Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Guadalupe Mountains 2011

Guadalupe Mountains
Pine Springs to Dog Canyon and back
Permian Reef Up and back
April 7-10, 2011
Joe Prusaitis

My SmugMug Pics

It has always been a mystical place for me... a place of quiet, where my spirit and soul repair and replenish. My totems are strong here, as are many others. One of the few things on my must see list for this weekend is a Horny Toad. Everything else is already on the plan... Hunter Peak, Bush Mtn, Dog Canyon, and Permian Reef.

It has always been April or May for our little running camp up in the Guadalupe Mountains. Not that this is the best time to go, but more because it is the right time frame for a summer mountain trail race that we are training for. It has been a training run for so many different people for so many different races these past six years.

Our caravan leaves Austin very early on Thursday for the 500 mile trip. Van Horn is the last stop for lunch and final necessities, but mostly gas, ice, & beer. The final 50 miles due north heads directly to our destination. We arrive around 2pm, check in at the ranger station, then set up our tents at the group sites. Because of the very high winds, its complicated putting up the tents. Two carport sized tents, with fenceposts pounded into the ground, and duct taped around tent leg & fencepost, then 2 inch wide tie down straps from cross bars to a few very large rocks. The last thing we do is carefully put on the tarp covers and side panels, making certain that we use every grommet hole or else the wind will grab a corner and begin to rip the entire tarp away. The wind is as strong as I have ever felt it here, ripping through camp and removing anything that is not tied down. Some of the personal tents are pushed down flat and pop back up between gusts. Two 3-burner propane stoves are set up with propane tanks and 3 tables for preparing the meals. Two large coffin coolers filled with food and all the other stuff that a chef needs to make a couple of very good meals and last but not least... the chef. Crash has been our man for many years now, creating some legendary meals the last few years.

Soon after the tent goes up, the gang also heads up... to Guadalupe Peak. It's an 8 mile round trip, and depending on their speed, may be back before dinner is served or not. Friday morning is always the 'long' day, so everybody settles down early to prepare their packs for tomorrow and to get some sleep before the early start. Most everybody is in a tent, but lately, there have been a few RVs coming along as well, but everybody is off to each of their own bedrooms soon after quiet time, which happens to be soon after dark.

Joyce & I never go into the mountains without a rain jacket, or almost never. With the drought hard into Texas, and no rain expected anywhere for the foreseeable future, we pack for the first time in many years without our rain jackets. It is our intention to pack as light as possible, but making sure we take what we need. It's a balancing act, guessing what we will or wont need. Water is the key component with each of us loading 100oz bladders into our packs as well as a hand-held bottle with another 20oz. Food for a 30 mile run in the mountains is tricky. It's not so much about the distance as it is about the time. It will take longer than usual due the rugged mountain terrain and the altitude... between 5000 and 8600 ft. It's not nasty high, but enough to kick you just a bit when added to everything else. It is part of the reason we are here. This site best simulates the races we are training for: Jemez, Bighorn, Leadville, Tahoe, & Hardrock.

I carry a variety of trail food for quick energy as well as sandwiches and avocado. A wear a headlamp, but don't really need it to start. Its more for... in case I get stuck out here after dark the next night. My camera is the only luxury item I load. Everybody has a copy of the waterproof maps I created with our route on it, and everyone is also buddied up with somebody they are required to stay with while they are in the mountains.

Start time is 6:30am Central Time, even though this little quadrant has somehow become part of the Mountain Time zone. We purposely ignore the time change. I give a couple of notepads and pens to the leading duo who are faster than the rest of us so they can drop them at key points for everybody to check into. The idea is that you never pass one of these books without writing in it your name, time, direction, and condition. It's our little way to keep track of each other without seeing anyone. Brandon & Duane head out exactly at 6:30, but the rest of the group waits another 15 minutes for Gordon and Shannon. It's a dark start as we head up Tejas Trails to Pine Top, but we're far from the top when the sun rises. The first book is there on top, so I sign Joyce and I in. Brandon is there already having done Hunter's Peak. Joyce takes a short break while I head over to Hunter's Peak alone. It's a 2 mile out and back and I cross paths with Duane as I start up while he heads back. I dropped everything back at Pine Top, so its free and easy lightweight running for this short out n back. I hit the top, turn and head right back. I figure Joyce should be getting cold by now, and I don't want her waiting too long for me. I see all the others as I head back down.

