Thursday, December 29, 2016

Exploring the Cerillos Hills and finding treasure

A couple days ago, while the in-laws were still here visiting for the holidays, we drove down to Cerillos Hills State Park to explore a new area with them. While there we started the multi-cache, GCJ4WQ, but after finding the last re-director stage, realized that the final was a further hike than anyone was willing to do. The area was pretty neat though, and perfect for winter hiking, so I was determined to come back. I got that opportunity pretty soon, the kids and I had to take off and leave my wife free to do some work at home, so I planned a day-trip back to the area with the kids, this time with a focus on geocaching. We stopped at several caches along the Turquoise Trail, State Highway NM 14. We were pleasnatly surprised that a bunch of these roadside caches weren't the typical tiny micro cache, but actually something large enough that they contained toys for the kids to trade.

In the town of Cerillos, the cache GCVEJ9 brought us to a cool spot with a small petting zoo. This spot ended up being one of the highlights of the day for the kids.

In one of the other caches in town, there were some pieces of real local turquoise, and the kids thought this was amazing. We definitely traded for a piece and my daughter now keeps it with her other treasures. Our hike brought us into the low hills and mines around the town. The trails were very kid friendly, and the cache was in excellent shape.
Abandoned mine in Cerillos Hills SP

Ada with her piece of Turquoise

Turquoise Treasure!

Ada near one of our cache finds

One of the deeper abandoned mines we encountered
 This cache (GC4WQ) had a Haiku theme, encouraging finders to write a haiku in the logbook. I came up with something that I thought sounded poetic, but probably is pretty silly sounding. But one particular log caught our attention and is now one of the kids favorite poems. It goes like this:

Snake snake snake snake snake 
I don't want to see a snake
OMG Hiss Hiss 

 It felt really nice to spend the day out caching with the kids. We used to do this kind of outing quite a bit but recently it seems that I do most of my geocaching trips on my own (and with rugged hikes). Maybe a combination of the kdis losing interest in geocaching, or rather having more interest in things like Pokemon GO. Regardless, we all enjoyed the day and I think we'll be doing more of these trips in the future.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Back into the LCP game

One of the tings that I was sad about when we moved from NM to TN was that we would no longer live in an area covered by the Lonely Cache Project (LCP). That site had been a strong motivating factor for my geocaching, getting me to visit very remote and lonely caches,a s well as encouraging me to spend hours trying to crack some of the harder puzzles. The leaderboards in particular were fun for me, especially the ones where I was somewhat competitive. One of my favorite was the NM Year's Top Back Country Cachers leaderboard. In 2013 I was in a tight race for the top spot, a race that ended up coming down to the last few weeks of the year. This year, I was at a disadvantage having only moved back to the state in July, but I was going to make an effort to place high. After a few very remote FTFs, I was able to get in the top 5.

To help propel me a bit higher I planned a tough winter hike up Caballo Peak. That cache, as well as some of the ones along the way would be worth quite a bit, as well as knock down the points of the current leader, wolf11469, who also happened to be the cacher I was competing against back in 2013. That was the plan anyways. The day we went turned out to be one of the coldest of the year, and there was fresh snow along the trail. Not that this would normally be a problem, but I made the mistake of bringing my dog and she ended up having some issues with the cold and ice that I did not anticipate. Balls of ice would form between her toe-pads making it hard for her to walk, and she would constantly stop to chew at these, eventually causing her feet to bleed. We made it as far as GC4BQE1 before I decided that we should turn around. Only half way to Caballo, and without having found either of the big high LCP caches. There was one puzzle cache that would have been a high LCP find that was at the trailhead, but we couldn't find it under all the snow and ice.

Despite not being able to go after those high LCP caches, I had a back-up plan, going after the FTF of a remote desert hike near Espanola, Window Rock. A hike that would be at lower elevation where we wouldn't have to worry about the snow and ice, and the dog could happily run along the arroyos and mesas chasing rabbits.

 I will be back to go after Caballo, but not in 2016. And despite not reaching my LCP goals for the day, I am happy to be back in the LCP region. No doubt there are some high LCP caches around ehre that I will be targeting over the next few years.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

FTF Weekend at Wheeler Peak - Friend To Find? had a promotion going on where they were encouraging folks to bring newbies out geocaching, calling it "Friend To Find" a play on the cacher slang of FTF. I havn't been all that successful in introducing people to geocaching, but I do sometimes go hiking with non-cachers and show them geocaching while we were out. So it just happened that during this promotion, I went on a big day-hike out in the Wheeler Peak area with two non goecachers, co-workers who also were interested in a big long hike.

