There’s a moment in the book Enchantment and Exploitation—a 1985 history of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where I went on a backpacking trip over Labor Day Weekend—when the first known episode of anybody backpacking in there for “fun” is described. No names are attached, and the year is given as 1948. Several horseback riders are in the mountains above 10,000 feet when a couple of them decide to use wood and canvas to build a rough pair of 80-pound packs, which they throw on their backs before heading off on foot for two weeks of tramping, camping, and fishing.
The reaction of what the book calls “old-timers of the high country” was telling. They were “amused.” Why, when you can ride a horse, would anybody be stupid enough to carry all that stuff?
Parts of that story seem suspect to me—80-pound packs? that’s pretty brutal—but lately I’ve been wondering if the tale’s Symbolic Smirking Guys weren’t on to something that I need to grok immediately. Something heretical that goes like this: “Why can’t I just admit that backpacking sucks?”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love backpacking. And I support the concept that the best way to experience mountains is to plunge in armed only with the supplies that you’re able to tote. But it’s dawning on me that in addition to loving backpacking, I hate it, and that it might be wise to let somebody else do the toting and plunging.
These grim thoughts first marched into my mind—with smelly, blistered feet—two weeks before the big outing, which I helped organize for a crew of guys numbering six. (Originally eight. Details of whining, dissension, and splintering to follow.) The idea was to do an ambitious route through the Pecos Wilderness, the 223,000-acre Sangre de Cristo wonderland that lies to the northeast of Santa Fe. On a Friday afternoon, we would enter it by way of a hard-to-find trailhead east of the town of Truchas, leading 2,000 feet east and up to a beautiful 11,400-foot meadow at the base of the Truchas Peaks, a quartet of thirteeners that are the third through the sixth tallest mountains in New Mexico.
From there we would cross a 12,400-foot-elevation saddle that leads to a trail going south to Pecos Baldy Lake at 11,700 feet, a trout-filled pond at the base of two more great peaks, Pecos Baldy (elev. 12,500 feet) and East Pecos Baldy (elev. 12,529 feet). And from there we would march south, 10 miles down and out to our exit trailhead near the Pecos River.
Total miles: 21. Vertical gain: roughly 3,500 feet. Outlook for my feet: “Aieee!”
When you blueprint these outings, there’s usually a moment when you’re standing around with a couple of other guys holding beers, looking at a map, and saying maudlin things like, “It’ll be tough, but hey, what an adventure!” This I did. At the same time, my inner voice was squeaking, “3,500 feet! No!” That’s nothing to a real mountaineer, but I’m a skinny, middle-aged working schmo who spent most of last summer desking, drinking, and putzing around. I knew I was in trouble.
Fortunately, I had, um, more than a week to get ready. The best way to do that in a hurry is to go on several hikes with a heavy load on your spine. But, I ask you: Isn’t that like training for a boxing match by punching yourself in the groin?
So, I rationalized that a couple of long hikes, sans load, would be enough. The first was a weekday jaunt up a local mountain called Atalaya. That went well enough—only during the last three-fifths of it did I resemble Jimmy Carter in that infamous photo where he wheezed and konked while running. The rest of the time I looked like Don “I’m Frightened” Knotts, as I contemplated going up trails this steep carrying a 40-pound “tater sack.”
The following weekend, one week before the Long March, I got serious. Saturday was recon time. I knew that our starting-point trailhead would be hard to get to even with four-wheel drive, especially in August, when New Mexico’s rainy season mucks up the backcountry. So, I and one of the trip’s platoon, my friend Brad, threw mountain bikes in my two-wheel-drive truck, drove east out of Truchas as far as we could without getting stuck, and pedaled until we hit pay dirt. This mission was a success: We found the elusive trailhead, and we learned that, as I’d suspected, the Jeep road had washed out, so it was not possible to drive all the way. We’d have to factor that in to our start time on Friday.
This mission was also a failure: We were horrified to discover that many of the hills we biked up were too steep for our illin’ lungs. So, we got off and pushed.
On Sunday I really went for it, starting out early on a Pecos River trailhead that led north to the Twin Baldies. About six miles in I decided to detour away from the peaks and toward a site called Beatty’s Cabin, former homestead of an eccentric 19th-century prospector. Something bad happened next. Some would say I screwed up and got “lost.” I would say that the map didn’t match what the trails were doing, and that the cash-strapped Forest Service (which maintains the Pecos Wilderness) has let too many trail-marker signs fall over and rot. So, really, it was all Saddam Hussein’s fault.
