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."