Summit at Guadalupe Peak

I’ve always wanted to be a travel writer. Before I was a poet, before I broke into the industry that is now my day job, when it still seemed possible to earn one’s living writing—I wanted to go places and write about what I found there. What challenges I found, and faced, and how I broke myself against them.

Unfortunately, we have shifted societally towards TikTok, which has really killed the market for that sort of thing. C’est la vie.

But this is my blog and I’ll cry if I want to—or at least write whatever. And today that’s my journey up the highest, steepest mountain I’ve ever set sneakers against.

What is Guadalupe Peak?

First, a brief primer on Guadalupe Peak. At a total elevation of 8,751 feet, the summit of this mountain is the highest point in Texas. The hike to the peak sits at a reasonable 8.4 miles, doable easily in a single day, especially in good weather if you’re in decent physical condition. (Side effect of working out obsessively for years—I am usually in perfectly fine condition for most of my riskier ideas.)

Point being, on paper, it looks like a fairly accessible summit. And hey, it’s the tallest point in the state I live in. Cool, wholesome, good clean fun. Right?

The catch is that it’s also in far West Texas. Just 100 miles east of El Paso, the peak is part of the Guadalupe Mountains range in southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. And that’s a long, long drive from Austin, Texas.

Choosing the peak

As a lifetime resident of Texas, and someone who grew up hiking, I wanted to climb this mountain the moment I learned about it. It’s a little embarrassing to admit that moment happened after college, at some point in my early professional career. I read a lot of travel blogs at my first job, still hoping, I think, that digital marketing might somehow manifest into travel-writing-for-the-digital-age. (Start vlogging, kid, that ship has sailed.) I remember reading about the summit, and thinking, immediately, that I had to hike it. At least before I moved out of state.

And then four years or more passed and I never went. In my defense, it’s like an eight-hour drive, and there’s very few reasons to just scoot on over to El Paso without a good reason?

But this year has been a series of doing things I wanted, and letting the fact that I wanted them be reason enough.

When my sibling and I were discussing places to go for a long weekend, I looked at my list of dreams, and at the time available. “You wanna hike a mountain with me?” I asked.

And who says no to that question?

Even if there’s not much else to do out there, we agreed to drive a 16-hour round trip just to go see a real big rock, and get to the top of it. Seems pretty simple, at face value.


Arrival at Guadalupe Peak

We got to the rock around noon on the day of the big climb. In my great wisdom, I’d booked a hotel a few hours from the mountains—mostly because I wanted this endeavor to go as smoothly as possible. No dealing with the physical stresses of camping, or the logistical challenges of finding somewhere to sleep in a small oilfield town. No, I’d opted for smooth and simple, chain hotel… Two hours away.

So, we had something of a drive to make. Not a morning hike.

When I opened the car door to the bright blue sky in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the first of several obstacles made itself known: Wind. 30-40 mph winds caught the car door like a sail, and yanked it open even as I stepped out and stretched, blinking in the sun. Cold air whipped across my face, bitter and sharp.

I loved it. Yes, I thought, yes, yes, yes. I’ve always loved the cold. It makes me feel alive, as if every moment I stand against the elements is one I’ve earned. (Yes, there is something wrong with me, thank you for noticing.)

The wind was brisk, but it didn’t occur to me to be concerned about the climb ahead, based on the number of other cars in the parking lot. Logistics like parking and paying sorted, we strapped on our bags and made the ten-minute walk through overflow parking to the trailhead.

As we got to the confused sign indicating the beginning of several trails together, a man eating a sandwich in his car called out to us.

“Ya’ll headed out to Devil’s Hall?”

It took me a moment to realize Devil’s Hall was a trail name, and that the question-asker was probably a park ranger. Probable cause for asking, at least. 

“Nope. Headed up to the peak,” I answered, after a slightly too-long pause.

