The Sandia Mountains in east Albuquerque offer challenging hikes with beautiful views. From spring through fall, I enjoy treks throughout the mountains, including day hikes from the base to the crest. In the winter, I frequently take the tram up to snowshoe the trails along the ridgeline.
Recently I had an ambition to experience the Sandias in a new way. I decided to combine my enjoyment of foothills-to-peak hikes and ridgeline snowshoeing to attempt something I hadn’t before: a winter hike from bottom to top. With the climb starting in the sandy foothills and ending in 3 feet of snow on Sandia Crest, I anticipated a physical and mental challenge with stunning views along the way.
Conditions between the base and the peak can differ dramatically. When Ryan and I snowshoed the crest a few weeks ago, it was in the mid-50s in the foothills, but conditions up top were 30 degrees cooler, visibility was low, and winds were gusting enough to shut the tram down for a few hours. Knowing I might experience such a range of conditions, I packed an appropriate variety of gear.
My plan was to park my bike at the tram station, hike Tramway Trail and La Luz to the peak, and take the tram back down. As with many of my adventures, however, I was reminded that plans are often a loose set of ideals that get tossed aside as the day unfolds. Icy conditions after sunset and an attempt to help pinpoint the location of a lost hiker made this excursion more exciting than I’d anticipated and ended with me riding home in the back of a cop car instead of on my bike.
It takes me 4-5 hours to hike to the crest in the summer, so I gave myself 7 and packed plenty of snacks and 4 liters of water to stay fueled. It was a warm breezy day at the bottom, and I had an enjoyable hike among the beautiful oranges and browns of the winter desert.
I had Tramway Trail to myself this afternoon. No groups of hikers chatting amiably, no joggers with curious dogs breaking away from their owners in hopes of a petting from a stranger, just me and the sound of my shoes crunching the sand under my feet. With no leaves for the breeze to rustle as it blew through the trees, an occasional gust pierced the stillness with an eerie whistle as it rushed by. The air cooled as I made my way up the mountain, and by 2.5 miles in the trail was covered with snow.
The snowy section of Tramway was shady and steep so I stopped to pull out a sweater and recharge with a snack. Across the valley, a line of hikers made its way up the long, exposed switchbacks of La Luz. The sound of muffled laughter broke the feeling of solitude I’d developed over the last hour. I tore open a bag of trail mix and listened as the breeze carried the sound of chatter across the valley, enjoying the sensation of being along but not feeling alone.
Conditions Get Exciting
I was making good time but knew the trail would be tougher ahead, so I quickly packed up and carried on. After intersecting with La Luz, the tree cover grew thicker and the snow deeper. I stopped to inhale the scent of pine and take in the views of peaks dotted with snow.
I heard someone jogging up behind me as I approached a series of switchbacks over a rockslide zone and at 5.5 miles into my hike, I finally crossed paths with another hiker. This was Scott, who was in town for his cousin’s funeral and was hiking up La Luz to get a picture for her because she’d always wanted to see the view from the top.
We talked for a moment, then Scott hurried on and I stopped to put on another layer of clothes and my snowshoes. Geared up I plodded forward, thinking about what a nice gesture that was for Scott to remember his cousin by.
Before I made my way over the first rockslide switchback, Scott came running back down to report that the snow had gotten too deep for his gear. After a couple of quick pictures from a spot overlooking the valley, he rushed off and was soon out of sight among the trees below. Alone again, I moved forward on the increasingly difficult path.
The switchbacks in this section were snow-covered and steep, and the path narrowed as I made my way around the first turn. I stomped my right foot down, making a platform for my snowshoe. As I brought my left foot up, my right slid out from under me and I began to slide down the snow-covered rocks. I punched my right hand into the snow to self-arrest and came to an abrupt stop. I took a deep breath and reassessed the situation.
Noticing boot tracks along the trail, I decided to take off my snowshoes and follow these across. I stepped slowly and deliberately, post-holing to mid-calf with each step and leaning slightly toward the mountainside to keep myself attached to it.
Minutes later, the trail widened and I made a final hop to safety. I strapped my snowshoes back on and strolled to the next switchback. The post-holing method worked great, so I continued to alternate between that and snowshoeing as I climbed for a couple of hours and experienced a challenging and enjoyable hike through the golden hour. As the sun dipped in the west, it lit up the potassium feldspar in the Sandia granite and the rock glowed pink.
The Not-So-Final Stretch
At sunset I reached the intersection of the Crest House Spur Trail and La Luz. The latter would dump me out at the tram station in just 1.3 miles. I confidently strode forward, daydreaming about stopping in at Ten3 for a warm cappuccino and an antipasto platter before taking the tram back down to my bike.
Darkness set in and I cruised on, unaware that at 5 hours into my adventure, the real excitement was about to begin.
Shortly after heading down the last branch of La Luz, I heard a woman yell “hello” from above me. I stopped to holler back a greeting but didn’t hear a response and kept moving. The first ¼ mile of the trail was flat so I jogged and quickly found myself below Kiwanis cabin. Here the slope got steep again. I took off my snowshoes and post-holed forward, dismayed to feel how quickly the snow was becoming stiff as night set in. I had to work harder to stomp through it and keep myself on the side of the mountain.
