One does not simply walk up Mount Baldy.
Especially when one can’t quite remember the last time she hiked. Sure, we’ve got the gear, and we do go on the occasional hiking kicks, but we hadn’t recently. Nor had that well-intentioned winter workout regimen ever really gelled this year. Hiking Santa Fe Baldy is an all-day, 14-ish mile excursion. While the elevation gain is actually somewhat modest by mountaineering standards––around 2,000 feet––the approach there and back is no minor undertaking. This is a hike you prepare for.
According to the literature––hiking sites, guides and maps––the most popular time to test your mettle on Santa Fe Mt. Baldy is the seasonal span from summertime through fall. At that time, especially in late summer, awareness of thunderstorms is essential: they pose a serious threat on the exposed alpine face. The best strategy is to get an early-morning start, summit by noon, and descend before the usual afternoon storm pattern. Storms can approach quickly during monsoon season––the importance of keeping a vigilant eye on the sky cannot be overemphasized. In winter and spring, other considerations prevail, namely snow and colder temperatures. Regardless of time of year, as with any mountain trek, the guiding principle is to Be Prepared. Have water and food, solid hiking shoes that fit well and are worn in, have a map, know your route, know your own limitations. In our case, being prepared meant getting in shape and getting some miles beneath our feet before striking out for the peak.
In essence, our approach to Baldy began this past spring, via a series of training and altitude acclimation hikes, followed by sturdy compensatory lunches. Together, these hikes sketch one prospective primer on hiking around this incredible landscape we call home.
Our first outing of year: March 21, the Rio Medio trail, located past the village of Cundiyo. I’d classify that day’s outing more of a rustic stroll than a hike, given that spring melt had saturated the meadows along the rio into swamps, and the rio itself was in fine, if not outright animated and deep form. But we got the hiking gear out of storage, got ourselves out the door and onto a trail. It was a start. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. The dog thought it was a spectacular opportunity to bound over streams and get some serious wriggle on in the mud. Lunch after: taco las brazas from our local El Parasol.
A couple days later: Rio en Medio––a well-known and thoroughly loved trail that starts above Cuyamungue and winds up and up and up along a stream (what we call a “river” or “rio” here in New Mexico) eventually peaking near the Santa Fe Ski Basin, miles away. We opted to turn around a few miles in, once we got to the point in the trail where the ice hadn’t melted. It was a good, strenuous second outing, with some breathtaking waterfalls along the way. This was at a point when the unseasonably warm spring decided to turn wintry again, and we emerged from the protected canyon to aggressive gusts up to 60 miles per hour and an uninvited facial exfoliation courtesy of the dust devils. Lunch after: while I love the ambience of Tesuque Village Market, the reality of an exhorbitant price for two basic deli sandwiches and two margaritas frankly made me lose my appetite.
March 28: Ghost Ranch. Overcast skies. Forecasts suggest rain…but the short Chimney Rock hike that arches up from the guest center would be stunning in a dust devil, in a blizzard, in a monsoon or even on a morning with dull grey, ominous cloud cover and slightly chilling wind. Lunch after: actually breakfast before, this time: breakfast burritos and coffee from that old standby that epitomizes rural watering holes the world over, featuring fuel, fresh produce, liquor, chicken feed, camping accessories, cast-iron pans, fishing flies and in Northern New Mexico, green chile breakfast burritos: Bode’s General Store.
March 31: Atalaya Mountain Trail. Or as I unceremoniously call it, Squatalaya, in deference to the steep and uneven terrain that can make nearly every step feel like the lunge or squat thigh exercises from a P90 video. The time had come for some serious ascent practice, and we got that. This trail is great practice––close to town, so less drive time than many hikes, with no extended introduction––you simply start going up with the first step and don’t stop until the top. Lunch after: seaweed salad and nigiri sushi with sake flight at Shohko Café.
April 4: The peaks were lost in a snowstorm––no go.
April 6: In the fall, the vehicles from the throngs of the visitors who throng the Aspen Vista Trail to enjoy the golden foliage in its seasonal glory line overflow the ample parking and line the road above and below this trail. In spring, this wide trail––essentially a forest fire road––is isolated, still and silent, due largely to the snow and ice pack creating sometimes slick, sometimes slushy surfaces. The snow and ice were in a transitional stage––a theme that would come to dominate this project––and the going was awkward in hiking boots. Nonetheless, the rhythms of aspens in spring shadow and snow are utterly addictive––could not look away. Every step made them move and shift in the most hypnotic way. Lunch after: One fire and one smoke burger, with a couple pints from the Santa Fe Burger Stand in Burro Alley.
April 11: Deception Peak. When you look up at the Sangre de Cristo range from Santa Fe, you see a tight cluster of three peaks around what is clearly a ski area. One of those is Deception Peak, and just beyond, Lake Peak. The ascent up to Deception begins with the same segment of trail as Baldy. It’s an aggressive 6.1-mile hike round-trip, with a steep grade up to the summit at 12,320 feet. From the Raven’s Ridge route, we had spectacular views of Baldy. The route was deep in snow, and in retrospect, this is probably the point in our adventure in which we should have introduced snowshoes. We hiked throughout in boots, plunging over, sometimes through, varying depths of snow. We made the summit that day. Sadly, the views were unusually murky due to a controlled burn that cast an eerie golden-hour glow throughout the day over the snow. All in all, a good acclimatizing outing that left us both exhilarated and sufficiently exhausted, so take-home lunch from our old standby El Parasol was by far the best-sounding and tasting option.
