Backpacking Guadalupe Peak

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Our backpacks were too heavy. Nobody had trained. Nobody had even worn their packs before except me, and mine hadn’t left the garage in at least ten years.

On paper, the hike seemed easy. It was four miles up the trail with a 3,000 foot elevation gain, reaching a final height of 8,600 feet above sea level. The logistics of getting to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and back to Houston in one weekend were what had me the most worried … at least until we stepped on the trail.

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We formulated a plan to leave Thursday after work and drive to Kerrville, then get up Friday morning and drive the rest of the way to to the park. Once there we would obtain the limited backwoods camping passes for the Guadalupe Peak Trail from the rangers, then hike up the mountain. After we set up camp, we’d hike the rest of the way up the peak to watch the sunset. Then I’d take some amazing milky way photos, maybe even do some starry sky timelapse videos before heading to bed. Then we’d wake up before dawn to hike back up to the peak to watch the sunrise before walking down the mountain to go explore other things like Carlsbad Caverns or the strange Prada store in Marfa.

Things did not go exactly as planned.

We did leave Thursday night, and we did make it to Kerrville.

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The Holiday Inn Express had a fancy Texas-shaped pool. Unfortunately it was far too cold and late in the evening to try it out. The next morning we were back on the road.

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We made it to Guadalupe Mountains National Park around 1 p.m. and were very lucky to snag one of the few remaining backwoods camping permits. We unloaded our gear and headed up the mountain.

I’d done a fair amount of backpacking when I was in the Boy Scouts, and I was lucky that I still had my gear. However, nobody else had really tried out their packs, some of which had been procured through eBay, so everyone was starting the hike with discomfort.

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I also didn’t have time to open each person’s pack and ruthlessly throw all their belongings back in the car saying, “Nope, can’t take this,” like the guides and counselors did to me back in the old days. No deodorant. No extra batteries. Not even a toothbrush unless you break off the handle. What’s worse is I didn’t even follow my own rules and packed in two camera bodies, three lenses and a tripod in anticipation of all the amazing photography I was going to do. (So glad I brought a tripod for this …)

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Let’s just say it was a very long hike up the mountain.

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We stopped to rest often.

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We really should have paid attention to the fact that the trail was marked strenuous.

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Although we made sure to find plenty of photo ops.

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Five and a half hours later, we finally reached the sign for the camping area.

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Unfortunately that arrow on the sign doesn’t actually point in the right direction. The trail is off to the right of the sign, so the girls took a break while TJ and I wandered the mountain looking for any sign of a camp.

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It turned out to be just over the ridge of lower peak, so we made the last march of day into the camping area and set up our tents.

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We started cooking dinner just as the sun was setting. No, we weren’t going to be able to watch sunset from the peak, but there were times throughout the day when we weren’t sure we were even going to make it as far as we had.

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As I set up my cameras to capture some stars, the brightest full moon I’ve ever seen rose into the sky. I thought it made the night look a bit unique, so I set up a timelapse anyway. Then, since the moon hadn’t been able to dissuade me, the clouds moved in as mother nature had a good laugh about the fact that I’d carried all that camera equipment for nothing.

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The weather in the desert makes massive shifts between day and night, so we all layered up to fight the cold. The dehydrated food never tasted so good. Our friends passed around a flask, and we all took a nip of Scotch before climbing into sleeping bags and quickly falling into a deep, black sleep.

Around 2 a.m. the wind had picked up to better than 25 miles per hour. It had been impossible to drive stakes into the hard ground where we were camping, so Mary sent me out with rope to tie the tent down to whatever rocks and trees were within reach. The moon loomed over me, lighting the work. I never even had to turn on the flashlight.

We slept through sunrise.

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The dehydrated egg scramble had never tasted so good, and spirits were high as we knew we didn’t have to carry our backpacks up to the peak.

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Yes, we’d missed the sunrise, but it would still be a nice hike.

 

I packed some water and my camera into a sleeping bag stuff sack, slung it over my shoulder, and we headed for the top.

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The last mile was full of beautiful scenes. We couldn’t get enough photos, but even without packs, everyone was still having a bit of a struggle.

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Once we passed El Capitan, we knew we were almost there.

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A few portions of the trail crossed steep rock face, which had Mary crabwalking, but she overcame her fear of heights to cross them.

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Despite various threats of quitting, we all made it to the tallest point in Texas together.

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Inside the ammunition box at the base of the monument was a log book, signed by all who make the hike. Some people put serious thought into what they write. The book is full of poetry and quotes. We added our own signatures to the pages.

