Northern New Mexico June 2003 Trip Report


My New Mexico completion trip - eight counties plus the Oklahoma state highpoint as bonus. The more difficult county highpoints were behind me - thanks to the trip in May wherein I secured, among others, the highpoints of both Doña Ana and Hidalgo Counties.

I wrestled with the departure date based upon a need to synchronize two items -

I also realized that, should I decide to make Truchas Peak my completion climb, both Edward and Scott could bear witness. Unfortunately this scenario would require that all summit bids be successful prior to their arrival - and I assigned a low probability to that.

So I decided to place the "Truchas weekend" in the middle of my driving trip - and would complete New Mexico in solitude on a different peak.

Edward may someday with to complete New Mexico as well, and he wishes to finish on Sierra Grande of Union County - an impressive hill on the northeastern plains - and which has yet to witness a New Mexico state completion. In deference to his wishes I would end up completing on Little Costilla Peak of Colfax County just as did Andy Martin back in 1995 as the first New Mexico completer. Fittingly I found Little Costilla Peak to be at least as desirable a place to finish off as on Sierra Grande - more akin to a "true mountain" with tundra, timberline and alpine views.

Here is a trip itinerary as prepared for my parents prior to my departure. The itinerary contains material designed to allow my remote base camp manager to have peace of mind as I travel.

Trip Details

The trip began on Saturday June 14, 2003 with a long driving day through Arizona and thence into New Mexico. On passing through Phoenix around noon, route 17 was choked with traffic. I bailed, driving clockwise on loop route 101 to access the "Beeline highway" through Payson and thence Winslow - so bypassing Flagstaff alltogether.

With still three hours of sunlight remaining, chocolate pudding and dried apricots enlivened me to continue beyone a tentative campsite in Petrified Forest National Park, 610 road mile from home. I continued into New Mexico, past Gallup, and searched for a spot between mileposts 39 and 45 on the south side of I-40.

The jeep track I was on dead-ended after three miles, and I was forced to backtrack west directly into the setting sun. My windshield had become plastered with dead insects on the drive to Winslow, and so I could not see from the glare produced by wipers that had scattered the grime rather than eliminated it. To see, I stuck my head out the left window and drove with one arm - all-the-while wearing my glacier glasses.

I started eating supper at a dirt clearing only one hundred yards from the freeway and very near an exit. The snake passing near my feet convinced me to pack up immediately and drive, now in total darkness, to Grants for a motel room. I had gone 743 miles - a new personal record that bested my previous record of 717 miles in October 2002 when going from Del Mar to Las Cruces.

The open date for Sandoval County was Monday. I had a "free" day to explore. Rather than visiting the ice caves south of Grants, I elected to research possible approach routes for the liner of Los Alamos County. My driving route was through Albuquerque and Santa Fe, thence north on route 4 - the "Jemez Highway" - past the southern edge of Redondo Peak and finally into Los Alamos.

I found all possible approaches untenable owing to various reasons - including the approach from the northeast as reported by Andy Martin from 1995: BIA601 was now gated close to its origin on the highway grid. The sole exception was an approach from the south, starting at the Pajarito Ski Resort.

It was afternoon by the time my research concluded - too late for the long hike from Pajarito to the Los Alamos liner. Furthermore the weather pattern was horrendous - every day the clouds gathered with guaranteed afternoon thundershowers by two p.m. So I went to a Los Alamos bookstore, bought some food at the supermarket, and drove back up route 4 to the Jemez Falls Campground in preparation for Redondo Peak the following morning.

I was prepared to sleep on my ensolite pad that evening. Rain changed that plan around nine p.m. and it poured with lightning and thunder most of the night.

At dawn the weather had cleared up. Today, June 16, I climbed Redondo Peak. The experience is documented in this trip report on my county highpoints web site.

I returned to the Los Alamos area and eventually camped within National Forest land near the start of the approach road to the Pajarito Ski Resort. Evening views of Los Alamos and cell phone coverage were possible owing to my proximity to that community.

The following day, June 17, I reached the Los Alamos liner nearly at the summit of Caballo Mountain. The experience is documented in this trip report on my county highpoints web site.

My fifteen mile saga concluded around 3:30 p.m., I drove back to Los Alamos, gassed up, and cell-phoned both remote base camp manager and Edward Earl. I informed Edward of progress, as well as the terrible weather and observed snow cover on the Sangre de Cristo Range to the east. Edward said a friend had "recently" climbed Truchas Peak in "waist deep" snow - and I found this very difficult to believe given my observation of scanty snow patches above twelve thousand feet.

