Cerro Grande to the Pajarito Ski Area
March 8, 2007
Weekday solitude and herds of migrating elk.
Approximately 3.5 mile.
Approximately 2,000 feet in two sections.
Time: A leisurely
four hours in and out of snow shoes.
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
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
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.