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Texas Highpoint - Guadalupe Peak - 8749 ft
8 Jan 2000, around noon. Highpoint #3.
With the Millenium was fast approaching. Mehdi, Eric,
Dave and I had reached a consensus that we wanted to go on some adventure, but
schedules were pulling a noose round the calendar... In the end, Dave
couldn't go, Eric could take only 1 day after Y2K and I couldn't take much time,
so the adventure started to seem to slip away. This was illusion, however. The
seed had been planted; the magic word 'Gualalupe' had been uttered.
I have lived in Texas for almost 25 years (and Eric has been here at least as long if not longer) but I had never been to the top. This is not Right. One workday could be enough: If we prepared Thu night, took Fri off, leaving around 6 am to drive west to Guadalupe Mountain National Park, we could car camp Fri night, hike to the top (8 1/2 miles, +3000 feet to 8749 ft) on Sat, car camp Sat night and return to Austin on Sun. Mehdi, Eric and I were agreed.
As we prepare to leave Friday morning, the weather starts to worsen. A light rain is falling Thursday night as I load the car, and it doesn't stop. It is raining as we load the car together Friday morning and leave, through the early workday traffic. About three hours into the drive, the rain slows and we stop for breakfast, and change drivers. Soon into the next shift, the rain starts again, and it starts raining harder and harder. As we keep going west past Fort Stockton, the ground turns whitish and the rain turns to snow. At times, the snowflakes became quite large, you could tell even from inside the car that the flakes were big. This did not seem like fun weather to set up camp in.
We stop for lunch in Van Horn, an hour or so from the
park, for lunch. When we left, the rain had stopped, for good it turned out, and
the sky was turning blue. The last leg to the park takes us past the Sierra
Diablo, a name that you have to like. When we come into the park, we can see
that there is snow all over the ground, and it is lit really nicely in the late
sunlight. We pick out a nice car camping spot with a view, and set up camp.
It is calm but very cool, with fresh snow all over the ground. The campsite next to ours has a snow patch on the tent site with animal tracks through it. As light faded, we explore around the campsite, hiking through snow covered brush up onto a slope, and eventually onto a maintained trail. We follow the trail for a while, crunching through new fallen snow, until darkness approaches, and then return to camp.
We have MRE's along to eat on this trip, Eric found a source. These came from a different vendor than the ones I tried in South Dakota, but they are very similar. Eric and I both have stoves, so we crank them up to cook 3 separate meals. It is no problem heating them up well, and then we have crackers and jelly and applesauce and cookies like the ones from Omaha. Even the moist towlette!
It is getting bona-fide cold by now. The sky turns crisp black, with gorgeous stars and the milky way, and everything starts to get covered in crystalline frost. Some whiskey
holds back the cold while we admire the jewelry, but the temperature drops steadily. I read 25 deg F on my thermometer before we go to bed, and I bet it gets well colder than that during the night.
Saturday morning we get up around 7:15 MST and pack up for the day, and walk towards the trailhead. As we set out, there are a few footprints in the new snow, but obviously not many. The snow on the trail is still very fresh, and it feels exhilarating to head up the mountain. There is a good bit of snow, even down low, and it seems to be heavier on the trail than off, so it is clear that we will do lots of hiking on snow. As we keep going up, there is more and more snow, powdery and crunchy, and this mountain starts to feel like a MOUNTAIN!. A pile of rocks, covered in snow and ice, cold with the wind blowing! This is not like the Texas I have hiked through before! Texas has almost infinite forms though, really, so it seems appropriate that to complete our millennial hajj we must challenge yet another form.
Soon, we pass an older couple coming down. They are probably the first up since the snowfall, and soon after we pass their high point, and then there are no more footprints ahead of us in the snow. We hike along, steadily towards the top. After an hour and a half or so, we stop for a rest break. We have been making good time up, and it is really beautiful with the fresh snow all around. I personally am entranced with putting the first boot prints into the fresh snow, on the sacred mountain that is the target of our quest. It is time for a spliff, as I am really getting into the beautiful day, and I appreciate how lucky I am to be here.
As we get ready to leave the first rest stop, we notice a group of 6 or so coming along rapidly just below us. After first understanding the joy of being first up the mountain, and now carrying a buzz and wanting to continue to experience this, I am in no mood to surrender first place. As we load up, we discuss staying ahead of them, to see if they will pass us. It is obvious that they are coming along fast, so it is time for action. I jump ahead quickly, hoping to build a good fat lead that I can hold onto for as long as I can, and savor the serenity of the lead up this mountain.
Just after our stop, we cross to the other side of a small ridge, and the wind hits me with a slap. My adrenaline is pumping, I want to get ahead, and I charge forward. The group below quickly comes up to Mehdi and Eric, slowing them all down, but I have no intentions of giving up yet. Fast ahead! Soon, I am alone, with the others several minutes behind me, in another world for practical purposes. Me, the beautiful mountain, and nothing else as long as I keep hoofing it. Continuing along, the trail slips beneath trees, where it calms, and the trail becomes covered with the deepest snow of the whole climb, untrodden except for deer and other animals. No sound except the wind and my boots crunching underneath. It is a beautiful and serene hike, and I am genuinely honored and grateful that the mountain gods have allowed me this experience ...
