Category Archives: New Mexico

Northern NM climbing (and failures thereat)

Look at us all trad'ed out

Look at us all trad’ed out


[Lately I have been too busy doing things to write about them. Let’s see if I can catch up.]

Though I have spent more time in northern New Mexico more than anywhere else, it has usually been during non-climbing periods, so I know little about the local crags. It took a visit from an eager out-of-towner to make me acquaint myself with the area. I met Renée as a friend-of-a-friend while ice climbing in Ouray this winter, and she somewhat misguidedly looked me up as a partner and source of information on the southwest part of a whirlwind dirtbag tour of the west. Fortunately she had done her research, so after dinner in Santa Fe, we drove up through the little town of El Rito, and camped a short way off the dirt road to a nearby trad cliff.

Meadows and El Rito Rock

Meadows and El Rito Rock

This being truck-accessible public scrub-land near a town, we woke to the usual collection of junk — old carpet, CRT monitor, toilet seat — as well as an unusual pair of sheep carcasses. We ignored the detritus while eating and sorting gear, waved to some locals, then drove the rest of the way to the crag. Though the road supposedly required a high-clearance 4WD, my Element had no trouble with a bit of careful driving. After a 5-10-minute walk through open woods, we were at the base of the crag. The El Rito crag consists of mostly solid, generously-featured conglomerate rock, with enough cracks and bushes to allow trad protection.

Crux roof

Crux roof

As this was my first trad climbing in almost two years, I happily started off on a mellow 5.7 and gave Renée the first lead. After failing to do anything terminally stupid while belaying and following, I led the easy second pitch to the top. After enjoying the view of fields and cows to the northwest, we jogged around the walk-off to try the next route. I led the first 5.7 pitch, with protection consisting almost entirely of slung shrubbery. The second pitch was a bit more interesting, as the face steepens below a roof, thoughtfully protected by a bolt that can be clipped from below.

After walking around again, we scrambled a 5.3 on the right-hand side, curious why it had three stars in the guide (PDF). Though I would not give it maximum stars, it was fun enough, as was another small tower above it, and the right-side walk-off was not nearly as bad as the guide suggested. Overall, El Rito is fun climbing with easy access and camping, well worth checking out if you’re in the area.

Abiquiu Lake from Pedernal

Abiquiu Lake from Pedernal

With daylight to spare, we decided to tag Coyote Butte, a.k.a. Cerro Pedernal, a small but notable peak between the Jemez and Abiquiu Lake. We stopped by the surprisingly nice El Rito library (a converted WPA-built school) to look up the route, then drove toward the town of Coyote, and followed a good forest road to a bad one leading toward the peak’s south side. Here I felt my new car’s inferiority, and was forced to park partway up before suffering an unplanned oil change. Renée’s truck got us a short distance farther, where the road seems to turn into a rutted ATV track.

Pedernal panorama

Pedernal panorama

From here we bush-whacked straight toward the center of the butte’s broad south face, finding an occasional cairn. As we approached the face, we easily spotted a cave mentioned in the route description, and found a well-worn and -cairned trail leading up the brief third class scramble to the top. Coyote Butte is a long, narrow mesa tilting slightly up to an open summit on its western end. There we found a summit register and excellent evening views of the Abiquiu area and southern Sangres beyond. We chilled and got chilled a bit, then returned to a convenient campsite along the road.

Start of attempted Brazos route

Start of attempted Brazos route

Despite a less-than-perfect forecast, we headed slightly north to climb a long, moderate route on the Brazos Cliffs, one of the largest face in New Mexico. We discovered along the way that, contrary to what multiple maps say, NM 573/162 does not connect US 84/64 to the Brazos Road. Instead, it dead-ends at a river crossing — and more dead sheep.

After fixing that mistake, we found the parking and approach without much further trouble. The approach starts off through summer cottages, then follows an old forest road before climbing and traversing through the woods to the base of the cliffs. It is easy to follow on the way out — just go to the end of the road, then head toward the huge crag — but somewhat trickier on the return, as the route is sparsely cairned and apparently seldom traveled.

First two pitches of Cat Burglar

First two pitches of Cat Burglar


We reached the base of the cliffs a bit late in the morning, then spent far too much time finding the base of the route. After exploring too far, we returned to a water-scoured gully at the base of the “Great Couloir,” looked at it, then scrambled up some awful brushy class 4-5 stuff to its left to reach the base of the route. In retrospect, it would probably have been easier and faster to scramble or climb from the couloir to the base of the first pitch.