“Alllllllright then,” he said, and took another bite of his sandwich. His tone implied some unspoken opinions about how far we were going to get—but the sandwich won the bid for his attention at the moment.

Whether this strange NPC interaction promised good or ill for the summit ahead, I couldn’t tell you.

The first mile: Straight up

With the hardest part of the trip behind us—or so I thought—we set foot, finally, on the dusty trail. To me, the driving and flights and hotels always pose the largest challenge when it comes to getting outside, in the places I want to be, doing what I want to do. That, and the vagaries of whoever I’ve dragged along with me.

But once on the trail, it’s easy going from there. Most of the time. (Unless you’re me, and decide to climb a mountain in a foreign country way too late in the day. Story for another time.)

I thrilled with every step for the first few yards, bouncing from step to step up the sharp incline. According to the website and everything I’d read from other hikers, the first mile or so was the most challenging. Carved wood-and-rock stairs etched into the side of the hill, curving nearly straight up as far as the eye could see.

Dope. Up, up, up we go.

The stairs wound up, and up—but it didn’t take long to realize that my hiking buddy lagged behind. I paced myself to the length of their stride, assuring us both out loud that a measured approach would serve us well on a 8.4 mile trek. Despite the fact that I wanted to go nothing but fast. Still, they lagged, and our pace slowed to a crawl over the first 45 minutes.

By the time we got a mile in, straight up the whole time, we stopped to discuss our options.

“I have miscalculated,” they said. “This is harder than I thought.”

Eight miles straight up is very different than a flat eight miles, they observed, quietly settling under one of the short bushes that passed for cover. Overhead, the sun beat down, and tiny little ghost clouds scuttled through an unforgivingly blue sky. Peaceful, if you didn’t have anywhere to be. Beautiful, in a harsh way.

For a brief moment, we talked about options—and one of us mentioned not finishing the hike.

“No,” I said, with more fervor than necessary. I can be such an asshole when I really want something. “I came out here to get all the way to the top. I’m not going home without. I’ll come back tomorrow alone if I have to.”

We discussed more options, and settled, finally, on splitting up. I would make the trek to the top alone, while they returned to the car. Unwise, maybe, but I could still see the parking lot, far below, and many hikers had passed us going each direction. We’d be fine. Probably.

They began the hike down to the car after exchanging texts to make sure cell service worked. (It did. Sometimes.)

“Be careful,” I said.

“Text me occasionally so I know you’re still alive,” they returned.

Fair enough, I thought. Fair enough.

The second mile: Going it alone

Set free to climb at my own pace, I faced the cold trail up again. This time, my feet pattered after each other quickly, stepping from white stone to white stone with speed heedless of the distance yet to go. The faster I moved, the less I felt the cold. And you know, it was actually pretty cold, in the shade and wind.

Up, up, up.

I stopped after about twenty minutes to take some pictures. The cold mountainside looked like something out of another world, all white stone, green brush, and cactus, with a sheer wall of rock on one side and a sharp drop down to the flatlands below on the other. The thing that really threw me though was the riverbed.

White, dry riverbed stretched across of the face of the earth far below like pale veins against the scrubland. The empty channels wrote over the land, scarring the surface of the struggling brush and rocks. It looked like wounds. Like tear-streaks. Like grief.

I stopped to look for several minutes, until it got too cold to stand still.

I turned back to the trail filled with a sudden and strange sadness. What story could be written about how what we love changes us beyond comprehension, long after it leaves us?

But the wind blew me on, and upwards.

A warning…

Finally, after the first mile and a half or so of steep incline, the stairs dropped into long horizontal slopes crisscrossing ever-upwards at a much gentler incline. This would have been comforting, had I not run into a group descending at about this point who smiled and waved, then shared a warning.

“Be careful up there,” said a woman in a pink jacket, two climbing poles clutched in her hands, “The wind really picks up after this bend.”

