Liz Swain 4:24 p.m., May 24
Mysterious & Magical Mt. Livermore
This is an account of my visit to Mt. Livermore, TX, early in the year 2007. Mt. Livermore is situated in the Davis Mountains of West Texas; it is the second-highest peak in the Lone Star State, if one doesn't count subsidiary peaks of Guadalupe (the highest peak in TX, at 8749'). Punch up "Mt. Livermore, TX" on your computer, and you will likely see various summit elevations listed... most websites and topographical maps list the summit elevation of Mt. Livermore as 8378'. Don't be surprised when you see alternate summit elevations listed on the Internet, generally lower by as much as 200'. These discrepancies in elevation only add to the aura of mystery which surrounds Mt. Livermore... as in the Bermuda Triangle, numbers mean nothing here. Rich in history, the Davis Mountains and surrounding Jeff Davis County were named after CSA (Confederate States of America) President Jefferson Davis. One can also find Western lore concerning this area by researching the Internet, using "Fort Davis, TX" as key words.
I first pinged upon the Davis Mountains in the late 1990s, traveling as I did back and forth on I-10. I already knew that West Texas had some awesome wilderness open to exploration, particularly by rock climbers... many Americans don't realize just how large Texas is, and how rugged its western regions are, from Big Bend National Park to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. There's a reason why these two named areas were given national park status, and that reason is NOT because they resembled Compton, North Philly, or the Lower Bronx. These two parks offer EVERYTHING to willing adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts. Primo ranges and rugged country also lie between Big Bend and Guadalupe, and this roughly 275-mile swath includes the Davis Mountains. Home of the McDonald Observatory, the rather remote Davis Mountains offer clear windswept skies, minimal light pollution and heller stargazing for astronomers. Lying as it does at over 5000' elevation, historic Fort Davis bills itself as the highest town in Texas.
For many years, Mt. Livermore was legally inaccessible to the public, since the land surrounding it was privately owned. The Nature Conservancy wound up buying an old ranch below the peak, and this made the peak accessible to those who longed to climb it without trespassing upon private property. Interested readers can learn all about that scene by researching the mountain on the Internet. My visit had nothing to do with any of that bullsh!t---in fact, when I pulled my recon of Mt. Livermore, I had no clue that access was so complicated. As an outdoorsman who has spent his entire life in the field, I'm not big on having a "babysitter" in the form of a ranger or "guide" when I head into the wilderness. Chances are that pogue hasn't done anywhere NEAR as much wilderness exploration as I have... let alone climbing solo in bad-@$$ venues nationwide. But this remains a moot point as far as this particular story goes, since I never bothered to research the peak.
My decade-long interest in the Davis Mountains was based solely upon personal observation and reflection... I had passed the range countless times while driving back and forth on I-10, and the range was just far enough away to pique my interest. Lying approximately 35 miles south of Kent, TX, Mt. Livermore itself is actually invisible from the interstate. However, the visible terrain south of I-10 rises enough for an experienced outdoorsman to recognize the potential for wilderness adventure. I knew from my trucker's atlas that an observatory and a historic fort existed down there, but they were just far enough south of the interstate to remain invisible and discourage exploration. Only my pent-up longing to explore the Davis Mountains, and the high elevations recorded in my atlas, led me to ultimately peel off I-10 and head south one day... and I'll forever be thankful that I did, even though I didn't know what to expect at the time.
While returning to San Diego after yet another successful trip to the Carolinas, I decided to pull a recon of Mt. Livermore... long had I wanted to turn south and check out this mysterious peak, but one thing or another always prevented me from doing so. On this backhaul, I had time to spare, although I meant to return to I-10 and work my way westward before calling it a night. It was a glorious day in West Texas, as it usually is in the early months of any given year, and I smiled as I FINALLY took the exit for Kent, which is nothing more than a wide spot in the road. For nearly a decade, I had dreamed of peeling off at this point, and now it was a reality... needing absolutely nothing in the way of supplies for my adventure, I soon found myself rolling south on TX118, a skinny little two-lane blacktop road with no other soul in sight. By the way, my approach photos can be seen at TRUCKFORUM.ORG, on Page 6 of the thread entitled "Got Chrome??? How about Armor???" I've put up two or three photos of Mt. Livermore here on my profile page, but those interested in the full sequence are probably better off viewing the other site. They're not Ansel Adams quality (lol), but the pictures get better as one progresses through the thread.
