November 18, 2019.
10.4 mi. | 4300′ ele. gain | 9 hrs.
The winds picked up early in the morning, cutting my night’s sleep short. The forecast called for gusty winds all day and we had two mountains to climb. The forecast for the next day looked worse, so we had to go for it.
Guadalupe Peak is the highpoint of Texas at 8,751’. It is one of many peaks along an ancient, exposed coral reef studded with Permian fossils. It was the inspiration for this trip.
We began our hike at 8 am, marching uphill along the well-graded Guadalupe Peak Trail. Again my eyes were drawn to the plants: sotol, yucca, oak trees, cholla. We even saw some flowers! Indian paintbrush, a familiar bloom, as well as some yellow composites. It was shocking to me to see flowers this late in the year.
As we gained elevation, the wind grew stronger. I wrapped my buff over my hat so it wouldn’t fly away. One other woman on the trail had already had her hat stolen by the wind.
The trail ascended by means of several switchbacks connecting nearly flat traverses. We dipped in and out of the forest, in and out of the shade. Near the summit, we finally caught a glimpse of our secondary objective: El Capitan. It was only a mile off the trail, so I thought it would be a simple add-on if our hike to the top of Texas wasn’t enough to fill the day.
I knew we were at the summit when I saw the shiny obelisk perched on the rocks. I’d seen photos of this structure while doing research for the trip. Two other people sat near the base of the obelisk, enjoying their success. We bundled up and joined them, wolfing down some snacks and drinks in preparation for the second part of the day.
We descended just a few switchbacks from the top before angling off-trail towards El Capitan. I was not exactly sure where we were “supposed” to start our route but the landscape was pretty easy to read. We walked down a broad ridge, dancing between cactus and spiny shrubs. As we neared the convergence of several drainages, the landscape became a bit more steep and rocky. After finding the nicest path off of the rocks and into a streambed, we walked downhill for a few more minutes before eyeballing a possible ascent path.
The hillside in front of us looked steep and forbidding. The heavily vegetated slopes were broken up by slabs of rock. And of course, there were plenty of cacti hiding within the shrubbery.
We took turns leading the way, aiming for the path of least resistance while avoiding sharp cliff edges and heavy brush. Eventually we gained the ridge.
Aaron was moving much more slowly than usual. We stopped frequently so he could catch his breath and get his energy back. But, it was just not his day. We were within sight of the summit when he decided to stop and rest while I pressed ahead.
I promised I’d be back quickly and started moving along the cliff’s edge, peering over occasionally to get a sense of where I was. El Capitan is an impressive feature, with a sheer west face dropping over a thousand vertical feet towards the desert below.
Not long after I started up the ridge, I crested over the last bump and saw the summit marker: an ammunition box with a register inside. I signed into the register and flipped through some of the previous entries before picking up Aaron for our hike out.
We did our best to re-trace our ascent route back to the convergence. We made a few minor detours but mostly stayed on track. Then, it was time to basically re-climb to Guadalupe Peak and hike all the way back down. It was a link-up that looked better on paper, I guess.
Scrambling up that dry ridge in the heat of the afternoon felt even more draining than our climb to El Capitan. But, one slow step led to another and we eventually stepped back onto the trail. Aaron got his mojo back once we were on the official route and it took us no time at all to get back to the trailhead.
About 2/3 of the way down the trail we crossed paths with a solo hiker heading up. He was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, carrying a cell-phone in one hand and a liter of water in the other. No backpack. No jacket. No headlamp. “Hi,” we said, and continued on our way.
Later that night at camp we noticed a beam of light from the flanks of Guadalupe Peak. Aaron thought back to the only hiker we knew was headed up the mountain late in the day. He thought maybe it was the light from a cell-phone flashlight, and that it wouldn’t last long. As we sat bundled up in down jackets eating a warm meal by the tent, we worried about the status of that hiker. Aaron ended up calling in to report what we’d seen, hoping that a ranger could hike up the trail and make sure whoever was on the trail after dark could make their way back down safely.
Carry the ten essentials and remember the first principle of Leave No Trace: Plan Ahead and Prepare.