As I suspect, Joyce is ready to go, so I load up and head out with her. Our route from here is over Bush Mountain and back along Blue Ridge to Tejas Trail again. B & D are gone, so we follow their track, while I pull out a Powerbar from my pack and start working on it. Ya know... I feel good today. I did the climb to Pine Top rather well, starting dead last in our group, making sure everyone was on the trail, and then dialed it in and motored on up... stopping only once for a photo. I know its early, but I have a hunch that this is going to be a very good day for me.

The Bush Mountain trail is a rugged and rocky high altitude beast. Most of it rolls along around 8000 ft, with quick tilts up above 8500 and drops to 7000, over and over again. The trail is not well used, sparse in spots, and littered with jagged rocks and all variety of cactus. You have to pay as much attention to the prickly pear and ocotillo as you do the sharp rocks and ledges. I knew not to wear my wide brimmed hat as I usually do, with the high wind gusts, I'd have lost it already to the malevolent wind daemons. I wore a visor specifically so that if the wind did take it, it had little surface with which to sail it very far. The craggy open ridge left us exposed for the wind to shove about, but mostly it just kept us cool... and this works wonderfully for me. Joyce doesn't care much for it... but it keeps me cool and that is what keeps me on my game for so long. I keep surging ahead and climbing better than I have in a very long time. I stop about every half hour to eat another gel, starting with the chocolate before switching to the mountain huckleberry. We don't see a soul, but we can hear the voices of both John Sharp and Gordon Montgomery every now and then. But that doesn't mean they're even close as those two can both throw a voice without any wind.

We stop on top of Bush Mountain next to the radio repeater tower for a short break, and then drop off the other side where the trail all but disappears for a bit. This area is so dynamic a panorama view of the salt flats 6000 ft below and the rock hoodoos on the edge of the cliff. The gusting wind flying strait up from below is almost visible in its sound and intensity. I toss a pebble over the edge just to see which way it will go... up or down. We track further away from the edge soon after, take the Blue Ridge trail without stopping, and were making good time, when I suddenly hook my toe under a rock. The momentum of it would have been hard to describe were Joyce not watching from behind to describe it in detail. My toe tries to lift up, but it's a large rock and wedged into the ground pretty good, so I only partially lift it, and then my other leg came up and goes around my body, slinging me sideways. My arm swings over as well and around me as I crash into the rocky ground all cattywampus... more sideways and backwards. My hand slams into the rock pretty hard, while my knee gets a slight zing, but the oddest thing is the puncture wound in the back of my neck from the Sotol cactus. Ever notice now long it takes for the blood to come up when you scrape yourself up pretty good like this. I was up and running within seconds, so the blood didn't start until I was back on the run. It runs down my knee, pooling on my compression legging and off my hand to drip from my fingertips. It isn't bad, but it looks a lot worse than it is. I get my mojo back quickly, dancing through the minefield of rocks they call Blue Ridge. It isn't much of a trail really and might be hard to follow in the dark. Rocks everywhere and nothing has been moved to one side or the other in an attempt to create a trail or even some semblance of one. The trail is so minimal that I trust my instincts more than anything else. It just seems to be the correct way.

I know we're approaching the end of Blue Ridge when the trail grows perceptively steeper, going to switchbacks, and again dodging ocotillo as well as sharp edged rocks while we drop quickly. Odd how something like that fall will cause me to be more fearless and less careful... as if to prove that I'm not going to let it bother me. Something got locked in 'just so' with my psyche when I was a young boy. I can't explain it or understand why... but it is certainly 'just so'. I sit down at the Tejas Trail split to write our time in the 2nd book that the boys have left here. It feels good knowing that they're still on the right track and also that nobody had caught us up yet. Joyce asks how we're doing and I tell her 'we're doing great!'

