I decided to return to Guadalupe Peak a year after my hiking buddy Gary Sizer and I made the 23 hour drive from North Carolina in February of 2015. The details of that trip can be found on the website in the previously published story, “Cracked.” The gist of which is summed up in a few words: Gary made the summit,I did not. As a result of my failure to reach the top, there was a photograph that burned into my mind, one that did not yet exist. I imagined a view of El Capitan, a sub-peak of Guadalupe viewed from the summit. In my vision, the rock formation appears as the prow of a ship splitting the sea of the desert floor,the El Paso Salt Flats 4000 feet below. I'd missed my opportunity to see the view, but even if I had seen it, it wouldn’t have matched the photo I envisioned. There are many photos of El Capitan from Guadalupe Peak, but I had seen none taken at sunrise. That was the image I wanted, the morning light painting the east sloping face.
While planning my second trip, the challenges of such a shot became readily apparent. I'd have to arrive at the summit by 6:20 a.m. after hiking four miles and 3100 vertical feet in the dark. Moreover, if I planned the excursion around a day hike, I wouldn't have the safety margin of repeated sunrise shots should the first morning’s weather disrupt my plans.
Fortunately, a designated back country campground is located about 800 feet below the summit. Unfortunately, the campsite is dry, which meant I’d have to pack in my own water. The Park suggests a gallon a day. If I stayed up top for two nights that would mean carrying in about 25 pounds of water in addition to my photography gear and normal backpacking gear. My knees and back protested at the thought of a pack approaching 70 pounds. In an era of ultralight backpacking, carrying a 70 pound pack borders on blasphemy.
In addition, the weather in the Guadalupe Mountains is unpredictable. The last time I went, Gary and I embarked on an eleven mile day hike that started with warm temperatures in the 60s and calm but finished with temperatures in the 30s and 30 mph winds, and this was 3000 feet lower than where I’d be sleeping this trip. Should I take my Terra Nova Voyager Ultralite which is fairly light and pretty tough, or my almost bulletproof Hilleberg Soulo at the cost of almost two pounds? Will a 30 degree Montbell sleeping bag do if it saves me a pound and a half? Or should I opt for a 15 degree Sierra Designs bag in case I get snow and wind chill that might leave me shivering and tired by the time my hike to the summit came around? I finally came to the conclusion that my best bet was to dump most of my extensive gear collection into tupperware boxes, load them in the car, and make the decision when I reached the Park.
I made the trip across to Guadalupe Mountains in two and a half days. My only concession to luxury was a stop at the Abita Brewery Pub for dinner in Abita Springs, Louisiana. It’s a Louisiana landmark that I had passed often on the interstate driving across country. In true New Orleans fashion, I had to have their Bourbon Street Rye Pale Ale and jumbalaya. Because, what else are you going to do in cajun country?
As I pulled into the Park, the small cruel part of my brain started taunting me. “You didn’t make it last time with a daypack and now you’re going to haul 70 lb. up there? Are you an idiot? You’ll never make it.” And, “Seven year olds hike to the top, and you couldn’t do it last time. Yeah you were sick, but seven year olds?!” I muzzled the little malcontent the best I could and set up camp.
Before I had left home, I had decided to take a couple days to acclimate to the 6000 foot starting altitude. My first venture was a short day hike up the Devil's Hall Trail in the evening light. Everything that I had loved about the park came flooding back. The Western Bluebirds sang at me as I walked up the white stones of the wash. Mesquite, Texas madrone and various cacti and agave lined the trail. As I approached the cliffs that close in the striated rocks of the Devil's Hall, any thought of success or failure exited my mind. I was where I wanted to be and for the moment, I was content.
The next day I played tourist in the nearby Carlsbad Caverns and then returned to my campsite. The weather called for 40-50 mph winds during the night so I had set up my extra strong Hilleberg Soulo in the campground. The tent had stood strong on the bare balds of Roan Mountain in Tennessee during the winter and I felt confident in its ability to withstand the winds in a relatively protected campground. Sleep finally came around midnight.
The winds never arrived.
An interesting aspect of Guadalupe Mountains National Park is that it exists right on the border of the mountain and central timezones. Technically, it’s in the Mountains time zone, so sunrise and sunset times are based on that. I had set my phone to wake me up at 4 a.m. so I could start hiking in the dark and catch the morning light as I hiked up the ridge toward the summit. At no time did it enter my mind that my phone might be playing eeny meeny miny moe between two cell towers, one in the Central time zone and one in the Mountain. I awoke to my alarm after waiting all night for storm winds that never arrived.Thus, the decision on which tent to take was based on this line of thinking. “The Terra Nova is packed and in my pack while the Hilleberg is not.” Sometimes rationality gives way to laziness.
At 4:30 a.m.,I began up the switchbacks that start the hike. The steepest part is at the beginning, gaining over 1700 feet in the first mile and a half. As I stopped to catch my breath an hour in, I looked at my phone. It momentarily lost signal, and when it regained it, the clock jumped back an hour. Instead of starting my hike at 4:30 a.m.I started at 3:30. I was humping a seventy pound pack up a mountain in the dark on about three hours sleep. I started to think that the people who had heard my plan to get the photograph were spot on when they used words like obsessive.
