Guadalupe Peak, TX & Sierra Blanca Peak, NM
8,751 ft., 8.4 Miles & 12,003 ft., 6 Miles
October 8, 2011
The Guadalupe Mountains at Sunset
L-R: El Capitan, Guadalupe and Hunter Mountains
Guadalupe Mountains – A Reef in the Sky
Guadalupe Peak is the tallest mountain in Texas, and forms a dramatic boundary between the Great Plains (specifically the West Texas Permian Basin) to the East, and the Basin and Range Province to the West. From a practical perspective, this means oil and gas to the East, skiing and climbing to the West. Guadalupe is formed by a normal fault with several thousand feet of vertical displacement, which extends into New Mexico, marking the Eastern edge of the Rockies. This entire area was part of a giant inland sea in the Permian period and the Guadalupe Mountains formed the edge of the reef. The Permian geological period began 300 Mya with an explosion of life coinciding with the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea, and ended with the largest mass extinction ever, with an enormous meteorite impact. The Permian fossils on Guadalupe are absolutely spectacular, and fully tested what remains of my paleontology, now 36 years old and largely unused in the interim.
I came to Texas at the invitation of a friend from our trip to Ecuador this summer, Rob Junell (see July 29, 2011 Mt. Cayambe blog) to climb Guadalupe Peak and Wheeler Mt., the highpoints of TX and NM respectively. Rob and his family live in Midland Texas, right next door to Odessa, the home of Friday Night Lights – the Odessa Permian High School. This may be the only case in the world where a high school takes a geological period as its mascot; this is the spiritual home of both American high school football and the oil and gas business – and the folks out here do both really well. Rob, a former inside linebacker at Texas Tech, works as a volunteer at Guadalupe, and holds the record for number of climbs to the top – 95 and counting. He is on the Ski patrol at Ski Apache in New Mexico, does at least one major mountaineering expedition per year, and may be the most active 64 year old that I’ve ever met.
We set out from Midland-Odessa in 88 degree temperatures and rolled along back roads through the appropriately named Notrees TX on the way to the base of Guadalupe. In West Texas, the country is huge, dead flat, oil production is everywhere, and the speed limit on back roads is 75 mph. I loved it.
Accommodations at Guadalupe and Characters Along the Way
Rob shares my penchant for thrifty travel, and had made arrangements for free accommodations at the dormitories for workers at Guadalupe. Upon arrival, we scrounged up some pillows and blankets from some neighbors, and bunked in with two young biologists staying at the male dorms. These two young kids, working while in graduate school, were doing botanical surveys for the National Park Service. They were just down from a day on the Hill with a young female paleontologist helping her with some work for her Masters Thesis. They had gotten their hands on a bottle of tequila and were headed next door to share it with this young lady, and invited us to come over and say hello.
El Capitan & Guadalupe by daylight
After unpacking and getting the gear laid out for the morning, we went next door to see what was up with these kids, and see if we could get some quick paleontology updates. The lady geologist was striking – with curly red hair on one side of her head, and the other shaved to less than a quarter of an inch. She looked like a character from Star Trek, although she claimed to be Canadian. She was animated, delightful, full of enthusiasm for fossils, and a little tipsy. After exchanging a few geologist pleasantries, she quizzed me a little about local fossils (identifying Fusulinids vs. Cystauletes), found my self-professed, time induced ignorance to be spot on, and gave me a guide book highlighting local fossils. We bade these twenty-somethings goodnight, and retreated to our Spartan quarters, to get a little rest for the climb the next day.
A stone woodpecker on switchback 6 of the Trail up Guadalupe
Guadalupe has one trail to the top, and Rob has climbed it 95 times – sometimes with other people, but most by himself, and he knows every inch of the trail by heart. Near the summit we met a couple of engineers working for a Jeff Bezos (founder & CEO of Amazon) funded space vehicle project located in a valley in the shadow of Guadalupe Peak. On the way to the top we visited a plaque put in place by American Airlines in 1954 honoring its pilots, which was completely forgotten until Rob rediscovered it a few years ago.