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Had we had more time, water and a permit, I think everyone would have been content to stay another night before breaking camp and hiking down the mountain, but we didn’t have that luxury. We made a quick lunch and then reluctantly put on our backpacks.

Mary had a sore knee, so it was slow going. Even so, it only took us about two hours to get down the hill — a marked improvement compared to our ascent.

I left my pack with everyone at the base of the trail and hiked over to the ranger station to get the car. Everyone was very excited to sit down.

We drove to Van Horn and celebrated our achievement with dinner and drinks at the El Capitan Hotel.

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We made the long drive back the Houston Sunday with one question in mind, what mountain do we conquer next?

Life’s Short, Wear Sunscreen

It all started about a two years ago.  I had a weird bump on my face.  It looked sort of like a pimple, but a very persistent one.  It lasted a couple months, and then went away into what looked like a raised, slightly-discolored scar.  Fred had been nagging me to go get it checked since he first saw it, but I sort of shrugged it off.

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This one just last year

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This one is from our honeymoon in 2014

Well three weeks ago I finally made a visit to the dermatologist.  Despite me not saying anything about that spot, the doctor saw it right away and wanted to do a biopsy.  He took a razor to my face right then and there and shaved a big chunk off.  Then he sent me home with a bandaid on my cheek.

A week later I got a call that the sample had tested positive as a Basal Cell Carcinoma, and they would have to do Mohs surgery on my face.  Basically they remove one layer of skin, about 2mm thick all around the spot, and then put it under a microscope.  They keep doing layer after layer until there is no more sign of cancer cells.

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I was super lucky that they only had to remove one layer.  It is bad enough as is!  I can’t imagine doing more.  After I was all clear they had a plastic surgeon come in and stitch me up.  They had to stitch quite a ways on either side of the circle in order to keep the skin from puckering.

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I’m currently on the mend.  Just like when I had a broken foot, dealing with the repetitive questions is the worst part.  I like that a lot of people have looked worried though, and asked me, “What did it look like?” or, “How do I know?”.  My answer is, if you’re worried, get it checked out.  I had no idea anything looked funny.

Currently in search of the perfect hat if anyone has suggestions.

And most of all, my message to you is ALWAYS WEAR SUNSCREEN!

The Gimme Shelter guide to chartering in the Spanish Virgin Islands

While they may sound foreign, US citizens won’t need a passport to charter in the Spanish Virgin Islands. Considered part of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the islands became a United States province after the Spanish-American war in 1898. However, it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on your Spanish before the trip.

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San Juan Luis Muñoz International Airport is more than an hour away from Marina Puerto Del Rey, but the charter companies can arrange ground transport by van for $15 per person. The vans even gave us time to provision at a grocery store before continuing on to Fajardo.

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Puerto del Rey is a sight in itself as the largest full-service marina in the Caribbean with more than 1,000 wet slips and 14 acres of dry storage. Enjoy the ship store, deli and laundry facilities, but watch out for the golf carts moving at breakneck speeds up and down the piers and give yourself plenty of time if you’re going to eat at the waterfront restaurant.

Cayo Icacos is just a short hop from Puerto Rico where you can pick up a mooring ball for a day of snorkeling or a trip to the beach. Then head to Isla Palomino for a more protected mooring to spend the night.

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Palomino is owned and operated by El Conquistador, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, and they ferry guests back and forth to the beach on large catamarans from 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Boaters can walk the beach and buy drinks at the resort bars, but they only accept credit cards. Many Puerto Ricans bring their own boats to Palomino for the weekend, so expect the mooring field and anchorage to be crowded and loud Friday and Saturday nights.

Vieques, populated by around 14,000 people and several hundred wild horses, provides great harbors along the west and south sides of the island. In Esperanza you’ll have to pay $25 per night for a mooring ball, but when you spot the wreckage of several other sailboats, you’ll be glad you did. The shipwrecks and constant admonitions to lock up our dinghies gave the town a strong pirate vibe. There are plenty of restaurants and gift shops within walking distance of the dinghy dock and fresh water is available although you’ll have to lug it down the road.

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The days of swimming in “Bio Bay” are over, but you can still tour Mosquito Bay by electric pontoon boat or kayak to witness the bioluminescence of single-celled organisms called Pyrodimium bahamense. These dinoflagellates give off a bluish glow when the water is disturbed, something best witnessed during a new moon or an overcast night. Don’t count on getting any photos of this phenomenon as it would take a photo-flash followed by a long exposure, and the guides discourage the use of any devices that light up during the tour. However, you will get an intriguing look into the life of a mangrove tree and the ecosystem it supports.

