Trip Overview and Introduction

Trip Overview:

I had the opportunity to be a part of a mountain trek for six days in the Santa De Cristo Mountains on the Philmont Scout Ranch. I was placed into a ten man crew consisting of two Philmont Rangers and seven other young men my age from all over the country.  Throughout the trip, we backpacked approx. 40 miles, rode ATVs, rock climbed on rock faces, and climbed spar poles, along with other team building high adventure activities. Our program was set up through the Philmont Training Center, as all of our fathers were involved in a LDS religious leadership training conference. Since we were all of the same faith, our trek included religious activities such as devotionals each night and a Sunday worship service out on the trail. I will reflect on that aspect of the Trek in a separate post. I learned a lot from this experience in the aspects of team dynamics, the value of communication, and why working as a team to achieve a goal, is much more rewarding than anything achieved by the individual.

View of Uracca Mesa From the North. Day 5 approx.

Prior Experience and Trip Preparation

Prior Experience and Trip Preparation:

In my past experience as a Boy Scout, I've earned a number of awards and gone on several memorable trips and experiences. From earning the rank of an Eagle Scout at age 14, to white water rafting on the New River, WV, or to backpacking 50 miles on the Appalachian Trail. To those not familiar with scouting or Philmont, allow me to shed some light on the importance of Philmont to Scouting. Philmont is considered the premier scouting ranch or camp in the country. Many scouts aspire to be able to travel its famed back country and many peaks. So having this opportunity was quite important to me. 
In preparing for this trip, I was sent a packing list and other information on the trip. My only thoughts when seeing this list was that the amount of clothing and really personal gear brought, were kept to a minimum. In backpacking, one tries to reduce as much weight and bulk in their pack as possible, while still retaining all necessary gear and provisions. The list looked similar to this:

  • Two hiking shirts (no cotton)
  • One pair of hiking shorts 
  • One pair of hiking pants
  • A set of rain gear (pants and jacket)
  • One set of sleep clothing ( shorts and shirt)
  • Two sets of socks (crew length, wool)
  • Two sets of sock liners (no show length, "dry fit")
  • One pair of Hiking boots- broken in
  • One pair of camp shoes or sandels
  • Bowl and spoon
  • First aid kit
  • 3-4 litters of water in bladder or nalgene
  • 55-75 Litter Pack with rain cover
  • Two flashlights
  • camera
  • journal and pen
  • Toiletries (NO Deodorant)
  • Waterproof bags for all of these
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
After looking through this, there are a few things that would catch someones eye that need explaining. First of all, as far as the two shirts went, it meant one on your back and one in your pack. Clothing takes up a lot of space in backpacks and this allowed for the carrying of more crew gear. Second, Philmont provided the meals and so our only utensils needed were only a bowl and a spoon. Third, keeping deodorant of the list was a serious thing and one they checked us for. Philmont is home to bears, and wearing deodorant makes you considered a "smellable" a term i'll describe more and will come to more importance later.
As far as physical preparation, I considered myself to be in good physical condition, due to my cross country training although, I had a serious bike accident the week before this trip. I had a couple abrasions bandaged but wasn't really hindered.

Personal Gear layed out before the trip (minus clothing)

Day One: Saturday 7/2/2016

Day One: Arriving at Philmont and Embarking on The Trek:

Location: Base Camp
Destination: Zastrow Staff Camp
Checking in

We flew into Colorado Springs via Dallas Fort Worth, and then drove from Colorado Springs to the Philmont Scout Ranch. We registered as a family, checked in medical forms, and then I went off to a separate hall to check in my gear. I was sorted into an eight man crew with the addition of two rangers- guides from Philmont, who would accompany us on the entire trek. We received our crew gear that we would each carry, along with a couple meals. The food came in sealed plastic bags, with enough food for two people for one meal. Along the trek we would pick up more meals and restock.
Gear layed out to be checked, Crew gear in top right (tents) and bottom left, Meals on left
After our crew had assembled, we met as a camp for an opening ceremonies program which consisted of three speakers, two from our church leadership and the program director over the mountain treks. After that we took a crew picture (see below minus one guy) and then boarded buses to be dropped off at our first destination, Zastrow Turnaround. Which we hiked from to the actual Zastrow Staff camp itself.

