Not only was Matt Barry’s time in the Southwest the pinnacle of his Boy Scouts career, it was one of the best experiences of his life, and a number of other local scouts feel the exact same way.
Last August, a group of 10 Barrington scouts made a trip to the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimmaron, New Mexico. They spent an extended period of time in the Rocky Mountain wilderness learning tomahawk throwing, spar pole climbing and block powder riflery among a long list of other once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
Each day on the trail began early, with scouts and their adult leaders often rising before dawn. Camp was broken down each morning and packed up before the group embarked on that day’s hike.
Sometimes the trek was uphill over several miles. Other times the distance between camps was a bit shorter and level. Food was carried every step of the way and cooking became a campsite routine.
“It was a long time just living out of tents, cooking our food every night and every morning and just hiking every day, which was kind of intense,” said scout Matt Schryver.
“At first I had some difficulty getting used to hiking but after awhile I got used to it.”
It was a schedule that presented no shortage of physical and mental challenges that collectively called upon every aspect of each scout’s training though ultimately, those who met the obstacle said they would recommend the journey to any one of their peers.
“I enjoyed how cool it was to live out of our backpacks for two weeks and how life was so simple up there,” said scout Jake Ray, who particularly liked working with the group’s burro.
“The memories we made were incredible. I think back now, when I’m in school, if I could just go back. It was just so incredible. It’s hard to describe.”
Philmont is pegged as the Boy Scouts’ largest national high adventure base, covering about 137,000 acres. The day-in, day-out hiking was accompanied by a variety of other experiences such as the chance to see a Tyrannosaurus Rex footprint, a viewing of Native American cave drawings and an archaeological dig that turned up pieces of flint and ancient charcoal. There were also plenty of interesting wildlife sightings.
Scout John Tortolani said it was the troop’s third day on the trail when they moved from tan, dry terrain into a more wooded area. His favorite moment of the trip came as the scouts moved along a river and began to spot some of the area’s diverse inhabitants.
“We saw two bears, a bunch of animals actually, a wild turkey, a coyote, that was really cool,” John said.
In addition to providing the scouts with an arena to utilize skills they had already learned, the trip introduced a few new lessons. Harrison Kraus, for example, said one of his most memorable experiences was a search and rescue operation. Scouts had to pull a man to safety who was suffering from simulated injuries.
Another unique piece of education centered on how to protect supplies overnight from hungry bears.
One of the trip’s toughest sections came on its ninth day when the troop climbed to the top of Mount Baldy. It’s the highest point in all of Philmont and trekking to the top requires pushing up through a few thousand miles of altitude.
“It was one of the more difficult things I’ve done in my life,” said scout Connor Mellen, of climbing the mountain.
“Obviously the best part of all was climbing Baldy,” added scout Sam Santoro. “12,441 feet above sea level. That’s pretty astonishing.”
A couple of the scouts were reportedly stricken with altitude sickness during the climb. The rest of the group was there to help them along, providing emotional encouragement and even lending a hand with carrying some equipment.
While the trip to Philmont may have cemented a bond among the group, forming a sense of camaraderie was something that started much earlier.
Steve Tortolani, John’s father, has made the Philmont trip four times, twice as a scout and twice as an adult. He said the group was selected to attend by lottery in the fall of 2010. Logistical planning for the trip began not long after with physical training picking up last summer.
Scouts and adults alike were encouraged to get into a weight bearing exercise regiment.
The scouts and their adult leaders were separated into two groups for the trip. The two bunches started embarking on day hikes, getting a feel for the awaiting New Mexico terrain and the chemistry among group members.
It was this type of team building that paid off when members of the group hit a proverbial wall, be it trouble with the altitude or home sickness.
“We were absolutely as prepared as we could be,” Mr. Tortolani said. “We were incredibly proud of this group because the preparation they did paid off.”
Overall, Mr. Tortolani described a Philmont trip as the “Super Bowl of scouting.”
“It’s everything you’ve ever learning in scouting that all has to be deployed and understood and delivered in two weeks,” he said.
“It represents everything. Finances, social awareness, physical fitness, bravery and awareness of your environment, both your low impact on the environment as well as awareness of the dangers.”
With so much time invested in planning for the journey and the trek itself, Mr. Tortolani said completing the adventure was a little bittersweet.
“When you come back into base camp, there’s enthusiasm and there’s pride and there’s almost a sense of sadness that it’s over,” he said.
“For something that everyone, including the adult leaders, had worked so hard for such a long period of time to conclude was a very emotional thing. The magnitude of what we accomplished and the effort it took, the pride we all felt was palpable.”