A few years ago on a sunny July day, I set out to backpack to Trampas Lakes, The two clear lakes sit at the base of the towering Truchas Peaks, which rise over 13,000 feet. It is a beautiful destination with the crystalline lakes reflecting the nearby pine trees and the steep raw mountain cliffs above.

Based on existing maps, I expected a hike of about 5.5 miles one way. Given that it was monsoon season, I thought I might see some rain showers. Instead, it turned out to be more than seven miles to the lakes with the trail gaining over 2,500 feet, and it rained steadily for most of the hike. After several hours on the trail, my hiking partner and I and arrived at the lakes in the midst of a tremendous monsoon storm.

There was thunder cracking and lightning striking all around us as we set up our tent. Although, both of us were experienced hikers and had good gear including covers for our packs, we were completely soaked to the skin when we finally crawled inside the tent.

My teeth were chattering, and I was so cold and wet, I couldn't think very well. In the back of my mind, I faintly remembered the symptoms of hypothermia and realized I was experiencing them. The signs include shivering, dizziness, disorientation, hunger or nausea, trouble speaking, loss of coordination, fatigue, and fast heartbeat. As body temperature drops, the heart, lungs, and other body systems cannot function properly and if not addressed, hypothermia can lead to death.

Luckily, our sleeping bags and extra clothes were dry. I knew I had to get out of my wet clothes and into my sleeping bag. After I had warmed up a little, I managed to eat something. My shivering stopped and my brain started to work again.

As the storm subsided, we looked for dry tinder to start a fire and were finally able to get warm and make some hot soup. The night passed with a little more rain and the next day dawned gloriously sunny. The streams near the lakes were running high and wildflowers I had rarely seen like the red-magenta Parry primrose exploded in brilliant colors in the marshy areas. I was happy to have survived the storm and to be at the high lakes to enjoy the beautiful morning.

Expert advice

Delinda VanneBrightyn, President of Taos Search and Rescue and K9 unit leader, has been on the TSAR team for 19 years. She is one of 45 full members who along with 20 trainees are on-call to help people who are lost or injured. All the participants are volunteers who make time to serve the community in addition to working at other jobs.

VanneBrightyn took time out during a break from an active rescue mission to provide some advice on staying safe while exploring the high peaks near Taos. When asked about my experience at Trampas Lakes, she said "You mostly did the right things. Warming up in the summer can be done with a fire, although in the winter, it has to be done more slowly if a person is frozen. It's important to eat something to give your body fuel. "

She clarified that setting up a tent in a lightning storm is not the best idea and that it is better to find quick shelter like the two plastic trash bags carried by the TSAR members. "You can cut a hole for your face and put one bag over your head and put your legs into the other one. If you can get into your sleeping bag and then the trash bags and put something under you to insulate you from the ground, you'll be better protected. You could even drape the tent over you. Carrying dry clothes, especially socks is crucial regardless of whether you are day hiking or backpacking," she explained.

Because lightning strikes can travel along the ground, VanneBrightyn pointed out that it is important to spread out and not huddle together in order to reduce the risk of more than one person being struck. Avoid open clearings and the tallest trees, as well as the mouth of a cave that might seem like a safe spot but can actually conduct the lightning strike.

More important even than the gear you carry is your mental preparedness. "The number one thing you can do to prepare is to have a positive mental attitude, according to the National Association for Search and Rescue. If you become negative and defeatist, you can put yourself at risk. If you have a positive mental attitude, you can survive. Fear and panic are your worst enemies in an emergency," said VanneBrightyn.

Benefits and hazards of hiking

With so many choices around Taos, there is a hike appropriate to all levels of experience. Time spent walking outdoors brings physical benefits like strengthening your muscles and your heart and helping you maintain a healthy weight. Studies have shown that hiking also reduces depression and improves your mood and sense of well-being.

With some preparation, you can enjoy the benefits and reduce the risks. In addition to hypothermia, here are a few hazards to be prepared for:

Getting lost and getting found: In order to stay on the trail and avoid getting lost, I recommend bringing a map and compass, as well as GPS if you have it. As you may already know from experience, the readings on your GPS may show a slightly different mileage than is shown on maps, but a map will give you some idea of the trail's direction and length. According to maps, the hike to Trampas Lakes is estimated to be about 11 miles roundtrip, but my GPS measured it at over 14 miles. It is good to anticipate that the trails may be longer than that shown on the map and leave extra time to complete the hikes.

