An Early StartWe’d arrived at Guadalupe Mountains National Park at dawn the following morning after a 12 hour overnight drive, hiked to Devil’s Hall and back (with no sleep whatsoever), and crashed out in our tents by 4 PM after setting alarms for 4 AM the following morning.
The 4 AM wake-up wasn’t too much of a shock thanks to nearly 12 hours of sleep but it was still an ungodly early hour to be up. It was cool, perhaps in the upper 30s (fahrenheit) , with clear skies that revealed millions of stars. Jermaine and I both quickly, and quietly so as not to disturb the campers surrounding us, went to work breaking down tents, stuffing our backpacks, filling hydration packs, and munching on gorp and energy gels to fuel ourselves for the effort ahead. Lifting my pack to throw it into the bed of Jermaine’s truck for the short drive to the trail head was a shock. At 50-55 pounds it seemed heavier than ever but that’s exactly what we wanted for this training climb.
We drove the short distance to the trailhead, parked, took a couple of photos, and started dialing in our packs. The trail to Guadalupe Peak isn’t really visible from the campsite even though its countless switchbacks crisscross the walls that tower a thousand feet above the lower camps. Maps tend to use straight lines to represent the long series of switchbacks so they don’t always accurately reveal what you are in for when you start this trip. We’d read dozens of trip reports and knew that the trail gained elevation quickly but didn’t really know what to expect otherwise.
Moving on to the trail I muttered something about keeping it “slow and steady” and lead off in the dark with my Black Diamond Spot headlamp lighting the way. I had no idea exactly how slow things would actually be until I ran out of breath about 30 feet later. Jermaine wasn’t fairing much better. We stopped a few seconds and moved on only to stop again a few feet later. We repeated this three or four times before I muttered something about failure not being an option. I think I dropped a few F-bombs as well. Privately, I was wondering how I could go from months of strenuous workouts to nearly being stopped dead in my tracks at the base of Guadalupe Peak but I wasn’t going to stop. I decided that the cold, altitude, pack, and early hour were all a shock to my system and that I’d eventually hit my groove if I could maintain a slow and steady pace. At this point I asked Jermaine to lead so that I could could focus more on getting into the zone.
Jermaine did a great job of setting short-term goals and moving us slowly from point to point in that early hour. I did manage to find my groove and we found ourselves several hundred feet above our camp by sunrise. We started switching in and out of the lead position with the leader calling out hazards, mostly exposed areas, along the way. We’d stop occasionally to send status updates to Twitter or give our shoulders a rest but mostly we keep a slow steady pace that took us higher and higher up the wall.
ExposedThe Guadalupe Peak trail is fairly rugged. It’s almost entirely rocky and uneven. Some of the rock is quite slippery and it is not unusual for the narrow trail to also slope gently towards exposed drop offs that would easily prove fatal should you be unfortunate enough to slip. I can’t say it really concerned us much in those early hours. I think we were both more excited about gaining altitude than worried about falling but the standard leader’s joke when passing through the more dangerous sections was “Um, don’t fall here.”
While there was a healthy respect for these areas any fear was offset by the sheer awesomeness of standing two feet from the edge and surveying the landscape spreading out a thousand or more feet below and knowing that you reached that point under your own power. It’s a feeling that can’t be conveyed by photos, videos, or trip reports. You have to do it to fully grasp the impact.
Alpine ForestWe continued to gain elevation and move along the wall towards Pine Springs Canyon. At this point we moved up to a gap on the mountain’s shoulder which is exposed on two sides. From here you move around to the other, windier side, which shortly transitions into switchbacks that climb through an alpine forest. The view from this point was amazing so we paused for a moment. The 30-40 MPH winds were chilly but bearable. However, we were nearly knocked off our feet by a freak gust that must have exceeded 70 MPH. We were both rocked but instinctively leaned forward on our trekking poles at a 90 degree angle to minimize our profiles and managed to ride out the gust. It was an exciting but dangerous reminder of the unpredictability of mountain weather.
Temperatures started to fall as we climbed through the forest. We were no longer directly exposed to sunlight and we were catching strong winds. Heavier gloves came out and we moved on - wondering when the high camp would appear. We were still strong but busting 50+ pound packs uphill on rocky surfaces while getting pushed around by strong cold winds is hard work - very hard work.
Climbing higher we could see the vibrant fall colors of the trees in Pine Springs Canyon over a thousand feet below. The high walls of the canyon, that towered above us on our previous day’s hike to Devil’s Hallway, were now far below.
We busted out the new series of switchbacks for another few hundred feet of elevation gain and moved around to find a small valley bordered by 100-200 foot slopes on either side. We didn’t know it yet but the high camp is situated on the high point to the right at about 7,900 feet. It would take us another half hour to reach that spot and we were cursing the person who decided to place the backcountry camp site on a point above the trail.
High CampWe were the first group into the site that day and had our pick of the few sites. The most popular site is surrounded on three sides by a small wall made of tree branches and rocks. However, there is another site before it that looks more exposed but sits in a naturally recessed area. The winds were really moving at this point, constantly high and probably gusting to 50 MPH, and it seemed that the recessed camp site was actually fairing better. We dropped our packs, decided to take a short break before setting up our tents, and found places to sit that were sheltered from the wind.
