Climbing Santa Fe Baldy | - May 20, 2008

It’s not as mean-looking as the Truchas Peaks to the north nor as accessible as Atalaya Mountain. It’s gentle, rounded form seems to disappear into the landscape, but every now and then I notice the mustache of spruce trees stretching across the mountain’s bare western face and wonder, “How do those trees hang on up there?” Then I forget the mountain again, as though Santa Fe Baldy, a mountain I’ve loved my entire life, is nothing but a 12,622 foot hill.

A friend of mine once climbed Baldy in March, and came back down on skis. Two weeks later a couple friends of his snowboarded and skied the east slope, the sheer and stomach dropping, fall-and-you-slide-into Lake Katherine side of the mountain. Understand that these people, though insane, knew what they were doing. For the rest of us, the best times to climb are in June through mid July or during aspen season, when the weather is somewhat predictable and the chances of starting an avalanche are nil. You definitely want to stay off Baldy, or any Rocky Mountain peak for that matter, during the July and August monsoon season, which only the most suicidal hiker would want to experience above timberline. Not only do these storms move in fast, but they often approach from the east, the side of Baldy you won’t see until you are on the last leg of the climb. This would be the last place you would want to be during a July storm; at higher elevations these events often come with hail (painful and extremely cold) and lightning (painful and extremely hot).

My favorite time to hike Baldy is in the fall. The air is clearer then, and the quality of autumn light makes the New Mexico sky a crisp dark blue that can break a person’s heart. Another friend of mine, who climbs the peak quite often, told me that she once saw hot air balloons in Albuquerque on an October trip up Baldy. Now that’s a clear sky! I was with her and her husband on another climb in September when she was pregnant. The aspen flush was near its climax, and we saw almost every shade of yellow and red. We’re still mad at ourselves for not bringing a camera.

Although any moderately-conditioned hiker can reach Baldy’s summit, throw in a picnic and be home in time for dinner, climbing this peak is not an easy feat. It’s a long trek, about 14 miles round trip and an elevation gain of close to 3,000 feet from an already lofty trailhead. Buy a pair of lightweight hiking boots with solid ankle and arch support. Break them in on a few moderate practice hikes, getting your body, lungs and feet accustomed to many hours of walking at elevation before tackling the big mountain. Bring at least two liters of water on your training hikes, more if you can, and drink all of it. I usually bring a water filter and a bottle with me, draining and filling my bottle whenever I encounter a stream. Remember, if you get thirsty while hiking or if you’re not taking a pit stop every hour or so, you’re already dehydrated.

Safety requires that you inform someone back home of your plans, your route and the absolute latest hour (during daylight) that they should expect your phone call announcing your return. You should also hike with at least one partner. For the Baldy hike, designate a turn-around time approximately six hours from the trailhead that the group will honor whether or not you reach the summit. The importance of a turn-around time cannot be overemphasized. I hiked with someone once who insisted on summiting a big peak after we reached our turn-around time. Murphy’s Law was in effect of course, and a storm blew in. The rest of us waited at timberline for two hours until he finally arrived, but the rain had begun to fall by then. It was a wet and quiet hike to the trailhead, our maverick buddy pulling up the rear, solidly ensconced in his doghouse.

As far as clothing goes, non-cotton pants and a long sleeved, non-cotton, moisture-wicking shirt are musts for climbing Baldy. Pack a rain jacket, a season-appropriate fleece jacket, a fleece or wool cap, a sun hat, sunscreen, a water filter and container (two if you can carry them), the Aspen Basin topo map, a GPS or if you’re a caveman like I am, a compass (Santa Fe is west, the Pecos Wilderness east). Your first aid kit should contain band aids, important meds, and moleskin. Your camera should have good batteries, your flashlight too (I’m a safety freak). Your matches or lighter should be waterproof, and your lunch should include more high-energy, high-protein foods than you think you will eat.

An early start, preferably daybreak, is best since it allows plenty of time to summit. It’s also cooler then, and you might see some wildlife—if you’re quiet and hike without pets. Your starting point is the Winsor Trail—often misspelled Windsor—(USDA Forest Service Trail #254) at the northwest corner of the Ski Basin parking lot. (The Winsor trail is named after Henry Winsor, the patriarch of the family that homesteaded the Cowles area in the mid to late 1800s. Their ranch, Mountainview Ranch—since purchased and erased by the government—lay in the drainage of Winsor Creek, which is the eastern terminus of Winsor Trail.) The trail ascends steeply, then levels off and veers to the east. You will encounter another trail on your left. Go straight. About two miles farther on you will come to a trail heading right, and you will go straight here also, staying on the Winsor Trail. Soon you will come to the Rio Nambe, roughly 4 miles from the trailhead. Drink all your water and fill up again.

Not long after the Rio Nambe, you will cross a couple more streams before climbing some switchbacks to the Puerto Nambe meadow, where the trail will reach a fork. Check your water here and your strength. Stretch, snack, and take a breather. You are at approximately 10,800 feet and have 1,822 feet to go, all of it an up-hill climb.

After a rest, take the left fork, heading north on the trail. You’ll ascend more switchbacks to a saddle on Baldy’s southeastern flank. (If you go down the saddle you will wind up at Lake Katherine.) You will see where to go from here, generally northwest along a ridge to the summit.

Easy, right? You might not think so at first, but after a minute up there you may conclude that your effort was miniscule in comparison to the reward you’ve received. In one panoramic vista, there you are: glistening Lake Katherine huddled in Baldy’s bowl to your right, the Jemez out west, the Sandias to the south, Pecos Baldy to the east, and San Antonio Mountain on the Colorado border, pretty much all of northern New Mexico. Maybe the trees hang on up here for this incredible view.