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Fri, 31 Aug 2007

Philmont Scout Ranch

They call it Scouting Paradise.

First, the basic facts. Through various gifts from Oklahoma oilman Waite Phillips, as well as some direct purchase, the Boy Scouts of America now own 214 square miles of New Mexico wilderness that they also call Philmont Scout Ranch. The land comprises a sizable chunk of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the southernmost subrange of the Rockies. Once the home for indigenous tribes, Hispanic settlers, trappers and gold prospectors, the land is totally wild today. The only minor exception is a comparatively tiny base camp and training center at its edge and a few widely spaced educational program camps dotting the interior.

My visit to Philmont was a two-week backpacking trek as one of two adult advisers of a crew of 8 boy scouts. The boys ranged in age from 14 to 17. I was senior adviser (decided by virtue of me being a couple months older than the other adult). For this senior honor, I was assigned the responsibility of training the crew and handling various logistic and bureaucratic tasks.

Like many middle aged people, I live a busy life and have lots of responsibilities. As fun as the experience turned out to be, taking off two weeks to wander in the woods, not to mention the time spent preparing for the trek, wasn't something that I did on a personal whim. Rather, I was channeled into the experience by a combination of my son's involvement in scouting and my wife's propensity to unilaterally propose "father-son" activities like this. Not to begrudge either of these causes, Philmont was one of the best things that I ever got 'stuck' doing.

As I alluded, one doesn't set off on a two week trek through the rockies without preparation. Our training was extensive. As a crew, we toughened our feet, softened our boots, and refined our camping skills by doing a backpacking hike every month for the five months leading up to our Philmont trek. These were 1-2 night trips culminating in a 30 mile, 2-night trip down the west rim of the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.

In addition to our on-the-trail practice, we did a lot of off-trail learning. I attended monthly Philmont adviser training sessions given by the local BSA council. These taught me what to expect, logistics wise, how we'd get to New Mexico, Philmont-specific issues, and lots of tips and tricks. More generalized safety training was also needed. Two of the boys were certified in Red Cross CPR and First Aid. I myself received Wilderness First Aid (WFA) and CPR certification given by Solo.

Much of this was educational experience that successfully aided our enjoyment and security on the trek, but some of it was more generally valuable. I found WFA exceptionally useful. I highly recommend this "back country" version of First Aid, rather than the standard Red Cross course for the "front country". The standard front country course degenerates to "call 911" for anything except a minor scratch. In contrast, WFA does not assume EMS is in easy reach. Even if you never venture away from sidewalks and cell service, the extra knowledge can be priceless.

With all the benefit I accumulated from this training, it should be said that there was a large cost in terms of time. Between crew meetings, training, and preparatory hikes, I dedicated nearly 400 hours over a 6 month period. I do believe the time was largely well spent, but it remains something that any prospective adviser or crew member should consider. There were many situations where the long hours Philmont preparation came in conflict with other responsibilities. Every member of the crew had this experience.

In fact, as senior adviser I was often called upon to adjudicate such conflicts for the boys. "Mr. Ichov, is it OK if I miss the hike this weekend? It's hockey championships and my team needs me on the ice." Yeesh! How do you say "no" to something like that? To ease my Solomon-like responsibility, I made each boy sign a contract promising to set Philmont training as a top priority. I also made a strict rule about training minimums, but permitted skipping some training above that minimum. This forced the schedule balancing back onto the boys.

In the end, everyone was well prepared. We saw the benefit of this preparation again and again. At Philmont, instead of dealing with a plethora of "beginner mistakes" and annoyances, we hit the trail running (so to speak – we averaged 2.6 MPH – brisk with a 40lb pack, but not a run.). The only detriment our training presented at Philmont was the tedium of sitting through a few redundant lectures. Yes, we already know about hanging our food, leave no trace, avoiding dehydration, treating acute mountain sickness, hantavirus, bubonic plague...

The bulk of Philmont has no paved roads and few vehicle roads of any kind. In fact, we walked over a week before we saw our first wheeled vehicle. Those roads that do exist are washed out by creeks or rock slides at regular intervals. Foot is the primary mode of transportation, supplemented to some degree by horse, burro, and to a lesser extent by 4WD vehicle and helicopter. Except for base camp and a couple of locations near the periphery, there is no electricity or phones. Cell phones say "No Service" except on the summits of the mountains. There is no indoor plumbing. Toilets are outhouses; drinking water comes either from creeks or solar powered wells. Virtually all the water must be boiled or otherwise treated before use. Many of the creeks are polluted by chemical waste left behind by miners from the "gold rush" days.

Philmont wild backcountry is home for a sizable population of elk, coyote, antelope, mountain lion, buffalo, beaver, wild turkey, bear, and deer. Some of the more non-threatening species we saw up close. Deer at Philmont, for example, were unconcerned about our presence and would allow us to approach to quite an intimate distance. This contrasts greatly with the shy behavior of deer in the hunter infested game lands of Pennsylvania.

