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Texas | Trips

My Hike to the West Texas Mile High Oil Well

by Barclay Gibson

Why would an oil well anywhere in Texas take more than three years to drill? By today's standards, that is way, way, too long to spend on just one well until you realize that the Hunter Oil Well No. 1 was drilled, beginning in 1945, by the Pure Oil Company, and is located on the western slope of the Guadalupe Mountains in what is now the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. It is almost due north of the Williams Ranch House by about two miles. According to Google Earth, the well pad is right at 5,280 feet above sea level.

Once you know just where the Williams Ranch House is located, you begin to get an inkling of what might be involved in such an undertaking. First off, in order to get equipment and supplies to the chosen well site, a road had to be built. But even when completed, bull dozers were still needed to pull the loaded trucks up the last one half mile to the well using multiple one inch stranded steel cables.

After the road was 'built', the side of the canyon wall had to be blasted out to make a suitable flat area for the drilling rig, stationary engines and drill pipe. It is logical to think that there would have been some kind of crude crew shelter and rig office as there was most likely a lot of freezing weather and frequent snow storms at that elevation. Space was also needed to park at least one truck and the bull dozer.

Given all those requirements plus a rig floor that is only about 100 feet square, the drilling area must have been a very crowded work place for quite some time. Once a supply truck was pulled into position to be unloaded, there had to be enough room to turn it around. Crazy as anyone had to be to work in such an environment, no one would want to back a truck down that slope.

I did find a very interesting online article about the well that was written many years after the fact. The well is said to have been drilled to more than 11,000 feet in depth. I thought to myself that once the oil was brought to the surface, no more pumps would have been needed to get it down to the nearest roadway because of the high elevation of the well. Gravity might even have been used to siphon more oil from the well. Might have.

But sadly, the discovery was not of sufficient quantity to make the endeavor worth all the time, effort and expense to continue the work. Sometime in 1948 the decision was made to plug the well in such a way as to make the hole at least usable for a water well. Some of the bigger equipment was removed but there are still a lot of sucker rods, stem caps, cable and drill bits laying around the area. I would suspect, but don't know, that the remaining pulling unit and Fordson tractor were used on the water well. Judging from the amount of steel counter weights on the pump jack whatever was coming out of the ground had to be lifted a very long way.

My friend, Boyde, and I were able to hike to the well site in November of 2013. He is a former Army Ranger with more than 400 parachute jumps to his credit, so he is a real hiking expert and a valuable person to have along to point the way. It was a beautiful day for such a unique hike. To say the least, it was a little more than I had expected.

Due to the recent heavy rains in the area, the road to Williams Ranch had been washed out to the extent that it would be closed for several more months. Boyde knows the landowner of property adjacent to the National Park, so we were able to begin from there.

It was a fairly strenuous hike, taking us 3-1/2 hours to go the 6 miles to the well site. Even today the roads and trails to the rig are still fairly visible on Google. We were able to follow the old 'road' beds some but they were often hard to find or so overgrown, rocky and eroded that it was easier just to hike cross country. We only gained about 1,600 feet in elevation over the length of the hike, but there were many washes, gullies and gorges to cross.

We kept saying, "What was that geologist thinking?" Bulldozers pulling trucks carrying nitroglycerine up the steep slopes? The article said that it was quite a challenge just to keep the dozer upright in places as the metal tracks kept slipping on the sloping solid rock base. As we neared the rig, the cables were still lying ready to pull the next truck into place. Even after 65+ years, the well site was just as promised.

I have included just a few pictures to give you a smidgeon of what it was really like. Concerning the last picture of this set: As we were going mostly cross country, we were continually crossing deep washes, gullies and gorges, each offering its own challenge to cross. Most were very well established and filled with rocks and boulders. The only ones that really gave us problems were the fresh ones that rain run-off cut through the deep, mostly rock free, soil.

You could tell that they had just been created by these recent rains as some of the dirt that fell right at the last had not been there long enough to have been washed away. The walls were almost straight up with the edges just ready to crumble in. We tried to find easy crossings but with the one pictured, there was no way around it. We found a place where the crumbly dirt wall had a little slope to it. Depth is hard to judge from a photograph, but as Boyde stood at the edge, he said, "Just ride it down" and stepped off. Without exaggeration, this ravine was at least 15 feet deep. I just took a deep breath and stepped off, too. The dirt was at just the right angle and soft enough that it was a fun ride. Thankfully, we were able to use some nearby exposed ledges to climb out the other side.

Once we were back at the truck, Boyde and I took a few minutes to drink our remaining water and let our feet air out a little. Climbing into the cab, my heart fell as I saw the key still in the ignition. I had inadvertently left it on for nearly seven hours. The battery was totally dead. I told Boyde, “We are going to have to put our boots back on,” as we were more than two miles past the ranch house. I had been out of cell service all day, but, thankfully, Boyde had service. He called his rancher friend who was just making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. John said he would come to give us a jump start in just a few minutes. The dust rising as the four wheeler churned its way to us was certainly a welcome sight.

Very soon we were back on a wide, smooth 75 mile per hour West Texas highway headed back to civilization and other responsibilities.

Looking Back
Barclay Gibson photo

Pure Well
Barclay Gibson photo

Over View
Barclay Gibson photo

Just Ride It Down
Barclay Gibson photo

© Barclay Gibson , January 6, 2014 Column

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