IntroductionIn August 2003, Boy Scout Troop 17, from Fort Worth, Texas, successfully summited Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico for what seemed like the millionth time. Since that time, we had not returned to the mountains. Some history…
HistoryJanuary 2006 – At our annual youth leadership training event, it was decided that we would return to the mountains for the first time in almost three years. No plans were discussed, only that we would return to the Rocky Mountains.
April 2006 – At one of our weekly meetings one of the fathers asked if anyone had given any thought to the Road Trip. I replied that I had given it some thought but that I had not looked at it in any detail. I should have kept my mouth shut since this little discussion resulted in me becoming the “tripmaster” for the upcoming 2006 Colorado Road trip.
May 2006 – What to do? The Scoutmaster wants to incorporate shooting sports at the National Rifle Association Whittington Center outside of Raton, NM. It’s the 100th anniversary of Mesa Verde National Park. We have an opportunity to climb one of Colorado’s famed fourteeners. One of the fathers gives me some tourist information and I have an epiphany … Salida and the Upper Arkansas River valley.
June 2006 – The planning continues and the trip begins to gel. With its central location in the state, short drives to numerous points of interest, and mountain access Salida is the place to set base camp. Unfortunately, the Angel of Shavano group campground has been reserved for one of the five nights we will need it. I contact the Forest Service and they recommend dispersed camping along the road to the Mount Shavano trailhead along Placer Creek.
Family Vacation, aka ReconJuly 8-12, 2006 - My family vacation consisted of reconnaissance for the Road Trip two weeks prior to the Troop’s departure. My wife, son, two daughters and I leave Fort Worth on Saturday and arrive at the Mount Shavano trailhead Sunday afternoon. We set up camp in the meadow signed for dispersed camping and overflow parking. I visit most of the locations we will visit as a Troop to ensure there are few surprises. On Monday, my daughter and I hike Mount Shavano to timberline. On Wednesday the trip culminates in my successful attempt of Shavano, but without my daughter due to ankle soreness. Unfortunately, our vacation must be cut short due to my grandfather’s death so we leave Colorado to return to Texas for the funeral.
Shooting Sports, Travel, Sand Dunes and AlligatorsJuly 22, 2006, Saturday: At 5:00 AM, twenty-two scouts and nine adults meet at the scout lodge to load gear and food onto two pickup trucks with trailers and one suburban. After loading the troop bus, we are on the road to Raton by 6:30 AM and the trip begins. Almost a full day and several stops later, we arrive at the Whittington Center and set up our camp for the next two nights.
July 23, 2006, Sunday: A day of shooting sports including .22 caliber rifles and 20-gauge trap and skeet. After a bumpy start coordinating with the Center’s staff, we split the troop into two groups and divide them between riflery and shotgunning. The day is sunny, clear and hot and everyone is ready for bed after dinner and a campfire by lantern light.
July 24, 2006, Monday: Travel day. We depart Raton, NM, after filling bottles and tanks with 300 gallons of water, and head north to Colorado. We stop briefly at the Royal Gorge Bridge and continue through Bighorn Sheep Canyon along the Arkansas River, experiencing our first afternoon thunderstorm. As we come around a bend in the road, I point out the Sawatch peaks visible for the first time to the other drivers. Their reactions are best described as shock and awe, especially when they realize these peaks are in the same range as our goal. We pass through Salida and then Poncha Springs and then leave the paved road for the final stretch to Weldon Gulch near the Mount Shavano and Tabeguache Peak trailhead. Our camping area is a beautiful meadow surrounded by aspen trees with the occasional ponderosa pine and blue spruce sprinkled in. We set up our camp for the next five days spreading the troop out across the entire meadow being mindful of the cow pies.