Luckily, the vegetation had grown thicker so I had something to cling too as I moved forward. Unluckily, most of the veg was covered in thorns and my gloves weren’t thick enough to keep them from stabbing me several times. I reminded myself that taking a few thorns to the hand was better than sliding down the mountain.
I knew I needed to move quickly before things iced over much more. I’ve found myself on icy slopes at night in the past and know how slow going it is to carve out a walkway once the snow has completely crusted over.
I hurried along this stretch, looking up occasionally at the tram house, which was now just ½ a mile away. But something wasn’t right. I could tell I was moving slightly downhill, but having taken this trail several (snow-free) times in the past I knew I should have been continuing upward in this section.
I was still following other peoples’ snowshoe prints but there weren’t as many as before and in some spots the wind had completely obscured the tracks with snow. I consulted my trail app and realized that it didn’t show this section of La Luz. Cell service wasn’t good enough to download a different app, so I sat down and scrolled across mine to see if it showed the Crest House Spur Trail. It did.
With the wind picking up and conditions getting colder and icier, I had to make a quick decision: try to scramble uphill and reconnect to La Luz without the assistance of a trail app to make sure I was in the right spot, or make my way back to the fork and take the Spur Trail out. I decided it was worth backtracking so I could at least follow the virtual trail on my app. I didn’t want to rely solely on the footprints of others, seeing as how the ones I was currently following were headed in the wrong direction.
The Spur Trail would dump me out at the Sandia Crest House, less than 2 miles from the tram via the South Crest and Kiwanis Cabin trails. I’d snowshoed or skied these trails several times over the past few weeks and knew that if I jogged, I would still get back to the tram station with plenty of time to ride it down. These are non-technical trails without steep drops offs and it typically takes me about 30 minutes to jog or ski them one way.
I pulled out my head lamp and jacket and began hopping back down the post-hole track I’d created. My light immediately caught someone’s attention.
A Voice from the Woods
“Hello!” a voice yelled. It sounded like the woman I’d heard before, but now her voice was coming from below me. “I got off-trail!”, she continued.
I yelled back, “I think I’m also off-trail and am heading back to the last junction to take the Crest House Spur Trail out!”
“My name is Mary. Can we meet up and hike out together? Will you wait for me to get to you?”
My stomach dropped. Her voice was coming from quite a distance downslope. The wind was blowing from her direction too, so she was probably further away than she seemed. Having no idea what her skill level in snow hiking is, I could only consider how long it would take me to get from her position to mine given the ice, the incline, and fatigue from having already hiked for several hours. My estimation: too long for my comfort level.
A maxim from a safety training video I watched years ago popped into my head: don’t be the dead hero. Hiking conditions would only get sketchier as the night wore on and it wasn’t safe for me to wait around.
My legs were already tired and I had no idea how difficult the Spur Trail would be in these conditions. The snow was quickly becoming crispier and more difficult to punch through as the temperature dropped. I was confident that I could make it out if I kept moving quickly, but assumed it would be difficult to get to the peak if I waited for Mary to get to me. There was also the possibility that I would wait around and she wouldn’t be able to reach me.
I took a deep breath and yelled into the wind. “Mary, now that the sun has set the snow is icy and it’s not safe for us to be hiking out here. I’m going to head back to the other trail and will call 911 for you when I have service.”
I felt terrible but knew it was the safest choice for both of us. Mary and I communicated a little as I backtracked, yelling back and forth to make sure we were heading the same direction. It sounded like she was moving further downhill rather than up toward La Luz.
My phone rang. It was my dad. I quickly explained that I couldn’t talk and, now that I knew I was in a service spot, called 911 to report that there was a hiker off-trail and in need of help. Service wasn’t great but I got most of the information through before the call got cut off.
I reached a flat spot close to the juncture and, with great relief, threw on my snowshoes and started jogging to the intersection.
As I chased my headlamp’s trail through the dark, I heard Mary start to yell desperately from far below. “Help! Help!” she cried over and over.
I stopped and hollered back, “I called 911. Help should be on the way!”
“What?” she replied.
“I called 911!”
“What did you say?”
The wind was blowing strongly toward me and I couldn’t get my message across.
A light began to flash ¼ mile back, off-trail between La Luz and Kiwanis cabin. I heard men yelling but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Feeling there was nothing more I could do for Mary at the moment, I turned and started running over the smooth trail toward the junction, hoping the Spur Trail would be just as quick to navigate.
I followed a bend to take the Spur Trail, cutting off the wind and the voices it carried with it.
This trail was mostly a post-holer, but with the virtual trail on my app and a few snowshoe tracks to follow, I was confident I would get to the top safely. I just needed to be patient and move carefully so as not to go sliding down the mountain.
The wind had covered the trail with icy scree. I continually scanned the landscape in front of me and picked a route where there were other peoples’ tracks to step in or vegetation to cling to.
Eventually, I saw the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel: the Sandia Crest House. I joyfully ran forward but was quickly brought to a halt.
