Sunday, August 2, 2009
from the August issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
No Hike for Old Men
Walking the spine of the Franklin Mountains.
By Joe Nick Patoski
Photography by Laurence Parent
I didn’t have the most difficult one-day trek in Texas in mind when I first set eyes on the Franklin Mountains 40 years ago.
I was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Texas at El Paso and came from East Texas, which is how El Pasoans refer to the rest of the state. I didn’t even know a Texas city had mountains, much less a rugged, rocky range that effectively sliced the city in two before abruptly descending into the vast basin that cradles the original Paseo del Norte part of El Paso and most of its sprawling sister city Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico — the literal tail end of the Rockies.
The mountains define El Paso and El Pasoans. What side of the mountain you come from says a lot about a person. I have never been bored looking at the Franklins. At first I would wonder about who built the roads and the tram to maintain the radio and television towers on the ridge top? Who painted the giant white letters that adorned higher points on the ridge, corresponding with the first letter of a high school below? (I was usually staring at the C of Cathedral High.)
view of the Franklin Mountains ridge line
I spent hours on the Scenic Drive overlook, day and night, taking in the most spectacular vista of a city in Texas. I drove the new Trans-Mountain Road (Loop 375) that crossed the Franklins further north via Smuggler’s Pass, and often paused at the western overlook on Transmountain for sunset. I marveled at the illuminated Christmas Star that glowed on the slope of the mountain every December. I was hooked on the jagged range that rose over 3,000 feet above the basin. What was it like up there?
I eventually rode the Wyler Aerial Tramway, the only publicly accessible aerial tramway in the state, from the eastern slope to Ranger Peak for a look-see. Then, eight years ago, I hiked to Ranger Peak from the west side with El Paso hiker Susan Larsen. On both occasions, the views were spectacular. But that narrow ridge snaking towards New Mexico tempted. How about hiking that? Several short hikes from the parking lot at Smuggler’s Pass up the nearby switchback towards the Mammoth’s Trunk further whetted my appetite.
The idea of going the distance came after surviving a three-canyon crossing in Copper Canyon in the Mexican state of Chihuahua 10 years ago. Only three of the six gringos who signed up for the 50-mile trek up and down 10,000 feet of intimidating terrain completed it. Five years ago, I hiked more than 70 miles across the Big Bend over lightly charted territory with six people including Laurence Parent, my collaborator on the books Texas Mountains, Texas Coast and Big Bend National Park, and the best hiker I know (“The Ultimate Big Bend Hike,” August 2005).
The Franklins in a day would be a cakewalk compared to those adventures. Laurence was game, so we bought airline tickets and hoped the weather would cooperate. The initial idea was to go north to south from the Transmountain Road trailhead to Scenic Drive — literally walking into the city — until I talked with John Moses, the general superintendent of the 24,000-acre Franklin Mountains State Park, which encompasses the entire mountain range and is the largest urban park in the nation.
Moses pointed out that we’d be trespassing on private property owned by media companies with broadcasting towers if we tried to start from Scenic Drive. He suggested we start at the newly acquired state park access point at the end of North Stanton Street and take Thousand Steps Trail up to Ranger Peak.
State park personnel referred me to Mike Olbrisch, a retired U.S. Army Sergeant and state park volunteer who maps and patrols trails in Franklin Mountains State Park and contributes to LocalHikes.com. Mike didn’t like the route I’d sketched out, responding bluntly to an e-mail by saying: “If you are going north to south — I will not be going along. Nothing to discuss. If I can help in any other way, let me know.”
Evidently he knew something we didn’t.
I had yet to fully appreciate Mike’s expertise. He prepped for our hike by hiking through the difficult Window north-to-south (it was doable, but barely, he reported) and improvising a route between the KFOX tower and the McKelligon Canyon saddle, where no trail existed.
The weather forecast for the December day we’d targeted was calling for winds gusting out of the southwest up to 30 mph, along with a predicted high in the mid-60s, so we took Mike’s advice. Better to have the wind at our backs going north rather than the winter sun in our face.
By the time his wife, Monika, picked us up at our motel right at 7 a.m. and drove us to the end of North Stanton Street in the newer, semi-swanky hills above Executive Center on the west side, just beyond a gated apartment complex adjacent to a city water supply tank, I was paying close attention to the retired Sarge. Mike, dressed in camo fatigues, presented Laurence and I with copies of a topo map roughly outlining the route, checked his radio to make sure it was operating, and checked his GPS for coordinates and a starting point.
