On the Nose
Climbing the toughest peak in Texas state parks proves to be a Herculean challenge.
By Russell Roe
The ominous phone call came just a few days before we were scheduled to leave for El Paso on a trip to tackle the toughest peak in the state park system.
On the line were Franklin Mountains State Park Superintendent Cesar Mendez and ranger Adrianna Weickhardt. The timing and the speakerphone nature of the call alerted me that something was up.
“There’s been a problem,” they said.
A group of hikers had set out for the top of Anthony’s Nose, a remote, trail-less peak in the northern part of the park, and they ended up spending an unplanned night on the mountain. Tucked up in an arroyo, they endured a sleepless night with little food or water and no overnight gear.
I gulped — that was the same peak we were planning to climb.
Franklin Mountains Superintendent Cesar Mendez studies the summit of Anthony's Nose and tries to figure out the best way to get there.
They asked: Were we still planning to go through with our ascent of Anthony’s Nose, or did we want to rethink our intentions? Hubris, after all, is usually punished by the gods.
After some discussion, photographer Laurence Parent and I decided we still wanted to go through with our Anthony’s Nose ascent, but the sobering news reinforced our view that this was not a peak to be taken lightly.
El Paso resident Jay Koester, who was planning to join us for the hike, is well aware of the difficulty of Anthony’s Nose. Over the past few years, he made three attempts to gain the summit before finally succeeding on his fourth try with the help of some geocaching friends.
The geocache at the top of the peak is one in a series of challenging geocaches (containers found by using GPS) in the El Paso area called the 12 Labors of Hercules, so named because the difficulty encountered in reaching them is reminiscent of the struggles of the Greek hero. Hercules was ordered to perform these dangerous and grueling tasks to atone for killing his children.
“I’ve done a lot of mountains and peaks in El Paso, and there hasn’t been anything as hard as Anthony’s Nose,” Jay says. “There’s no easy way to get there. There is no trail, and it’s so steep. You’ve got to be willing to be going up the whole time, and you know you’re not going to get a break from that. On the way down, you worry about sliding and cactus. I’m always hoping I’m not falling into something that’s going to poke me. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s as lonely as you’re going to get.”
Mary Baxter finds her footing on a rocky section while Jay Koester takes a breather.
Our motivation was simple: We wanted to climb the hardest peak in the state park system. How did we figure that Anthony’s Nose was it?
North Mountain at Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site boasts a 350-foot vertical cliff on its west side, challenging even the most expert rock climbers to scale its imposing face. But North Mountain also has a walk-up on the backside, enabling a host of visitors to reach the top.
Big Bend Ranch State Park has a couple of contenders for hardest peak. Oso Peak is the highest in the park (at 5,135 feet above sea level), but it’s not that far off the road, and the lack of major elevation gain knocks it out of contention. Fresno Peak (5,131 feet) is fairly inaccessible, with a long approach, a remote location and a lack of trails. Still, Fresno’s summit is only 500 feet above the adjacent Solitario caldera.
How about Chinati Peak? That’s a tough old West Texas mountain. Its elevation (7,728 feet) puts it in the top 20 peaks in the state. But the summit lies outside the boundaries of Chinati Mountains State Natural Area. Sorry, disqualified.
North Franklin Mountain, at 7,192 feet, stands as the tallest in Franklin Mountains State Park. It does, though, have a parking area and a trail to the top, making for a smoother ascent. South Franklin Mountain stands out as a jagged, rocky peak, with an elevation gain of 1,500 feet from the parking area to the summit, but it, too, has a trail to the top.
The hikers, led by Cesar Mendez, pick their way up a flank of the mountain.
That brings us to Anthony’s Nose.
Anthony’s Nose, which may have received its name because of a resemblance to the nose of St. Anthony, is the second-highest peak in the Franklin Mountains, a rugged range that erupts right in the middle of El Paso and extends north into New Mexico.
Anthony’s Nose stands apart from the other Franklin peaks because of its relative inaccessibility and unknowability. Even Cesar, who has worked at the Franklins for nine years as superintendent, hadn’t been to its summit.
The peak stands 6,927 feet above sea level and rises a respectable 2,200 feet above the desert floor below. Throw in the lack of trails and the not-so-easy approach, and you’ve got a real hike on your hands. If you make it, you know you’ve earned the summit. It’s steep — not enough to require technical climbing but enough to make you long for a break from its relentless uphill nature. It’s full of all manner of spiky plants intent on impaling you, sharp limestone boulders waiting to slice up your hands, and loose, ankle-twisting rocks ready to send you tumbling. The peak is a veritable obstacle course to ascend, with unforgiving consequences if you fall.
As Laurence said as we began our trek: “You can’t do a hike like this without drawing a little blood.”
The lack of any established path means route-finding is a constant, gnawing concern, with sheer cliffs, brush-choked canyons and impassible ravines ready to block your progress. If you don’t pick a good route on your first try, you may not have the time or energy to correct your mistake and still make it to the top.
My wife said it sounded more like the Worst Hike in Texas.
The hikers make their way down a rocky ridge.