April 13: Cerro Grande. After all that time in the Santa Fe mountains, we embarked west, toward Bandelier. The trail is a gently winding climb to Cerro Grande peak, the highest point in Bandelier. At just 10,199 feet, this shorter and easier hike was a resting reprieve after the vigors of Deception Peak, while still providing some good high-altitude training. The 360-degree views feature not only sweeping vistas of the Valle Caldera and Bandelier, but offer a new vantage point to the east of our ultimate destination: Baldy. On the drive home, once descending on Highway 4 from White Rock, our eyes were locked on Baldy across the valley.
For over a decade, the Sangre de Cristo mountain range has presided over my view of the world. It is the horizon from which each dawn rises, the guiding landmark to the east as I drive to and from home. And yet in all its familiarity, I’d never really looked with a discerning eye––I sheepishly confess it took a number of excursions to the backyard with my inordinately patient husband pointing out exactly which is which of the quartet of 12k peaks––Penitente (12,249 feet), Deception (12,308 feet), Lake (12,409 feet) and Baldy (12,622 feet)—before I could confidently identify that seemingly soft, rounded peak of a mountain we call Baldy.
I have a different relationship with the skyline today than I did two months ago. I’ve never taken a particularly scientific approach to the art of depth perception. As is perhaps typical of our age, I tend to define distance in temporal metrics: I think in terms of drive times. Prior to climbing Baldy, I’d see it as I have for nearly every day I’ve lived here: that mountain Over There. As the crow flies, it’s a shade over 17 miles from my back door. As the jeep drives, it’s almost exactly an hour. As the hiker hikes from the trailhead––Winsor trail (Trail No. 254)––initiating from the parking lot of the ski area, a mere six or so miles away, it’s many, many hours.
My daily view is forever changed. I focus in on that peak, and I see it with an intimacy inflected by memory and first-hand experience. Even in Northern New Mexico, where the high altitude and lack of humidity engender incredible visibility, the distance from which we usually see the mountains renders them a little soft. But what you get to see from up there, before you summit––the sharp detail of rock, the strangely seaweed-esque moss and lichen that eke out an existence on its surface––that is the majesty of the mountain at close range. And it’s breathtaking.
From below, the peak looks silent, statuesque, serene. Above the tree line, it’s an entirely different story. Up there it’s wild, weird and a glimpse of the planet as we rarely see it. While you’re rarely literally “on the edge” of a precipice up there, there is an almost alien, otherworldly feel to the land. There is almost always wind. The light is piercing and bright. There is mostly hard scrabble rock. You are experiencing the world at an altitude above which most things chose not––or are unable––to live, and there is a beautiful and surreal quality to that experience.
Time, too, moves differently up there. The shortness of breath resulting from lack of oxygen and uphill exertion creates a metronome of movement in syncopation with your pulse. It’s breathe, and then step. Two breaths, another step. The optical illusion of distance is further warped by this perception of time. What looks like a five-minute walk could take an hour. All of these factors serve to disorient––and it is at this place when mistakes, or poor judgment, can have critical consequences.
We didn’t make the summit that day. And it was the right decision. It was a really hard decision, too. The summit has a siren song all its own. It’s as if the peak, once you’re in striking distance, has a gravitational pull on you. That force, combined with the propulsion of your anticipation and the innately human compulsion that is the equivalent of “victory”––to stand atop the highest place––it’s unbelievably hard to resist. We got close––so close we could see individual rocks emerging from the snow along the ridge line. But the ascent had been long and slow going over a trail that was almost entirely in snow, and as the day warmed, that snow would become even trickier to traverse on the return. We chose to turn around when we had energy reserves for the trek back.
Santa Fe Baldy is the tallest peak in these parts––there is no higher point south of Baldy to the southern border of New Mexico. To the veteran mountaineer who regularly summits “14ers,” Baldy does not rank as a challenge destination. There are high-altitude distance runners who literally run to the top and back. But I’m sure that even they approach a mountain––any mountain, even this mountain––with a measure of respect and self-awareness. Not to be overly dramatic, but any adventure like this into the wilderness is to be taken seriously. There is no emergency release lever, no “Stop, I want to get off” button, no safety rails, often, no reception. Barring extreme measures, the only way back is on your own two feet, and as many locals remember, even an emergency rescue can be a precarious expectation. Tragically, as recently as June of 2009, a hiker and the helicopter pilot who attempted to rescue her perished on Baldy.
Here’s the thing about hiking that few books or blogs or guides will tell you, because understandably, they want only to cheerlead your next adventure: it’s work. There are times when you are hot, or tired, or bored, or something––your feet, your knees, your sunburn––hurts. There are far easier ways to while away your days. Many of the scenes are repetitive versions of forest, trail desert scrub––hardly Instagram worthy. You might be thirsty, hungry or wary of the backlog of emails awaiting your return. It’s a commitment. But when you make it there, and make it back, whether “there” is a specific destination, or just as far as you feel like going that day, it’s profoundly satisfying. Far more so than a one-thumb “like.” Particularly in a time when our efforts and commerce can be so virtual, you have accomplished something physical and real. You’ve earned that ravenous appetite. You have smelled the mountains. Seen the uncertain bloom of the first spring growth. Scrambled over rarely seen rocks. Been present on the planet. Seen views with your own eyes. There are few things more precious.
100 Hikes in New Mexico 3rd Edition, Craig Martin
Hiking Adventures in Northern New Mexico, Joan and Gary Salzman
Hiking the Mountain Trails of Santa Fe, Kay Matthews
Story by Gabriella Marks