Southern New Mexico end October 2002 Trip Report


At the start of the season, way back in April, I had planned upon a whirlwind trip at the end of October that would involve flying into Tucson from San Diego with Edward Earl - whence we would meet up with Scott Surgent to both stealth Animas Peak of Hidalgo County and also climb Cookes Peak of Luna County.

However that plan did not account for being layed off by Peregrine Systems in mid June. After Labor Day weekend I was still without a job. Furthermore I had purchased a beautiful new Toyota Tacoma over said weekend - and I wanted to take it on a second major driving trip (the first trip having taken place over late September to northern New Mexico).

That April plan also did not account for Scott Surgent holding out on Animas Peak for reasons I shall not go into at this time.

So a new plan was developed wherein I would collect several New Mexico counties, with only a subset of them being with Edward Earl over the final October weekend.

The initial plan was adhered to with the sole exception, anticipated in advance, that Organ Needle of Doña Ana County might we out-of-season owing to either insufficient daylight or poor weather. Edward and myself defaulted to the backup plan of climbing the El Paso cohp (county highpoint) instead.

Seeing as Edward Earl was only interested in doing the NM counties with challenging mountains as their highpoints, and also noting that I desire a NM state completion, I decided to incorporate NM eastern plains counties into my trip prior to his arrival in El Paso.

Indeed, here is a trip itinerary as prepared for my parents prior to my departure. The itinerary contains material designed to allow my mother to have peace of mind as I travel alone - which is why the tentative driving route is included.

Trip Details

The trip begain on Monday October 21, 2002. I wanted to set a new personal driving record for a single waking cycle - and, noting that I likely had not done so previously, attempted a drive of at least 700 miles straight to Las Cruces in New Mexico.

To this end I drove literally from pre-dawn to dusk, with the trip odometer reading 690 miles as I entered Las Cruces. There was one hour lost owing to shifting into the Mountain time zone. To achieve at least 700 miles I decided to scout out the approach roads to Organ Needle for a week later with Edward. After all the road convolutions and reaching a motel for the night (just NE of Las Cruces along route 70), I had traveled 717 miles for the day.

The following morning began with rain. I filled the tank with gasoline and at 7:20 AM drove northeast into the Tularosa Valley and the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). I took a side road south to the White Sands army base (3 miles), and obtained a pass for my truck to enter the main gate. I enjoyed the outdoor and indoor displays of the Missile Museum - with some "old favorites" of mine on display.

The Tularosa Valley is immense as far as valleys in the American West are concerned. The decision to place WSMR here was a wise one indeed. Trinity Site, where the first atomic device was detonated on July 16, 1945, lay at the northern end of the valley about one hundred miles away.

After about an hour at the Museum I returned to route 70 and drove to the Visitors Center for White Sands National Monument. I watched an informative video and paid for an automobile dune drive. Returned after twenty minutes after having hiked up a dune and after having reserved a container full of gypsum sand (hydrated calcium sulfate). White Sands Nat'l Monument has the world's largest collection of gypsum sand dunes (most sand is composed of silica - silicon dioxide). The native plants make remarkable adaptations to the environment of shifting sand which continually threatens to bury them.

With so much of the kind of things I like (research rockets; mountain ranges; bomb testing; desolate scenery) along today's route, I purchased a book at the Visitors Center that describes the various sights encountered as one travels, as I did, northeast from Las Cruces to Cloudcroft.

Departed White Sands Monument around 11 AM and, just prior to entering Alamogordo, passed by Holloman AFB with some jet zooming overhead (F-117 Stealth?). Continued driving, under deteriorating weather conditions, east on route 82 to Cloudcroft (8,600 ft) and then down the eastern slopes of the San Francisco range.

Turned off at NM-24 and passed by Dunken where I took the gravel road some twelve miles west to a junction. Headed south past hills and signed canyons that I mentally checked off in my search for the optimal start for One Tree Peak of Chaves County. Eventually I found the best spot - but campers were in clear view to the west on public lands and I did not want them to see me hopping the barbed wire fence enroute east to the highpoint. So I drove a few hundred yards back north and parked at a point where my blatantly illicit activity would not be seen.

