The Pedernal isn’t the highest mountain I’ve climbed – at 9,862 feet it’s nearly 10,000 feet lower – but to date, it is my favorite summit. Before I set out to climb it on my 27th birthday, I had seen the unique flat-topped peak twice before: first in one of Georgia’s O’Keefe’s paintings at the O’Keefe Museum in downtown Santa Fe and then a week later looking south from the summit of Kitchen Mesa, a gypsum-topped red sandstone massif near Ghost Ranch, New Mexico where the painter lived and worked.
The Pedernal is one of those classic symbols of the wild Southwest, its silhouette, a basaltic blade, made famous by Ms. O’Keefe. Viewed from the north or south, the summit appears to be a sharp spire, but from the east or west the mountain reveals itself as a long, level blade, a seemingly impenetrable wall of black basalt.
O’Keefe painted the distinctive peak so many times, came to know its distant shape so well, that she eventually declared, “It’s my mountain. God has given it to me.” O’Keefe never climbed the Pedernal, but after her death in 1986, some of her ashes were scattered from the summit.
I have been climbing mountains for the past few years, ever since I learned I had a physiological gift for traveling in high places. In 2008, on winter break from graduate school in Baltimore, I traveled to Ecuador and over the course of two weeks climbed three very big mountains: 15,696-foot Gua-Gua Pinchincha, 18,996-foot Cayambe and 19,347-foot Cotopaxi. Out of a group of eleven climbers, most younger and fitter, I was the only one to summit all three peaks.
Since that trip, I have climbed dozens of mountains. Few have approached the grandeur of those big volcanoes, but all have been memorable in their own right: The Pedernal, Grand Central, Cabezon Peak, Madrid Mountain, Placer Peak, St. Mary’s Peak, Dragon’s Tooth, Ragged Mountain, Cadillac Mountain, Mount Megunticook, Mount Cardigan, Mount Moosilauke, and Mount Washington, to name a few.
On my birthday, there’s nothing I’d rather do than climb a mountain. Since I was born in February, I don’t usually go for height. The idea is simply to get up to somewhere rare and sit for awhile, with the world at my feet.
The Pedernal is sacred to the native people of New Mexico and to this day, in deference, no marked trails have been blazed to the top. An old forest service trail winds around to the base of the peak, affording glimpses of the knife’s edge and the broad blade from every angle. After a few miles of steady uphill on an old two-track, the trail ends in a meadow beneath the broad southern side of the summit.
With most mountains, the closer you get to the summit, the bigger it looms and the less you can believe you’ll soon be standing on top. From the meadow below the Pedernal, the summit looks impossible without ropes: the top is ringed by a steep talus slope and crowned by a 40-foot high cliff of what appears to be solid basalt.
Per my scribbled instructions, I set my sights on a dark cave high up on the encircling cliff, and head up. After a gradual start through some trees at the base, the mountain begins in earnest. I’m heading up the south facing slope, where the daily arc of the desert sun has burned off all the snow and ice. The grade quickly approaches 35 degrees; close enough to the angle of repose that rocks skid past me at the slightest touch. The Pedernal means “flint” in Spanish and the peak is aptly named. Sharp shards of rock lie everywhere. I quickly break a sweat, open my palms on the sharp black volcanic rock, but shed no tears. It’s my birthday and there’s no place I’d rather be than here.
After several hundred vertical feet of somewhat graceless scree scrambling, I reach the base of the cliffs. I edge around, left of the shallow cave and soon find a long stick leaning up against the rocks, divining the class-3/4 crack to the top. It certainly looks like vertical, hand over hand climbing, but not so risky as to require ropes. Of course, in mountaineering, risk is highly relative and should I fall, the sheer drop of geology is destiny.
I turn my back on vertigo, keep my eyes on the rock and swing my way up. A few minutes later I am standing on the razor’s edge. No more than twenty steps separate the plunging cliffs on either side of the summit, where the world drops away to the north and south. I sit on the northern edge, beneath the blue sky, overlooking Abiquiu Lake and beyond, to where the Jurassic red beds of Ghost Ranch give way to yellowed high plains of northern New Mexico and finally, to the white-capped Rockies of southern Colorado. The Sangre de Cristo range sweeps to the east. Fifty miles away I can see 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak, the crown of New Mexico. Sitting there, I put Wheeler on the list for another day.
George Mallory famously said he was drawn to climb Everest, “Because it’s there.” My mantra in the mountains is “because I can.” For me, there’s nothing more fulfilling than looking up at a big mountain, declaring my intention to reach the top and then getting myself up there. The Pedernal remains my favorite mountain because it was the first peak I sized up from a distance, declared “I’m going to climb that”, and then did. The day I climbed the Pedernal, my 27th birthday, was one of the most satisfying days of my life.