outside.”
As for climbing all the peaks again, Tylka and Boyko said they would do it again.
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