Wheeler Peak, the highest point in NM is one of the more popular hikes in the area, and the trails up it are well traveled. But the route I wanted to take was not the typical one. I was lured into taking a more circuitous route by an unfound cache on Lake Fork Peak, GC5779B. This cache had gone over two years without a find, and was right up my alley terrain wise: scrambling up rocky ridges to a high mountain peak. The other really attractive aspect of hitting this cache was that it presented us with a very interesting looking ridge-walk route to Wheeler.  Wheeler Peak is on the eastern side of a cirque of high peaks that surround Williams Lake. Lake Fork Peak was on the western side of that cirque. The logical route would be to walk the ridge-line, passing several un-named peaks along the way. ON a map this looked pretty straightforward, but pictures I found online showed that sections of this ridge were rocky, steep and possibly very challenging. It didn't look like any technical 5th class climbing would be required, but certainly 4th class was a possibility, as well as big mountain exposure. Just the kind of stuff I like.

Some of the worst terrain on the ascent to Lake Fork Peak
To make things even more strenuous, after completing this cirque, we could descend from Wheeler via the 8+ mile long Bull-of-the-woods trail, adding a lot more miles to our day... and a few more geocaches. I was pretty stoked to give this route a try.

Lake Fork Peak FTF
My hiking companions were two engineers that work from my department at LANL. They were pretty stoked about this ambitious hike, but I really had no idea of their capabilities. Fortunately, it seemed like we would have various bail options throughout the route, including an option to return from Wheeler via the Williams Lake trail and shave off several miles from the entire trip. We met at the trailhead at 6:30, while it was still dark and started up the trail shortly after. There were a few geocaches on the trail leading up to Williams Lake, and I used these as a means to introduce them to geocaching. They both signed the logsheets and politely commented how this was pretty interesting, but it didn't look like either of them was interested in creating a geocaching account and actually playing the game. Oh well, no souvenir for me. But I did take newbies geocaching! Too bad Groundspeak can't recognize me anyway.

Starting our Ridge-run
Gaining the ridge at Lake Fork Peak turned out to be a pretty good challenge. I ended up leading our group into some 4th class rock climbing, which was made extra exciting by there being some packed snow and ice on the route. One member of our group got sketched out and we spent a bit of time back-tracking with him so that he could take an alternate (and easier) route. I wrote more about it on my log for Lake Fork Peak.

Typical rocky bluff "obstacle" along the ridge
The FTF was an excellent one, and the fact that I found it durng the FTF-"Friends to Find" promotio was even better. Although neither of my companions have logged the cache online yet. Hmph... more Lonely Cache Poitns for me then! Once at our first summit we got a better look at what was in store for us for the ridge walk. There were indeed some very rocky, steep sections of the cirque, but also some that looked pretty easy to walk. There was also a lot of elevation changes that would be required, probably as much as simply descending to Williams Lake and then going up one of the regular Wheeler Peak trails. I mentioned this to our group, but no one seriously considered doing this. The ridge-line looked way cooler.

Some of the rougher terrain along the ridge
We set off along the ridge for some initially very easy hiking, and with amazing views all around. Occasionally we would encounter a rocky bluff that would need to be scrambled but we were making steady progress. At the highest peak along the cirque, an un-named peak that reaches 12,819 ft in elevation, I dropped a cache which would become GC6VYBJ. I came up with an idea for a puzzle to accompany the cache along our route that I thought was pretty fun. Hopefully the geocachers who go after it will think so too, but I bet it's going to be good and lonely.

Cool remote lake south of ridge, in Taos Pueblo Reservation land
There was one more un-named peak that we had to pass before we got to the final ridge climb up to the main ridge that leads to Wheeler Peak. Once we got around this peak it became apparent that this final ridge climb would be some of the toughest terrain we would face on the whole route. IN fact, it looked hairy enough that one member of our group decided against going up it. There was a faint/old trail off to our south along the flank of Old Mike Peak and he decided he would descend down to this trail and meet us at Old Mike Peak. This would cost him a whole  bunch of elevation change and additional miles, but he thought that was better than the exposed scramble that lay ahead of us. So we split up again. I hate doing this, it goes against what has been drilled into me from SAR training, and also good trip-leader practices, but we did it anyways.
Knife-edge section of ridge

The ridge was indeed exposed and dicey at parts, but never outside of our comfort zones. There was one knife-edge like portion that was especially "fun". Would I do it again? Definitely! Would I recommend it to others? Not unless I knew they liked this sort of thing. We ended up having to wait on Old Mike Peak for a good while for the third member of our party to catch up with us. His route was easier, but also a whole lot longer. By this time it was getting late in the afternoon, and the wind was ferociously strong. We tagged Wheeler Peak around 5pm. Definitely not enough tine to descend via the Bull-of-the-woods trail. Oh well, now I have an excuse to come back out here and hike that trail some day. My log on the Wheeler Peak geocache goes into a bit more detail about our route, which you can read if your really care to.