I rolled south for eight or ten miles before I even laid eyes on Mt. Livermore, tucked away as it is beyond a false horizon. Topping out and seeing it for the first time in my life, with no advance research photos to prepare me for the sight, I was surprised to see that it had a multi-finned summit outcrop (some might call it a massif---frankly, I don't think it's large enough to qualify, so I'll refer to it as a finned outcrop). Unlike the solid limestone reef of Guadalupe Peak, Mt. Livermore possessed a different geological aspect entirely, yet it was still imposing and highly attractive to this veteran rock climber. I continued rolling south, studying the peak the whole time as climbers are wont to do... approximately twenty miles south of I-10, I peeled off once more on TX166, an even skinnier little blacktop road that skirts the western side of Mt. Livermore. No road markings, and not much room for anything else besides my truck... with my left wheels and tires not far from the opposite shoulder, my right wheels and tires were kicking up grass out in the boondocks. Luckily, I never saw another vehicle once I left I-10, which told me I was on the right track when it comes to solitude in the wilderness. Rolling past the awesome cliffs and crags on the west end of Mt. Livermore, I found a place to turn around and made my way back to a spot directly under this magnificent outcrop.
There was no shoulder on skinny little TX166, so I parked out in the grass just east of the blacktop road, not far from a barbed-wire fence which may or may not have enclosed private property. There were no signs on this fence, and ranchers have been known to fence in or enclose property which doesn't really belong to them, just to keep their cows from wandering into the path of oncoming vehicles. Private property or not, I intended to make my way directly upslope toward the rock outcrop above... wouldn't be the first time I trespassed solely to cross property and access bad-@$$ crags. With my motor cooling down on high idle, I crawled into my sleeper and rigged my Lowe Alpine summit pack, the same lightweight pack which had already accompanied me through so many adventures. Climbing shoes, chalkbag, extra socks and T-shirt, quart canteens of water, "pogy bait" (snacks), etc., went into my trusty pack. I swapped my Nikes for fresh socks and bulletproof Vibram-soled hiking boots. Grabbing my sunglasses and wide-brimmed Henschel Advantage Camo hat, I slipped my camera into a cargo pocket of my baggy field shorts before shutting down the truck, exiting and securing the vehicle.
The silence was awesome, and there wasn't another soul in sight. I hadn't seen another human being since I peeled off I-10 forty-five minutes earlier... I stood for a moment, just taking in the glorious weather, perfectly pleasant at 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Blue skies and mild sunshine, with an occasional fleecy pint-sized cloud passing overhead... excellent weather for hiking and climbing. As my ears became accustomed to the silence, barely audible bird calls sounded from the surrounding brush, which was open yet fairly tall on either side of the road. What I mean is: stunted trees approximately 12'-16' high dominated the landscape, with long grass and waist-to-shoulder-high brush dotting the soil between these trees. I gingerly climbed over the nearby barbed-wire fence and started up the slope. Fortunately, there was more than enough room to circumnavigate most obstacles, even if that meant briefly backtracking to pick up a better route. I made steady progress toward my objective, the magnificent rock outcrop which loomed above in all its sunlit splendor.
Halfway up the slope, I heard rustling in some brush thirty feet away, and a huge wild boar burst forth and took off on a tangent... had the sonofabitch headed my way, I would have shamelessly legged it for the nearest tree. Thankfully, it ran in another direction and soon faded from hearing and sight, but I kept a wary eye open afterward. I've been in the field for over forty years, and I'm no stranger to wildlife, but every now and then some animal manages to surprise me in this fashion. I suppose most hunters would have literally killed for such an opportunity, but I'm not into murdering wildlife when I'm in the field... maybe in a survival situation, but this pleasant early afternoon jaunt hardly qualified in that respect. I continued up the slope, and soon approached several huge boulders at the base of the southwestern corner of the towering summit outcrop. One Internet website describes the summit outcrop of Mt. Livermore as a singular "fin"---in reality, this central "fin" is subdivided into many transverse fins with deep canyons between them.
