June 21, 2003: Truchas Peak is a 13,000-foot summit in the Pecos Wilderness of Northern New Mexico. The Pecos Wilderness covers about a quarter-million acres, with no road access into the interior. Instead, hiking trails span the region. My partners were Adam Helman and Edward Earl, and we would tackle Truchas Peak as an overnight backpack, coming up from the south.
I was interested in this mountain but usually avoided it due to the imposing distances, plus its distance from my home. When I learned that Adam Helman and Edward Earl were including Truchas Peak in their week-long hiking sojourn to New Mexico, I thought this would be a good chance to go so as to break the tedium of hiking alone, and also to help divvy up gear for the backpack to high camp, plus an excuse to talk mathematics with the fellas.
I flew out of Phoenix to Albuquerque on Friday the 20th, and drove up the Pecos River Canyon, arriving at the end of the paved road at Jacks Canyon Campground, where I was able to find Adam and Edward already set up for the night. I arrived around 8 p.m., but on the day before the summer solstice, there was still ambient daylight, and true nightfall did not happen until almost 9 p.m. We chatted, discussed the route and our options, made jokes and did our best to get some sleep. I somehow managed to sleep comfortably in my Oldsmobile Alero passenger car. We arose the next day and got ourselves in order, and started in up the trail at just after 6 a.m.
The trail is not shown on the latest topographical map, nor is the road or the campground for that matter. Much of this appears to be relatively new. Nevertheless, we could pinpoint our starting position at a point at 8,800 feet elevation, on the west facing slopes of a ridge emanating south of Round Mountain. Our initial trail was the Jack’s Creek Trail, #257.
Jack’s Creek Trail makes six fairly long sweeping switchbacks to the ridge top, where it crests the ridge and traverses the east side for a short distance before rising sharply in a meadow at the trail junction with trail #25. To this point it had taken us about 90 minutes and we reckoned we’d covered 2.5 miles, moving at a good pace. The weather was cool and dry, and the gradients were gentle enough so as not to tire us. We had dense forest cover the whole way up except for the final segment at the meadow. We rested here for about 20 minutes.
We continued on Trail #257 north from this junction, through a copse of trees, before coming into the open again in an enormous, beautiful meadow. The trail traverses the south and west faces of Round Mountain, and from this vantage we could make out the mass of the two Pecos Baldy Peaks to the north, Pecos Baldy on the left, East Pecos Baldy on the right. These peaks were still a ways away and gave us an idea of how far we still had to go to Truchas, as our camp would be at the base of East Pecos Baldy near a small lake, whereas Truchas Peak was still another 5 miles north.
We made good time up this gently-sloping trail, entering small stands of trees and crossing more meadow. Soon, the summit of Round Mountain was to the south of us, and the trail entered the forest and dropped about 200 feet to a trail junction and a point at which we crossed Jack’s Creek itself. The signs were useful, and we took our second break in a small meadow about 200 yards north of the creek crossing. We were making excellent time, having covered nearly 5 miles to this point in just under 3 hours.
The next portion of our hike was another gently-sloping gain toward Pecos Baldy Lake, which sits at the base of East Pecos Baldy. This stretch covered another two miles, and we arrived at the lake at about 10:15 a.m., having covered 7 miles and 2,600 feet of vertical gain in just over four hours. The flora was less dense than down below, as we were near 11,400 feet elevation, but we were able to set up camp in a pleasant glade of trees, within viewing distance of a couple other tents.
We relaxed here for almost two hours, setting up the tent, eating lunch and catching a nap. Our plan had been to get as far in on the route as possible as long as the weather held, set up camp, and then make a decision as to whether to go for the summit today or the next day. We waited until noon to make the decision. When noon arrived and there was absolutely no hint of clouds anywhere, we decided to go for the top.
At noon we set out, now following trail #251, the Skyline Trail. The trail meanders through shady woodland but quickly gains elevation toward a prominent ridge called the Trailriders Wall. In less than a mile we topped out on this beautiful grassy ridge at nearly 11,920 feet. We battled our first snow drifts along the way, and once we topped out on this ridge, we had our first views of Truchas Peak, as well as its equally impressive sister peaks. Once on top of the Trailriders Wall, we followed the well-maintained trail up and down this ridge, losing about 120 feet to bottom out at a low point, then regaining very nearly the same 120 feet to top out again.