Old Mike Peak

Old Mike Peak
Our descent was on good trails, which was a relief after spending nearly the whole day off trail and in rough terrain. We were back to the car just after dark, having only put on our headlamps for the last 15 minutes of walking. It was an incredible day of hiking in the high peaks, and a strenuous one at that. Perhaps it wasn't the best way to introduce newbies to geocaching though. We'll see if these guys end up hiking with me again some time.

Wheeler Peak

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Going Bald in Santa Fe?

It's surprising really that I'm not bald yet. It's in my genes, both my uncles are bald, and my younger brother has a nice bald patch on the back of his head. But my dad isn't bald, and maybe I'm following his example, since so far no bald spot has appeared on the back of my skull. But this post isn't about hereditary male pattern balding. It's about hiking and geocaching up Santa Fe Baldy, the prize peak outside of Santa Fe and one that has been calling to me since we moved here.
Santa Fe Bald as viewed from Penitente Peak
There is a standard route to Santa Fe Bald is from the SF Ski Basin and is about 14 miles round trip. This looks like a fine route, but after looking at maps and geocaches in the area, I settled on a longer loop hike which would take me up a couple other peaks and by 3 alpine lakes. It looked to be more like 20 miles of hiking, and I needed to finish early enough to pick up my kids from school, so I set the alarm real early, got up at 4:30 am, was out the door before 5 am and was hitting the trail at 5:22 am. I started at the Santa Fe Ski Basin on the Winsor Trail. The trail was dark and spooky, and I only had brought a small LED flashlight with me which really didn't provide much illumination. Thoughts of stumbling upon bear, skunks, porcupine or elk flashed through my head at each turn up the switchbacks. The trail was eerily quiet though. I reached the first ridge where the Pecos Wilderness boundary is and the sky was noticeably brighter there. The moon was providing some nice illumination and I tried, rather unsuccessfully to snap a few shots of the night sky. Then I kept marching up Raven's Ridge to my first geocaches.
Early morning selfie

Sunrise on Raven's Ridge
The first three geocaches up Raven's Ridge were tribute caches for a local Albuqueque cacher who goes by Thoehn. Each cache was for a different 10k geocaching milestone, which is just mind boggling to me. I geocache quite a bit, and have been for over five years now, but still am nowhere close to 10K geocaches found. To think that this fellow has found over 30K?! Incredible. Thecaches themselves were small affairs, although the 30K was noticeably nicer, in both container and location. Perhaps when Thoehn reaches 40K it will be an ammo can? One can speculate. The higher I got up on the ridge, the colder and windier it became. It felt like it was in the 30's and I spotted at least a few small patches of snow. Fortunately I had brought a warm layer, so it wasn't too bad, but to think that it is so cold in August up here makes me think that the window for hiking these high peaks is drawing to a close. Or maybe I just need to plan on more winter like clothing for these hikes. Next time, I bring thermals. I gained the summit of Lake Peak a little past 7 am and made a phone call home to make sure the family was getting up and ready for school. They were just getting out of bad, and I had already hiked 3 miles and gained 2,500' elevation. Now that's a morning!

There is a nice group of caches up around Lake Peak, which is quite rocky and rugged, requiring a bit of scrambling to reach. I was finally getting sunshine, but it was still quite chilly. The caches were all in decent shape, and where they were big enough I added my signature wooden nickle and a few kids toys. There was one cache near Lake Peak that I decided to skip, which I hate doing on hikes like this. Usually, I try to find every cache I hike by, but this one, GC1DX1Z, would require almost a 1/4 mile descent down a ridge in a direction I didn't intend on continuing. I would have to re-climb lake peak after finding it, and it seemed like a lot of extra effort. Not that I am opposed to extra effort to nab another geocache, but I had my sights set on a different geocache which was still a long hike away, and I needed to budget my time. So skip this one I did.
The skyline trail was fairly rough descending down the east slope of Lake Peak, but then I reached the most beautiful alpine meadow and the flank of Penitente Peak, my next destination. This peak is also a Bald, in that the summit is completely treeless. It doesn't even have very many rocks, consisting mainly of a huge alpine meadow. The views were amazing. The summit had a small wind-break constructed from rocks and I took a little break there, a welcome respite from the cold morning wind. The Skyline Trail, which is the one I was on now, almost completely disappeared in the meadow up there. Not that a trail was much needed, you could easily walk in any direction for a good long ways. I checked my map to see which direction I was supposed to go and simply started walking. The open meadow stretched on for a half a mile and I finally found the trail as it approached the forest below.
Penitente Peak Wind Break

