The La Luz hiking trail in the Sandia Mountains right outside of Albuquerque is one of, if not the, most popular hiking trail in central New Mexico. We have been on this trail two times before. The first time we hiked up and then across the mountain to take the aerial tram car back down. The second time we went out to hike to the Sandia Crest (10,678’) and then back down. However, we severely underestimated trail conditions and hit fresh snow that was almost a foot in drifts. So, we turned around and headed for home.
We wanted to start our 2020 hiking year off with a bang, Ladron was a dud on New Year’s day, so we came back to our nemesis from 2019 and accomplish the whole monster of La Luz in one go. This time we were not going to let a lack of preparedness be our downfall. We anticipated snow/ice towards the top so we brought our trail crampons and rented some MSR snowshoes from REI. It took a little playing around to get the snowshoes strapped to our packs the night before but we figured we would be ready for any conditions we might encounter.
Knowing it would be a long day we woke up a little after 6am on Sunday. The alarm was set for 6 but the snooze was hit once or twice before we managed to get up. We threw all of our gear in the Jeep and made a quick stop at Starbucks for some much needed caffeine. We started our hike about 15 minutes before 8am. So much for a semi-alpine start. The first four miles are a gradual uphill that covers about 1,200’ of vertical gain which we managed to do in right at one hour and 30 minutes. We have a spot on the trail right at the 4 mile mark that we like to take a little break. Within the next mile the snow started to become more consistent and had thawed and then re-frozen as ice in places. I might have taken a solid slide right onto my ass on one such section.
At 1:50ish into the hike we hit the 5 mile marker. At this point La Luz has a warning sign that beyond that point the trail may be impassable in winter due to snow/ice. For some geological reason, probably the lack of sun on this section, the rest of the trail has a lot more snow than the lower section; It’s almost like a line has been drawn across the mountain with that white crayon no child ever uses. Unlike our last time the trail seemed much more packed down so we put on our hiking gaiters and started up the 17 switchbacks that make up the next 2 mile section that gains 1100ish feet. We just kept going back and forth and it never seemed like it would end. The snow made for slow going. The trail was so chewed up and the path so narrow that we decided against the snow shoes and just walked it. Most of the snow would hold our weight however every so often we would punch through an air pocket and fall up to about knee high. So bumbling like a bunch of drunks we slowly made our way up to the 7 mile marker.
The 7 mile marker was our previous high point. There are two options there: the path across the mountain to the tram or the path up to the Sandia Crest. This time we were dead set on making it to the crest. I was also dead set on using the snowshoes that I had carried for the better part of 3 hours so far. So I started breaking trail up the crest trail in my fancy snowshoes. I had fun in my snowshoes for about a whopping 20 minutes before we hit a staircase in the trail that was completely frozen over. So off came the snowshoes and on went the our trail crampons. Snowshoes were fun while they lasted.
After we managed the frozen staircase we had to do some traverses that definitely pushed the limits of our experience. There were sections of trail across ice chutes that hadn’t been hiked since the last slide. They were pretty steep in the area of 35 degrees and the runout was long and treacherous. Man, the one time I didn’t bring my sweet ice axe and I could have actually used it. Luckily the snow was pretty soft with an icy crust so we could kick in steps across the chute. We covered three such chutes in our journey to the crest. One of those chutes was an accident because we had gotten off trail by continuing straight instead of making the switchback that we couldn’t see at all under the snow.
A little bit of sketchy snow hiking and a total of 8.5 miles in 3:45 of moving time we reached the Sandia Crest. It was a pretty surreal achievement that we legitimately worked hard for. Slightly undermined due to the crowds taking pictures at the top, you can drive up the backside of the mountain. So we didn’t spend much time at the top but went a little ways back down the trail to gather up our gear and start the return trek. The thought of taking the tram down was seriously debated but it would only cut so much off of the hike as we would have to hike back across the base of the mountain from one trailhead to another. Plus, we had really set out to do the whole trail, the shebang of going up and then coming back down.
The going on the way back was noticeably easier on the stamina but really beat up the body. We stayed on trail so we didn’t have to cross one of the chutes and we had already kicked the steps in on the way up so the way back was easier work. It really was an uneventful trip down that we just wanted to finish. Once the motivation to summit was gone it was more of an effort to gut it out to the finish. Especially, as the pain and soreness of a long day. Achy knees due to a long list of previous injuries started to make their discomfort known and feet felt like they had been hit with a meat tenderizer. Even though there was a little discomfort we made it back down to the car in some semblance of one piece. It really was a great feeling to get all the way up and back down under our own power. It was also more about setting a goal and achieving it even if we failed to do so twice before.
All told according to Strava run on my Apple Watch we covered 16.72 miles with 4,732’ of elevation gain with a moving time of 7:05. It was our biggest day by mileage, elevation gain, and time. I remember our first backpacking trip back in Arkansas of the Butterfield Hiking Trail. We did an overnight to cover the 15 miles of the trail and I wondered back then if I could ever do that in a single day. Well we managed to cover a little extra with three times the elevation for good measure. We’re going to have to make a trip back to Arkansas just to do the Butterfield in a single day now.