This ridge was nearly treeless, and the wind was fierce, which may explain why the trees can’t catch a break here. The highpoint along this ridge is a gentle mound with spot elevation 11,979 feet. It has no name, so we dubbed it Sugarloaf, since it looked like one. This little mound served as a good point of reference. We took refuge behind a berm to rest and noted the “forest” of dead and wind-scoured trees that sprinkled Sugarloaf’s slopes.
After our break, we descended almost 300 feet down to the last main low point on the ridge, approximately 11,620 feet, to a trail junction. The Skyline officially doglegs right and down the slopes to the trees below, and there is no more “official” trail to follow to the summit. We were now about one mile from Truchas Peak’s summit, with 1,500 feet of gain to go. It was now about 2 p.m. and the skies remained cloudless, although the wind was strong and consistent.
From this lowpoint, we ambled up a pleasant meadow, past one large cairn, before coming to the base of a glade of trees. We could see what looked like a rudimentary path, so we followed it. On this rocky ground, the path sometimes faded, but we were able to stay on it without too many errors. The gradient grew steeper, and we took another short break beside an old log at the top of the glade, elevation roughly 12,000 feet. After a few minutes, we left the footpath and walked up a short slope to attain a ridge, where we encountered a group of about 10 mountain goats milling about one area, watching us as we walked by. Roughly 500 feet of horizontal walking brought us to the base of the talus fields and the start of our final push to the summit.
The first segment is a steep trudge up large, solidly-set talus blocks, quickly gaining about 400 feet to top out on a knob at 12,580 feet. Then, this was followed by an immediate drop of 200 feet to the last saddle below the summit. We descended to this saddle and picked up what appeared to be a path. From this point, the last 700 feet to the top looks steep and intimidating, but I found every step on the way up this slope to be solid: either a large granite block or a solid tuft of vegetation to step on. Adam was ahead of Edward and me, both of us lagging a little by this time. We had hiked nearly 12 miles with over a vertical mile of elevation gain today.
The slope moderated about 300 vertical feet below the summit, then came to the only large snowfield on our hike. From below we were mildly concerned about it, but upon inspection it was short, level and mushy, so we crossed it with no problems. From there, it was a quick scamper up the final rock blocks to the top, and there we were. Edward and I arrived at 3:25 p.m., and the three of us simultaneously tagged the top rock, then gave handshakes all around. The weather had remained wonderfully clear but was still windy. As a result, I didn’t stay long. A photo and some looking around, and I was on my way down. I left Edward and Adam to revel on the top, whereas I wanted to get some distance put in, and to keep moving as much as possible in this stiff wind (30-40 mph sustained for minutes at a time).
I descended the 700 feet to the high saddle, then up and down the 12,580-foot knob, and down the other side to the grassy ridge where we had encountered the mountain goats, who were still there. I hiked back into the glade of trees and the log at which we had taken a break, and laid down on the soft grassy ground near it, and dozed for about 10 minutes. I was shielded in the wind, although I could still hear it through the trees. I rested, admired the amazing views and tried to make a cell-phone call to my fiance, but couldn’t get a signal. Adam and Edward soon came upon me, Adam stopping a bit to rest, with Edward continuing on ahead. Adam and I then started down through the trees and down to the low point on the ridge and back up to the high area near Sugarloaf and the shielded berm, at which point we all reconvened.
The last two miles back to camp went fast and eventless. We arrived at camp about 6:15 p.m., the culmination of 17 miles of hiking and just over 12 hours since starting our day. I was totally bushed, and I immediately conked out in my sleeping bag for an hour, then arose to join Adam and Edward for some company as the day grew into evening. However, I was in bed for good by 8 p.m., and Adam and Edward weren’t far behind. The three of us were cramped into my tent, but out of sheer exhaustion we all slept rather well, partly aided by a mild night where temperatures stayed in the 40s.
We slept in a little bit the next day, and made a leisurely hike down the final 7 miles of trail back to our cars, taking nearly exactly 3 hours and coming out about 11:15 a.m. We convoyed into Santa Fe and had a celebratory lunch at a Carrows, where Adam split with us to head north and tackle Little Costilla Peak the next day. I drove Edward to Albuquerque, we both killed some time, and I flew out that evening, arriving home about 11 p.m.
