Thursday, October 6, 2016

High Point #37: Guadalupe Peak, TX (8751')

I headed out early the next morning, since all the campsites at my destination, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, were first-come-first-served (and it was a Friday, too). The roads through the eastern New Mexico plains were nearly empty. I made good time at a conservative 5 mph over the speed limit. The shoulders were littered with the night’s crop of dead jackrabbits, whom the vultures would no doubt devour before evening. I bypassed Roswell around midmorning (seeing nothing weird in the skies, but you never really know...) and stopped for lunch in touristy Carlsbad.

New Mexico has so much character, I thought as I drove through town, with all its adobe buildings and clay-tiled roofs and fiestas and roadrunners and red-or-green chili peppers. It's a land apart from the lawns and shade trees of suburbia, a place that's not afraid to flaunt its differentness. And, what's more, I fit in with the locals; we're all suntanned and at least vaguely Hispanic (unlike, say. Minnesota, where my dark features stuck out like a sore thumb). Call me enchanted.

As I emerged from the built-up part of Carlsbad, I spotted the Guadalupe Ridge on the horizon:

Note the drop at the end.
The long ridge rises up from the desert and follows a gentle curve southwest for nearly a hundred miles, looking for all the world like the spine of some long-dead earth giant.
All the while it gains altitude, from a modest 6500' above Carlsbad Caverns to the 8000-foot peaks of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. It surges up to 8751' at Guadalupe Peak, the high point of Texas (and thus my destination), then drops off dramatically in the sheer walls of its final summit, El Capitán. Due to its visibility, travelers have followed the Ridge through the desert for centuries--and still do, on the modern US-62. The road runs parallel to it, then on through a 145-mile stretch of wilderness to El Paso. Needless to say, there's not a gas station to be had along the way; as soon as I saw that warning sign, I turned right around and filled my tank at Whites City, the last town before the wasteland.

As I approached the Guadalupes, a tiny thunderstorm came up and over them, so small that I could see through the rain to the blue skies beyond:

That the best you can do out here, Pamola?
I passed underneath, catching a few drops on my windshield, though not nearly enough to wash away three days' worth of plains-dust. Soon after, I arrived at the Park's entrance, a lonely turn-off fifty miles from the nearest town, and headed up to my destination: Pine Springs Campground. To my surprise,  it was still nearly empty at 3 pm (Central Time, once last). I claimed a campsite in the shade of a juniper tree:

Quite the lovely tree, I must say.
But just as I hopped out to set up camp, a second storm popped over the mountains and sent me scurrying for cover. I waited out its hour-long thunder-tantrum in my car, using the time to catch up on my notes (what with all that chaos in Colorado, I hadn't written a thing since Wyoming). The storm slid down the hills, then blew on to the plains, leaving rainbows and cold air in its wake. How low would the temperature drop at night, I wondered, with no clouds left to seal in the heat?

Once it was gone I pitched my tent at last, then settled into camp to write away the evening. A canyon towhee flitted about the site, casting curious glances at my tent. What was this strange plant that had sprung up so suddenly in the middle of its territory? And was it edible? It pecked at it, decided otherwise, and disappeared into the scrub.

My fellow campers arrived car by car, dispersing quietly to their sites--cowed, perhaps, as I was, by the remoteness of this place. The stark limestone cliffs of the Guadalupes loomed above us:

silent sentinels frozen at attention over a landscape alien even to their own eyes.

These mountains, you see, are the remains of a coral reef that once flourished in the shallow waters of a Permian sea. The reef died when the waters receded, but its bones remained, buried in sediment, until the Laramide orogeny--the same mountain-building event that folded up the Rockies--thrust them to the surface of a foreign world. Fossilized fish and shells now gape at agave and cacti; coral bodies erode from the limestone and wash away to join the desert sands. And as one walks these mountains, passing beneath skeletal reef-walls, one imagines the waters rising up again to restore them to life... and at the same time claiming yours. They are a desolate, ghostly place, exactly how I'd imagine the end of the earth--fitting, I suppose, for my final high point of the summer.

