- Monthly Program
The Los Alamos Mountaineers were introduced to the sport of cross-country skiing in 1970. Before then few members had heard of the sport, and they were unfamiliar with skinny skis and 3-pin bindings. Since that time, the club has always included many active cross-country skiers. In the years before global warming, the Mountaineers often visited the local Jemez mountains for ski adventures. The broad valles, the gentle rolling hills and peaks, the grassy south-facing slopes, and the bright blue skies provided a beautiful setting for ski touring. From a distance, many of the hills looked badly scarred by the logging activities of the 1950's and 1960's, but up close the logging roads provided inviting access to many areas that few other people ever saw. This created opportunities for exploring remote areas that were often crowded or off-limits in the summer.
Classic Jemez ski tours over the years include the San Antonio Hot Springs, Griegos Peak, Del Norte Canyon, Road Canyon, Cerro Medio, Chicoma Peak, and especially the Valle Grande. Bob Cowan led a snowshoe ascent of Redondo Peak in 1979, and George Rinker led ski mountaineering ascents of that peak in 1980 and 1981.
Fig. 1. Kim Selvage on a winter snowshoe backpack on Pajarito Mountain, with the Valle Grande
and Redondo Peak in the background (Ron Selvage photo).
A very strenuous, popular and well-known club trip was the annual 24-mile crossing of the back valles, starting at the Pajarito Ski Area and passing through the Valle de los Posos, the Valle Toledo, and the Valle San Antonio, finally arriving at La Cueva. At the 20-mile mark there was always a stop at the San Antonio Hot Springs to soak for a while and revive aching leg muscles. The trip has a net elevation drop of about 2000 feet, but also gains more than 1000 feet along the way. This trip usually required a strong party of trail breakers, led by Mountaineers like Don Liska, George Bell, Dave Brown, Len Margolin, or Merle Wheeler. But the trip has also been done at night by just 2 or 3 people gliding and skating across a frozen surface. Although this was always a strenuous ski tour, there was sometimes a sociable aspect at the end. Once there was a barbeque party at the highway when the skiers came out. Another time, Mario Schillaci recalls that some of the spouses did the 4-mile ski in to the San Antonio Hot Springs from the highway and met the party from Los Alamos with beer and snacks. After a long relaxed soak in the hot springs, and drinking a lot of beer, Mario had trouble making it out the last 4 miles to the highway!
Fig. 2. Two skiers enter the Valle Toledo at sundown
on a trip from Pajarito Ski Area to La Cueva.
Up until 1979 it was often possible for the Mountaineers to get permission from the landowner, Pat Dunigan, by writing two weeks in advance. But eventually the trip was no longer possible in daylight because the area was closed. Don Liska remembers that "We had to start doing the trip at night, just before full moon, and we made up 'secret' code words for the trip. Those were good days-on one outstanding week I did the crossing three times, twice during the day and the first night time crossing to check its practicality. That one was solo - the best way to feel total solitude." Ironically, now that the Valles Caldera is public property, access by the public is still prohibited except for brief visits!
Fig. 3. Mark Zander on a night-time exploratory ski trip in the Jemez
(Leslie Champ photo).
There were also two Jemez ski trips that set out with the goal of crossing the central part of the Jemez mountain range. In the 1970's, George and Ginny Bell and Dave Brown set out from the Seven Springs Fish Hatchery, skiing northeast. Franz Jahoda and Miles Brown started out from the Pedernal road, skiing southwest. The two parties intended to meet, exchange car keys, and continue on across. They got within about a mile of each other, but they didn't see each other and so they both turned back.
In February 1993, Merle Wheeler, Mark Zander, Leslie Champ, Sharon Dogruel, and Greg Swift set out with backpacks from the Pajarito ski area and headed north to Cerro Toledo. From there they dropped into the head of Santa Clara canyon and then turned west and began to follow jeep roads and ridges just north of the Valle Toledo and the Valle San Antonio. They were also aiming for the Fish Hatchery, which they planned to reach in 3 days. But it was a period of almost continuous snow storms, and they were slowed down by lack of visibility, route finding problems, and heavy trail breaking. Norbert Ensslin, Dennis Brandt, and Larry Dauelsberg skied in a few miles from the Fish Hatchery on both the third and fourth day to look for them. On the afternoon of the fourth day, the two parties had a happy reunion in Road Canyon. Merle's team was doing great, but appreciated getting some fresh lemonade and a broken trail back to the Fish Hatchery.