The wind picks up? The wind already buffeted us along the narrow stretch of trail, with a steep grade on one side. More than that? I thought she must be exaggerating.

I pulled myself off the trail towards the rocks, and let the descending group pass, as well as a small group behind me—a couple, trailed by a tall red-headed man in a face scarf. He looked much cozier than I felt.

“Oh boy,” I said aloud to the pink woman, ever laconic and unable to have a civil conversation with a stranger.

“Enjoy!” she chirped, and led her group away down the path I’d just come up.

One hand on the white sheer rock face that stretched up above my head still, I wondered about that word choice. Enjoy. Sincere? Sinister? She certainly seemed better equipped than I was, in my oversized flannel, jeans, and Henley. I had a backpack with water and some snacks, but nothing like the Patagonia-clad group that had just passed.

The wind picks up

Whatever, I thought. I grew up doing this. I was practically raised in state parks, there’s nothing Texas has I can’t handle—

And then I turned the corner.

Wind hit me so hard I nearly lost my footing, my whole body picked up like a kite and jolted in a brief moment of nearly-airborne weightlessness. I stumbled, grabbling at the rocks. Adrenaline shot through me.

Oh, that’s how it’s going to be?

Step by step, bent low in a squat, one hand running along the side of the mountain, I made my way up the sheer face of rock. The wind buffeted me with every step, as if this hunk of west Texas rock were a dirty mixing bowl—and god had a spatula. Every gust felt like it came closer and closer to simply scraping me off and tossing me into the gulch below.

I picked my way forward on all fours like Gollum on some of the steeper sections, relying on speed and power to carry me against the wind. I passed few others on this section of the trail, which was probably for the best in terms of acting like a weirdo in public. I did pass the red-headed man again, and I noticed, with all the unkind suspicion of a woman hiking alone, that he walked now by himself.

We nodded as I passed him again in a close stretch of trail, and I hurried ahead. Long strides took me up the next bend quickly—and back into the merciless wind.

How long would this wind last? I wondered. The trail switched back and forth, cutting into the mountainside both with and against the wind. Sometimes less, sometimes more—but always there, always relentless.

Would this be my next six miles? I didn’t know, but I went on ahead anyway. Only way out is through. Head down, teeth clenched, one step at time, I picked my way forward.

Making a friend

After about twenty more minutes of biting wind, I took some cover to have a sip of water and evaluate my life choices. I also started to do the math on meals, and realized just how long I’d need to go before eating again. An 8 am breakfast would have to fuel all 8.4 miles and the drive back to town that night, too—the few handfuls of almonds I had on hand aside.

Somehow, food really hadn’t occurred to me as part of this endeavor. A detail easily overlooked in the face of such a momentous challenge. (Author’s note: This is stupid. Do not do this.)

Oh well. The faster I climbed, the faster I’d see the ground again.

I continued to climb, slower as I munched, now through a short stretch of trail covered by trees on each side. Around this point, I noticed that the red-haired man had caught up with me again after my break, and trailed only a few yards behind me.

By the time he reached me, the awkwardness of having passed each other several times wordlessly needed breaking—unless this was the opening to a horror movie, in which case I was about to become either a true crime case or a murderer.

Thankfully, he said hi, implying that he neither intended to wear my skin or leave me to start the conversation myself.

Turned out, the man was from Austin, although on the other side of the city. Mid-40s, he’d gotten separated from his hiking partner as well—another casualty of the biting wind. His name was Bobby, he said, and he’d been hiking most of his life, but never been out to the mountain before. He told me about raising his kids basically on Enchanted Rock, and recommended a few places in CenTex for the still fairly recent transplant (me). I still need to make it out to Balcones Canyonlands sometime.

We walked together for about 15 minutes or so, making short conversation between wind gusts about Austin, different destinations in Texas, and local breweries. I couldn’t see very much of his face, but his eyes were kind, and he appeared to bear no ill intent. We passed a few groups together, and I idly wondered if we’d finish the mountain together. (My pernicious desire for an equal companion ever seeking, ever roving to and fro over the earth.)