Owing to the threatening skies and the possibility of being spotted, I ran the first few hundred yards east to a gully. Once in the gully I walked very quickly up it to the base of One Tree Peak. I was atop its summit after just 37 minutes from the truck - and spent only fifteen minutes or so there enjoying a vanilla spice health food bar with milk and chocolate pieces.

Back to my truck about 3:30 PM and left nearly immediately without reorganizing my gear - lest somebody from the camping group note my presence and try to approach me. Once back on the paved road (immediately south of Dunken - which looked abandoned), I stopped briefly to eat a little more.

I drove about fifty miles east on route 82 to the refining community of Artesia, arriving about 4:30 PM. I was extremely tired mentally - having lost too much sleep over two successive nights. So I abandoned my plan of trying to nab the Lea cohp by sundown - and took a good room in the Best Western Pecos Inn with a microwave oven, refrigerator, and cable television. Enjoyed my evening very much indeed and slept well.

I was getting ahead of my itinerary - and now had three days to do three counties with one of them trivial as Lea County. Artesia was a good jumping-off point for two alternative scenarios, the scenario being chosen according to the weather conditions the following morning. If I awoke to rain, with rain in the forecast, I would drive to the Lea cohp, return to Artesia, and call it a day. Else I would go to the Eddy cohp (a cross-country affair lasting several hours), and, if time permitted in the late afternoon, drive to/from the Lea cohp the same day.

On Wednesday the 23rd I awoke to leaden, overcast skies but without rain. Thereby I would attempt the Eddy cohp that day. I drove south on NM-285 for some 25 miles, thence west and southwest on NM-137 to the hamlet of Queens (36 miles more). I passed numerous gas wells and, quite often, smelled the strong odor of natural gas. This countryside is full of sedimentary deposits from the Permian epoch - into which pockets of petroleum and natural gas naturally find themselves. The existence of Artesia is, in a very real sense, utterly dependent upon the geology of this region. There is even a Permian Ford auto dealer in Artesia!

Some three miles after Queens I turned south (left) onto FR540 and drove about twelve miles to its southern end. Following Scott Surgent's instructions, I took a right fork, then a left fork, and quickly found myself parking the truck owing to a very bad, rock-strewn section of road.

The hike itself was not trivial. The greatest problem was navigation. Intially, upon reaching the eastern rim of the canyon I was to cross, I was confused in my attempt to correlate map and observation. Heading down into the canyon more or less due west, I found myself off-route in my attempt to get to point 6,880+ as recommended by Scott. There it lay to the north - and so I traversed the eastern slopes until I found an easy way down to it.

Rather than follow Scott's (or anybody else's) exact route, I headed downhill, trending northwest, in the direction of a saddle at 6,900 ft. Upon reaching the canyon bottom at about 6,700 ft, I immediately hiked uphill along the eastern slope of the massif that supported both the cohp and a subpeak, nearly as high, just to the north. Crossed a fence oriented north-south and found a footpath leading to the subpeak. It was now a five or ten minute affair to the cohp just south.

At the summit cairn I found familiar names in the register but did not sign in. The weather was very threatening and so I just had a snack and left within twenty minutes of my arrival. My return route was more straightforward since by now I was familiar with the terrain. After descending to the canyon floor and regaining point 6,880+, I hiked up the obvious slope on a true heading of 40 degrees. This got me to the canyon rim, and, some 14 minutes later, I was back at my truck perhaps 4 1/2 hours elapsed time since my departure.

I stopped in Queens to call mother (this I had promised), and got a big sour dill pickle plus a piece of german chocolate cake that I saved for a later time when I could enjoy it "properly" with milk or coffee, or even ice cream. I was back in Artesia at roughly 3 PM and so had plenty of time to visit the Lea cohp that afternoon.

To that end I drove north on NM-285 to Roswell (some 40+ miles), thence east on route 82 some 45 miles to route 172. After exactly 1.2 miles along 172 I found the bend in the road with a cairn on the east side. Quickly I left the cab, crossed the road, touched and encircled the cairn (constructed, I believe, by Andy Martin), and continued driving with a chocolate wafer treat in my hand.

