Because the 4th landed on a Saturday, we had work off on Friday. I was planning on going into Santa Fe and just relaxing all day when, at about 10:30 pm Thursday night, I got a call from my friend L. Turned out she'd planned on going backpacking with our coworkers G and BC over the holiday and asked if I wanted to go.
A few things worth mentioning at this point; I like the great outdoors and have been hiking loads of times. I fancy myself as reasonably in shape and figured I'd be able to handle ~20 miles of hiking over three days, even if it featured over 3,000 ft of climbing. That all said, I didn't have any of the equipment required for an undertaking like this. Still, L promised that she had enough bits and bobs to cover for me, so I figured what the hell. Why not. I'll go into the Wilderness with L, an avid backpacker, and two other wannabe-adventurers who, like me, had never gone backpacking before.
What could possibly go wrong?
The first day, went splendidly. It took us roughly 3 hours to hike the 6 or so miles to our first campsite. I was surprised how light the 30lb pack on my back felt. It was a cool feeling knowing that the four of us had enough supplies for us all to be completely isolated for an entire weekend. We set up camp near a beautiful mountain lake, summited the peak near Pecos Baldy Lake, ate some s'mores, and relaxed. Other than an overly curious elk that wandered into our camp right as we were going to go to bed, the first day went off without a hitch and I was rather smitten with this whole backpacking thing.
The view from the top of the baldy was pretty awesome.
Saturday continued the good vibes. We hiked another 6 or so miles into the Wilderness and arrived at yet another mountain lake. Along the way, we had to walk along the Trailriders Wall, a beautiful ridge that runs between two heavily forested areas and is about 10,000 feet up. There is essentially nothing up there, so you can see for miles in all directions. It was breathtakingly gorgeous.
After traversing the wall, we arrived at a mountain pass that was occupied by a herd of bighorn sheep. Keen not to upset them, we stopped for lunch and let a gap open between us and them so as to avoid incident. The rest of the hike was fairly wet, as there's been a lot of rain this season, but we made it to the second lake just in time to start hearing thunder. At this point, we weren't sure whether we should just camp out near the lake, or try and take the return loop back towards the car. The thunder made staying by an elevated and exposed body of water far from enticing, so we opted to plunge back into the forest and began making our way back towards the trailhead.
Thanks to the wet summer we've been having, the loop back to the car was simply gone. In its place was a stream which made it impossible for us to loop to the car. We instead decided to hike back to Pecos Baldy Lake, camp there one more night, and then head back on Sunday as planned. It would be a longer hike, but at least we knew the area around the lake.
At this point, we weren't really hearing thunder anymore, the trail was mostly downhill, and the bighorn sheep were gone! Looked like smooth sailing to the campsite. Then we got back to Trailriders Wall and me oh my did the you-know-what hit the fan.
After climbing back up to the top of the wall, we had only covered a few hundred feet when we started to hear thunder again. But this time we saw the source of the noise: in front of us was a sky completely covered in very, very angry looking clouds. Some of the clouds furthest from us were definitely spitting out rain, and even more were splitting air with a few hundred thousand volts of electricity. Fun.
At this point, we were so far along the wall that we weren't sure what to do. Turning back and returning to the forest for a quick tent-pitching seemed difficult, since there was no cover back the way we came. If we continued forward, there were a few small clusters of pine trees that could at least lure the lightning away from us. We figured pressing on towards the other campsite was our best option.
Then a lightning bolt struck the ground ~300 ft away from us.
I don't actually remember throwing my pack off, but before I knew it, a lightened me and my three friends were full-on sprinting towards the pine trees for cover. We huddled there for a while, begging the storm to relent. It got worse before it got better. The thunder was incessant and we became drenched. There was hail, too.
Luckily for us, the storm did capitulate and we were greeted by a happy rainbow and sunny skies. We decided that another night of camping would be as welcomed as another storm, so we rushed back down the trail, hoping to get to the car before the sun went down. On the way back, we ran into more silly elk, a herd of overly-friendly-to-the-point-of-being-unnerving cows, and heard some coyotes howling as we plunged into the final forest we had to pass, but incredibly, we made it back to the car.
Lots of people say that the Wilderness changed them, and as much as I love defying clichés, I feel the same way. Sure, it was terrifying at times, but there's something special about being that far out in the middle of nowhere. The break from office life was well-appreciated, and now I can't wait to get back to SoCal so I can check out the San Mateo Wilderness!
Smiling atop Trailriders Wall. Like a moron.