I'm into the raspberry gels as we head north on Tejas Trail. More rock and lots of it. This trail is a beast for ankle twisting, artery slicing, sharp edged rocks and nearly impossible to avoid. The run is a lopsided affair of run, hop, skip, and run again in an unnatural sequence with no rhythm. It isn't smooth, flat, or straight and you still need to be wary of the cactus that claims some of the space on the trail as well. Ocotillo is the sneakiest cut-throat with its long strands that lean in and tag you now and then. With all the other obstacles, this section is not super hilly, so it doesn't take long to reach the McKittrick Trail intersection. Three hikers are lounging in the shade as we come in, trying to decide what they will do next. They're friendly enough and seem quite amused by what we are doing. We have no plan for McKittrick this weekend, but this is certainly a major landmark and intersection. This is where we drop into Dog Canyon and also the same point we come back up to. 4 miles down and 4 miles back up, and about the same amount of elevation change we managed from camp to Pine Top. We sign into the book and take a short break.

The drop into Dog isn't immediate, taking us on a roll for a bit before the bottom finally falls out. We barely get going when I spot a Horny Toad in the middle of the trail. What a treat! We stop to take a few pictures before continuing our rapid descent. We're on a controlled fall when we finally see Brandon. He's running up as quickly as we're running down. It's surprising to watch somebody actually run UP that trail. Simply amazing! We stop to visit for a few seconds and then continue in opposite directions. Soon after, we see Duane walking rapidly uphill in a very controlled measure. He's doing well, so we barely slow down to visit with him before continuing. It doesn't take long to clear the open areas and enter the trees, and the last bit of easy rolling slopes into the meadow for our destination: the water pump. This water is the reason we came all the way down here. Without it, everything changes. The plan was built around where we could get water, as much as for the distance and terrain. We pull up for a long break, clean off, refill our bladders and bottles, and of course... to eat. Avocado, apple, and a sandwich empty the rest of our packs, so there's little left for the return trip. But that was the idea: to fuel as much as possible early on and regularly. Not much was left between us but for a few gels and a powerbar.

Our Dog Canyon break cost us 20 minutes, but that was the plan and we're just fine with it. We are both a little surprised that nobody had caught us yet. It's mostly up for the next 4 miles, with few flat or downhill sections. We're well into the trees and just before the steep climb when we cross paths with David Land & David Jacobson. We stop for a short visit and then get going til we reach the beginning of the steep climb. We are not far into it, when we see Gordon sitting on a rock with his head in his hands. He says that Sharp turned back at Blue Ridge and he's in a low spot, but will be fine. This climb is a bitch, no doubt, but I refuse to stop. I get ahead of Joyce and turn to discover I can't see her. I sit down to wait, but she doesn't show up in the expected minute or less, so I get up and start back down. She's just out of view, standing up and holding her arm, crying. She had fallen and popped her elbow: the one with pins in it from the surgery she had a few months ago. We have to keep going regardless, so we get going, albeit... much slower. We're not far from the top, so this beast is almost beaten. Then we see Bob Klapthor and Shannon Mitchell, both looking great and heading down. I ask Shannon to pick up all the books on her way back home.

It feels good to be back at the McKittrick intersection... marking the end of the long and tough Dog Canyon section. Seems odd to be so exhilarated, when we're still so far from done. We check the book to see where everybody is and where they're going, and to add our two bits. It's interesting to look at the names, times, and notes to see who is doing what. I could only guess and assume up to a point. I only know what I see and what is in these books. Vicki, Trish, Ann, and Crash were starting after our main group this morning, and I can see in the book that they were here a few hours ago... and have long since headed home. Only 5 of our group are behind us, with the rest of the them well on their way home. I take my last gel during the short break.