The road, although paved, was in terrible shape - it was washboard-like with undulations for several miles. I found that it was uncomfortable, and likely dangerous, to drive it at 60 MPH as desired - and so I slowed down to about 50 MPH. Of course even then I was well over the posted speed limit. The road entered Lea County for roughly a five mile section prior to intersecting route 82 just east of Maljamar. I followed route 82 west to Artesia - so completing a rough forty mile square.

Stopped at a gas station for money at an indoors ATM and bought two small pecan pies of the Dolly Madison genre - the fried variety with crust on the outside and a pitifully small amount of filling on the inside. Took a room at the same motel as the previous evening and had a good sleep.

I was now a full day ahead of schedule with Thursday and Friday to climb Guadalupe Peak - the Texas state HP. My plan was to do the hike on the first non-rainy day. The forecast called for rain Thursday - and this was borne out in practice when I awoke the following morning. Thereby Friday would be for Guadalupe Peak. I drove south through Carlsbad and then continued to the turnoff for Carlsbad Caverns National Park about twenty miles farther along route 180.

Normally folks enter the underground labyrinth by taking an elevator straight down from the visitor center to the main cave some 800 feet beneath. Alternatively one may go underground via the natural entrance, hiking downhill to the main room. I was not interested in walking downhill only to take an elevator back up! That is for wimps and folks who don't care about the state of their grossly distended American bodies. Personal opinion, mind you.

Thereby I received permission from two park rangers to hike uphill from the main cave to the natural cave entrance some 800 feet higher.

Gladly taking the elevator down to the main cave, I went on a self-guided 1.3 mile tour of the main room - complete with the "bottomless pit" that so frightened me when I was there as a youngster over thirty years earlier with my parents. In fact the pit bottom is 140 feet beneath the level of the walkway. Furthermore, the ceiling is 230 feet above the walkway - so making for the greatest vertical extent from floor to ceiling within the main cave of 370 feet. Of course the limestone formations (both stalactite and stalagmite) were spectacular - with one reaching 62 feet in height. Their faces were seemingly so smooth, I wondered how one could climb them were one to miraculously receive permission to do so.

The hike uphill involved a net gain of eight hundred feet and a total elevation gain of some nine hundred feet - the walkway descends slightly below the level of the main cave prior to reascending to meet it. It took me about twenty minutes (maybe a little longer) to reach the natural entrance - and, of course, I had gone against the human flow of traffic the entire length (although the the number of visitors was low indeed - owing to the season, poor weather, and that it was a workday [Thursday]). A large fraction, possibly the majority of visitors to the Park that day, were retired senior citizens. This demography makes sense given the day of week and time of year.

I drove back to Carlsbad to take a room and wait out the inclement weather for my hike the following day. I felt kind of silly checking into my room around 2 PM - but I honestly had nothing else that I really wanted to do. So watching TV, eating and resting became the next best option.

It was during this time that I was in three-way communication with both Edward Earl and my mother. Owing to poor weather forecasts for the weekend, Edward was seriously considering cancelling his round trip tickets to El Paso. He would be charged $100 and then be eligible to use the value of his purchased tickets for a future, equivalent set of flights in the future.

The forecast was for solid rain both Saturday and Sunday. However each time I watched the forecast on the TV Weather Channel, it improved incrementally over the previous forecast. Furthermore, my experience is that whenever a forecast calls for "rain" for a given region for a given date, it really means that rain will occur with a p% chance as integrated over the entire date. In other words, the probability that rain will occur at location x at time y is never stated, and is far lower in value than the p% chance of rain as stated in some forecasts since p is the result of integrating over time y for the entire date in question.

My mother acted as relay between Edward and myself since my cell phone was out of range and yet I had a telephone in my motel room both Wednesday (Artesia) and Thursday evenings. The final message from Edward Thursday evening (and that he told me directly once my mother gave him my telephone number in Carlsbad) was that he would like my personal observation from the summit of Guadalupe Peak should I return from that climb early enough to contact him prior to the latest time he could cancel his flights (about 2 PM Pacific time = 3 PM my time).