Finally, he told me I could pull ahead of him—either because I walk way too fast to keep up with, or because he didn’t want to seem creepy. Either way, I appreciated it.

“See you at the top,” he said.

“See you there.”

I hurried on ahead, swift steps on sharp rocks, eager to cut my teeth on whatever challenges the mountain still held in store.

The third mile: God is angry

On and on I climbed. The wind didn’t stop, but I found a cadence on the trail. My new friend left behind, I was alone to face the trials of the wild, and words bubbled up out of me to meet it.

Poetry is not something I make a conscious effort to create half the time. Words scrabble out of my brain-meat like worms during a rain, an inconvenient natural phenomenon. I can either catch them and put them somewhere they will thrive and reirrigate the soil, or not.

Here, no different, I felt the sound and shape of a poem. So, on the white rocks, clinging to the steep side of the mountain between gusts, I wrote to pass the time.

I began, on a winter day, to climb the face of grief itself.

At some point, the trail dipped from the first false peak, down again before hitting the ascension proper. A small wooden bridge spanned the space between peaks, creaking in the wind. The drop down made my stomach swoop. Far below, even the trees themselves seemed small.

Hour after hour, the ground drops away to white-veined earth below.

I passed other hikers, descending in heavier coats, holding hiking poles. Each group cheered me on with glowing enthusiasm, a perplexing sort of cheer in this weather. I smiled back, holding my sunglasses to my face in the moment of raising my head so they didn’t fly off my face.

The wind howls like god.

The words spilled out, and I repeated them to myself in no particular order. Scraps of nonsense, recited in variance each time, as I edited, occasionally jotting down a line or two. Arguably one of the worst environments for artistic creation, but when needs must, I guess.

The trees broke again, and the wind picked up—worse this time, screaming, whipping the ripped skin on my face. It felt like I shouldn’t be there, on that mountainside. Yet all these people coming down had done it, and I’d driven eight hours west the day before for this purpose, to accomplish this.

There was no way in hell I wasn’t finishing it.

The fourth mile: The wheat from the chaff

The trail continued upwards, switchback after switchback. The trees got ragged and small, but hung on even at that height, occasionally stopping the wind for a few minutes at a time before the trail would change angle again, and the cover broke. I’d shove my sunglasses back into position, and trudge on.

By the umpteenth steep switch back and forth, I’d begun singing Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill in my head, with the words slightly changed. We’re not running up that hill, oh we are not running up that hill… One foot after the other.

Finally, I broke out of the trees for the last time. The wind whipped against the rocks, making the last few shelves of trail incredibly precarious. Sheer drop on one side, tall white rock face with few handholds on the other, and unsteady footing in between. The trail didn’t wind upwards so much as it disappeared onto a shelf of slanted white rock that really seemed too smooth for walking on in that weather.

Yet half a dozen of us or more crept along, inching from handhold to handhold. Battered by the wind, hikers going down encouraged the few of us who held steady on the rocks.

“You’re almost there!”

I really feel like someone in charge should have been questioning the safety of all of this, given the drop into the valley below just one good gust of wind away.

But I sure wasn’t going to.

The peak loomed just ahead, and I hadn’t come this far to turn back now.

Not all of us felt this way. On a tight turn where the path forked, one option going up a steep set of boulders, and the other fork narrowing even tighter around a hairpin turn with a sharp drop below, several hikers took turns inching around the bend.

The man behind me looked nervous—and over equipped—and unsure of the path. As he turned, scrutinizing each option, a gust of wind lifted his beanie right off his head and sent it flying into the brush far above us. Another gust lifted it again a few seconds later, and it took flight for real, into the smaller valley on the other side.

“That’s it,” said the unfortunate beanie owner. “It’s going to be a miserable climb down.”