Boarding the Buses 

We arrived at the Zastrow Staff camp and set up camp in a nice area that we would stay in until Monday morning. Setting up camp consisted of the same routine each time:

  1. Identify the locations of the sump (drain for liquids), fire ring and bear bag lines, These formed our bear-muda triangle and we would keep our packs within that area and pitch our tents 50ft minimum from that area.
  2. Remove all smellables such as meals, toiletries, water bottles used for liquids other than water, and medical supplies. These were placed in bear bags, that would be hung 15-20 feet above ground, between two trees.
  3. Set up tents and dining fly
As a crew we were quite consistent with our performance of this routine. After we completed these tasks, we'd either start dinner depending on the time, or we would participate in that staff camp's program. Saturday night we arrived fairly late in the day and so we ate dinner and talked about the next day's activities. We went to bed around 11 that night,exhausted but ready for a week long of adventures ahead.

**** Reflection*****
After being together for a couple short hours, I was surprised how well our group bonded and meshed almost instantly. With ages ranging from 14 to 18, and not knowing anyone previously, it was quite astounding. This was going to be an awesome week. And as one of my rangers put it "Out here (in the back country) its just us in the biggest playground out there," And it was quite a playground to explore and make memories on. 

Day Two: 07/03/2016

Day Two: 07/03/2016

Location: Zastrow Staff Camp
Destination: Zastrow Staff Camp

We stayed in Zastrow the entire day, so we didn't have to break camp or pack up at all, which was nice. We got up, had a nice trail breakfast, and then talked about trail etiquette and leave no trace principles. After that we met up with two other treks and had a sacrament church service in a chapel area that was at the staff camp, with the accompaniment of several of our church leaders. This was a really cool experience because it wasn't just another Sunday service in the pews of the same church I had been to for a lot of my life. Being out in the wilderness, reflecting on what I believe, and being able to enjoy the company of my crew was  very enriching.  The service included a musical number by a group of volunteers from the three crews and it was probably the highlight of that meeting. After the meeting, we had a chance to visit with the church leaders that were with us, and they assured us that our parents and families were okay and that they loved us and were encouraging towards us and our journey ahead.  This was pretty special to hear from them. We returned to camp and cooked our dinner for that day and had it for lunch and saved our packed lunch for on the course.
View from fire ring at Zastrow Staff Camp

Later that day, we hiked a couple minutes up to the ATV course and began our training and instruction towards becoming certified to operate an ATV. We went through a little bit of classroom training and then went out and completed 12 "riding lessons" which were a series of exercises designed to help us maneuver our ATVS on the obstacles we'd face on our trail ride later that evening. Most exercises had to deal with turning in some fashion, whether they were rapid turning, or tight turns or maneuvering through traffic. After about 3-4 hours of this we took a break and had our packed lunch for dinner and hydrated pretty thoroughly. We then mounted our ATV's for the beloved Trail ride, Roughly about a mile or so around the brush and varying terrain of the Back Country. Of our group of 11 riders, about 5 of us, including myself, crashed or got off the trail in some way, but because we had taken the appropriate safety precautions, such as helmets, gloves, vests and riding safe distances from each other, we all were safe. This made the experience really enjoyable. After the ATV ride we hiked back down to our campsite and sat around a fire and talked till it was time for bed.
Hike up to ATVs from Zastrow
Our first full day on the trail was a long one. Looking back each day I was surprised with how much we were able to accomplish. I really enjoyed this day, mostly because of how good of friends we had become as a crew already. Everyone got along well and as the week went on, we would find more and more in common with each other.