We did see bear and mountain lion tracks – fresh ones – but never actually saw these noble creatures. I was somewhat disappointed, actually. Really, I was. Not that I wanted an intimate encounter, I just wanted the thrill of seeing big carnivores in their true home, as opposed to seeing them penned up in a zoo.

A surprise to me was the lack of birds – or at least noisy birds. Back east, a cacophonous din of birdsong erupts within milliseconds of the first faint glow of the dawn, but at Philmont if you want to wake to greet the sun, you need to set an alarm.

That said, we did see a western bluebird or two, and a number of crows. Laying in my tent in the quiet of the woods, I could hear a solid whoosh as a big crow would flap by. In the noise polluted east, although the birdsong cuts through, I don't ever in my life remember hearing the soft noise of birds flying over head.

There were also an incredible number of hummingbirds. At some of the staffed cabins they had hummingbird feeders hung and a swarm of perhaps 25 birds would cloud around the ready supply of sugar water. Only briefly shy, the hummingbirds would light on your finger if you were willing to invest a few minutes winning their trust.

A more natural source of nourishment for the hummingbirds was the vast array of flowers decorating the otherwise rugged landscape. Small yellow sunflowers were very common along trails below 7000 feet, as were a rainbow of of other species of blooms. At higher elevations, flowers became scarce, but you'd still see a surprising splash of color up nearer the clouds, especially in the alpine meadows. There was one high plateau, just barely below treeline, with a lush carpet of grass and small purple flowers. The look of it was simply beautiful and I expected Julie Andrews to come spinning by in song any second.

In addition to the non-human flora and fauna, about 360 scouts per day set off on treks through the Philmont wilderness. At any given time, there will be several thousand scouts scattered about. They move in 8-12 member crews, with a couple adult advisors and possibly a Philmont staffer in the crew. Actually, it's more precise to say "scouts and venturers", venturing being the co-ed side of the BSA program. Many of the crews are a mix of boys, girls, men and women.

There are roughly 1000 Philmont staff who work from the end of May to late August. Most of the staff are college age men and women, either on summer vacation, or recent grads with their life on hold. I saw some parent-child pairs in the staff as well. Every staff member I talked to was enraptured with working there. I've never visited any other place where the employees were so universally positive about their jobs. "Dream job" was how several described it.

The moon was new exactly in the middle of our trek so the night sky was ruled by the stars and Milky way. Stars like I've never seen. That's saying something. Although I am fundamentally a city boy, I certainly have camped in the hills of central PA and seen stars untainted by light pollution. But those are sane stars at only 1500 feet above sea level. The crazy stars at 9500 feet are something from the mind of Van Gogh, especially in a night hike along a the knife edge of a ridgeline traverse.

Or the lunatic stars that were the backdrop to the Perseid meteor shower we watched while laying on the sandstone clifftops above Ponil – the juncture of 5 canyons, a geologic oddity. We had just hiked up from a small Cantina, 200 feet below, where the local staff put on a musical review that evening – a hilarious farce, constituted by music, gunfire, fistfights, and bad jokes.

Philmont's peaks were formed about 27 million years ago, pretty much as one big hunk of rock pulled upward by tensional tectonic forces. They are are of the type called "fault block mountains". This sort of mountain is produced when near vertical faults fracture a section of the Earth's crust as it is being stretched and extended. Vertical motion of the resulting sections leads to high escarpments along the faults.

Composition wise, the main body of the Sangre de Cristo range comprises Permian-Pennsylvanian rock, a mix of igneous intrusions, conglomerates and shale that is relatively new. The most famous of the igneous intrusions is the Tooth of Time, a hunk of dacite porphyry formed in the Tertiary period of the Cenozoic era, which is pretty much a spring chicken, as mountains go.

On the last day of our trek, we climbed The Tooth, a non-technical scramble to a summit of 9003 feet above sea level. This hike was the most unique of our trek for several reasons.

First of all, the boys decided that they wanted to be sitting on The Tooth to watch the sunrise. As with many of the schemes the boys cooked up, the core concept was clear, but their detail of the execution was somewhat vague. It fell on the Senior Adviser (i.e. me) to help fill in the gaps, which I did with remarkably little reluctance given that the concept of being someplace at dawn – a place where we aren't camping – logically implies that we needed to travel there in the dark, a Philmont no-no. About 5 horizontal miles, and a quarter mile vertically, separated our sleeping location from their desired watching the sunrise location.