For another half-hour or so, I stay ahead, stopping every so often to catch my breath, check the pursuers, and make sure that I don't get too far ahead of Mehdi and Eric. Time runs out eventually, and I am caught. They hail from Wisconsin, part of a university group. They are obviously enjoying the climb as much as I am, and now the untrodden snow is their privilege. There are campsites far along the trail. It would be nearly an all-day hike to camp here from the car, in these short days, since you would need plenty of time to set up camp, and the packs would be heavy. We thought about trying this on this trip (and thought better) but it could work. You would need a solid 4-season tent, as we would see. The day we arrived would have been extraordinary: we would have been alone (as we pass on the way up, there are no footprints to campsites) and first to the summit. It would have been cold, cold and covered in snow. The second night would have put us to a real test. Like on a real mountain!
Further along, at some points, the trail becomes rather treacherous, slippery from the snow and ice, and with some good slopes below. No missing any steps! Where boots ahead had trampled down the snow (alas) it turned icy (or revealed ice below?) and became slippery. We keep hiking up, as the snow turns more icy, but more patchy, and soon we are near the summit. The Wisconsin-ites are waiting on top for the rest of their group, two professors plus a third. We stop at the last halfway wind-protected spot, to catch some rest (it has been a long time since our last good break and this is tough hiking at 8500+ feet.) It seems like a good idea to eat our lunch, and wait for the other group to descend (the speedy young-uns have been up there a while) so that we can have the summit to ourselves.
We finish our lunch as the others come on down, so we have one last task before the top: Light the summit spliff! It is extremely obvious that we will light nothing in the winds at the very top, so we find the best protected nook we can, cover up from the wind, burning our cold fingers on those damned child-proof lighters, but eventually get her aflame... We smoke our (almost) summit puffs, and ready the whiskey (no need to carry the packs the last 100 feet!)
The last bit is not steep at all, to a steel pyramid monument on the top. The intermittent strong wind becomes constant and fierce at the top. Eric uses my camera to snap photos of us in triumph on the summit, and we look around. No going too near the edge - if the winds shift, off you go. Everything is covered in white powder. We pass the whiskey flask around, toasting to our success. It goes down smooth and warm up in those winds. I open up the standard ammo case to get to the logbook, and try and write something. It is hard to write in the cold wind, so I write a few words in big letters: '8 Jan 2000 : Windy, windy, snow covered and beautiful. God Bless Texas! Mark Kness, Austin.' Now, down we go.
When we get back to the camp, the winds have picked up quite a bit from when we left that morning. It is completely dry, but cold with lots of wind chill. We are ready for a hot meal, but there is no way to light the stove in the wind. We have set up our tents with my tent door facing into the wind, and Eric's tent behind me, with his door facing away from the wind. Eric sets up his vestibule and starts the stove up. We want to run two stoves, so we can cook faster, since it doesn't look like any fun to be stuck out in this wind, so I try the same thing from my tent. (Neither of us have tried cooking in the vestibule before.) Since the wind is hitting me straight up, I think I have a harder time. I get out the stove, fuel, pot and MRE and get ready. Stupidly, I try to set the pot full of water inside the tent for a minute. (I thought that it would be a flat surface that will keep the bottom clean of dirt.) True, but the winds knock it asunder within seconds, and water spills into the tent. NOT what we want to get on the sleeping bags. Fortunately, I have my luxury-pillow, which I have been sitting on. It quickly becomes a water-sponge, and the sleeping bags stay dry.
I can't get the stove lit with the lighter, though. I can only get the lighter to hold a flame for a moment, not long enough to get it to the gas jet. I need a match! Well, those MRE's from Omaha came with those 'water-resistant matches' and I brought along a book. Stove aflame! I don't get the meal as hot as last night, the wind cuts the stove effectiveness a lot, but it does get warmed up pretty well. I don't want to eat in the tent and spill food in it and on Mehdi's sleeping bag, so I go out to the picnic table and eat my beef ravioli and my crackers and apple jelly and applesauce in the howling winds. Then, back to the tent, for good now.
As the night rolls on, the winds get stronger and stronger. It is not nearly as cold as the night before, but it is much windier. I think my tent is holding up very well though - it is noisy as hell with the winds and the tent sides flapping constantly, and the tent sides slap you if you are right near the edge, but it seems to be holding its shape just fine. Mehdi is right up against the wind, and I am in the lee, so sleep is a lot easier for me. We catch what sleep we can, as the winds get stronger and stronger.
By 2 am or so, the gusts are heavy duty blasts. According to the rangers, the sustained winds were 35-45 mph, with the gusts hitting 75 mph. Hurricane force. Our tent site is completely unprotected from the wind, except for a wooden fence. Between bouts of sleep, I wonder about our condition. The tent really seems fine, even when the blasts pound it down, but I sure hope the wind doesn't find any debris to pick up and throw at us. The place is pretty well scoured clean, though, these winds are nothing unusual, it turns out.
Eric's tent doesn't hold up, though. One of the tent poles fails, and it pops through the sleeve in the tent and the rain-fly outside, like a compound fracture. Since I slept through this, he has to wake me up to get the car keys, to spend the night in the car, which is rocking back and forth just like the tents. The tent is probably salvageable (with new poles) but then maybe it is time to replace the 10 year old tent.
By morning, it has calmed quite a bit and we can take down camp without an ordeal, so we load the car and head back to Austin. About an hour past the Sierra Diablo brings us to Van Horn, where we search for breakfast. We follow the standard procedure of driving the town looking for lots of cars parked in front of a restaurant, and pick 'Chuy's' for a Mexican food breakfast. This place advertises as being in the 'Madden Haul of Fame' and has some pictures of Madden inside. We are seated in the John Madden room, where we order chorizo con huevos with hash browns and the obligatory coffee. The TV is on, and, luckily, the Dallas vs. Minnesota game is just about to start! Narrated by ... John Madden. Hmmm. We watch the first quarter while we eat and then start back. By 8 pm, we are back, exhausted and victorious.