Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Himalayas of New Mexico?

360 View from one of the Truchas peaks (can't recall which one now)
 This is not what I used to associate with New Mexico mountain hiking. I've hiked and climbed lots of peaks in New Mexico, but always in the southern half of the state. The peaks are dry, barren, and sometimes jagged. But they never really look alpine, at least in the true sense of the word, which associates with the Alps. The Sangre de Cristo mountains are different, and I suspect a bunch of the other ranges up here in Northern New Mexico are similar. These are high peaks, above 12,000 ft, and they get enough rain such that they host meadows and alpine flowers, snow fields that persist all year long, and beautiful alpine lakes.

I had an ambitious hike lined up for these mountains. My goal was to summit all the Truchas peaks, cokmpleting a long circular ridge-walk way up above 11,000 ft. The quickest approach is at a trailhead that requires special permissions to access, and a serious 4x4 vehicle, so I opted for a longer hike which started on the San Leonardo Lakes trail. Hiking up to the lake at 6am was quiet and quick, and I was soon at the lake before the sun had even crested the mountain ridges.
San Leonardo Lake
I was dreading the climb up to the ridgetop above the lake, thinking it would be up scree slopes, or involve 4th and low 5th class climbing, but it turned out to not be bad at all. I was able to follow steep alpine meadows the whole way. The hardest part was trying not to step on all the beautiful flowers. Once on the ridgetop I began making my way around, collecting geocaches as I went. What, geocaches?! I know, a real surprise that there are a number of geocaches I was targeting on this hike. There were 6 unfound caches either on the ridge, or close enough for me to make small side excursions to get (I Touched the Sky, The Himalayas of NM, El Norteno, A thorn in my hoof, It's All About the Hike and Meadow of Solitude). They were all about 9 months old, and yet no one had gone after them yet. On top of those, there were two pretty lonely caches. One on South Truchas peak, GCQ39M, claims to be the 2nd highest peak in NM and has only been found 6 times in 11 years. The other cache was on Middle Truchas peak, GC3XCCB, had only been found once in 4 years. These lonely caches were my main targets. The FTF caches along the way were bonus finds.

 The views from up on the ridge were fantastic. I took many panorama shots. The terrain was usualy not too bad either. Yes, there were a lot of ups and downs as I climbed each peak, and then descended to the next. But mostly the going was easy walking in alpine meadows, or stable rocky surfaces. Only in a few spots, especially around North Truchas, did the terrain get into 3rd and 4th class scrambling. This was also the area that I ran into a small family group of Mountain Sheep. Watching them dance along the rocky terrain was something special.
I took a nice lunch break a little before noon, at a high saddle/highpoint between Middle Truchas and South Truchas. There was a lovely outcropping of quartz up there that I could sit behind and it was somehow sheltered from the wind, which was blowing pretty steadily else-where on the ridge. After many thousadns of feet of elevation gain, and several miles I was pretty darn hungry.
Lunch on high

Meadows on the Flank of South Truchas

Gap in the ridge near the summit of Middle Truchas. South Truchas visible off to the right.

 My alpine circuit had taken me past 5 of the 6 unfound caches, and both the older lonely caches. There was still one more unfound cache within reach, but it was way down in the emadows beneath the Truchas peaks, at the headwaters for Rio Quemado. Going after it would mean a big descent and then climb back up the ridge to get over to San Leonardo. But if I went back along the ridge, I'd probably have just as much descent/gain just from going over all the various peaks and bumps. So I dropped down the NE ridge of Middle Truchas and grabbed the meadow cache too. Once down in the valley again, I decided I might as well hike down the trail a mile or so to Quemado Falls.

Quemado Falls
HIking down to Quemado Falls didn't add more length to my trip, since it was going in the right direction toward my car. In fact, it put me fairly close to a spot on the ridge that I had marked earlier with my GPS as a potential saddle/gap that I could drop down onto San Leonardo Lakes. I was a bit worried that climbing the forested ridge would be really tough and bush-whacky, but it turned out to be a pretty open forest. Just steep. Once i reached the gap in the ridge I was faced with a terrifying chute to descend. Well, terrifying to some I suppose. To me, it looked just like some of the narrow gullies that I'd scamper down after climbing peaks in the Organ Mountains. There was one small (20') section of low 5th class down climbing, and lots of steep gravelly choss, but I made it down in one piece. Once at the lake, it was an easy 3 mile stroll back to the car, which I made it to at 5pm. Not bad at all!
At the top of the chute above San Leonardo