Gila tour

Wut?

The roads north of Silver City, particularly Highway 15 to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, twist and roll through ponderosas and alligator junipers, with no lane markers and little traffic. They are justifiably popular among cyclists, and home to the Tour of the Gila bike race. The so-called “inner loop” heads east from Silver City to San Lorenzo, follows the Mimbres River northwest to Lake Roberts, then crosses the Continental Divide to meet Highway 15 about twenty miles north of town. The loop by itself can be done as a long road ride, but the detour to the Cliff Dwellings makes it a bit too much for a single day, even without stopping to explore the ruins and hot springs.

After returning from Mogollon, we packed up our gear and drove toward Silver City, camping at the last semi-legal spot west of town. We had contemplated riding this road, but were glad we had not, as it is flat, dusty, windy, busy, and passes through a mixture of bland scrubland and ranch towns deeply red of neck. I had a hankering for a breakfast burrito, and had opted for Don Juan’s as our source mostly because it was on the way. As soon as I saw the place, I knew I had chosen well. It is a small, slightly dilapidated stucco box in a parking lot, with a window on one side to place orders, and one on the other to receive paper bags of food. All of its meager resources are focused on producing quality burritos cheaply and quickly. In about five minutes, we had two burritos costing about five dollars apiece, which we consumed in the car. It felt slightly odd that an Asian girl took our order, and an African one handed us our food, but the burritos were authentic and filling; presumably the two working the windows were students at Western New Mexico University.

We once again left our car at the ranger station, then took off east along Highway 180. Though it is the main route between Silver City and the outside world, it was quiet on a Sunday morning, as many people were at their churches, leaving us to ours. This stretch east to the Mimbres is by far the least pleasant, a four-lane highway (albeit with good shoulders) to Santa Clara, then a winding two-lane road through lower scrubland. The main “scenery” is the Santa Rita Mine, a massive open pit carved a thousand feet into the ground through decades of steady labor. It was much as I remembered it from my first visit thirty years ago, with a slow stream of massive ore trucks carrying loads of mostly dirt to be sifted through for traces of profit. The “scenic” overlook tries to give visitors a sense of the place’s scale: a tire taller than a van demonstrates the trucks’ size, while the trucks’ insectile work below hints at the pit’s scale. The “pride of industry” narration that I remember was not playing, though, and the viewpoint was closed for COVID. Unlike before, we stopped at a sign about a strike that was the basis for the movie “Salt of the Earth”, in which women picketed the Empire Zinc Company for over a year when the male miners were forbidden to do so.

Since we were in no great hurry, we stopped at the store in San Lorenzo for some cheap calories and sunscreen, then again at the Mimbres Cultural Heritage site. The latter looked closed, but a chatty and knowledgeable volunteer showed us in and gave us a history lesson. The Mimbres were contemporaries of the Anasazi, known for the their pottery with intricate, stylized black-and-white designs. Their civilization in the area peaked in the 12th and 13th centuries, before drought and deforestation dispersed them. They buried a pot with a hole in the bottom with their dead, creating a rich lode for archaeologists and pot-hunters to mine in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Feeling slightly more educated, we posed for a photo (touring tandems are rarer than Mimbres pots), then continued upriver. We had budgeted three days for the loop to allow for side trips, and had intended to go hiking off Forest Road 150, but there was a prescribed burn scheduled there for the next day, forcing us to look for another spot to camp. We climbed over the divide, and soon found a network of roads in a pleasingly open ponderosa forest. There was no stream or other natural water source, but the Forest Service had thoughtfully provided a 3000-gallon orange bag of water. It was probably meant to be dumped on a fire by helicopter, but hopefully the gallon we took did not cause them to lose control of their prescribed burn. The tub was also useful for a brief, cold bath.

Volcanic terrain around Gila
The next morning we continued past Lake Roberts, a popular fishing marsh, then turned north on Highway 15 toward the Cliff Dwellings. The road climbs 2000 feet from the junction before dropping the same amount to the Gila River. Fortunately the south-facing climb is mostly moderate and shaded, much easier than I had dreaded. We took a break at an overlook, where Leonie did some yoga while I tagged nearby Copperas Peak. The “climb” was a slightly annoying hike through dry grass and loose basaltic rubble, but the summit had a 360-degree view of gentle mountains to the south and east, and more colorful volcanic terrain to the north.