And then it sucked

And then it sucked

There were some clouds to the south and west, but nothing directly overhead, so we roped up to simul the first two easy pitches. Though the climbing was not too hard, there was not much obvious protection: Renée placed something like two pieces in the first 50 meters. When we eventually regrouped at the top of P2, a ledge with a large tree and a slung log, the weather seemed to be deteriorating. We dithered for a few minutes, reluctant to abandon the climb, before a flurry of graupel and snow made up our minds. As mentioned in the route description, Brazos rock becomes extremely slick when wet. Had we started later, we likely would have had to either wait out the weather or donate more gear to the crag; as it was, we lost only a sling, a cordelette, and two carabiners on the retreat.

With unsettled weather all around, the rest of the day was best used driving on to the next thing. So much for the New Mexico part of my season.

Venado, Latir

Venado from "turd ridge"

Venado from “turd ridge”


I had originally meant to hike Lobo Peak near Taos, but the trailhead camping looked bad, and the peak too easy, so I continued through Questa to a nice, quiet spot at Cabresto Reservoir. This is not just a nice place to camp, but the trailhead for Venado and Latir, two 12,000-foot peaks within shouting distance of Colorado. Like North Truchas, I had tried to do these two during a previous winter, only to be turned around by bottomless slush, so a bit of vengeance seemed in order.

Bull Creek emerging from snow

Bull Creek emerging from snow

Waking to gray skies, I figured out a better way to attach snowshoes to my pack, then set of more quickly than I had the day before. After rounding the reservoir at 9,200′, the trail climbs consistently along a creek leading to Heart Lake. I started hitting intermittent snow around 10,000′, but it was still firm in the morning, and I continued without snowshoes as I turned onto the Bull Creek trail, which climbs to the 12,000′ saddle between Cabresto and Venado Peaks. I followed ski and boot tracks until the latter gave up in deep snow, then put on snowshoes, lost the trail, and floundered along the path of least resistance through the woods south of Venado.

The quick way to Venado

The quick way to Venado

Emerging in a clearing, I saw that the southeast ridge of Venado’s southeast subpeak was both tree- and snow-free, so I ignored the trail to efficiently gain 1,000′. Though I saw no bighorns, this is apparently a popular place for them to hang out, as evidenced by the carpet of their dung covering parts of the ridge. I crossed the subpeak, then put my snowshoes back on for the final climb to Venado’s summit.

Latir from Venado

Latir from Venado

I had thought of hanging out on top for awhile, or possibly making an out-and-back trip to nearby Virsylvia, but the vicious, eyeball-freezing wind immediately changed my mind. Instead, I continued as quickly as possible along the so-called trail toward Latir, then left it for the summit at the north end of “Latir Mesa.” (Latir is not really a peak, but just the high-point of a rolling alpine plateau stretching northwest to southeast for over a mile.)

Lucky encounter with trail sign

Lucky encounter with trail sign

Latir’s summit was once again too windy for comfort, so I followed the line of large cairns marking the supposed trail to where it drops down a cirque toward Heart Lake. I played hide-and-seek with the trail for awhile, finding a buried sign and some blazes on trees, then followed it more easily as it descended to shallower snow, finally taking off my snowshoes just above the Bull Creek junction. With my new attachment method, I was even able to comfortably jog the descent to the reservoir, arriving with plenty of time for more fish and a long drive up into Colorado.

North Truchas

North Truchas from saddle

North Truchas from saddle


Out of the house, into the car, and up the road north: so begins another season.

The Truchas Peaks are the most rugged and remote section of New Mexico’s tail end of the Rockies. I snowshoed Middle and South Truchas a couple of years ago, and was completely shut down trying to ski North Truchas last winter, so I decided to finish it off as my first act of 2016. The shortest route is about 25 miles round-trip with 4100 feet of elevation gain, mostly on a well-maintained pack trail. In early May, however, the last half of the trail is completely buried in snow.

Distant Chimayosos

Distant Chimayosos

After a quiet night at the Santa Barbara trailhead, I got a leisurely start around 6:30, hiking along the Santa Barbara River with snowshoes flopping awkwardly on my pack. The trail soon enters a narrow canyon, with sharp rock buttresses rising to the west. North Truchas’ eastern neighbor Chimayosos Peak comes in and out of view at the head of the canyon, as the trail slowly gains elevation along the river’s eastern bank.

Creek crossing

Creek crossing

After a bit of confusion at an intersection, I continued up the west fork trail, passing several campsites and crossing a couple of large meadows. Near the head of the canyon, where we had been turned around by unconsolidated snow when skiing last year, I found that the trail crosses to the west side and doubles back a short distance down-canyon before switch-backing up the steep west slope to No Fish Lake. The lower switchbacks were intermittently snow-covered, but the snow was hard enough to make snowshoes unnecessary. Higher up, it became softer and continuous, forcing me to finally put on snowshoes as I awkwardly side-hilled up the buried switchbacks.

