Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sandia Crest (10,678 ft.)
Sandia Wilderness HP (10,620 ft.)
The Thumb (10,107 ft.)

23 May, 2013:
Part 1: Sandia Crest and Sandia Wilderness Highpoint
Sandia 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 day.
I 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.
The 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 one up.
I 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.
Over 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 forests.
The 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 walls.
About 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.
After 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...
Part 2: The Thumb
Seven 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.
A 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.
I 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.
Did I just say “exposed”? What was I thinking? After the slab walking, I came to the real exposure on this route.
This 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.
I benefited greatly from the route description on, 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.
Just 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.
After 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.
As 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).
Due 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 south.
After 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!
Part3: Back to the trailhead
By 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.
He 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:

RT (total) : 15.7 mi.
Time: 8:06
Vert:4,260 ft.
RT (Sandia only): 14.4 mi.
Time (moving, excluding time on summit): 6:13
Vert: 3,670 ft.
RT (Thumb only): 0.54 mi.
Time: 1:34
Vert: 450 ft.

Long life and many peaks!