The easy section from here to Blue Ridge doesn't seem as easy in this direction. The rock playground is much tougher to negotiate than it was earlier. I didn't realize it was downhill coming over here until now that I am going uphill heading back. Beginning to feel the mountain miles, a dull throb has been building in my bones, and the climb out of Dog has nailed it home. I wonder why I didn't notice, when it seems so dominant now. Most of the climb out of Dog was certainly a walk, but that seemed to be the intelligent thing to do. But now that we are on top and the trail is somewhat runnable, I don't feel so smart any more. We alternate walking and running, with no rhyme or reason to why or when we do one or the other. I want to run so I make myself run, but can't sustain it for very long. I try to compromise with myself by walking quickly. Lying to yourself never works for me. We pass by the Mescalero Camp site which brings to my mind the thought of the Apaches living here only a hundred and fifty years ago and I try to divert my rough feelings by talking about something other than the right here and now. That doesn't work either and the conversation dies.

We check the book at Blue Ridge and take a short break before starting the last little nasty section on this route home. There are three short steep climbs on the way back, and they start right after Juniper Trail. This part of the trail is deep forest, comfortable & serene, with pine needles and no wind... and it takes me a few moments to realize... there is no wind. And I also realize that without the wind... I'm getting harassed by a horsefly and then a few other flying insects. Damn... I start walking faster while I swat them away. Its darker in here with less sunlight leaking through the many tall trees. Its easy going for awhile and very quiet too.

At Juniper Trail, we take a short break, because I know what the next section is like and I need a short break before I fling myself at it. But...when we get up to go... I make it a goal to not stop til I top out of each of the three climbs. I push the pace, holding steady, even when it gets steep, trying not to lose my momentum as we start the switchbacks. I slow, but I don't stop, keeping the cadence the same, even if my stride is very short, I keep spinning, and going, til I make the next turn, and the next, and the next... til I top out of the first and biggest of the last three little demons. I sit on the same rock in front of a dead tree that I sit on every year... and wait for Joyce. She is not far back and takes a sit break on the same rock, and then we go after the next one. The 2nd one is much more rocky and rugged, with no switchbacks, but more ruts and rocks. Again, I refuse to stop til I top out and then I slow to wait for Joyce, but she is right with me again. One more, but this one is not right away. I can see Hunter's Peak through the trees and it seems so close, but I do remember the last little demon that I must climb before I can easily walk to Pine Top, so I keep going and hold my breath until the last one is done. And then we are on it and it too comes and goes quickly. I think it is easier because I knew it was there and I know that it is the last one, but they are all 3 done now and it is simply a short easy stroll to Pine Top.

We sit for our final break at Pine Top, back in the wind and the sun. We check the book and sign our name for the last time. I can see that almost everybody has gone down a long time ago, so there should be nobody on the trail below us to motivate me to chase. It is good though... as I'd like to go down a bit easier than usual and stay with Joyce as we have done all day. I check my bladder to dump the excess, but its almost empty so there is no need. This is one of those moments when we are not done, but know we will be... so we soak up the accomplishment and the day we just spent in the mountains... together. And I don't feel so bad anymore either. All the good that washes over us is a psychological painkiller. Simply put: success is a painkiller.

We top out and start down, slowly at first, but gaining momentum as we go. Joyce is right behind me the entire time as we take one sweeping turn after another on the 3.6 miles of downhill switchbacks. It's not til the trail runs between the two house-sized round rocks when Joyce announces she is done running. I know its still another mile or more but I don't think she knows, so I keep walking fast. I have a strong desire to be done, completely done, before I stop, and after about 10 minutes, Joyce realizes she's still a ways out, so she starts moving again. Dinner that evening is so very good, the camaraderie is perfect, and the sleep is even better.

Next morning, Saturday... we sleep in, because we plan to run Permian Reef out of McKittrick Canyon and they don't open the gates til 9am Central Time. Some want to stay and do Guadalupe Peak, but most of us drive over to McKittrick Canyon. We start in a pack, all heading up, and Brandon once again takes the lead. Most of us are reduced to a walk before very long, but Brandon is gone already, and Duane seems to be mixing a walk and run. I walk with Joyce for a bit and then we catch David and I go past, but she does not. Then I catch Gordon and another and so on til I am only behind Duane and Brandon. I can't work up a run, but I have a great power walk going. I keep going, making the rounds of each loop and switchback til I top out, just as Brandon returns from his one mile out & back to the overlook. The others come up in ones and twos, and Duane also returns from the overlook. We all sit and admire the view for a few minutes and then start back down. I go first, then Brandon... and I wonder if I can stay in front of him.

