On my annual Christmas trip to New Mexico I was looking for a good winter climb. Santa Fe Baldy
--an easy peak overlooking its namesake--fit the bill. I'd hoped to climb a 13er but opted for convenience instead. I was also climbing alone, so I figured I should be conservative.
I did plenty of homework on the mountain, and kept close tabs on the weather before flying west. My plan was to get an alpine start, summit, then practice some alpine skills (map and compass work, route planning, self-arrest, Rutschblock tests, steep ascents, and down climbing, etc.) on the steep face overlooking Lake Katherine. The trip was a blast and I highly recommend this mountain for anyone looking for a starter peak or just plain fun. Winter weather and snow can make for a challenging day out, though, so be ready.
The lower trail and a mountain lion
The weather in Santa Fe had been warm and overcast for days, so I was really gunning for some cold, clear weather. I got my wish; a few inches of fresh snow on the mountain and a 15 degree drop in temps arrived the day before the climb.
After two rocky hours of wine-impaired sleep courtesy of my Italian in-laws-to-be, I awoke at 1am to crystal clear skies and a light breeze. Not wanting to awaken our hosts, I skipped coffee (bad idea), threw on my gear, and headed up the mountain. Serious note: the drive up/down Hyde Park Road can be treacherous, if as much because of black ice as Texans in SUVs unaccustomed to said ice. I saw one accident on my way down and nearly another a mile or so after that one. You've been warned.
I arrived at the empty parking lot (10,280 feet) to find temps around 5 degrees, gusting wind, and clear skies. I quickly found the Winsor trailhead (well marked by signs and adjacent to the bathrooms at the northwest corner of the lot) and started walking on the trail. By 3am I hit the wilderness boundary, wrote a short note in the log book, then kept chugging. The trees blocked what little moonlight I might have used; the trail was pitch black except for my headlamp.
Maybe ten minutes after signing the book, I rounded a small bend in the trail. As I panned my headlamp around the bend I saw something ahead that stopped me cold: two big, bright green eyes reflected in my lamp and looking directly at me, maybe 30 feet away. I couldn't see the body of it, but quickly realized it must be a mountain lion. After a juicy surge of adrenaline and a few moments questioning just how much I wanted to climb this mountain, I decided to stand my ground, hoping the cat would just leave (I'm certain if it had been daylight and I had actually seen the cat, I'd have backed off...). After a 30 second standoff the animal just vanished. I considered retreating (and in retrospect should have) but living in Michigan will leave a guy pretty hard up for a summit. I looked in vain for the eyes for a few minutes before slowly walking forward, axe at the ready and talking in a low voice. I eventually saw the animal again about 30 feet down the slope and looking up at me. I snapped a picture (the eye is faintly visible as a tiny, green dot; the cat wasn't facing me just then), then kept walking. Yes, undoubtedly bad judgment. But again... Michigan. My head was on a swivel for the next hour or so. I took some pictures of the fresh predator droppings on the trail, along with frequent urine spots. (PM me for those; I'll spare the rest of you).
A couple hours later I emerged from the forest and onto the southern slope leading to the summit. The nicely groomed trail left by snowshoers and skiers quickly dwindled to nothing, and the snow got deeper (Wish I'd brought snowshoes or skis). The wind picked up considerably. I spent a couple of hours postholing my way up into steadily stronger winds. For an easy climb this was becoming a chore. By sunrise I was in full-on winter climbing conditions, with sustained winds of at least 25 miles an hour, gusting higher. The wind chill was respectable.
I continued slogging up the slope, thankful for the geese who gave their all to keep me warm. The southern route up the mountain is gentle the whole way up, and except for some tricky footing on boulders, it was more of a hike than anything. On the way up, I passed some great rime formations.
The views from the summit were amazing; Los Alamos and the Pedernal to the West; the Truchas peaks to the north; Santa Fe below, and the Sandia Range
I enjoyed the views and solitude for a while until I began to get pretty cold. I hadn't seen anyone all day and wouldn't until I was back near the parking lot.
After snapping some pictures, I downclimbed onto the steep, east face of the summit for some practice. The first thing I did was a Rutschblock test, and unfortunately found the snow to be pretty unstable, so I climbed back up and then headed home. On the descent, I found it easy to follow the natural line of the mountain and, in the process, began heading down the wrong drainage valley (ie, the Nambe basin). I realized my mistake after a few minutes, though, and pulled out the map and compass to confirm things. Apparently quite a few people do this every year, according to locals. Be sure to keep the map handy and regularly terrain associate; in the winter there isn't really a trail and what signs thre are are few and far between.
All in all, my "easy" day had been a little more interesting than I'd expected, and it was a lot of fun. Baldy is a great fitness and training climb, and gives some great views of New Mexico. The route isn't challenging, but the round trip makes for a full day of walking. Add some post holing and otherwise deep, loose snow in the winter and it's not a walk in the park. Be sure to bring enough gear and food, just in case. Oh and watch for cats.