Climbing through a layer of clouds to reach the top of Baldy Mountain (over 12,000 feet elevation) was one of many highlights for a group of local Boy Scouts and adult advisers when they completed an 11-day, 100-plus-mile hike at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico earlier this summer.
“The sun came up and . . . we could see everything from the west and south, but to the east you could just see the clouds, we were above them,” said Brandon Guehne, a senior at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School (SFBRHS) and member of Troop 439, Washington. “It was really cool.”
Baldy is the highest mountain at Philmont, a high adventure camp owned by Boy Scouts of America in Cimarron, N.M. Baldy gets its name “because the top of it is just rock, no dirt or trees,” explained Ed Guehne, Brandon’s father and one of four adult advisers who made the trip with the Scouts.
“That was our longest day, our 14-mile day,” added Pete Schonaerts, another adult adviser, who went on this trip with his son, Sam, a junior at SFBRHS, but who had been to Philmont 26 years ago as a Scout himself.
Another highlight of the trip was eating lunch on the Tooth of Time, the iconic image of Philmont that, at 9,000 feet elevation, was years ago used as a geological marker by traders traveling the Santa Fe Trail.
“Once we climbed to the top, you could see all of base camp, everything,” said Kyle Kennon, a freshman at SFBRHS who made the trip.
Named so because it looks like “a tooth sticking out of the ground,” the ancient rock formation is something all of the Scouts and advisers were eager to climb.
“It was the last thing we did. We had lunch there and spent the afternoon hiking down to base camp,” said George Meyer, an adult adviser who made the trip (his second to Philmont) with his son, Ben, a senior at SFBRHS.
“That was one of the things we were looking for in a hike, got to hike in over the Tooth, that’s what they call it,” he said. “It’s a neat way to end the long trip.”
Other highlights on the trip included tomahawk throwing, atlatl (spear) throwing, learning to reload 12-gauge shells (they were supposed to shoot, but it was lightning, so they couldn’t), learning to pack and hike with a burro for two days and spar pole climbing (think lumberjacks), which involves climbing trees wearing shoes with spikes.
“It was actually pretty cool,” said Pete Schonaerts, noting Ed Guehne previously worked as a lineman with Ameren, so he was able to climb very easily.
“We had all of the advisers from the camps gathering around to watch him do this,” Schonaerts recalled. “(Ed) was 20 seconds up and down. He was humble, but it was neat to watch.”
The least exciting thing the group saw were tracks from a Tyrannosaurus rex — the world’s only preserved full set.
Apply Two Years in Advance
George Meyer organized the trip. He and Ed Guehne had gone three years ago with their sons, and were happy to make the trip again with a new group of Scouts.
Philmont Scout Ranch is the Boy Scouts of America’s largest national High Adventure Base. It covers 137,000 acres or about 214 square miles of rugged mountain wilderness in the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) range of the Rocky Mountains in northern New Mexico, according to the website.
Philmont has high mountains with rough terrain and elevations that range from 6,500 to 12,441 feet. Tens of thousands of Scouts and leaders who do backpacking treks there every year, and this year marked the 1 millionth camper to come through Philmont since it was opened in 1939.
In applying for a trek at Philmont, the first thing any Scout group has to do is get a serious verbal commitment from those who will be going because applications are due two years in advance.
“You have to get a buy-in from the vast majority of people that yes . . . for two weeks in June or July two years from now, you will be able to do this,” said George Meyer.
“That doesn’t mean that kids can’t back out if something comes up, but you have to have a core group who are willing to make that long-term commitment.”
A troop can only make the trip every other year, noted Ed Guehne.
This year’s group included: Scouts Reid Posinski and Kyle Kennon, freshmen; Will Schriewer and Sam Schonaerts, juniors; and Nathan Bargen, Brandon Guehne, Ben Meyer and Cole LaPlant, seniors;
And adult advisers Pete Schonaerts, Ed Guehne, George Meyer and Kristi Posinski.
Scout groups applying to hike Philmont can request any of 35 treks ranging from 56 to 106 miles long, with Trek 1 being the easiest and Trek 35 the hardest.
Troop 439, which was known as 626B after the date the group began their hike (June 26), had a meeting to pick their top five hikes, taking into consideration the distance as well as the activities offered on each trek.
“We ended up getting our fifth choice,” said Pete Schonaerts, “which was . . .
“ . . . a joke,” finished Kristi Posinski.
“It was the hardest one of the list,” explained George Meyer, noting the actual length was around 100 miles (between three to 14 miles a day).
They were given Trek 27, which included using a burro on the hike for two days.
The purpose of the burro wasn’t just to help the crew carry their packs, but also to learn the process of how to strap a pack on a burro and how you utilize a burro.
It was a unique addition to the trek, everyone agreed.
‘Extremely Aggressive Terrain’
The group traveled by train from Washington, Mo., to Cimarron, N.M. They left June 25 and returned home July 9.
Much of the train trip there was overnight, which meant the group couldn’t see any of the countryside they traveled through. But just about the time the sun was coming up, the train was approaching the mountains.
Hiking at Philmont might more accurately be called backpacking, said Kristi Posinski.
“It’s everything on your back — your tent, three- to four-days’ worth of food, water . . . An average pack is between 40 to 50 pounds,” she remarked.
“Then you’re pointed in a general direction, and you are left to navigate the trek you have chosen,” said Pete Schonaerts.
