Why climb the mountain?
George Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there!” which has been called the most famous three words in mountaineering. Not that we get around to ‘mountaineering’ ourselves, but we do hike mountains, and this spring break we hiked the tallest one in Texas, Guadalupe Peak.
We wanted to visit Big Bend National Park but were too late in securing accommodations. You see, we are not hardcore campers or even this new thing called “glampers”. We need a hotel room, or lodge, or slightly sketchy but tolerable roadside motel, and there was nothing near Big Bend.
Needing a Plan B and wanting our trip within a day’s drive from home, it was a pretty easy decision to finally climb Guadalupe Peak and visit one of the two National Parks in Texas.
Only trouble? The closest place to stay is Carlsbad, New Mexico if you aren’t a hardcore camper. We had visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park seven years ago, and though visiting such a natural wonder again would be sublime, (K had actually been there three times before) it wasn’t exactly top on our list. But I’m always up for some mountain air, and about two hours from Carlsbad to the northwest is the Sacramento Mountains, and just beyond, the White Sands National Monument. And so our five-day trip (two days driving out and back) was set, though it did involve a slightly sketchy but tolerable roadside motel in the form of an Econolodge on the south side of town.
Our trip was planned to be flexible around the best day to hike Guadalupe peak because it is notoriously windy in the spring. Leading up to the trip, I kept my eye on the weather and as the forecast began to solidify, day one looked to be the best day to climb with winds at the peak of only 20 miles per hour (it can easily get as high as 50 to 70 mph in the spring), a small chance of light rain, and at the trailhead a high in the mid 50’s.
The hike itself is eight miles round trip with a 3000-foot elevation gain to the peak at 8751 feet. The hike is rated strenuous and took us what we think was eight hours to complete, or maybe nine?
When we crossed from Texas to Carlsbad, we lost an hour due to time zone, but then that night was daylight savings time so we gained the hour back, but then we crossed back into Texas the next morning and gained an hour back from the one we had lost but then gained with daylight savings time. Our car clock and cell phones all had different times, and by the time we started hiking that morning, frankly, we had no idea what time it was, all of which is a great talking point for getting rid of daylight savings time. It’s also a nice meditation on the nature of time, but that’s for some other…time.
Anyway, the hike took us eight or nine hours, or maybe ten, or perhaps seven; we’re not quite sure.
As we drove early morning from Carlsbad to Guadalupe Mountains National Park (GMNP), near the border the land began to sink down into the valley surrounding the range, dark clouds hung overhead and with about seven miles to the entrance a light rain began. The car thermometer read 52 degrees.
The area surrounding GMNP is desolate, arid desert. Very little vegetation (mostly yuccas and scrubby little bushes) and receives only 14 inches of rain a year. After passing the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns NP, there is no gas for 130 miles. It is all very remote, but it is that remoteness which is the draw and gives it its beauty, so far away from everything.
When we arrived at the visitor’s center, the rain was coming down steadily. I was discouraged; we had no rain gear, not even a poncho, but K was wonderfully positive as usual and bought us ponchos. Despite the rain, we began our trek.
The trail can be broken up into four zones. The first is high desert; yuccas, prickly pears, and scrub brush and trees. The second is a zone of pines, pinion mostly, and a few scrub oaks, very small. Both of these zones were on the north side of the range protected from the wind. The third zone, which didn’t last long, is an open area with long grasses and fewer but larger pines. And finally, the fourth which was mostly exposed rock with little vegetation.
It was intense climbing, especially the first 1.5 miles, which consisted of intense switchbacks, and the final mile near the peak which also featured switchbacks but the addition of wind and traversing some exposed rock rather than trail. Crossing to the north side of the range introduced the wind which was strong. Combined with cooler temperatures due to the higher elevation, I switched from my ball cap to a knitted hat and put on gloves.
Making it to the top was really fantastic, of course. We took all the important pictures and found a rock tall enough that we could crouch below for protection from the wind to eat a few snacks while looking out over the beautiful Texas desert far, far below. It was then after eating that the snow and sleet began to fall, albeit lightly. It didn’t last but 10 – 15 minutes yet was enough to make the descent tricky to negotiate because of the now slick rocks; I was very glad we took our poles. It was also very windy. Funny as it sounds, this made the hike more memorable and maybe better.
And that is one of the reasons to hike a mountain, isn’t it, the challenge of it? This hike was perfect. It had just enough difficulty to push us, just enough to challenge us, to make us feel like we had accomplished something, experienced something outside of ourselves.
Another is the environment. It was refreshing to be in such a remote place, to be out, to feel the wind and the cold, feel the lungs expand and the heart beat hard, the rain on our face, the leg muscles exhausted; such a visceral, sensorial experience. The massive expanse of the desert below us, the sky above, nature unfolding in her multiple layers of rock and vegetation; what a wonder to witness, to connect with, and participate.
We were very much craving pizza and a beer during the descent only to find to our great disappointment that most non-chain restaurants in Carlsbad are closed on Sunday and Monday. This did not take away from our wonderful adventure though, and besides, we found a charming little establishment downtown called Yellow Brix that had taken an old house, surely built in the 1940’s or so, and fashioned it into a white tablecloth restaurant. We might not have looked or smelled the part, the but wine and green chili fettuccine were magnificent!