What lay beyond these peaks, I wondered as the sun sank beneath them... and what lay ahead for me? Was there life beyond these mountains--strange new cities, riverbanks teeming with foreign flora, and greater hills yet to climb--or only a featureless plain receding flatly into oblivion?

I'd find out, I supposed, at the summit.


Contrary to my expectations, the night was hardly cold at all. The juniper tree shielded me through the night, its branches stretched over my tent as if to ward off any nocturnal malice that might have traipsed down from the hills to haunt my camp. Whatever it did, it worked; I slept as well as I ever did in the outdoors and woke, refreshed, with the dawn. A deep-pink sunrise filled the eastern sky—but, slugabed as I am, it faded through orange to a bland yellow before I could get up and enjoy it properly. I packed away my tent, bade the tree goodbye,

and drove up to the day-use lot to begin my hike.

After a quick check of the map (bilingual, like the New England signs, but with Spanish instead of French--this place isn't far from the other border), I started up the trail at 7 am sharp with the rising sun at my back:

Are you ready? I'm ready.
In my pack were 2.5 liters of water (this trail was hot, steep, arid, and elevated, so I wasn't taking chances), on my person was my now-standard desert outfit of a loose long-sleeved shirt and jeans, and in my hands was my good ol' mountain stick (to fend off any rattlesnakes or cougars that might try to jump me, since these mountains are prime territory for both).

The trail to Guadalupe turned out to be a beauty: a 4.2-mile, well-maintained Class 1 hike of about the same grade as Mt. Mitchell, though steeper in spots and flatter in others. Unlike certain other high points I'd hiked on this leg, there were no fallen trees to vault or faint patches to get lost in. It began with a relatively flat stroll up the valley, then quickly turned to switchbacks up the boulder-strewn peak that overlooked the campground. Heading straight up that hill would have been an uncomfortably long scramble, so I was grateful for the switching. As I started to climb, a cold wind rose up at my back--I shivered, but I knew I'd be missing it once the sun had put in a few hours’ work.

All along the way I had great views of Hunter Peak across the valley:

Are you ready? I'm ready.
and before long the escarpment at the far end of the valley came into view as well:

That's a fun word, eh? Scarp scarp 'scarpment.
I’d hoped it would be just me and the rattlers and monochrome cats on the trail, but this was a state highpoint inside a national park on a Saturday in August, so there was no chance of that. The folks I passed were friendly enough, though: an chatty older Texan also on his way to Guadalupe and a few parties of backpackers coming down from a night in the backcountry. I didn't envy their heavy packs on those switchbacks.

As I drew closer to the "boulders" I'd glimpsed from below, I realized they were actually sizeable cliffs, some with caves below:

The rock was a chalky-looking white, visibly coral-ish, with the occasional odd imprint or hole where some prehistoric critter had burrowed in. I continued up the hill, following the trail beneath the cliffs, then across them:

"Cliff: riders dismount and lead," warned a sign. So this was also a horse trail.
and then, finally, above them.

A few more switchbacks and I'd reached the top of this peak:

which, of course, turned out to be only a spur of the higher hills behind it. I took one last look at the valley below:

See the campsite?
then ducked around the hill into...

...what do you know, a full-on forest.
The trail leveled off a bit, though still heading steadily upwards, shaded by both the pines and the mountain. I made good time across this stretch:

...well, when someone wasn't dawdling to play with the pinecones.
Along the way I spotted two peaks in the distance:

one fairly close and the other a few miles away. Which one was Guadalupe? I wondered.

Neither, as it turned out. The trail led me onto the nearer peak, passing through a sunny pine-spotted meadow:

The Guadalupes are well below treeline at their latitude, but there's still somewhat of a "krumm"-pling effect near their summits due to high winds and thin soil.
home to the "Guadalupe Peak Campground" (where those backpackers had spent the night?)--so far, so good, eh?--but when I reached the top of the hill, a higher one loomed up behind it: the real Guadalupe:

Why does the high point always have to be the highest mountain?
And so I dropped behind that hill as well and continued on.