Be safe, snakey!
From this divide, we flew down a steep and winding descent to the river. Near its base, the car in front of us abruptly pulled over, to help a snake in the middle of the road. I thought it might be a rattler, but soon realized it was just an angry bullsnake. A few others stopped as well, and eventually one man distracted the snake with a stick long enough to pick it up by the tail and move it off the road. I have always tried to grab bullsnakes just behind the head, and did not realize that this was an effective technique. I wanted to pick it up, handle it, and perhaps move it farther from harm, but it was still annoyed, and continued to hiss and shake its tail, so we watched it for a few minutes, then continued to the park.

The main visitor center was closed, but the bookstore and cliff dwelling path were open. We moseyed around the short loop, passing well-preserved buildings which tourists can no longer enter. The homeowners had chosen a perfect site, a south-facing canyon wall with a spring below and an overhang above to shade them from the high summer sun. If I were at all competent at hunting and farming, I could imagine myself settling down there.

Gila cliff dwellings
Cultural enrichment complete, we returned to a trailhead behind the visitor center from which we could reach some nearby hot springs. There were a half-dozen cars parked there, but we hoped the springs would not be too crowded, and even more foolishly hoped we could find a campsite along the trail. We rode and pushed the bike about a quarter-mile past the gate, then stashed it on a sandy flat behind some willows and burrs.

The hike to the springs requires two fords, calf-deep and 20-30 feet long. The water wasn’t cold enough to be truly miserable, but was cool enough that I attempted a high-difficulty log crossing — a large step to a moving log — earning my shoes a wash. The springs were neither crowded nor empty, with a couple and a not-couple in bathing suits sharing the warmest and least disappointing of several pools. I was hoping for something more like the Rico or Buckeye springs, but found a knee-deep, somewhat slimy pool separated from the shallow Gila by ten yards of alluvium. We both felt filthy, though, so… good enough!

Leonie opted for nudity, bravely soaping up and washing in the cold river, while I chose to simply rinse my bike shorts and my self soap-free. She chatted with the couple from Chicago, while I awkwardly talked to the non-couple from Sedona, a Frenchman who made custom wood flutes and a woman who was currently his landlord. They had both been in Sedona for a long time, witnessing its brief golden era between electrification and kitschification, and retained a fondness for the place. The Frenchman reminded me a bit of Fritz Damler, the 9.5-fingered man who made my guitar in a previous life, and who made his living by, among other things, sailing to Turkey to import kilims.

Once we had both pruned up enough, we dressed in hiking clothes and wrestled the bike through the sand and burrs and back to the trailhead. The non-couple were camping right at the closed visitor center (Gila is that kind of place), but we wanted a bit of solitude, which we easily found a short distance down-canyon on a National Forest road. As I prepared dinner, I thought forward to the next day with mixed apprehension and anticipation: we faced a hard climb out of the Gila followed by more climbing along Highway 15, but we would also be on the loop’s best roads.

In deference to the day’s heat, we started reasonably early despite the morning chill, and were soon steadily laboring out of the Gila valley. After an initial steep pitch, where I had expected to push, the climb was mostly moderate, and the north-facing aspect made the sun feel a bit less intense. We descended from the divide, then passed the Lake Roberts intersection and immediately began climbing again on what was signed as a “hazardous mountain road.” The lane markers disappeared, the traffic thinned, and we rode slowly but happily through alligator junipers transitioning to ponderosas.

I noticed a camper next to a break in the climb, which turned out to house the Chicago couple, who were spending another day in the Gila before continuing on their long road trip around the west. I am distressed by the recent wave of hashtag-vanlifers invading every quiet corner of the western wilderness, but still identify with its individual particles, so I wished them well and advised them not to visit Saguaro National Monument, as southern Arizona would already be oppressively hot.

After this flat break, the road climbs along some mostly-dry streams up to another high divide, through a shady forest of tall ponderosas, then rolls through the high country to the village of Pinos Altos. We took a side-trip through downtown, where I hoped to perhaps find some ice cream, but the tourist town was mostly silent. A sign outside the general store advised me to call a local number for service, but it hardly seemed worth the effort. I think we were both somewhat impatient at this point, so we did not linger to look at the old buildings or learn about the village’s history. Silver City beckoned a thousand feet below, so we put our heads down and cranked downhill into the headwind toward the car.