Given Edward's desire for my personal observations and the general likelihood of increased thunderstorm activity in the afternoon, I was on the road for Guadalupe National Park by 6 AM - about an hour before dawn with only fifty five miles to the trailhead.

As dawn approached I noted that I was under a solid cloud layer, a cloud layer that I entered as the road climbed on nearing the Park entrance. I was downhearted to think that I would have to do the entire hike in a fog. In a stroke of good fortune, my truck broke through the top of the cloud layer just prior to reaching the trailhead parking lot!

I signed in at the register and began the hike at 7:15 AM. The trail, very apparent and taken by hundreds, if not thousands each year, made for rapid vertical progress. I made about 1,700 vertical feet of gain within one hour, and decided to slow down a bit since going that fast was unneeded.

I was at the summit after 1 hour 53 minutes elapsed (included two five minute breaks), and enjoyed an uninterrupted view of cloud ceiling for most of the full circle. It reminded me of being on top of Kilimanjaro in 1996 - no view of the lowlands whatsoever. To the north and northwest there was no evidence of storm activity or even of billowing cloud buildup indicative of an imminent storm cell. This was the bit of information Edward wanted to know about.

I was down in 1 hour 27 minutes elapsd - so making for 4 hours 2 minutes total elapsed from truck to summit to truck. I called mother who kindly relayed the news for Edward. I agreed to call her when my cell phone worked upon entering the El Paso area - so learning whether Edward would come or not.

Upon entering El Paso I was able to call Edward directly. He had not yet decided - and it was just after 2 PM my time. I was still about twenty minutes from downtown El Paso and needed to know whether I had to wait for him or if I could simply continue home towards San Diego. We agreed that I would call him in thirty minutes. This I did - so learning that Edward had decided to come.

It was a sunny day in El Paso. I parked in a Walgreen / Luby's Cafeteria parking lot and enjoyed a pint of "banana split" ice cream inside my truck with the A/C running and the engine off. Various mix-ins saved as pieces of candy bars and nutrition bars from the past few days were used to advantage - including some of that piece of german chocolate cake bought in Queens.

With nothing to do in town I headed for the airport and parked in their long term lot. I waited for Edward more than four hours, sometimes in the truck and sometimes in the terminal. When he finally came just after 9 PM we drove north on route 54 to Alamogordo and took a room for the night. It surprised me that he would take a motel room. However Edward explained that owing to the season and the threat of rain it made sense. Furthermore we got to watch the TV Weather Channel that evening before going to bed at around 11:30 PM.

The next morning we awoke to gray skies. Nevertheless I drove to the trailhead at Apache Ski Resort for both Lookout Mountain (the Lincoln cohp) and, along the same ridge, Sierra Blanca Peak (the Otero cohp).

Sierra Blanca Peak has the greatest prominence of any mountain in New Mexico (about 5,500 ft) - and was THE draw for Edward Earl to come on this trip. It looms a full 8,000 feet above the Tularosa Valley floor and had been in his sights for several years.

We waited in the car for about an hour for a sign of improving weather. We were in clouds with a light drizzle at 9,800 feet. We took our chances and headed up trail #15 until it met up with trail #25. Eventually trail #25 met up with trail #78 which we took south. We then encountered more than mere patches of snow at around 11,000 ft on Lookout Mountain. We climbed uphill immediately north of the chair lift building and then summited under blustery conditions with much wind and very poor visibility. I enjoyed most of a pecan caramel confection - saving some for more favorable conditions later on.

We followed the ridge south to Sierra Blanca summit - mixed rock and snow climbing with our goal invisible. My boots were nearly bare of tread after a summer of hiking and I needed my ice axe for stability. Edward did not require his.

Some teenagers from Alaska were descending from the summit just as we were heading up the final ridge with perhaps 100-200 vertical feet and fifteen minutes to go.

We summited Sierra Blanca Pk at 1:40 PM - some three hours after starting. Upon reaching the summit I placed my ice axe on the ground pointing in the direction opposite of our ascent. Yeah, the visibility was that poor. We spent only ten minutes on top with no view of the Tularosa Valley 8,000 ft below. Soon after beginning our descent I displayed my boot treads to Edward - and we were amazed at the poor condition of my boots in comparison with his tread.

