The primary purpose of my trip to Texas was to summit the state's highest point, Guadalupe Peak (GP). I had summited Wheeler Peak in New Mexico (its highest summit) two days earlier. But any summit of Guadalupe would not be complete without a side trip over to El Capitan (EC).
My hike began at the GP trailhead at about 6:00 AM with two of my brothers, Ed, and Steve, and our friend Janice from Casper, Wyoming. The trailhead is at about 5700'. It was an hour before sunrise. Skies were clear, winds calm and the temps were in the low 50's. Even though I tend to be something of a speed hiker, our foursome had previously decided to stay together, at least early on, due to the potential mountain lion danger. (Hey, I'm a Pennsylvania boy, and the closest I've ever gotten to a big cat, or ever want to - is seeing the Penn State Nittany Lion mascot at a PSU football game in Happy Valley).
The first 500 feet of the trail is moderately steep, but it then becomes a fairly easy grade with many switchbacks. The trail is easily identifiable -- you cannot get lost. As dawn broke, the early light revealed some great views of the surrounding mountains. We took our time, snapping many digital pictures along the way. At about 8000' we got our first views of the Guadalupe summit. Another half-mile up the trail, at about 8300', is a hard right, almost u-turn, around a bend where we got our first glimpse of EC. After a few more switchbacks and another 400' we reached the summit of GP. We arrived at the summit in just under three hours.
After forty minutes exploring the summit and taking pictures, I began my descent, and began heading towards EC. My three climbing partners remained at the summit to watch my progress. I proceeded down the main trail about 200 yards to a fairly obvious jump off point where the main trail connects to a spine that runs SW and downward towards the "horn" of EC. From here on, there is no trail. It is all bushwacking and scrambling.
Once off trail, I quickly located a "rattlesnake stick," which I cut to my own specifications using my pocket knife. I actually went through three of these, before settling on a long thin yucca stick. I proceeded down the spine only about 100 feet before deciding to traverse to my right and enter the drainage gully. I found down-climbing / scrambling over the bolders and sometimes loose scree of the drainage preferable to bushwacking, given the cactus, yucca and other scrub brush that is everywhere on this mountain.
I followed the drainage down about 100 feet and the traversed right again to the cliff's edge on the western side of EC. The vegitation is less entangling nearest the cliff top, so stay to your right. Staying in the drainage too long will take you lower than you need to go before you begin to re-ascend up to the EC summit.
As you approach the "horn" of EC, you will need to traverse left and hike level to the low point of the notch to the left of the horn. Staying to your right along the cliff's edge will take you to the summit of the horn. From the top of the horn there are great views in all directions, but once / if you get here (as I did) you will realize you did some unessesary up-climbing. I stayed close to the cliffs' edge as I down-climbed into the notch and then began to re-ascend again towards the EC summit. Just below the horn, as you proceed to the EC summit, you will encounter the gargoyle of EC. It is a protruding rock feature at the cliff top with an "open mouth." The cliff's edge in the bottom of the notch provides the best views of the gargoyle.
From the notch below the horn, I found my way slightly away from the cliff's edge. From here to the summit of EC, there is a hint of a faint trail. I reached the summit cairn at about 11:00 AM, about 90 minutes after leaving the GP summit. This route can be completed more quickly. I was delayed fashioning three different rattlesnake sticks, taking numerous photographs, getting a little lost, and just taking in the awesome views.
I've read different conflicting reports concerning the true summit of EC. Some have said it is at the southernmost tip. To me however, this tip appeared to be slightly lower than the spot where the carin is located. I had a handheld Garmin GPS unit with me and took a reading at the cairn of 8148'. Since I've seen EC listed at 8085' on topo maps, I'm fairly confident I was at the true summit. If anyone has any definitive information either way, I'd like to know.
Since I solo'd EC, I had to prop my camara on some rocks and use my timer to get a summit shot, a shot I've posted on SP. It shows GP over my right shoulder.
My return trip was easier, since it was over terrain I'd already covered, and since I was able to keep in constant sight my final destination (the main GP trail). I traversed the side of the horn, avoiding the unecessary up & down climb, and scrambled over as many boulders as I could to avoid bushwaking. I reached a low point of 7810', then began up climbing towards to GP main trail. I tried to scramble relatively level as I made a bee line for the drainage, reaching it 75-100 feet below the "Y-intersection." At the Y-intersection, I veered to the right, and followed this fork in the drainage all the way back up to the GP main trail. Taking the left fork appears to also reconnect to the GP main trail, but it does so at a higher elevation than does the right fork. The upper sections of the drainage were quite steep ( 35-45 degrees) and had lots of scree. Finding good footing was a challange. I should note that just before entering the drainage, I came across three bones from the right leg of a mountain lion, still connected together by the decaying remains of ligements, flesh and hair. I appeared to be in a kill zone (or an eating zone), so I didn't linger.
Once I met up with the main trail, and got my last views from above EC, I ran most of the way back down the main trail to the parking lot.
My trip to EC was physically demanding and very rewarding. I could have used more water. I had chugged a quart of Gatorade in the parking lot just before beginning my climb, and only carried with me a quart of water. The weather conditions could not have been better, although I suppose a little wind (but maybe not the extreme winds others have encountered) would have been welcome. Temps were in the mid 70's to low 80's between GP and EC and it was perfectly calm, and perfectly clear. Climbing and bushwaking in these conditions caused some overheating and a need for extra water.
GP was my 39th state highpoint, and the combination of GP and EC made it one of my favorites. Whitney is massive; Borah is cool, GP is right up there. I can't wait to go back.
Heading to El Capitan I thought it would be easier to descend the knuckle to the east of the drainage the author describes(towards the left when facing El Capitan). I descended the knuckle until the knuckle ended and about three major drainages come together. If you descend the knuckle you should traverse the drainage and move towards the right-side cliff a little before this point. I continued to follow the drainage further down before climbing back up...I knew I was going way too far when I started to lose sight of Guadalupe so I cut back up El Capitan from the east. All in all I lost about 30 minutes
I think you could follow the drainage all the way down to El Capitan Trail. It would be a little steeper than the climb up to the Guadalupe Trail and it looks like there's 100 or so feet that are just a bit shy of being technical so I wouldn't recommend trying it on your first summit attempt.
I agree with the author that El Capitan's northern "peak" looks at least as high as the southernmost edge, but the topo maps show the southern edge as being higher. Anyways, there's a sign-in book at the southern edge so it's definitely worth the extra 10 minutes or so to meander all the way to the south. I was the first person to sign in over 4 months, so it looks like few people make it all the way.
Bring tons of water! I had over a gallon and drank it all before I even started back down the Guadalupe Peak Trail.