TROUBLE – At this latitude in northern New Mexico, the treeline stops around 12,000 feet in elevation. Which means that here at 12,622 feet atop a raised shelf known as the Trouble Benchmark, we’re accompanied only by rocks and grass and threatening Fourth of July skies.
Trouble is a great name for a mountain peak, but that’s not why I sought it out on the long holiday weekend.
I was there because Trouble sits on a long, horseshoe-shaped ridge known as the Santa Barbara Divide that, when I spied it a couple weekends earlier from the top of Trampas Peak, seemed to offer the opportunity to walk for a long time up in the open New Mexico sky.
So, here we are on America’s birthday, traversing the rocky ridge from Jicarita Peak westward toward the Truchas Peaks with modest goals: We would like to climb to the top of every peak on the trail – six by my count. We want to find out what it’s like to sleep out above 12,000 feet.
And we are hoping we have chosen such a remote corner of the Pecos Wilderness that for a couple of days we will see no other bipeds, only bighorn sheep and elk and marmots.
Plenty of people – perhaps the smart, normal people – would look at that opportunity and say, “Change the channel and pass me another beer.” My agreeable Sherpa and I just hope our knees hold out and the lightning holds off.
So far, so good, on the knees. The lightning is another story.
Everything is more intense at high elevations. The wind blows harder. The sun is more than a mile closer to your nose. Also, when lightning looks for a place to strike on flat tundra, the top of your very own noggin’ might be the highest thing around.
We tested all those theories in a day that spanned 20 miles and treated us to rain, hail, lightning that drove us back down into the valley for a timeout and skies that eventually opened to glorious views of the entirety of the Sangre de Cristos.
One of the attractive qualities of mountains is how nicely they remind us of our utter insignificance. This ridge of granite was formed a billion years ago. But the rocks that lie on the surface – the limestone, sandstone and shale we were picking our way across – were formed only about 70 million years ago.
The gap in the geologic record between the prehistoric granite and the younger sedimentary rock is called the Great Unconformity, an enchanting name that I know only because Mike Butterfield explained it to me in his book, “New Mexico’s High Peaks.”
The book was recently released by the University of New Mexico Press, and it is filled with photos of the mountains in New Mexico that rise above 12,000 feet and Butterfield’s accounts of hiking among them to capture those photographs.
Mountaintops that stand above treeline are stark places, by definition. But in Butterfield’s photos, they are buttery golden and rosy pink and the skies and alpine lakes are impossibly blue.
Butterfield, a native New Mexican and part of the Butterfield Jewelers family, loves to be up high. Sixty now, he still remembers the first time he climbed to the top of a high peak – 1969, Colorado – and the feeling he got when he broke out of the trees into the open space above timberline.
When I rang him up to talk about high places, Butterfield told me he was hooked after his first summit. “There was nothing like it,” he said.
After a career as a musician in California, he came back to New Mexico in 1992, laced up his boots, strapped on his camera and starting spending a lot of time up in the mountains and out in the open.
I’ve always thought my general state of happiness above the timberline could be explained by some analgesic effect of a lack of oxygen (we take in two-thirds as much oxygen at 12,000 feet compared with sea level).
Butterfield thinks it’s something deeper.
“The idea of being out in the open, there’s something about it,” he says. “You’re on top of it all.”
Hiking in a forest or a meadow has its own rewards. But Butterfield says, “You really haven’t separated yourself until you break out of the timber. It’s just the sheer enjoyment of getting on top of something.”
From atop the peak named Trouble, which was easy to climb but earned its name on the hail-hastened descent, I say, “Amen to that.”