Breaking Trail | - January 10, 2010

Breaking Trail

Snow shoe trails this time of year tend to end just where it starts to get interesting. Packing down one to two feet of snow, plowing through fresh drifts, and trying to see the semblance of a trail is a laborious and time consuming act. Of course you have the company of snow covered pines along with various forms of snow and ice sculpted for their wild beauty to keep you company. Then there is the occasional glimpse of a snow capped peak outlined against the crystal blue sky that helps to keep the legs moving forward.

On popular trails occasionally a motorized groomer is used but this is mainly to keep the trails smooth for cross country skiers. Snow shoers tend to forge their own trails and as the season progresses the trails become more packed, longer, and hopefully steeper. Hikers without snowshoes help by packing the trail when the snow starts and then they continue to do so as the snow piles on. Without snowshoes they can only go so far before the snow becomes too deep and they are forced to turn back.

The Bull of the Woods trail at the Taos ski basin starts off well packed. Two feet of snow line both sides of the trail so caution is needed when venturing into the woods. On one side a creek dodges in and out of snow drifts, appears briefly then flowing back under snow and ice. Ice cold pools forming where the snow has melted. The pines here are dense with only a small amount of light shining on the trail.

I reach Bull of the Woods pasture in one and a half hours; parts of the trail are somewhat steep. Adjusting for the altitude requires a slower pace. I open zippers allowing steam to escape and let my layers of wool stay dry. The temperatures are well below freezing. At the top the trail comes to a stop. To my right, heading southeast is one to two feet of fresh snow covering what I know to be the trail that goes to Wheeler Peak. I turn on my GPS and pull up the track I laid down a few summers ago that goes to New Mexico's highest peak. I don't consider reaching the peak this time of year on this route. It's too long and dangerous going this way but after a mile or so of steep hiking I can be above tree line with spectacular views of snowy mountain peaks.

I break trail at 10,800 feet with the intention of reaching 11,600 feet. Knowing the trail from previous hikes and being able to follow the old track on my GPS keeps me heading in the right direction. I'm sinking to my calves and sometimes my knees with each step. I wear snow shoes that are light and slightly larger for my size so I can optimize my float when hiking on soft and deep snow. I rest frequently to check my bearing, let my heart rate settle a bit, and enjoy that certain peace that only winter brings. Luna hops along behind me like a bunny. Briefly she goes in front but when only her head is showing she waits for me to pass then follows in my trail.

Snow laden pines have always made me smile. The way the boughs droop, the light filtering through, different shapes to the snow that sit at the base and adhere to the top. Soft snow, hard crusted snow, wet snow, light downy snow, fresh snow, old dirty snow, and then the snow underneath the fresh snow. Snow with crystals in it that catch the sun. Snow is rarely static; it flows, it's sculpted by the winds, it melts in the noon day sun and then freezes again when the sun fades.

We hike for about another hour and a half before finally spotting the mountains in the near distance. The light has crossed its high point and the temperatures are dropping and at this altitude the winds are picking up. As we reach higher elevations the openness of the area alters the landscape. Areas of snow are crusty from the sun and wind. Sections have drifts and others are barren with exposed rock and frozen ground. Shoots of winter grass bend quietly in the wind, sunlight reflected off their golden stalks. At 11,600 feet the area is flattened and the Red River Gorge lies below. Then I gaze southeast toward another plateau. It's about two hundred yards away, not very far but it would also include 300-400 feet of climbing up a steep slope. I can see drifts of snow and patches of ice covering the route I would hike. I look at my watch, look at the sun, then look at the higher elevation. It's pointless to ask Luna, she would follow me anywhere. There will be other times and caution is never a wrong decision.

We break for a time enjoying the winter views and needed rest. It's 3 PM and I know I have two hours before dark. Two hours downhill through some of the most beautiful high country in northern New Mexico. The trek is pleasant and easy, we arrive at the car at 5 PM.

The next day I head to Sipapu with a friend. The trails are located a mile or two before or after the lodge. They are relatively flat but that's probably subjective. We hike for 4 hours, breaking trail most of the time. It was an enjoyable pace with sparkling forest scenery. The ski area is small, family oriented and quite beautiful.

That night I mention to Luna the Williams Lake trail which can go to Wheeler Peak if conditions are right. The other possibility is the Santa Fe ski basin which is well used but has some fine high country trails. I know that look of hers; she wants to go as high as possible.