I drove on I-25 northeast to a motel room in Raton near the Colorado border. That evening my remote base camp manager did me the good favor of arranging a meeting with Mrs. Wolfe at seven a.m. the following morning. I wished access to (their) approach road up the northwest slopes of Sierra Grande and Mrs. Wolfe heartily approved over the telephone. I was "set up" for Union County the next day!

I must say that Mrs. Wolfe, an equestrienne of note, is very cordial and welcoming to county highpointers. Our conversation in her home was both informative and enjoyable.

Sierra Grande was enjoyable. The five mile road had few places to turn around owing to rocky embankments. I ended up with the "compromise" of stopping after 3.6 miles where a meadow allowed for easy turn-around and a nine hundred foot elevation gain. I "topped out" after just thirty-six minutes amidst green everywhere from the incessant rains. Theoretically I could see Colorado to the north, Oklahoma to the northeast, Texas to the east, and possibly (?) even Kansas far, far away.

After a short nap at highway's edge I drove northwest from Des Moines to Folsom, thence east on NM 456 to Oklahoma. Unexpectedly, a seventeen mile stretch of route 456 was unpaved and had muddy sections that would be impassible in really wet conditions.

My stay in Oklahoma was brief. A torrential downpour forced retreat from a southeastern approach to the state highpoint - the dirt road was getting washed out. Realizing that even by the following morning the road would likely still be impassible, I head back into New Mexico, drove south to Clayton and then west to the county road leading to Sugarloaf Mountain of Harding County.

The road directions in Ken Jones' trip report were on-the-mark. The hike, trivial with 1.5 miles round trip and a 250 ft elevation gain, was harrowing - at every step I was scared stiff that I would encounter a rattlesnake. This was summer, low elevation, and I was traveling solo. I walked at a grandmother pace, searching intensely with my eyes for anything directly in my path. I was emotionally drained upon return to my vehicle.

A vigorous storm dumped much rain on my truck when driving west to Springer along I-25. So much so that clothing in my red duffle bag and Edward's sleeping bag in his overnight backpack got wet! Since it was still raining (although more moderately) as I passed through Springer, I took a motel room to dry out the gear, hanging items over various surfaces in the room overnight.

The following morning, Thursday, found me with little to do until the evening retrieval of Edward at the Albuquerque airport. I ended up in Santa Fe by noon or so, and explored some museums of Indian culture for until roughly 3 p.m. Then I ate a cold lunch of "Vietnamese" glass noodles with marinated tofu, crushed peanuts and a spicy fish sauce in my cab as the rain pitter-pattered about.

I drove on I-25 southwest to the airport, arriving early enough, about two hours in advance of Edward's arrival, to purchase an earthen pot of Indian design to recognize my imminent completion of New Mexico - some thirty dollars. It sits on my desk in view as I type, seven inches in diameter and four inches tall, is red/violet, and has various paintings arranged circumferentially - including snowclad mountains.

Edward and I headed back north, again via Santa Fe, to a parking lot right at the trailhead for Santa Fe Baldy the following morning. We agreed to start by six owing to the diurnal weather pattern.

Santa Fe Baldy was a good climb - my thirtieth New Mexico county highpoint (of thirty-three). Edward performed surprisingly well for having just come from sea level. We topped out around ten a.m. and had cloudy but tolerable weather on the summit. My cell phone worked owing to some radio facilities on a nearby peak, and I surprised remote base camp manager with a call.

The weather was holding out better than I had observed the previous several days - in line with the forecast of a high pressure ridge taking charge for the weekend.

As planned, Edward's parents greeted us upon our return to the parking area. We caravaned to Santa Fe for lunch. I slept in my cab while they went to Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was truly tired - but not so tired as to actually miss lunch: in truth I felt it best to leave Edward be alone with his family.

After saying goodbye, Edward, now driver, stopped for me to buy and enjoy my first pint of ice cream for the trip. As I ate it as passenger, we continued up route 63, through Cowles, to the new Jacks Creek Campground for our southern approach to Truchas Peak. The weather was doing far better than on other days, encouraging us for the impending two day climb of Truchas Peak.

Scott Surgent arrived in his rental car around 8 p.m. We were pleased to be all together for the first time and talked about both previously shared experiences and of the upcoming climb.

The trailhead elevation is 8,800 feet. The original plan was to backpack seven miles to Pecos Baldy Lake at 11,400 feet for the night, go for the summit in the morning before afternoon lightning threatened, and pack out by sundown. However we left open the option of a summit bid the first afternoon if two conditions were both satisfied -

The high pressure ridge sitting over New Mexico guaranteed the first criterion. A two hour rest with lunch ensured the second criterion. Thereby in a very long day, the three of us climbed Truchas Peak on the same day we set up high camp. We were exhausted on return to camp by seven p.m. The net elevation gain had been 4,300 feet, while the total gain had been a vertical mile owing to ups-and-downs to and from the summit from high camp.

