This article is broken into 5 parts:
This brief remembrance is dedicated to my friends, Scouts and Scouters all, in whose company I had the good fortune to travel as a member of crew 618-Q:
- Gary Fujino
- Terry Heslin
- Dave Wagers
- Aaron Rosenthal
- Kade Wagers
- Tomio Fujino
- Matt Spence
- Robert Fosburg
- Sam Baskin
- Jim Baskin
- Malcolm Heslin
It is also dedicated to Jeff Dias, my Ranger in 1972, whose kindness, patience and good humor I have never forgotten. Jeff, if you’re still knocking about, there aren’t many days that go by in my role as Scoutmaster of Troop 100 that I do not think of you.
Those of my companions who look for a perfect agreement between what I have written and what they remember should stop looking. Life sometimes moves in ways that do nothing to advance the narrative arc, so it is possible that certain things may have been massaged a bit. It’s mostly honest though. Cheers fellows.
a stunning view.
I first set foot on Philmont Scout Ranch in 1972. I was 16 years old, skinny and all by myself. I am embarrassed to admit it now, but I did not want to be there, my attendance owing only to the intervention of my father who thought that Philmont would be just the ticket. I was assigned to a crew of similarly situated strangers and with them I hiked the Ranch from south to north, covering over 130 miles during the two weeks of my trek. It was the hardest thing I had ever done. I was ill equipped and suffered for it, but I also got an inkling that equipment was available that would allow more comfortable travel in the backcountry.
In far off Sun Valley California (or so the label said) Dick Kelty was making iconic frame packs coveted by every Philmont ranger I met. My ranger sported an olive green D4, and soon after my return to Lewiston, Idaho I was to have my own Kelty, a red B4, purchased on advice of another ranger who advocated an undivided pack sack, deriding the compartmentalized pack of the D4 as a marketing gimmick. This guy may have been the first minimalist I met in the backpacking world. Other gear was added incrementally, and before long I realized that backpacking did not need to be physically punishing.
My memories of my 1972 trek are no longer entirely reliable, and what I do remember of that summer I recall through the filter of an undeniable nostalgia. But I know that in many ways that trek kindled my love affair with travel by foot, and it opened my eyes to what is possible for a thoughtfully equipped walker. Forty years later my enthusiasm for hiking is undiminished, especially as the means to carry less have evolved. However, I find that I do not have any desire to cut my base weight to single digit figures, as seems to be the trend among the ascetics. There are a handful of small items which, though technically not “essential”, I won’t do without, and as the poet said, “what I would not part with, I have kept.”
In the summer of 2010 I returned to the Ranch as an adult advisor, accompanied by my oldest son and ten other scouts and scouters from Troop 100 out of Boise, Idaho. I have written about that trip elsewhere, devoting a good deal of attention to discussion of gear choices and techniques, but very little to the trip itself.
In the summer of 2012 I again returned to Philmont with Troop 100, accompanied by both of my sons as we tackled Itinerary 11 as part of crew 618-Q. To pass the time, and as part of an effort to observe things more closely, I kept a daily journal of our experiences on the trail. This trip report is drawn from those entries, in places verbatim. In addition, I have prepared the attached appendices containing descriptions and comments on the crew and individual gear we used.
Our preparations for this trek were made much easier by the attention we paid to doing things the “Philmont Way” in 2010. Our gear choices were informed and refined by our 2010 experience, and long before we began to train, our scouts had gear recommendations in hand. Three of our Scouts, including my oldest son, were veterans of our 2010 trek, and we relied on them to mentor the younger scouts in all things Philmont. Of the four adult advisors on our Trek, only I had been to the Ranch before. My three companions are experienced backpackers, and have led Troop 100 scouts on many great adventures in Idaho’s backcountry. Paradoxically, this gave me some pause; what would they make of the “Philmont Way”? I warned them what was coming and assured them that our time at the Ranch would pass merrily if they would get their minds right, set aside their notions of how things should be done and accede to the direction of higher authority. In one case this good advice either was not believed or did not sink in. The morning after our disorganized night at Ute Springs camp one of my companions confided that the internal struggle he endured to follow what he regarded as nonsensical instruction from our Ranger made for the worst night he had ever had backpacking.
Things got better.