Rounding the southwestern corner of the peak, I looked into a deep brush-choked canyon... an absolutely wild and beautiful place, with no past or present sign of human visitation. I might have been the first human to lay eyes on that canyon... it damned sure felt that way. Subsequent Internet searches have revealed that visitors and Nature Conservancy guides do not have access to this quarter of the mountain (unless they're f-----g hardcore), but I had no way of knowing this at the time... to me, the place was pristine wilderness, virginal and unspoiled. Not a manmade object in sight, and not a sign of development. The canyon might have looked the same to the first hominid who descended from the trees and made his clumsy bipedal way upslope to this exact point. I might add that, throughout my exploration, from my parked truck to a point high on the mountain, I never saw a single piece of trash or other unsightly human waste. The place was a veritable paradise, and the view which unfolded as I climbed higher was spectacular, as one can see from my photos.
Anyway, the first transverse canyon looked too radical in terms of brush, which grew more thickly between the high stone walls to either side. Angling for the outer base of the far wall, which was also the near wall of the next transverse fin, I stopped to pound some lemon water and swap my hiking boots for fresh socks and climbing shoes. Carefully stowing my hiking boots in the usual manner inside my pack, allowing for maximum freedom and range of motion, I donned my chalkbag and took a "double dip" before beginning my ascent of the second transverse fin. The view quickly opened up, and I stopped to photograph the imposing rock wall which formed the reverse side of the first fin I had already passed. I could see my truck with its 53' wagon parked far below on TX166. The air temperature remained perfect, and the sun offered mild warmth offset by the lightest of breezes. The rock itself was solid, sun-warmed and good as gold... it was a climber's paradise!!!
Steadily working my way up the second fin, I soon found myself in an exposed position near its crest, with a heller drop to either side. Looking over my left shoulder, I could see the magnificent rock wall mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Looking up to my right, across another intervening canyon, I could see a tremendous crag, yet another transverse fin, towering higher on the mountain above me. This gorgeous crag was capped by a mushroom-shaped rock, visible in one of my photos... the wall beneath it must have sported at least two dozen primo climbing routes. These walls I mention were glowing in the afternoon sun, and every jug, every crack, every dime-thin edge or rugosity was clearly illuminated. Honestly, I've been to many primo climbing venues nationwide, and I've seen few as wholly appealing, given the ideal weather, the insane views, and the absolute solitude. I spent several hours on this mountain, and I never saw another human being... which is PARADISE in my book.
I hung out at the top of the second transverse fin for about fifteen minutes, chilling out and weighing my options. Before my arrival on this day, I had never laid eyes upon this peak or done any kind of research, so the complex fin-and-canyon layout of the summit outcrop (or massif) came as a complete surprise. Given my relatively late start and the shorter daylight hours at this time of year, I was forced to consider my next move. Had I started early that morning, as is my usual custom when I tackle peaks in the wilderness, I reckon I could have easily reached the summit before turning back toward my truck. However, with no topo map or guide at hand, and with the sun slowly settling toward the western horizon, I decided to end my recon at this point, which was the smart thing to do. As an experienced mountaineer with over twenty-five years of thrashing in the field, I can assure you that it's no fun making your way down an unfamiliar peak in the dark. Been there, done that---even with a headlamp, it sucks. As a student of geology and physical geography, I knew that mountain wasn't going anywhere in my lifetime... better to leave the summit for another day. When soloing in the field, discretion is often the better part of valor; I had absolutely nothing to prove, and not another soul around to bear witness anyway had I felt so foolishly inclined.
Sometimes, a decision like this can really be liberating. At that moment, I felt carefree, because I knew I had plenty of time to make it back to the truck before dark. Therefore, I could really unwind and take time to examine my surroundings, which were beautiful beyond belief. I normally devote a greater share of my attention to the rock itself, as my life depends upon close examination when I'm soloing, but this time I focused upon the little things so often overlooked: the successional islands of lichens and moss high on the rock walls; the unexpected and obviously windblown insect crawling atop the fin where I sat immobile in Buddha-like fashion; the depth of the canyons to either side, one choked with brush and the other more sparsely vegetated; the occasional wild bird flashing past and swooping into either canyon; the warmth of the afternoon sun and the shadows slowly developing below; the solitude and tranquillity, so rarely found in modern civilization. All these and more... readily experienced in that unsung Shangri-La known as Mt. Livermore in West Texas.
