Bags of marble dust filled a trailer near the base of M Mountain Friday. Tech students gathered around to pick up their bags. Students wrapped the bags in tarps, held closed with duct tape. Some divided the 50-pound bags into two sections they could put in backpacks, sharing the weight with a trail partner.
“I’ve never hiked it before and it’s really exciting and I don’t know, I feel like every Techie should do it at least once, just to get the experience and be an official Miner,” said student Diana Alvarado, as she waited to start the climb.
“It’s a 49er tradition. I’ve never hiked it before so I’m so excited I can do it now, especially after COVID,” said her friend Daniel Dolce.
John Racette and his hiking partner Malcolm Ross split the bag of marble dust into a pair of backpacks.
“I came out because last year I came out and I booked it up, but my teammate threw up on the way up and he didn’t get all the way to the top in time. But now I’m here with Malcolm and hopefully, he’s not going to throw up,” said Racette.
The morning was still cool when the crowd of 430 students, professors and alumni started their trek through the desert. They hiked right up the side of the mountain, through scraggly bushes and past cactus.
Prep for the climb began a week in advance. Roads had to be fixed after heavy rainfall earlier in the year, said Director of EMRTC Mike Stanley. Search and rescue volunteers were in attendance, and organizers were well stocked with first aid kits. Stanley made the climb himself when he was a student at Tech. His favorite part of the event is seeing how happy the students are when they make it up the mountain.
“We say that climbing the mountain and painting the M is a lot like going to school at New Mexico Tech: it’s very difficult to do but once you’ve done it, you’ve accomplished something,” said NM Tech Vice President of Research Van Romero.
One of the most challenging parts of the climb is the final push up to the M, where the incline gets steeper. Friday was Zachary Bohumil’s third time making the climb, and he took a quick water break before that final push.
“I know that this is a doozy, but I’m excited,” said Bohumil.
For Romero, making the climb is not just a school tradition, but a family tradition. He made the hike as a student in 1974 and his daughter Brittni made the trek during her senior year at Tech in 2011.
The school tradition stretches back 100 years, to 1911. Students decided to survey in the M, which was completed by 1912, said Romero. The M is designed to be observed from the Socorro Plaza. Every year during the first snowfall on the mountain, classes would be cancelled to refresh the M.
“They would throw lime on the backs of mules and bring the mules up here. They would melt the snow and mix it with lime to whitewash the M,” said Romero.
That proved too disruptive, so the event was moved to 49ers weekend.
“That kept going until I believe sometime in the 50s when the engineering students started celebrating St. Pats,” said Romero. “St Patrick is the patron saint of engineers, so we had big St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and they switched from painting the M during 49ers to during the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
“When I was a student here in the 70s, that was a big thing for St. Pats. We’d have a big scavenger hunt that would culminate with the freshman painting, hauling the lime up and painting the M. Along about in the 1980s, it got a little out of hand,” said Romero.
After a student went through a cafeteria window during a scavenger hunt activity, St. Pat’s at Tech was cancelled, so much so that the school schedules spring break during the holiday.
For a decade, the M at the top of the mountain went without a refresh, but in the fall of 1995, the tradition returned to 49ers weekend, he said. Fewer than 20 people joined that trek, said Romero. The tradition has grown in popularity since.