Monday, January 27, 2020

Guadalupe Mountains: Tejas Trail to the Bowl

OK. It's Saturday morning, Veteran's Day weekend, and the trailhead is damn crowded! There' a constant stream of people, OK, maybe not constant, but considerable nonetheless, filing through the gap in the fence and raising dust, and commotion, on that first bit of trail.

A quick look at the log-book next to the trailhead shows that some of these hikers are headed for Devil's Hall, but most are heading on up the Peak Trail, all lined up, nuts-to-butts as my drill sergeant used to say, hoping to get bragging rights for summiting Guadalupe Peak.

Being the considerate kind of guy I am, I decided not to crowd the crowds with my presence (OK, so we all know the real reason is that I'm not much of a people-person and frankly can't abide crowds.) and instead turned to my day-hike guide to find a trail that might be less traveled on this holiday weekend. (When I was working there were never enough holidays, now that I'm retired there are far too damn many!)

OK, this looks like a good candidate.

It doesn't get as high as the Peak Trail, only 8300' to the Peak's 8700', but it is just as far and most importantly, this morning nobody else has signed out in the trail-log for this hike.

True, not everybody enters their hikes in the log, me included, but enough do that if  more than a few people are on this trail one of them would have logged it.

The Park Service recommendation for this trail is contrary to my normal counterclockwise inclination, but if that's what they recommend then that's what I'll do.

(I'll have more to say about that recommendation later!!)

  So the plan for the day is to leave from the campground/trailhead - that green dot - hike up the west side of Pine Canyon - the red line on the left - to the bowl - the blue circle - transit across the the bowl, and return to the campground via Bear Canyon - the red line on the right.

OK, been through my checklist to make sure I have all my hiking gear. Got my soup, tuna, and crackers lunch tucked into the pack. Time to grab the hiking sticks and go!

First, just like yesterday, I cross the wide and rocky wash of the Delaware River.

But this time instead of switching over to the Frijole trail on the other side, I stick to the Tejas trail and double-back along the far side of the Delaware.

I know it's not good composition, but putting the deer dead-center in the photo makes it easier to spot.

Not too far up the valley I come to an encouraging sign. Encouraging in that the three mule-deer would probably not have still been hanging this close to the trail if there were hikers out in front of me.

I stood still, trying to blend in and "be one" with my surroundings, and took a lot of photos of the three, though they were never close enough together to get all into a single shot, as they fed and eventually meandered their way up-slope and away from the trail. I picked out this photo as representative of the batch because the skinny, white (On top) tail with the black tip clearly marks this as a group of mule-deer and not white-tails which also inhabit the area but actually have a fat, dark (On top) tail with a pure-white underside.

Once the deer are out of the way I continue to climb the north slope of the valley, getting higher above the Delaware with every step. Which, considering that I've got about 2500' to climb today, isn't surprising.

From up here the view is long and I'm assuming that those are the Davis Mountains out there to the southeast. If so they are just about 90 crow-fly miles away.

As I get higher I start running into a few spots where drill-marks are visible in the rocks where sections were split away to make way for the trail. At least I assume they used the holes to split the rock with feathers and wedges and didn't actually blast it, even though blasting is cooler!

The trail doesn't really feel precarious, just rugged.

But right after this I round a corner. . .

You know how you always want to know the magician's secret, but once you find out you realize that knowing maybe isn't all that great?

Boy do I wish I hadn't looked up when I came around that corner!

You see those faint squiggly Zorroish lines just below the peak in the center?

Well that's the trail and the photo just doesn't do justice for showing how high up there it really is.

Here I've blown up the relevant section of that previous photo and pushed the contrast to make the trail stand out a little better.

And yep, once it finishes those switchbacks over to the right under the rocky peak, it continues off to the left, always climbing, before disappearing over that ridge.

And the portion of the trail I can see, there in the red circle, is only part of what's left before I actually make it up over the edge and into the bowl.

I'm standing at that corner at the end of the arrow and can't see the switchbacks just above my head in the blue circle on the right, nor can I see over the ridge on the left to the final set of switchbacks in the other blue circle.

After I recovered from the disheartening mixture of shock and dismay at the sight above me, I pulled my figurative socks up and started trudging onward again. Shortly after that, over the thumping of my hiking sticks and crunching of my boots (Soft soled-boots are quietest, think moccasin, hard-soled boots protect from rocks best. I compromise with medium-soled boots, which crunch on the rocks and let me feel them. Humm, maybe compromise isn't the correct word here. . .) I hear something behind me and just barely have time to get out of the way before this guy runs by.

Yep, runs.

I blurted out something like "you're friggin nuts!" as he went by, which I don't think he appreciated. . .

Oh well, we'll both get over it.

Or at least I will, he may just die running up steep, rocky trails like that!

From this new vantage point, once the dust of that runner settles, I can look down into the bright colors of Devil's Hall where I was a few days ago.

