Backpacking On The Fringe Of Paradise
The delicate scent of evergreen needles makes a wonderful alarm clock.
I woke to it on two mornings recently in the Pecos Wilderness of northern New Mexico encamped near the shore of a shocking green lake peopled with the most beautiful trout in the world.
Each of the 3 evenings that I and my 3 companions saw these lovely trout, they lept from the water like Olympic decathletes hungry for mosquitoes. Just across the several hundred yard wide spit of land where we were camped reposed another lake: this one a glacial tarn of purest snowmelt azure.
Ringing us around in our 11,500′ valley were jagged spires of peaks thrusting to 13,000′ .
Moraines and couloirs and talus, oh my!
The Pecos Wilderness
The Pecos Wilderness in Northern New Mexico is a minimally trammeled Lothlórien of mighty mountains, pristine lakes, flowing brooks, abundant wildflowers, and such startling majesty that it takes the breathe away.
I had done a brief 3 day, 2 night backpacking trip into the region in 2008. On that occasion, I had entered the Truchas Peaks wilderness from the southern approach near Jacks Creek. A friend and I had climbed the 2nd highest mountain in the state, 13,102′ South Truchas Peak, as well as the two proximate northern peaks in the range.
I was gobsmacked by the lushness and harsh serenity of the place. Trailriders Wall, a long ridge with stunning views of the peaks ahead and lakes speckling the forest to the east had been a highlight.
A Bighorn Ram had wandered into our simple campsite and seemed undeterred by our mid afternoon return from the summit jaunt.
Pictures of that trip can be viewed here.
Ever since then, I have longed to return to this area and bring my wife along.
Return To The Pecos
Everything cooperated. The weather was classic Southwest-blue skies ribboned with hints of cloud; enough to provide texture and variety, but not to threaten.
We shouldered our packs and began hiking from the Trampas Trailhead.
The trail ascended gently for 5 miles or so to the fraternal twin Trampas Lakes. We made a leisurely day of it, stopping frequently to rest and admire the scenery and greenery.
Pausing by a small cataract on the Rio de las Trampas, we ate gorp and quaffed water. El Stevo was eager to impress his wife with his water filtering skills, and thus chivalrously offered to fill her a fresh bottle. Bethany clambered about on the rocks seeking the perfect photo.
We enjoyed the gentle adventure of a few creek crossings on decrepit single log bridges, soaked our feet in snow-melt water, saw the flinders of an avalanche or rock-slide induced slope deforestation, and switchbacked our way steadily upward.
As our group came in sight of the first of the lakes, our jaws dropped.
Green grasses sprouted from a tree-ringed shore, above, crags jutted precipitously, and the lake itself was a masterwork of sublimity. Clear, fresh, seeming almost to exhale the green of the living, breathing forest in which it reposed.
To the east was another small lake into which I forthwith plunged. It was the deep blue of glacier ice and of a commensurate temperature. After two teeth-chattering dips, I was chastened and our group sought a camp spot at a suitable distance from the lake shore.
Boiling water, pitching a tent for the girls and a tarp for El Stevo and I, collecting wood for a small fire against the rapidly chilling evening, rigging a bear bag. These pleasant, purposeful chores filled out the remainder of the day.
Dinner eaten, we settled into somnolence as the fish lept for their meals in the westering remnants of light.
After breakfasting on oatmeal enriched with seeds and dried berries, we embarked upon our day’s adventure, an attempt at summitting North Truchas Peak.
With no trail to guide us, we picked a line up a couloir that I had scouted the previous evening and began to climb. The incline was extreme and the footing an unstable mix of tufts of alpine vegetation, scree, and boulders poised to tumble.
Bethany and I, in the lead, looked down at the mountain-diminished figures of Natalie and El Stevo, specks of color on the moraine below. “Will they be up to this”, we wondered?
Inching their way up the slope, they joined us at a notch in the granite where we took photos and breathed easier for a few moments.
Consequences of a fall would have been substantial.
El Stevo took the lead for the final push to the summit ridge. At the rear of the pack, I experienced an unwonted tinge of fear contemplating the exposure below and the fragility of the mortal flesh.
Despite my brief misgivings which assert themselves now, unlike in the reckless days of my youth, we safely attained our immediate objective.
There, on that ridgetop, with peaks, incredible peaks jutting in every direction, the lakes below, a cool breeze pulling sweat from our skin, and an admixture of triumph and humility stirring our blood, we rested.
To the east, on the slope of a 12,900′ peak, Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep grazed. Patches of snow flecked the slopes of the mountains around us, and the vistas had that singular alpine effect of calming and exhilarating at the same time.
After some reconnoitering and topo consultation, we pressed on toward the summit. An exposed knife-edge walk with talus slopes falling away steeply to each side brought us to a class 4 scramble just below the base of the peak.
Here, every fiber of Natalie’s being began to rebel against the vertigo-inducing exposure. Bethany donned her mountain guide persona and managed to coach Natalie through the most technical section of the climb.
Topping out, we marveled at the majesty. Northward, Wheeler Peak and its doughty companions, Old Mike and crew, dominated the near perspective.
Farther, the blue-smudge summits of Colorado’s 14ers could be seen.
But here, in this triumphant moment, loomed a disheartening realization.
We were not on top of North Truchas Peak! There it was, to the southeast, a rocky fang snarling and beckoning…
Bethany was immediately seized with the compulsion to go for it. El Stevo and Natalie were not interested in yet more adrenaline-fueled scrambling, and I had already scouted the route and doubted the wisdom of attempting it that day.
Nonetheless, Bethany and I took another scouting mission, heading down through some tumbled, broken rock towards the col. Soon, the route revealed itself in all it’s fierce beauty. The mountain was further away and more treacherously attained than time would permit.
We will be back!
Bethany and Natalie in the lead, we began our descent.
Natalie conquered her fear of heights, Bethany showed her mettle as a patient guide, and El Stevo and I followed them back to the mouth of the gully we had ascended.
Deciding to go down via a less rock-boned route, we safely made it back to the fringe of timber at the base of the moraine. From here, a downhill stroll, sylvan lovely, conducted us back to our campsite.
There she was: Our lake, birthed by some ancient glacier, nursed on snowmelt, and now grown to nubile beauty, her shoreline curving in delicate grace. That afternoon, I swam across her and later, shivered in my sleeping bag, penance, perhaps, for having dared her frigid loveliness.
We spent the remaining hours of that idyllic afternoon resting, cooking, taking tea, and soaking in all the peace that we could.
The Hike Out
On Saturday morning we all woke much refreshed. The temperature both nights had gone down to about 40 degrees F. On Friday night, the girls had shivered all night long, unable to sleep.
This night, donning extra down jackets provided by their loving spouses, they fared better. My earplugs had mitigated the super-hero snores of El Stevo.
We had a leisurely morning, enjoying breakfast and coffee while listening to an avian symphony. Packing up camp was a bittersweet affair. We did not want to leave. However, one more treat was in store.
Backpacking out, we detoured to Hidden Lake where we sat on the shore and soaked our feet while conversing quietly. From Hidden Lake, an off trail traverse through the forest roughly following the outlet of the lake led us back to the main trail.
By late afternoon, we picked our last wild strawberries and arrived to where the clear waters of the Rio de Las Trampas flowed past our vehicle.
An end and a beginning.
To see all photos, click here.