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 three liters of water I’m carrying but I know better. Already I’m exhausted. The air seems to be getting thinner; each breath more difficult than the one before. Heinrich and Jack had fallen way behind and the only sound I heard was my boots on the gravelly path and the wind sweeping in off the salt flats to the south. The sound of step after step becomes a kind of Zen mantra.
Along the way I pass a few hikers headed down from a day trip to the summit. Some are older while some are schoolchildren. Everyone offers a tidbit about the top or the trail, “almost there,” or “it’s great once you’re there,” or “got a ways to go.” It reminds me of hiking in the Nepal Himalayas where the only reliable source of information comes from the locals you meet on the trail. More often than not you could find out if there was snow at the higher elevations, how the trail conditions were and how much longer it was to the next stop. On Guadalupe Peak the only consistent warning is “it’s windy.” And justifiably so. The winds here are infamous for their sheer power. Speeds of up to 120 miles an hour have been reported and according to our guidebook, once the trailer used as the ranger station in McKittrick Canyon was blown across the canyon floor “like a tumbleweed.”
For the most part, the winds in the park are the strongest in the spring and at the higher elevations, so we’ve planned for the worst by packing extra guy lines to tie the tents down. The hurricane-force gales are part of what make this place so remote. Before 1972 when the land in the park was privately owned, most of it was relatively untouched by public feet. Even today the park has few permanent structures and no development in the backcountry with the exception of the hiking trails. Basically, the park hasn’t changed at all since the Mescalero Apaches used these mountains as a stronghold over a hundred years ago. Once you’re there you can see why.
Soon the trail becomes a series of switchbacks, winding through alpine forest where Douglas fir and gray oak tower into the sky. Golden eagles circle on the rising warm air overhead and at some spots the path narrows to about two feet wide with sheer cliffs falling away from the trail. Here, the views become more and more spectacular with sweeping vistas of the desert to the south and the mountain’s rolling brown hills trailing off like a series of shaved scalps. After about three-and-a-half hours we arrive huffing and puffing at the campsite and pitch our tents on a clear and level spot next to a limestone outcrop.
That night no one slept. Instead we lay in our sleeping bags listening to the wind lash at the tent flys. At first it sounded like a distant truck on some highway, roaring closer and closer until we could actually hear the swirling motion of the burst circling the campsite. Violent gales shook the tent, lifting up the corners near our bedrolls as easily as newspaper. Alternately, small ripples tapped on the ceiling like children’s fingers. My thoughts were restless too. The way I see it climbing up Guadalupe Peak is a lot like climbing through life. We have to make plans to get to the top of anything. We have to prepare ourselves and set goals. But on the mountain the climber lives a simple existence while undertaking a simple journey. Here we will feed ourselves, shelter ourselves and stay out of danger.
At about three in the morning I finally managed to accept my untimely demise at the hands of nature and succumbed to sleep, convinced I would awake in a freefall down the side of Guadalupe Peak. Climbing mountains is the most basic activity we can do, but is it also just plain stupid?
Getting High: Reaching the Summit
By the next morning the winds had died down and everything was miraculously still in place. There’s nothing quite like waking up and brushing your teeth at 7,300 feet above sea level after sleeping through a night’s worth of tornadoes. When the first thing you see is a one-hundred-mile view over the Chihuahuan Desert with the rising sun streaking colors on the horizon you know it’s going to be a good day. Plus, after the burdened hike it took to get to the campsite, the forty-five-minute walk to the summit with a carefully planned lunch of toast points, smoked salmon, and a fine bottle of Italian Pinot Gris might be just the poetry we were looking for.
From the campsite to the peak the trail winds through arid scrub brush and alpine forest where fresh mule deer prints dot the paths up and down the mountainside. Overhead the eagles circle around and around, as they did the day before, and the day before that, and the day before any hiker ever touched this ground. The only sound is the steady, cold wind above us. Pushing on, I can smell my ripe body and feel every ache, and I realize that out here, it is impossible not to exist in the moment.
As I climb the last steep series of switchbacks and a chilly wind threatens to upend my balance I find that I’m a little reluctant to reach the top of Texas. When you think about it, climbing mountains is a useless endeavor. Useless in the way art is useless or poetry is useless. Once there I will find what I’m looking for and lose my reason for being there at the exact same time.
At the top, the salt flats to the south look like distant glaciers in their whiteness and a metal pyramid commemorating the highest point in the state stands defiantly in the wind. Next to it sits a green army ammo box inside of which lies a notebook. There I scrawl a poem by Philippe Denis:
“To live in the way one breathes, to move on in front of one’s life—what we reach emerges from the day like the wind, blinds our breath.”
Looking up to the faded blue horizon I can see for the first time beyond my suddenly small Lone Star State—all the way to New Mexico and through the wilderness to the north.
I am here, because it’s there.
Read Show Your Colors
The Secret of the State’s Undiscovered National Park. Texas Monthly, October 1993