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 20, Trail Day 4.
We emerged from our tents before dawn in Copper Park. It was 5:30am, our earliest wake-up of the trek, but it was Baldy Day.
When we’d gathered months earlier to choose from among the 35 Philmont treks, our first order of business was to eliminate any trek that didn’t include the summit of Baldy Mountain. There is majesty throughout Philmont’s 140,000+ acres, but Baldy is the true pinnacle as the highest peak (~12,450 ft.) in the Cimmarron Mountains. Baldy is so famous in scouting circles, when you mention you’ve done a Philmont trek, the question you get is invariably … did you summit Baldy?
We were up early because mid-summer in the New Mexico high mountain desert is monsoon season, when daily and dangerous afternoon thunderstorms frequently dash the hopes of aspiring summit chasers. The ranger who’d been with us for the first 72 hours of our trek warned us: Get up early and make the summit before noon. There’d be no lazy breaking of bread or camp on Baldy Day.
Copper Park (elevation 10,500 ft.) sits at the base of Baldy’s eastern ridge. The trail out of the campground toward the northern ridge is a steep and continuous set of switchbacks that leads 1,000 ft. up to what’s known as the saddle (where the marked trail in the image above makes a Y). This part of summit trek was our most strenuous, and our urge to rest at the switchback corners fought with the minutes ticking away on our watches. The cloudless sky was what I call a higher blue, the over-saturated cyan only revealed by the thinner atmosphere at higher elevations.
We reached the saddle (elevation 11,610 ft.) by 8:30am and quickly shed our heavy packs. We didn’t want to waste too much time on rest, but our bones, lungs, and bellies argued for a short respite and food break. We’d leave most of our gear at the saddle and take just day packs with essentials to the summit.
After hanging our smellables (food, toiletries, etc.) up in bear bags and covering our packs, we started the hike up the north ridge of Baldy.
The trail took a decidedly different character. Gone were the established trails and switchbacks, replaced by a loose scree that made us appreciate our hiking poles. My brain unsuccessfully tried to comprehend the timeless geologic processes that resulted in all this broken rubble even as I cursed each individual rock that slipped underfoot.
The treeline started to disappear as the horizon surrounded us. A few clouds started to form, but it looked like we’d have beautiful weather for the summit. The views from the north ridge were breathtaking in all directions. From this sublime perch, the world seemed endless.
We’re flatlanders (Central Illinois sits at a decidedly un-lofty 700 ft.), so the decreased oxygen at this elevation took its toll. We had a rule about no sitting during our shorter breaks, so we’d often use the cross-pole squat to relive our muscles and calm our labored breathing. I may have had a few private conversations with Mother Nature with my head bowed in restorative reverence.
The ridge flattened as scree-littered alpine grasses appeared underfoot. The stress melted from our faces as we hiked this stretch. It was certainly imagination, but I thought I heard The Hills Are Alive as I watched our crew walk ahead.
The dulcet tones of Julie Andrews faded away as we reached the final ascent, a narrow trail of slippery gravel. It didn’t seem that intimidating, until we realized the tiny specks along the ridge were other crews who had already reached the summit.
After 30 minutes of slipping and sliding our way up the trail, every intentional step thankful we weren’t carrying our full packs, we reached the summit at 11:12am. Different emotions welled in each of us. The summit was busy with activity, but I wondered how many humans had ever set foot on this peak. Philmont welcomes 30,000+ visitors each summer and many of them make the summit, but it was rarefied air. Most people would never even have the opportunity to stand where we stood. My son and I stood here, the awe of this place evident in our widened smiles.
I walked to the east end of the summit ridge with Bryant and Matt, the other two dads, to get away from the bustle of the summit and spend some time in communion with what has become my church. I’m never more connected to the world, to something larger than me, than when I’m in the presence of natural beauty. It’s when I feel myself in context, where my tumult settles, and my truest self emerges.
Bryant, one of my closest friends, knows this. When I said I was going to sit on the edge of Baldy for a bit, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, take as long as you need.
My life was emotional chaos leading up to Philmont, plagued with an indecisiveness that was out of character for me. For months, I’d looked to this trip, to the top of Baldy, as the moment of clarity that would reveal a path forward. I’d be disconnected out here, free to hear just my inner voice.
I sat alone looking out to the east. I closed my eyes and let the sound of the wind envelop me. I asked the universe to help me let go of the past and see my future more clearly. When I opened my eyes, I felt at peace. I knew what change I had to make.
I started to pile rocks into a small cairn. I’ve always defined myself in the context of my relationships, but the universe was telling me that I needed a new path — one where the core of my emotional and physical foundation was independent, built inside me, not through my relationships.
I was sitting on the product of eons of tectonic stress and weathering. I understood that torturing myself over the past was like trying to move Baldy, but I could build a new and stronger future atop the lessons of the past.
I may never visit Baldy Mountain again, but it will forever be the place where I started to rebuild myself, one rock at a time.