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Cerro Grande to the Pajarito Ski Area

March 8, 2007

Author: Michael Altherr

Trip Participants: Solo

Attractions: Weekday solitude and herds of migrating elk.

Distance: Approximately 3.5 mile.

Elevation gain: Approximately 2,000 feet in two sections.

Time: A leisurely four hours in and out of snow shoes.

Weather: Broken clouds with occasional snow and periods of sun.

It was Thursday and I had already taken the day off for another reason which failed to materialize.  Rather than waste a perfectly good day (forecast: cloudy and rainy) and go to work, I had my son follow me up to the Pajarito Ski area and dropped off my truck.  Glad for the gas I put in his tank, he ferried me up Hwy 4 to the Parking area across from the Dome Road turn-off.  He stayed long enough to insure I had my gear and that my feet hit the pavement before he skedaddled.  This parking lot is the staging area for the Frijoles Canyon ski and hiking trails (across the road) and the recently opened (for 'legal' access) Cerro Grande Trail.

Earlier in the day, I struggled with the decision to bring my telemark skis or snow shoes.  I'd much rather ski than snow shoe, especially going down hill; but I'd rather walk in hiking boots than in ski boots. It was late in the season for this part of New Mexico, and while the Cerro Grande trail, out and back, is an outstanding non committing backcountry ski, of which I had already partaken several times in this season's generous snow; the trail's southern exposure and lack of significant recent snow concerned me.  As the sound of my son's truck speeding away became stilled by the trees and the wind, my surveillance of the trail assured me that I made the right decision to bring snow shoes.  I quickly lashed them to my pack and started out.

Tele tracks on the west slope approach to Cerro Grande in January 2007
 with views of Redondo Peak and the Valle Grande.

I have really become fond of this trail at anytime of year.  The trail is well marked with yellow diamonds, and starts out at 8,950' in ponderosa forest heading northeast below the summit of an unnamed knob at 9,743'.  The trail rolls gently uphill for approximately three-quarters of a mile before turning North and climbing more steeply to a saddle at 9,600 feet that lies between Cerro Grande and the knob at 9,743'.  I found myself donning and doffing my snow shoes frequently given my distaste for post-holing.  On this occasion, I climbed to the saddle a bit west of the usual route along a line that took me to about 9,400' in the absence of snow, and then donned my snow shoes for what would be the remainder of the trip. As I turned to the North I spotted a herd of elk comprised of about 20 individuals marching single file on the slope above me.  I obviously posed no threat and they took little notice of me.

The saddle is a rather large open meadow with the first of many stunning views of the Valle Grande.  The meadow sports a progressive profusion of wild flowers throughout the snow free months, and given this year's moisture it should be a real treat.  But in the snowy months, there are several slopes that provide enjoyable 'earned-turns.'  One of these, a west facing slope, provides the final, somewhat steep, approach to the summit of Cerro Grande at 10,200'.  The snow was getting a little thin and patchy but it still would have been ski-able.  Damn, where are those skis?  Oh well, a little R&R on the summit: some lunch and a cup of tea before pushing on.  The forest here appears to be a transition zone with plenty of ponderosa still around, but fir and spruce coming in.  The summit view is about 270 degrees and takes in the Sandia, Cerro Pelado, Los Griegos, Redondo Peak and of course the magnificent Valle at your feet.

Tele skis cast long shadows in the late afternoon winter sun in January 2007.
I also saw tele tracks leading back down from the summit of Cerro Grande
toward Sandia Mountain visible to the south in this view.

I traversed North over the summit to descend a treed ridge that points just east of North.  The snow was deep and sugar of this north facing slope.  Damn, where are those skis?  The slope is a bit steep in spots and the frequency of trees a bit dense in a few places, but its child's play to those of you who have done the Commando Run descent just prior to the climb up Siberia Peak.  As I descended the 700' to saddle between Cerro Grande and Pajarito Mountain., a pair of elk on a path perpendicular to mine, presumably on their way to the Valle, crossed the meadow below.  This saddle is again another large open meadow and I strolled across contemplating the three quarter mile 20% grade that awaited me on the other side.  After further contemplation, a snack and a cup of tea, I turned to see six more elk about 20' above me on the slope on their way to the Valle.

My climb up was gratefully, further interrupted by an elk calf that was apparently attempting to keep up with the previous group, but struggling to do so.  My ascent for the day ended at the saddle between the designated summit of Pajarito Mountain. and the small knob behind the Aspen lift.  I started down the artificially created glacial ice euphemistically referred to by ski area operators as "packed powder".  Not too fun in snow shoes on a bum knee.  I went into and out of the trees in an effort to get some reasonable purchase.  This least enjoyable part of the day brought me back to my truck and the pleasure of finding my key.

I think this walk would be an excellent way to introduce novice adventurers, in a non committing way, to the enjoyment of winter overland travel.  A winter camp in the saddle between Cerro Grande and Pajarito Mountain. could be done easily, with luxurious snow shelter opportunities in abundance off the North Ridge of Cerro Grande.  Ah, I guess I will just have to wait till next year.


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