But having been on the trail with these kids for 11 days, I had a good feel for the crew's abilities. No one was injured. No one was worn out and lagging. I had seen the crew pull together very responsibly when we summited Mt Baldy (a 12,400 foot summit we reached on day 7). I knew the final push to base camp after leaving The Tooth would be tedious and difficult, but we could handle it. Besides, the thought of sitting on The Tooth at sunrise, drinking coffee was very, very enticing to my way of thinking. After all, I had managed to drink coffee every morning on the trail, thus far, and having my final cup on the summit of The Tooth of Time would be the trek's piece de resistance.

Before the trek, other experienced advisors with a Starbuck's charge card in their wallet had suggested to me that continuing my coffee habit in the New Mexico wilderness would be near impossible. Drought would make water scarce. The diuretic properties of caffeine would aggravate my dehydration. Disposing of grounds in a no-trace protocol would be onerous. Philmont breakfasts were always no-cook and I wouldn't want to bother with a stove just for one cup of joe. And so on.

All these dire warnings turned out to be specious. Water was plentiful enough to be able to spare a liter for the morning coffee and whatever additional quantity that would induce me to piss away. I used coffee bags and freeze dried instant to simplify prep and disposal of waste. It was simple to leave the stove set up after dinner. In fact, I would fill a pot and set it on the stove in the evening so that I could simply crawl out of my sleeping bag, ignite the flame, and have the java brewing in a flash.

Of course, making hot coffee on The Tooth required a something different recipe. I wasn't packing a thermos, and I anticipated three hours of climbing and ridgeline walking between when we broke camp and when we got there. So I'd need to make coffee at the summit itself. Not a big deal, assuming you have all the ingredients.

Another unique aspect of our hike to The Tooth was the "summit fever" that caused the group to fracture as we neared our goal. By comparison, our approach to Mt Baldy was methodical in the extreme. With regular 10 minute rests, and the 'two steps forward, one back" group shuffle up a 500 foot high wall of scree, our group reached the Baldy summit relatively intact. Not so in our last mile to The Tooth. The faster of our members took off. Us slow pokes lagged behind.

When we reached the final ascent, without thinking, all the boys dropped packs so as to scramble more easily. Yours truly, on the other hand, kept my pack on my back since it contained my breakfast, the stove, my pot, and the coffee itself. Not with a little pride I attacked the scramble to the top, still bearing about 30 lbs of gear in my Osprey Aether 85. It took a while, and as I neared the summit, the boys had already reached the top. They looked down at me glued to the rock and started singing the Spiderman song.

It was just about then – as a spectacular sunrise was dawning in the east – that I realized there was a critical flaw in my plan for coffee atop the tooth. I was not carrying stove fuel. An odd omission from my kit, but an omission none the less. I carried everything else I needed to be self contained. I had my own 10 essentials: food and water, map and compass, tools and firestarter, meds and clothing, sun-gear and night-gear. I had the stove, the coffee, water, a pot, but no fuel. For some reason I had distributed the fuel bottles amongst the other members of the crew, but carried none myself.

I yelled up: "Anybody think to bring fuel to the top?"

"Fuel?" they yelled back. "No. Why would we need fuel?"

Damn, I thought. I was screwed. There would be no coffee for me at the summit of The Tooth. But then, the most intense feeling of stubbornness hit me. By golly, in the name of Waite Phillips, I would have coffee at the summit, or die trying (not an insignificant possibility).

So I climbed back down 500 feet to where my crew had dropped packs, cussing a blue streak all the way. I ransacked through their packs, tossing out gear, looking for the fuel. After two empties, I finally found a full, 16 oz cannister of butane. I stowed it in my own pack. Then, I climbed back up the 500 feet to the summit.

My anger had faded quite a bit, yet its residual bitterness did somewhat diminish the pleasure of the moment. Still was very fine, very fine indeed to sip a hot cup of 100% Columbian brew atop a 9003 foot high igneous intrusion.

They say that if you look back over your shoulder and see The Tooth when you leave Philmont, you will return someday. I did this, and I have to admit feeling not a little pang of regret when I left. It's hard to explain to people who have never been there what an amazing magic the place has.

I spoke to many fathers that had been to Philmont as boys who had returned as advisors. Myself, I wasn't a scout as a boy, and I doubt I'll be able strong enough to return with my grandchildren, as some have done. But I do have a daughter. Maybe she'll want to be part of a Venturing crew someday. Maybe I'll go back. I really do want to go back.

By the end of our trek, we had walked about 95 miles, slept on the ground for two straight weeks, and ate nothing but dehydrated rabbit food during that period. Our water was usually amber and tasted like it came from a pool. We hadn't bathed. Our feet were sore, and in some cases blistered. Our shoulders were bent from our packs and we all were dotted by bug bites.

But every single one of us loved it. Truly the place is paradise. God's country.

Posted Aug 31, 2007 at 23:57 UTC, 3042 words,  [/danPermalink