The sky was clear and the winds calm when we hit the trail. Mike noted our coordinates on his GPS: N 31.80768, W 106.49986, elevation: 4,308 feet above sea level, right by the El Paso Water Utilities water tank.
Weather conditions are critical for any recreational activity in the Chihuahuan Desert, including a ridge walk. We waited until December because doing it any time from late April through mid-September added increased risk.
“Exposure is our biggest problem,” John Moses explained. “People don’t have a clue. They don’t have water and there’s no shade. It’s that 18- to 24-year-old demographic, which we’ve got plenty of at Fort Bliss.”
Franklin Mountains State Park is officially a multi-use park, but outside of McKelligon Canyon and the Tom Mays section, there is little infrastructure, which explains an annual visitor count under 50,000 and its rep as a hikers’ and mountain bikers’ park.
Most active recreationists head to the day-use-only Tom Mays section on the western side of Transmountain Road, an isolated piece of high desert foothills with paved and unpaved roads and easy trails leading to North Franklin Mountain, the highest peak in the range at 7,192 feet.
The landscape is puro desert. The vegetation is dominated by tall, spiked balls of yucca, spindly ocotillo and rigid straight sotol stalks, rising skyward from the brown and yellow rubble. Curved-claw lechuguilla grow low to the ground beneath spiky bushes of catclaw and ubiquitous pads of prickly pear. The landscape, though, is mostly rock — sharp, jagged, banded, layered, hard and crumbly rocks.
The first few hundred yards of the route to the top followed an old dirt road once maintained by the El Paso Electric Company, up the crease between Flag Hill and Crazy Cat Mountain, toward a small rock building halfway up the western slope that was once an electric company guardhouse. The view was already bigger and more expansive than from Scenic Drive or Transmountain Road.
And I was already huffing and puffing. The rock house marked the beginning of 1,000 Steps Trail, with steps etched into the steep slope. The well-maintained trail was relatively easy to negotiate, with one small stretch requiring a scramble on all fours. Tendons in the back of the calves stretched as I leaned into the mountain, remembering the wisdom of a Tarahumara Indian guide in Copper Canyon, who advised taking pasitos — little steps — and focusing on the ground directly ahead where you were about to plant your foot.
We had gained 1,000 feet when we arrived at a junction. A small sign pointing south identified Ridgeline Trail #1, leading to the Wyler Tramway and Ranger Peak. Mike asked if Laurence and I would rather hike down to Wyler and take the tram. We looked at him like he was crazy. We headed north.
Our new path on the tilted limestone ridge constantly played tricks on the eye, as if the mountain range had thrust up from the surrounding basin eons ago, then slumped on its side. The darker rocks on the lower eastern slope are Precambrian, dating more than 1 billion years, the oldest in Texas.
We all stepped nimbly along the ridge for another half-mile to an overlook where shards of metal on the steep western slope below glistened in the sunlight. They were remnants of an engine from the giant B-36 bomber that crashed into the slope during a snowstorm in 1953, killing all nine crewmen. We were 5,457 feet above sea level, N 31.80648, W 106.48598
A half-mile later, the trail disappeared and a panoramic 360-degree view enveloped us. Beyond a sheer drop-off to the east was the airport and Fort Bliss. The Wyler Tram and Ranger Peak were perched on the ridge a mile south; in the background was downtown El Paso and the wobbly streets of Juarez, which appeared calm and peaceful despite the recent rash of violence that had gripped the city and the brown lid of air pollution hovering over it.
The west side of El Paso wound around the base of the Franklins, then sprawled into the Upper Valley and the empty New Mexican desert beyond. The view took in three states, two nations, and one once-verdant river valley bursting at the seams. The newly built portion of border wall extending west from behind Mount Cristo Rey and Anapra towards Santa Teresa, and the road that parallels the international border westward towards Columbus, New Mexico, were easy to spot. Reflecting sunlight offered glimpses of the Rio Grande, channeled as it came in from New Mexico, a straight ditch as it flowed downstream east towards the Lower Valley.
