Up on the top, with views that can't be beat
Mike Leggett, Commentary
Two hundred yards below the summit, the trail goes billy goat, almost impossible to find in the hard pan and tight against the boulders from which it was cut. I press myself against the rock and crab walk up the trail.
I feel like I'm in one of those Tarzan movies, where a minor player slips from a ledge like this and falls thousands of feet into nothingness.
Except that this escarpment is not in a Saturday morning jungle movie. It's real. It's nearly 9,000 feet high. And it's littered with loose gravel and toe-tripping rock. There are no holds here. No railing.
I haven't been frightened all day, and I'm not now, although the four-hour climb to reach the top of Guadalupe Peak has left me a bit fatigued. This would not be a good place for my legs to give out.
Barely 100 yards away from the peak, the trail becomes a ghost. It forks and braids and slips in and out of sight, always climbing higher. My field of vision is reduced to the rock and the trail.
The peak looms above, teasing, "Come on up here ... if you can."
Then, suddenly, I poke my head over the top, and I am slammed in the face with a jaw-dropping panorama that stretches to a horizon that is at least 100 miles away.
Under a flawless periwinkle sky, I am standing at the summit of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas.
I turn to my climbing partner, Stan Graff, and we grab each other in an embrace of triumph.
This is No. 11 on my list of 24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies: climb in the tallest peak in the Lone Star State. And I've done it. With a partner, which is a much better way to share Texas.
Graff is a veteran climber who once spent 25 days climbing Denali in Alaska and mastered the technical notes for a front face summit of Wyoming's Grand Teton.
"Thanks for inviting me," he says. "I've always wanted to climb Guadalupe Peak, but I'd just never done it. This is just beautiful."
We are in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in that wild wedge of Texas between New Mexico and Mexico. El Capitan is this park's signature mountain, a giant, hulking rock that juts toward U.S. 62/180, south of Carlsbad, N.M. But Guadalupe Peak is more than 1,500 feet higher and the real treasure of this park.
All of the mountains here tower above a valley floor that was part of a vast saltwater ocean that dominated the area millions of years ago. The mountains were created in a volcanic uplift, and they are just huge.
Now, climbing Guadalupe Peak isn't super difficult. It's more tortoise than hare, more mule than mountain goat. Basically a slow, steady trudge from the Pine Springs campground to the peak at 8,751 feet. Start to finish, from sunscreen in the parking lot to the top and back to the beer at the truck, it's an easy seven hours.
You gain more than 3,000 feet in elevation and travel more than eight miles to make the round trip. The park service rates the climb as strenuous, and I guess it is. There are enough steps and slides and trippy spots to get your heart rate going and occasionally make an old guy like me wonder what I'm doing.
Graff and I started our ascent at about 8 on a perfect morning. It was 50 degrees below and got warmer as the day progressed. We went just slow enough to keep off the sweat and fast enough that we didn't get chilled when we stopped. We passed through multiple mountain ecosystems on the way, desert scrub, ponderosa and piñon pine, high grassland and deep, black timber canyons.
Apart from occasional "great views," Graff and I didn't talk much. There wasn't much to say and no need to say it. We were sharing the experience and that was most of what we needed.
Beth Byron also needed the mountain, but for a different reason. The Michigan native caught up with us about halfway up the mountain. "I'm trying to reach the highest points in every state," Byron said. "This is mine for Texas."
Graff and I see her again just below the summit, and we take turns with the cameras to record the moment for our own reasons.
Also just below the summit, we bump into Jim Martin and Wendell Hough, two longtime McCallum High School buddies who, in a moment of extreme bravado or unexplained stupidity, spent the previous night in a primitive campground just a few hundred yards from the peak.
"The wind was blowing at least 60 miles an hour," Hough says. "I couldn't even stand up."
They are sitting now beneath a giant ponderosa pine, having a snack before the trip down. "We came to bring the Burnet city flag," Hough says, "to photograph it at the summit. It's the same flag that flew over Texas in 1837 when Washington recognized us as a sovereign, independent nation."
Named for Texas President David Burnet, the flag featured a giant white star on a blue field. It's since been adopted by the City of Burnet. "We're taking it around to significant spots in Texas," says Hough, who's from Bertram. "We think it's the first time this flag has been flown on Guadalupe Peak."
There are days when winds in excess of 60 mph buffet the peaks in the Guadalupe Mountains. Today is not one of those days. We sit with a bottle of water and a Hershey bar to enjoy view and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with reaching a goal.
Oddly enough, there's a cell phone signal up here. I'd love to call my wife and a couple of friends from the top, but that seems a little sacrilegious, and I resist the temptation.
Graff and I take our pictures, sign our names in the log book at the base of the monument and figure it's time to start down.
A falcon dives past us at a staggering rate. It's his morning commute, in a way, and he'll end it almost in New Mexico, with a fat cardinal or maybe a mountain bluebird in his claws. Standing here on this jumble of rocks, glued to the ground by the miserable laws of gravity and too many beers, watching him braced against the wind racing over his wings, I can only think of Jeremiah Johnson.
Robert Redford's mountain man portrayal features a scene where his Jeremiah spies a hawk firing his jets and racing across the sky.
"Hawk. Goin' for the Musselshell," Redford says. "Take me a week's ridin' and he'll be there in ... hell, he's there already."
I'm starting three hours down to the truck, and he's there already.