From July 16-27, 2017, my son and I, along with three other boy scouts and two other dads in Crew 716-J-02, backpacked 84 miles through Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimmarron, New Mexico. This story takes place on Thursday, July 27, Trail Day 11.
We came to a sudden halt just a few miles from the end of our trek. Why were we stopping?
I was sixth in line, a couple of hundred feet from my son who was in the lead. We’d assumed lightning spacing a mile or so before, remembering the ranger’s advice if we got caught in the middle of one of Philmont’s daily thunderstorms.
“Keep at least 50 feet apart on the trail, so that if one of you gets hit by lightning, it doesn’t jump from one person to the other.”
The sky rumbled and my annoyance grew in concert with the intensity of the rain. We didn’t have time for a break if we were going to beat the storm back to base camp. My son turned to look up the line as I walked toward him, and my frustration became concern as I got close enough to see the fear in his face.
Hours earlier we’d left the Clark’s Fork campground to start the last 11 miles of the 84 we’d hiked through Philmont Scout Ranch. Our crew, 716-J-02, was focused on the promise of the warm comforts of civilization after twelve days on trail that stretched from high desert plains to alpine peaks. Our four scouts and three dads had been friends since the boys were Tiger scouts in 2009, but supporting each other through the physical and emotional challenges of Philmont molds you into something different, something stronger and more knowing.
On the morning of July 28, our newly-forged family was ready to finish this thing, and only Shaefer’s Peak and Tooth Ridge stood between us and a warm shower.
The trail to Shaefer’s Peak slowly but steeply wound through sub-alpine forest, a 2000-foot climb over five miles that would have felt onerous a week ago but was now par for the Philmont course. Clouds started to gather in the crystal blue sky, heightening our awareness (and pace), because we knew the Tooth of Time, the geological trademark of Philmont, was nearly impossible to summit once storms emerged on afternoon cue. Late July is known as monsoon season at Philmont, when otherwise gorgeous weather is interrupted by a daily deluge and light show.
Our pace slowed after Shaefer’s because Tooth Ridge can best be described as a miles-long, undulating pile of scree. Even with hiking poles, every step was a potential twisted ankle. My 45-year-old knees complained loudly and my toes jammed against the front of my boots with every downward step. The whole crew was silent in concentration. This was not the place to lose your focus.
We reached the base of the Tooth of Time just before noon, four miles from base camp, and dropped our packs to attempt the summit, scrambling over a large field of boulders, many the size of small trucks. We raced against the darkening clouds, but could hear thunder starting to rumble over the Tooth. About halfway up, we made the smart decision to abandon the summit rather than face the storm at the top.
We took the time for a few quick photos and then jammed lunch of granola bars and dehydrated meats down our gullets. Our normal trail lunches were a time to rest and gather resolve for an afternoon of hiking, but Mother Nature wasn’t going to allow us much respite on our last day.
We lifted our packs for what we thought would be the last push down the ridge, hoping we’d stay a few steps ahead of the storm.
It gained strength and speed behind us. Our pace quickened. I’m sure we might have started a slow jog if it was physically possible and prudent with 50 pounds on our backs. The lightning started to get more frequent, and I suggested we put more spacing between us on the trail. The storm wasn’t on us, but it certainly was too close for comfort. Cold rain started to fall just as we caught sight of base camp in the distance, perhaps a mile or two as the crow flies, but four miles at least via switchback trail.
Our silent focus returned. Thunder, footsteps, and the sound of our packs was all we heard as the tension increased with our pace.
Then we stopped.
I reached my son at the front of the line. The color had left his face, and he managed to tell me through his emotion that lightning had just struck the trail a couple hundred feet in front of us. I looked down trail and the storm was no longer behind us. We were walking right into it as it crossed our remaining switchbacks.
The fear I felt matched that on my son’s face, but I remembered our ranger’s instruction. Get into lightning positions. I yelled as loud as I could up the line.
At least fifty feet apart.
Drop your pack. Sit on it.
Put your feet together as one unit. Bend over with your head between your knees and hands over your head and ears.
I looked over at my son as lightning flashed around us and thunder clapped almost instantly with each strike. He was scared. I was scared. I wanted to be next to him, to tell him it would be over soon. I tried to motion some sort of comfort his way, mouthing it’s going to be okay.
The deluge began. The rain was so cold. I hadn’t gotten my rain gear on before the downpour. My t-shirt was instantly soaked. Rain poured off the front of my hat, blurring my view of the sky and our crew. I couldn’t tell which was worse, the cold or the fear, but both sent chills up my spine.
I looked up the line. I could see one of the other scouts, his face peeking out from under his hood. My fear spiked when I realized I could only see two scouts, but not the other two or my fellow dads. How would I know they were ok? All I could hear was rain and thunder.
I looked at my watch and marked the time.
“Check-in and count off!” I screamed as loud as I could.
“1!” My son.
The last was barely audible, but everyone was responding.
Every five minutes.
“1!” “2!” “3!” “4!” “5!” “6!” “7!”
The rain still poured and lightning surrounded us. I lost track of which way the storm was moving but it didn’t seem willing to let up any time soon. My back screamed at me, but I didn’t listen.
Every five minutes.
“1!” “2!” “3!” “4!” “5!” “6!” “7!”
The storm finally started to subside after 45 minutes in our crouch.
“Five more minutes and then we’ll get up. Agree?”
The two other dads agreed.
We stood up a looked out at the storm as it moved across the valley. We were just in the middle of that. I walked over to my son and gave him the hug we both needed.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared,” he said.
Life felt a little more crisp and tangible as we hiked the last few miles. There were a few moments when I felt emotion welling up in me as we approached base camp. The prospect of a warm shower seemed more necessity than creature comfort, as I was soaked to the bone. But my mind and heart was overwhelmed by the enormity of what we’d just been through.
My son and I struggled the most on this trek, and were the recipients of amazing patience, generosity, and support of our fellow crew members. We hiked at the front of the line after the storm. I had this real need to be near my son as we completed the trek.
When we reached the last bend, I suggested we fall back and let our scout and adult crew leader lead us to the finish line.
A few weeks after we returned to Illinois, my son looked me in the eye, those same eyes that held so much fear on Tooth Ridge, and bravely told me that he wanted Philmont to be the final event of his scouting experience — even though he had no idea how I’d react to him stopping short of the Eagle summit.
I looked back at him, and thought back to that moment on Tooth Ridge, how alive we felt after that storm had passed, how brave I know he was in that moment in facing his fears. He’s chosen to redefine his summit and I look forward to seeing what peaks he climbs.
I can’t imagine a more perfect end to an eight-year experience that we started and ended, together.