Top 10 Things I Learned At Philmont

Philmont = “Hell”mont, or Top 10 things I learned at Philmont.

Going up the country

Going up the country

I waited several weeks to write this post. I needed to do a lot of thinking about the various behaviors I describe below, and wanted to be as objective as possible. That being said, my recent trek to Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico was an epic fail, on lots of different levels.

Disclaimer: I am not blameless in all this mess – I certainly contributed to the problems, or sometimes didn’t do anything to solve certain problems I observed. So I am guilty of sins of commission and sins of omission, and for that, I would be willing to ask for forgiveness. However, the others involved in this fiasco would never in a million years even admit there was a problem, much less their culpability, even further less a desire to apologize.

For ease of reading, I will refer to certain individuals by their positions in the crew, so there are Adult Male (AM), Adult Female (AF) and Crew Leader (CL).  The fact that all three of these folks, as well as another crew member and our Ranger, were all related by either blood or marriage was probably the root of the problem.

Lesson #1: Never go on someone else’s family vacation. 

Despite my attempts to steer the crew toward listening to the CL, AM just could not let go of the leadership role. In a sort of “total control freak” way.

Lesson #2: Never go on a wilderness trip with a control freak.

Our Ranger was personally selected by the AM, and then assigned by the Philmont staff. Since the Ranger was also directly related to the AM, I was initially concerned about this selection. Turns out, I was pleasantly surprised by the training the Ranger had received, and except for just one incident, was perfectly happy with our Ranger. I pulled him aside on Day 1 and asked him to ask AM to back off, and let the CL and the Ranger do their jobs. Turns out, the Ranger did NOT have this conversation with the AM, which is a violation of Philmont protocol.

Lesson #3: Never let your Philmont Ranger be the son or daughter of the control freak in Lesson 2.

For anyone who’s ever been to Philmont, the following descriptions might sound familiar. For those who have not, try to keep up. Oh yeah – keeping up. See, that’s kind of the point of Philmont: you need to either be able to keep up with the Crew, or you need to adjust so that the younger Crew members don’t suffer from Advisorasauruscitis, a condition brought on by age and decrepitness. 

We decided (OK, the AM decided) that we had to hike together. I realize this is a Philmont guideline, and it’s recommended, etc. But there are ways to “hike together” that don’t involve making all the youth members of the Crew suffer hiking at a snail’s pace up the canyons and down the trails. We actually talked about this as a Crew in our training sessions. My guidelines were to always look back to maintain visual contact with the rear, stop at trail crossings or junctions, and pause for the rest of the Crew before entering a staffed camp. Seems simple. Wasn’t acceptable. We had to have an assigned line leader, and no one was allowed to hike faster than, or in front of, the assigned line leader.

Coming back from the Tooth of Time Ridge, the youth members hiked faster, and pulled ahead of the rest of the Crew. Since the rest of the Advisors could not keep up, and we’d seen a mother bear and two cubs on the ridge on the way out, I was concerned about the youth being so far in advance, and strung out along the trail. So I picked up my own pace, caught up with a straggling Crew member and together we caught the rest of the youth Crew (minus the CL, who also couldn’t hike very fast).

Once I reached them, I explained why I wanted to hike back to Shaeffer’s Pass with them, and they were OK with that. We then boogied on back to the Pass, where we promptly busted open lunch and began to chow down. Did I mention that the CL made the decision NOT to take lunch with us on this side hike, and it was now after 3:00 PM and we were pretty freakin’ hungry?

Lesson #4: Never go backpacking with people who really aren’t cut out for backpacking.

At the end of this same 11-mile day, we pulled into a dry camp, meaning there was no water nearby. The water we were supposed to get near the Pass was not running at all, so we were already a little light on water from the side hike. Since there wasn’t enough water to make dinner, we had a choice: eat the leftover snacks from the side hike, or make chicken soup from the extra cans of chicken we were still carrying, along with the three cubes of chicken bouillon I always carry with me when hiking. I polled the Crew and several members said they’d like the chicken soup. A hot meal at the end of a long day is one of the few things you can actually look forward to at Philmont. The conversation went like this:

Me (to the AM): I can make chicken soup. Several people want some, it won’t take much water and we have all the extra chicken & crackers to eat up anyway.

AM: It’s after 6:00 o’clock.

Me (to myself): So what? We’ve eaten later than 6. What’s the big honkin’ deal?

Me (out loud): Uh, several people are hungry and want to eat more than snacks. The soup won’t take long and is a nice hot meal.

