Coexisting with nature · Healthy lifestyle · Primitive/wilderness skills

Once you climb a mountain, it’s all downhill from there

Guadalupe Peak.

guadalupe peakAt 8,751 feet it’s the highest point in Texas, about 3000 foot elevation gain over 4.2 miles from the base. And it was my destination this past weekend.

Climbing a mountain wasn’t ever anything I thought I could do. In fact, had you asked me even a year ago if I could envision myself climbing the tallest mountain in Texas, I would have laughed at you. My inspiration came from my friend Russ, who has climbed Guadalupe and several other mountains, and told me months ago that I could do it.

And this weekend was my chance to prove it.

With my 35 pound pack, which contained my sleeping bag, winter weather gear, water, food and other necessities, I stared up at the peak with trepidation. I’m a novice hiker… and clearly, that day I was also insane.

The first half-mile was very steep, proving the hike would not be an easy one. Offsetting the difficulty were all the people we met along the way. Boy scouts, couples, park rangers… all were quick to offer tips and encouragement. The scouts in particular were very concerned about us heading up late in the afternoon, even though we were camping there that night. They warned us that it would be cold, there was no water, and it would be very dark at the top.

Always count on the Boy Scouts to have your back.

It was such a gorgeous autumn day, sunny but pleasant, with a nice breeze and not hot at all. I enjoyed the extraordinary views of neighboring mountains, the deep blue flowers along the trail, and after a long, hot summer, the coolness of the air. From time to time Russ and I chatted, but mostly it was a chance just to be out there in a completely natural, peaceful place. Along the way I thought about many of the skills I’ve learned over the past few months, as I looked for animal tracks (I may have seen a raccoon and either bear or large cat track, but they were difficult to make out) and admired the sotol growing tall, comforted that a bow drill fire was within my grasp. And early on, once we got past the first steep climb, having the backpack didn’t seem like such a problem. I was a bit tired, but it felt good being out there, having the opportunity and ability to experience a place so many people will never see.

But as the climb continued, switchback after switchback, it did start to wear on me. The first two miles were okay, but the last mile to the campground seemed to take an eternity. Out of nowhere, waves of lightheadedness and nausea washed over me, and at one point I had to stop because I couldn’t breathe. My willpower and desire to climb that mountain was suddenly at odds with my body, yet my options were limited.

On the narrow gravel trail that skirted the side of the mountain, there was nowhere to camp, and rarely even a spot to sit down comfortably, so stopping for more than a few minutes wasn’t an option. My choices were to give up and head back down, a distance twice as far as we had ahead of us, or keep going.

the path up the side of the mountainI chose to dig down deeper than I ever had before, and we kept going forward.

Eventually we did reach the campground, and as soon as we dropped our packs I got a dramatic reminder about why I wanted to do the hike in the first place. Even though we were still a mile from the summit, we were already at a pretty significant altitude, and the view of miles all around us was phenomenal.

As we set up camp, Russ noted that I was acting pretty loopy, and had me eat something. It may have been a combination of rest and calories, but between the two, I started feeling better almost immediately. Now I wonder if a lot of my physical difficulties – and, for that matter, my mental fatigue – might have been simply a lack of eating along the way. Lesson learned.

Although the temperature hovered in the 30s, we slept on the ground in military sleeping bags with bivy covers. Without a tent overhead, we were able to stare into the absolutely clear night sky. The Milky Way stretched out overhead, and the shooting starts from the Orionid meteor shower made the whole day’s hike worthwhile.

dawn over guadalupe peakAnd when dawn broke the next morning… wow. Sunrise at the top of a mountain is an amazing sight, and something everyone should experience at least once in their lives.

Once we packed up, we headed up to the summit. Even though we ditched our packs for this part of the climb, it was still a rough journey, and in a few places, more than a little terrifying. Scrambling over rocks with a drop of a few thousand feet just inches away is enough to push anyone’s anxiety buttons, and I was ready to give up more than once. Thankfully I was with someone who would not let me quit, and eventually… we reached the summit.

View from the top of TexasAnd then I was there… standing on the top of Texas.

I climbed a mountain.

When I saw that monument – marking a place I never thought I’d see – and then read through the book signed by the previous hikers, it just overwhelmed me. I had done what I had always believed impossible… yet there I was.

Sitting in front of the Guadalupe Peak summit monumentIt was without question the most difficult challenge of my life, yet I succeeded.

What I learned is that mountain climbing is half physical, half mental. No, I take that back. It’s 3/4 mental. No matter what your physical condition, you have to want to do it badly enough.

But I’ll also admit that it helps to have a good friend who believes in you and will push you to make the final ascent.

And now, just as I had hoped, everything else in life seems a bit easier. If I can climb a mountain… I can do just about anything.




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