VanneBrightyn says "Always take a cell phone. If you are injured or so lost you can't find your way out, you may be able to get enough reception to get out a text to 911. When that information is relayed to TSAR by local dispatch it will help us locate you and we will send you a text with instructions on what to do next. Generally, it is important to stay in place, so you don't become further lost. Listen for the sound of voices or whistles and call out or whistle yourself every once in a while, to help rescuers find you." She adds that you can try flashing something shiny like a mirror or place colorful objects in an open area that might be seen by rescuers on a high ridge, a drone, or helicopter.

She recommends carefully evaluating the risks and listening to local advice. "The environment at high elevations can change quickly," she says. "Have respect for local knowledge and Mother Nature herself."

Summer weather: As the summer progresses, a weather pattern known here as monsoons develops resulting in an afternoon thunderstorm almost daily. In addition to rain, thunder and lightning, the storms can bring hail or even snow at high altitudes. While it is sunny in town, a massive storm can suddenly move in at high altitudes, so always carry rain gear.

Altitude sickness: Also known as Acute Mountain Sickness, it can affect anyone at altitudes over 6,500 feet. Taos is located at almost 7,000 feet and many of the high country hikes take you above 12,000 feet. Strenuous exercise can aggravate altitude sickness. Signs include headache, fatigue, upset stomach and sleep disturbances. To avoid altitude sickness, drink lots of water and rest when you first come to town. Take time to become acclimated to the altitude before attempting a high elevation hike. If anyone in your group, experiences altitude sickness, return to lower elevations and seek medical help, if the symptoms are severe.

Wildlife: Deer, elk, hawks, black bears, coyotes, bobcat, and big horn sheep are among the wildlife you might see when you hike near Taos. The wildlife you encounter will generally want to avoid humans and it is best to stay back and give any animal a chance to escape. Mountain lions are present in the area, although they are rarely seen. To be on the safe side, keep dogs and children close to you when hiking.

Snakes: At high altitudes, you may see small garter snakes in wet areas. The only poisonous snake is the rattlesnake, identifiable by its brown and white diamond pattern and rattle, which may be seen in the desert areas near the Rio Grande. The bull snake can look similar and imitate the rattlesnake by hissing. While not poisonous, it can inflict a painful bite. In all cases, when encountering a snake on the trail, give it plenty of room to escape.

Ticks: After a rainy spring, ticks are sometimes found in the woods. Use a bug spray to deter them and be sure to check your clothes and body, as well as your dog after you hike. The ticks found here can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or tularemia.

Other notes

Fire danger: Although we had a wet spring, June has brought scorching temperatures and higher fire danger. There have already been a couple of fires nearby. Do your part to preserve the forest and the animals that live there by making sure any campfires are completely out and cold to the touch. The Carson National Forest has issued Stage 1 fire restrictions that limit fires, campfires, charcoal grills, coal and wood stoves to developed campsites and picnic areas with Forest Service-built fire rings or grills. Campfires are prohibited at dispersed camping sites.

Dogs on the trails: On Bureau of Land Management trails, dogs must be on leash at all times. In the Carson National Forest, owners have a duty to prevent their dogs from harassing wildlife, people, and other dogs, although not all dog owners do so. Be sure to keep your dog on leash or under voice control as not all people appreciate being approached by dogs. Unfamiliar dogs may not get along with each other and even your pet can react in surprising ways in new settings like the trail.

Leave no trace: We are privileged to be able to hike on the vast public lands near Taos. Let's do our part to keep them pristine and preserve them for future generations by packing trash out, staying on the trail, and leaving trails and campsites as clean or cleaner than you found them.

Carry extra water: Be sure to carry more water than you think you'll need or a water purification system to account for the trail being longer than expected or delay due to injury.


To find out more about TSAR and support their work, visit sar-taos.org.

Cindy Brown has been writing about hiking for the Taos News for ten years. She is the author of the Taos Hiking Guide available at local retailers and nighthawkpress.com.

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(1) comment

Michael Wright

All very good safety recommendations, but there’s no reason to be soaked and cold if you always carry rain gear and a light fleece. Summer monsoons bring rain, hail and often large temperature drops. 😎

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