Monday, 30 May 2011

Taos Ski Valley, NM - Memorial Day Weekend 2011

The Taos Ski Valley is located in north central New Mexico among the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It is an eight hour drive from Midland, TX. Perfectly doable as a long weekend trip if you don't mind a medium long drive with no scenery for the first 3/4 of the trip.

In 2003 I stayed in the Taos Ski Valley for over a month, on and off, while taking the University of Alabama Geology Field Camp. We would stay there for extended weekends in the Austing Haus B&B before going out on week long camping trips to do field work. We attempted to do the Bull of the Woods hike to Wheeler Peak our first weekend there. Most of us had never been to this kind of altitude before so we were huffing it on the trail up (it's over 8 miles one way!) Then when we were about 2/3 of the way there we encountered a horrible hail storm and turned back for shelter. In the end we looked like we had been pelted with paintball guns. A few weeks later we hiked to Williams Lake and scrambled up the slope from there to Wheeler Peak. It is 2.5 miles from the hiker parking lot to Williams Lake and then another 3/4 of a mile up the slope to the summit.

We left from the Alpine Village Suites at 8:45AM and drove two miles on a dirt back road to the Hiker's Parking Lot. From there we began the 2.5 mile hike to the lake. It was fairly easy going at first, you walk past part of the ski slopes and chair lifts, but the trail is well marked. The ground is loose rock and gravel until it transitions into a dirt trail through the high alpine wilderness. We stopped for a brief detour to a geocache dedicated to Tim Harter who died in an avalanche in 1996. He and his wife owned the Stray Dog Cantina in the Ski Valley. This is where I first realized how much snow was still in the trees. I postholed all the way to the cache which was luckily hanging high enough in a tree to still be above the snow. The only thing worse than the postholing was the limbs and stumps from the old avalanche buried below that I kept falling through. I turned back and made my way back to the trail. Overall I think it was worth the effort though.

We brought our puppy with us on this hike. She's a two year old Welsh Corgi and we figured she would like the snow and cool weather.... boy did she, she could have dragged us up the mountain twice I think. Sometimes the snow was so deep we almost lost her though :D It was hard packed for the most part but some places were still soft and we only had our all terrain New Balances so I sunk to the midsection on more than one occasion and had to do the Bear Gryll's butterfly crawl to get myself out. We reached the lake about Noon and ate lunch in the shade where the wind was slightly less than hurricane strength. The view is STUNNING here, I forgot just how amazing it is. After catching our breath I dodged marmots sunning on the rocks to go find the Williams Lake geocache. The unexpected consequence of the thick snow drifts was that we were bushed.

After the hike up to the lake we knew there was no way we would summit Wheeler today. We were both struggling to catch our breath in the altitude and overexerted from fighting the snow. We looked up at the peak (soooo close!) and decided to return in the Fall to hike/camp via Bull of the Woods. This trail is 8 miles one way which is why we had decided to take the shorter Williams Lake Trail, but you gain elevation more slowly so you don't have to scramble up the peak as we would have had to do from the lake. It's a wonderful place so I am totally up for a return trip.

Traditionally I am a Clif Bar user when it comes to energy bars. I requested some PowerBar samples or coupons from them as I haven't tried any of their line in years and they've added so many new things to their lineup. I received two coupons for free product so we hit the local grocery store. I selected the Strawberry Banana Energy Gels, and my wife chose the Chocolate Peanut Butter Energy Bites. After the hike to Williams Lake we chose a spot out of the ever-present wind and broke out our snacks. The Gels have a texture like Gummi Bears with a slightly softer center. I like the flavor and being a big fan of gummi candies I was impressed. I did get a small energy boost from them, and unlike my Clif Bloks there is no aftertaste from the brown rice syrup Clif uses. However, the Energy Bites were a big letdown. They were hard (granted it was cool ~60F) but they didn't even soften up with a bit of chewing, the flavor wasn't all that hot either and the peanut butter in the center was grainy and dry. Overall, I much more prefer the Clif Bars such as Peanut Butter Crunch.

I recently won a pair of Glacier Gloves from this blog. If you are interested in outdoor destinations around West Texas check it out! In Steven's review of these gloves he didn't have a chance to get to snowy climates. Knowing that I was likely to encounter snow and freezing water I packed these along for our hike. Williams Lake had a crust of ice over much of the lake, I put one glove on and stuck both my bare hand and my gloved hand in the water. Immediately I had stinging pain in my bare hand. While the gloved hand felt cold and I could tell the water was cold it wasn't painful and I feel I could have left my hand in the water for quite a while. You do get some water in the cuts that allow you to expose your thumb and pointer finger for gripping, but the wetsuit effect keeps this water heated by your body heat.

Second Test: As we were hiking back out I decided to test the gloves in snow. I picked a snow bank and again plunged a gloved and ungloved hand in. The pain was instant for the bare hand, much more intense than the water had been. Surprisingly though the gloved hand felt nothing. I think I could have kept it there for a long time with no concern. I even made some snowballs and felt only a slight chill through the slits. These are great gloves and will definitely be in my pack for cold weather hiking and camping from now on.

If was tough going getting back out of the woods. The midday sun was causing the icy top layer of snow to melt so we postholed a lot on the decent. It was tiring even to our puppy as she slowed down a lot after a mile or so of fighting snow drifts. The light at the end of the tunnel was The Bavarian, a German style bar and eatery located right at the trailhead. We stopped in and had Diet Coke (my Kryptonite) and the best grilled chicken sandwiches, with grilled red peppers and goat cheese, I have ever eaten. The menu ranges from burgers and salads to German brats and pasta dishes. You HAVE to stop here even if it's only for one of their selection of large German style beers. That evening we went to bed early partly from exhaustion but almost because the hotel inexplicably lost power for the evening.

The drive home was uneventful, our GPS decided to route us through Sante Fe for some reason instead of taking us the way we drove up. It added an hour to the trip, but we got some great vistas of the Rio Grande Gorge. Overall, despite not reaching our third highpoint as planned we had a fantastic weekend and I look forward to the chance to try again for the summit. Maybe as a two day backpack trip via Bull of the Woods.