New Mexico’s Santa Fe Baldy is a simple walk-up, which I’d tried last year in early May but heavy snow still covered the trail.
This is what the trail looked like in early May of 2016. I could follow it thanks to snowmobile and snowshoe traces, but I’d constantly break through, sinking up to my crotch and filling my boots with snow. I knew that if I’d just try again next year, but a little later in May, the trail would be clear of snow.
This year, I’d slept the night before in the deserted Aspen campground at the trailhead after a twelve hour drive, and gotten an early start up the Winsor Trail (trail 254 on the map). The entire area is part of the Santa Fe National Forest, and after a half-hour of steady hiking you’ll arrive at the boundary of the Pecos Wilderness. A Wilderness designation is mostly a line on a map saying “this side of the line man is a visitor and will not remain,” but the Forest Service decided to celebrate the line with this gate and a list of rules.The altitude here is nearing 11,000 feet, and although I could see a dusting of snow further up, the trail was so far clear. If it remained clear of snow, I’d summit Baldy by early afternoon and have time to come back down and camp that night up on the Puerto Nambe plateau.
The trail did not remain clear of snow. This is what the trail looked like in mid-May of 2017 .
It looked amazingly like the trail in 2016. It took another four hours to make it to Puerto Nambe, which was indeed the only place flat enough to pitch a tent, and thankfully snow-free thanks to being near treeline and more exposed to the sun. At this point, the trail to Baldy’s summit splits into two choices. Trail 251 is more direct but difficult, but that’s the standard route and the snow lower down had slowed me considerably. If I was going to make it up and back before nightfall, I was going to have to move fast. Hopefully, Trail 251 would be as snow-free as Puerto Nambe.
Fifty feet from Puerto Nambe, Trail 251 was covered in deep snow. Trackless, untouched by earlier passages, the trail was invisible deep inside the ascending forest. I backtracked down to the trail split. Taking Trail 254 would be longer, but I knew that it was my only choice to make it to the top if it was clear enough of snow to see.
Trail 254 was buried under three feet of snow. I looked around, decided that Puerto Nambe was a really beautiful place to camp the night, and that provided it didn’t start snowing, I could get up early the next morning and get a fresh start on figuring out how to make it up Baldy.
It began to snow.
It began to snow heavily, and the odds changed rapidly. First, the trail up was definitely not going to be any easier to find tomorrow, but now the trail down would disappear. Spending the night above 11,000 in my little tent in a snowstorm suddenly looked very stupid, and I was already visualizing the headlines about the stupid Texas hiker found frozen to death, and all the Santa Fe hikers saying “damn, it’s sad. Totally preventable; if he’d just stayed in Texas.”
I decided I had just enough time to make it back down the four hours to the trailhead, and figure out what I’d do next from the safety of a lower elevation. It snowed so heavily at times that I couldn’t look up to see my way, simply staring down and plodding forward to make sure I didn’t step into a hole I couldn’t get out of. The Aspen campground had been deserted last night, almost like a backcountry site, and I knew all I needed was peace and flat ground to recover for tomorrow.
When I returned to the trailhead, a large group of twenty or so youngish people had set up camp, with a generator and all the energy and senseless noise a group of twenty or so youngish people can generate. Cold, wet, and tired, I said to myself (and to them as well, I suppose, as I said this out loud several times) “there is no fucking way I am spending the night here.”
As my good luck would have it, as I sat there covered in snow, trying to think what to do next at that late hour, a couple came up and asked if I’d just come down the trail, and if it I thought it a reasonable plan to hike up it. They were from the Netherlands, where there are no mountains, but they do have snow. And generally speaking exceptionally nice people. We spoke a bit, as the snow continued to pile up on my pack, and our shoulders, and we decided together that the moment for ascending Santa Fe Baldy had not yet arrived. From the snow-encased trailhead, we all decided we’d head for the lower elevations of Bandelier National Monument, but that is another story.