Hike: El Capitan Bushwhack

Hike date: 13 March 2014

I stood with John and Mike on the Top of Texas, Guadalupe Peak, and stared at the peak to the south. El Capitan was truly spectacular to behold. Three sides of the mountain a cliff that dropped 1000′ to the slopes below which dropped another 2000′ to the Chihuahua Desert. The fourth side of the mountain a 500′ slope that angled at about 30 degrees so the western side was much higher than the eastern side. It was one of those peaks that you looked at and thought: “I have to climb that.”

Internally, I struggled with some concerns about being able to accomplish the bushwhack without running out of water, of getting back to the campsite before nightfall, and of course the risk of being bit by a rattlesnake while trudging through the underbrush. I voiced my concerns to John whose response sealed the deal for me, “You only live once.”

While my hike mates explored the Guadalupe Peak and packed up, I did some research on bushwhacking to El Capitan. I found a SummitPost.org post that seemed to have the most details on the hike. I read it while looking down at El Capitan for some context. The resulting plan was to hike down the Guadalupe Peak Trail to a point where it was close to a small ridge that lead down to the ravine between the two mountains. Once we got off the trail we would ditch our packs in order to lighten our load, just bringing water and food. There was a large tree on the ridge that would be visible from anywhere on the hike that we could use as a reference point as to which ridge to climb back up. We would try to cross the ravine as high up as possible as the further we went down into it, the higher we would have to climb back up. On the other side of the ravine there seemed to be some animal trails or washes that we would follow to the summit, we would try to stay parallel to the cliff edge to minimize the total vertical to the summit. We would also return the same route.

The Plan

The Plan

With the plan shared and agreed upon by everyone, we hiked down to the spot where we would start our bushwhack. When I started hiking several years back and heard the term bushwhack I pictured people hiking through the jungle, chopping all vegetation out of their way with a machete. In the context of hiking in Maine and New Hampshire I thought it was a very disrespectful behavior for the protected land that I loved to hike. I thought bushwhacking should not be allowed as it completely went against the concept of land conservation, the principle that all of the state and national parks that I enjoyed were formed upon. Soon after I realized that it was just a term that meant hiking off trail.

Silly me.

It was here, standing among small bushes worrying about snakes, scorpions and other things which bite and sting that I realized from where the term probably came. Mike lead the way, whacking bushes and logs with his trekking pole in order startle any creature that was hiding under. I followed his footsteps with the confidence that he already proved them safe. It was not behavior that I would ever have practiced in New England, so the term never had any context to me. We were literally whacking bushes.

We got to a point 30 or 40 feet below the Guadalupe Peak Trail where there were a few boulders. We ditched our packs behind one so they could not be seen from above. As well as food and water, I pocketed my compass, a map, a knife and some rescue line and of course my phone. John and Mike also brought a trekking pole each. One of the great coincidences of our trip to Texas occurred here. Upon stashing his pack, John found a Bar Harbor Bike Shop hat in the bushes. What was the chance of a couple of Mainers finding a hat from Maine off trail in the mountains in western Texas? Pure craziness.

Mike continued to lead the way down the ravine. The going was slow as we got used to the whole bushwhacking procedure and stopped to discuss the best route down to the ravine. For the most part we stuck to the ridge line and tried to stay out of areas of think underbrush. As we fell away from the Guadalupe Peak trail, the voices of hikers fell away as well. Looking back we could see that traffic on the trail had picked up as mid day approached. We imagined the trail stompers above noticing us below, way off the trail, wonder what the hell we were doing.

The rocks we climbed were amazingly rough and dry. When I grabbed a boulder for support it felt like pumice stone and I could literally feel it chew away the soles of my shoes. The further we got into the ravine the hotter it got. We no longer had a gentle breeze that had blessed the peak and high trail above, the air was still and quiet. I worked hard at not sucking down all of my water at once. We got low enough in the ravine to find a good place to cross the wash and begin our ascent of El Capitan. On the other side of the wash there were indeed trails of stone through the underbrush that seemed to be from animals.

We made it up the first, steep slope and began to follow the cliff’s edge. To our right was The Horn, a sub peak of El Capitan that jutted out over the desert below like the prow of a boat. From reading hiking posts, many people climbed it first, but we decided to bypass it because it added quite a bit of ups and downs.

I’ve always been one to enjoy the view over a cliff or from the top of a tall building. The fear of height crawls up my spine the same as everyone, but I usually suppressed it well enough to bask in the view. We inched our way to the edge of the cliff and looked down, and it scared the shit out of me. A thousand foot drop is a massive drop. I stayed long enough to snap a photo, but the whole time I could imagine the ground I was standing on calving off and falling for several seconds to the still desert below, taking me with it.

1000 foot drop

1000 foot drop

We followed the cliff’s edge up to the peak, I for one stayed well away from it so I could pretend it wasn’t there. The mountain rose and fell in waves, and in places it was technical enough that we had to move further in away from the cliff or closer to the edge to continue on. We went over the north peak (which some people claim seems higher in elevation than the south peak, but I disagree) and got a view of the summit.

