Friday, December 31, 2010

Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands

On Sunday morning, I packed up and drove out to West Texas. When I told some friends about my plans, they were surprised I wasn't riding, but I've done that before and it can be extremely cold riding this time of year, especially in West Texas. I had thought I might spend the night in the town of Van Horn, but when I got there around 2pm, it didn't look all that interesting, so I went on to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and set up camp there. It was pretty warm when I got there, but once the sun started getting lower, the temperature dropped rapidly. I had dinner as the last sunlight was fading and was in my sleeping bag at 7pm (actually 6 local time). I read for a while, then went to sleep. I woke up a couple of times in the night, and started moving again at 5:30 MST.

I had breakfast, broke camp, and started on the Guadalupe Peak Trail at first light, 6:30 am. I felt I was way overdressed - three layers on top, two on bottom, and a warm cap - for hiking, and felt certain of it going up the relatively steep initial section. However, that section was also in the lee of the mountain, and once I topped that first ridge, a cold wind started blowing. The trail also flattened out, causing me to generate less heat, so I didn't have to strip down, I just changed my head gear. While hiking up that first section, I came upon an 8-point whitetail standing in the trail. Fortunately, it wasn't a repeat of my experience in Glacier, as he quickly went on his way in the other direction. Also going on in the first stretch was an evaluation of my right knee, which was bothering me since running Saturday. I took the unusual (for me) step of using trekking poles on this hike, and figured I would hike for an hour, and if the knee was hurting too badly, I would quit hiking. When I got to that one hour point, I was already 2/3 of the way to the top, and the knee was feeling okay. I didn't see anybody on the trail until I got to a backpacking campground where a man and two boys had apparently camped and were starting out for the summit. I was almost surprised when I got to the summit around 8:45, it felt like it should have been further or steeper or something. As windy as it had been on the approach, it was even more so at the very peak, and almost knocked me over once or twice. I had a snack, had the man (who arrived with the boys a few minutes after I did) take my picture, and signed the register. I was worried about the descent, since it's even harder on the knees, but by taking it a little gingerly and using my poles and left knee, I made it down with a minimum of pain a little past 11. While I was glad for the layers I had on at the summit, I was ready to be rid of them at the bottom, even after shedding hat and gloves and opening my jacket up. I took off a layer and drove north to Carlsbad Caverns. I had planned only to get tour information and take a tour the next day, but I found out pretty much all the ranger guided tours were sold out for the week. I went ahead a got a general admission ticket, and went on the self-guided natural entrance tour, and after its 800 ft vertical descent, did the big room tour. The place was a madhouse of people, all kinds of idiot tourists gawking and yapping. When I finished the big room tour, I was going to take the elevator back up, but the line was outrageously long, so I hiked out the way I came in. At that point, surprisingly, my knee was feeling fine, and the paved trail was pretty gentle. It looked like some people I had seen in the big room were just getting back to the visitor center at the same time I was, so the natural entrance was definitely the best way out of the cave for me. I checked at the ticket desk before leaving, and found there was an opening for the Wednesday Left Hand Tunnel Tour, so I booked that. I was thinking I would spend the night in Carlsbad, but the two places I checked didn't have anything reasonably priced, so I headed to Alamogordo. I hadn't looked at the distance that closely, and it was well past dark (but still only around 7pm) when I got into town and got a room.

Tuesday morning I drove down to White Sands National Monument. I cruised through until I got to the trailhead for the Alkali Flats Trail. I hadn't checked the trail out at all, so I just started out with just a water bottle, in my sneakers. If I had known more about the trail, I would have brought more stuff with me. Near the trailhead there were bunches of families, sledding and having fun on the gypsum dunes, which look a bit like ski hills. When I started on the trail, there were two other pairs of people who also seemed like they would be hiking as well. After I had gone about a mile, however, I couldn't see any of them, and in fact didn't see anybody at all until I got back closer to the trailhead. The trail was marked with plastic posts (and lots of footprints), but it was a pretty arbitrary course and surely changes regularly based on the "movement" of the dunes. Travel was not very efficient over the sand- some sections were pretty solid and easy to traverse, while others were soft and caused a lot of energy loss. The back sides of the dunes were particularly soft, and the steepness led every step slide downhill. Going uphill, it made for almost twice the climb, and downhill caused a lot of sand to get into my shoes. For a while I went barefoot, which actually felt slightly more efficient in the soft sand. The sand was cold on my feet though, and it was colder below the surface than on top. The trail turned back at the end of the dunes and the start of an ancient lake bed, and presumably near the edge of the missile range, as there were military-looking buildings in the distance. The signpost there had a distance marked as 2.2 miles, much farther than I had anticipated. It was after 11 at that point, and I would have packed some snacks at least had I realized how far it was. It was around 1 when I got back to my car, and after trying to shake off the sand I had some lunch. I headed about 30 miles south of the monument to the entrance of White Sands Missile Range. Rather than get a permit to drive 100 yards, I walked over to the museum. I rather enjoyed the place, it was really nerdy and full of engineering porn. One of the big claims to fame of the range is that it was the site of testing of captured German V-2 rockets, and allowed the US to catch up to and surpass their knowledge of rocketry. I also have some interest in nuclear weapons, for whatever reason, and WSMR was the site of the Trinity test, and they have a Fat Man casing in their outdoor area. They didn't have much information on my favorite rockets such as the Tomahawk, or ICBMs, but there were several short- and medium-range rockets capable of carrying nuclear or conventional warheads. I drove from there back to Carlsbad and checked into a motel.