Day Three: 07/04/2016

Day Three: 07/04/2016

Location: Zastrow Staff Camp
Destination: Uracca Staff Camp by way of Abreu Staff Camp.

On this morning, I woke up earlier than the other guys on the crew, so I went and sat out by our fire ring and took in the surrounding scenery. I realized, that after two days of being in Philmont, I was still on Ohio, or Eastern Time. Once the others woke up, we began packing up camp. Our first day of really hiking, was going to be a very strenuous one. We were hiking from Zastrow, to Uracca. Uracca was on the opposite side of a mesa and so we would have to hike through Abreu (another staff camp that we would be going through) to the mesa, and then up and over and down the other side, to get to the staff camp. 

Once we got hiking, we would spend the time singing songs and talking back and forth on the trail. Our hike to Abreu was short, but involved two river crossings on bridges, that were fun. Once we arrived in Abreu, we filled up on water, talked with other treks and toured a restored cabin from the 1900s. They had a basic cantina where one could buy some snacks or fresh Root Beer. There was also a hot pickle challenge, where you bought a jalapeno pickle for $1.60 and if you could eat it and drink the juice with it in under 30 seconds, you would be reimbursed for your pickle. My crew pressured me into doing this challenge, as our rangers hoped at least one of us would. So I volunteered and said I'd try it. Now looking back at this, I'm completely surprised I took up this challenge. Usually i'm not one for anything spicy or hot, and definitely not one for food challenges. I think I accepted the challenge because I was starting to let down some personal barriers with this group and knew that it was a safe situation. Now about the Challenge. I failed. Terribly. I had about 80% of the pickle eaten and had the last couple bites left in about 25 seconds. Then one of my crew mates said something funny about my facial expression, and right at that moment, a bit of pickle went down my throat wrong. At that point, in the most ungraceful way ever, spit out the mouthful of pickle I had into a trash can in front of me. This, I'm told is the highlight of that day, according to the rest of my crew.  We left Abreu a little after that, given I had to chug a bunch of root beer to get the Jalapeno burn out of my mouth and throat. 

The hike up Uracca mesa was incredibly steep and it being the south face of the mesa, was rocky and scrubby and under the hot sun. The sun was abundant and made the upwards climb, grueling. We reached the top of the mesa, had lunch and made sure we were hydrating really well. After lunch, we continued on and over the backside of the Mesa, down towards Uracca Staff Camp. We arrived and quickly set up camp in a nice spot among pine trees. Once we had camp all set up, we made our way over to the staff cabin where we would go participate in their program- a COPE course. COPE stands for Challenging Outdoor Personal Experiences. Basically they were a course of team building trust activities. The first one that we did was a 15 foot wall that we had to work as a team to get over. The catch was we couldn't talk to each other while working on it. We cleared this challenge in lightning time, setting a crew record for that summer of just under three minutes  in getting all 8 of us over.

After cope we went back to our campsite and cooked dinner for the night, After dinner we attended a campfire program in which the staff entertained us with songs, skits and stories. This was pretty enjoyable and was a nice touch to a long hard day.

Campfire Program at Uracca 
This was probably our hardest hiking day of the entire trip, and with it being our first day of hiking, made it that much more exhausting. Spending time in Abreu was cool, but it was really rewarding when we made it to the top of the mesa and saw how far we had come. Also the group cope work was a good experience for our crew because we were able to grow and polish our skills and become more united.