Rob provides instruction to our aerospace engineers
These guys were having a ball working for Mr. Bezos. Both had been at NASA, and were sick of the bureaucracy and failure to get anything done. They are now building vehicles to go to space, and all within 150 miles of Roswell New Mexico – even if they didn’t get off the ground they could still get to see aliens. Apparently Mr. Bezos is also building a 200-300 foot tall mechanical clock, designed to function without outside energy inputs or maintenance for 10,000 years. It is being housed in a vertical underground shaft, and powered by heat induced expansion and contraction of metal rods placed in the rock. We were told that the clock will have an alarm every 10, 100 and 1,000 years, with a yet to be determined grand finale at 10,000 years. Perhaps a likeness of Mr. Bezos will pop out of this hunk of West Texas desert, encouraging passersby to shop through Amazon; the wonder of it all.
Rob and the Author at the Summit of Guadalupe
A view from the top, toward the Bezos Space Center & 10,000 year clock
Guadalupe Peak is named for the Virgin of Guadalupe, who revealed herself to a simple Mexican peasant, Juan Diego, in 1531 near Mexico City. The first Virgin of Guadalupe, however, is from the town of Guadalupe in Extremadura Spain. She is one of the three famous “Black Virgins” from Spain, and was a favorite of the Conquistadores, particularly Hernan Cortez, who was from Extremadura. Legend has it that when the Virgin revealed herself to Juan Diego, she identified herself as Coatlaxopeuh; the mother goddess of the Aztecs and “crusher of snakes”. The Spanish interpreted the name as Guadalupe, the indigenous population more than happy to interpret the Virgin in terms of their original religion, and I suppose this accounts for the dearth of rattlesnakes on Guadalupe Peak.
Single cell Fusulinid fossils on Guadalupe Mt. – Up to 1 inch long
The Road to Wheeler Peak ends at Sierra Blanca Peak
We hit the road after a quick stop at the Visitors Center, and headed NW to Taos and our next objective, Wheeler Peak. Rob repeatedly tried calling the Taos Lodge, and got no response – nothing. Finally we tried a local ski/climbing shop, and found that Taos had received up to 6 feet of new wet/heavy snow, power was out to the entire area, and there were avalanches in the high country. We were not equipped for this eventuality, lacking all of our winter mountaineering gear. After a quick discussion, we agreed to head to Sierra Blanca Peak, a mountain next to Ski Apache, where Rob ski patrols in the winter. As a special bonus for the parsimonious, Rob also has a condo nearby; all the comforts of home at the price of the government workers dorm at Guadalupe – pretty hard to beat.
Sierra Blanca Peak
We walked up the ski area, and then cut over to the ridge going up to the Peak. The Peak and part of the ski area are on the Apache Indian Reservation, which was fine with us as elk season is in full swing, and the roads were lined with vehicles full of hunters looking for a shot at an elk. There is no hunting on the ski area or Reservation so we picked a path to minimize the chance of an unfortunate encounter. The elk were bugling in the high country, the day was crystal clear and I did not miss post-holing in waist deep snow on Wheeler at all.
Rob notes our arrival on the summit of Sierra Blanca
The rocks here are all igneous, with the Ski Apache ridge formed of a tough purple rhyolite, and the summit of Sierra Blanca composed of a grano-diorite – it felt like home. Off to the West you could see White Sands Missile testing area, the Trinity site of the first atom blast, and a spectacular basalt lava flow in the valley. I guess the neighbors make eating snow around here a fairly risky proposition – it may be plutonium enriched.
White Sands Missile Testing Area in the distance
The Author on Sierra Blanca, note the dark basalt lava flow in the valley to the NW
We logged over 750 miles this weekend and got in two great climbs in the course of a long couple of days. If Rob and his family are any indication, the folks of West Texas are great hosts and the climbing nearby is terrific. This area is full of aliens – humans and otherwise – and is richer for it all. From the celebration (and commercialization) of extra-terrestrials in Roswell, to private space centers in the desert, you can get it all out here. I’ll be back to finish Wheeler and see Taos – Lord knows what I’ll find up there.