A 5-foot wide ice sheet covered the trail, sloping down the mountain at 45 degrees. The sheet wasn’t super wide, given my long legs, but it certainly wasn’t narrow enough to just step over. I stared stupidly at it and felt the absurdity of being so close to the trailhead when being presented with this obstacle.
I shined my headlamp upslope, looking for a break in the ice flow or vegetation to bridge the gap. Nothing.
I decided the best option was to jump over it. I planted my right foot, steadied myself, and aimed for a snowshoe track on the other side. I thought back to all the gap-jump drills I’ve done in strength-training workouts. I’ve jumped further than this before, but the high stakes of performing the jump on an icy slope rather than in my flat carpeted living room made my heart pound.
I crouched down with my fatigued right leg and shakily sprung up, launching myself over the ice sheet to tumble safely onto my intended landing spot. Laughing maniacally, I rolled over and pushed myself up. I was so ready to tackle the last bit of trail and jog to Ten3, perhaps for a Mai Tai rather than that cappuccino.
Of course, the tracks I was following wound around the side of a rock face and followed a steep exposed path with no veg to grab on to. I consulted the trail app and it was clear that this wasn’t the actual trail. With the Crest House just 40 meters above me, I opted for an uphill scramble instead.
I got on my knees and clawed my way uphill. Two minutes later I was clinging to a pole outside the Crest House. I made my way to a fence meant to keep people from going off-trail and easily stepped over; it was only a foot high under all the snow. A two-foot hop over one more fence and I was on the observation deck. What a relief!
Serendipity is a Cinnamon Roll and a Warm Ride Home
I rushed straight to an outhouse to change socks and put in new foot warmers. As I pulled off my ice-encrusted shoes, I called Ryan to tell him I’d made it to the top and was getting ready to jog to the tram. My phone started beeping and I looked down to see an incoming call from a 505 number.
It was the police, who’d tried to reach me a few times since my 911 call was cut off. I told the officer I was at the Crest House and he said there were a couple of police cars in the parking lot just below it. He told me there were 5 hikers lost on the mountain that night and he wondered if I could help by pointing out Mary’s general location.
I left the outhouse and waited for the officers to pull up. One of them let me into the back of her toasty SUV and I pointed out on a map where I last heard Mary calling from. A helicopter team had eyes on three of the other hikers: a group of men near Kiwanis cabin. Maybe they were the people I saw flashing a light right before I left La Luz for the Spur Trail.
I sat back and snacked while the officers devised a plan for getting to the hikers. Having just come off the icy trail, I dreaded the thought of them needing to go out in these conditions to look for people. I felt a twinge of guilt for not trying to guide Mary out, and stupid for not thinking to drop a GPS point when she first yelled to me for help. But knowing that I was being both unrealistic and hard on myself, I quickly put those thoughts out of my head.
The officer I was with said that her partner lived in Albuquerque and would be heading back soon if I wanted to catch a ride with her. After sitting so long in the warmth of the SUV, a ride to town sounded more appealing than venturing back into the cold windy night to jog to the tram. I eagerly accepted. While they continued to make plans, another officer came to my door and offered me a giant gooey cinnamon roll, which tasted especially good after the tiring hike. I devoured the treat and a few minutes later we were on the road back to Albuquerque.
I checked the news for the next couple of days and didn’t see anything about people being lost on the mountain overnight, so hopefully that means everyone got out of there safely that evening.
Leave earlier in the day
Even though the hike took less time than I anticipated, I should have left early enough to make sure I’d get up top before sunset. When I set out on this hike, I wasn’t worried about being out there after dark because most of my snowshoeing sessions are at night. However, there’s a big difference between hiking along the flat icy ridgeline after dark and trying to make my way up the steep mountainside in the same conditions.
Add crampons and an ice pick to my kit
It would have been nice to have had the extra traction once the sun went down, and an ice pick is much better than a fist is for self-arresting. I’m lucky I didn’t punch a rock.
Use an app or paper map that shows all the trails
Hindsight tells me that checking my app before the hike to make sure it showed all the trails should have been a no-brainer, but I just didn’t think to do this since I’ve been on these trails so many times. However, that experience didn’t help in some spots with the trail being covered in snow and tracks leading in several directions. I now have two apps and a paper map showing the whole Sandia trail system.
After this excursion, a friend told me that to him, hiking the Sandias in the winter is just too risky and I shouldn’t do things like this. To me, risk factor is relative to a person’s experience. Having hiked in similar conditions before, I didn’t perceive this outing to be too risky for me. I also think it’s important to challenge myself in ways that help me grow mentally and physically.
However, I also hope to never find myself in a situation where others must put themselves in unfavorable conditions to help me out. By acknowledging where I made poor decisions in gear selection and preparation, I strive to create smoother experiences as I continue to challenge myself with outings like this one.
This is part 1 of my #exploremore initiative, where I aim to experience more frequent adventure by exploring locations close to home. Think of it as a mini vacation once a month! To see other fun outings in and around my current locale, Albuquerque, look here.
Have a suggestion for a place/event I should check out? Let me know about it in the comment section below!