I start easy, get comfortable, and allow my momentum to carry me. The turns are easy, but its the rugged terrain that intrigues me into a faster effort. I can feel Brandon right behind me, but for now there is no place to pass. Cliffs and cactus merge with rocks and 180 degree turns to create an exhilarating run. I quit thinking about Brandon, instead focusing on where I'm going, playing chess with the rocks, thinking out the next three strides, while constantly scanning everything ahead. I trust that I can read the rocks at speed while I continue to build momentum. I make it through the nastiest section and then take a look back just before I crest a hump to start down the long face on the main canyon side: where's Brandon? I don't see him, but he has to be close, so I keep on keeping on. The trail is not near as rugged on the final descent, so I pick up the pace and stay focused, coming around the long sweeping turns and into the slot between the rocks. I have to hop up the steps and then twist through the ocotillo. The long straight line of rocks create an interesting sidewalk that clinks as each foot comes down on another rock. I have been down this path many times with many dear friends. It is familiar and friendly: a place of power for me. From the first time I crossed it, it has remained in my mind's eye, such that it makes me smile now as I cross it yet again.

When I reach the end of the long sidewalk, where the trail turns right and heads down, I glance once again over my right shoulder. There is no one, but I keep running, til I cross the creek and up the other side, left at the gazebo, and finally stop at the ranger station... in the shade. A couple from New Zealand that I remember from our camping area are there on the bench. We start up a conversation about their travels and then Brandon comes in... just a few minutes back. The others come in one at a time. It appears that they all got caught up in the mad chase off the mountain... or maybe not.

We are all still buzzing from the downhill run and it's a long time til dinner, so David stirs everybody up for a drive into New Mexico for lunch. The idea catches on and so we all end up at a pizza joint in Carlsbad. Of course, we are back at camp in time for dinner too. A few of the boys decide to run the Bear Canyon out & back, while John goes off towards Williams Ranch, and others are again talking about Guadalupe Peak or Devil's Hall. All in all, I think that everybody gets all that they want... and more.

Late in the day, the wind drives the desert into the sky and the air fills with dirt and debris. The wind has been very high all weekend, but now it is even worse, nearing 60 mph gusts or more. As soon as dinner is over, we remove the tarp roof to keep from having the wind rip them off. Its dark anyway, so there is no longer a need for sun cover. The wind continues to hammer away and we are just drinking beer at this point so we decide to take the sidewall windbreaks down as well, and when they are down, everybody decides to keep on working til the entire tent is down and packed up, as well as the stoves. When they are done, there is little to do in the morning but to load it up.

Morning comes quickly, and they are all ready to head home, so we finish loading up and head out. We have all done what we came to do, and now the wind and the sky filled with dirt chases us to the quiet and solitude of our cars. With the windows up and the air conditioning on, it is time for a break from the Guads. Its time to go home. The Guadalupe Mountain weekend every year is always classic, and I suspect that it will continue to be. The trails were exactly what we needed, the camaraderie was excellent, and the food was phenomenal. I am sure we will do it again next year.


  1. A couple of weeks ago I got to see the park from the air on a commercial flight. I looked down and picked out the places I had run there with you guys in years past -- the same points that you mention above. It was most interesting to put those distances and elevation from that perspective.

  2. Your writing is better than any photograph Joe. So glad I could share the experience with you, Joyce, and friends.

  3. Brings much memories, and I wish all Texas was like that - or Big Bend. Can we at least move the mountains closer? One year Stephen will be gone, and I will join you guys to have fun with people. Although I am kinda a solo runner, when it comes to it:)

  4. Great writing Joe. I can't tell you how many times I've stood on the trail on the west escarpment north of Bush Mountain and thrown small rocks straight up into the air only to watch the howling winds from below carry them away to the east. I've spent many days out there running and backpacking by myself and it's one of the true isolated wilderness areas around. Can't wait to get back out there.