The huge Jobe Concrete quarry by the Beaumont Army Medical Center, out of sight at ground level on El Paso’s east side, was plainly visible from our eagle’s perch, where we could hear the beep-beep-beeps warning of a truck backing up, and the bang and thunk of heavy machinery gouging, digging and pulverizing limestone. No matter how far away the city felt, the buzz of airplanes and jets flying overhead and the hum of automobile traffic below were constant.
We were headed beyond the next two clusters of broadcasting towers to the saddle above McKelligon Canyon, where we would pick up the Ron Coleman Trail to Smuggler’s Pass on the other side of South Franklin Mountain. That distant pinnacle appeared so far away, reaching it in a day seemed impossible, much less in a few hours.
The going was about to get tough, Mike warned us. He wasn’t kidding. When we walked on the west side of the ridge, jackets remained zipped to fend off the cool gusts. When we walked on the east side of the ridge, we were protected from the wind but exposed to full sun, moving us to peel off layers of outerwear to keep from overheating. The KFOX transmitter tower, 2.94 miles from the trailhead, required a scramble down and along the chain link fence around the facilities on the west slope, as dicey as walking along the rim rock.
We got a free pass inside the radio room where Mike checked repeaters the station allowed ham radio operators to place at the site. After leaving KFOX, we followed Mike’s lead on an informal trail as we descended, then ascended towards the next communications tower shared by several federal agencies. Laurence and Mike were leaving me lagging 25 to 50 yards back until we took a break.
The views were exhilarating, but the winds that whipped up from the southwest made me nervous. I didn’t want to get blown off the mountain. During one pause, Mike lifted a couple of rocks and pulled out three bottles of sports drink from a cache he’d created earlier.
As we neared the government repeater towers, we spotted a Border Patrol helicopter scooting along just above the ridge, pausing near the tower, landing, then ascending, a procedure made more difficult by sporadic gusts. Evidently, the pilot was practicing. When we reached the tower, we saw the landing pad, a flattened area maybe 20 square feet, that had been scratched out of the rim rock.
It was a little after high noon. We’d been on the trail almost five hours and had hiked 4.5 miles. We were 6,200 feet above sea level, the highest point on the first half of the hike. It felt like it, especially looking back to see where we had been, having gained 2,802 feet. Looking forward, beyond northeast El Paso, we could see the rise in the land mass marking Cloudcroft and the snow-capped Sierra Blanca.
The stretch from KFOX tower to the federal government repeater site had been the toughest so far, despite the refreshing pause for sports drinks. One scurry along the eastern ridge was tighter than a goat path, requiring a patient vertical scramble, Mike reminded me that it would have been even tougher doing it the other way, scrambling down. Hard as it was, we weren’t the only ones to walk the ridge: I found a dollar bill nestled in a lechuguilla cactus.
We descended down to the McKelligon Canyon saddle connecting to the ridge leading to South Mount Franklin, the tallest peak on our trek, requiring a few scurries on all fours. Even the milder inclines were testing nerves if there were patches of scree — smaller rocks that felt like ice if you hit them wrong. A few thorns insinuated themselves into hands and ankles as I not-so-nimbly stepped over and around rocks while dodging cactus. Between the slippery rubble and plain old missteps, I twice planted my left boot so haphazardly that my ankle gave way, luckily without twisting or breaking anything. Blisters were forming on both feet as my little toes rubbed against the leather with each jarring step. Calves ached. The quads in my upper thighs pulsed.
While dropping to the low point of the saddle, the amphitheater in McKelligon Canyon came into view, as did a couple park rangers who were observing us from the edge of the pavement, 1,000 feet below. Mike took more readings on his GPS. We were six miles from the trailhead, 6 hours, 12 minutes on the trail, 3 hours, 55 minutes spent hiking; 2 hours, 17 minutes at rest. We’d ascended 3,000 feet, descended 2,100 feet.
“Do you want to abort the mission here?” Mike asked. We could call it a day, satisfied we had done what we could physically do. Otherwise, we needed to keep a quick pace on the Ron Coleman Trail, which we were picking up. It was 1 p.m. and the winter sun would be gone by 5:30 p.m. The wind was blowing and high clouds were scudding past.
