Snow Trax 7 | At Play in the Snowfields of the Lords -

This week, snowsports journalist Daniel Gibson takes us skiing at his own private paradise. | 

At “Ski Vallecitos” frozen wild grass is considered a skiable surface, as are icy ponderosa pine needles. I was reminded of this on a New Year’s outing to the Tusas Mountains and the small straw bale cabin we have on the banks of the Rio Vallecitos north of Ojo Caliente.

We have a tradition of heading up there to avoid the amateur’s party night, which was especially called for this pandemic holiday, and were able in this snow-scarce winter to drive almost to our destination. We then loaded up two plastic toboggans and ferried in our food and gear. While snow has not been abundant, there was a foot or so on the ground here in the white realm, and it was getting very cold at night — around 4 to 6 degrees — and the interior cabin temperature was 29 degrees when we opened the door.

The first order of business was getting fires lit in the two wood stoves and keeping them going over the next three days! Even after 12 hours, cold pockets remained in the room corners and closets — just fine for the beer stash! — but within a day it was comfy, with a reassuring wave of warmth washing over you when coming inside.

Outdoors the world was encased in snow and ice, the river gone silent under its sheet of glass. Wind blew tendrils of light powder off the trees and it settled down in sparkling waves, dusting one’s head and neck. Birds had largely vanished, except for squawking jays, and the mornings were met with a brilliant, eye-dazzling explosion of golden light as the sun’s first rays pierced the frost clinging to every branch and sprig.

Tracks in the Snow

Tracks in the snow left by skis.
(Top image) The author carves a few low-angle turns past a stone cairn on one of the “runs” at self-named Ski Vallecitos. Photo by Kitty Leaken.
(Above) A set of tracks snakes out of the ponderosa forest in the Tusas Mountains. Photo by Daniel Gibson.

Across the snow one could read the movements of animals in the tracks they left behind: wide hoofmarks of elk, tiny etchings of field mice, the frozen track of turkeys captured in ice on the river, the wanderings of our dogs, and the meanderings of rabbits. We soon left our own marks on the snow, with trails to the wood shed, to the outhouse, and to our wood-fired hot tub. They told the tale of our days and motions.

The hot tub sits next to the river, and I had to chop a hole through a foot of ice to get to the water to be pumped into the tub, a modified live stock tank with a special firebox made by a Seattle company and called The Snorkel, which you feed from above. The water was just a degree or two above freezing, and it took almost 12 hours of heating before it was over 100 degrees, but  with a hillside forest that badly needs thinning, firewood is not scarce.

As evening descended and the sky’s color shifted from pale blue to yellow, then pink and finally purple we soaked away the aches, pains and worries of the day, and watched the stars emerge overhead. Billows of steam rose into the frigid air and washed our lungs clean and clear. It was returning to the sky, where it might perhaps fall as snow on the Sangre de Cristos or on the plains of Kansas. We were caught in the hydrological cycle of life on Earth, and it was good.

Ski Vallecitos

Skis leaning against a building.
The author’s old rock skis rest after another successful outing in the marginal conditions this season. Photo by Daniel Gibson.

The next morning I woke with renewed energy, as it was time to sample the skiing on the slopes above the cabin! Here, as long-time readers know, I’ve been creating a series of runs over the years that descend through a ponderosa pine forest. The northeast-facing slope gets increasingly steep as one moves across it from south to north, and I began on the low-angle section to test conditions.

There have been better winters, and those when skiing was out of the question, but the sparse base this year was just sufficient to encourage the attempt. With a firm, dense layer a few inches thick at ground level, and six to eight inches of sugar-like light snow on top, it was actually quite a speedy surface and adequate coverage on the easy-going slopes. I whooped and swooped down past the old growth ponderosas in the Hall of Giants section, carving a dozen or so big GS turns across the paltry snow sitting on its smooth grass and pine needle base dotted with an occasional narrow-leaf yucca.

Then I shouldered my skis and trudged back up and moved over a bit to find another untracked line, looking for the natural alleys between trees, which I’ve helped improve over the years by removing some of the all-too prolific tiny pines. Reaching a run I’ve named “La Esquina” (The Corner) I slipped off its summit and glided quietly into its roll over, picked up speed and dropped into a gully with banked sides perfect for easy turns and snaked down and down and down for the longest run of the morning.

But as I moved north and the slope steepened, I needed to exert more force to carve each turn, and I began bottoming out, leaving streaks of dirt, pebbles, and bits of decomposed branches in my wake. Notice to visitors: bring your rock skis to Ski Vallecitos!

Worried there might be larger rocks lurking under the snow, my legs feeling like lead, wet with perspiration, and now probably late for our lunch, I decided to stop while ahead and made a final descent down “Booty Boogie” to a dry island of pine needles under a tree in La Vega. Kitty soon showed up on her snowshoes and under a warm New Mexico sun we enjoyed a simple but delicious picnic.

Then it was time to move one’s creaky legs and hips again, and slip back to the cabin to warm up the hot tub and have another long soak. Once again I asked myself why we are so lucky to enjoy this satisfying cycle amidst such a beautiful setting. In a time of hardship and uncertainty it is a precious gift and we are humbled to be enmeshed in these ancient rhythms.


Avalanche slide
An avalanche slide in Colorado backcountry in late December shows skier tracks at top leading into the slide on a modestly-pitched slope. Photo courtesy CAIC.

Backcountry skiers are being urged to be extra cautious about their excursions, as the regional snowpack is highly unstable this season.

A skier was killed a few weeks ago in a backcountry avalanche west of Crested Butte while skiing in the Anthracite Range. The skier was in the northeast end of the area known as the Friendly Finish when the avalanche occurred. He was skiing alone, which is a never advised, but before descending spoke to two other skiers about how they planned to go down. After the two made their descent, they found the victim’s snowmobile still parked, and spotted the remnants of an avalanche where the victim had told them he planned to descend.

The pair found the victim with a transceiver search and were able to pull him out of the snow, with help from local volunteers and Crested Butte Search and Rescue, but the victim did not survive.

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in the last week of 2020, some 380 avalanches were reported, with 108 triggered by people! Nine people were caught in these avalanches, and three people died. “We haven’t seen conditions this bad since 2012,” CAIC stated in a recent news release.

Dan Gibson
Snowsports journalist Daniel Gibson, photographed at Red River.

Daniel Gibson is the author of New Mexico’s only comprehensive ski guidebook, Skiing New Mexico: Snow Sports in the Land of Enchantment (UNM Press, 2017). He is a member of the North American Snowsports Journalist Association and has written on the topic for newspapers coast to coast, web sites, and magazines including Powder, Ski and Wintersport Business. His first day on wooden skis with wooden edges came at age 6 in 1960 on a snowy day at the former Santa Fe Ski Basin. He can be reached at [email protected] or via

This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead

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