Slog, slog, slog

Slog, slog, slog

I lost the trail in the woods where the valley flattens out below the lake, but had little trouble making my way through the woods toward the Chimayosos-Truchas saddle to the southwest. I thought I saw a couple of bighorns near the saddle, but nothing but droppings of indeterminate age when I reached the sign. The final climb to Truchas had been blown partially snow-free, so after snowshoeing through some krummholtz, I picked my way up the steep grass in running shoes before snowshoeing the final 100 feet to the summit.

Pecos Baldy (l) and Truchas from North Truchas

Pecos Baldy (l) and Truchas from North Truchas

After taking in the view of the other Truchas Peaks and Pecos Baldy to the south, and the Taos-area peaks to the north, I thought about tagging nearby Chimayosos as well, but decided to take an hour-long summit nap on this calm, warm day. I had felt painfully slow on the final climb, and guessed that Chimayosos would take longer than it looked like it should. The snowshoe back was mostly uneventful, though the snow-and-log bridge I had crossed in the morning had softened enough that I repeatedly broke through to the log, and once to the stream. Whatever — my feet were already soaked, and the day was warm.

At the trailhead, I finally met the only other soul I had seen all day, a fisherman checking out the river and apparently leaving empty-handed. I prefer not to leave my fish to chance: in less than five minutes, I had pulled out a can and spread it on a couple of tortillas for my first traditional summer meal. On to the next one!

Sandia Shield-Thumb loop (5.4-ish)

Upper La Cueva Canyon from Thumb

Upper La Cueva Canyon from the Thumb


[This entry is more of interest to climbers and scramblers living near Albuquerque than to the general public. — ed.]

The Sandias are either a small mountain range or a large mountain rising 5,000 feet above Albuquerque in central New Mexico. The steep western side features many trails for hikers and runners, and a wide variety of scrambling and climbing routes on its many fins and towers. Sandia is thus an excellent “workout peak” in the spring and fall, when it is neither too hot nor covered in snow.

One of my favorite routes, which I have done several times, climbs the knife edge of the Shield (4th class), then descends the La Luz trail with a side-trip over the northwest ridge of the Thumb (5.4-ish). The route involves a bit under 4,500 feet of elevation gain, and can be comfortably completed in a short day (4h30 to 6 hours) when climbing unroped and jogging the descent. To skip the hardest climbing, or to shorten the outing, one can either climb up and down the Thumb’s southeast ridge, or skip it entirely.

Shield (l) and Needle (r) from near trailhead

Shield (l) and Needle (r) from near trailhead

From Tramway Boulevard, drive up Forest Road 333 toward the La Luz trailhead, but stay straight on the dirt continuation of 333 for perhaps 1/2 mile to a large parking lot near a gate. Unlike La Luz, this lot does not require a day use fee (yay!). From the lot, hike along the dirt road until the Piedra Lisa trail leaves to the right. Follow this trail as it meanders up and down through several ravines, then climbs to a 7,600-foot saddle at the base of the Shield.

Lower Shield and shadow of Needle

Lower Shield and shadow of Needle

Leave the Piedra Lisa trail and follow a well-defined climbers’ trail east along the ridge, climbing through piñon and oak brush to the base of the Shield’s scrambling. Staying near the crest, most of the climbing is class 2-3. The crux is at and above the “W”, a double notch visible from the approach. When it is dry, one can easily jump across the first notch and hand-traverse the second; snow can complicate things a bit. Above the “W”, more 4th class climbing leads to easier terrain, where another use trail follows the crest and north side of the ridge over the summit of North Sandia to the Crest trail.

From the intersection with the Crest trail, a pleasant, rolling run/hike leads to the parking lot and gift shop at the crest. While there is water available, it is all trucked in, so you have to ask nicely for it, and should probably only do so in an emergency.

Thumb, with NW ridge on right

Thumb, with NW ridge on right

The La Luz trail leaves the Crest trail at the south end of the gift shop, and descends past the Thumb along the south side of La Cueva Canyon in a series of maddeningly flat switchbacks. Once below the stairs, look for a use trail leading from the north end of a switchback to the old trail in the center of the canyon. This route saves quite a bit of distance and time, and avoids numerous annoying talus-field crossings.

To reach the Thumb’s northwest ridge, leave the (new) trail at the end of the last switchback before it crosses La Cueva Canyon. Alternatively, get back on the new trail from the old where the two nearly join, and leave it at the next switchback. If you are in the right place, you will pass some old fencing, then ascend a treed bench on a climbers’ trail to reach a ledge at the base of the route.

Start of Thumb's NW ridge

Start of Thumb’s NW ridge

The first two pitches are probably the hardest, so if you’re comfortable at first, you should be fine with the rest of the route. An optional crux higher up, marked by an old ring piton, can be bypassed by traversing left, then climbing up and back right to the ridge crest. Eventually the climbing eases off, with lots of class 2-3 scrambling leading to a final 4th class headwall just below the summit. To descend, follow the cairned route along the southwest side of the southeast ridge until it reaches a saddle. From here, follow bits of use trail straight down through the woods on the left side of a talus field, then cross it and descend the woods on the other side to pick up the trail.