SF Bald viewed from Penitente Peak. Wonderful trail on this peak.
Skyline trail meets up with the Winsor trail below Penitente Peak. If I had wanted to take a quick route up Santa Fe Bald, I would have turned left at this junction and stayed on the Skyline trail, which heads up to Santa Fe bald next. But I had other ideas, and turned right onto the Winsor trail. A few miles away was an unfound geocache at Stewart Lake. It was definitely out of the way, adding many more miles to my hike, but it would also take me up to Lake Katherine underneath Santa Fe Bald, and by an old Weeds19 geocache that I wanted to find. So the extra five miles or so was worth it in my mind. I just needed to make sure I could hike all those miles and still get back to my car in time to go pick up the kids. For once, i utilized the trip computer function on my GPSr, which computes my moving average and stopped time. So far I was making pretty good time, and the Winsor trail was easy hiking. I was averaging 2.8 mph while moving and was only stopped for about 25% of the time. At that rate, it looked like I would be able to reach Stewart Lake, then backtrack up to Katherine Lake in a few hours. I gave myself an hour to make the steep climb from Lake Katherine up to the top of Santa Fe Bald, which would put me right around noon. That left me only 3 hours to get back to my car, but along the main trails, I thought that would be doable as well. So off I went at a brisk pace down the trail.
Winsor Trail Moss
At Spirit Lake, I met my first hiker for the day. He was standing by the shore of the tranquil lake drinking something hot from a mug. The scene was so peaceful and serene that I almost didn't want to say hi as I walked by, but he heard me approaching and turned to offer a good morning. He then asked me where I had slept, and I told him I was a day hiker coming from the Ski Basin. He looked at least a little surprised by this, since it was still quite early in the morning and the Ski Basin was a long ways off. He had slept right there at the lake. We chatted in hushed tones about summitting Santa Fe bald, which was my ultimate destination. He decided not to go after SF Bald the day before due to thunderstorms, but he said they didn't really come in until 2pm. My plan of peaking by noon sounded pretty good. After saying goodbye I briefly lost the trail since there were numerous little side trails leading to campsites in this area. It is an ideal camping destination, a serene lake far away from anything. I'll have to come back some time and spend a bit more time relaxing there. But not on this day. I still had miles to go, and schedules to keep.
Stewart Lake
Stewart lake was about 600' in elevation lower than Spirit Lake and didn't have quite the same alpine charm, but it did boast a nice view of the mountains behind it. it also appeared to be stocked with fish, as I saw a few ripples while I was there looking for geocache, GC6Q8HV. This cache was only recently published and was a big reason I made this hike as long as I did. I did get the FTF, locating the nice clean tupperware under a log and signing the blank log. There wasn't any spectacular FTF prize, just the satisfaction of getting out in the mountains before anyone else.
FTF at Stewart Lake
 My next stop was an old Weeds19 geocache, Hidden River, a cache that has only been found 8 times in 10 years. A nice lonely one, it is easy to see why it is not found often. Not only is it a long hike, but you need to travel off trail for 1/4 mile and then the coordinates for the cache are known to be about 70' off. Considering it is hidden in a large boulder field with hundreds of possible locations, it's no wonder it doesn't get found much. Although there aren't any DNFs posted, so perhaps the bad coordinates aren't so much of a hindrance to eager cachers. it took my close to 20 minutes to find the cache, making my longest stop for the hike. The coords were indeed 70' off for me, but once I started thinking about how it was hidden I got away from the bad GZ and started looking in the right areas. It was very cool to find this old cache and see some of my favorite cachers signatures way back on the log sheet.
Hidden River Logsheet

Hidden River Cache Area. The water flows under the boulder field
From the Hidden River it was a slog up to Lake Katherine, gaining back much of the elevation I had dropped earlier. I reached Lake Katherine at quarter past 11, meaning I was behind schedule. That meant I couldn't sit and relax and enjoy one of the finest lake/mountain views around.
I did add a bit of water to my water bottle though, since I was pretty low. Perhaps foolishly, I didn't purify the water even though I had a filter with me. The water in the lake looked so clear and cold and clean, and I was feeling in a rush to gain the summit (storm clouds were gathering in the east) that I took a risk and simply took the water as is. So far no ill effects, but this wasn't a great idea.
Lake Katherine Clean Water... hopefully

