My friend and frequent climbing partner Andy Coppola and I flew down to El Paso Saturday January 4th to climb Guadalupe Peak. With only two days in the area, we certainly chose the better day to make the climb. Sunday the 5th presented us with excellent conditions to climb and tremendous views from the summit. The next day saw more clouds and harsher winds. Driving back to El Paso from Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, we faced dust storms that reduced visibility at times to as little as 40-50 yards. The weather did, however, provide for an unforgettable scene of thick clouds approaching Guadalupe Peak and El Capitan from the east, being pushed up by the mountain range and cascading over and down the west side in waterfall fashion, all in the span of a few minutes. That same time on Sunday we would have been making our way down the east side of the range, into the teeth of the weather system.
Anyway, on with the actual trip report. After a big breakfast at an International House of Pancakes in El Paso, we headed east on Route 62/180 towards the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. We were on the trail by 10:15 a.m. Interestingly, about 25-30 miles east of El Paso we encountered a Border Patrol roadblock that remained there on the way back the next day. They were only checking cars heading away from El Paso.
El Capitan forms the southern tip of a wedge-shaped range that extends well into New Mexico. Guadalupe Peak sits north of El Capitan, and just about everyone (myself included) takes a picture of the topside of this massive wall from the summit of Guadalupe Peak. The trailhead for Guadalupe is located on the east side of the range, with views of your goal blocked by the range itself. After leaving the parking area, you soon come to a set of switchbacks making your way up the range. For a sense of what lies ahead, look up and to your right to 8,368-foot Hunter Peak. Your goal is almost 400 feet higher.
After ascending the east side of the mountain range, you will find yourself approaching the north side of Guadalupe Peak. That’s where we began to encounter the snow patches. I had read one report indicating that instep crampons might be helpful in this area, as well as several reports and e-mails saying not to bother. Not wanting to have traveled thousands of miles and not make the summit, the instep crampons were stashed in the pack. I must say both reports were correct. There were stretches where they would have been nice, but these sections were short enough that the hassle of putting them on and taking them off would have greatly outweighed their benefits. They remained in my pack for the entire trip.
We found the snow in this area to be limited to the north-facing sections of the trail that get little, if any, direct sunlight. It has been packed down, presumably by foot traffic, leaving a somewhat icy surface. Usually, however, the dirt on the downslope side of the trail or the non-packed snow on the upslope side made for better footing. At any rate, in most places where snow was present, a fall would have been broken by sizable tree trunks or vegetation, boulders or a gentler slope. There were, of course, exceptions. If anyone is planning an attempt in the near future and wants a better idea of the conditions, I have photos that I would be happy to e-mail to you.
From reading other trip reports, I think we lucked out in the wind category. It was sporadic and probably not much more than 15-20 mph. I’ve faced much worse on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, for comparison. On the way down we did round a particularly windy curve that I nicknamed “Windy Corner” in honor of a future assault on Denali’s West Buttress route.
The area near the 8,000-foot campground was relatively flat. Those reports that divide this climb into three sections are quite accurate. You begin climbing the east face of the range, traverse an almost flat section and end up with a final push towards the summit. The summit itself sneaks up on you. It took a “we’re here” from Andy, then only about 10-15 feet ahead of me, to get me to look up and to my right and see Guadalupe Peak’s trademark stainless steel pyramid summit marker.
The views from the summit are tremendous. I took the classic photo of the topside of El Capitan and was happy to have left myself quite a few pictures to take from the summit. While I was snacking, Andy was explaining this crazy highpointing thing of mine to another group of climbers who arrived after we did. One of them approached me holding his own copy of “Highpoint Adventures.” Although I’m terrible with names, I believe his last name was Stewart. We swapped highpointing stories for a while, did photo duty for each other and soon Andy and I began to make our way down.
The way down gave us a perfect example of how not to climb. We met up with a slow-moving couple heading up at a point in the day where they would certainly be coming back in the dark. It gets dark in the area at about 5:00 at this time of year. I mentioned this to them. Later, Mr. Stewart’s group passed us on the way down. They had also warned this couple about the impending darkness. Here’s hoping they made it down safely.
Finally, a couple of notes on other local attractions. Carlsbad Caverns is a must-see. Take the “Natural Entrance” route. If you can climb Guadalupe Peak, you’ll have no problem with it and it will give you a much better idea of the scale of the caverns than descending in the elevator. Allow for at least a half day, and don’t worry about getting there at dusk to see the bats at this time of year; they migrate south for the winter. We also walked across one of the bridges from El Paso to Juarez, Mexico on Monday night. The food and drink at the Kentucky Club, on Avenue Juarez (a couple of blocks down on your right after taking the bridge at the end of Santa Fe [street?] in El Paso) was good and cheap. The excursion, though, will make you feel grateful for what you have.
Well, 15 down, 35 to go. If anyone wants trail condition photos, feel free to e-mail me, and “Keep Klimbin!”