La Chiva, towards the east end of Vieques, provides another protected beach for an afternoon of snorkeling. Look for the noni fruit growing along the beach among the cactus and coconut trees. Said to be a cure for everything from menstrual cramps to senility, I would not recommend eating it as it tastes like crap.

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Culebra and Culebrita are the true gems of the commonwealth with white sandy beaches and gorgeous reefs perfect for snorkeling or diving. Keep an eye on the charts and navigate through Puerto del Manglar to pick up a mooring ball in Bahia de Almodovar. The reef creates a protected bay with an unobstructed view into the Canal Del Sur.

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From there it’s just a short trip to Culebrita where you can moor in Tortuga Bay. The bay lived up to its name as we saw four green sea turtles during our afternoon there. There’s also great hiking on the island, but bring shoes as the trails are rocky and the foliage is prickly. Take a dip in the tidal pools known as The Baths or walk up to the remains of the lighthouse. Originally completed in 1886, it was the oldest operating lighthouse in the Caribbean until 1975 when the US Coast Guard finally closed the facility. Keep an eye out for goats, deer and iguanas along the trail.

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The reef on the northwest corner of Culebrita is rumored to be the best place to catch spiny lobster. We certainly observed some there while snorkeling but never attempted to grab one.

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If you’re in need of groceries, water or just a night on the town, cross back to Culebra and into Esenada Honda for a night or two. However, the bottom of the bay is covered in sea grass, so make sure you’re not dragging before you head into Dewey.

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There is a public dinghy dock near the Municipal Building, but the Dinghy Dock Restaurant also allows the docking of inflatables, has great food, and sells fresh water for 25 cents per gallon. If you stop by after dark they turn on underwater lights to reveal large tarpon cruising the edge of the restaurant waiting to finish your leftovers. Mamcita’s also received rave reviews from members of our party, there’s a grocery store up the hill, and the dive shop carries SD cards. There is anchoring available on the west side of the island, but it’s not as protected and you’ll get rolled by the ferry that runs between Culebra and Fajardo several times a day.

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If you head north to Punta Tamarindo Grande you can pick up a mooring ball at the edge of the Culebra Nature Reserve where we found the largest reef and best snorkeling of the week. Dink ashore, and it’s a 15-minute walk across the reserve to Flamenco Beach, rated one of the top ten beaches in the world. Drinks, food, ice cream and bathrooms are available. Make sure to walk up the north end of the beach to see the abandoned military tanks that are now covered in graffiti and rusting in the sand.

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It’s important to remember that both Vieques and Culebra were used as military bombing ranges and still have some areas off limits due to unexploded ordinance. Always pay attention to warning signs before dropping anchor, poking strange objects on the seabed, or hiking through brush.

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The Puerto Rican Air National Guard maintains a C-130 fleet, so don’t be caught off guard if a giant grey airplane comes thundering across the sky, circles your vessel and then dips its wings towards you before barreling on into the horizon. We actually got buzzed twice in one week.

It’s illegal throughout all of the SVIs to pull your dinghy or kayaks up on the beach as this could damage turtle nests. Make sure you have enough line to tie your dink to something on shore and another line to set an anchor to keep it from washing up.

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Catamarans are allowed to cross to St. Thomas if you want to add it to your itinerary, but monohulls require special permission from the charter company.

The Spanish Virgin Islands don’t have the same tourism infrastructure you’d find in the US or British Virgin Islands, which is what makes them special. During our seven-day charter we only had meals ashore two times. It’s easy to escape the crowds, see the stars, and enjoy the solitude of nature.

Sunset Cruising aboard SV Hippokampos

Mary spent last Saturday evening in a classroom taking the ASA 201 written test, so our friends Andy and Jayne were kind enough to invite me along on a sunset cruise.

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All the usual suspects were aboard.

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And I got to a chance to bring along my friends Chris and RJ, who have never done much sailing.

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We were making our way down the channel when we noticed several dolphins cruising along with a sailboat not too far from us.

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And soon they were on their way over to say hello to Hippokampos as well.

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As we made our way towards the ship channel they dropped back. This time of year they seem to spend more time in the upper bay.

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Soon the sun was dropping towards the horizon. It never ceases to amaze me how fast it moves once it starts setting.

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And just as the sun disappeared somewhere over there behind the Kemah Boardwalk, the wind picked up, so we turned the boat around and made another lap around the bay in the dark.

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