Having time to spare, we decided to resupply and patronize some local businesses while we were in civilization. We found a local bike store that had some overpriced gloves to replace Leonie’s absurdly worn-out ones, and a health food store to get a vegan ice cream sandwich (???) and some expensive veggies. On the way back to the car, we were diverted from Don Juan’s by the promise of $1 tacos at a shiny, California-looking Mexican place. The “carne asada” and “carne adovada” were dry ground beef with different spice packets, the “fish” was from a cat food can that had been open too long, and the “veggie” was bits of fried kale. As the saying goes, you can’t shine a turd. With bellies full of lukewarm disappointment, we restocked on road calories at Walmart, then drove back north and west on highway 180.

Glenwood and Mogollon

Nope!

While I have been traveling and getting out more than I do in a normal winter in the Lower 48, I have unfortunately been writing less. Though I do not plan to abandon the blog, I expect this new sporadic schedule to continue.

The greater Gila is a largely undeveloped area of mixed piñon-juniper and ponderosa forest in southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona. While much of it lies within the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wildernesses of New Mexico, they are surrounded by a vast area of non-wilderness (i.e. bikeable) National Forest. With elevations ranging from around 5000 to over 10,000 feet, there is only a narrow springtime window in which the lowlands are cool enough and the highlands are relatively snow-free.

We had been carrying a tandem and bike trailer around on my car for weeks, at a significant cost in both hassle and gas, and it was finally time to use both. My friend Mike had laid out an ambitious 350-mile tour through the Gila, north from Silver City, then west to Alpine and down scenic Highway 191 in Arizona, which we hoped to complete in a bit over a week, including some time for hikes. The forest roads on the northeast part of the loop climb as high as 9,000 feet, though, so while the lowlands around Morenci would be too hot (and windy!) for pleasant touring, some sections remained impassable due to snow and mud. We therefore saw only small parts of what would have been an excellent loop.

New catwalk
Our plan was to leave the car at the Glenwood Ranger Station, then bike the paved road up through the ghost town of Mogollon and continue on dirt forest roads to Beaverhead Ranger Station. The helpful woman at the Station, however, informed us that fire crews had recently been turned around on that road due to lingering snow. Since minor snowdrifts that block a truck are often avoidable on a bike, we remained slightly optimistic. However it was too late in the day to sensibly start, so we instead took a side trip to the nearby Catwalk.

Better alternative
The Catwalk in its current form is a sturdy metal structure extending less than a mile up the box canyon of Whitewater Creek, popular among tourists visiting the Silver City area. It was longer and more impressive in its earlier forms, first as a slapdash wooden affair built by miners in the late 1800s, then wooden and metal replacements built by the CCC in the 1930s and Forest Service in the 1960s. We started on the modern structure, but were soon driven down to the river by the crowds of children and lumbering gawkers. It was actually much more fun below the catwalk, as I was able to hop from rock to rock, while Leonie splashed up the shallow stream.

Rockslide damage
Somehow missing a trail closure sign, we continued past the crowds, finding remnants of several old routes up-canyon, all destroyed by rockslides and flash floods. There is no way to build a long-lasting trail up a box canyon with crumbling sides, but the trail has at various times followed the creek all the way to its source near Whitewater Baldy, the Gila highpoint. This area contains (or contained) a rich network of trails connecting the western lowlands at 5000 feet to a highline trail closer to 10,000, but fire, erosion, disuse, and lack of maintenance have left them in an uncertain state. As tempted as we were to backpack these trails, we retreated and decided instead to try riding up through Mogollon as far as we could along our original tour route.

Mogollon ore carts
We spent a decent night in the Ranger Station parking lot; the ranger who approached us in the morning was more bemused than upset by our choice of campsite, and invited us to the annual dutch oven bakeoff that afternoon. We slowly assembled food and water for a single day, then headed north of town on the highway before turning right on the dead-end road to Mogollon. While there are a few summer homes there, and perhaps even a permanent resident or two, it is mostly a tourist destination in normal years, or a well-maintained cluster of abandoned buildings in COVID times.

This is the good stuff
After climbing 2000 feet from Glenwood, the road descends 500 to Mogollon before turning to dirt. We stopped to take a few photos among the abandoned buildings and equipment, then continued uphill, climbing another 2500 feet to Silver Creek Divide at just over 9000 feet. The road maintained a consistent grade that was pleasant on the tandem alone, but would have been painful with a loaded trailer. It was mostly snow-free and dry to the divide, though its route along the creek meant we had no views and no visual cues of when the climb was done. We met a few cars, including a an ambitious Mini Cooper from Florida, but mostly had the area to ourselves.

