The dying November sun glistens off the tight plastic packaging around our Earl Campbell’s Hot Links. My companions Heinrich and Jack are busy re-staking the tents in the midst of a growling wind while I prepare a pre-expedition delicacy of sausage wraps and beans, the wholesome meal that will give us greenhorn mountaineers the strength to finish the trek to the 8,749-foot pinnacle of Guadalupe Peak the following morning.
The first part of the hike up to the highest point in Texas was as “strenuous” as the guidebooks had reported. Hiking up a vertical trail that gains 3000 feet before reaching the summit is one thing, but doing it with fifty pounds strapped to your back is quite another. What’s more is the terror that Guadalupe Mountains National Park is home to black bear, bobcat, mountain lion, coyote, and rattlesnake, and riddled with cliffs that drop 1700 feet or more. So, even if you manage to survive a fall there would be no water to drink and you’d have to navigate fields of desert shrubbery with ominous names like yucca, prickly pear, snakeweed, pickleweed, and four-winged salt bush.
Historically, people sought great heights to view what was on the other side. In modern times, there is no reason to stand atop the highest point of anything except for the fact that it’s there. That, and the bragging rights that follow. Even so, there’s got to be more to this mountain climbing thing than doing it just to do something. Like Deadalus, perhaps we think the higher we get, the closer we’ll be to God or beauty or poetry or whatever. Or maybe we think that if we stand on the top of mountains we won’t be so human, that once we get above the world we’ll be omnipotent. In our cases, it’ll either be divinity or any number of pulled tendons, hernias, and chapped lips.
The Top of Texas
In the world, the top of Texas is not a high spot. Mount Everest is 29,028 feet, and Guadalupe Peak is less than a third of that; still, Guadalupe Peak is the highest place you can get in a state full of tall tales and big history.
There are six 8,000-feet peaks in the park. The most famous, El Capitan, is a towering shock of limestone that surges right off the desert floor like an arid sÈrac ready to topple over at any minute; it is the first sight you see when you enter the park driving north on Highway 54 from Van Horn, Texas. Guadalupe Peak, at 8750 feet, is the highest.
The mountain range itself lies in a pie-wedge shape at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains and the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert with the point of the wedge resting in Texas. The park is located on the New Mexican border, about 150 miles east of El Paso and 100 miles southwest of Carlsbad. The Guadalupe Mountain range is also one of the oldest fossil reefs in the world and it’s not uncommon to find seashells at the highest elevations in the park. Some 250 million years ago a small inland ocean covered West Texas and northern Mexico. The ocean was slowly cut off from the larger ocean to the west, eventually drying up and leaving salt deposits in what is now the scrub desert surrounding the range.
From the Ground Up: Before the hike
If you want to stay in the park the only option is camping. There are two main sites: at Pine Springs, close to the Visitors Center and Highway 54; and Dog Canyon, in the northern region of the park, which is close to McKittrick Canyon. Both campgrounds have restrooms but no showers and cost $7 per person per night, payable at the visitors center when you first enter the park. You can also camp in the numerous backcountry campgrounds where there are only the most primitive facilities (i.e., a clear square of ground). This camping is free but you have to sign in and get a backcountry permit at the visitors center. You must also hike in your own water and food, hike out any trash and, when nature calls, dig a hole.
Once you get your permit and talk to the serene, Buddha-like park rangers about such exciting things as the effects of thermodynamics—the year-round flip-flopping Sicorro winds in the park caused by warm low pressure systems off the Chihuahuan Desert and cold, high pressure systems in the mountains—you can find the trailhead to Guadalupe Peak behind Pine Springs campground, just next to the visitors center.
Our plan was to do an afternoon hike to the Guadalupe Peak campground, which at 7,300 feet is the highest campground in the state. There we’ll set up camp, then assault the summit the following morning without the weight of our tents, sleeping bags, etc. The trail to the top is just over four miles, gaining 3,000 vertical feet along the way. In other words, it’s all uphill.
“There’s one more thing,” says the park ranger before we hit the trail. “A mountain lion was spotted in the area you fellows are headed into. If you feel a pair of eyes following you, keep moving and make a lot of noise.”
For the most part, the ranger’s warning isn’t too big a surprise. After all, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is and always has been a wilderness refuge for the indigenous animals, including the rarely seen black bear. Unfortunately, the 79,293-acre park is one of the last refuges for the bear in Texas, and such exotic wildlife as the bighorn sheep and Meriam’s elk have become extinct in the mountains due to human activity. The fact that there’s a large hungry cat prowling the area only adds to the lingering feeling that we aren’t necessarily welcome in this isolated place.
No Day in the Park: Closing in on the peak
Some two hours into the hike and roughly halfway up the mountain, the extra book I packed begins to annoy me. I think about jettisoning it and the