We left Boise at 6 a.m. on June 17, and drove nonstop to the F.E. warren AFB outside of Cheyenne Wyoming. The base is home to 150 Minuteman III ICBMs, which explains both the puzzling absence of runways as well as why the facility nevertheless qualifies as an Air Force Base. The base has a scouting program, and maintains a scout hut to house scouting activities. We arranged to use it as a flop, even though this required us to leave Cheyenne by 4:45 the next morning in order to arrive at Philmont by 11:00 a.m.
We arrived at the Philmont welcome center at 10:45 a.m. on June 18, a full 15 minutes before our deadline. We were met by an enthusiastic staff who seemed pleased that we had decided to spend part of our summer on the Ranch. After some preliminary paper shuffling our assigned Ranger, JS, appeared, and we were directed to our tent assignments in the “trail Bound” section of tent city. Tent city is quite a sight, and it is easy to get lost in it if one forgets, as I did, to note the row and number of the tent to which you are assigned. Interspersed through this field of platform tents are a number of permanent bath houses, each specifically signed for youth males, youth females, adult males and adult females. Due to drought, water conservation practices were in force, and we were all encouraged to take Navy showers.
Headquarters seen from Tooth Ridge. Tent city is readily visible on the right.
In the first day at HQ a lot of scurrying about must be done, for that is the only day to complete paperwork, pick up supplies and check gear before the Philmont system inexorably pushes you onto the trail to begin the first day of your trek. It is easy to forget that everyday new crews arrive to begin this process, and everyday Philmont must empty tent city to make room for them. First though, there is lunch, and much to my surprise HQ meals seem to have improved since my last visit. Querying JS about this pleasant development she explained that staff and scouts now eat the same meals at HQ, and I do not doubt that this fact accounts for the improvement I noted. The kitchen staff is full of fun and happy chatter. Sullen drudges they are not, and it is a hopeful sign that we can expect the same attitude from staff on the trail.
After lunch our crew leader, MH, and I made a quick tour of the camp registration office where all our documents were perused, including our tour plan, wilderness first aid certifications, CPR certifications, medical forms, crew roster, and talent release. With everything in order we appeared at the medical lodge where blood pressure and medications were checked and medical forms gathered.
Philmont dining hall. The food isn’t half bad.
I was looking forward to our next meeting at Logistics Services, where we would receive detailed advice about our chosen itinerary. There we were introduced to Tom, a Philmont veteran who first set foot on the Ranch as a scout in 1974. We were contemporaries, but rather than turn back the clock with me, he made it clear that his limited time would be spent talking over our trek with MH. I was invited to take a seat in the corner while he and MH pored over the Philmont map I produced from my valise. When I tried to peer over MH’s shoulder to better visualize what was being discussed, I was firmly shooed back to my corner and there I sat until they finished. I got the message. Tom’s dismissal of an adult advisor, who he knew full well, had planned every step of the trip to this moment, unmistakably signaled that from Philmont’s perspective our trek had nothing to do with the four adults in tow. We were incidental. We were hangers on. The show would be run by MH and his crew. Tom’s dismissal was arguably not the most diplomatic way to convey this message, although it was a way. The only time he directed comments to me was when he told me that if we had a scout or scouter who was having “issues”, who was homesick, or who was a troublemaker, it was on us. Philmont would not, under any circumstances, intercede to facilitate retrieval of such a person from the trail. We would simply have to make it work. At any rate, from my corner I was able to listen as Tom took MH step by step through our itinerary, pointing out our resupply points, where to stock up on water for our three dry camps, where to squeeze in our conservation project, where our layover day would be and how to capitalize on program opportunities at each of our staffed camps. It was a concise tutorial, military in its style. I think it snapped MH out of his somnolent travel state.
At the commissary the crew picked up our first supply of trail food and any crew gear that we had not brought with us. As in 2010, the only Philmont gear we could be troubled to take were the bear bags, which appear to be repurposed grain sacks. There are probably better alternatives to these bags, but they are so abused in the course of a trek that I cannot imagine wanting to substitute something that actually cost money. Because of the peculiarities of our itinerary, we picked up only one day’s worth of food at HQ commissary. We will hit our first resupply on trail day 2 when we reach Ute gulch commissary.
Hoisting bear bags, a daily ritual.
After picking up these supplies we went back to tent city where JS had us drag our cots outside and spread out all our gear for an item by item pack check. Her list differed from mine, but not by much, and she was fine with our gear selections once she heard our explanations.
