Snow Trax | Skiing the Tusas Mountains
Woman snowshoeing

| By Snowsports Journalist Daniel Gibson | 

Top image: Kitty Leaken snowshoes up the Rio Vallecitos Valley, accompanied by Glory Bee and Bumble Bee. Photo by Daniel Gibson. |

As I huffed up the gentle slope through the snow, I made a mental note: watch out for the narrow-leaf yucca plant just to the right of the big orange ponderosa; give it a wide berth. Falling on that would be disastrous. It was not, I pondered, the normal thought one had while going skiing, but here I was — once again — skiing on an eight-inch base of snow in a mixed piñon, cedro, and ponderosa forest, at our remote cabin in the Tusas Mountains above Ojo Caliente.

Sangre de Christos Mountains in New Mexico.
The Sangre de Christos, with the Truchas Peaks on the right, and San Leonardo and Jacarita on the left. Photo by Daniel Gibson.

It is as marginal it can get for skiing, at a modest elevation of 8,000 feet or so, in a lean winter. But the thing was, it was skiable! Fortunately, the ground here is mostly a carpet of ponderosa needles, free of downed branches and with only the rare rock. The latter did have me worried. Some I could spot by the humped surface, but others lay hidden just below the surface. And I’d forgotten by knee brace and my helmet. I probably should have reconsidered. But here I was and the snow had fallen wet and might compact nicely under the ski and allow forward motion. I had to try.

Selecting one of the easiest, low-angle slopes in the area I named the Hall of Giants, I lowered the old beater skis to the crusted surface and leveled them. Stepping into the bindings, the ski broke through and I had to stomp out a platform for them, as they have trouble locking in without a lot of heel pressure. I got clicked in and got my poles and surveyed the scene. I could see my bootpack trail up and needed to stay to the left of that. Past the pine, avoid the yucca and then into the flatter section below of younger pines. Alright! What could go wrong?

I pushed off, or tried to. My skis were welded to the snow. I pushed harder on the poles and jerked forward, then slowly began to move. I let gravity take over and I sped up and began my first long arching turn. In the shade, the snow was lighter and I managed to redirect the tips and dropped down. I made a solid turn at the big pine, flashed past the yucca and out onto the lower gentle slope, gliding along. But the trees close up below and I have to choose a path between them. Now I’m in the sun and the snow has a heavy crust on top and I can’t get the skis to turn. One pops free, and I’m skiing on one leg for a bit then it catches an edge and I fall, hard, downslope and land on my right shoulder. Ouch. I thank God there were no rocks where I came down. I rubbed my shoulder. It was basically okay. A twinge. But I said, be smart. Stop now. Then I remembered the pack left at the top of the run. I had to walk back up to get it. And, since I’m going up, I might as well take my skies, I thought, and descend very slowly along straight lines.

Turkey tracks in the snow
The valley is home to many turkey, as these tracks attest. Photo by Daniel Gibson.

I took the starting pitch at a modest angle and only when it flattened some, and I could see clear alleys through the smaller pines below me, did I stand erect and make some respectable turns. Here, in constant shade, the snow remained easily carvable and I linked turns a few hundred yards down to the forest service road.

I kept moving northward across the ridge, but only had enough time for five descents. One run I didn’t recall ever skiing before, and the last, Esquina, took me briefly into a gully with low banked walls. I wove down and out across the road and further down toward the acequia. Powder skiing, Tusas style.

Everything in snow leaves its mark. The tiny grasses and flower stalks all etch a unique design in the white surface — squiggles, lines, and feather-like brushes. Rabbits, turkeys, deer, elk, and coyote leave their signatures. People leave trails to woodpiles, the door, the outhouse, the hillside, the river. Leaving the valley are snowshoe prints. They wander along the edges of the frozen Rio Vallecitos, over gurgling waters underfoot, past glistening open pools fringed with fantastic icicles, through red willow and gray trunks of mountain cottonwoods, through meadows of big sage crusted in ice.

It is our annual winter sojourn to a simpler way of life, a hushed land, and crisp sunrises in the eight-degree dawns. Haul wood, make fires, heat our wood-fired hot tub, the water 33 degrees when it was pumped out of the hole I hacked in the rio’s ice sheath. Recovered a wayward chicken that escaped from John and Rilee next door, our new and much loved neighbors. Watched Swainson hawk soaring. Burned the slash piles from the massive deadfall ponderosa, coals glowing like a thousand red eyes in the deepening dusk.

SKI CONDITIONS | AS OF JANUARY 12, 2022 |

Ski Santa Fe has a 30-inch base, with 73 of 86 runs open, including many expert runs. Yet to be skied are Gayway, Molly Hogan, S. Burn, Chiles Glade, Easter Bowl, and Sunset Bowl.

Taos Ski Valley has 53 inches atop Lift 7 and 39 at mid-Shalako, with 66 of 111 runs open. The Kachina Peak Chair and Chair 7 have yet to spin. There’s lots of expert runs skiable, about one-third of the slopes off the hike-to Highline Ridge, and about half of the West Basin hike-to terrain.

Wolf Creek rests on a prodigious 98 inches at the summit and 85 at mid-mountain. It’s received 217 inches of snow so far this season! Alberta Ridge, Knife Ridge, and Horseshoe Bowl are all open. This Sunday, Jan. 16, they will host the annual Martin Luther King Race, open to all for free with medals to the top three finishers in each division.

Angel Fire Resort has a 22-inch base and 28 of 81 runs open; Red River reports a 2-foot base with 47 of 64 runs open, and one of three terrain parks; and Sipapu 18 inches and 21 of 43 runs skiable.

Ski Apache has two beginner runs open.

Pajarito and Sandia Peak remain closed.

Revelation Bowl at Telluride
Telluride’s Revelation Bowl has some supreme powder skiing, and is now open. Above it is the jagged Palmyra Peak, at 13,320 feet, the nation’s highest in-bounds point. Photo by and courtesy Telluride Ski Resort.

Crested Butte has a 67-inch base and 112 of 121 runs open. Its famed North Lift and High Lift have opened, with about half of the double black terrain accessed by those surface lifts now in play. The esteemed front steeps like Peel and Banana have yet to be skied.

Monarch Mountain has 55 inches and all 64 runs open, including the terrific hike-to runs in Mirkwood Basin.

Telluride reports a 42- to 46-inch base. It has all lifts operational and 120 of 147 runs functioning. This includes about half the runs in the hike-to Prospect Lift sector, but none of the Gold Hill hike zone.

Purgatory chimes in with a 44- to 49-inch base. It has 103 of 105 runs open.

Arizona Snowbowl has a nice 47-inch base, and all its lift-served runs open. Access to the hike-to slopes is still verboten.

This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead

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