Last night, our crew of 7 Scouts (crew leader Harper C, asst. Nik P, chaplain aide Jon F, wilderness guia Ryan I, lead navi-guesser Cameron H, Carter W, and Kaleb M) and 3 adults (Mohan I, Jon P, and myself) returned from our two-week adventure at Philmont Scout Ranch in northeastern New Mexico, in the Sangre de Cristo mountains (southern part of the Rockies).
After months of practice hikes, workouts, preparation and planning, our crew mustered in uniform at the Atlanta airport shortly after 6 a.m. on Thursday, June 26, we checked in and flew to Denver, arriving around 9:30 AM local (Mountain) time. We had arranged to rent two mini-vans for the trip to Philmont, but due to hail damage they had to substitute a Suburban and a brand-new Tahoe, so by lunchtime we were on our way south, stopping after an hour or so at Colorado Springs to visit the Air Force Academy (visitor center, gift shop, and chapel), then the Olympic Training Center, for the rest of the afternoon. By dinner-time we had made our way to the small town of Trinidad, where we had a pizza dinner, then proceeded (with many large bugs splattering our windshields) the rest of the way to the smaller town of Cimarron, NM, home of Philmont. We stayed overnight at the historic St. James hotel, and breakfasted there on the 27th before driving the final couple miles to the Scout ranch.
Once at Philmont, in dry and dusty base camp (just over 6,000 feet in elevation) we began our long day of check-in proceedings, meeting with our staff Ranger Luke W (immediately nicknamed “Ell Dubs” by our enthusiastic crew), who began our set of required activities and trainings with us—medical re-check, logistics, administration, security, photos, tent city, dining hall, getting crew gear and food, advisor meeting, gear shake-downs, first-aid training, crew leader meeting, worship services, opening campfire, etc. We also managed a short tour of the Villa Philmonte, one of Waite and Genevieve Phillips’ summer mansions, still decorated in 1920s style. We also saw Forrest Newton, one of T149’s Eagle Scouts working his second season as a Ranger; and Dale Greene of Troop 1, who was on site as one of the volunteer foresters for the Demonstration Forest!
The following morning (Saturday 28th) we checked out of “tent city” and stowed our carry-ons and such in the vehicles, then filled our water bottles and weighed our packs—mostly in the low-30 to mid-40-pound range, though at least one Scout required some last minute “ditching” of non-essentials to drop back down from over 50 lbs. Around 9:30 we took our school bus out to the Zastrow turn-around, where we were dropped off and Luke continued his ranger training with the crew. After a stop-over at the staffed camp Abreu (where we had a cabin tour by the “Mexican homesteaders” and enjoyed root beer at the cantina), we continued to Old Abreu (non-staffed camp) for more ranger training the rest of the evening. The next morning, we had another short-ish hike to the staffed camp Carson Meadows, with a great view of the Tooth of Time; the Scouts took part in Search and Rescue activities while the adults got to know the members of the “sister crew” on the same itinerary as us—from Baton Rouge—and since one of their adults was backpacking with a mandolin and one Scout with a guitar, and I had my penny-whistle along, we got to have a short jam session, the first of many over our 11 days. Luke gave an inspiring talk about Philmont’s wilderness pledge from a scenic overlook (‘the Notch’) as we continued our hike that afternoon to the unstaffed (trail) camp, Crags, below some very scenic rock formations. After some difficulty deciding where tent set-up could be done (outside the “bear-muda triangle” of sump, campfire ring and bear cables, but also trying to avoid numerous dead-tree “widowmakers”), we set up camp and enjoyed playing cards and viewing amazing stars visible from the riverbanks.
On day 3 (Monday), our Ranger departed after breakfast, and we made our way to Fish Camp (Phillips’ fishing lodge on the Rayado River), where we ate lunch and tied flies then proceeded to Beaubien, a cowboy-themed camp, arriving just in time to get camp set up and have our “chuck wagon” dinner (canned food, rather than dried food!), plus a staff campfire program with music and entertainment. The following day was our first layover, so instead of packing up and hiking on, we spent the morning doing three hours of conservation service—mostly cutting down small dead trees that could serve as “ladders” for future wildfires to reach and damage bigger, older ones. In the afternoon, Kaleb and Jon P. teamed up with members of our sister crew to do the five-hour round-trip side hike to Trail Peak, where the wreckage of a B-24 bomber from the 1940s still remains. The rest of the crew did a couple-hour side hike to Phillips Junction commissary to get restocked with our trail food, as well as the treat of fresh fruit and chocolate/strawberry milk. Beaubien also had boot-branding stations and (cold) showers available, though given the cool and cloudy conditions only a brave few opted for the showers, though several washed clothes by hand (which unfortunately didn’t dry as quickly as usual).
Day 5 (Wednesday) was one of our most challenging days. Despite a 5:15 wake-up and relatively early departure, we had a long hike to our unstaffed camp, Red Hills, involving some steep uphills through misty coniferous woods and an eventual summit of Big Red. After making it to camp by early afternoon, we opted for what turned out to be a five-hour side-hike over both Comanche Peak and Mt. Phillips, at 11,736 feet the highest point on our trek, even though it was clouded in with no views upon our arrival. Our crew was pretty tired when we made it back to camp, just as darkness was falling and the temperatures were dropping, and we quickly moved towards bed, without even cooking dinner! But, we showed we could successfully take on 3 peaks over 10,000 feet in elevation in a single day.
