Texas Traveler: The South Rim and Emory Peak

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Ed. Note: This is the fifth part of a series on traveling to Big Bend National Park. Click back to read posts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Saturday morning we wake up with a thin layer of frost on our tents. Texas Traveler's Christmas gift to herself was a mummy-style 10º sleeping bag from R.E.I. -- this first real sleeping bag she's owned since the NKOTB rectangle she used to lug to sleepovers. It's a good thing too -- the nights camping in Grapevine Hills, without the protective shield of the Chisos Mountains surrounding us, are very chilly. The condensation from our breath inside the tent plus the cold air outside results in a sheet of ice that comes off in one piece when we crawl out in the morning.

Texas Traveler has never camped in the desert before. And as she's pointed out already, Big Bend is way the hell in the middle of nowhere, and Grapevine Hills is one of the park's most secluded campsites. Our first night of camping is spectacular. After sunset, the Milky Way and more stars than sand on the beach are visible overhead. A few hours later the moon rises. It's almost full, and it's so big and bright I don't need to use my head lamp when I sneak out into the cactuses for a nature break.

But seeing the bear that afternoon has freaked me out. I put basically everything we brought into the campsite's bear box, and half expect our things to be ransacked in the morning.

There's no sleeping in when it's winter in the desert. We're awake and shivering before the sun comes up, which is a good thing because not only do we get to watch the sunrise over the Sierra del Carmen-Santiago Mountains but we also get an early start to the day. Our goal is to hike to the top of Emory Peak, the highest point in the park.

Texas Traveler's geologist friend laid everything out on the map the night before. "I think I have come up with a plan by which we can hike almost every trail in the park," he said. The planned route? Fourteen miles.

We start smack dab in the center of the park, the so-called Basin, where campsites are reserved months in advance due to spectacular views and the fact that the area is protected on all sides by the dramatic Chisos Mountains. The center of Big Bend National Park is a caldera, a gigantic collapsed volcano, which forms a huge bowl. Above us are the rims of the volcano, eroded on the north side. Our first destination is the South Rim, a somewhat strenuous 6-mile hike to the extreme southern cliff of the caldera. It's a popular trail for backpackers, who hike halfway up with all their gear, set up camp overnight, and finish the hike the next day.

Before we start the hike we pose for a group picture, while we're still happy and fresh-faced. Who knows what we'll look like or feel like 14 miles later. I have on brand new hiking boots, worn only twice before, and I know this is a big no-no but I have never owned hiking boots before, so I had to buy a pair. I hope they'll be kind to me.

The trail to the South Rim starts in a high plain called the Laguna Meadows. Here I stop to partake in a homemade granola bar, and I immediately draw the attention of the LARGEST bluebird I have ever seen. You know those huge fat city pigeons? He was bigger than that. And so pretty. And adorable. Apparently this is not an unusual phenomenon. I resist the urge to feed him a bit of my breakfast, though I do add him to my mental tally of Big Bend wildlife sightings. Before the day is up I'll also add several deer to the count.

Bouldering up Emory.JPG
Bouldering up Emory
I know Big Bend is one of the least-visited national parks in the country, but I've surprise at how even on a holiday weekend it seems deserted. In a way I am happy for this because it means the trails will be less disturbed, but I wonder what that means for the park's funding. As I'm hiking, I resolve to come back and visit at least once a year.

It doesn't take very long to get to the South Rim -- about three hours, including breaks. Here we sit on the sheer wall, a 2,500 drop-off to the desert below, and eat our lunch -- PB&Js (crunchy on wheat with no-sugar-added strawberry, thankyouverymuch) and fruit. My agoraphobia kicks in and I can't get any closer than ten feet from the ledge. The ground isn't flat, so the old lay-on-my-belly-and-slither-like-a-snake trick won't work. I comment on this and Tom, my geologist friend, says "Oh, you're gonna really freak out at Emory." Great. I only have eight miles to think about that remark and what awaits me.

From the South Rim we head down into a saddle-like area of the park called Boot Canyon. Here, the terrain totally changes. Protected from the dry wind, the canyon (and Boot Creek) are lush, filled with pines, rocks worn shiny by water, and even flowers. The creek is frozen, too, which is odd because 30 minutes earlier I was shedding layers from the 60-degree heat. We start heading downhill which is bad news because I know we have to head back uphill to get to the peak. I'm wondering to myself why the place is called Boot Canyon when we come to an overlook and I see it, "The Boot." A hundred years ago explorers though the boot was a humongous petrified tree (it's HUGE. What were they thinking?), but geologists now know it's an old lava tube, stronger than the rock around it which has been eroded. It looks like an upside-down Italy. This is my favorite part of the hike so far. Boot Canyon is beautiful.

Nine miles in and we come to the trail head for Emory Peak. It's one mile up, but it's one mile almost straight up. Hikers that want to shortcut the South Rim Trail can start from the Basin and go straight up to Emory, about a four-mile hike one way, but then you miss the spectacular panoramic the Rim offers. It takes me about an hour to go the one mile up Emory Peak since I have to stop for air every 50 steps. At the top, there is a large gathering of hikers resting against a big rock. I sit down and can barely get a drink of water before my friend says "Are you ready?" I look up to see him 20 feet above me, on top of the rock. I have no idea how he got up there, since the face of the rock is completely vertical.

"No. Way." I reply. "You haven't made it to the top yet," he says.

I think about all the hiking I've done so far, all the years I've waited to come to Big Bend, and I decide that there's no point in coming as far as I have if I'm not going to go all the way, so I swallow up my fear, look above me to my friend, and ask for help. Luckily, he once worked at a rock climbing gym, and guides me veeeeeerrrrry slowly on where to place my fingers and toes as I scale my way up the final 20 feet to Emory Peak. At one point I make the mistake of looking down. Because you have to climb the rock at an angle, about halfway up you end up with nothing below you, and there you are clinging to a rock 100 feet higher than the next level landing. Bad idea. I feel like I might have a panic attack.

The group, with Houston's own Saint Arnold beer - naturally.
The remaining four of us finally make it to the top. Before the trip I introduced my friends to the idea of gipfelschnapps or gipfelbier, and we all have a tipple of something in our packs. Everyone has a Saint Arnold's, and I have a flask of rum too. We sit on the windy peak, barely big enough for the six of us, and drink our beers and try not to think about how we're gonna get back down again. We're so high up that there are cell phone towers and satellites on Emory. I feel really proud of myself for facing my fears. That said, I pull almost half the flask of rum in order to find the courage to climb back down that wall. Surprisingly, going down isn't half as hard as coming up, thanks to Casey, the rock wall coach. At the base of the rock I feel elated. That was easy! I'm hooked now. I want to try bouldering at the UH gym.

Going back down to the Basin, however, isn't so easy. We still have three miles to go, all downhill. My toes start to ram into the front of my brand new shoes. My legs, perpetually bent to carry my body downhill, feel like they might give out. Luckily, going down takes a lot less time than going up, and we make it to the Basin just before sunset. There we see a young deer, not the least bit camera shy, out for his dinner. I'm ready for dinner too. I've hiked 14 miles in just under 8 hours, over more than 6,000 feet in elevation. I'm pooped.

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