Saturday, August 27, 2016

Going Bald in Santa Fe?

It's surprising really that I'm not bald yet. It's in my genes, both my uncles are bald, and my younger brother has a nice bald patch on the back of his head. But my dad isn't bald, and maybe I'm following his example, since so far no bald spot has appeared on the back of my skull. But this post isn't about hereditary male pattern balding. It's about hiking and geocaching up Santa Fe Baldy, the prize peak outside of Santa Fe and one that has been calling to me since we moved here.
Santa Fe Bald as viewed from Penitente Peak
There is a standard route to Santa Fe Bald is from the SF Ski Basin and is about 14 miles round trip. This looks like a fine route, but after looking at maps and geocaches in the area, I settled on a longer loop hike which would take me up a couple other peaks and by 3 alpine lakes. It looked to be more like 20 miles of hiking, and I needed to finish early enough to pick up my kids from school, so I set the alarm real early, got up at 4:30 am, was out the door before 5 am and was hitting the trail at 5:22 am. I started at the Santa Fe Ski Basin on the Winsor Trail. The trail was dark and spooky, and I only had brought a small LED flashlight with me which really didn't provide much illumination. Thoughts of stumbling upon bear, skunks, porcupine or elk flashed through my head at each turn up the switchbacks. The trail was eerily quiet though. I reached the first ridge where the Pecos Wilderness boundary is and the sky was noticeably brighter there. The moon was providing some nice illumination and I tried, rather unsuccessfully to snap a few shots of the night sky. Then I kept marching up Raven's Ridge to my first geocaches.
Early morning selfie

Sunrise on Raven's Ridge
The first three geocaches up Raven's Ridge were tribute caches for a local Albuqueque cacher who goes by Thoehn. Each cache was for a different 10k geocaching milestone, which is just mind boggling to me. I geocache quite a bit, and have been for over five years now, but still am nowhere close to 10K geocaches found. To think that this fellow has found over 30K?! Incredible. Thecaches themselves were small affairs, although the 30K was noticeably nicer, in both container and location. Perhaps when Thoehn reaches 40K it will be an ammo can? One can speculate. The higher I got up on the ridge, the colder and windier it became. It felt like it was in the 30's and I spotted at least a few small patches of snow. Fortunately I had brought a warm layer, so it wasn't too bad, but to think that it is so cold in August up here makes me think that the window for hiking these high peaks is drawing to a close. Or maybe I just need to plan on more winter like clothing for these hikes. Next time, I bring thermals. I gained the summit of Lake Peak a little past 7 am and made a phone call home to make sure the family was getting up and ready for school. They were just getting out of bad, and I had already hiked 3 miles and gained 2,500' elevation. Now that's a morning!

There is a nice group of caches up around Lake Peak, which is quite rocky and rugged, requiring a bit of scrambling to reach. I was finally getting sunshine, but it was still quite chilly. The caches were all in decent shape, and where they were big enough I added my signature wooden nickle and a few kids toys. There was one cache near Lake Peak that I decided to skip, which I hate doing on hikes like this. Usually, I try to find every cache I hike by, but this one, GC1DX1Z, would require almost a 1/4 mile descent down a ridge in a direction I didn't intend on continuing. I would have to re-climb lake peak after finding it, and it seemed like a lot of extra effort. Not that I am opposed to extra effort to nab another geocache, but I had my sights set on a different geocache which was still a long hike away, and I needed to budget my time. So skip this one I did.
The skyline trail was fairly rough descending down the east slope of Lake Peak, but then I reached the most beautiful alpine meadow and the flank of Penitente Peak, my next destination. This peak is also a Bald, in that the summit is completely treeless. It doesn't even have very many rocks, consisting mainly of a huge alpine meadow. The views were amazing. The summit had a small wind-break constructed from rocks and I took a little break there, a welcome respite from the cold morning wind. The Skyline Trail, which is the one I was on now, almost completely disappeared in the meadow up there. Not that a trail was much needed, you could easily walk in any direction for a good long ways. I checked my map to see which direction I was supposed to go and simply started walking. The open meadow stretched on for a half a mile and I finally found the trail as it approached the forest below.
Penitente Peak Wind Break