Day Four: 07/05/2016

Day Four: 07/05/2016

Location: Uracca Mesa
Destination: Crater Lake via Bear Cave Camps

On Tuesday morning, we got up around 5:15 and hiked up to a peak on Uracca mesa and watched the sunrise from the rocks. This was one of the coolest experiences of the entire trip. Definitely worth getting up early for it. You could see mountain ranges in the distance that were miles away. After we hiked back to camp, we ate breakfast then packed up camp ready to set on our journey for that day. We hiked from Uracca over to a camp called Bear caves (no unfortunately we did not see any bears) and had lunch at a campsite there. During lunch, our ranger Alex gave us a concert on his Ukulele and we all fell asleep and made up for getting up early that morning. This was probably my favorite lunch that we had.
Flag Ceremony before Campfire Program at Crater Lake

After lunch we hiked the rest of the way to Crater Lake and arrived there in the mid afternoon. We got there just in time to participate in the Program at the camp. The theme of that camp was a logging company and so for the program, we got to climb spar poles. We used leather belts, and gaffs which were these ankle devices that were strapped to our legs that had spikes on the end. This was pretty fun until you got to the top of the pole where it was only about 5-6 inches in diameter and was swaying a lot. When we finished with this, we went back to camp and set up our camp and started dinner. After dinner we attended a campfire program and stayed for the "after Concert" which was really fun. At that point we were exhausted from being up almost 18 long hours that day and so we went to bed pretty early. 

*** Reflection**
Waking up early for the sunrise was especially worth the effort, and sacrifice. Not only seeing the sunrise but also the view from a nearby peak was pretty cool. We could also see base camp from that peak and that kind of dawned on us that we hadn't seen our families in a couple days. It was pretty easy to get caught up in the adventure and excitement of the wilderness. At this point in the trip, the days seemed to almost fly by which was sad because looking back I wish I could have spent more time with them.

Day Five: 07/06/2016

Day Five: 07/06/2016

Location: Crater Lake
Destination: Miner's Park

We tried to get up early and do another sunrise hike, but sadly we all slept in. At the previous night's campfire, we had seen the Tooth of Time across a valley from us. The Tooth of Time is an igneous intrusion of dacite porphyry formed in the tertiary period some 22-40 Million years ago today. (Happy Birthday Tooth of Time). Or in plain words, its a peak of 9,003ft of elevation that is very iconic at Philmont. After seeing this Peak for a while now, we wanted to climb to the top of it and see the view from it. Unfortunately, our hike for this day had us camping at Miner's Park which was close to Crater Lake but pretty far from the Tooth of Time. Especially since we had to catch a bus back to base camp at 11:00am the next day. This became our topic of discussion throughout the entire day on Wednesday as we hiked the "grueling" 45 minutes from Crater Lake to Miner's Park. 

We arrived at Miner's park before noon and got reserved for an afternoon program time. Miner's Park specialized in rock climbing. At the staff cabin, they had a traverse wall which was three sided and approx. 50 ft in horizontal distance. The goal was to free climb (without harness, because it only got up to about 10 feet high) all the way around without falling. The farthest our crew could do was get to the second side, but not past it. After spending about half an hour on it and not making much more improvement, we decided to attempt the wall with a twist. Blindfolded. This made it much more challenging as one had to feel out each hand hold and foot hold and also rely on short term memory of the wall. This was a lot of fun for our crew. 

We returned back to our campsite, set up all our tents and bear bags and then returned back to the staff cabin in time for our turn to go rock climbing. For us to go climbing, we had to hike about 45 minutes up to a rock face that was pretty high up in elevation. This was pretty natural rock climbing and so there were no artificial handholds that they had inserted. I've rock climbed a lot on artificial walls here in Ohio, but never really had the chance to climb on a real mountain face. So this was really cool for me. We took turns climbing up the face and repelling down and spent about 2 hours up on the rocks. 
Talking as we prepared dinner at Miner's Park

After that we returned down to our campsite and sat around, at dinner and talked for a while. It was at this point that we decided that we were going to hike to the Tooth of Time the next morning and so we started planning how we would execute this.  It was about a 6 kilometer hike to our turnaround where we were scheduled to be picked up and then about 3 kilometers up to the top of the Tooth. The only problem with those 3 kilometers or so was that we gained about 2200 feet of elevation in that distance. Our rangers informed us that there was a stockade that we could drop our packs off and carry only our rain gear and water with us to allow us to go quicker. But for all this to be possible, we would have to leave as soon as possible and make it to the stockade by 7:30 am. And that meant another early morning. So with that in mind, we packed up as much as we could before bed and then went to bed around 9:45-10pm so that we could wake up around 3:45 and be hiking as soon as it was light enough which was around 5:10. 
Campsite at Miner's Park