Averaging just over a mile an hour, my progress was ludicrously slow. Every time I stopped for more than a minute or two to catch my breath, I took off the pack. Several times, doing so threw me off balance and I nearly tumbled off the trail. I would sit in the dark and stare glumly at my bag as my headlight cast long shadows behind it. In that light my backpack became an actual beast.
As I finished the first set of switchbacks, the sky started to take on the telltale purple glow of pre-dawn. I looked down into Pine Spring Canyon and watched the cloud blanket slowly make its way up the valley. The low light illuminated the clouds from beneath as the sun broke the horizon. The clouds slowly filled in the canyon floor and started crawling up the walls. It became a race to see if the sun would burn off the clouds by the time I reached my campsite or whether I would be socked in to a wall of white.
At about 7:30 a.m. I finally reached the saddle which separated the campground from the summit. I turned off onto the campground trail, made my way to a comparatively well protected site, and set up my tent. The sun was victorious in its battle with the fog and danced with the high clouds that moved in front of it. I contemplated breaking out my day pack and making a push to the summit, but my body rebelled. I set up camp, hung my food, rolled out my sleeping bag crawled into my tent and watched the light flicker between sunny and overcast. I was asleep by 9:30 a.m.
At nearly noon I woke up feeling like I was in a sauna. The sun was out and the temperatures were in the fifties. The greenhouse effect of the tent with the fly on had me sweating. I stepped out and instantly the cool wind chilled me. Such are the conditions in the desert. Because of the lack of humidity, if you turn toward the sun,your chest and face will be warm while your hind end is chilled. I threw on a jacket and explored around the campsite. The site sits on a small northeast facing knob looking down into the valley I had hiked up. I spent a few hours wandering my new mountain top abode. I could see the trails on the opposite side of the canyon etched into the rock, zig zagging their way up toward Hunter Peak, which is the highest summit on the ridge opposite the one I was on.
While making my way back to my camp I noticed the temperature dropping precipitously. A park ranger was waiting at my tent to check my permit. He was a young fit guy wearing a daypack that looked like it had been worn enough that it was part of his body. He also looked like he climbed his way up the mountain without breaking a sweat. He was polite and efficient, and made sure that I had enough water. He also informed me that the winds were supposed to pick up during the night. As we stood talking, snow began to fall and settle on my tent.
We said our goodbyes, and he started his descent. I decided to make the mile hike to the summit. The campground was as far as I had made it during my trip the year prior, beyond that everything was new. As I rounded a bend I came across the only manmade structure on the trail. A single bridge separated the campground ridge from the final approach to the summit. It hugs the cliff face on one side while spanning what seems to be a relatively shallow gap. Only after the bridge is crossed does the scale of the drop become apparent. Shortly after I crossed the bridge, the prominence of El Capitan came into view. I stopped at a switchback in the trail and took it in. The landscape was the perfect tapestry of light painted desert and shadow hidden hills. The snow fell softly on my jacket as I broke out the tripod and carefully shot El Capitan as it pierced the desert.
After forty-five minutes, I made the dash for the summit. American Airlines' discordant, three-sided pyramid was there to greet me upon my breathless arrival. On the three faces were monuments to the Boy Scouts of America, the Pony Express, and American Airlines. The monument was placed there before the mountains became a national park and maintains a strange anachronistic charm. At the foot of the pyramid sat an old ammo box with a battered sticker-laden book in it.
I signed the summit register and then looked down at El Capitan. From here the peak sat lower on the horizon and seemed much diminished. It turns out that the picture I wanted wasn’t from the summit, but from a couple hundred feet below. I would remember this when I returned the following morning for the sunrise. I wandered the summit looking, not only outward toward the horizon, but down at my feet as my wife had taught me to do. I noted fossils of ancient sea creatures embedded in the stone. The entire Guadalupe Mountain Range is the remnant of a 300 million year old coral reef, buried, and then re-exposed millions of years later. The wind picked up from the north, necessitating a huddled posture behind a pile of boulders. I sat and took pictures as the clouds sped across the vista adding depth to every photo. Even if I didn’t get the sunrise, the images from today would be worthy.
Snow continued to fall as I dropped off the summit and began my return to camp, but it didn’t stick. The wind gusts pushed the snow into dancing, swirling, nearly distinct patterns that never seemed to completely resolve.
Dinner took place in a spot mostly blocked from the wind by a large boulder. I added sharp cheddar cheese and Soprasetta sausageinto the foil pouch containing my dehydrated mac and cheese. After pouring water boiled on my Jetboil stove into the foil pack containing the meal, I closed it, and waited. I hate waiting for food.