SF Bald viewed from Penitente Peak. Wonderful trail on this peak.
Skyline trail meets up with the Winsor trail below Penitente Peak. If I had wanted to take a quick route up Santa Fe Bald, I would have turned left at this junction and stayed on the Skyline trail, which heads up to Santa Fe bald next. But I had other ideas, and turned right onto the Winsor trail. A few miles away was an unfound geocache at Stewart Lake. It was definitely out of the way, adding many more miles to my hike, but it would also take me up to Lake Katherine underneath Santa Fe Bald, and by an old Weeds19 geocache that I wanted to find. So the extra five miles or so was worth it in my mind. I just needed to make sure I could hike all those miles and still get back to my car in time to go pick up the kids. For once, i utilized the trip computer function on my GPSr, which computes my moving average and stopped time. So far I was making pretty good time, and the Winsor trail was easy hiking. I was averaging 2.8 mph while moving and was only stopped for about 25% of the time. At that rate, it looked like I would be able to reach Stewart Lake, then backtrack up to Katherine Lake in a few hours. I gave myself an hour to make the steep climb from Lake Katherine up to the top of Santa Fe Bald, which would put me right around noon. That left me only 3 hours to get back to my car, but along the main trails, I thought that would be doable as well. So off I went at a brisk pace down the trail.
Winsor Trail Moss
At Spirit Lake, I met my first hiker for the day. He was standing by the shore of the tranquil lake drinking something hot from a mug. The scene was so peaceful and serene that I almost didn't want to say hi as I walked by, but he heard me approaching and turned to offer a good morning. He then asked me where I had slept, and I told him I was a day hiker coming from the Ski Basin. He looked at least a little surprised by this, since it was still quite early in the morning and the Ski Basin was a long ways off. He had slept right there at the lake. We chatted in hushed tones about summitting Santa Fe bald, which was my ultimate destination. He decided not to go after SF Bald the day before due to thunderstorms, but he said they didn't really come in until 2pm. My plan of peaking by noon sounded pretty good. After saying goodbye I briefly lost the trail since there were numerous little side trails leading to campsites in this area. It is an ideal camping destination, a serene lake far away from anything. I'll have to come back some time and spend a bit more time relaxing there. But not on this day. I still had miles to go, and schedules to keep.
Stewart Lake
Stewart lake was about 600' in elevation lower than Spirit Lake and didn't have quite the same alpine charm, but it did boast a nice view of the mountains behind it. it also appeared to be stocked with fish, as I saw a few ripples while I was there looking for geocache, GC6Q8HV. This cache was only recently published and was a big reason I made this hike as long as I did. I did get the FTF, locating the nice clean tupperware under a log and signing the blank log. There wasn't any spectacular FTF prize, just the satisfaction of getting out in the mountains before anyone else.
FTF at Stewart Lake
 My next stop was an old Weeds19 geocache, Hidden River, a cache that has only been found 8 times in 10 years. A nice lonely one, it is easy to see why it is not found often. Not only is it a long hike, but you need to travel off trail for 1/4 mile and then the coordinates for the cache are known to be about 70' off. Considering it is hidden in a large boulder field with hundreds of possible locations, it's no wonder it doesn't get found much. Although there aren't any DNFs posted, so perhaps the bad coordinates aren't so much of a hindrance to eager cachers. it took my close to 20 minutes to find the cache, making my longest stop for the hike. The coords were indeed 70' off for me, but once I started thinking about how it was hidden I got away from the bad GZ and started looking in the right areas. It was very cool to find this old cache and see some of my favorite cachers signatures way back on the log sheet.
Hidden River Logsheet

Hidden River Cache Area. The water flows under the boulder field
From the Hidden River it was a slog up to Lake Katherine, gaining back much of the elevation I had dropped earlier. I reached Lake Katherine at quarter past 11, meaning I was behind schedule. That meant I couldn't sit and relax and enjoy one of the finest lake/mountain views around.
I did add a bit of water to my water bottle though, since I was pretty low. Perhaps foolishly, I didn't purify the water even though I had a filter with me. The water in the lake looked so clear and cold and clean, and I was feeling in a rush to gain the summit (storm clouds were gathering in the east) that I took a risk and simply took the water as is. So far no ill effects, but this wasn't a great idea.
Lake Katherine Clean Water... hopefully