The following morning, we had a somewhat less strenuous hike with clear blue skies, over to Black Mountain camp, whose staff is set to be post-Civil War union soldiers, providing blacksmithing and black-powder rifle program activities. However, after we ate lunch and had just begun casting lead 58-caliber rifle balls at the forge, the clouds grew and gave way to an hour-long, massive rain and hailstorm (marble-sized hail that coated the ground inches deep in white), and the temperature dropped from near 80 down to the upper 30s. After several hours of huddling in the forge area and trying to keep our gear and selves somewhat dry, the rain had slacked enough for us to set up tents and for most of the crew to get into their sleeping bags to warm up and dry out a bit before dinner. Finally around 7, the rain had stopped, and the campers took part in “black mountain ball” (sort of like baseball with additional rules and using pick-axe handles for bats) as well as (in my case) some musical activity. Because the black powder rifle was canceled that afternoon, we hung around Black Mountain the next morning to get to shoot, and had good success putting 58-caliber holes through bandanas, cards, and other targets, finally departing for Cypher’s Mine camp around 10 AM. While our sister crew opted to go “up and over” the massive mountain itself, our crew (wisely) decided to backtrack to Comanche Pass (where we also retrieved one Scout’s left-behind hat) and made it to Cypher’s just before the afternoon rain. Because that site is so rocky, each crew stays not in tents but in a large Adirondack, which was good since it did rain more that afternoon—but, we were still able to take part in a tour of the abandoned gold mine as well as making a sort of misshapen dutch oven lifter at the forge area, with a very “in character” staffer called Tony. During advisor’s coffee, some of our crew had some disagreements about job responsibilities which resulted in some “storming”, and some of us were rather late in finally getting to the Cypher’s Mine evening entertainment, the Stomp. After the stomp, Tony invited everyone back to the forge for a Fourth of July activity—he super-heated rod metal and slammed it between hammer and anvil, showering sparks in all directions—since Philmont is under a burn ban, this was our “fireworks”!
The next morning, we were en route toward Hunting Lodge (another historic cabin) when we were overtaken by staffer Tony (really “Alex”, not Italian at all), who was starting a couple days off; he hiked with the crew and they got to ask lots of questions about staffing and camp in general. After our tour of Hunting Lodge we continued north to Cimarroncito, site of our second (and more laid-back) layover, again arriving in time for afternoon rains. But, Cito has new, hot showers (very nice!), as well as a covered horizontal climbing wall and an indoor climbing gym. A sub-group of us also speed-hiked a couple miles down and back up to our final commissary pick-up for food at Ute Gulch, with just enough time to have dinner and make it late to Advisor’s Coffee, after which we also played more music. On our layover day (Day 9 on the trail), we did rock-climbing and rappelling on the rocky outcropping above Cito, and took more time for showers and clothes washing—and finally, despite building clouds, had a dry afternoon!
Our next to last day of hiking was an easy one, down near Window Rock where we took part in a short forestry talk, then continued on to Clark’s Fork. This was our final staffed camp and last chance for water, so despite arriving early afternoon we spent several hours “hanging out”, playing cards, reading, horseshoes, etc. then cooked an early dinner, cleaned up, fully stocked up on water, and began the first half-hour of our ascent towards the Tooth Ridge. We set up camp at Upper Clark’s Fork, and worked on getting prepped for the final day’s hike, along with an early bedtime.
That was good, because we arose before 3 AM on Tuesday, packed in record time, had a quick breakfast, then hiked at a solid pace uphill for the next hour and a half, to near Shaffer’s Pass and Shaffer’s Peak, where we rested then began our trail along the very rocky, up-and-down Tooth ridge. We reached the base of the iconic Tooth of Time around 7:30 and bear-bagged our smellables, made a pack line, and scrambled up the talus and boulders up up up to the top of the Tooth, which was cloudy, windy and rather cold, but had a great view of much of Philmont (including base camp). Around 8:30 or so we saddled ourselves back up and continued the trail, choosing a steep side descent off the ridge down several thousand feet descent to the plains rather than the 2-plus hours of switchbacks along the less steep “trail of tears”. Happily, we made it back to base camp around 10:45 and began our check-in procedures, with thoughts of showers and hamburgers on our mind. Though the crew was disappointed when told that ranger Luke was out with another crew, they were greatly pleased when he turned up just before lunch, fresh off the trail, and spent the rest of the day with us as we went into Cimarron. (Sadly, Heck’s burgers has closed, but we settled with a barbecue place showing the soccer semi-finals, as well as the traditional ice-cream counter & gift shop). We returned to the ranch late afternoon and completed our check-in to-do’s and shopping for souvenirs, ending the evening with packing for the return and with the closing campfire.
On Wednesday, we packed and left at 7:30, right after breakfast, made our way to Denver by lunch-time, and (despite road closures due to the presidential motorcade also going to the airport) made it home as scheduled, tired but happy and full of our sense of accomplishment, 70-plus miles by foot over the 11 days on the trail. Our Scouts learned a lot about themselves, each other, and Philmont; they improved their camping and hiking skills considerably; met some cool staffers and fellow campers; and several have indicated that they want to go back for future treks or employment. Be sure to ask them about all the many details, activities, and insights that I have left out here—they should have a lot to tell you!