After a period of reflection high on the mountain, I stood and stretched prior to carefully and systematically downclimbing the rock fin I had chosen. Once on the slope below, I swapped boots and swung wide to the south to snap a shot of an impressive subsidiary peak which resembled a vast fortress in the wilderness... that peak can also be seen in my photos. Then I headed back toward the truck, which was still microscopic at this distance. No worries, plenty of time to navigate downslope... I never did like rushing in the field, although I make pretty good time as a solo hiker and climber. That didn't happen overnight either---it takes years for a hand to really become one with the wilderness, especially an old school hand who doesn't rely upon modern gadgets in the field. My experience is based more upon a feel for the environment: the terrain, the weather, the flora and fauna, the whole nine yards. Sure, I've made mistakes in the field, and I've learned from them... that's the key, learning from one's mistakes or poor decisions. This takes time, so don't be too hard on yourself if you f--- up once or twice in the field: as long as you don't die, you can chalk it up to experience.
Nowadays, I venture into places I've never been and tackle unknown peaks on sight, with nothing more than the usual field gear I wear or carry everywhere I go. No gadgets, no research, just straight-up on-sight solo missions in remote wilderness areas. By doing this, I feel more connected to the land itself, like a true Native American roaming the country thousands of years ago, reveling in its sunlit splendor and magnificent scenery. I also find that I can make better decisions based upon firsthand knowledge and experience, rather than some list of "facts" gleaned from a modern technological device. Sure, technology has its place, and some wouldn't venture forth without it, but I draw raw power from the land itself, especially in the vertical world where EVERYTHING is exponentially increased. Perceptions are heightened, sensations magnified---sun-warmed rock becomes a glowing matrix, a light mountain breeze becomes an earthly aspiration, a dime-thin edge suddenly feels as wide as a Manhattan sidewalk. In moments like this, I feel intimately connected to this planet, the same way I feel connected when I'm sailing to the islands on yet another overnight voyage, skimming across the surface of the ocean under purely natural power...
But I digress... returning to my story, I made my way downslope to my truck, where I pulled one more sock change and stowed my gear while warming the motor on high idle. This is a personal thing: when I was in the Infantry and spent entire weeks in the field with few sock changes, I swore that I would ALWAYS have a sh!tload of fresh socks available no matter where I went. I routinely carry two extra pairs with me in the field---a fresh pair for changing into my climbing shoes, another fresh pair for changing back into my hiking boots. Some people laugh at this system, but I don't care; they're my feet, and I like the feel of fresh socks. After a particularly brutal hike, I'll even give my feet an alcohol bath (rubbing alcohol, not booze), which feels wonderful... try it sometime while camping, after a day in the field. I don't have any foot problems either, I just like the feel of clean socks on my skin. If you've ever served in the Infantry and spent a week in the field, you'll understand this harmless eccentric behavior.
Moving on... I put the truck in gear and headed north to I-10. Not a soul did I see en route, until I reached the interstate. Stepping onto the westbound side, I began to reflect upon the radical adventure I had just experienced. Despite having spent several hours upon the mountain, I now felt as if time had stood still during my excursion. Indeed, the sun---which had seemed to settle so rapidly from my vantage point on Mt. Livermore---now stalled in the western sky, and I made it halfway to El Paso before the sun actually sank beneath the horizon. Funny how time stands still after the event... I had no regrets about calling off any bid for the summit, as I only meant to pull a simple recon anyway, given my relatively late start. One day, I may return to Mt. Livermore and jump through the little Nature Conservancy hoops to tackle the peak from the other end... although I feel in my heart that the approach will be nowhere near as beautiful. Too many signs of human passage, I reckon, including myriad bootprints, empty soda cans and greasy McDonald's wrappers.
