My buddy Mark and I had been trying to plan a weekend trip for several months. Trips to the Guadalupe Mountains and Ouachita Mountains had to be cancelled due to scheduling problems and the kinds of minor injuries that seem to plague guys in their forties. After briefly considering an early summer trip to the Grand Tetons (and balking at the price of airfare from DFW to Jackson Hole), we settled on a weekend in the White Mountain Wilderness in New Mexico. Our original plan was to spend two nights on the Crest Trail, but after reading a few trip reports online suggesting that water was scarce in the higher elevations due to the ongoing drought, we decided to cut the trip down to a single night with two full days of hiking.
A few days before we left, I posted a question about water sources on the Pre-Trip planning forum. Several people offered helpful tips on finding water (or hard truths about the unlikelihood of finding water), but one comment especially stood out. Eugene Smith, the voice of New Mexico hiking on BPL, advised us that water might not be our biggest concern:
"More than water concern, check regularly for fire updates. Last year the forest service closed down White Mountain Wilderness entirely until substantial rains came. Considering we're undergoing our state's largest wildfire, unseasonably dry windy conditions, and warm temps, there is a good possibility Stage 1 fire restrictions or closure is imminent."
Now, I respect Eugene, so I took his warning to heart. I also noticed that the White Mountain Wilderness is in the “Smokey Bear” district of the Lincoln NF—a foreboding name if ever there was one. But everything looked okay as late as Thursday afternoon, when we hit the road toward Ruidoso. And as we got on the trail around 9:00am on Friday, there were no notices of fire danger at all. Our thoughts were much more focused on the availability of water. And the 2000 feet of elevation gain we were about to tackle.
It was a beautiful morning as we started up the Argentina Canyon Trail. At 8000 feet, we were definitely feeling the altitude, but the going wasn’t too hard. About half a mile up the trail, we passed a small family camping near the (completely dry) stream. They were the only other humans we’d see on the trail that day.
There’s nothing quite so motivating as a glimpse of sunlight and open country as you approach a ridge above timberline. I didn’t feel those last few feet of elevation at all, in anticipation of the view ahead. And I wasn’t disappointed. At the intersection of the Argentina Canyon Trail and the Crest Trail, the prospect is unforgettable. To the west, the mountains drop steeply to the desert floor below. To the east and south, the high open country of the White Mountain Wilderness surrounds you. We stopped to take the usual celebratory picture:
Before you ask, we did notice the small plume of smoke near the top right corner of the picture, but only with casual interest, along the lines of, “Huh. Looks like a small fire over there. “ In our defense, we were still reeling with the thrill of reaching the Crest. We set off happily down the Crest Trail, still wondering whether we’d find enough water at Bonito Seep to last us through our planned trip.
A little more than a mile down the Crest Trail, we decided to head toward Spring Cabin to have a bite of early lunch. Signage on the trail isn’t as clear as it could be in this area, with the result that we wandered a bit on a couple of different short trails that petered out a few hundred feet into the woods. Eventually we found the cabin, though, along with its completely dry spring. It’s a nice spot for a break (though not nice enough to merit a photo, apparently).
Soon we were back on the Crest Trail, heading south toward Bonito Seep. As we came out of the trees again, we noticed that the small plume we had noticed earlier seemed to have grown a bit and that we seemed to be getting closer to it, but we still weren’t very concerned. It wasn’t until the winds on the ridge kicked up to 30 miles per hour or so that we even paid much notice to the smoke, but even then we were mainly concerned for the forest, not for our safety.
By 1:30 we were on the ridge directly above Bonito Seep, or where we believed Bonito Seep to be, anyway. We came off the ridge looking for the seep, but when we got to the streambed, it was completely dry. This was a serious blow, as we had been pinning our hopes for water on the chance of the seep running. John Shannon, who had been on the trail less the two weeks before, had suggested that we might also find water at a poly tube found south of Elk Point, but that was off our planned route by about a mile and a half and 1000 feet of climbing. My legs were getting pretty tired at this time, so I wasn’t really looking forward to another climb, but we headed in that direction regardless.