He turned around, and headed down the mountain. On some level I understood. Miserable climb or not, it seemed a shame to lose your hat and not even have a summit to show for it.

I took the path over the boulders, opting for the harder climb to stay away from the sheer edges, and pressed on. I was thankful, at this point, for my thin shoes. For all I felt every single rock, I trusted my footing and knew where my weight was. When a rock began to shift, I knew it quickly—a fact which kept me safer from slipping, I think, than many of the bigger-booted folks alongside.

Reaching the summit

The mountain’s summit surprised me. I rounded a frigid bend, between two slabs of white rock blessedly waist-high, and suddenly four or five hikers all sitting around together cheered.

I blinked at them, confused.

“You did it!” said a middle-aged man in sunglasses. “Congratulations!”

Oh, I thought, looking around. Oh shit, I’m here. I made it.

A metal pyramid marked the top of the highest pile of rocks on this part of the trail—the highest pile of rocks in the state, actually.

“Do you have anyone to take your picture?”

I handed over my phone to a complete stranger, and obediently stumbled up to the metal pyramid to cautions of be careful from the other hikers. I stood, and smiled, for a brief moment while trying desperately to keep my balance against the wind. I looked it up later—the winds at the peak that day got up to 60mph.

Pictures secured, I thanked my new friends and sat down in a crevice of the rocks to look out at the scenery.

From this angle, even Texas was lovely. I could see in every direction, brown and blue and green stretching out flat to the beautiful horizon.

I sat there as long as I could stand the cold, and then began my trek back down.

The descent

The road back to the car was long. It took nearly as long to descend as it did to ascend. I took it slow in the grey, cold hours down, favoring my bruised feet. The thin, zero-drop shoes were not a bad decision, exactly, but their use came with a price. By the time I got to the last mile or so, I could feel every rock against my abused soles.

Somewhere in the descent, I ran into the man who took my picture again, and we chatted briefly. He asked me my name, and said, “I always like to know the names of the people I take pictures of out in these places. So, if I come back 20 years from now, I can say, ‘I took a picture of a girl named Abigail here.’”

He told me his name, too. In the cold and hurry of those last few hours, I forgot it. I regret that.  

Finally, after another two hours, I made it back to the car, right at dusk. I finished up at five hours on the dot—a quick time, compared to the estimated 6-8 hours listed on the park board for the climb.

The park rangers weren’t in sight. Though I imagine that if the sandwich-wielding ranger had been there, he might have had something equally cryptic to share on the way out. As it was, I reached the near-empty parking lot just as the sun went down, and rejoined my sibling. They’d spent their day enjoying the other sights of the park, and generally not taking their life in their hands. And enjoyed it.

Together, we took up the banner of the second most important quest of the day: Food. It’s hard to beat unlimited Taco Bell after surviving an 8.4-mile climb in the cold.

A few takeaways

Now that nearly two months have passed since this climb—I did this in November, 2022—I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about why I did that. And, more so, why I immediately started planning another 49 variations on the same trip.

Why 49? Well, you see, there’s 50 states, and I learned about the hobby of highpointing. Texas is the beginning, but it will not be the end. One down, 49 to go. (Denali, I see you.) I plan to reach the highest point in each of the fifty states. Because I can’t say no to a challenge, or a checklist.

I take great joy in doing things that are difficult. It’s not that I love pain, so much as that I know my tolerances and enjoy pushing my own limits to see what I can achieve. Climbing this mountain fed some animal hunger inside me to go fight nature and win.

There’s a quote by Benjamin Bush that I love where he discusses the damage done to his own body over the years. When undergoing knee surgery for injuries sustained over decades, he wonders, “how anyone else’s knees were any better. Hadn’t they also gone forth to wear themselves against the world?”. And I do think that really perfectly summarizes my desire to do what is insane, what is difficult, what others do not. To wear oneself against the world.

One down. Forty-nine to go.

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