At the Divide, we regrettably elected to miss the cookoff, instead continuing along the high traverse, with expansive views to the north. Unfortunately this north-facing slope held much more snow and tire-sucking mud, so we soon gave up, settling for some trail mix before returning through Mogollon and back to town. It seemed both too early up high, and too late down low, to complete our original tour. We were not done with the Gila, though: the mid-elevation roads between Silver City and the Gila Cliff Dwellings offered a suitable and seasonable consolation prize.

Tour de Trampas

Trampas valley

Northern New Mexico’s Truchas Peaks are the most rugged part of the southern Sangre de Cristo range, and the source of multiple streams and rivers, many followed by trails. With “summer” finally (hopefully) coming to an end down here, I decided to get in one more mountain outing before the snow. I have previously used the Rio Quemado to reach Middle and South Truchas, and the Rio Santa Barbara to reach the North. This time I paid my first visit to Rio de las Trampas to tag the surrounding satellite peaks, from Trampas around to Jicarilla. While most of my route was technically off-trail, the local bighorn sheep maintain a decent network of ridge trails in the region, so the only truly cross-country travel was getting on and off the ridge. The route is definitely best clockwise, so that the interesting scrambling is done going up.

I left home a bit before 7:00, heading north through the tiny Spanish towns of Chimayo and Truchas before turning off onto the dirt road through the “town” of El Valle to the Trampas Lakes trailhead. It can be cold in these north-facing valleys, and the sun rises late, so I was in no hurry to start. Though temperatures were comfortable in the valley, probably around freezing, the partially-frozen stream and lakes told the true tale.

Why, hello…
I normally don’t carry navigational aids in familiar territory like the Pecos, but I was glad to have loaded topos onto my “new” phone as I left the trail to climb around 2000 feet to Trampas Peak. The deadfall looked wretched near the Trampas River, but was rarely a problem on my climb up a broad, indistinct ridge leading to Trampas’ summit. Treeline is high this far south, and at 12,170′, Trampas barely peeks out of the forest, so I had scant views for most of the climb.

The man of the house arrives
Emerging just below the summit, I found a large cairn with a stick, and a decent-sized herd of bighorns. At first, I only saw ten or so ewes and lambs, but then the alpha buck, and later an apparent beta, peered over the ridge to see what was happening. I wanted to touch the stick, but even when I approached within 10-20 yards, the sheep showed no inclination to move, despite my supposedly being an apex predator in the area. Coward that I am, I skirted the summit, then stood to watch as the alpha ram made half-hearted attempts to mount some of the ewes, and was roundly rebuffed.

Sheep trail
I was worried that the long, wooded ridge toward 12,453′ would be a deadfall nightmare, but after a bit of meandering in the woods, I found a sheep-trail right on the crest, with few obstacles and good views down into the Santa Barbara drainage. Emerging from the trees, I found myself on alpine tundra covering a quartzite uplift, with fins descending west into the Trampas valley. I found my only register of the day on the summit, with only the party who placed it and a familiar name “moving on borrowed time” having signed. I added my name, then started the day’s crux.

Third class part
The jagged ridge between 12,453′ and 12,880′ seems to be traversed by sheep, despite featuring several seemingly-mandatory class 3 steps, and an optional class 4 one near the end. Fortunately, the rock is solid and blocky, and the sheep have put in a decent trail elsewhere. I followed one ram doing maintenance, who fortunately did not decide to stand his ground, but instead scooted ahead for a few hundred yards before ceding me the trail and dropping north into Santa Barbara.

Jicarilla from Sheepshead
North Truchas is a short jaunt from 12,880′, and the scramble from 12,453′ all the way to Middle Truchas looked fun, but I had work to do elsewhere. Yet another small flock of bighorns watched from a safe distance as I dropped north to a saddle, then made the long trail climb to Sheepshead. I took advantage of the peak’s surprising 4G coverage, then set out on the pleasant grassy stroll to Jicarilla. This part was almost all runnable, but my knee has been acting up a bit lately, so I hiked more than necessary.

Moss carpet
From my inspection of Jicarilla’s east face from the other side, it looked like an obvious avalanche chute just southeast of the summit would be the best descent line. The steep turf on the open slope worked until around 11,000′, where new saplings and a potential cliff band blocked the way. Fortunately the woods were fairly open, so I was able to quickly side-hill down pine duff to the creek. Lower down, I was surprised to find a moss carpet that would fit in better in the Cascades. I quickly found the well-used trail, where the remaining snow had been beaten nearly to ice, then had a casual jog back to the car.

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.