Ian is a Boy Scout (as I was), and I am a Committee Member of his Troop (http://troop15yea.com/). The Troop sent a contingent of boys and adults to a winter camp at Tres Ritos Scout Camp in the mountains of New Mexico. Tres Ritos is owned by the Council in Lubbock, Texas. That Council has been putting on a Winter Camp for a couple years, and Troop 15 has been to that camp for summer camp for a number of years, and so decided that Winter Camp would be fun. BTW, in answer to the question “Why drive so far for Summer Camp when there are really nice camps in Oklahoma?” (like Slippery Falls, and Tom Hale), the answer was “Why camp out in the heat and humidity when the mountains are so much nicer?”. I like that attitude!
The Winter Camp is over the long MLK weekend. We headed out that chilly Friday afternoon from Oklahoma City in a couple vans. Our first destination was Tucumcari, NM. After stops for dinner, gas, and snacks, we were approaching Tucumcari. We got in there around 2330 local time. We were supposed to sleep inside the local National Guard Armory, but the guy that was supposed to show up and let us in FORGOT we were coming, had left town, and could not apparently find anyone else in Tucumcari that had a key to the building! Not a very good showing for the local Guard unit – I wonder what would have happened if the Governor of the state had needed them?
So being Scouts, we are supposed to be able to camp, so we did, right on the lawn and parking lot of the Armory. Curious – not a single law enforcement guy even gave us a second look. We had some tents, and they got set up, but we had a lot of tarps, so these were pressed into service as dual ground cover and top cover.
Ian got creative with a shovel to make a single-person tent.
I woke up at some point overnight and saw Canis Major through the sleeping bag. Very cool. I woke up around 0700 and had frost on the outside of my sleeping bag where the tarp didn’t cover it up. The temp overnight had dropped to around 20F, but I was warm all night, until I crawled out of the bag.
The guy in the ski mask is Ian.
After we shook everyone out, we got the gear into what feeble Sun there was available to the ice crystals off, then we had a standup breakfast and took off again.
After passing though Santa Rosa, we headed towards Las Vegas, NM. We got a good view of the Sangre de Cristos on the way in.
We stopped in Las Vegas at the local Wal Mart for final supplies, including lunch for the day, which was sandwiches, chips, and milk. North of Las Vegas, we stopped at a roadside marker and pullout to eat the lunch. The mountains were drawing very near!
About 30 miles out of Las Vegas, we got to the turn in for Tres Ritos. At this point, we started seeing serious snow.
We got the gear out of the vans and found our campsite. It was just inside the treeline on the south side of a nice meadow.
That’s my tentmate Dave in back of the tent. We shared a tent the last time on a trip to Philmont Scout Ranch in 1993.
There was a LOT of snow out there, at least to us. We found out later that this year has seen the least amount of snow at Tres Ritos in some time. We were able to drive up to the parking area near the camp headquarters, and in most previous years the snow prevented that. Groups had to haul their stuff up from the lower parking lot near the highway. Most of the boys and the adults had come prepared to essentially backpack from the lower parking area up to the campsite – that would have been about a mile slogging through the deep snow. As it was, we had to haul our stuff about 200 yards from the parking lot to the campsite.
Tres Ritos is at just under 9200 feet altitude. You noticed this as you slogged through the snow with about 30 pounds on your back.
We didn’t have a lot of directed activities. One of the “things” about Winter Camp is building snow caves to sleep in. The idea here is that you pile up a heck of a lot of snow, let it “harden” or “bake” for about six hours to get a crust of ice on the outside, then dig into it, hollow it out, hope it doesn’t collapse, then line the floor inside with a tarp or two to sleep on. I know this sounds crazy, but think on this: ice gets to pretty much no lower than 32F, and is a pretty good insulator. Once you get a couple bodies in the small space in the snow cave, body heat helps to warm it up somewhat. We got two snow caves started for the guys that wanted this.
Ian decided that maybe the work involved with shoveling the driveway at home wasn’t as bad as he thought…
It involves moving a lot of snow. A good way to do this is shovel snow onto a tarp, then drag it to the snow cave location and dump it out.
The camp buildings were where we ate and socialized.
Speaking of eating… the food there was excellent and copious. We had a hamburger beef stew the first night, and either/both chili and beans the second night. Breakfast Sunday morning was pancakes and biscuits and gravy. All tasted excellent. The stew and chili and beans were made in 10-gallon pots, and food was left over every night, surprisingly enough. The chili was especially good; I essentially had three bowls of the stuff, and a bowl of beans. It was spicy enough to leave my lips slightly burning. I said to myself “well, it’s really cold, and I’m burning the calories…”. The adults pretty much stuffed themselves, the boys, not so much. I guess that when I was a Scout, whatever didn’t kill me made me stronger, but kids today are a bit more picky. Even Ian didn’t finish his bowl of beans or stew.
The staff had snacks all over the place free for the scarfing. They also had big jugs of water and bug juice out, hot water for tea and hot chocolate, and coffee pots with both caf and decaf, and kept a fire burning in one building from 0430 – 0100 each day. The whole support structure was really well organized. I was impressed.
I just cannot get enough of the night sky, especially in the mountains. Saturday night after dinner, I walked out to the middle of the meadow and just… stood… there… with my headed looking up, my neck hurting a bit, for a solid hour. It was stunning. I could see the Milky Way, Saturn came up, and the Orion Nebula was visible. I also saw one polar-orbiting satellite, and no less than five meteors, tons of stars, and the occasional airplane. An owl hooted off in the distance. It was just beautiful.