Storm Clouds building east of Lake Katherine
At Lake Katherine I was back on the Skyline Trail, which skirts around the south of the lake and then climbs over the southern ridge of SF Bald. Taking the trial up to SF Bald would mean quite a bit of hiking, and there was "faster" [shorter] way. I could skirt the lake on the North, then ascend a steep heather-filled slope to the ridge North of SF bald. It looked very steep, but not too bad, so off I went. I heard many Marmots and Pikas while making my way up the heather, and saw many burrows, but didn't actually set my eyes on any of the little mammals. The going was slow, but I made the ridge top right before noon, and found another wonderfully lonely cache, Lake Katherine Overlook, found only seven times in eight years. This one is another Weeds19 cache, and he tucked it down an exposed rocky ledge. At least one cacher had been turned back by the exposed downclimb needed. I wan't so bothered by the exposure, but I was bothered by the booming thunder from the storm cloud out over the Pecos River to the east, a bit too close for comfort. I quickly found the cache using the spoiler picture, signed the log and was on my way to tag the summit and then get to lower ground.
My route up SF Bald. Steep heather.

Near the cache Lake Katherine View
The summit and associated geocache, GC2AV55, gets visited quite a bit it seems. It is indeed a proud hike for anyone in the area, with no easy way up, but views that are rewarding beyond all the efort expended to reach there. But I didn't linger long, those clouds to the east looked mean, and were rumbling quite a bit. The last place to be when there is a thunderstorm is on top of the highest mountain around, and that's exactly where I was. I wasn't too worried though, the storm looked to be quite a ways off to the east. The ridge-line on the other side of the Pecos River valley was getting drenched, but SF Bald was high and dry as was Pecos Bald and the Truchas Peaks to the north. Truchas however was quite white with snow. I was thankful that SF Bald was not snow capped as it would have made the going down much slower and slipperier. I snapped some photos of the summit to show I was there, then was off down the well worn spur trail on the south of the mountain.,
Picture Perfect Alpine trail above 12,000 feet. Looking South towards Lake Peak and Tesuque Peak.
 I made great time on my descent and was soon off the ridge and away from any perceived threat of getting struck by lightening. I ow had an "easy" 6 miles of hiking down the Winsor trail back to my car. I was already very exhausted from over 5000' of elevation climbing and 15 miles of hiking though, which made the return trip a bit less pleasant than it would normally have been. Fortunately, there were a bunch of micro caches for me to find along the trail back, and I stopped at each finding nearly all of them. I ran into a few more hikers too, some heading up to Lake Katherine, and one just out mushroom hunting. I had noticed that bollettes had started fruiting, and there was also a ton of fresh Amanita muscari, or Fly Agarics for you non mushroom people. I had a nice little chat with the mushroom hunter, and learned that the fruiting of the A. muscaris wa a good sign and meant that lots of other good stuff would be sprouting soon. I'll have to bring a suitable mushroom collecting bag on my next hike.
Skyline Trail junction with the spur trail that heads up to SF Bald.

A. muscari

Meadow near junction with Winsor Trail
 My time allotment of 3 hours to get from SF Bald back to the car seemed to be pretty accurate. I was exhausted and maybe a little dehydrated, but I kept a good pace down the trail and the miles flew by. I stopped to filter some water at the junction with the Nambe Lake trail, dehydration is no fun and I was out of water. I was able to find all the geocaches on the trail except one, and skipped another that was on the parallel Rio Nambe Trail. Maybe if I had a bit more energy I might have been tempted to go after that multi on the Rio Nambe trail, but I was beat. Now at least, I have a good reason to return to these trails to mop those up.
Feeling Beat after 20 miles of hiking
I made it back to my car at 3:15 pm, missing my target return time by only fifteen minutes. Not too bad, I still had plenty of time to drive down into Santa Fe and get the kids... and then collapse on the couch the rest of the afternoon. It was an awesome hike, and I'd definitely do it again, but maybe without the schedule pressure. A few extra hours to mosey would have been appreciated.

Some final stats:

  • Geocaches found: 18
  • Geocaches DNF'd: 1
  • Geocaches skipped because they were too far out of the way: 2
  • Miles hiked: 20.0
  • Elevation gained: 5360'