Crest (10,678 ft.)
Wilderness HP (10,620 ft.)
Thumb (10,107 ft.)
1: Sandia Crest and Sandia Wilderness Highpoint
Peak (or Sandia Crest), of course, dominates the view from anywhere
in the Albuquerque area. It is to Albuquerque as Pikes Peak is to
Colorado Springs. It is also one of only four peaks in New Mexico
with over 4,000 feet of prominence. Still, I had never climbed it.
But the needed factors finally came together: A day of great weather,
and the ability to let the car sit idle at the trailhead most of the
figured if I was going to invest that much drive distance and that
much trail distance in the peak, I might as well make the small
additions of two other worthy goals, both of which are located just a
hop-skip-and-a-jump off the La Luz trail which leads to the summit.
The Sandia Wilderness High Point is just that—not even a peak, just
a slope point on the wilderness boundary. But, what the heck, it is,
as they say, “on the list.” And only a few extra minutes would
suffice to bag it.
Thumb, on the other hand, is one of the seven other ranked peaks
which dot the Sandia Crest topo quad. And unlike the main summit,
this is no walk-up. Its easiest route is Class 3, and its little
summit is a dramatic island in the sky. So, as long as time permitted
a modest diversion from the basic route, I couldn't see passing this
didn't get as early a start as I would have liked, but I had all day.
So, I wasn't worried when I left the TH at 7:38 am. I had taken the
time to strip off my long pants and long sleeves right from the
start. A trail seems to head off to the left and uphill, but I soon
found out that the correct route is the more level one to the right.
the next couple of hours, I was surprised by the number of other,
minor trails which weave around and across the La Luz. It would be
interesting to explore some of them. Fortunately, there is good
signage anywhere a hiker might really be tempted to take a wrong
turn. Thus, I made good progress, passing a trail junction signpost
telling me I had come 2.4 miles in well under an hour, and another
one giving the distance as 2.9 miles at right around one hour. Along
about here, I began to leave the New Mexico desert landscape, and
transition into something more like familiar Colorado mountain
trail is heavily switchbacked all the way up, owing to the heavily
convoluted nature of the land. That's why the trail is 7.2 miles long
instead of something like four. I believe I counted 17 switchbacks
before reaching the summit. Mostly they're long and lazy, as the
well-built trail minimizes the grade up steep cañon
0.6 miles from the top (according to the sign), the trail reaches a
small saddle where a sign informs one that proceeding on horseback is
prohibited because there are stairs ahead. It's true! I soon
encountered a flight of 36 concrete steps built into the side of the
mountain. My guess is WPA. This is in the one place where lazy
switchbacks finally don''t suffice to get through or around the
prominent cliff band just below the summit, which can be prominently
seen from the trail below.
that, there are just a couple more switchbacks before walking out
onto the huge paved area at the summit. I spent about half an hour
there, taking pictures, strolling over to the highpoint, and eating
lunch. When I finally started back down, I paused at a switchback
point which overlooks a portion of the trail. I studied it carefully,
as that leads to...
2: The Thumb
or eight switchbacks off the summit, the trail passes directly under
the northeast side of the Thumb. My reading of the topo map indicates
that this is at about 9,560 ft. I studied it carefully from above to
help me find the right exit point. That point is at the base of a
steep boulder field, which leads up toward a saddle between the Thumb
and another rock outcropping to the east. It took me about 20 minutes
to get up the boulder field. Most of the boulders are large, but,
fortunately, most of it was very solid and immobile.
short hike up through some trees then led to a headwall about 10 feet
high. Climbing that, via the one available weakness, put me right on
the crest of the ridge. Then the standout climbing of the day began.
turned right and was immediately confronted with the first obstacle:
a section of bare slab rock which had to be climbed. I would have to
get up it mostly on friction. It's not that there were really no
cracks or ledges for hands and feet, but they had to be looked for
carefully, and they were all small. Fortunately, the rock offers good
texture. Still, the feeling working up this section is very exposed
and vulnerable. Had the rock been at all wet, it might have been
distinctly worse and more dangerous.
I just say “exposed”? What was I thinking? After the slab
walking, I came to the real exposure on this route.
peak is a fin of rock. Both sides are steep. The right (northeast)
side isn't as close to vertical, but near the crest, it consists
mostly of more of those sloping slabs—with precious little on which
to plant one's feet or hands. Thus, the “easiest,” and safest,
route, involves consistently staying to the left, right at the top of
the cliff which falls away to the left. It's virtually vertical, the
the fractured nature of the rock on that side means that there really
are many small ledges, flakes, and cracks offering secure purchase.
benefited greatly from the route description on summitpost.org, which
emphasizes staying to the left, despite the temptation to go right.
At one point, there is a blind corner, where the route over the
precipice seems to lead out into thin air. But if you go right to the
limit of what you can see, and peek around the rock you're grabbing
on your right, you miraculously find a tiny staircase of ledges and
handholds leading very easily up to the next small plateau.
above that, I eased myself up a very exposed chimney which probably
qualifies as the crux of the route. The handholds are there, but they
have to be searched for, and, especially on the way down, I stretched
carefully and tentatively to keep in compliance with the rule of 3.
The point here is, time and again, the climber must ignore the
temptation of what looks like an easy way out of the exposure, and
keep stringing together tiny handholds hanging over hundreds of feet
of empty air.
navigating what is probably no more than an eighth of a mile from the
headwall, I finally crawled out of the top of a small crack onto
terrain where I could walk again. The cairn marking the summit was
clearly visible less than 100 feet away.
expected, I found a Mike Garratt register. Not as expected, I found
that even though it was only two years old, there were 131 entries!
My initial shock was tempered by noticing that a handful of the names
repeated over and over. Apparently this is a very popular climb with
accomplished rock climbers in the area, as many of these entries also
noted that they had used the northwest ridge route (5.6 – 5.9).
to its position, this peak offers a unique look at the west side of
Sandia. You can see a couple of sections of the trail far below, as
well as a vertical view of the surroundings, including a close view
of the one intermediate support point of the tramway cables to the
about 15 minutes on the summit, I headed down. In a couple of places,
negotiating the difficulties going down was a bit tougher than doing
so on the way up. It did, however, help that I was now confident of
the route, and I only had to face in at one point, that being the
exposed chimney. When I got down below the headwall, I worked my way
along the westward (left) side of the boulder field. I found that in
some places (especially near the bottom) I could escape the boulders
altogether, and take the softer ground under the trees. When I got
back to the trail, I glanced at my watch and found that the total
time for my excursion had been one hour and thirty-four minutes. One
of the best hour-and-a-half periods I ever invested in anything!
Back to the trailhead
the time I started back down the trail, the afternoon had heated up
and it felt like summer. I was surprised to find very few people on
the trail despite the beautiful weather. After a while, I slathered a
little bit more sunblock on my legs and began to consider how long it
would actually take me to get back. I was pleased (and maybe a bit
surprised) to find that my knees and ankles were holding up quite
well after a winter without any long hikes. Somewhere around 3 pm, I
met one other runner who was coming up. We talked briefly, as he was
interested in my times—probably assessing whether or not he had
really made a realistic decision by heading up from the trailhead so
late in the day.
was the last person I encountered before getting back to the parking
lot, just about 3:45. As I had originally allotted 10 hours for this
round trip, I felt pretty good about the day.
Some photos are at:
(total) : 15.7 mi.
(Sandia only): 14.4 mi.
(moving, excluding time on summit): 6:13
(Thumb only): 0.54 mi.
life and many peaks!