Saturday, September 21, 2013

North Sandia Peak (10,447 ft.)

18 September, 2013: This peak, while highly visible from the north, is actually unranked. My real purpose in heading up toward it was to scout out its neighbor to the south, the Needle, which is ranked, and one of the most challenging climbs on the Sandia Crest quad. If I had had more time,I would have made at least a start at climbing the Needle, but I was under time constraints and couldn't do a really long day.
I started from the only trailhead available that doesn't have a parking fee attached: the Tunnel
Springs trailhead far on the north side of the Sandia massif. As it turned out, this didn't matter on this particular trip, as, due to her own schedule constraints, my darling Suzanne had agreed to drop me off at the trailhead in the morning and then pick me up at the end of my hike. But, if you're planning this route without a helpful driver, you'll appreciate the fact that you can leave your car at this trailhead on any schedule that suits you without having to pay a fee.
The Tunnel Springs trail connects to the main Crest Trail in two ways: There's a long, gently sloped loop which takes off to the east from the parking lot, or a much shorter, steep and loose trail up the drainage directly to the south which quickly makes the connection. I had taken the long route the previous summer with my brother, coming down the drainage for a loop. Based on this experience, I knew that the short route was entirely doable, and would suit my needs well on this trip. So, up it I went. I found the route better than I remembered, easy to follow and occasionally cairned, and in about 25 minutes I was on the first of many switchbacks of the Crest Trail.
The trail wanders east and west, up to and away from the actual crest, in long, lazy switchbacks, as it heads generally south and up. Along the way, it meets several other trails coming up from the east (none from the west!). For this reason, the whole gently sloped eastern side of the massif is covered with a network of trails, a potential runner's paradise. Along the way, I found myself signing my song of the day: the love theme from “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (in both English and French). Why? No idea.
Up to 9,200 feet or so, the vegetation is dominated by scrub brush and grasses, but, finally, the trail plunges into a stand of actual trees. From there on, the landscape begins to resemble what I'm more accustomed to seeing in Colorado: Aspen forests, mixed with a bit of evergreen, and a forest floor of leaf litter and wildflowers. Asters in particular were out in abundance.
At the first western overlook where the trail briefly comes out of this forest, I found the junction of the “10K” trail (apparently popular with cross country skiers in the winter), as well as their first view of the summit of North Sandia (see photos). There is also a low wall of stonework, which I assume was built by the WPA some eighty years ago. In fact, most of the overlooks featured some sort of structure of this sort, which provides a convenient place to sit and enjoy the view.
Plunging back into the forest, I got out my GPS and began looking for the best place to leave the trail and head west and up to the summit. I actually backtracked a bit after going farther south than the literature latitude of the summit. In the end, I more or less arbitrarily picked a spot which seemed to be roughly on the ridge and sported a relatively sparse tree cover. It only took a few minutes to get to where I could see that the slope was relenting and the summit could not be far away. I could also see, finally, the Needle, which I stopped to photograph.
Then, as I turned uphill again, I made a discovery. There _is_ a trail leading to the summit, even though it doesn't appear on the topo map. To my surprise, I met a group of three hikers who had come from the south. From them, I learned that the trail comes off of the main Crest Trail somewhere between Sandia and North Sandia. Looking to minimize the bushwhacking, I followed the trail down for a ways, but decided to go back to bushwhacking before reaching the trail. I didn't have to bushwhack much to re-connect with the main trail.
After one slight scare where the trail didn't seem to look familiar—leading me to think I might somehow have missed a turn—I once again spied known landmarks and sped on down. The sun came out and stayed out about 5 hours into my hike. So, I slathered on some sunblock, and considered taking off my pant legs. I considered it, but didn't do it, because I wasn't really hot, and that would have required more sunblock.
On the last leg, I found the gully back to the trailhead to be easier than I remembered. Maybe it was just familiarity, as this was time number three, but the trail is actually easy to follow, cairned here and there, and really no worse than Class 2+. One last summer hike!
Photographs are at:

RT: 13.6 mi., 7 hrs., 40 min.
Vert.: ~4,000 ft.

Long life and many peaks!