Philmont Scouting Adventure

Reflections on June 10-23, 2011 BSA adventure camp

By John Sadler

I was one of two adult advisors for a crew of eight scouts, including my son, who attended the Boy Scouts highest adventure camp at Philmont, New Mexico from June 10 to June 23. Philmont is known as a camper’s paradise with its many miles of mountainous trails and beautiful vistas. We hiked Itinerary 11 over a ten day period for a total of 56 trail miles plus many additional miles logged around the campsites. Each day consisted of a hike between 2 and 9 miles as well as fun programming upon entry into a new Philmont BSAcamp. We carried all of our food, water, and gear and slept in our tents every night except for one where we slept on an Adirondack.

The first two days on the trail were training days under the supervision of ranger, Cody Nelson, where the boys learned skills such as map reading, lightning safety, bear safety, first aid, purifying water with Micropur tablets, hanging bear bags, going to the bathroom in the wilderness, cooking and cleaning Philmont style, and principles of leave no trace camping.

Programming at campsites included activities such as GPS training, search and rescue, tomahawk throwing, blacksmithing, homesteading, panning for gold, mining, black powder rifle shooting, horseback riding, rock climbing and rappelling, fly fishing, and a conservation project.

From my point of view, I was able to keep up with the young bucks (14 and 15 year olds) in terms of strength and stamina; however, my flat feet took a beating from day one. My old nemesis, plantar fasciitis (heel pain), began to creep in prior to the trip as a result of the purchase of a new pair of “stability” running shoes a month and a half prior to the trip. Probably should not have purchased the “stability” version of the shoes since my custom orthotics already correct for ankle pronation and the end result was overkill. The steepness of some of the trail inclines (along with the 45 lb pack weight) shredded my heel fascia and arches. Pain is one thing, but I suspected a tear in my heel fascia on the day 7 hike. By day 9 out of 10, I knew that I risked long term injury and possible surgery (after a cell phone call to my podiatrist) and as a result requested to be replaced by a Philmont Ranger for the last day of the tour, which was a strenuous, steep, and rocky hike over the Tooth Of Time.

Getting enough sleep was not a problem as 8 or 9 hours was the norm. Once the sun went down, the chilly mountain air provided incentive to immediately hit the tent for the warm sleeping bag. The modern air mattress is much more comfortable than those in the past. Mine is a Thermarest Neo, which is surprisingly lightweight and thick with ample padding. I also used earplugs to cut out the distractions of the boys chattering and the constant flapping of the tent in the wind. Also, without the earplugs, I would constantly wake up every time a stick broke or a raccoon screeched. There was the constant fear of a bear entering the campsite even thought we never saw one the entire trip. We did see frequent bear droppings. But…..that is why I took bear pepper spray with the handy glow in the dark trigger for quick access inside a dark tent. BSA would not allow a pistol at Philmont.

Interestingly enough, no one in our crew seemed to notice the effects of the thin air at altitude on our hiking performance. We were told that hiking at altitude would be much more difficult than hiking Table Rock in SC or the Appalachian Trail. Also, Philmont was in the middle of a drought with less than one inch of rain since the first of the year. We never had to use our dining fly and only experienced about 30 minutes of light drizzle over the two week period. The downside was the frequent dust storms with the high mountain winds that seemed blow about 25% of the time. On at least two nights, it seemed as if the wind would blow our tents down. The noise was tremendous but the Kelty tents held up well.  In addition, there were no smoke complications from the massive forest fires in Arizona or from smaller fires in New Mexico.

Our crew faced high altitudes (6500 to 11,500 ft) and the resulting dangers of dehydration and altitude sickness, high winds which frequently gusted over 40 mph, cold temperatures, hot temperatures, dust storms, blisters, and concerns over potential bear and cougar attacks. The boys bravely ate all of the freeze dried food and we purified our own stream water at many campsites. At one campsite, we saw an elk carcass, which was likely the result of a cougar kill. At another campsite, we saw professional trackers and dogs that were chasing a cougar that was stalking counselors the night before. Made you think twice about leaving your tent in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.

My mom and wife should be proud that my son and I hand washed our own clothes with an old fashioned bucket and corrugated metal scrubbing board. Environmentally friendly Camp Suds soap doesn’t seem to produce any significant suds and the clothes were never completely cleaned as the waste water always remained dirty after several cycles but the clothes at least felt and smelled clean. We were also taught how to wash clothes in a 2.5 gallon glad bag but never had to resort to that. Also discovered that I actually like tuna served out of a bag (never was brave enough to try it before due to the smell).

This was a great experience for the boys (young men)  to overcome the physical and mental challenges. The boys had to manage multiple deadlines and time lines to complete tasks with all the scheduled programming and rules about putting up bear bags before leaving the campsite and bed. It required a lot of mental discipline to remember to access all personal bear smellables (ex: medicines, band aids, lip balm, sunscreen, etc.) before the bear bag went up. If you forgot, it was too bad as it was too much trouble to lower the bear bag again.  We probably should have made better use of the smaller and lighter “oops bag” that was recommended for this very reason.  We heard stories about some of the other scouts having a bad attitude and dropping out.

John Sadler Jr. and John Sadler on the summit of Mt. Philmont

John Sadler Jr. and John Sadler on the summit of Mt. Philmont

However, I can honestly say that our group of scouts was fantastic and there was a never single complaint.

Philmont should recognize that the “Philmont way” of cooking and cleaning takes too long and is too labor intensive. Once our Ranger left after two days on the trail, we reverted to our own style of cooking and cleaning. Instead of cooking in a pot and later cleaning the pot and eating bowls (Philmont style), we did all of our cooking in the food bags in which the freeze dried foods were packaged which merely consisted of pouring boiling water into the bags and letting the food hydrate. After hydration, half the contents would be poured into an eating bowl surrounded by a one gallon plastic bag. One person would eat directly out of the original bag and the eating partner would eat out of the eating bowl surrounded by the plastic bag. This was a very efficient system with absolutely no washing of pots (did not use them) or eating bowls (were surrounded by a plastic bag that was disposed of). The freeze dried food was surprisingly tasty. All other foods required no cooking and could be eaten directly out of the bags. There was an ample supply of trail mix, breakfast bars, peanuts, Oreos, energy bars, etc.

PhilmontAnother thought is that some of the bear smellable procedures may be overkill. Sure, it makes sense to put up all food in a bear bag and to not take anything into a tent on which food may have been spilled. However all the rules about the non food smellables such as not using toothpaste or liquid skin after 5:00 PM seems a bit ridiculous. Also many of the rules are contradictory.   For example, extra batteries are considered to be smellables but its ok to have a battery in your cell phone or flashlight?  It’s my thought that BSA has developed a risk management strategy to protect against potential liability resulting from a bear attack. They have created so many rules about smellables and have set the standard of care so high that it is unlikely that anyone can comply with 100% of them. Thus, BSA has a built in legal defense as it could always prove at least some violation of the rules.

Overall, it was a great experience and BSA did a fantastic job with the training, facilities, and programming. Also, much thanks for the help we received from the local Indian Waters Council (Ranny Keys), Troop 10 officials, adult advisor Duncan Watson, coordinator Clif Kitchens, Charles Black, the staff of The Backpaker, and the many parents who provided their support and expertise.

This was definitely an experience that I will always cherish with my son and I know that the boys have benefited from it in many ways that they may not even be aware of at this time. My father, Jack Sadler, often said that his scouting experience helped him to survive the harsh conditions in World War II.

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