Of course, Philmont would not tie up so much of our time that the boys would not have an opportunity to visit Tooth of Time Traders, and the attached snack bar. It’s an interesting place, representing, on the one hand, a top notch outdoor shop that would make any backpacker salivate, and on the other, a souvenir store full to bursting with Philmont branded kitsch. I purchased a few small gifts and a reproduction of an Ansel Adams photograph of the Ranch taken in 1961.
JS presides over pack check at tent city.
Late in the afternoon, Mark Anderson, Philmont’s Director of Program, met with all adult advisors scheduled to begin their trek the next day. Among other things, he spoke about current trail conditions, the extended weather forecast and warned us about Philmont’s delicate relationship with bears and mountain lions. By way of illustration, he recounted that in 2011 a Philmont crew on Tooth ridge dropped packs for the quick scramble to the summit of the Tooth of Time. They failed to take any precaution against curious bears and as soon as they abandoned their packs, a curious bear arrived and helped herself. From the signal failure of that crew, this sow and her cub learned to associate food with scout packs, and the pair has been a problem in Tooth Ridge camp ever since. For the rest of the 2011 season Philmont dispatched a pair of slingshot equipped rangers to Tooth Ridge camp every night to dissuade these bears.
Anderson also reiterated the message delivered by Tom in Logistics, although with more tact. He warned that adult impatience with adolescent dithering would manifest as adult interference in crew decision making. This is assuredly a bad thing, since the whole point of the drill is to make the boys figure everything out. He gave us a mantra to recite, “we are on vacation”, and suggested that any time we felt the need to butt in we should assume a contemplative stance, wander over to the nearest ponderosa pine and concentrate on trying to figure out whether the bark smells of butterscotch or vanilla. In the end, the only important function adults serve is to keep the scouts safe from harm, should their attempts to figure things out lead them into dangerous territory.
Later, we enjoyed a perfectly acceptable dinner, followed by chapel. Our first day at HQ concluded with the opening campfire which included a number of short set pieces portraying historic figures associated with the Ranch. We were down by 9:30 p.m. looking forward to getting out of HQ and into the backcountry.
6/19/12: HQ to Ute Springs camp
Waite Phillip’s favorite view.
Immediately after breakfast we convened for our crew photograph, with the Tooth of Time as a backdrop. I expected to be plopped on a bus to ‘Cito turnaround that morning, but our sister crew was allotted the first slot, so we got to cool our heels at HQ until 2:00 p.m. We used this time to take a tour of the Villa Philmonte, the summer home built by Waite Phillips in the 1920s. All visitors to the Ranch should find time to tour this historic structure. No uninhabited monument to ego, the Villa is clearly a place that was lived in and loved by its builder. The first time I visited Window rock as a scout in 1972 I assumed that the formation was so named because of the many pockets and cavities eroded into its surface. However, I have since come to understand that it was Phillips’ favorite feature on the Ranch, and that he arranged for a round window to be installed in the villa from which he could admire the whiteness of the stone, albeit at a considerable remove; hence the name, Window Rock. I have even heard it suggested that the window has some magnifying power, but this seems apocryphal and wasn’t apparent in the few moments I had to peer through it, although how would you know without some way to blink between it and an unfiltered view? Perhaps there really is a devilishly figured optic tucked into this window frame. This would not surprise me in view of some of the other custom embellishments lavished upon the Villa by Phillips. Sadly, Waite Phillips’ favorite view is now partially obscured by mature landscaping.
Western scenes in stained glass grace Villa Philmonte.
We boarded the bus to ‘Cito turnaround at 2 p.m., and endured the good natured hollering of the two rangers on board as they attempted to keep us entertained for the duration of the short trip. At ‘Cito turnaround we dithered for awhile as JS and another ranger gave us the “red roof” i.e. latrine talk, and introduced our scouts to the available seating options; pilot-to-copilot and pilot-to-bombardier (my favorite). Current protocol no longer calls for rattling a stick around the circumference of the latrine hole before assuming the position. This practice was intended to dislodge spiders that might be waiting in the dark for a chance to bite this or that, but also led to piles of sticks growing at the door to latrines. This was thought to be unsightly and create a fire hazard (!), so policy was revised to discourage spiders by sharply slamming the seat lid a few times before sitting down.
Pilot to Co-pilot, at Carson Meadows. Not my favorite potty, but still quite scenic.
