Salinas Peak, the highest point in the San Andreas Mountain and the highest point on White Sands Missile Range, is the place of duty for two WSMR TRAX employees whose job is to secure radio signals between pilots and the WSMR Cox Range Control Center.
TRAX Communications Technicians Charlie Arellanes and Ken Lawson are the two-person team who make the hour and a half long drive uphill after reaching Stallion Gate in the northern part of the range. The two work at the Information Systems Command located on Salinas Peak, which sits at an 8,967-foot elevation. Arellanes travels from Los Lunas, New Mexico every day and Lawson travels from Socorro, New Mexico. Arellanes and Lawson have been working in the desolate mountainside for the past two years and said they enjoy the quiet and calm atmosphere.
“It’s one of the best kept secrets at WSMR,” Lawson said. “Salinas Peak is actually the best place to work.”
He and his co-worker check the ground-and-air radio on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. The daily checks consist of ensuring there is a good signal and reflection. The weekly checks consist of dialing in the radio in the transmitter. The monthly check is a full check on the radio. If a radio goes down, Arellanes said they quickly swap it out for a fully functioning one and begin repair on the damaged radio.
“We’re on our own,” Arellanes said. “We still have a supervisor but we know what we have to do and we do what we’re supposed to do.”
A standard duty day for Arellanes and Lawson is 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., however that schedule changes whenever there is a mission.
“The mission comes first,” Arellanes said. “We adjust our schedule depending on mission support.”
On this particular day Arellanes and Lawson had to come in at 3 a.m. for a mission. Their duty day starts when they clock in at Stallion Gate and ends when they clock out at Stallion Gate. Both employees must check-in at Stallion to check-out a government vehicle to drive up to Salinas Peak. Both Arellanes and Lawson must be present in order for a mission to begin. If one is out sick then their supervisor will have to send someone out from Stallion to replace them.
“That has never been the case though,” Arellanes said.
Lawson has worked up at Salinas Peak for the past 30 years, he recently retired from federal service and began working for TRAX in 2015. He said he enjoys working there because of the equipment he gets to work with on a daily basis. He likes that there is enough trust between his management to have him resolve issues as they happen on a daily basis, without having someone looking over his shoulder.
“It’s a great place to work,” Lawson said. “There’s quite a lot of equipment that’s essential to White Sands. I actually like working at a remote location, especially mountainside.”
Arellanes said the site gets in the low teens during the winter season but the wind chill factor is what makes some days unbearable.
“It’s very cold,” Arellanes said.
WSMR Meteorologist Al Koperski said their records from 1992 to 2012 indicate the highest reported wind speed for the peak was recorded at 122 miles per hour in the month of April, the year was undetermined.
“There were several times were it peaked above 100 but 122 was the highest,” Koperski said.
In 2016, the highest reported wind speed was recorded at 83 miles per hour, in April as well. He said Salinas Peak and the North Oscura Peak usually sees the highest wind speed throughout the entire range. Arellanes said they usually stay inside the building until their shift is over on those type of days. He said the wind dies down as soon as you start driving down from the peak.
Though Arellanes said he enjoys the solemnity he said he does enjoy having a couple of visitors every so often. The cleaning crew heads out to Salinas Peak once a month to clean and some organizations will take a professional development day to visit the site every so often.