Each night we had been holding short devotionals where the chaplain aide would talk about a topic and we as a crew would discuss it, and on this night, the devotional was a little different. At the end, the chaplain's aide handed out letters to each one of us. Turns our our parents had written us hand written letters ahead of time and mailed them into the camp for us to receive on the last night of our trek. This was such a strengthening moment because for most of that evening we had been stressing over the plausibility of hiking the Tooth in time. Reading the letters I think gave us the confidence that we could do this and were capable of great accomplishments. 

This day seemed to fly by. I don't know if it was because we were having so much fun as a crew or if it was because of the short hike that morning. We spent a lot of time talking as a group at our campsite in the afternoon and it was cool getting to know each other a lot more. Like I mentioned, we all kept finding things we had in common whether it be a similar sport or just shared interests.  The letter was also really meaningful. I had been fighting a cold up to that point and so my patience and energy that day wasn't at my best. This helped me to recollect myself and finish the trip strong.

Day Six: 07/07/2016

Day Six: 07/07/2016

Location: Miner's Park
Destination: Base Camp via Tooth of Time and Stampede Trail and Lover's leap Turnaround

We did it. We got up at 3:45 in the morning, packed up and checked out of the staff camp in the dark, but had to wait until it started getting light to start our hike. Once it did get light, we set off and held a good pace for the trip. Our goal was to make it to the Turnaround where we would stash our packs and just carry the essentials- two litters of water and our rain gear. We had a time cut off for when we had to get to the turnaround to have enough time to hike up and down the Tooth. Luckily, we made it to the turnaround at about 6:45, which gave us enough time to stop and eat a little bit of our breakfast and fill up on our water. Then at 7:00am we left on our mission to hike the Tooth and back in less than 4 hours. 
Tooth of  Time From the Stockade

As we approached the base of our ascent, the terrain quickly changed from dirt paths to boulders and rocks. some as large as recliners. The trail also became very steep and the Peak looked almost unattainable. But we pressed on and kept climbing on until we finally reached the peak.
Climbing Tooth Of Time
The View was incredible. Like miles in every direction. It was honestly one of the most rewarding things I've done this summer. When we finally made it to the top, we stopped and stared for a couple seconds, just letting it all soak in. If I only remember one thing from this trip, it will be the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that came from reaching the top. 

After being up on the top for about a half hour, we started our trek back down, with plenty of time to spare. We arrived back at the stockade and picked up our stuff with about 15 minutes to spare and made our way to the turnaround. There were two other crews waiting at the turnaround as well and we told them about our special excursion. It was fun to brag about our accomplishment, to which they bragged about sleeping in a couple extra hours. 

We boarded our bus and arrived back at the base camp in time to have a sack lunch on the lawn. After that we turned in any gear that Philmont had lended out such as tents, pots, rope and the dining fly. We had time to exchange information, visit the camp store and then we had a testimony meeting with the same church leaders that had been with us at the start of the trip. The meeting gave people a chance to talk about the things they had learned or ways they had grown on the trip both physically and spiritually. Everyone on my crew got up and added their thoughts, which was also pretty special.
After this meeting, we hiked from the base camp, to the training center where our families were waiting for us. We got to parade in with our crews and our families cheered us on and clapped us in. This was a bittersweet moment as we were exhausted but happy to see our families again. After our reunion with our families, we had time to shower, eat and rest before the closing ceremony for the week. Let me be clear. No shower has ever felt as good as one after six days of hiking, sweating and being out in the wilderness. What I thought was a nice tan, was washed away and I was a little disappointed.
Hiking in to the Training Center

