About my blog

Welcome to my trail running site. I enjoy being on the trail where I can take in nature and clear my mind. I prefer running in the mountains, but anywhere rural will do. I have completed four 100 mile trail races and many other ultramarathons. I spend countless hours running in the Franklin Mountains in El Paso, TX. I call it "going to church". I'm a member of Team Red, White and Blue. "Enriching the lives of America's veterans."

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Santa Fe Lakes and Peaks

I recently spent a few days in the Santa Fe National Forest training for my upcoming 100 mile trail race, the Silverheels 100 in Fairplay, CO. The race is run at an average elevation of 11,000' with a high point of over 12,000 feet so I needed some serious climbing at high altitude. Santa Fe, NM seemed like a great training location with several peaks in the 12,500' range. Besides, the mercury in the Desert Southwest has regularly risen well over 100 degrees so I needed to head for the hills to beat the heat.

Santa Fe Baldy

Before I tell you about my rambles in God's Country, I wanted to share some trail news with you. If you haven't heard already, a trail runner was recently attacked and injured by a bear during the Valles Caldera Marathon in the Jemez Mountains near Los Alamos, NM. The runner, Karen Williams, startled a female  bear with a cub and was bitten, scratched and bruised, so played dead which may have saved her life. Unfortunately, wildlife officials were required to euthanized the bear and later caught the cubs and transported them for care and rehabilitation. Ms. Williams is recovering from her attack and currently seeking a change in the wildlife law that states bears must be put down when they attack humans.

These are the types of critters I like to encounter.

Well, this really hit home for me, because a month earlier I ran a race (Jemez 50mi) that took me near the area where the attack occurred. Could the same thing happen to me? I had been thinking of purchasing a bear spray deterrent ever since a man was killed by a bear in Yellowstone NP last year, the same park I visited earlier in the season with my family.

So, before my trip into bear country, I purchased a canister of bear spray with a hip holster, not really knowing if I would be able to run with it. Before you say, "Well, all that's going to do is piss off the bear more," One study in Alaska showed that 98% of individuals who used bear spray during close encounters with bears were uninjured and the others only suffered minor injuries. The consensus is that spray is more effective in deterring an attack than even shooting the bear. Bear attacks are rare, but having the spray was reassuring especially since I was going to be traveling alone in the backcountry. 

Aspen grove selfie
The Aspen Basin Campground at the ski area in Santa Fe, NM was a great place to set up my basecamp because the trailhead was only a hop, skip and a jump from my tent. My plan was to run and hike all day to get around 30 miles including climbs up to Santa Fe Baldy (12,631'), Lake Peak (12,409') and out to four alpine lakes. I used a paper trail map as well as my Avenza PDF Maps app with the National Geographic Truchas Peak (731) map to make sure I didn't get lost. I love this app because it doesn't run down your phone battery (it's not tracking your mileage), because it merely shows your position on the map. 

Descending Winsor Trail in the Pecos Wilderness

I took off on the Winsor Trail as soon as it was light enough to see, trudged up some switchbacks and shortly entered the Pecos Wilderness. I descended on a very rocky trail that passed through a ponderosa pine and douglas fir forest. Occasionally I would run through stands of quaking aspen. A hewn log footbridge took me across one of the many stream crossings, some with beautiful cascades flowing over moss covered boulders.

This fall is actually on a side trail to Aspen Ranch
As I ran, I made as much noise as possible by clapping, clearing my throat or whatever so I wouldn't turn a corner and startle a bear. I heard a strange noise in the distance that sounded like a bear cub whining. I kept hearing the noise and finally determined that it was just cattle mooing nearby. I was quite paranoid since bear attack was on my mind lately. It didn't help that I watched the Oscar winning movie, The Revenant this past winter which featured a closeup bear attack. Nevertheless, I had my bear spray attached to my hydration belt and didn't even feel the extra weight; definitely worth the investment.

Eventually I reached a lush grassy meadow filled with yellow wildflowers and then turned  onto the Skyline Trail which switchbacked up the mountain. Having just arrived the night before, I really felt the altitude as I climbed and my legs felt like lead. I got my first glimpse of my destination, Santa Fe Baldy, a treeless peak flecked with large boulders and a few patches of snow. I reached a saddle with great views of Mt Baldy, Penitente and Lake Peaks.

Penitente and Lake Peaks
The saddle
The wind was blowing and the temperature was probably in the 40s so I donned my jacket and continued the steep climb to the peak. Occasionally I had to stop to catch my breath in the thin air. The boulder field was full of wind and water smoothed rocks of all shapes and sizes such as those you might see in a meditation garden. Marmots sounded their warning whistle while I climbed, but I couldn't spot them. Finally I topped out at 12,631′ where I enjoyed taking pictures of the panorama and some wildflowers. 

The meditation garden

The ridge I climbed to reach Mt Baldy
I ran back down to the saddle and started down the other side where I was shocked at the steep precipice. Luckily there were switchbacks leading me down, but a fall here would send you tumbling down to the rocky bottom that would definitely leave a mark (or two)...and maybe a few bruises...um...and probably a dislocated shoulder. 

Anyway, I was relieved that I was going down and wouldn't have to come back up this brutal hill since my route was mostly a loop. At the bottom I traversed a huge boulder field surrounded by sheer granite walls and then reached Lake Katherine. The picturesque lake is nestled amongst talus slopes below high cliffs. The trail then took me past a shallow pool with crystal clear water, a pyramid shaped rock reflecting off the glasslike surface. 