I hurt — not a sharp-pain or throbbing-headache hurt, just a fatigued, worn-out, too-old-for-this hurt. Thankfully, Mike admitted he was running out of gas. I was running out of gasp. But quit? No way. Laurence wasn’t complaining at all, due to occasional windows of great lighting for taking photographs, and the fact he’d hiked to the top of the 9,000-foot Santa Catalinas above Tucson the week before, and summited Longs Peak in Colorado, a 14,000-footer, a few months earlier.
We gained elevation again plodding up a series of switchbacks. At certain junctures, Mike stopped to note GPS readings, calling them on the radio to Monika or fellow ham operators Doug Rose or Reiner Junge, who were listening on their radios at home. The second-smallest toe of my left foot began to cramp. The term “bandy-legged” kept popping into my head, as in rubber band. Pangs of vertigo rose on the knife-edged ridge, which I tried to dismiss by focusing on the ground directly in front of where I was stepping.
Along the way, Mike had talked about his son in the Army, a Cavalry Scout in Iraq, and his own experiences in Iraq during the first Gulf War. He would’ve reenlisted after 9/11 if he didn’t think he was too old to be a soldier. At 52, he was in good shape, but not at fighting level, he told us.
We climbed into a narrow sliver of grasses that led to the base of what Laurence described as a “friggin’ cliff,” the 40-foot wall leading to the Window. We could go back, Mike offered, meaning two hours minimum to McKelligon Canyon. Nothing had snapped or broken, so I respectfully declined.
The trick to the scramble was to grab a hand hold on a rock, make sure it was secure, then pull yourself up, feeling for footholds wherever you could find them, hoping they wouldn’t crumble. I couldn’t look down, instead fixing my eyes on which rock to grab next, occasionally glancing up to see where Mike and Laurence had gone. I reached the Window, halfway up the wall, in a cold sweat, too exhausted and woozy to appreciate the porthole-sized opening in the wall that you could peer through, if you liked looking at precipitous drops.
We finally reached a high plateau that dropped off to the west, becoming Coronado Canyon on El Paso’s far west side, known for the distinctive vein of red ryolite in the limestone slope in the shape of a thunderbird. As we moved north, the streaks of red on the mountain grew more numerous, indicating volcanic rock, and the grasses grew thicker and more lush.
The high point on the trail, 6,600 feet, just below the FAA Towers at the pinnacle of South Franklin Mountain, was reached 8 hours and 37 minutes and 7.86 miles after we left North Stanton Street. We had ascended 5,336 feet — more than a mile — and descended 3,104 feet. Our coordinates were N 31.86424, W 106.49278. We could see Trans-Mountain Road and glimpses of the Smuggler’s Pass trailhead. The Mammoth’s Trunk, a bluff in the shape of an elephant’s head, was staring straight at us, trunk raised, with curved swirls of subdivision streets below as a backdrop.
The late afternoon light was throwing off sharp shadows, rendering the harsh desert rubble soft, gentle, and wholly magnificent. The mountains in the distance were lighting up — the Organ Mountains above Las Cruces, Sierra Blanca beyond Cloudcroft, and the Black Mountains by Silver City, New Mexico, marking the Gila Wilderness. We paused to appreciate, but just for a little bit. The light would be gone before we hit the last switchbacks down into Fusselman Canyon. Monika was waiting in the parking lot, she radioed. To the east and west, city lights twinkled as we descended, guided by flashlights.
We finished in pitch dark. Mission complete, Mike radioed to Doug and Reiner. Our coordinates were N 31.87748, W 106.49386. Elevation: 5,184 feet. We hiked 9.74 miles in 10 hours, 30 minutes, climbing 5,594 feet and descending 4,772 feet. Along the way, I collected the dollar bill found in a lechuguilla on the ridge, a cigarette butt spotted near South Mount Franklin, a rusty bottle cap picked up between the McKelligon Canyon saddle and the Window, and a piece of light aluminum fetched along the ridgeline.
Mike’s planning and knowledge of the lay of the land was invaluable. Teamwork, as always, proved essential, making any calculated risk less risky to take. Mike admitted it was his roughest hike in the 14 years since he left the service. It got Laurence to thinking he’d like to see how many of the tallest peaks in Texas you could ascend in a day.
Maybe I’ll take Laurence up on his challenge. I may be getting too old for this. Whatever happens, for the rest of my life, whenever I lay eyes on El Paso, I’ll be able to smile to myself, knowing full well what it’s like up there on the backbone of the rugged range that defines the mountain city of Texas.