About a mile from the summit, the trail crossed an even narrower cliff, this one with a bridge over its thinnest point:

I probably could've found a way across without it, but a horse sure couldn't.
Not long after that, the trail dipped down into a steep saddle:

then crossed over onto Guadalupe itself. I followed it through another forested stretch, then up still more switchbacks. Looking back, I saw that the previous peak's gentle slope came to a much more sudden end than I'd thought:

Looks like the trail turned away just in time.
and ahead, towards the desert... was that El Capitán from below?

Indeed it was.
I lingered for a moment, marveling at its strange, rippled shape, then continued up the last few switchbacks to the summit:

Almost... there...
where I arrived a little under three hours after I'd begun.

The rock atop Guadalupe was even more reefish than the cliffs below: chunky, white, and studded with imprints of tiny single-celled organisms that looked like grains of rice.

"Rice-rocks?" asked LarLar. "What's next, bean-rocks? Chicken-rocks?"
Its summit was marked by a pyramidal monument:

Which certainly wasn't funded by the Illuminati... △
honoring both the stagecoach drivers who first brought mail through these mountains and the modern airplane pilots who do the same. The view, of course, was amazing, limited only by dust and heat-haze. On the far side of the mountain stood more peaks and cliffs of the Guadalupes:

and beyond, the desert stretched south towards the Mexican border, spotted with salt flats and crop circles. From this high, its hills looked like ripples in the sand.

It'd be a shame to ruin this view with a big ugly wall, eh?
 A single paved road traversed the flats: US-62, my route towards El Paso. I'd be down there before the day was done--looking back, perhaps, towards this summit.

I sat down beside the monument to check out the summit register... and stood right back up when I read how many Texans had proudly pissed upon their state's highest point. Seriously, is that a thing here? I left my own--urineless--mark, then settled down on the rocks to rest a bit.

And as I rested, I realized I was breathing just fine. Sure, the air felt a little thinner than below, the sun's rays a bit stronger, but there was no chest pain, no gasping for breath, none of the symptoms I'd felt at this same elevation back in Colorado. After spending a week above 4000', venturing up to 9000', and sleeping at nearly 6000' the night before, had I finally begun to acclimate? It seemed so.

I lingered a while longer, watching my fellow hikers come and go, then headed down.

The trail flew by much quicker the second time through: its slope was gentle enough that descent was only a matter of walking, plus I didn’t stop for pictures nearly as often. You'd laugh if you saw my full folder of Guadalupe pics--I swear I must have taken two dozen shots of Hunter Peak alone on the way up. I did pause for some birding in the upper forests, though: several sparrows, a Mountain Chickadee, and another species of towhee crossed my path.

By the time I reached those first switchbacks (around 11 am), the trail was crowded with day-hikers who’d begun their ascent far later than I’d have dared in August. The air was already dreadfully hot--I'd long since sweated through my shirt--and if I was scorched after spending half my hike in the shade, I wince to imagine the sunburns they were courting. I know this place is remote, and not everyone can spend the night below the mountain to get an early start, but have a little common sense, people. Deserts and afternoon hikes don't mix.

But I descended, switching back and forth:

And back and forth and back and forth and back and forth...

down into the valley and reached the trailhead a little past noon, an hour faster than the posted hike-time--yet another sign that I'd finally acclimated:

Hike complete!
I changed into some cleaner clothes, refilled my water bottles (it turned out I didn't need both bottles on the hike, but better to have and not need...), and headed on down US-62:

...for one more pass by El Capitán.

As I’d guessed from above, it was a long flat drive through the desert to El Paso. In contrast to the morning's clarity, the skies were cloudy the whole way, dropping intermittent sprinkles on my car. The Pass itself, when I arrived, was sprawly and long--though, to be fair, it's smashed up against the Mexican border with a mountain range nearly as high as the Guadalupes cutting straight through its center. Everything was indeed bigger in Texas, I reflected while stopped at a massive intersection in heavy traffic--particularly their pickup trucks and SUVs. But, fortunately, so was their supply of cheap motels. I snagged a room, found some food, and crashed, deferring the decision of where to go next for another day.

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