Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Philmont Scout Ranch - Day One - Six Mile Gate to House Canyon Camp

I've neglected to mention to this point the facts of our coming trek.  When we signed up for Philmont, the we left the decisions of the trek to the boys.  Philmont has some thirty-odd treks to offer, varying from easy-peasy to strenuous to challenging.  The easy treks are perhaps thirty miles and seven days, focusing mostly on having fun at the program stations.  The strenuous and challenging treks focus on mileage and summits.

Our boys wanted a strenuous hike, and so they chose trek #29, which would have us travel well north of base camp, through 84 miles of the beautiful country known as the Valle Vidal.  Most of this northern land is actually not part of the Philmont Scout Ranch, but actual functioning ranch land that the ranchers allow for use by the scouts.  It is also some of the most beautiful and remote country I've ever seen.

At 84 miles, trek #29 is one of the most difficult treks offered by Philmont.  The general rule of thumb for these treks is that a crew should expect to do about 20% more than the trek mileage stated.  This is because many of the program stations and camping sites are actually located half a mile to a mile away from the central camp.  Add that with extra mileage for getting lost (yep, we did that), and backtracking, and wandering around camp areas, and you easily have a lot of mileage for the trip.  And, as it turned out for our crew, we clocked in at just about 100 miles in ten days--a very large number of miles!  And as for elevation, the trek had us starting at 7,000 ft, and then after a few days, rising to 10,000, peaking at 12,500, back down to 10,000, and then gradually back down to 7,000--rather ideal from an acclimatization perspective.

Early on day one, our bus dropped us off at Six Mile Gate, whereupon our ranger, Sam, began a training on how to use the latrine.  It may seem juvenile, but it was of paramount importance to discuss the practical matters of pooping in the open country.  When available, we'd have latrines, in which you could poop, but not pee in the latrine.  This was because the pee would make the compost too wet, and the whole latrine would stink horribly.  (There was blessedly no smell if the latrine was properly used.)  Latrines would be sprinkled throughout the camps in the backcountry, and we were mighty glad to have them when available.

Without a latrine, we'd have to dig a cat hole.  That is, we'd have to dig a six inch hole in the ground, and squat over it to make our doody.  This sounds simple enough, until you've tried it.  The main challenge is to squat without falling over, especially when wiping, for falling over usually means falling into your own steaming pile of last night's dinner.  So, Sam showed us various techniques to make this easier.  If pooping solo (yeah, I said solo, more on that later), one could assume the "crab" stance, where you perch backward on all fours, like a crab at the beach.  But immediately upon wiping, you remove one arm, and it becomes the hip-hop DJ stance.  If you wish, you can start kicking your legs and you'll have the dancing Cossack.  You can see the boys might enjoy this topic.

Even more amusing were the poop-with-a-partner stances.  Yeah, that's right: Pooping in teams.  One stance involved locking arms back-to-back and squatting, with each of the boys pooping.  This had the advantage of only having to dig one hole for two boys.  Or you could hold hands face-to-face and squat, so you can see the twinkle in your partner's eyes when you grunt out your pecan log.  Needless to say, these last stances were more theoretical than practical, but again, they provided great fodder for poop-humor with the boys.

Of more importance was the poop rating scale, that being a 1-10, with a one being the drizzling shits (or liquid poop as BSA calls it) and a 10 being a perfect no-wipe-needed poop.  This would actually be quite an important scale to make sure nobody got infected from drinking bad water, and that everyone was moving things along properly as we hiked.  We would ask for and receive regular reports from each individual during our hikes on the quality and number-rating of each morning's poop, just to make sure everyone was staying healthy.  It was a real matter of preventative first-aid.

The boys decided however that the Philmont poop scale was flawed, and came up with a better one.  If one was diarrhea, and ten was perfection, the scale did not accommodate constipation.  Our crew decided that the scale must be rearranged to a scale more like the pH scale, with zero being that perfect poop, and -5 begin diarrhea, while 5 would represent total constipation.  Somehow, this new innovation made me very proud of my boys.

So, you can see in the backcountry, we quickly forgot the fineries of modern life, cell phones, email, television, Facebook, and focused on the basics:  eating, shelter, pooping, and not dying.  This would be our focus for the next ten days.