AM: It’s after 6:00 o’clock.           

Lesson #5: Never go backpacking with people who have a problem with other people’s ideas.

That night, my 17 year old daughter asked me to wake her at 5:30 AM, even though the “official” wake up time was 5:45 AM, so she could get up and pee before starting the morning packing activities. So the next morning, I quietly woke her up at 5:30. Then I went back to my tent and lay there quietly until 5:45. Meanwhile, the other Adult Advisor in the Crew packed up his sleeping bag and other gear. I could hear him, but thought “What’s the big deal? He’s just packing up”.

When I got out of my tent at 5:45, I went to get my pack, and was called over to the girls’ tent by the AF. She asked me why I woke 17 up at 5:30, instead of 5:45. I told her that 17 asked me to, so she could get up a few minutes early. AF then proceeded to lay into me about how we all needed to wake up ONLY at the appointed Crew Wake-Up Time, which was 5:45, and getting up earlier was very disturbing. She then went on to comment on how she could hear me “rustling around in my tent since 5:30 AM.” I replied that she heard someone else, not me.  I also told her at that point that the only reason I went on this trip was that I was out 5 grand, and couldn’t get my money back, and that it was a colossal mistake.

Lesson #6: Never go backpacking with a harridan.

Later that morning, we had a “talk” at breakfast about daughter #2, whom I’ll call 14. The AM mentioned she was carrying “9 pounds of Gorp”. I replied it was 3 pounds, I had weighed it, she was hypoglycemic and needed to eat constantly to maintain her blood sugar. She packed this extra food herself, and carried it herself. And she did this on the training hikes we all went on. So why was this a surprise?

Lesson #7: Never go backpacking with people who are not observant.

Did I mention that the AM failed to procure detailed maps for the CL and Navigator(s) on this trek? He said something like “I thought Philmont provided those.” Yet he’d been here before. I had detailed maps, ordered ahead of time, because the AM already told me “the CL looked at the map and saw some side hikes we might be able to do”. Right. Because the AM wanted to do them. One of them was 3 miles straight up Trail Peak and back, after a brutally long day up Bonita Canyon the day before. Not. Gonna. Happen. AM stated that it was “only a mile or so”.

Lesson #8: Never go backpacking with people who cannot read a map.

On the way down from Baldy Mountain (which took us over 6 hours to summit because some members of the crew hiked so slow.) we had another “incident”. 14 skipped ahead of the line leader. This was a cardinal sin, apparently, to the AF. She complained. I said I understood. AF said, “So you understand, but you aren’t going to do anything about it?” I turned to the AM, so we could discuss the situation and arrive at a reasonable solution. AF said if that were her kid, she would yank her back into the line. I replied, “Thank God she’s not your kid.”

AF: “What did you say?!”

Me: “You heard me.”

Lesson #9: Never go backpacking with people who don’t appear to be human.

Finally, we reached base camp. Most of the crew, minus the fabulous family, wanted to go to town to get a slice of pizza, drink a soda, and see the cool knife shop our Ranger had told us about. So most of the crew went to town, had pizza and soda, and perused said knife shop. Good times. The closing campfire was held in a concrete-floored pavilion due to inclement weather. 17, 14 and myself were standing over at the edge of the pavilion, talking to the boys from South Florida the girls had met in base camp. AM came over and told me the “crew was sitting over there” and pointed. On the concrete. For a two-hour closing campfire. After sleeping on the hard ground for ten days. Right. Not. Gonna. Happen. I said, “I am not sitting on the concrete floor, I am staying right here”. AM: “The crew is sitting over there”.

Lesson #10: Never go backpacking with people you think you know, because it turns out, you don’t know them.

DSC03197

Making the ascent up Baldy Mountain

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3 thoughts on “Top 10 Things I Learned At Philmont

  1. Awww, man! What a mess! It was fun to read, though, so I’m sure you and 14 and 17 will someday all look back on this trip and have a good laugh.

    Rule #11: next time take your buddy who may not have much hiking experience, but is in pretty decent shape and will listen to everything you tell him to do in his eagerness to learn from all of your experience and wisdom…

  2. Oh, we have good laughs about it now, trust me. It was a nightmare, mitigated only by of the company, the scenery, and the subtle payback along the way – I should have started pissing in their boots WAY earlier in the trip.

  3. I don’t know If I said it already but …Hey good stuff…keep up the good work! 🙂 I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,)

    A definite great read….

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