After dinner and visiting with my family for a little bit, we attended a closing ceremony where we watched each age group present a skit or song. As a part of the Mountain Trek Group. We sang a hymn that we practiced all week long. "As Zion's Youth In Later Days". This was a special moment as it brought back the memories of all we had done in those few days we were together. I'm sure it will have great meaning to me and a special place in my heart going forward. After the closing ceremony, we had the chance to attend a youth dance in one of the halls on the camp. This was a lot of fun as we got the chance to dance and have fun as a crew one last time. 
Post Shower, Dinner and Closing Ceremonies

This day itself, was a whirlwind. From the intense hiking of the morning with the pressure of our goal, to marching into camp with our families cheering us on. After climbing the Tooth of Time, everyone of us were grateful to have gotten up that early and made the hike. This was the perfect way to cap off a great week of adventures.

Trip Reflection

Post Experience, Trip Reflection

I'm extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to go on this Mountain Trek. I met so many great people, made a tremendous amount of lifelong memories, and grew and learned a lot. I'll try to keep my thoughts organized. This experience helped me grow as a Scout, person, friend and team member. I definitely felt like I was able to grow in patience and maturity from being a part of a crew. 
First, what I learned:
  • As a group, the potential to achieve is magnified and exponentially greater. I learned this from our last day, and through the cope course. When faced with that 15ft wall, none of us could have made it over by ourselves. But because we had our crew and were all working together as one, we were able to succeed. Also when we were trying to hike the Tooth, we worked together as a team by encouraging each other and helping each other pack up quickly etc.
  • Each person in a group brings a unique background and set of skills, strengths and weaknesses. When each person contributes their strengths, in compensates for the weaknesses and lifts everyone higher.
  • Rules and Procedures allow for a greater experience. When in the Backcountry, it felt like there were a million rules, such as how to cook your food, how to pack your trash, how to go to the bathroom properly ( we had probably a 30 minute discussion on this, and it was pretty good information), what proper hiking etiquette was, how to hang your food and smellables so that bears wouldn't get to it. All these rules and procedures were for the betterment of nature and our prolonged enjoyment of it. If the people before us hadn't of followed the rules, the camp wouldn't have been as beautiful or pristine and it would have taken  away from our experience. Also riding ATV's, we spent 3-4 hours on a training course, so that we would all be proficient in handling our vehicles out on a trail ride. This provided for a safe, fun evening.
  • Nature has so much to offer us. From the biggest mountains to the smallest plant, there is beauty all around. Philmont had so much to offer us as scouts and is frequently referred to as a Scout's paradise or playground. 
Second, the best memories:
  1. Climbing The Tooth of Time
    1. When we finally got to the top, it was so rewarding, and is sort of a symbolic part that represents our entire journey as a whole
  2. The Entire Trip
    1. Getting to know those 7 other guys and having a blast with them was awesome.
  3. The Sunrise at Uracca
    1. After our hardest day on the trail, sacrificing the much wanted sleep was worth it. Sunrises are a universal gift, but being on a peak of a mesa made it special.
  4. The ATV Ride
    1. Getting out and riding ATV's was a great experience, as it was my first time
  5. Singing and joking along the entire trail
    1. We actually made up a rap about our crew and trek, but I'll spare you that expense of our horrible rhymes.
Third, My conclusion.
I'd like to thank you for reading this blog of mine.  I hope you were entertained and enjoyed hearing my experiences of the Backcountry at Philmont Scout Ranch. If you have the opportunity to visit Philmont and backpack there, I urge to not let that pass. It was the highlight of my summer and a pinnacle of my scouting experience so far. I'd also like to thank my scout leaders, teachers, coaches, friends and parents for helping me become who I am today. I'm sure I wouldn't of had the same experiences without all that I've learned over the years and all the ways I've grown as well. 

Keep on adventuring.
Ian Cook