Lake Katherine

I continued on, finally reaching a much smaller Stewart Lake surrounded by pine trees with a few peaks in the backdrop. Shortly after, I passed a marshy area and an unnamed lake surrounded by tall grass. By this time It was late morning and I was beginning to get weary. I needed to decide if I was going to continue on to another lake or turn back to pick up the Winsor trail home. I hadn't seen another person all day and worried about getting too far into the backcountry alone. However, I needed to get in as many miles as possible and that lake was calling my name so I went for it.

Stewart Lake

I continued on the skyline trail and reached the Lake Johnson junction beside a fast flowing stream. I stopped for a little food break and then took off running as much as the terrain would allow. I came up on a few cowboys on horseback so gave a little shout so I didn't spook their mounts. They stopped to let me go around and chatted for a moment. The path leading to the lake had quite a few trees down that I had to climb over or skirt around. Just before arriving at Lake Johnson I crossed a makeshift "bridge" of logs thrown into the lake outlet. 

Lake Johnson
After taking some pictures and resting a bit, I was relieved to finally be heading back out of the backcountry and on my way home. I made pretty good time until I got back to the skyline trail. The temperature had risen and the sun had come out in full force. The heat, my rubber legs and the fact that I was climbing a steep trail made me feel weak and woozy. Following a running trip I can always tell when I was feeling my worst by looking at my camera roll. I didn't take a single picture after Johnson Lake, a good 12-13 miles. I was too focused on quickly getting back to camp, rehydrating and having a hot meal. 

I ate some food and candied ginger to help my waning energy and upset stomach. I climbed up for a while reaching the Winsor trail, passed by Spirit Lake and eventually made it to the Skyline Trail that leads to Lake Peak. I was so beat by the time I got there that I decided to skip the climb because going over 12,000' didn't seem safe this late in the day in my weary condition. I continued on the Winsor trail and made it out of the wilderness after 11 hours having covered about 27 miles. 

The next morning, feeling somewhat recovered, I headed back out on the Winsor Trail to pick up the Skyline Trail towards Penitente and Lake Peaks. The trail leading up didn't seem   too steep, but before long I was freezing cold and was wondering what was happening. I then realized that I was almost at 12,000' so put on an extra layer. I crossed a small snow field and reached a grassy slope where the wind was blowing chilling me even more. 

I could see Penitente and an unfriendly steep and rocky mountain in the distance that was higher. My recollection was that Penitente was the highest of the two peaks I was going to climb and so I was relieved that I wouldn't have to go over that difficult looking one. I made my way up the slope and came to a three sided windbreak made of rocks so I sat out of the wind and had a snack. I could see Mt Baldy, the peak I climbed the day before, and breathtaking views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range. Whenever I find myself surrounded by such beauty, I reflect on the fact that I have my health and am so blessed to be able to reach such remote places never taking that for granted. 

The unfriendly looking beast, Lake Peak
Sangre de Cristo Mountains
At this point I wasn't sure which way to go because there wasn't much of a worn trail or even rock cairns marking the way; just a grassy slope. I consulted my map program and then saw the trail in the distance. My map revealed that Lake Peak (12,409') is indeed higher than Penitente (12,249') and that I would have to scale the intimidating looking mountain after all. I wanted to get it behind me so didn't waste any time. I headed down the slope to the other side of a saddle and began climbing the precarious trail. 

At times I wasn't sure if I was on the right track so kept checking my map program to make sure I was going the right way. Several times the trail disappeared altogether where the mountain side had crumbled away and I found myself dangling dangerously close to the abyss. In other places spruce boughs were blocking the trail and I had to find an alternate route by scrambling over rocks. I made it to the ridge where I could see a hiker in the distance, but I couldn't figure out how to get over to him. Was I supposed to scramble over the ridge or take the technical trail along the side of the slope? 

Lake Peak Ridge
Well, I followed the trail, but in hindsight I believe the ridge would have been safer. There were times when the crumbly dirt "trail" went straight up the mountain. My feet were sliding down and I had to use my hands to climb up the mountain. Some of the rocks I tried to use for handholds were loose so I had to choose carefully. Finally I made it safely back to terra firma. I was certainly glad that I hadn't attempted this climb the day before when I was exhausted. From the top I enjoyed the expansive vista and took some pictures of the ridge and wildflowers.

Having the difficult part behind me, I continued my loop by running down the Ravens Ridge Trail. This trail isn't shown on the Nat Geo map, but seems to be popular because I saw many hikers coming up this one that follows the Pecos Wilderness boundary. I came to a cliff with a gorgeous view of Nambe Lake from above. At one point the trail disappeared and I had to pick my way through a boulder field. I reached a barbed wire fence that I ran along to get back to Winsor Trail and then down to my campsite for a total of about 10 bear free miles. 

Nambe Lake
[If you approach the Pecos Wilderness from the ski area you will see an unmarked trail to the right before going through the wilderness gate. This is Raven's Ridge and would make a nice day hike up to the Nambe Lake viewpoint and on to Lake Peak, about six miles round trip.] 

Until we meet again, ponder this quote from a dispatch from Paul Salopek's Out of Eden Walk: "We three humans tottered, hot and dusty, to the end of Kazakhstan, to the beginning of Uzbekistan, to the border. The Eurasion Plate slid beneath us all. It pulled us north at the rate of three-quarters of an inch a year"

See you on the trail.


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