Monday, September 01, 2014

Philmont Scout Ranch - Day Eight - French Henry and Pueblano Camps

On our eighth day, we struck camp at Copper Canyon and headed blessedly downhill to French Henry camp, destined for Pueblano camp.  This would be another approximately eight mile day, but it was a steady descent from 10,000 feet to 8,000 feet.  A nice stroll.

Our early morning hike took us immediately into the Copper Canyon Meadow, which was indescribably beautiful.  We paused for a moment, long enough to snap some photos, and headed on down the trail.

French Henry lay just about halfway along our journey, and was a mining and blacksmithing station.  Since the boys had done blacksmithing at Lenhock'sin, we decided to focus on the mine with our limited time.

The Aztec Mine (so named for all the gold it contained), was a real functioning mine from the 1880's (or so) until 1941, when World War II made it impossible to run for lack of men and supplies.  Our guide, a girl-staffer from French Henry, told us all about the mine, and taught us that there are a million ways to die in a mine.

First and foremost, steel rails that head into the mine are a perfect conduit for lightning, and many people died in this way.  She then invited us to climb into the mine, where the ceiling was so low, I had to crouch and crawl through mucky water as we went deeper.  I fought hard against the panic of claustrophobia, not wanting to miss this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the mine with the boys.

Once inside, the ceiling raised a bit and we could stand up, and our guide showed us the old drilling bits that were used to bore holes into the rock.  One person would hold the bit while another would strike it with a hammer.  One missed blow, and you'd have a busted thumb for sure.  Nasty stuff.

The purpose of drilling the holes was to have a place to put the dynamite.  This was a job usually reserved for children, because dynamite was dangerous business, and dynamite would go off unexpectedly, and children (sadly) were considered expendable.

After the blasts would occur, "muckers" would have the job of shoveling all the stone out of the newly opened channel.  This too was dangerous business, because if their steel shovels hit an unexploded bit of dynamite, well, that was the end of them too.  The muckers were usually Irish immigrants, and sadly again, also considered expendable.

Once all the stone was loaded into the cart, a donkey would haul it up to the surface where they'd dump it into a grinding mill, mixing it with mercury and cyanide to extract the gold, silver, and copper ores.  Again, nasty stuff.  People died.

Mining, we learned, is dangerous business, and once you were employed by the mine, you were indebted to the companies for food and lodging, and literally made slaves of the mining corporations.  Most would die before they turned 30.  Very rarely did any one individual, with lustful dreams of gold, ever get rich.  Quite the opposite.

We walked further into the mine, and at the end of a long shaft, our guide had us all turn out the lights, where it was so black you could see absolutely nothing.

She began telling us a ghost story.  She spoke of a long, lost miner, whose lust for gold brought him to the mine, but who never fit in with the other crews in the mine.  He was always the odd man out, and most of the other miners thought he was crazy.  Setting off alone one night, in a remote and lonely passage, he hit a weak spot in the shaft, and was trapped in the mine.  They said that if you listened closely, you could still hear him tapping for help with his hammer.

Still in the total darkness, our guide then struck a metal pail hard with her axe, sending shivers through us all.


Quietly then, in a low whisper, Luke sang out, in "Stephen King-esque" way:

"One, two.  Buckle my shoe."

CLANG!! She hit it again.

"Three, four, lock the door."


"Five, six, pick up sticks."


It was eerie.  I thought Luke had been enlisted to do this as part of the show, but it turned out he did this of his own inspiration, and it was creepy as hell.

Show over, I beat cheeks to get the hell out of that mine, stepping in watery puddles and stooping to keep from baning my head.  I breathed deeply when I was out back in the open once again.

From French Henry, we headed down the trail again into our camp for the night, Pueblano.  The Pueblano camp was a faithful reproduction of a logging camp, in which the Pueblano boys, as they came to be known, showed the boys how to do logging with two person saws, and how to use other various woodcutting tools.

We set up camp early, and made dinner, for this camp offered lots of entertainment around the staff cabin.  While making dinner, tragedy befell our camp once more when my coffee cup got stepped on and broken.  Oh, Lord, what would I do?! Luckily for me, Luke's coffee habit had not yet set in, so I was able to requisition his coffee cup for the remainder of the trip.

After supper, we played checkers and cards around the cabin.  Then, later, the Pueblano boys challenged the scouts to a game of loggerball, which oddly resembled baseball, except that the staff team had the advantage of changing the rules when it suited them.  As such, the staff apparently had an undefeated record against the scouts all year.

One of the highlights of this camp was a staffer named Shane, who wrote ransom notes for anyone requesting it, and sent those notes back home to our beloved (our "kissy-faces" as he called them) as a means of extracting cookies from the distraught missuses back home.  Unfortunately for Shane, our letter arrive a week and a half after my return home!  The letter is amusing as hell, so click on it below to read it in full.