Philmont has but three rules for each trek:  Rule number 1:  Don't die.  Rule number 2:  Look good.  And Rule number 3:  If you do die, look good while dying.  So, if you are falling off the cliff, make a big swan dive before you go.  If a mountain lion pounces on you, grit your teeth and wrestle with it until you lose (and you will always lose against a mountain lion).  You get the idea.

We finally set out on the trail, headed for House Canyon camp.  The trail at this point was arid, hot and desert-like.  We saw many prickly pear cacti, sage, scrubby grass and Gambel oaks, the small dwarf oak trees that dominate Philmont.  Along the hike, we came upon our first and (thankfully) only encounter with a rattlesnake.  As we were hiking along a rocky ravine, after about half our crew had passed a particular clump of rocks, we heard the tell-tale shuka-shuka-shuka of a juvenile rattlesnake.  We immediately split our crew in two parts, those who had passed it, and those who had not, and the latter had to bushwhack our way back to the trail, leaving the snake a wide berth.

After our snake, we came upon our first stop of the day, the T-Rex track fossil.  Apparently, this is the only fossil of a Tyrannosaurus Rex known in the world.  It was pretty impressive, and this shady spot also made a good location for our first lunch, before departing again on the trail for camp.

All told, we hiked for about five miles to get to House Canyon camp.  The trail this day was relatively short and level, still a day of acclimating to the distance and elevation.  We were at approximately 7,000 feet of elevation, with a small 400 foot elevation at the end of the hike into camp.  This last 400 feet was important, because it meant that this first camp of ours would be a dry camp--in other words, no water.  So we had to pack in all the water we'd need for dinner and breakfast.  Packing water is hard, since a gallon of water weighs in at eight pounds. It is the heaviest thing we carry, but also the most necessary.

Our first night in camp, Sam showed the boys how to first erect their bear bags.  Because bears and mini-bears (squirrels, chipmunks, gophers) are a very real problem in the backcountry, all smellables (food, toothpaste, sunscreen, trash, first-aid kits, etc.) must be hoisted high into the trees each night to keep them out of reach of nibbling creatures.  The last thing you want is to forget that piece of beef jerky in your back pocket and awaken at 3am with a black bear chewing off half your butt cheek.  Believe me, it happens.

After hoisting the bear bags, Sam instructed the boys on erecting a dining fly, which is mostly for keeping packs and dining supplies dry in the night.  Once the dining fly is set up, we were then free to set up our tents.  After these three chores were complete each night, we would commence to making dinner, and have a few moments of relaxation before bed.  This routine would become our regular practice each night upon arriving at camp:  bear bags, dining fly, tents, supper, bed.  In that order.

I haven't talked about trail food, but each day we had a breakfast, lunch and dinner provided by our base camp commissary.  The food was split up and carried among the entire crew, and added considerable weight to each of our packs.

Breakfast was usually a granola or power bar, a package of nuts, a fruit-by-the-foot roll-up, some Gatorade powder, and a piece of meat jerky.  I enjoyed this breakfast exactly once before becoming completely disgusted with it and almost unable to eat it thereafter.  Later in the journey, I would have to force myself to consume even one power bar.  Apparently, the altitude also plays a role in the loss of appetite, but with the altitude and the paltry breakfast, I'm amazed I had enough caloric fuel to make each day's hike.

Lunch was a similar affair, consisting of granola, nuts, trail mix, and usually some package of meat (tuna, salmon, spam) and crackers.  The meat and crackers would be my focus for the lunch, and I'd usually give the rest away.

Dinner was our one "luxurious" meal, with all the same contents of nuts, trail mix, and garbage like Keebler cookies, but with the wonderful addition of a real dehydrated meal:  beef stroganoff, spaghetti with meat sauce, chili mac and beans, etc.  We'd boil several liters of water each night, and the boys would cook us up a nice hot meal each night for supper.

Bed came early in the camps.  We'd be so exhausted from the hikes, most nights we were asleep by 7:45pm, ready for the 5am wake up for the next morning's hike.

Tomorrow, we leave House Canyon to hit our first program stations and head towards Cook Canyon.

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