I woke up at 7 Wednesday, had breakfast and went down to the caverns. I took the elevator down to the big room and met up with the tour group for the Left Hand Tunnel, one of the early tour routes that was effectively abandoned, neglected, and abused years ago. The abuse is evident in the tailings of the elevator shaft construction piled up at the start, and the broken calcite crust and many feet worth of missing silt slightly farther in. The tour didn't really go that far, distance wise, but the guide offered a lot of information about the early development and use of the caverns, as well as cave biology and development. Since there are no lights along this tour, everyone was issued a candle lantern. It was kind of like my tour of Jewel Cave, but the lanterns were different and many of them rattled when the holder was walking. They did issue one brand new LED lantern, which threw things off a bit as it produces a completely different color light. At the furthest point of the tour was a little cave biology lesson with many millions of years old fossils, and undetermined age (decades at least) bat "mummies." We went back to a larger room for a blackout, after which the guide told an interesting story about giving a tour to a blind woman, which kind of changes the perspective. The lead ranger had some lame songs and more even lamer jokes. His best line of the tour, I think, was after someone asked about things falling in the cave (meaning formations dropping and such, due to geologic activity) and he replied "my jokes fall flat all the time." It was kind of remarkable that he is the fourth generation of cave workers in his family, going back to 1932. At the beginning, he implored people not to publicize the entrance to the left hand tunnel, not that it's a great secret, but he asked if anyone had a blog and I sheepishly half raised a hand. So I won't reveal that it's just off of the lunch room. There's a locked gate, so it doesn't make a big difference any way. Leaving the caverns, I headed back to Guadalupe Mountains NP, and went to McKittrick Canyon for the first time. Since it was already 1pm and the gates to the area close at 4:30, I didn't have a lot of time for hiking, so I went as far as the Pratt Cabin. I thought it was pretty nice, and I really would love to have something like that of my own. The buildings are mainly stone, with some pine timbers, but the setting was magnificent with the mountains looming overhead. I decided to camp in the park again that night. It was a very windy night. While setting up, and while preparing and eating dinner, everything light had to be weighted down to keep from blowing away. I was afraid the tent was going to blow away or collapse. I only used the four anchor points I normally use, I should have added more. Twice, relatively early in the night, a stake pulled out of the ground and I had to go out and pound it back into the ground.

It was a lot less windy the next morning, so breakfast and breaking camp were not as fraught with peril. Since I had abandoned my original plan of doing some backpacking, I thought I would hike in Balmorhea State Park, not realizing that there are no trails and the main draw of the park is a large spring-fed pool. It wasn't too cold out, and they said the water is always around 75 degrees, but I didn't really feel like swimming. I went on to Fort Davis, where I stopped at the Fort Davis National Historical Site. It sounded interesting enough, so I stayed and checked it out. It was a Civil War-era fort, used mainly to protect the San Antonio to El Paso road, abandoned in 1891 when it became obsolete. I found it to be fairly interesting, but the wind was howling, making it unpleasant to walk between the restored buildings. Also not helping my enjoyment was a family with a child constantly crying. There are some short trails on the site, but I didn't want to stick around with the wind whipping the way it was. I figured that it was just as windy in the state park a few miles away, and headed straight home from Fort Davis.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


The day after competing in the Natural Bridge Caverns Duathlon and almost no sleep, I took an early flight up to New York to spend Thanksgiving with my parents, sister and niece. The early flight got me in in the early afternoon, which would have allowed time to do something, except that I spent most of it sleeping. On Tuesday I went for a little run along the Hudson on a paved trail built within the last few years. On Wednesday we drove upstate to our friends' place we've been having Thanksgiving for many years now (with exceptions such as last year when we were in Costa Rica). I absolutely stuffed myself every practically every moment we were there. I did manage to get in a short run while there to mitigate the overconsumption. We drove back to my parents' on Friday, and I flew back to Austin on Saturday. It was an early flight again and I got home early enough to take a short bicycle ride in the afternoon. I went for a run on Sunday, but didn't do a properly long distance. I worked my distance back up, running 7, 8, and 9 miles in subsequent weekends.

On the 19th I drove up to the Dallas area to have Christmas lunch with my aunt, uncle, and cousins. The food was good, and I almost always gorge on those occasions that I do get a home-cooked meal. I spent most of the time I was there playing with my cousin's children with Nerf guns and other toys. I drove home later in the afternoon, and in all spent about as much time in the car driving as I did visiting.

I didn't do all that much yesterday or today. I had thought about swimming in Barton Springs yesterday, but it wound up raining, so I just swam at the gym (after I went back to sleep from 9-11:30). This morning I went for a run, and did the full 10-mile loop for the first time. The trail was a little hard to follow on the east end where it meanders through ball fields, not being familiar with the area, but I didn't get lost. There were a lot fewer people out than there normally are on a weekend (even a cold and overcast windy day), but there were still quite a few people out- mainly serious runners and people walking their dogs. My right knee started hurting at the end of mile 9. I probably should have stopped and stretched or something, but I wanted to hurry and get to the movie theater to see True Grit. I also failed to stretch properly after the run, which probably didn't help anything. As a result, my knee has been hurting all day since. Hopefully it gets better overnight or in the car ride out to West Texas in the morning... More on that when I get back.