After descending to the saddle in-between Sierra Blanca and Lookout Mountain, we took a more leisurely break than at the summit. After sitting down for a few moments without any back support on a rock my lower back began to ache. I made it feel better by hyperextending it atop a zigzag log fence marking some western limit of a ski slope heading down from the chair lift station located perhaps two eighty-foot map contours below the summit of Lookout Mountain.

After traversing what appeared to be manmade berms, we went directly down the ski slope of Lookout Mountain to the general area of my truck - so avoiding a 400 ft reclimb to Lookout's summit.

In Ruidoso I stopped for hot chocolate - which felt very inviting after our chilling experience.

Upon arrival in Alamogordo we investigated a space museum on the east end of town. They were closed (it was after 5 PM), but we enjoyed a display of rockets and missiles near the museum entrance. Included were both the Aerobee and Aerobee-Hi research rockets - some of my favorites of all time.

We stayed at the Satellite Motel in Alamogordo. There was a tornado warning for central Otero County! We could see the western and southern horizons were, at sundown, completely filled with black clouds. The tornado never materialized - however the lightning show along the western sky was memorable that evening.

I ate a TV dinner in the room while Edward went to a buffet across town.

On Sunday morning the sun rose about 6 AM instead of 7 AM because we had shifted back to standard time. I drove 15 miles southwest along route 70 to White Sands National Monument. Edward enjoyed the same sights that I had several days previously.

The original plan for today WAS to have climbed Organ Needle of Doña Ana County. However, as a rock climb with dicey sections, it requires DRY conditions. Clearly this wet weekend made an attempt out of the question. We both agree to that.

We defaulted to our backup plan of the El Paso cohp across the Texas border. Thereby we headed to Las Cruces and thence south on I-10 to the Franklin Mountains in El Paso County, Texas. I parked at the pass just before the I-10 roadbed drops down into El Paso. Edward investigated where we might start our climb based upon trip reports in comparison with direct observation. No luck. We headed back west for about two miles and exited at a road that lead, evidently, to campground spaces about one mile up a paved road from a gate that would be locked at 5 PM.

Rather than try to hike up and down by 5 PM in a rush, we decided to purchase a campground space at the Franklin Mountain State Park so that we would not be locked in after 5 PM should our hike last longer than that (they give you the lock combination if you camp overnight). This set us back $14.

It was just after high noon when Edward decided we should start hiking in a light drizzle to the summit of North Franklin Mtn (7,192 ft) - the El Paso cohp. I was upset by this decision - why not wait out the weather? The weather stank - rain most of the time with occasional rumble of thunder in the distance.

I stepped on the summit benchmark and headed immediately down without eating (which is quite unusual for me). The weather cleared up completely as soon as we got back to my truck at about a quarter of four. We camped there, enjoying dinner and the evening - including "60 minutes" at 8 PM MST from KNX Los Angeles (CBS, 1070 kHz).

I awoke around 5 AM to more rain! It had rained since 1:30 AM. I took our gear, hiding under the truck, and wrapped them in plastic garbage bags one at a time - placing them in the truck bed. I walked to where Edward had slept under a rudimentary shelter and found him waiting to wake up anyways. It was 5:15 AM. I drove, again in more rain, to the El Paso airport where Edward departed.

It really sucked to drive before dawn in the rain. I got gasoline and coffee in central El Paso and then drove home on I-10 - with the weather clearing by Las Cruces (40 miles N of El Paso) so that my drive through the desert was truly enjoyable after that.

I stayed in Yuma AZ (565 miles for the day), arriving by 4:40 PM, even though I could have gotten all the way home: I didn't want to arrive home by 7 PM only to spend the entire evening checking email!

On my final day of the trip I filled up the tank completely at Arizona prices and drove the 180 miles to San Diego by 9:45 AM PST. The trip odometer read 2,655 miles.

Of paramount concern to me was whether my contact at Accelrys had a job offer or a rejection waiting for me in either my snailbox or my email or my voicemail. It turns out that he had not gotten back to me.

I enjoyed a pint of ice cream with lunch to celebrate this most successful conclusion to a summer of county highpointing.