Stamped:  Pueblano, Elevation 8,060 feet, Philmont Scout Ranch, August 13, 2014.  Dear Becky, We are writing in order to inform you that your husband has been found living amongst the woodland creatures near the Philmont camp of Pueblano.  He has managed to saddle a majestic elk bull and is using it to ride throughout the hills trumpeting his own name and wrangling all of the scouts' donkeys.  He calls himself 'Chief Elksnout.'  He has actually become a storied hero amongst the locals and we would have no problem alloweing him to continue his fabled exploits; however, the scouts here have begun to follow his example.  Instead of harmlessly hiking, they have begun attempting to saddle elk on their own in order to prove their own masculinity against that of your husband's.  As a result, we have been forced to tie him to a tree.  He will remain in such a state until we receive payment for his passage home in the form of two (2) bottles of your whiskey.  Actually, we work for the BSA and would get fired, so we'll accept (1) one container of baked goods instead.  Please send them quickly to the Pueblano Boys, 47 Caballo Rd, Cimarron, NM 87714. Hurry! --The Pueblano Boys

After loggerball and adult coffee at 7pm, the camp staffers brought out banjos and fiddles and played for the camp residents until well after 9pm.  Then, once again, it was time to turn in, and get ready for a new day.

Tomorrow, our trip would take us to Ponil, Philmont's historic base camp from the 1930's, and now a cowboy camp with lots of great surprises in store.

Philmont Scout Ranch - Day Seven - Mount Baldy

This was the big day.  Day seven of our hike was the day that we summited Mt. Baldy.  Baldy was so named because it lies at 12,500 ft, just above the tree line, as an imposing bunch of rocky shale that stares at you from every part of the vastness that is Philmont.

Today, we'd climb it.  I was wary of heading up this big monster both because of the elevation changes, plus the fact that my feet still hurt, a lot.  But we were bolstered this morning by the arrival last night of John Solomon, who had been planning to come on this trek with us, but on day one was informed that his dad died, and had to fly to Texas for the funeral.  All week long, John's boys, Zach and Mitchell, had wanted nothing more than to have their dad return, and we adults, with no cell phones nor contact with John, could only guess that there was perhaps a 50% chance we'd see him again on this trek.

But as luck would have it, John strolled into camp last night accompanied by two rangers from French Henry camp to see him safely delivered.  John's boys were elated, and we were really happy to see him return.  John has an even keeled, gentle likability to him, and he was a welcome addition to our crew.

His return, though, was bittersweet.  John had missed out on all the acclimatizing hikes thus far and would be totally unready for ascent to 12,500 today.

I reassured him though, that "John, we'll take as many breaks as you need, and we're in no rush to do this."  Perhaps I was selfishly giving myself some much needed pauses, but really, in all honesty, the last thing we needed up here was an adult with a heart attack, and that was a very real possibility.

We set off early, on the trail by six am, since we didn't have to break up camp.  Today was another long journey. After summiting Baldy, we'd climb back down into Baldy Town to pick up another three days of provisions, and then make our way on a big winding loop back to Copper Canyon.

There are two ways to get up the mountain:  One involves a straight-up ascent on shale and unrelentingly rising rocks.  No thank you.  The other way is back up those sixteen switchbacks, back to that 11,500 ft pass, and then instead of heading down into Greenwood Canyon, heading UP the trail to Mt. Baldy.  This trail went up quickly, and was very difficult, so we stopped every twenty minutes for prescribed two-minute breaks.  These were magical in their ability to restore us, both in breath and on our feet.  We took many, many of these, until we left the trees altogether and entered the long curving ridge known locally as "The Sound of Music."  This was a beautiful and very easy walk along the top of the mountains at 12,000 feet where we could swing our arms, singing "Doe, a deer, a female deer" and take photos and catch our breath.

Several of the boys, my Luke included, felt that it was an appropriate milestone to be able to poop at 12,000 feet, and so they did so here.

At the end of the long C-shaped ridge, we came upon an old abandoned mine. (The entire mountain is criss-crossed internally with mines.) We posed for pictures before setting out on the final ascent.

The last 500 feet were straight up on nothing but hand-over-fist rocky scrabble.  I was behind Ethan at this point, which means, with his big clod-hopper feet, I was walking behind a living avalanche.

Every one of Ethan's footsteps would dislodge rocks the size of cantaloupes and send them careening my direction, while I was desperately trying to plan every footfall to minimize sharp corners that sent twinges of pain into my poor feet.

Step after step.

Rock after rock.

Rest a bit, and then continue again.

We finally made it to the top.  We arrived on top of Mt. Baldy!!

On the mountain, we were victorious, like conquering heroes.  The weather was glorious, and we high-fived and strutted around, and yes, even wept a little with the accomplishment.  Ethan and his dad embraced in a long hug.  Ethan, earlier, seeing that his dad was struggling, took his dad's heavier pack and carried it up the mountain for him.  Max was overwhelmed with the emotion of this.  Even I grabbed Luke for some tight hugs and photos on the mountain. We had done it!


Success at hand, we stayed up there for a long time, taking photos and goofing off.  I found a small patch of grass, and in the sunny warmth, I laid down and fell fast asleep.  I napped for a good 30-40 minutes at least, when I was suddenly awakened by the gentle thudding of tiny footsteps across my legs and chest.  Luke cried out, "Hey! A chipmunk just ran across my dad!  Did that just happen?!"  Indeed it had.  I had become one with nature.