Storm Clouds building east of Lake Katherine
At Lake Katherine I was back on the Skyline Trail, which skirts around the south of the lake and then climbs over the southern ridge of SF Bald. Taking the trial up to SF Bald would mean quite a bit of hiking, and there was "faster" [shorter] way. I could skirt the lake on the North, then ascend a steep heather-filled slope to the ridge North of SF bald. It looked very steep, but not too bad, so off I went. I heard many Marmots and Pikas while making my way up the heather, and saw many burrows, but didn't actually set my eyes on any of the little mammals. The going was slow, but I made the ridge top right before noon, and found another wonderfully lonely cache, Lake Katherine Overlook, found only seven times in eight years. This one is another Weeds19 cache, and he tucked it down an exposed rocky ledge. At least one cacher had been turned back by the exposed downclimb needed. I wan't so bothered by the exposure, but I was bothered by the booming thunder from the storm cloud out over the Pecos River to the east, a bit too close for comfort. I quickly found the cache using the spoiler picture, signed the log and was on my way to tag the summit and then get to lower ground.
My route up SF Bald. Steep heather.

Near the cache Lake Katherine View
The summit and associated geocache, GC2AV55, gets visited quite a bit it seems. It is indeed a proud hike for anyone in the area, with no easy way up, but views that are rewarding beyond all the efort expended to reach there. But I didn't linger long, those clouds to the east looked mean, and were rumbling quite a bit. The last place to be when there is a thunderstorm is on top of the highest mountain around, and that's exactly where I was. I wasn't too worried though, the storm looked to be quite a ways off to the east. The ridge-line on the other side of the Pecos River valley was getting drenched, but SF Bald was high and dry as was Pecos Bald and the Truchas Peaks to the north. Truchas however was quite white with snow. I was thankful that SF Bald was not snow capped as it would have made the going down much slower and slipperier. I snapped some photos of the summit to show I was there, then was off down the well worn spur trail on the south of the mountain.,
Picture Perfect Alpine trail above 12,000 feet. Looking South towards Lake Peak and Tesuque Peak.
 I made great time on my descent and was soon off the ridge and away from any perceived threat of getting struck by lightening. I ow had an "easy" 6 miles of hiking down the Winsor trail back to my car. I was already very exhausted from over 5000' of elevation climbing and 15 miles of hiking though, which made the return trip a bit less pleasant than it would normally have been. Fortunately, there were a bunch of micro caches for me to find along the trail back, and I stopped at each finding nearly all of them. I ran into a few more hikers too, some heading up to Lake Katherine, and one just out mushroom hunting. I had noticed that bollettes had started fruiting, and there was also a ton of fresh Amanita muscari, or Fly Agarics for you non mushroom people. I had a nice little chat with the mushroom hunter, and learned that the fruiting of the A. muscaris wa a good sign and meant that lots of other good stuff would be sprouting soon. I'll have to bring a suitable mushroom collecting bag on my next hike.
Skyline Trail junction with the spur trail that heads up to SF Bald.

A. muscari

Meadow near junction with Winsor Trail
 My time allotment of 3 hours to get from SF Bald back to the car seemed to be pretty accurate. I was exhausted and maybe a little dehydrated, but I kept a good pace down the trail and the miles flew by. I stopped to filter some water at the junction with the Nambe Lake trail, dehydration is no fun and I was out of water. I was able to find all the geocaches on the trail except one, and skipped another that was on the parallel Rio Nambe Trail. Maybe if I had a bit more energy I might have been tempted to go after that multi on the Rio Nambe trail, but I was beat. Now at least, I have a good reason to return to these trails to mop those up.
Feeling Beat after 20 miles of hiking
I made it back to my car at 3:15 pm, missing my target return time by only fifteen minutes. Not too bad, I still had plenty of time to drive down into Santa Fe and get the kids... and then collapse on the couch the rest of the afternoon. It was an awesome hike, and I'd definitely do it again, but maybe without the schedule pressure. A few extra hours to mosey would have been appreciated.

Some final stats:

  • Geocaches found: 18
  • Geocaches DNF'd: 1
  • Geocaches skipped because they were too far out of the way: 2
  • Miles hiked: 20.0
  • Elevation gained: 5360'