In July of 1982, 5 men set out to conquer the highest peak in Texas, Guadalupe Peak at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Every day, many people take the 8.5-mile trip that summits the 8,749′ peak, but this party was different—they were all in wheelchairs. For the next 5 days, they climbed their way to the top, building ramps from rocks and crawling up slopes, dragging their wheelchairs behind them.
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Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.
Three paraplegic climbers whooped and hollered and doused themselves…: Newspaper Article
Guadalupe Mountains Administrative History – NPS Publication
Guadalupe Mountains National Park in far West Texas is a wild, withdrawn place. Set near the middle of nowhere, 100 miles from El Paso, it’s often forgotten.
There are no roads leading into the park, no gas stations, motels, or walmarts nearby…nothing. Visitation to the park broke the 200,000 mark for the first time last year, placing it consistently on the list of the 10 least visited parks. That’s all fine with me, as it’s one of my favorite places to escape from the toils of day-to-day life. There are no tour buses, traffic jams, packed trails. It’s a place for solitude and reflection.
Wallace Pratt, an Oil geologist, donated over 5000 acres of his McKittrick Canyon ranch to the U.S. government with the stipulation that the canyon remain as wild as possible. The park opened in 1972, and has endured nearly undeveloped since. McKittrick Canyon is open to visitors only during the day. A small campground has no services. There’s not even a shower in the park, for dozens of miles any direction.
But the last thing that it is is a barren wasteland. The park is comprised of the front wedge of an uplifted range created by an underwater limestone reef 250 million years ago. Six peaks over 8000 feet rise from the desert floor, including the flat-faced crown of El Capitan, not nearly as famous as it’s same-named sister at Yosemite, but an important signpost for centuries of travelers.
The park is home to stunning canyons, hiding away microclimates that birth woodlands where they have no right to be. Even deciduous trees defy the desert here, displaying their bright warm colors every fall. Wind gusts can exceed 120 miles per hour, and the temperature can make drastic swings at the drop of a hat.
And the park is home to Texas’ tallest mountain, the namesake Guadalupe Peak. At 8,749 feet above sea level it doesn’t stack up well to mountains further north and west, but it is higher than anything east of it, and it rises a mile above the surrounding terrain.
The hike up Guadalupe Peak is a strenuous 8 ½ mile round trip with a 3,000
foot elevation gain. It takes most people 6 to 8 hours to complete the round trip hike. The steepest part of the hike is the first mile and a half, as the trail switchbacks up. Then, it passes a cliff and turns around to the
north-facing slope. Here, hikers will pass through a small forest of pinion pine, white pine, and douglas fir. The shade of the mountain protects the vegetation from the harsh sunlight, allowing the pines to survive.
After nearly three miles the trail tops out at a false summit, one mile short of the actual one. It flattens out for a short distance as it passes through a sparse forest of ponderosa pine, which hosts a back backcountry campsite.
From here, the trail descends slightly and crosses a wooden bridge before beginning a final ascent to the summit. The angle of the slope is now very steep. 35 to 45 degrees.
The top of El Capitan rises in the view to the south as you near the summit, which is marked with a small monument commemorating overland stage and air travel. On a clear day you will be rewarded with a majestic panorama of the encircling mountains and desert.
One year, Guadalupe Peak was host to a special climb, one that took 5 days instead of the standard 6-8 hours.
Here’s Abigail Trabue.
In July of 1982, six men set out to reach the summit of Guadalupe Peak at Guadalupe Mountains National park. The trail is a challenge for most hikers, but for this group, it would be a monumental climb. The hikers were all members of a Dallas-based organization known as POINT — Paraplegics on Independent Nature Trails, and they would climb the tallest peak in Texas in wheelchairs. Jack Grimm concocted the idea only a week before it happened, as a part of a fund drive for the West Texas Rehabilitation Center in Abilene.
The hikers would use specially constructed, lightweight wheelchairs outfitted with inflatable tires with deep tread, and no brakes. Park rangers were notified, and expressed deep concern. On a windy day, it’s a challenge for anyone to fight the gusts up the trail, and along with an advance scout for the group who examined the route, they laid out a host of reasons that it shouldn’t be done. For one, the journey would take 5 days, and carrying enough water for that length of a trip was impractical. There are no suitable places along the trail for overnight camping until near the summit. And it was July, when severe electrical storms regularly occur in the high country. Finally, the 15- to 30-percent grades seemed impossible for a wheelchair, and park personnel recommended a less challenging route to a different destination. But that wouldn’t have been the highest peak in Texas. The men refused.
Illness reduced the originally planned group of six men to five: Michael Powers, Robert Leyes, Donny Rodgers, Joe Moss, and Dave Kiley. They set out along the rocky path from the Visitor Center on a Monday morning. They weren’t new to hiking by any means, in fact they were very good at it. Part of the reason for the 5-day time period was that the hikers would have to constantly arrange rocks into rudimentary ramps to pass obstructions.
On the first day, Mike Powers began to experience muscle spasms, and was forced to abandon the climb. By the third day Robert Leyes had to turn back due to physical difficulties. The remaining three systematically proceeded up the mountain. The two “grounded” climbers stayed in radio contact with their comrades, offering moral support until the last day of the climb, when the trail took the climbers behind a ridge that blocked radio reception.
The news media began to report about the group’s impossible journey. Park personnel checked in with the climbers regularly to obtain information for progress reports to relay to reporters. Park Ranger Jon Jarvis joined the group for the last two days of the journey, accompanying them for the final mile. The men had hoped to end their climb shortly after midday on Friday, but were hindered by intense temperatures nearing 100 degrees. The last few hundred yards were a near-impossible stretch of steep grades and loose boulders. The men had to exit their wheelchairs and push or drag them as they crawled to the summit.
It had been feared that a sore hip might keep Dave Kiley from making the final ascent. But he persevered, and the three men reached the top at 7:21 p.m. the evening of July 16. Officials watching through a telescope said the climbers waited and then touched the monument that marks the summit together in front of a magnificent sunset. They doused themselves with champagne, and, now in range again, Keiley called down on the radio: “If you’ve ever done anything unimaginable, this is twice that.”
The men spent the night of July 16 on the peak and were lifted off the following morning by three U.S. Army helicopters from Fort Bliss. For safety reasons, the climbers did not try to make the descent in their wheelchairs. Later that day they were honored guests at a press conference and public reception at the Civic Center in Carlsbad, where they recieved a congratulatory phone call from the governors of New Mexico and Texas, as well as President Ronald Reagan.
‘It took me five days to get to the top of the mountain,’ Rodgers said. ‘Now I can do anything I want for the rest of my life.’ Moss, a double amputee, said, ‘It’s been 13 years since I’ve worked with a team like this, and if everybody would work together like this, the world would be a better place.’
Guadalupe National Park receives only a third of the visitors that Carlsbad Caverns receives, only 40 miles away in New Mexico. It’s easier to get to from New Mexico than from Texas. As I mentioned before, there are no services near the park, nor roads leading in – and not a bar of cell service to be found. This is a hiker’s park, but there’s still plenty to see if you can only walk short nature trails. There’s a primitive campground that can accommodate small tents in secluded sites amongst thick thornbushes. The $8 a night RV campground is little more than a parking lot. And the trail into the stunning McKitrich Canyon is only open until 5pm daily. Hikers heading to summits should be prepared for heavy winds – hiking poles are a must.
This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.
If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.
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