However you slice it, around 4 p.m. I found myself 10 miles from the trailhead, facing an uphill march all the way, with a thunderstorm in progress. I got back just before dark, feeling as fit as a melting Gumby and cursing myself as a dumbass. I was vexed by that deeply eerie, lonely feeling that I sometimes get in the woods, and I wasn’t especially eager to see them again soon.
But see them I must. The week prior to the trip was marked by my sorting-and-packing rituals, provisioning (to “rough it,” I bought more over-packaged, junky food—ramen, Crystal Lite, breakfast bars, Snickers—than I do in a typical year), ominous weather (daily afternoon thunderstorms), and, thanks to tortured group dynamics, the near-collapse of our adventure. (If only!)
Some people “go lite” when they backpack; I “go anal,” spending hours sifting and weighing each object, arranging them in “official” piles (food, clothing, tent-and-bag, cookware, etc.) that I inexplicably shuttle from room to room for complex re-sortings, weighings, and ponderings. And when I’m done and the load is just right? I throw in a bottle of rum and I’m staggering under the mass.
The group-dynamics thing required even more mental energy. I had to arrange to leave two cars at the exit trailhead and to have us dropped near the entry point. (Another dirty little secret about backpacking: The logistics drink more gas than a military invasion.) During negotiations on all this, two of our buddies started making subtle bleats about “not going.” One of them—to avoid embarrassing this person, let’s call him Mo Fo—suddenly announced that it would be raining the whole time (hey! really?) and that, even without this annoyance, backpacking sucks.
(Agreed. But dang it, we were past that point.)
The other—let’s call him Most Fo—simply disappeared. He phoned Thursday night from Chicago, where he’d been “called away on business,” and proposed an outlandish scheme that involved him and Mo Fo hiking in on Saturday night, using a Walkie-Talkie link to find us at Pecos Baldy Lake. Most Fo is big on these complicated, theatrical entrances. Once, at a place called Hermit’s Peak, he showed up at midnight wearing only his pack, boots, and a kimono. All I can say is that I used to find this sort of thing amusing.
The trip itself was great, though it sucked. We got lucky with the weather. Friday broke rainy, but by the time we got moving the clouds had receded, so the only possible source of misery was everything else. As we headed up the trail’s first rises—the opening afternoon involved 4 miles and 2,000 feet of altitude gain—I carefully monitored my legs, heart, and lungs to see where I stood. My “getaway sticks” seemed rubbery but OK, and my knees did not swell or creak or explode. Heart: No problem. Lungs: Errrrr, a little painful.
Based on past experience, I could tell I would make it, but I also knew I’d feel awful much of the time. When we humped over the 12,400-foot saddle, the trail was nothing more than a cruel zigzag up a scree slope, and I had to resort to the 15-step drill: 15 steps, stop, gasp, repeat. Later that day, on a high, exposed uphill section of trail called Trailriders Wall, I nearly bonked just as a hail-and-lightning storm rumbled in. One of our group’s alpha males, Nick, had to backtrack and tell me to shake a leg.
As for the other miseries, I’ll just list them: The hike required 130,365 steps (yes, I counted); we got soaked one afternoon; the food was unsatisfying; I couldn’t sleep; I froze at night; I hate going potty in the woods; we had to do some nighttime bushwhacking; we had to do some daytime bushwhacking; we didn’t see any elk; and the Mo Fo’s didn’t show up on Saturday night.
So, would I do it all again? No way! But … yes. After the final slog on Sunday, we went straight to a restaurant and ordered steaks. I installed mine like a CD while thinking about the trip. As always happens, memories of the suffering started to fade while I thought about all the cool things I’d seen: some of the best mountain scenery in the country, bighorn sheep, a cute round-eared mouse, huge aspen forests, a dramatic waterfall, sparkling lakes, high-country horsemen, and … the Mo Fo’s.
Yeah, they eventually made it. On Sunday morning we looked up from our camp and saw them ditzing around on a ridge about a mile from where we were. We exchanged whoops, and then they vanished. We didn’t see them again that day.
Later we heard the whole story. They got started on Saturday evening, about an hour before dark, loaded down with full packs and six bottles of wine—this for a 10-mile trip with 3,000 feet of elevation gain. (The Fo’s are tough.) They called it a night around 10:30, unable to raise us on the Walkie-Talkies because the batteries on our unit had died. They saw us on Sunday morning but shrugged and decided to go home. Hey, it was daytime. We couldn’t get drunk.
Pause to savor the stupidity here. During this resultless round-trip, they hiked almost as far as we did, gained nearly as much altitude, and got rained on, which was Mo Fo’s original reason for wimping out.
In short, an insane, futile gesture. Can you really walk away from a sport that inspires that kind of greatness?