July 10, 2021 – I’m working my first summer here at Philmont as a graphic designer. I first heard about Philmont from my younger brother, who finished a trek here in 2016. After that, words like ‘bear bag,’ ‘yum-yum bag,’ and ‘just sump it!’ became typical dinner conversation, much to the rest of the family’s chagrin. We knew we were going to come back here eventually, and an open summer between school years, vaguely in the midst of a pandemic where I couldn’t find much other work, provided the perfect opportunity for me to come see what my brother was talking about.
During my first few weeks here as a graphic designer, I found it to be roughly the same experience as I had in other jobs, like the work I had done for my university. With bonus mountains, an important perk coming from an Illinois kid. A lot of times in the Marketing Department, you have to represent other people’s experiences through things like social media posts and articles without necessarily having the chance to do those things for yourself, which sometimes makes it harder to relate to what other people are going through.
Take a shot of someone throwing their boots over the Welcome Back sign, for example. Without completing a trek myself, it can be hard to capture the genuine happiness and excitement a participant feels in a short social media caption. This is what set Philmont apart from other summer jobs for me: the chance to take side hikes on time off and see the camp for myself.
After a bit of a rough training trek earlier on, in which I got pretty bad altitude sickness on the Tooth of Time, I got my next chance to escape from base camp earlier this week. The mission was simple: spend a night at Miners Park, experience it, find something to write about and come back.
And with that, I loaded my stuff into a backpack that felt like it weighed more than me and gently yeeted it into the back of our beloved ‘Burban. We decided the best way to do it was to drive me pretty much the whole way there, given my terrible sense of direction. After a bumpy ride that scrambled a couple of my brain cells, we arrived at the main cabin.
Due to some weather concerns, I was told to start hiking right away to get to the climbing area if I wanted to go. It was a 30–40-minute hike, lengthened by me going in the wrong direction right off the bat. Luckily, I met a crew in the woods that turned me around. Back on the trail, I kept walking for a while. Again, probably because I’m from the Midwest, I have a bad habit in which I consistently underestimate the size of mountains and the time it will take to get where I’m going. I’m used to climbing in places like Taylor’s Falls in Minnesota, where you park the car 5 minutes away from where you’re climbing because the land is so flat.
After a couple of breaks both for water and for my weakling lungs to catch their breath, I reached the climbing area. I met two crews up there, one from Georgia and one from Texas. I remember one guy, Kiran, whose friends called him the Rock Slayer. We cheered each other on as he passed through the hardest part of the route. I tried the same one after him, struggling to find tiny dips in the rock to put my fingers in and using the crack behind it to keep my balance. The kids made it look easy! On another route, I rappelled off the top of the cliff back down to the ground. The
views were incredible. Despite the fog slowly rolling in, I could see for miles around at the top of the mountain.
The clouds rolled in, and it started to rain as I finished my last route, so I decided to go back down to base before the weather got any worse. I spent the night talking with the crews and climbing with them in the bouldering gym. We worked on climbing the overhang part that makes a full arch to the other side. We failed pretty miserably but had fun trying. Later on, I watched their crate stacking competition where one guy stood on top of 18 crates, on belay about 15 feet up. We applauded their effort as they all came crashing down at the end. I was very grateful that the Miners Park staff let me sleep on a crash pad in the bouldering gym for the night. It rained almost the whole time, but I was warm and snuggly in my sleeping bag.
As I was making breakfast the next morning, I heard a call come in on the radio from Logistics. All the backcountry roads were closed to cars. The heavy rain overnight had made the roads one giant mud puddle. I would have to walk back to the Lover’s Leap Trailhead to be picked up. I looked for a trail, but the rain had also made it harder to figure out what was a trail and what wasn’t. I took a jagged path down what I thought was a trail before finally finding the road, which I followed the rest of the way.
Looking back on my experiences, I remember all the fun I had but I was also struck by how normal everything felt, over a year into this pandemic that has changed most other aspects of our lives. Things like mask-wearing were accepted as a social norm by both participants and staff. At the rock wall, we stayed at least six feet apart, including above and below each other. It’s through hard work and dedication like this that Philmont is still able to provide life-changing adventures for people, even in the midst of a pandemic.
Written by Caitlyn Kviz – MPS Graphic Designer.