Any physics teacher will tell you that water boils at 212º fahrenheit (100ºC) at sea level. As altitude increases, temperature at which water boils decreases. At 8000 feet water bolls at 196ºF which means you have to boil it longer in order to bring it up to the temperature necessary to rehydrate yummy macaroni. The longer you boil water the more you lose to evaporation, and losing water to the air was one thing I couldn’t really afford. Add to this the concept of convective heat loss as cold wind blew over the foil packet and my mac and cheese was destined for extreme al dente-ness. I hung my bear bag, zipped myself into my tent and crawled into my bag my shortly after hikers midnight, which means shortly after the sun goes down. I read Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories from my sleeping bag; the gritty urban detective tales felt like they belonged to a world different from the one that lay outside my tent.
For like what felt like forever, I sat in the tent listening to the freight train sounds of wind. It was 2:30 a.m. and sleep was slow in coming back, but it came. At 5:00 a.m. I awoke to my alarm. The wind still playing push and release with the canopy of my tent. I packed my daypack full of photography gear and snacks, pulled a liter water bottle and camelback out from my sleeping bag that I had placed there in order to keep them from freezing, and set out once again in the dark.
The wind was relentless as I made my way up the trail. The stars shone down from a clear sky, lessened in intensity by the full moon that shone brightly over my right shoulder. I climbed past the bridge and to the bend in the trail that gave the best view of El Capitan. I sat and waited. And waited. The sky remained bathed in moonlight. “Wait. No! Couldn’t be!” I turned on the data on my phone and instantly it picked up a tower in the Mountain Time Zone - and jumped back an hour. Sometime between the time I had last checked and the time I turned off the signal, my phone had picked up a tower in the Central Time Zone. I was doomed to wait in the cold wind an extra hour.
I huddled behind rocks, but the stones on which I sat pulled the heat right out of my rear. Necessity being the mother of invention and desperation the mother of redneck engineering, I took a pair of adhesive chemical toe warmers and shoved them down my pants. One for each cheek. The lone 115 mile road that led from the Park to El Paso was streaked with headlights of trucks making the long haul. In the far distance, flare stacks glowed next to oil wells, burning off natural gas.
Finally, the sky changed and the moment I’d been waiting for arrived. It turned pink and orange and unlike the day before, was perfectly clear. The mountains on the horizon were painted a deep blue. I took photographs for about an hour while experiencing the odd feeling of a warm butt and cold legs. The disconnect between my body’s discomfort and my mind's peace settled on me. Finally, the sun broke the straight edge of the horizon, warmed me quickly, and I left my alcove behind the rocks and stood back into the wind.
Moving quickly, I headed down toward a place on the trail where it was on approximately the same level as El Capitan. My plan was to bushwhack out to the end of the ridge and see the desert spread below me. As I started, the wind blew even harder through the exposed saddle between the two peaks that acted as a wind funnel.
As I neared the saddle, two things caused me to stop and turn around. One, it was becoming apparent that the only way out to the end of El Cap was to dance along the steep west side cliffs. With the wind gusting it could put a very sudden end to my trip. Two, I went to take a drink of water out of my camelback only to find that the hose that led from the bladder to the valve was frozen solid. When I checked the water bottle I had tucked inside my pack, it too had frozen.
Back at camp I hung my camelback hose in a sunny but sheltered space, drank water from another bottle that had frozen only a little, crawled into my tent to get out of the wind, and that is where I spent the majority of the rest of my day. Occasionally, I would climb out and look around, but within minutes the wind would drive me back inside. The wind shifted so that it wasn’t bending the tent; instead, rushed around it making a roar that made it almost impossible to sleep. Still, the Terra Nova held strong.
Exhausted and sore, I found a sheltered place, technically too close to my tent for good outdoor ethics, and made my dinner. Again, the pasta was underdone, but I was too hungry and tired to care. Since I had rationed my water well, I had enough to splurge and make two large cups of tea. I avoided coffee for fear that it would keep me up. I crawled back into the tent just after seeing light disappear behind Guadalupe Peak. I read about Hammett’s grizzled detective for a few minutes more and fell asleep.
I awoke to bluebird skies, not knowing the time, only that there was no rush of wind. I stepped out of my tent to the sun coming over the horizon. I had set no alarm, had no plans other than pack up and hike down. I packed slowly, deliberately, enjoying the calm. My pack was 25 pounds lighter than when I started up and it felt almost featherlike. That is, if feathers weighed 45 pounds. I didn't encounter anyone on my way up the mountain, but then again I was hiking in the dark, and had only seen a three other people in my two days on the mountain, but now that the weather was warm and calm, people were swarming to the summit. I was asked repeatedly if it had been windy and how cold it had gotten. I answered as honestly as I could, but felt like there was too much of the experience that couldn’t be conveyed in words. Too often I ended my description lamely, “Well, you had to be there.” If they had asked me whether the discomfort was worth it, the answer would have been a resounding, "Yes!", but nobody did.
When I finally got off the trail and reached my car, I came to the realization that the summit hadn’t ever really been my goal. Absolutely, it was the goal presented to me when I read about the hike, but my true objective was actually just below it. Part of me wondered if I had known that, could I have let the summit go unclimbed? Was the summit hardwired into the human collective consciousness? Should we stop only when we have run out of mountain? Or sometimes, is just shy of the summit enough?