And by putting boot to trail, and boot to trail, and boot to - well, you get the idea - I eventually make it up to the switchbacks I first saw from way down there below. From here I can look back with pride at the ground I've managed to cover since that first shocking sight. (The "corner" I came around and got my first glimpse of the trail above me is just barely off the right edge of the photo. Bad composition on my part.)

From here I also have a view, a really long view over the intervening ridge, of the visitor center, just there on the left edge of the photo under that little dot that is the flag flying on the pole out front, and the trailhead overflow parking-lot.

Yep, there's a lot of people up here on the mountain today. Fortunately few of them, in fact only that one running fool fit young man so far, are on the same part of the mountain as me.

At last I make it to the final back of all those switchbacks and though I am still below the rim of the bowl the forest has spilled over the edge like the oatmeal I slopped out of my own bowl this morning, and gives me a preview of what's ahead.

Finally! The Bowl.

 A forest thousands of feet above the desert below.

After pushing on for two more tenths to get a look at the Pine Top Primitive Campsite, you know, just because, I quickly pick out a sheltered spot up against an Alligator Juniper for lunch and celebrate reaching my destination.

Only it's not really my destination is it?

You see that trail-sign shining in the sun just left of center?

That's sitting right on the rim where I came into the bowl.

At this point I'm supposed to leave the Tejas Trail and switch over to the Bowl Trail which will, approximately a mile and a quarter later, take me to the upper end of Bear Canyon trail which I am to follow back down off the mountain to eventually return to the campground. (Not the campground listed on this sign, that's for the Pine Top wilderness campground)

But during lunch I haven't just been lollygagging. (Though I admit, there has been a little of that.) I've been doing a little calculating as well.

This is an 8.5 mile hike, if the day-hike guide is to be believed that is. If that's true then when I came over the edge of the Bowl, I'd completed exactly half of the day's hike so far, all of that an uphill climb on a series of switchbacks.

If I hike another mile and a quarter across the relatively flat Bowl that only leaves 2.5 miles to climb down what it took me 4.25 miles to get up!

Yep, a close inspection of the topo map (something I clearly should have done with more care before I set off on this hike!) shows that Bear Canyon is one steep sucker!

Now I don't know about you, but for me climbing steep is always easier than descending steep.
Sitting there in the bowl, over 4 miles and a 2500' decent from the comfort of The Van, the thought of blindly slithering backwards on all-fours down some impossibly steep trail in Bear Canyon, probably, based on past experience, whimpering the whole way, didn't seem like something I wanted to do just now. Maybe back when I was as young as that guy that ran past me earlier, but not now that I'm carrying enough years on my back to have earned a medicare card.

And just who the hell at the Park Service thought the better way to hike this trail was clockwise when clearly the counterclockwise route is preferable?

I'm not really a bragging kind of person, which may be more along the lines of who-the-hell-would-I-brag-to rather than an admirable character trait, but I am goal oriented and my goal today was to complete the loop, but at this point I totally wimped out and abandoned the idea of making this a loop hike deferred to the caution that comes from taking responsibility for my own actions and used the wisdom that comes with age and experience to adjust my plans.

Yep, I decided the smart thing to do is to come down off the mountain the way I came up. The way I know is doable.

Thus ended my aborted loop through the bowl.

A portion of the Guadalupe Peak Trail over there in the distance.

A final footnote on this hike:

As I was coming down out of the bowl with my tail between my legs trying to put a good light on my retreat by reminding myself that at least I wasn't over there on the Guadalupe Peak Trail where there would be lots of witnesses to my wimping out, I met a half-dozen people strung out along the trail, all hiking up to the Pine Top Wilderness Campground for the night. (That filled the back-country camp. Guadalupe National Park may be a long ways away from anywhere, but it's popular nonetheless.)

Nope, not him but you get the idea

The first encounter was not too far below the rim where this poor guy, active military judging by his appearance, dress, and the gear he had, was melted down into a puddle in the middle of the trail. Not off to the side, but right in the middle.

As I approached he craned his neck to look up at me and wheezed out "how much farther?"

I told him. (It was another half mile to the bowl then 2 more tenths to the campground.)

"What's the campground like?" he gasped out, perhaps in the hope of bucolic inspiration to keep on going.

I told him it looked fine to me but I had just hiked up here today and hadn't actually camped.

"Oh man!" he groaned. "Up and back in one day? And here I thought I was in good shape."

OK, I'll admit that up until this point I was considering oozing down into his exhaustion-puddle right along with him, but after that comment pride kept me on my feet. (It's another one of those annoying guy things. . .) Instead, as any real man would have to do under the circumstances or risk losing his man-card, I braced my hiking sticks a little more firmly, stood tall, and tried pointing out that it may be the elevation that's getting to him, besides, I was only carrying 25 pounds worth of gear and water to his 40 or 50.

I don't think it helped and my last view of him as I turned back on mountain-weary legs from farther down the trail hoping he was out of sight now so I could give up this he-man charade and do my own melt-down, was of him still laying there in that same spot. . .

Sometimes mountains be bitches!

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