Yeah, sometimes the road less traveled is the only way to go... especially for a guy like me who doesn't run with the thundering herd. I read on a Mt. Livermore website that hikers can only go up at certain times of the year, and sometimes they have to go in groups with a guide present. Where's the sense of adventure in that, I ask? If I wanted to hang out with people, I'd make my way to Times Square in Manhattan, as I've done in the past. I understand property rights, and the often overzealous efforts by misguided individuals to "protect" an area, but sometimes this bullsh!t is carried way too far. Ain't nobody ranchin' on the magnificent cliffs and finned crags of Mt. Livermore, and those rocks should be wide open to clean climbing by clued-in outdoor types. WTF, let visitors take an exam written by real climbers---fail the exam, and "NO CRAGS FOR YOU, PAL!!!" Perhaps the only way to go is by helicopter insertion, gettin' dropped off and hangin' out for a few days until your fingertips are shredded like taco meat, then pullin' the helo extraction number, takin' all your gear and carefully-bagged trash with you... just as described in my "Sturm Und Drang" story.
Yesiree, it's gettin' harder and harder to find real solitude in the Brave New World... too many rules and regulations for my liking. Why do you think I spend so much time on BLM land in the middle of nowhere? Out there, one can pretty much do whatever the f--- he or she wants to do, without any badges or regulations, and no overzealous tree-huggers ruining things for those outdoor types with far more experience. I said it in a previous post, and I'll say it again: I don't frequent developed campgrounds that much anymore, due to the ridiculous regulations involved. Might as well throw down my answers to so-called authority in advance:
"NO, I'M NOT A LITTERPIG---I ALWAYS POLICE EVERY SCRAP OF TRASH AND LEAVE MY CHOSEN CAMPSITE BETTER THAN I FOUND IT."
"YES, I'M GONNA CRANK MY MUSIC LOUD AS F--- WHILE PARTYING ROUND A BONFIRE, ESPECIALLY IF I'M WITH MY FRIENDS."
"NO, I DON'T FEEL LIKE PAYING YOUR LOUSY CAMPING FEE WHEN I CAN SPEND THE SAME AMOUNT ON AN EXTRA CASE OF BEER, EVEN IF IT IS WATERY DOMESTIC TRASH."
"YES, I WILL GO TO HELLER ADDITIONAL EXPENSE IN TERMS OF TIME AND MONEY, JUST SO I WON'T HAVE TO HEAR SOME BADGE-SPORTIN' POGUE WHILE I'M OUT ON BLM LAND, UNDER A MILLION STARS..."
I could go on here, but why bother? My style of wilderness exploration is not for everyone, and I personally don't give a sh!t. With each successive adventure in unknown terrain, I feel even closer to Nature... and that's all that matters to me. I find my spiritual rewards to be greater when I ditch all the trappings of modern society, choose a peak based solely upon its radical appearance, printed elevation in my atlas, or actual distance from so-called civilization, then head into the wilderness to explore my chosen destination, using only my personal knowledge and experience to guide me. Yeah, sure, I have state-of-the-art gear and clothing, and I always carry enough lemon water with me wherever I go (an old field trick, the juice of fresh-squeezed lemons enhances refreshment and eliminates the taste of plastic). But it's that spiritual armor that really shines, that magical feeling of being one with Nature, rather than fighting it... that armor weighs nothing, yet it makes all the difference in the vertical world, far from the madding crowd in remote wilderness locations, where one wrong move can ultimately lead to disaster...
Author's note: Again, you can see photos taken during this adventure at TRUCKFORUM.ORG, on Page 6 of the thread entitled "Got Chrome??? How about Armor???" Not Ansel Adams quality, of course, as some shots were taken by hanging my cheesy automatic camera out the window during my rumbling approach, but you can see what this magnificent peak looks like... and latter shots taken while hiking are far superior in terms of clarity. I was going to post more shots of Mt. Livermore here at this site, but evidently I've used up all my visual credit, and I'm now "persona non grata." No big deal, I'll be outta here soon enough anyway... you outdoorsmen enjoy the shots, and be sure to visit this wild and beautiful peak if you're in the area. "ADIOS!!!"