The day before our April hike, high winds blew in, stirring up a huge cloud of dust. One of our hiking partners, Mary Baxter, texted: “Are we still doing the hike? I can’t even see the mountains anymore.” By the next day, the dust had settled, though the winds were still blowing strong.
In addition to Mary, an artist from Marfa, our hiking party consisted of me (the writer), Laurence (the photographer), Jay (the geocacher), Cesar (the superintendent) and El Paso local Jonathan Contreras.
Since Cesar was with us, he unlocked a gate that gave us even closer access to the west side’s Vinton Canyon, an advantage not available to most hikers. Once we arrived and got out of the vehicles, there was nothing left to do but start heading uphill.
I wasn’t sure how much I had underestimated this hike until I hit the first slope. We constantly had to step over cactus, duck under thorn-filled ocotillo and scramble over loose rocks, making quick progress impossible. It was like stepping through a barbed-wire fence, over and over and over again. Putting my hand down to catch my balance meant risking a gash from the razor-sharp limestone.
After a bit of hiking I noticed an animal den under a boulder and immediately figured it must belong to a mountain lion, certainly ready to pounce on us when we returned that evening in our weakened state. Cesar stuck his head under the boulder and concluded the den more likely belonged to a ringtail. (Well, OK, but that little critter could still jump on us.)
After an hour of tortuous hiking and a gauntlet of obstacles that seemed designed by the Marines to test our toughness, we decided to take a break.
A check of the GPS device showed that we had gained 700 feet in elevation from the vehicles. Not bad. A check of the distance showed that we had covered one-third of a mile.
What?! One exhausting hour got us only a third of a mile?
“I didn’t need to hear that,” a disappointed Laurence said.
With the rough terrain and the route-finding required, we knew we needed to be most of the way off the mountain by dusk. And that meant there was no room for error anywhere on the rest of the hike.
We tried picking up the pace, but without much luck.
The author heads down the mountain as the sun sets.
We were constantly afraid of falling — not because we’d go tumbling down the hill but because we knew something sharp would be waiting for us when we hit the ground. We all fell multiple times, with varying degrees of suffering. Jonathan got unlucky on one of his falls when a sharp-tipped lechuguilla stabbed him in the chest, leaving a stain of blood on his shirt. Cesar fell into a patch of cactus, leaving him with spines to pull out during the rest of the hike. My worst fall came on a scree slope when the loose rocks slipped beneath my feet and I slid several feet down the mountain. At least there was no lechuguilla.
“You’ve got to learn to love the lechuguilla,” Mary told us, in an attempt to come to terms with the pointy plant that covered the hillsides. “Lechuguilla is your friend.”
We tried to love the lechuguilla, but it definitely did not love us back.
The ocotillo plants, with their multiple thorn-filled arms radiating 8 feet upward, reminded me of the many-headed hydra, the serpent monster slain by Hercules as one of his 12 Labors.
Trudging upward through rock and thorn and brush on what felt like our own Labor, I cursed Zeus and Hera and wondered what heinous misdeed we had committed that warranted this degree of punishment.
Cesar crushed our spirits further when we reached a rocky saddle and he checked his topo map.
“Congratulations,” he announced. “We just did the easiest part.”
Sure enough, a couple of steeper sections still lay ahead, with a rocky ridge thrown in, too.
Finally, we reached the upper ridgeline forming the spine of the Franklins, where we could see both east and west for the first time on the hike. The most impressive sight was the sheer north face of Anthony’s Nose looming before us — a vertical cliff several hundred feet high.
“That’s enough to make you think you’re on a real mountain up here,” Laurence said.
The hikers celebrate reaching the summit of Anthony's Nose.
We picked our way around the less-steep backside of the sheer cliff and made a final dash to the top, excited to finally be near the summit.
At the summit, we got that on-top-of-the-world feeling as we took in the expansive view. From our vantage point, we could look east to the Hueco Mountains, south into Mexico, north to New Mexico’s Organ Mountains and west to the sun, moving ever closer to the horizon. The wind howled, and we struggled to put on extra layers of clothing.
Jay found the geocache under a pile of rocks and realized no one had signed the register since he had checked in two years before. Could this be the hardest geocache in Texas? The cache’s register had one entry that resonated with all of us: “This was insane.”
We took the requisite summit photos and drank some water. But we knew our time was running out quickly.
The descent didn’t go much faster than the hike up, and we ended up hiking in the dark for about an hour, headlamps illuminating the way.
On the hike down, I thought about the stranded hikers who had spent the night on the mountain the week before. I tried to pick out places where our group could hole up for the night if we needed to, and I wondered what worries must have gone through the stranded hikers’ minds as the long, lonely hours of the night slowly marched by.
Laurence summed up what was on our minds. “This hike has gone from bad to really bad and back to bad,” he said.
But at last it was coming to an end. Anthony’s Nose isn’t Mount Olympus, and it probably isn’t the Worst Hike in Texas, but it lived up to our expectation as the toughest state park peak. Even Hercules would’ve been glad to finish this task.