I had a wonderful hike and was happy to complete this peak and not have to do it alone. The stats for this peak were arrived at somewhat mutually based on map reading and reckoning, but we all agreed that it was about 7 miles to the Pecos Baldy Lake, 5 miles to the summit, for an overall 24-mile round trip hike. The net gain from trailhead to summit is 4,300 feet, but with separate drops of 120 feet, 300 feet and 200 feet, plus some other parts with drops of about 50-75 feet, we figured that the gross gain on the way in was closer to 5,000 feet, maybe even higher. But with the trails being so well constructed and the gradients so lenient for the most part, we found the uphill sections to go by very fast.
This hike also marked my last major climb while still a single man, as I married my beautiful bride and highpointing partner Beth on July 4, 2003.
In 2008, a new plant was discovered, Heil’s Alpine Whitlowgrass (Draba heilii). This plant apparently only is found high on the slopes of Truchas Peak, and one of my photos is used on the Rare Plants of New Mexico webpage. Heck, if I would have known to look down more, I might have discovered it. But congratulations to those who did find it and figure out it was an undiscovered plant.
Epilogue: Both Adam and Edward passed away within months of one another in 2015. I was then (and am now) deeply saddened by their deaths.
We all “met” through the county highpointers yahoo email group in late 1999, early 2000. Adam quickly assumed control of the website while Edward (along with Adam and others) developed high-end computer programs to help log mountains and such statistical data as their prominences, isolation, spire measure, and so on.
I actually met Adam in person for the first time in December 2000, when we hiked and biked the two long county highpoints of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties in California in one weekend (48 miles total). I would not meet Edward in person until June 2002, when Adam and I met up with him at a campground near Granite Chief Peak near Lake Tahoe, California.
I immediately clicked with both guys. Both were brilliant, mathematically-minded socially-awkward guys who found an outlet in mountaineering. Me, I was like the kid version of both these fellows, but they were kind enough to slow down their thinking to let me catch up. Every now and then, I would even surprise them with my own insights. Once, Adam and I were discussing a proof while hiking peaks in northern Nevada. I stopped to scratch out a few lines in the dirt and he immediately caught on and ran with it.
It was in this period of time, 2000 to 2003, that we achieved a lot together. I am completely indebted to both for their help in getting me up Montana’s Granite Peak in 2002. Adam was kind enough to make it know to the organizers that I was interested, and Edward (with his brother) were critically important in setting up the belay and rappel lines on the upper rocks and cliffs. I would not and could not have climbed this peak on my own.
Each had their quirky personalities. They talked incessantly, almost narrating their every move, bickering like a married couple. They would argue on small arcane things like when does the Sun truly “set”. Adam was a master camp chef who wrote more about his lunches and dinners on his hikes. Edward was content with pop tarts straight from the bag.
I hiked with Adam about once a year, sometimes once every two years, and we kept in constant contact through emails. Edward, I last saw in 2004, and would not see him again in 2015, after Adam’s passing.
Adam put everything he had into his climbing. He was the second person to climb all 400+ western county highpoints of the United States, a task that took him over 12 years. He longed for the biggest prize, Denali in Alaska, but was foiled twice. I sensed Adam would never be content with his achievements, and had he been successful on Denali, what would have come next?
What Adam had achieved was remarkable. Compare this was climbing the seven summits: anyone with a baseline of mountaineering talent and a load of money can achieve this, but to climb over 400 highpoints, many on private land and many technical, requires unbelievable perseverance and cleverness, and Adam achieved it. Enough said.
In Adam, I saw a kindred spirit. He was me, just 30 IQ points smarter, 100 pounds lighter, and driven to the extreme, in his element in the mountains and deserts. I saw some of myself in him, amplified 5-fold.
Then he died. His loss shook me profoundly. I knew why he died, and that makes me sad. It did then and still does now, and will forever.
In February 2015, many of us convened in San Diego to have a memorial for Adam. Here, I met Edward again for the first time in about 11 years. It was good to catch up with him again. Then, a few months later, I learned of his death, drowning in a swollen river in far-north Alaska.
Both were good men, honorable men.
I look back on my hikes and climbs with both fondly. They were perfect partners for me at that point in my life. I achieved much with their help and encouragement. This pastime is more than just tagging a rock on some peak. You put yourself into situations that demand care, hard work, perseverance and hope like hell it works out. I did this many times on my own and with them. I learned a lot about them on our journeys and in the process, a lot about me.
I could not have asked for two better friends! Thank you Adam and Edward.