I should never trust weather reports.
I had two days in the Northwest Texas area, and planned to climb the highpoint and hike the adjacent Devil’s Hall trail on one, and visit Carlsbad Caverns on the other. Theoretically, that would still leave me enough time for Tex-Mex in El Paso and maybe even a quick bouldering excursion in Hueco Tanks if I budgeted my time wisely.
Still at home, I stuffed my favorite hoodie into my daypack, and then every time I checked the rapidly deteriorating weather over the next week, I added a layer to the pile. Cold temperatures? Better bring the thick longsleeve shirt. Even colder? Woolen hat and puffy gloves. 60mph wind gusts? Add the wind shell. 75mph gusts? A second hardshell. NINETY mph gusts…? I only half-jokingly considered a set of carabiners and runners, in case I needed to lash myself to nearby trees or rocks.
Despite waking up at 4:30am for my flight and the two-hour drive to the National Park, I elected to summit my first day instead of the second, just based on the fury of that wind forecast. I drove directly to Guadalupe Mountains National Park through West Texas’ signature scrub desert and pumping oil derricks, with the enormous dark prow of El Capitan always looming ominously ahead, guiding me from a hundred miles away.
At eleven in the morning I was at the trailhead, wearing sunglasses and a t-shirt, squinting in disbelief at the clear perfect day. There was barely a breeze, much less the temperamental gusts I’d been fearing. I took my time with the climb, hunting for oceanic fossils in this bleached Permian reef surreally abandoned in the desert, examining the cinnamon-red Manzanita trees that sprawled over the scrubby brush below them, peeking into holes in the rock to see birds’ nests. The trail here is cleanly cut from the same native reef, and under a white sky the limestone glows stunningly brightly, steps and switchbacks orderly woven up the eastern side of the face.
At around 7000’ I smelled the sharp tangy perfume of gin and rounded a bend into a forest of sweet blue/green juniper and fir, the trees rifling diagonally from the earth, permanently bowed from the prevailing winds. The trail softened only slightly to a darker sediment and continued to curve between the peaks, shadowed by the twin hulks of the northern ridgeline and the southern reef escarpment.
A mile from the summit, I stopped to take in the view and laughed to myself. I’d heard that “everything is bigger in Texas,” but didn’t expect NOAA to succumb to the exaggeration with that forecast, nor the National Park Service– who’d claimed this to be a 6-8 hour hike, and even at my plodding pace it was looking as though I would amble to the top of Texas in two hours flat.
Just then, from the clear white sky, it started to snow.
This might have been the only weather pattern that hadn’t been forecasted over the past week. Still more amused than deterred, I continued to climb, the heavy wet flakes drifting gently around me and melting on contact. I gave a cheery wave to a pair of hikers on their way down– the first I’d seen all day– and greeted them with, “didn’t expect this, eh?” They mumbled something back, their pink faces tight and grim beneath the hats tied down tightly around their ears. Idly I reflected how some people were so sensitive to mild changes in weather as I followed the trail around a tight exposed arete and was nearly knocked on my ass by a gust of freezing wind.
I retreated downhill to hastily zip up my jacket, then peeked back around the corner edge like I was checking for sniper fire. The wind was still there, rushing through a funnel created by the parallel ridges until it drove into the trail like a blast from a cannon. I leaned down into it, fighting my hood into place as the wet snow battered against me, driving through my layers to burn against my skin.
With every step the clouds skated in faster, grey freight trains against the white sky. They swallowed the landscape: first the distant view, then the mountain peaks, and finally the few scant leaning trees that clung desperately to the edge of the trail. I crept along hugging the sheer rock face to my right, the cold wet rock more welcoming than the invisible dropoff to my left.
Fully exposed now, the winds swirled in every direction, occasionally pausing for a moment to gather their energy for a powerful gust. I could see down the trail for only about three meters before it was shrouded in a tenacious white mist, and I realized the heavy clouds I’d seen driving through the sky were now sharing the trail with me, not floating delicately around the summit of the mountain but pressing relentlessly through it, pushed into the rock by the mighty winds.
I trudged onward through the now familiar pattern of icy wind, sleet, rocks; finally a switchback, and then icy wind from a different direction. After an indeterminate amount of time–it seemed like hours since I’d poked at sunlit fossils a scant two miles below–a foreign shape loomed out of the snowy mist. I nearly walked past it, but this was it, the strange obelisk marking the summit. I clambered up to it and hid from the wind in its leeward shadow, fumbling my numb hands around my well-earned summit beer and shakily signing the log book with an oath to never trust a Texan weather report again.
my view is on the left, and the same vantage point is on the right.
About the beer:
Shiner Bock is arguably not truly a bock, but it is inarguably a classic. It’s a refreshing dark lager that smells of gently toasted grains like a Saltine cracker and is just as inoffensive, one of those rare brews that some people love, but everyone from beer-haters to beer-snobs will shrug and nod and happily finish off a bottle on a sunny day, a late night, or while fighting the wind on the snow-dusted peak of a petrified ocean reef.