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 skis, 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.

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.

 

This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead

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