About 30 minutes later we both woke up. We had sprawled out on the cold ground, fallen asleep, and were now shivering like mad. Temperatures were dropping and the wind was picking up. We struggled to our feet and moved quickly, as quickly as we could, to erect our tents. We needed to get out of the wind and warm up.
Setting up tents in howling, and increasingly cold, winds is not a piece of cake. However, we were motivated and worked as a team to setup both quickly. Mine went up first. Jermaine actually had to get inside of it, while I worked outside, to keep it from blowing away at one point. Luckily, we had rope which we used to tie off the tents in every direction. Between rope, our gear, and large rocks placed in each tent, we managed to keep them in place. Still, large gusts of wind (some approaching minimal hurricane force) would come out of nowhere and nearly flatten them.
With dove into our tents, cleaned up, and crawled into our sleeping bags. We were in pretty good condition but the nap on the cold ground and winds had sapped body heat and we were looking forward to warming up inside our tents. Our initial plan had been to setup camp, eat and relax, and then sprint for the summit but the increasing winds and diving temperatures forced us to push our summit plans back a few hours. We decided to crash out, get up well before dawn (when winds are typically lightest), and head for the summit without the 50 pound packs.
Freaky, Hellish WindWe spent the next couple of hours eating and getting our gear sorted out. Occasionally we’d have to push back against the tent walls as huge gusts push them in. I’ve ridden out several hurricanes and tropical storms but this wind was just different. It wasn’t uniform. You could hear several different gusts moving around you. They often moved in slightly different directions and each had a unique sound. Some whistled, some swirled, some sounded like jet engines at full roar and it went on for hour after hour. We each fell asleep long before it died down. The tents would hold but one of my metal tent poles would actually be bent by the wind before things calmed down.
Summit PushI’d told Jermaine that we’d get up at 4 AM for the summit push but woke up sometime in the night and decided to move the time up an hour and set my cell phone’s alarm for 3 AM. When it went off I hit the headlamp, reached for the phone, and accidentally took this photo.
A minute or two later I called out to Jermaine to wake him up and we started reviewing our plan for the morning without leaving our respective tents. I had to take a large Canon 40D to the summit so I needed a pack. I didn’t have an extra day pack with me so I stripped my large pack of everything but the hydration bag, stuck the camera in it, and got ready move out. Jermaine also carried a liter of water.
We were off quickly, making our way down the slope back to the main trail, and up towards the final sets of switchbacks that curl around the mountain and up to the summit. It was bitterly cold, we were told later that rangers estimated it at 23 degrees fahrenheit before wind chill, but it didn’t effect us much while we were moving uphill. Moving in the dark, with only headlamps to light the way, was eerie. Sections of the remaining trail are quite exposed and it was not uncommon to turn to look left, right, or down and see nothing but utter darkness. The headlamps beam, with over a hundred foot range, found nothing to land on and just disappeared into nothingness. It was like hiking on a thin white line in space at times. The “don’t fall here” jokes came out again.
We moved across a small wooden bridge suspended over a gap in the cliff’s edge and across into another alpine forest. This one was sparser than the earlier, lower, forest and contained long switchbacks that climbed up to a rockier area. We were climbing above 8,000 feet at this point and would soon turn a corner where we’d see the silhouette of El Capitan in the darkness and what we could only assume to be the summit a few hundred feet above us to the right.
The switchbacks grew shorter and steeper as they curved up the peak. It became difficult to make out the path at some points and making our way over some of the large rocks on the way required careful movement. Frankly, by this point it seemed like the switchbacks were just going to continue forever even though it was apparent that there wasn’t much ground left to climb. We took our last short break at about 8,500 feet, turned off our headlamps, and stared out into the darkness that surrounded us. The sky above was filled with millions of stars and on the desert floor below we could see the occasional truck pass. From our vantage point they looked like tiny, slow moving, points of light. On the horizon, over a hundred miles away, we could see the lights of El Paso. It was a view worth suffering for.
We moved on again, hopeful that we were quite close, and we were. Just a few minutes later I’d turn to my right and catch the summit marker in my headlamp’s beam just 30 feet above. I yelled “We’re there!” and scrambled, as quickly as possible, the remaining distance to the marker. Jermaine joined me a minute later and we shook hands - relieved.
We immediately started taking a few photos and pushed out a summit announcement via Twitter. We also made quick calls to our families. However, we’d stopped moving and the cold really started to set in. First our hands, then feet, began to suffer. We weren’t in danger but we were incredibly uncomfortable. We’d each take couple of photos and then have to stop, push our gloved hands back into our coats, and warm them up before attempting repeating the painful process again. Luckily, sunrise (and warmth) was only a few minutes away and we elected to stay on the summit to take more photos.
The rising sun revealed El Capitan and features in the desert that had remained hidden during our climb. The hour we spent on the summit started to pass quickly as the temperatures rose.
We shot a few more photos and then Jermaine pulled out the summit register contained in the old ammo box wedged under the summit marker. We read through it briefly and found entries ranging from inspirational to the comical.
We each signed the register and prepared to make our way down the mountain. Along the way, the temperature would rise quickly. We’d have to remove all the cold weather gear before even making it back to our tents.