As winter deepens, we Alaskans traditionally spend a lot of time taking steps to stay warm.
But I recall a climb of Mt. Guadalupe in Texas several years ago when upon reaching the mountain’s 8,749-foot summit, I discovered something extremely rare in my Lone Star State experience: Cold.
For half an hour I sat goose-pimpled on a rock and shivered, enjoying every single moment!
I know of intrepid souls who have reached the highest point in every state, including Denali. I confess that my accomplishment of climbing to the highest point in only one state, Texas, is significantly less impressive.
The idea of climbing Guadalupe came in 2004 when I was temporarily assigned to Houston, Texas by my former employer, BP.
I quickly learned that much of the state is as flat as a phonograph record. Great for biking. But for climbing, not so much.
Having lived in mountainous Alaska all my life, this situation was completely untenable. I soon found myself driving 500 miles due west on weekends to the Chisos Mountains that lie within Big Bend National Park.
Incidental to one of those trips, I decided to drive north toward the border with New Mexico, where I would eventually visit Carlsbad Caverns. Along the way and early in the morning, I came upon Guadalupe Mountains National Park (about 90 miles east of El Paso) and quickly found the trail. With an elevation gain of about 3,000 feet, the round-trip distance was about 8-1/2 miles.
From the first minute I set foot in Texas, my eyes were continuously directed in one direction: down to my feet.
That’s because of my deathly fear of snakes. Fortunately, it was late autumn and I was told most of the area’s vipers were in hibernation. Nevertheless, I kept my eyes focused– and through my vigilance–spotted a few small lizards.
After about a mile and a half, the trail became less steep and turned around to a north-facing slope, where I came upon a small forest of pinion pine, southwestern white pine and Douglas fir. I learned that the slightly cooler, shadier north-facing slope allowed these pines to survive.
Interesting geology: The Guadalupe Mountains are an ancient reef that grew during the Permian period, about 260-280 million years ago. That makes them older than the dinosaurs, and even older than the supercontinent, Pangea. When you stand on the Guadalupe mountains, it’s just like you’re standing on the reef 280 million years ago and looking out over the original ocean floor! That’s why the area is rich in small fossils, some of which I spotted in the outcroppings.
After nearly three miles, the well-maintained trail came to a false summit–about a mile shy of the actual summit. There was little wind, but by this time I could feel the temperature dropping to somewhere in the mid-40s. It felt wonderful! The trail flattened out for a short distance as it passed through a sparse forest of ponderosa pine, then crossed a wooden bridge. After the bridge l hiked the final switchbacks to the summit, arriving about 9 a.m.
There was no one else there and gazing around, the view of the dramatic mountain to the south, El Capitan, was spectacular. Clear skies allowed me to see far to the south as far as Mexico.
Dominating Guadalupe’s summit is a tall, silver, triangular-shaped object—a monument that commemorates overland stage and air travel.
It was installed by American Airlines in 1958 before the area became a national park, and its plaque has two dates: 1858 and 1958. The inscription reads:
“Dedicated to the airmen, who, like the stage drivers before them, challenged the elements through this pass with the pioneer spirit and courage which resulted in a vast system of airline transport known as ‘American Airlines’.”
I set my camera for a timed shot and hoped for the best. The sun struck the monument’s peak with a brilliant flash of light that was totally unexpected!
Following a brief lunch during which I convulsively shivered from cold (that I thoroughly enjoyed) I headed down. I didn’t want to be on the mountain during afternoon thunderstorms that were forecast for the area.
I looked back over my shoulder several times on the descent, knowing that I would probably never get this way again. My presence on this historical trail through eons of geologic time was like the brief flash of light captured in my photo—a blink in time—but an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and ECHO News team member and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Birchwood ABC school teacher. To reach Frank, email: email@example.com