July 25, 2006, Tuesday: Side trip. We depart the Weldon Gulch and drive south to Great Sand Dunes National Park. After a brief visit to the Visitor’s Center, we continue into the park, eat lunch, and top off our water before heading into the dunefield. Naturally, the scouts are drawn to High Dune, the highest dune in the park, and the troop spreads out among the dunes with the most capable scouts in the lead and the slower scouts in the rear. After setting a turnaround time, I begin my ascent of the dunes with the other adults. After 1 ½ hours, all but two adults have stopped with some of the younger scouts. Another adult and myself reach the top of the dune at our turnaround time and encourage the last three scouts climbing, including my son. After congratulations, pictures, and a good sandblasting, we head down and it starts to rain as we reach the parking lot.
We leave Great Sand Dunes in a thunderstorm and head north toward Weldon Gulch but the bus appears to have trouble and pulls into Colorado Gators. Of course this was a planned stop. After playing with the alligators (yes, they actually let you play with the gators) we head back to camp. I stop in Salida to pick up some fresh fruit and snacks before returning to camp.
Acclimitization HikeJuly 26, 2006, Wednesday: Acclimatization hike. Today’s activity has several goals. First and foremost is to shakedown the gear everyone is using since we have not been to the mountains in three years and we do not hike as much as we probably should. Second, we plan to cache 2 liters of water per person at timberline to minimize our load on Friday. Third, we need to determine our vertical rate of ascent in order to set a start time for our climb.
We start upward at 8:30 AM and almost immediately have problems. One of our youngest scouts is wearing boots two sizes too small, with cotton socks. His father is also struggling in his tennis shoes, with cotton socks. We stop frequently to have instruction for Forestry merit badge and to liberally apply duct tape to various hot spots. We make our goal, 2,000 vertical feet, approximately 2.5 miles, just short of timberline, in approximately 5 hours. We locate a suitable spot for our cache, place almost 60 liters of water into two trash bags, and label them. Mother nature then decides it’s time for us to leave as we begin to hear thunder.
The scouts begin their descent first with the adults finishing the cache. One adult follows the scouts closely while I stay in the rear sweeping the entire group. The Scoutmaster urges me to move forward and stay with the scouts so I accelerate my descent. As I descend, it begins to hail, pea size. The hail becomes more frequent and larger, marble size. I radio ahead for the scouts to take cover should the hail become too large. I catch up to the scouts as they crouch under a fallen tree to avoid the hail. They leave their shelter and continue down leaving three senior scouts, one youngster, another adult and myself. Of course, the youngster is the one who had the boot problems but the Senior Patrol Leader swapped boots with him. His rain gear was inadequate consisting of a cheap plastic poncho which left him soaking wet, wearing insulating layers others had loaned him. The descent was painfully slow along a trail that had turned into a creek. At one point, five members of our group almost went off trail at a creek crossing not knowing which flowing water was the creek they should cross. We finally made it back to camp as the sun broke through the clouds. I assured everyone that they had seen the worst of the trail in the worst weather they were likely to see.
Rest Day on the Arkansas RiverJuly 27, 2006, Thursday: Whitewater rafting. After a tiring day on the trail, what better way to revive and refresh ourselves than a brisk dip in the Arkansas River with some smoking hot river guides? Of course, what would a rest day be without a crisis like the tripmaster locking his keys in his truck? We spent a half-day rafting through Brown’s Canyon with an outstanding outfit out of Buena Vista, River Runners. The highlight of the day came when one of the scouts shot one of the guides with a water gun and the female guide jumped from her raft into the scout’s raft and promptly ejected the male scout from the boat. Upon our return, we experience another afternoon storm with hail while we ate lunch in the shop and waited for AAA to unlock my truck.
After the troop left to return to camp, our gear-challenged family and I fill the troop’s empty water jugs, dispose of the troop’s trash and head into Buena Vista to get them suitable footwear for tomorrow’s events. The very helpful staff at The Trailhead outfitted the father and son and were very patient. We then turned toward Salida to pick up a few groceries and rain jackets. When we returned to camp, dinner was almost ready. After a spaghetti dinner, everyone was encouraged to be in bed by 8:00 PM for the 3:00 AM wakeup. Our plan was to be on the trail to Mount Shavano at 4:00 AM tomorrow.