We descended Baldy on that treacherous straight-down rocky path, and had to be all the more careful not to slip and fall.  One slip, and we'd be unable to catch ourselves, and Max very nearly demonstrated this to us when he slipped.  We side-stepped down the mountain, carefully placing our feet.  Finally, we reached a point where the trail became more workable, and we came down into the forest once again, and into Baldy Town.

Baldy Town is one of the major provisioning outposts, where we picked up new packs of food for the next three days.  We used several packets of mustard, mayo and relish to dress up our tuna into a tuna salad, which we ate for lunch with crackers.

Our biggest joy in Baldy Town, however, was FRESH FRUIT!  Max surprised me with a fresh pear, which I devoured in three bites. Then I quickly ate down two more oranges.  I had not had much appetite all week long, but this fruit tasted amazing and I ate it greedily.


After Baldy Town, and yet another rainstorm, we headed into the woods once more and made our way back for another night at Copper Canyon camp.  We struck up another campfire, ate, and had another really good day, but a long day, of 15 miles of hiking.

And the best part was, it was all downhill from here.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Philmont Scout Ranch - Day Six - Greenwood Canyon to Copper Canyon Camp

Leaving Greenwood Canyon camp, we continued in the Greenwood Canyon valley and hiked among an environment that looked more like Switzerland than New Mexico. Green aspens and blue spruce were all around us, and the valley was really, really wet.  Babbling brooks lined the trail, and far off vistas reminded me of Bavaria and Neuschwannstein.  It was some of the prettiest hiking we had seen so far on the trek.

We were on a ten-or-so mile journey today, heading our way toward Copper Canyon camp, where we would have two blessed days in one camp, as we go up and down Mt. Baldy.  This meant we had the luxury of not having to break up camp tomorrow morning, and being able to get off on our hike 90 minutes earlier than it typically took us to break camp and have breakfast.

Baldy, which once seemed so far away, now loomed over us like an ominous giant, so near, but so difficult and high above us.  I seriously questioned my ability to climb it the next day.  By this point in the trek, the halfway point, my feet were very, very tired and sore.  I had two banana shaped blisters, one on each heel, which were protectively covered with moleskin and tape, and small blisters on the pads of my pinkie and ring toes (is that what you call them?).  Every single step hurt, and it was only through the grace of God and Vitamin I (Ibuprofen), that I was able to continue.  I was regularly consuming 800 mg in the morning, and 800 mg at night to keep me going.  It worked.

The trek to Copper Canyon was no easy task.  Again, we were faced with a long distance day, coupled with the insult of serious elevation changes.  We trekked 10 miles, which by this time was really not bad.  The distance wasn't difficult.  It was the elevation.  Our camp at Greenwood was at 8,500 ft.  And our camp at Copper Canyon was at 10,500 ft.  But between them, we'd have to cross a ridge at 11,500 ft before coming back down an endless series of switchbacks into the camp.  (Adam counted them, and there were sixteen switchbacks.)

During this time, another horrible hailstorm hit us, and rather than assume the lightning stance, we tried to out-run the storm.  We raced down the switchbacks, hoping to get to camp before the lightning got worse.  We were racing like mad, and going much faster than we should, when Lance slipped on the wet trail and almost skidded down the mountain.  At this point, we called out to Matt, who was leading the pack that we had to slow down, we had to be more careful.  Someone was going to get hurt.

It was during this pause, as pea-sized hailstones stung our faces and hands, and torrential rain dripped into our rain jackets, pants, arm sleeves, and shoes, that Mitchell announced that he had to poop.

"Poop?!?  In a hailstorm?"

Yes, Mitchell had to poop.  And so poop he did, making his way to a remote spot off the trail where he squeezed out the quickest poop ever, and became the first person I've ever known to claim the title of pooping in a hailstorm.  THAT, my dear friends, is roughing it.

Over an hour later, we finally made it to Copper Canyon camp where we had to set up tents in the still pouring rain.  Nerves were frayed completely at this point, and even the adults got into a nasty argument and shouting about the best way to set up camp.  Tempers flared and feelings were hurt.  But the boys actually rescued the situation.  Remarkably, they immediately started setting up the dining fly in such a way that we could erect our tents under the fly and keep our stuff dry while the rain poured down.  The boys were awesome, and illustrated to us adults what true teamwork was that day.  I was very, very proud of them.

Finally, when the tents were up, the bear bags were hung, and dinner was started, the rain ended, and we decided to make a campfire.  We were soaked! 

The campfire had a magical effect of raising our spirits and bonding us together tighter as a crew.  It was a morale restorer.  We huddled around the flames, enjoying their warmth, while we dried out our sleeping bags, socks, clothes, and ourselves.  I went to bed that night warm and dry, which was a blessing on this very hard day.

Tomorrow, we reach the biggest challenge of our trip, Mt. Baldy!

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