It had been quite windy above the treeline. Remarkably, just five feet on the downwind side of the summit, Edward and I enjoyed calm. I filled out my unemployment form, signed it, and placed it in a return envelope with a freshly placed stamp. The irony of claming to have looked for work while atop this starkly beautiful peak was too enticing to resist!

Our ascent of Truchas Peak is fully documented in this trip report on Scott Surgent's web pages.

On the second morning we had a leisurely time packing up camp, then walked out to the trailhead. At Terrero Edward failed at a pay phone to move up his return flight, while I purchased a pint of Haagen Dazs pistachio ice cream and enjoyed it with Hershey's dark chocolate and leftover bits of energy bars from our climb of Truchas.

We caravaned to Santa Fe for a celebratory lunch at Carrow's. Edward transferred his gear to Scott's rental and headed to Albuquerque. I drove north, via Taos and Costilla, to the Carson National Forest and Little Costilla Peak. Taos had its usual poor traffic - although as a saving grace my cell phone operated there. Wheeler Peak looked good. Northbound to Costilla, I spied the snowclad Blanca Peak massif inside Colorado.

I was stupid enough to discuss my intentions with the camp manager at Cimarron Campground. Evidently there is an elk calving research study in the west half of the Forest - and Little Costilla Peak sits right on the boundary. Thereby it was agreed that I could still legally scale Little Costilla provided I remain in the drainage to the east and ascend the east slopes of Costilla for the final push.

In the morning I awoke at five a.m. and parked near the corrals on FR1950 to the southeast of Grassy Creek at ten thousand feet. I climbed straight up the hill immediately north to 10,800 feet. Then I walked its north-south trending ridge, gradually uphill, to about 11,000 feet after one mile. I dropped down into the creek drainage and regained the slope on the far side. Heading in a generally north direction, I aimed for and gained the main summit ridge at timberline - around 12,000 feet - and about one kilometer south of the summit.

The wind was fierce above timberline. I persevered to the summit in constant wind estimated at fifty miles per hour. The great moment arrived at 8:42 a.m. on this, Monday June 23, 2003, upon touching the summit benchmark, BM Cuervo. I then had an abbreviated lunch behind a windbreak of rocks a few dozen feet northeast.

The views were wonderful all-about - an alpine setting of coniferous forest, snowcapped summits, and grassy tundra. It looked like central Colorado, only displaced a few hundred miles south.

A very nice way to complete the Land of Enchantment!

On the way down I made a "double navigation error" and wound up in the Poñil Creek drainage to the east of my intended route. I was upset with my error since, even though I knew where I was, I was unhappy that even with a GPS unit I had gotten off-course. Shame on me!

When I took a water-and-navigation break farther down the drainage, I noticed that my ice axe was missing. Evidently I had left my last break in such a huff that I had failed to properly secure it to the back of my daypack. Some lucky person, possibly with a metal detector, may some day locate a purple and green ice axe sitting in the Poñil Creek drainage.

I returned to my Tacoma by twelve noon - having started upslope at 5:40 that morning.

After returning west to the paved road grid in Costilla, I took a nap in the cab after parking my truck in the shade of a tree. Iced coffee and snack in-hand, I began my "victory drive" south across the state. After passing through Santa Fe I continued southeast on route 285 to Vaughn, and then south-southwest on route 54 down the east side of the Tularosa Valley. I took a room in Carrizozo - in view of Sierra Blanca to the southeast and just thirty miles from Trinity Site.

The following morning I continued south on route 54 to Alamogordo, thence southwest on route 70 past White Sands National Monument and the eponymous Missile Range, with views of Organ Needle. After crossing the Organ Range I entered Las Cruces and headed west on I-10 through Deming (and views of Cookes Peak), stopping in Lordsburg at the County Assessor's Office. Animas Peak was visible way to the southwest as a purple mass in only the barest outline.

After an hour of gathering property boundary information for my assigned quadrangle, I drove into Arizona and eventually found myself at the very Yucca Motel in Gila Bend where "R", "G" and I had spent the night on my previous trip. Room 9 this time.

I returned to Del Mar the following morning, Wednesday the 25th. Driving distance for the trip on my Tacoma was 3,208 miles - from 10,747 to 13,955. With this trip I became the first Californian to complete New Mexico.