Thumb with NW ridge on left

Thumb with NW ridge on left

Rather than following the meandering new trail, it is much more pleasant to continue along the old trail below where the new one crosses La Cueva Canyon, passing through a nice aspen grove before climbing slightly to rejoin the new trail near a minor saddle. From here, put on some music to pass the time on the maddeningly flat switchbacks back to the La Luz trailhead, then walk the road back to the Piedra Lisa trailhead.

West, Middle, South Truchas

West Truchas and upper ridge

West Truchas and upper ridge


Growing up, the Truchas Peaks were the best peaks I could see from home, higher and more rugged than the Jemez and the rest of the southern Sangres. They were also harder to reach, the easiest route being a 20+-mile hike from a trailhead known for vandalism at the end of a rough dirt road. For this reason among others, I never climbed them growing up, nor during my time spent in New Mexico since then. Living nearby and owning an old, high-clearance 4-wheel-drive, I thought this winter might be a good time to finally tag them.

On an earlier attempt, I had found the way through the maze of roads between the end of what is currently drivable, at the land grant boundary, and the Rio Quemado trailhead. I had also established that I would not get far without snowshoes. Despite the incredibly dry winter down in Santa Fe, there is waist-deep unconsolidated snow below treeline around Truchas.

This time, I started out from the land grant boundary at first light, with snowshoes on my pack and plastic bags on my feet. I made quick time to the trailhead, where the helpful snowmobile track ended, and put on my snowshoes for the long slog up the north fork of Rio Quemado. I followed my old tracks — unsurprisingly the only ones — until they turned the wrong way, then flailed around in the bottom of the valley for awhile before determining that sidehilling along the north side, where the south-facing snow was more consolidated, was the best option.

After the north side of a deep cleft containing the stream, I emerged in a small meadow below the headwall at the lower end of the Truchas cirque. After trying the direct route and finding thigh-deep postholing, I climbed an avalanche chute to the north, then side-hilled across a steep, wooded slope to emerge on the northern end of the cirque itself. Though the north side of West and Middle Truchas is imposingly steep, I worried more about crossing the cirque with minimal postholing. Staying on south-facing slopes and in open areas where possible, I made my way to the base of West Truchas’ northeast ridge, where I finally removed my snowshoes.

Starting near the toe of the ridge, I clawed my way up some nasty, loose, snow-covered rubble, avoiding it where I could by playing around on some partially snow-covered 3rd class. I eventually found some wind-packed snow that allowed me to kick steps to the ridge crest. There I found the expected slow, tiring winter terrain — unpredictable and partly snow-covered talus.

Head down, focused on breathing and not slipping, I noticed a surprising number of fresh animal tracks and, looking up, was surprised to see five juvenile bighorn sheep making their way up the ridge ahead of me. I followed them the rest of the way to the crest, while they easily kept a respectful distance, impressing me with their competence on sloping, snow-covered rocks.

Where the northeast ridge joins the main east-west ridge, the sheep moved off about 50 yards to dig for food in the tundra, while I turned left to tag West Truchas’ summit. Sitting west of the main crest, West Truchas has a panoramic view of the remaining North, Middle, and South peaks, including multiple sheep trails between the Middle and South. I followed bits of these trails over to Middle Truchas, passing some giant quartz outcroppings. The ridge to North Truchas looked like it might be fun, with a couple of 3rd-class sections, but probably too long for today without incurring headlamp time.

Instead I turned south, following more sheep trails to the slightly higher South Truchas. Nearing the summit, I was greeted by the main bighorn herd — rams, ewes, and kids — eating, lying down, or watching me with more curiosity than fear. Perhaps it was just their winter coats, but the rams looked much beefier than the ones I have seen in the desert. The sheep and I ate, rested, and watched each other for awhile, then I headed back for the trailhead. Seven hours into the day, I was fairly certain I would be back by sundown, but was not looking forward to the return slog through the woods.

As it turned out, the return was easier than I expected. After a painful slog back to West Truchas, I waved at the five sheep, who had barely moved, then started back down the northeast ridge. A quick, sketchy plunge-step down a steep gully to the northwest got me back to the cirque, where I took off my overshirt and put the snowshoes back on. I was pleased to find that the warm day had caused the snow to settle, greatly reducing my postholing. I rejoined my old tracks, then mostly followed them back to the trailhead, where I stashed my snowshoes for the final run-walk to the car. With a round-trip time of 10h40, and just over 12 hours of daylight, I could probably have done North Truchas as well, but I don’t mind coming back for it.