Cross-country skiing in the Jemez and other local sunny areas has always had to contend with relatively warm snow. The most useful waxes are usually red or purple (to get more traction) and a stick of paraffin wax (to stop clumping and get less traction!). A novel idea for waxing skis came on one of the club's annual ski tours through the back valles to La Cueva. In those days, before plastic fish scale skis, when everyone had wooden skis, it was customary to put on more wax at lunch time. Mario Schillaci recalls that Don Liska pulled out a bag of wax cans and klister tubes, and said "It was too bad that they had to carry all of this stuff. It would be better if it was all edible." At that time Don was eating big slices off his usual giant stick of salami sausage, so Mario said, "Why don't you try waxing your skis with that big salami?" Don was intrigued with the idea, but didn't actually try it.
Other cross-country ski trips involving colder snow have included many day trips in the Brazos and Cumbres Pass areas, and 3-day crossings from Penasco or Santa Barbara Canyon to Cowles in the Sangre de Cristos. Rich Davidson led a trip from the Santa Fe Ski Basin to Cowles in January 1983, and Don Liska led 1-day trips from Crested Butte to Aspen in April 1983 and April 1985.
For many years, starting in February 1983, Dave and Faye Brown led trips to Jicarita Peak (12,834ft), which is located about 7 or 8 miles northeast of the Truchas Peaks. This was a tough ski mountaineering trip, 19 miles round trip, with an elevation gain of nearly 4000 feet. Skiers often made it only as far as timberline, about 8 miles in, depending on snow conditions and the strength of the party. The ridge above timberline often had hard, windblown snow to contend with for those trying to go all the way to the summit. Dave remembers that, in terms of elevation gain and total effort, this trip was harder than a Valle crossing. He had initially tried to find a way up from Santa Barbara canyon, but never made it. George and Ginny Bell pioneered another route from near Tres Ritos and Angostura that was a bit shorter and had better snow.
Ski mountaineering, like other forms of mountaineering, also has some potential for accidents. In 1988 Elizabeth Kelly suffered a broken leg while telemarking down Santa Fe Baldy on a Mountaineers ski tour. Dennis Brandt provided an account of the accident, which occurred at about 2 PM at an elevation of 11,650 feet. Dennis said that David Barlow and Barry Smith, the two fastest skiers in the group, raced back to the parking lot at the Ski Basin to call for a rescue. They made it in the amazing time of just over 1 hour! The other members of the party stayed with Elizabeth and tried to keep her as comfortable as possible, although she was in light shock and experiencing a lot of pain. Chemical heat packs and a donated tent and heater helped to keep Elizabeth warm. "Just before darkness fell, a State Police helicopter arrived and dropped off a search and rescue volunteer. The volunteer received a radio message from the helicopter pilot, saying that the pilot was not allowed to operate in the darkness, and that he would return once more just before total darkness to evacuate Elizabeth from Puerto Nambe. He allowed 5 minutes for the party to get Elizabeth to Puerto Nambe from the accident site, a task that would normally take 30 minutes." Now the Mountaineers began a frantic struggle using a make-shift sled made of space blankets, cords, and anything else that could be found to carry Elizabeth towards the helicopter. Al Bouchier managed to get Elizabeth most of the way there by an amazing feat of high-speed skiing, with Elizabeth helping to steer and brake. When the make-shift sled broke apart, Dennis Brandt and Al Bouchier had to help Elizabeth hobble through the snow in great pain until she could be pushed into the hovering helicopter. The helicopter deposited Elizabeth at the hospital at 6 PM. The rest of the party gathered up the residue of skis and other gear and finally made it out by 9 PM, ending what was without a doubt one of the club's most memorable rescue recovery episodes!
In recent years the Mountaineers have done fewer long overnight ski tours, but more trips that utilize yurts in New Mexico or 10th Mountain huts in Colorado. These trips are very popular, and often have long waiting lists for available cabin space. Hut trips led by Dick and Judy Opsahl have filled up a year in advance. Other trips to less well-known hut destinations may be able to accommodate skiers with less advance notice, like Chris Horley's trip to the Section House on Boreas Pass in 2006. In addition to formal club trips, Mario Schillaci has organized a series of hut trips for many years now. Mario was always envious of the Europeans for having a fine hut system, so that hikers and skiers could do extended trips by traveling from hut to hut. Dave Brown told him about the Tenth Mountain Hut System in Colorado, so Mario organized a 5-day trip in 1991 to visit some of those huts. They spent one night each in Vance's Cabin, the Jackal Hut, the Fowler-Hilliard Hut, and the Shrine Mt. Inn. This was the first hut trip organized by members of the club or friends of members, and started a long tradition of trips by club members, some private and some as club trips. During this first trip, the party met a group of "old guys" going the other way, who said that they had been doing this kind of trip for 20 years. Mario thought that this was fantastic, and considered it an admirable goal. Now, after his 18th trip in 2008, Mario can feel proud and happy for having achieved almost the same record of fine hut trips.
In the last few years Bill Priedhorsky has also rented a house in Pagosa Springs, Salida, or Durango to allow the Mountaineers to get together for downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or just socializing.