This last weekend we made another attempt at the famous La Luz trail in the Sandia Mountains and for the second time we failed to reach the summit. This time, it all came down to being unprepared for the trail conditions we encountered.
La Luz (Trail #137) is one of the most popular trails in the Sandia Mountains right on the edge of Albuquerque. The trail starts at 7,050’ and goes up for 7.5 to 8 miles depending on if you go to the Sandia Crest Summit or over to the Tramway. During those miles La Luz gains over 3,775’ of elevation and passes through several different climate zones. Because the full out and back trip is 15-16 miles most people hike sections of La Luz or only hike the up section. There is an aerial tramway that can be used for the descent.
Back in late September, about a month after moving to Albuquerque, was our first attempt of La Luz in which we hiked up and over to the tramway and rode it down. According to my gps on that trip we did 9 miles with 3,773’ of elevation gain. However, as we only did the up and decided against the extra mile round trip to reach the Sandia Crest, we knew we would have to go back to make the “full” trip.
We woke up a little before 7am and made the customary Starbucks stop, we need really need a sponsorship from them, and started our second ascent of La Luz right around 8:15am. We received several inches of snow two weeks ago in Albuquerque which hasn’t completely melted in the mountains. So we brought along our Hillsound Trial Crampons assuming that whatever snow was still on the trial would be packed down into ice as La Luz is probably the most popular trail in the Sandia’s.This assumption would be our undoing.
The first 5 miles of La Luz went by pretty quickly. We covered them all at between 2.3 and 2.6 mph and that was while gaining almost 2,100 vertical feet. The only problem was that part of the way up we realized through a packing mishap that only one pair of the trail crampons had made it into the packs. So we had some pretty big concerns about our ability to cover the last couple of miles if the ice we were expecting was present. This was also amplified when two hikers on the way down asked if we had brought our spikes and warned we would need them. However, one said something strange when he mentioned a foot of snow.
La Luz covers several different environmental zones starting in the desert and working it’s way up. The 5 mile mark is one of the bigger changes as the trail starts to have an alpine feel about it. This is also the point where traveling higher up on the trail becomes difficult in the winter. There is actually signage at this point warning that the trail ahead may be impassable due to snow and ice. Like I mentioned earlier, we assumed due to the lack of fresh snow and the popularity of the trail that any snow that still remained would be packed down into a layer of ice. We could not have been more wrong!
Once we crossed the 5 mile mark and started the series of switchbacks that criss cross a boulder field the unpacked snow was at least 6 inches deep and noticeably higher in places. We were not prepared at all for these conditions. I had opted for my Saucony Peregrine ISO trail runners over my Salomon’s with Gor-Tex. The Saucony Peregrine’s are super comfy and also very breathable, not waterproof in the least. Also, both of us neglected to bring gaiters. We had just assumed there was no way that the trail would have significant unpacked snow.
We couldn’t just give up so we decided to give it the old college try. Luckily, someone had broken some trail before us but it was a single set of footprints that plunged 6 inches into the snow. We tried our best to step into the tracks but we only managed to cover a mile in the next 30 minutes and I could feel my socks soaking through from the snow. At mile 6 our hopes were dashed when the tracks stopped and the trail continued on unbroken. We were a mile or so from the summit but we knew there was no way we could break fresh trail through 6 plus inches of snow without freezing our feet. Neither of us had waterproof boots, gaiters, and only one set of trail spikes between the two of us. So sadly we turned around and spent another 30 plus minutes trudging back down the snow field, which was actually worse than going up.
The path back down was uneventful. Once we were back below the 5 mile mark we were able to pick up the pace again. I still think going down on trails is way harder on the body than going up. The effort might be easier but it just feels like it beats my knees up. At 9 miles in we did a small off trail section out on a ridge. It had a little bit of exposure but definitely provided some of the best photos of the day looking back up into the Sandia’s. Someone took a small fall right into a cactus and scrapped up their knee. Nothing too crazy just one more thing to add to the less than ideal trip.
Back on the trail we coasted down and finished up with 13.85 miles according to Strava run on my Apple Watch. We covered 3,065’ of elevation gain with a moving time of 5:30 at an average speed of 2.5mph. Total time was 6 hours and 2 minutes.
It was really disappointing to fail to summit the Sandia Crest this time. We were both feeling great and moved pretty quickly up the mountain without taking too many breaks. The weather was phenomenal! The trail conditions were just not at all what we had expected and we could have managed the last mile or so through the snow without issue if we had brought the proper gear. Our winter hike of Mount Taylor had way more snow but we were prepared for that. Really sucks to fail due to lack of preparation not technical skill or physical abilities. But we live and learn and will be better prepared for next time and our third attempt at La Luz.