Summit DayJuly 28, 2006, Friday: Summit day. Everyone awoke by 3:30 AM and shared oatmeal and toast for breakfast. We departed camp at 4:10 AM and shortly began to have problems. One of our older scouts had drunk, or more aptly chugged, 1 liter of water immediately prior to departure and was feeling ill. A younger scout had worn cotton socks and was having problems with hot spots. After addressing these issues, we continued upward making good progress at just over 600 vertical feet per hour.
As the sun rose, we could see that the clouds were very high and thin compared to the previous several days, a good sign. We arrived at the cache around 7:00 AM and refilled our bottles to ensure each of us had 2 liters to make the summit. We continued, slowly but surely, above timberline and enjoyed our view of the valley below and the rocky mountain bighorn sheep grazing above us. We gained the saddle at 9:30 AM and took a short break before attacking the summit cone. At this point the group stretched out and the first group of scouts reached the summit at 10:15 AM with the remainder of the group arriving in spurts by 11:30 AM. The entire group of 22 scouts and 9 adults made it to 14,229 feet, the highest the troop had ever been. On the summit the weather was gorgeous, although hazy, and the early arrivals enjoyed naps while the slower climbers continued upward. We enjoyed lunch and took many photos before we began our descent.
The descent began with the scouts rushing down the mountain with some of the younger scouts and all of the adults in the rear. The plan was to reconstitute the group at the cache. I accelerated my descent and caught the last group of scouts just prior to the cache. We then waited for nearly an hour for all but two of the adults and one scout to catch up. Unfortunately, one of our adult’s video camera had come loose from his hip belt and had rolled into the gulch. After a brief search, the camera was left for lost and two adults and one scout continued their descent encouraging the group to continue down the mountain.
We cleaned up our cache and the scouts decided to race down the mountain again with the Scoutmaster in tow. I stayed behind with three other adults until they encouraged me to move on to ensure that we had two adults with the scouts. Again I accelerated my descent and caught the scouts just as they arrived at camp around 4:30 PM. I prepared food for dinner distribution as the group of adults arrived near 5:00 PM and the final group of two adults and one scout arrived near 5:30 PM.
After dinner, the troop had a final campfire and began to break camp. All troop and patrol gear was loaded into the trailers in preparation for our planned 5:00 AM departure and return to Texas.
The Long Road HomeJuly 29, 2006, Saturday: Travel day. Morning came early, as we were up at 4:00 AM to break camp and load personal gear. We left at 5:15 AM after making sure all fires were dead out and all campsites were clean. We drove to Amarillo and enjoyed our first showers in a week at the Troop 80 Jack Bryant Scout Lodge. We then enjoyed a catered barbeque dinner in Palo Duro Canyon with no dishes to clean before attending the musical, TEXAS. Everyone was ready for bed upon our return to the lodge. Unfortunately one of the trucks had a flat tire and two adults and I used the opportunity to educate four older scouts in the art of tire changing. It was another late night with an early wakeup coming.
July 30, 2006, Sunday: Return to Fort Worth. We awoke at 6:00 AM and were on the road by 7:00 AM with donuts and coffee for breakfast. Although the trip plan called for a stop for lunch, the Scoutmaster, who drove the bus, decided to continue home without stopping for lunch presumably because of the extra twelve hours of sleep he had gotten during the week by sharing driving responsibilities and going to bed early on Friday and Saturday nights. The truck and suburban drivers had to stop numerous times for coffee and the resulting restroom breaks. We arrived at the Scout Lodge at 1:30 PM and the scouts unloaded the trailers. By 2:30 PM, everyone was home and the trip could be officially called complete.
EpilogueThis trip has been called a great success by many involved although very little time has passed. Very little advancement, in the scouting sense, was gained but the scouts were exposed to very different environments from those at home. The adversity experienced during the hail storm and the effects of altitude on their bodies should be lessons they will keep with them forever.
As the tripmaster, I hope this journey means as much to the scouts as it does to me. It is important for those that love the mountains to share the mountains and to introduce the them to a younger audience incorporating the required skills and respect for the environment.
Hopefully their memories will grow fonder as they age as mine have of my first trips to the mountains. Trips of this magnitude generally make a special place in people’s memories.