“The whole thing is structured around the crew leading the hike,” he added. “We had Brandon and Ben as our co-crew leaders, because they had done it before. Nathan was our chaplain’s aide. Sam was our wilderness guia (guide) to help monitor the principles of leave no trace, and Will was the medic.”
Injuries were limited mostly to blisters, but there also was some overheating and things like that.
“The boys were fine,” laughed Pete Schonaerts, noting it was the adults who struggled. “The boys were always 100 yards ahead of us and waiting for us to catch up.”
The group did do some training before leaving on the trip. They went on practice hikes of around five to 10 miles on trails and in state parks, but those were nothing compared with the New Mexico terrain.
“The terrain was so different, that in spite of practice hikes, it took some getting used to, not only the elevation, but the way the trails are — not soft, damp trails of Lewis and Clark over in Weldon Spring, this is all jagged, loose shale,” said Pete Schonaerts.
“It’s extremely aggressive terrain.”
“The trails were narrow in parts with sharp dropoffs in some places,” said Kristi Posinski. “Sometimes we were on emergency roads, sometimes just on rocks.”
“There was every kind of terrain you can imagine,” said Ed Guehne, noting the group felt lucky when the trail cut through a wooded area just because it offered some shade.
“Most times we were just out in the open with the sun beating down on us,” he said.
In addition to the rough terrain, the group had to contend with oxygen depravation as they hiked up the mountains. They also had to be extremely careful about bears in the area.
Every night when the group arrived at camp they had to string up “bear bags” with all of their “smellables” which are hoisted up over a bear cable to keep them out of reach of the bears. This included any first aid kits, Band-Aids, duct tape, Chapstick . . .
The group didn’t have any encounters with bears, but Kristi Posinski said there was one night that she heard another crew shout “Bear in camp!” and she could hear the bear walking through the grounds.
“Usually the only time anyone ever gets hurt by a bear is if the bear smells something in a tent and tries to get at it,” said Ed Guehne. “As long as you are very diligent about getting every single smellable thing out, you will be OK.”
“They are looking to see if anyone was careless,” said George Meyer. “The bears know where everyone is and what they are doing. They are just making their rounds.”
No one was allowed to wear deodorant because it could attract bears, and no one in the group was able to get a shower until Day 9 of the trip.
Some used unscented body wipes to clean themselves as best they could.
Changes of clothes were a luxury that wouldn’t fit in the backpacks. Each person had only two sets of clothes that they rotated, “washing items” as needed using a little bit of water, camp suds and a ziplock bag.
“We were limited on water, so we were really only rinsing it,” said Ed Guehne. “Not really getting a good clean. Mainly just getting the heavy dirt out.”
Excited to Get Cold Water
The group faced a serious shortage of water on their last day hiking back down to base camp. They had been in a dry camp the night before, meaning they weren’t able to refill any water bottles.
“We had to carry all of our water in and then use some of it to cook, so the next day whatever we had left was all we had,” said Kristi Posinski.
“We had maybe 2 liters among the 12 of us,” noted Ed Guehne. “And this trail was so long, and in the heat, we were trying to sip water so we could conserve it.
“When we finally got down, there was a spigot like 50 yards before the end, and we were so excited just to get cold water,” he said.
The food the group ate on the trip was all mostly freeze-dried trail food supplied by Philmont in bags that are labeled breakfast 1, lunch 1, dinner 1, breakfast 2, lunch 2, dinner 2 and so on.
They are all well thought-out balanced meals that can sustain the temperatures, said George Meyer. It isn’t always the best-tasting food, but it sure tastes delicious after hiking up a mountain and having no other food in sight, the group said.
One of the Scouts found that out when, at a meeting months before the trip, he spit out a sample of one of the meals, but eagerly wolfed down the same meal on Day 8 of the hike — even going back for second and third helpings.
Trail Building to Give Back
Scout groups who come through Philmont are required to make a contribution back to the camp in the form of a conservation project. Crew 626B was assigned trail building.
It was a tough, but fun experience that gave all of them an appreciation for the trails they had been hiking.
“It’s interesting how they do build a trail,” said Ed. “It’s not just start cutting down trees. There’s a lot of thought and surveying that goes into it. They don’t want it too high with all the switchbacks.”
The work included using sledgehammers to break rocks into smaller pieces, building a rock wall to hold up a switch back and clearing the path of things like boulders.
While the physical feat of hiking over 100 miles is tough, the overall experience was both empowering and fun, the group said.
But the adult advisers were also impressed by the fortitude of the Scouts and how they took charge.
“I think the cool thing was to see these (Scouts) unhindered by anything you’d throw in front of them,” said Pete Schonaerts.
“It was cool to see the young men take care of everything. Each day they had different roles — taking out the trash, getting the water for the meal, cleaning up . . the kids cooked everything,” he said.
“I think there was a significant sense of accomplishment for the boys when they got back.”
One Woman Inspires More to Follow
Kristi Posinski was the only female on crew 626B’s trip, but she wasn’t the only one at Philmont. There were others, just not many, she said.
Posinski, who grew up in St. Louis, but had a lot of outdoor experiences with the American Youth Foundation in New Hampshire, Michigan and into Canada, said she enjoys hiking, cycling, canoeing, “being out with everything on your back for weeks at a time.”
Philmont was a challenge, she admits — “tough, but good.” It was never to the point where she didn’t think she could keep going.
At least one fellow mom took note of Posinski’s experience and has been inspired to make a trip to Philmont herself. Dana Meyer, George’s wife, has already begun her training to be in shape and ready to go when their last son is ready to make his Philmont trek in a couple of years.