Sunday morning was really pretty. The temp overnight had dropped to around 8F. I was perfectly warm overnight. Ian and I both had a mummy bag rated at 0F. I bought them at Cabella’s in Omaha, for $40 apiece on sale, great value. Both bags were supplemented with a fleece liner. I ended up losing a layer of clothing and leaving the fleece liner unzipped the second night, when it got to 12F.
One thing I was surprised about. I was NOT looking forward to changing clothes in the morning (it’s a good idea to put a dry layer on next to your skin every day). I stuffed the clothes I was going to change into into my sleeping bag so they would not be completely cold, and then stood outside the tent the next morning, stripped down to skin, and changed. I was not terribly cold during this process. It was 8F and was I standing outside on snow, but wasn’t shivering at all. Now, I didn’t spend 15 minutes doing that, more like three, but still, it was not unpleasant at all. I guess you can really get used to the cold.
After breakfast Sunday, we took the day to ski at Sipapu Ski Area, about 10 miles from Tres Ritos.
Some of the guys got skis, some snowboards, but pretty much everybody had a lot of fun. Two of the adults rented snowshoes and went for a backcountry hike. That really sounded fun, and I will be torn in the future on which to do. I love skiing, but snowshoe hiking sounds like a lot of fun also. Several other troops also went to Sipapu. I actually got a coordinate a mini-rescue while there, one new skier had gone right over the edge of a run about 20 feet, and we used one of his buddies and a pair of ski poles to pull him back up onto the piste.
I’ve got to say I was pretty much deliriously happy at Sipapu (I had never even heard of the place before committing to Winter Camp). I never stood in a lift line. There wasn’t enough snow to get all the way to the top of the mountain, but just skiing off the main lift at the bottom got me to enough runs to keep me very happy. Up, down, up, down, I stopped counting at 15 runs, I think I had 20. It was great. A couple of the runs were a little thin on snow cover, but there were blue runs on the east side of the area that I never saw another person on; I had them all to myself time after time. The food there was not unreasonable, and they had free refills for iced tea and Coke! Almost unheard of at a ski area. I skied on a pair of 175s, the longest skies that were rented. I was amazed that most of the beginners (including the adults) were on what I would consider skies for four-year-olds. The boot bindings were darn near as long as the skies.
Back in camp, the non-ski/snowboard/snowshoers had a sled race and several other activities as well.
When we got back, we had dinner, and some of the guys went to the snowcaves that had been finished.
No stargazing Sunday evening, since it was cloudy.
The next (Monday) morning, we all got up, had breakfast, and broke camp. We got out around 1000, and arrived back in OKC at 2130. As always, I was really sad to leave the mountains behind. I’m not really a beach lover.
We had a couple small issues pertaining to sleeping arrangements with the Scouts, but overall we had a good time. A couple of the guys had headaches (we were up very high and doing some exerting), but nothing debilitating.
A couple observations on technology and gear. Ian and I had new sleeping bags rated at 0F, with fleece liners. They were wonderful! I’ve a goose down bag I’ve used for years, and been very cold in the bag in temps north of 30F. This time the temps were south of 10F and I was, if not overly hot, very comfortable.
Footwear. The only way that I was uncomfortable were my feet. I wore my standard boots that have served me well for years. The thing I had forgotten about was that waterproofing wears off. Walking in snow, and in and out of buildings, the snow that accumulates turns back into water and finds it’s way into the boot. I had wool and cotton socks, and they happily absorbed the water. A side effect was that the wet boots then froze overnight, leading to problems getting them back on. At the least, I should have had gaiters with boot covers. Even better, next time, I will go armed (or, footed) with rubberized boots. Most of the people there had them, and very few people had wet feet. I will be looking at Academy and at Cabela’s at Omaha.
Footwear 2: Ian had an older pair of my snow boots to wear. They served me well for many years. Too many years. At some point one of the boot soles completely failed, leaving the bottom of his foot exposed to the snow. Fortunately, one of the other leaders had mentioned he brought some duct tape, so I secured that and built, this…
Duct tape would not adhere to the boot material, but it would adhere to itself, so I went front to back and side to side and around, and it survived until we left Monday morning. The lesson – inspect the gear before departing, ALL of it.
When we struck camp, Dave and I noticed some interesting effects. The tent was on a ground cloth on top of snow. Our body weights and heat had pressed down where our sleeping pads were, leaving an ice dam about 4″ high between our sleeping areas. Also, right underneath his chest area, the snow had melted and refrozen. The area underneath my chest area showed a similar effect, but not as pronounced. I’m heavier than Dave, so I interpret the difference as being that Dave had a thinner closed-cell foam pad, while I had two thicker closed-cell pads, both of which are ridged, to allow a bit of air circulation, meaning less heat to melt the snow. It was pretty cool.
All in all, a wonderful way to spend a long weekend. The temps never got above 33F while we were up in the mountains, but the staff of the camp had the buildings to be in, and the gear kept us warm at night (which is the most important time), and that helped keep everyone’s spirits up. We had some crashed Scouts and Scouters on the way back, and I didn’t really like getting up at 0445 the next morning to head to the airport, but we all stayed safe, and that’s what was most important.
I think I’m already looking forward to next year! I know I’m looking forward to Summer Camp there!