Saturday, August 30, 2014

Philmont Scout Ranch - Day Five - Whiteman Vega to Greenwood Canyon

As we left the Vega early on day five, we left the last of the high mountain meadows of the Valle Vidal.  We orienteered ourselves back to Ring Place, and then followed the trails south, south, south to Greenwood Canyon camp.  This last time of orienteering and bushwhacking was our finest.  We finally had it down and did it correctly, and wasted no time getting back to Ring Place for morning coffee at the staff cabin.

We hiked for many miles in the open trail, devoid of the comforting shade that we enjoyed while in the canyons.  And about the time that we started climbing a bit, and the forest returned, we endured our first injury of the trek:  Zach succumbed to a relentless nosebleed due to the higher altitude and dryness.  Max and I were the first aid providers for the trip, and Max enthusiastically jumped at the chance to doctor his first patient.  He was gleeful to use his training and help Zach with his injury, shoving tons of toilet paper up his nose like he was stuffing a Thanksgiving turkey.  After a few minutes, Zach's nosebleed subsided, and he finally recovered enough that we could continue. Max was so happy!

Hiking onward, our scenery changed into more forested and cooler, as we ascended into approximately 8,500 feet elevation.  The narrow and beautiful Greenwood Canyon was home to countless daisies, asters, aspens and spruce, leaving behind all the Gambel oak, Ponderosa pine, and sage grass.

The canyon was so narrow, we didn't see the storm that hit us around 1pm until it was right on us.  It was a viscous thunder, lightning and hail storm that forced us for the first time to take cover and assume the lightning stance.

The lightning stance is an important trail safety measure to deal with the inevitability that you will be caught in a lightning storm during your trek, and again, you don't want to die.

Here is how it works:

First, you remove all your packs, as these have lots of metal in them.  Second, you spread out along the trail, fifty feet apart from each other, so that if one of you gets hit by lightning, the others in your crew don't die.  Third, you assume "the stance."  The stance required is this:  place your feet, heels together, at a 90 degree angle from each other.  Pull up onto the balls of your feet, heels off the ground, and then crouch down, knees apart, with your elbows on your knees and your hands over your ears.  Now sit like this until the storm has passed for 30 minutes.  In practice, you sit like this for five minutes until your calves are burning and your knees feel like they will explode, at which point you sit your ass down upon the ground and, raising your eyes and hands up to Heaven, announce, "Take me now Lord, if you will, because I can't do that lightning stance any longer!"

During the time we were in this position, we were desperately hoping we wouldn't get hit by the multitude of lightning around us, and every time we thought it was safe, another bolt would hit close by, the closest only 50 yards or so from us.  I was genuinely scared, and all the while, our rocky little trail was turning into a rushing river which I knew we would have to wade through when all this was done.  Yeah, this was where the "strenuous" part of our hike came in, I guess.

Finally, the storm abated, and we were able to make it to camp.  But not before passing a stark reminder of the dangers of our hike:  As we passed a herd of cattle, we came upon a set of cow bones that were still fresh from the kill--they still had blood and meaty bits on them.  Thinking about it for a moment, there was only one animal in the forest that could bring down a large cow.  Not a bear.  Not a bobcat.  Not even a whole pack of coyotes.  Only a mountain lion.

Sam had warned us about mountain lions, and the need to travel in pairs, especially at night, and what measures to employ if we encountered one.  (Piss yourself, then run!)  But the problem with mountain lions is that you don't know they are there until it is too late.  They quietly stalk you and when you least expect it, they pounce!  And these bones were proof that we were in mountain lion territory.  I shuddered a little, and we moved on.

Finally, after what turned out to be sixteen miles of hiking with packs, our longest day yet, we reached our camp. 

Exhausted completely, set up camp, ate and went to bed.  Our latrine in camp was another "open-air" affair, which was majestically perched right above my tent on a high cliff.  I was too tired to worry about seeing anybody up there though, and went straight to sleep.

The next morning, we head to Copper Canyon camp, where we set up a two day base camp before the pinnacle of our trip, our summiting of Mt. Baldy.

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