View of the summit from before the north peak

View of the summit from before the north peak

Between the north and south peaks was a forest of small pine trees. We had to pick our way through the trees, weaving in and around the low branches. We saw scat from the animals that made the game trails lower on the mountain and joked that it was probably mountain lion. The trees were thick enough that we could barely see the sky over the edge of the cliff and had no sense of how close to the peak we were. We abruptly exited the trees and had a great view of the desert to the south of El Capitan. Beside us were a few boulders and the ammo canister marking the summit.

Mike and me on the El Capitan summit

Mike and me on the El Capitan summit

The summit was one of the most solitary places I had ever visited. If it wasn’t for the ammo canister, my hiking mates and the road through the Chihuahua Desert there would have been no sign of humanity around. The copse of tree behind us sheltered any sound or sight of the hikers on Guadalupe Mountain and the highway to the south was too far away and below us for the sound to travel up. We slapped each other high-five with massive grins on our faces. It was one of the most rewarding moments in my hiking career.

I signed the log book while Mike and John called their families (we weren’t so separated from society that we didn’t have a cell signal). I wolfed down a Clif Bar, finished off my water and texted my wife to update her on our progress (I’m not a phone person).

There’s a funny thing about summits. You make plans and anticipate a particular summit for so long that when you finally get there it’s over and there’s nothing left to do but return.  There’s nothing really special about a summit. The view really isn’t much better than 20, or 50 or 100 feet before the summit. If you stopped 200 feet sooner and turned around it wouldn’t really take away from the massive journey that you endured to get to that point. The ending is subjective after all. For many people that day the ending was Guadalupe Peak. For us, that was just where the real adventure began. So often I get caught up in the target, that I don’t realize that it is the trip that is important. It reminds me of what Yvon Chouinard said in 180° South: “You get to the top … there’s nothing up there. Lionel Terray, the great French climber called it ‘The conquistadors of the useless.'”

After 15 or 20 minutes of trying to take in the moment and make it a memory I began to get anxious for the return trip. I knew we had a tiring hike ahead and it was closing in on 3:00pm; my northern clock was telling me that daylight was running out. We began hiking down the route we took to the summit and discussed whether it was better to follow the cliff’s edge again or cut lower on El Capitan’s angled face. Those who wanted to cut lower won out and in the end I think it saved us some time and PUDs (pointless ups and downs). We made it off the face of El Capitan and back into the ravine at roughly the same place we ascended.

Once in the ravine the temperature rose again and any sign of breeze disappeared. From the research I did, there was always a strong breeze on El Capitan (and the summit register reflected that). I guess we got lucky that there was no wind, but at that point I could have used some. The hike up the ridge to the Guadalupe Peak trail was a difficult one filled with many breaks looking back at El Capitan. It was unbelievable to look at it and consider that we just hiked it.

El Capitan from just above the ravine

El Capitan from just above the ravine

We continued to bushwhack our way back up Guadalupe, but the anxiousness of hidden snakes was gone for me. I trudged between the shrubs too beaten down by the sun and temperature to worry about snake bites. We even stopped for a 10 minute break and stretched out on the ground under our reference tree.

A short reprieve from the sun

A short reprieve from the sun

We got back to the Guadalupe Peak trail about four hours after we left Guadalupe Peak. The total distance and elevation gain was not huge, but given the difficult terrain, hot temperature and sun and the fact that it had begun after a 4 mile, 3000′ hike to Guadalupe Peak I think we made pretty good time. This was my first time bushwhacking and I certainly will not forget it any time soon. Bushwhacking in the northeast will present its own difficulties I’m sure, but we chose a pretty epic route for our first attempt.

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Map of Bushwhack

Map of Bushwhack

Stats:
Elevation: 8065′
Elevation Gain: 1325′
Distance:  1.9 miles
Book Time: none
Actual Time: 4:00
Temperature: hot
Wind: 0 mph
Weather: sunny

References:
180° South.” 180south.com. 180° South LLC. Web. 6 April 2014.
Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop.” barharborbike.com. The Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop. Web. 6 April 2014.
Company Info: Our History.” patagonia.com. Patagonia, inc. Web. 6 April 2014.
El Capitan Bushwack from Guadalupe Peak Trail.” summitpost.org. SummitPost.org. Web. 30 March 2014.

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7 thoughts on “Hike: El Capitan Bushwhack

  1. Pingback: Hike: Guadalupe Peak | Maine Wanderlust

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  5. Great Blog. Beautiful country you live within as well. Guadalupe is my back yard and Big Bend is my front yard. I enjoyed your humorous description of a “bushwhack”, but the trip report for your El Capitan summit includes no such thing. A true “bushwhack” is one where you lose good clothing! There are many such places in Guadalupe NP, but many more in Big Bend Country. We wear rock helmets because we rappel canyons and drop offs throughout both these national parks. But the rock helmets are much more appreciated in a true bushwhack. Having a solid set of sunglasses and rock helmet to help push through the tightest and thorniest of extremely tight floral hazards, and getting your long sleeve shirts, pants, and even gaiters torn here and there is what you will encounter on such a hike. If you are ever going to be out in the Big Bend Country or GMNP again, let me know! I’ll take you on a rare off trail hike where you can see a real bushwhack. Instagram @kshakes19 and I’ll check out yours as well. I am jealous of the beautiful country you live in! But I do have some places here that less than .0000000001% of hikers will ever see. Join me if you are ever in the area!

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