New Mexico Backpack

Published 2012-09-09

After three summer months of New Mexico’s 95-plus degree heat I’d had enough and needed some relief.

Luckily, even though New Mexico is in large part a desert, the north central part of the state is dominated by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, parts of which feature a series of 13,000 foot peaks and some unmatched high-elevation backpacking spots.

I grew up in this area in a tiny village of 50 people; my mom still lives there, tending to 10 acres of alfalfa fields, a large garden and a couple of horses. My friend Adam Buechley also still lives there, and if anyone was going to be game for a weekend outing it was him.

He’s a couple of years older than I am, but we grew up together and have had many adventures, including the time we drew skateboards under all the cows on roadside signs near our houses, and the time we trudged through thigh-deep snow drifts on a backpacking trip we took with friends in lieu of going to our high school prom.

Today Adam is an accomplished skier, rock climber and all-around outdoorsman. He’s worked as a Forest Service Hot Shot and snowboard instructor and is currently part of a Forest Service trail maintenance crew that spends eight days at a time fixing some of the hundreds of miles of trail that weave through the forests of Northern New Mexico.

I called him and pitched a trip that would land just as he was coming off one of these eight-day jaunts, but luckily he was more than game to turn around and head right back into the forest to one of our favorite spots at a high mountain lake.

Since Adam spends so much time with a backpack on he was excited to try the packs Mystery Ranch had just sent me. He lived in Bozeman for a couple of winters while working at the Sugar Bowl Ski Area and knew Mystery Ranch packs have a reputation as being some of, if not the most, well-built packs on the market.

Because it was a relatively short trip we knew we could splurge and bring some things we would never try to squeeze in on a longer trip, including a six pack of local IPA and a decadent piece of chocolate dessert my mom had stashed.

Adam was used to carrying 80-plus pounds for his Forest Service job, so we loaded him up with the larger Glacier and I carried the Trance XXX, which I stuffed with all my gear and still had plenty of room. My dog Benny, who loves to be on the trail but hates carrying a pack, got a free ride.

The hike to the lake where we camped is relatively short—3.5 miles—but you gain a couple thousand feet and cross back and forth across a small trout stream nearly a dozen times. Late summer is the best time for foraging fruit and along the way we picked raspberries, watermelon berries and the rare, but extremely potent blueberry.

The lake where we camped sits in a bowl below the ridge we would climb the next day to access one of the peaks. There are several steep chutes off the ridge that we tele or board each spring, including one that sits between two sheer rock walls and features a bolder that has to be carefully skirted just as the chute widens back into the lake basin.

The lake is also where I proposed to my wife back in 2009 and is a favorite spot for locals because most of the time you’re the only ones there. Adam and I met a few people coming down the trail, but when we got to our campsite we were thrilled to find that we had the place to ourselves, which can be hard to do these days.

A couple of IPAs and a helping of sausage pasta later, I was sitting around the campfire through a light drizzle, wet but super happy I was wearing a jacket instead of sitting under a swamp cooler back home.

The next day I wore the fanny pack off the Glacier and Adam carried the Trance XXX as we headed up one of the chutes toward the summit of the peak. New Mexico is notorious for its monsoon storms in the summer that bring rain and lightning so we wanted to get up and back fairly quick before the thunderheads started to build.

The peak we climbed sits right at the apex of two valleys—the one we came from and another just to the south that features a waterfall you can see, and hear, from the summit. To the north you can see all the way to the Colorado border, to the west are the plugs of several extinct volcanoes, and to the south the Sandia Mountains rise above Albuquerque.

I don’t know that much about Buddhism, but I’ve been told that practitioners use it as a way to help them turn their conscious brains off. It’s about letting go of some of the baggage that rules our lives. Like many remote places in the wild, the top of that peak had a similar effect on me. I’m a writer by trade and my brain is usually running a million miles a minute. But for one of those minutes I was able to check out and be quiet.

Back down at the lake we drank the last two IPAs and met up with my mom who hiked up for the day with her dog Paco. We ate a relaxed lunch but eventually the rain clouds started to roll in so we broke camp and headed down. Benny and Paco tore through the brush chasing birds and rabbits; Adam, mom and I found our own rhythm as we stretched out in a line down the trail.

It began to rain just as we reached the trucks and piled in. We dropped Adam, mom and Paco off in the village, and Benny and I headed home. He conked out in the backseat, exhausted, and I watched the temperature outside rise with each mile I traveled south. I tried to hold onto the feeling of what it was like up at the lake, but soon enough the air conditioner came back on.

As we unloaded the truck at the house I caught a glimpse of my skis in the garage. Even though the temperature was back to 90-degrees, it was a nice reminder that snow would be falling soon and that Adam, I and the rest of the crew would trade shorts for snow pants, and t-shirts for down jackets, and the we would we be away from the heat, at least for a couple of months.

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