At 3:00 p.m., we were finally ready to depart, and chose to hike to Ute Springs via Hidden Valley, instead of by the most direct route. The trail to Cathedral Rock and Cimarroncito reservoir roiled with fine dust, and it became clear that the adults in our group were more sensitive to this than our scouts. We hiked 75 to 100 feet behind the boys in order to give the dust kicked up by their shuffling feet a chance to settle. On our 2010 trek, we were chastised by staffers at Clear Creek for allowing our crew to become separated while hiking from Crooked Creek camp. (In fact, someone from Crooked Creek radioed ahead to Clear Creek to rat us out.) Talking to JS about appropriate spacing, she felt that as long as we had the boys in sight, we were probably OK. She also recognized that there was great variability in hiking prowess among the boys, and she had no problem with faster scouts trekking ahead “a little bit” so that they could keep their natural rhythm while surmounting a particular obstacle. She made it clear however, that the crew must regroup frequently, and that Philmont would not tolerate a crew strung out over any significant distance. Generally, she advocated assigning one of the slower scouts as pacesetter. In our group, it quickly became clear that MS and RF were our slowest hikers, while KW and SB were among our fastest. From the very outset it was a struggle to keep the crew together and MH eventually put MS in front as pacesetter, though this engendered some grumbling from faster hikers.
Bristlecone pine and a view up Cimarroncito Creek.
We spent a few moments chatting up the forester at Philmont’s demonstration forest before starting the familiar climb to Hidden Valley. Hidden Valley is a wonderful and unlikely spot, and seems to exude a good vibe, at least for me. Just before we got to Window rock we stopped to admire the view from the rim, capturing good views of Black and Bear Mountains, Cimarroncito creek up which we will hike in a couple of days and lower ‘Cito meadow. TH identified a bristlecone pine growing on the rim’s edge, not to be confused with a limber pine, which has bunches of only four needles.
A bird of prey roosts on Window Rock.
A few hundred feet further up the trail we came to Window Rock where we enjoyed expansive views of the land to the south, as well as the east side of Tooth ridge, including a good view of Arrowhead rock, which is depicted on the Philmont arrowhead award patch. Shadows were lengthening by this time so we did not linger, and continued north through hidden valley. JS directed our attention to RF’s footwear which she thought inadequate. His shoes, a pair of Keens, though closed at the toe, were vented along the sides with wide openings, which exposed his socks to all the fines kicked up while hiking. They also appeared to be too big for him, and were already causing him to develop hot spots. What to do? JS suggested that we might find a solution at Ute Gulch Commissary tomorrow morning.
I am writing now from Ute Springs camp where we arrived at approximately 7:20 p.m., most of us out of water and thirsty. A group of scouts and scouters took water containers to the nearby spring while JS gave us directions about the hoisting of bear bags, and so missed important detail about what goes in bear bags and what goes in the “oops” bag. Preparatory to hoisting bear bags she directed us to remove all food from our packs and toss the meals in the fire circle. This caused a flicker of resentment among certain fastidious adults; “Wait a minute, throw our food in the dirt?” Next, although the campsite afforded plenty of space for tents, they would have to be pitched in two groups since neither of the two flat areas would accommodate all tents. This was deemed unacceptable by JS, who directed us to use only one of the flat spots and cram all of the tents within its radius, in fact touching in a couple of instances. This caused more grumbling, although JS’s direction was entirely consistent with Philmont Leave No Trace practices. Philmont requires that camping be concentrated on durable surfaces, and that sprawl be discouraged by making sure tents are pitched as close together as possible. In practice this means that the attractive meadow you would like to camp in must be ignored in favor of the well used dust pit just outside the “Bearmuda triangle”. To her credit, JS pitched her tent on the rockiest part of our little tent platform.
At Window Rock. Tooth Ridge and Arrowhead Rock are in the background.
By the time the tents were pitched it was dark. This surprised all of us from northern climes, who are used to a lingering twilight during summer months. At Philmont, the sun doesn’t exactly sink like a rock, but full darkness comes sooner than expected. So, we got to cook in the dark while educating Philmont novices about the cooking method we had used successfully in 2010, a process I adopted after reading a BPL article by Al Geist. Compounding these frustrations, mixed signals about bear bag and oops bag preparation led to one of our dinners being misplaced, and we struggled to get the bags properly hoisted in the dark.