The map here showed the trail zig-zagging up the side of White Horse Hill, but we never saw a zig or a zag. We followed what we thought was the trail around the side of the hill and up to a small ridge. The trail was growing fainter, but we continued to follow it around the side of the hill until it became clear that we were not where we were supposed to be. Searching the slope above us, we came to the conclusion that we were about 300 feet lower than we were supposed to be, in fact. Even more distressingly, from the north side, we could see the growing plume of smoke coming over the top of White Horse hill much better. It seemed unwise to continue moving in that direction, but turning back meant not finding any more water. In the end, I think it may have been the prospect of climbing those extra few hundred feet to the trail that made our decision for us.
We bushwhacked our way back through the knee-high grasses on the slope of White Horse hill toward Bonito Seep, until we reached the juncture with the Big Bonito Trail. A few feet down the trail, we noticed that there was a little bit of water flowing into very, very small pools. It wasn’t easy getting the water into the bags of my brand new Sawyer Squeeze filter, but Mark improvised by collecting water in an empty beer can we had found on the trail and then pouring it directly into the bags for filtration. Soon, we had filtered a couple of liters and we were ready to head down the Big Bonito Trail in search of an acceptable campsite. We found one less than a hundred yards from our water collection point. It was a great site, partially sheltered by trees but open to the slope above on one side, We set up our tents and decided to lie down for a quick afternoon rest.
About an hour later, I woke up and noticed Mark wasn’t in his tent. As I looked up at the slope of White Horse Hill, however, I saw a lone figure descending and soon realized it was my hiking partner. He had decided to crest the hill while I slept to check out the status of the fire. His report was not encouraging. In addition to the area that had been burning earlier, he had noticed two new hot spots that were growing quickly. Spotter planes and helicopters were beginning to circle the area, followed soon by tanker planes. “We ought to keep an eye on that smoke,” Mark advised, but we figured we were still far enough away to be out of any immediate danger. We opened the wine Mark had brought with him and started to think about making dinner.
As we started our stoves, we both looked back up at the slope. The plume was growing. Quickly. Very quickly, in fact. It was churning over the top of White Horse Hill and was turning more brown than white. By the time we had put our pots on the stoves, Mark looked at me and said that he thgouht we needed to head back to the car. I admit, I was reluctant at first. I didn’t want to miss the night of camping on the trail, and I didn’t want to hike five more miles that evening. As I looked back at the top of the hill, though, I knew we didn’t have any choice.
We ate our dinner quickly and packed up our tents even more quickly. It was around 6:30 when we started down the Big Bonito Trail towar Ted the trailhead and our car. We moved at a brisk pace, stoppping only to look over our shoulders at the growing cloud of smoke or to try (in vain) to take pictures of the 20 or so elk that we saw on our way down. Luckily the trail was all downhill, so it didn't take us long to cover the five miles. Dusk was approaching by the time we got to the car.
I was glad to see that ours was the only car at the trailhead, especially since a fellow BPLer had indicated that he and a friend would be hiking those trails on the same days as our trip. I was also surprised that there wasn't yet any warning about the fire posted at the trailhead. A few minutes after getting in the car, though, we passed a ranger who was evacuating all of the nearby campgrounds. By the time we reached Hwy 37, the smoke completely dominated the sky. We were just one in the long line of dozens of cars heading out of the Lincoln National Forest, all of our weekend plans dashed.
At first, I was disappointed, but as we drove away from the inferno, I realized that my hiking trip was unimportant. We could reschedule our hike or find another destination, but the White Moutain Wilderness was quickly turning to ash. By Friday night, what they're now calling Little Bear fire (that had been confined to 10 acres that morning) was estimated at 4000 acres; by Saturday morning, that figure was raised to 10000 acres. Neighborhoods north of Ruidoso are being evacuated, and the fire is nowhere near being contained. I'm pretty sure we were the last hikers on the Crest Trail for the foreseeable future.