Friday, June 29, 2012

Hiking: Fifth 10-mile report - 10K and Sandia Crest Trails

This past weekend I completed a strenuous 10-mile hike in the northern Sandias. It was my fifth 10-mile trek, meaning that I am one final step away from completing the requirements for the Boy Scouts Hiking Merit Badge.

For my final task, I have to plan and carry out a 20-mile hike. The hike must be done contiguously - not in parts - and it must be done in one day. But before I move on to deciding when and where I'll finally complete this major undertaking, let me first report about the final of my five 10-milers.

I took I-40 from Albuquerque to the exit for NM 14 and followed the Turquoise Trail north about six miles to the turn-off for the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway. About 11 miles up the back side of Sandia, I arrived at the 10K Trail Head around quarter to 9 a.m. The Trail Head has an outhouse, but no water. Fortunately I had packed 5 liters.

From this trail head, the 10K Trail leads to the north and the south. Following the blue diamond signs, I headed north and enjoyed a cool Alpine environment, replete with rolling hills, for about 2.5 miles before reaching the Osha Trail.

From there, I followed the Osha up the hill for another half mile or so to reach the North Sandia Crest Trail. This was one of the more strenuous stretches of the day's trek.

There were lots of birds hanging out in the understory along the first three miles of the hike. The landscape, while lush with a thick canopy, was littered with downed trees on the forest floor. The hill was steep, but the trail followed the elevation lines for the most part. There was a lot of up and down but nothing too strenuous. The trail was dark brown dirt - quite different from many of the other Sandia hikes I've taken where the trail was a mix of lighter dirt and chunky granite pebbles. In places, the earth was even spongy, though not much water was present in the soil.

Arriving at the Crest Trail I was treated to one of the highlights of the hike as a wildflower-lined path led to a precipice with a breathtaking view of the Rio Grande Valley below.

I continued north on the Crest Trail for another couple of miles to reach the Crest House. The trail here led to many more amazing view points. My favorite moment was seeing the back side of the famous "Needle", the most prominent feature of Sandia Mountain, which can be seen from anwhere in the Albuquerque area.

The trail splits just before the Crest House. I took the one that goes in front of the collection of electric and communications towers based on the peak. It was not very well maintained, the trail was thin at spots and I kind of regretted my choice halfway through. But I'm glad I did it in hindsight - the views were incredible! I imagine the back side of the towers would have been just more of the same.

I took a short break at the Crest House, which was about 4.5 miles into the hike. I refilled two of my water bottles there and pressed on.

The Tram Terminal was another 1.75 miles along the Crest Trail. This was the worst part of the trek. The trail was trampled by non-hikers who really did not seem to respect the idea of Leave No Trace. There were children throwing tantrums almost the entire length as parents who drove to the top or took the Tram or ski lift seemed to force their kids to exercise for the first time in their lives. I was annoyed. But still, I was happy to see these folks out there. Most of the children and many of the adults were visibly out of shape or obese; so whatever it takes to get them out to exercise I'm supportive of it!

Beyond the Tram station, I continued on the South Crest Trail for another mile or two. The trail was basically empty. I began to get nervous that I would miss the turnoff for the 10K trail when I got to a crossroads of trails that had no trail signs - which was odd since every other intersection I'd passed was well-signed.

The map I was using made it look like the South Crest and 10K Trails met. I saw a cairn there, so I turned left hoping I was on the right trail. Then about 40 feet down the path there was another intersection of trails. I kept to the left, as this seemed right given the curvature of the trail on the map, and soon I came to well-signed point that showed the beginning of the 10K Trail.

The map inadequately described this section of the trail, which makes me worry for those who are not as good with trail navigation as I've become over the past year. I think I may contact the map publisher to see what can be done to correct it.

From this point, I knew I had between nearly three miles left to complete the 10K Trail, and I was running out of steam. I took this as a sign that I needed to hydrate. I drank another liter of water and rested for a bit, then I set out to complete my trek. It turned out that this was the most remarkable part of my hike.

Along this section of the trail I crossed paths with a skunk, a mule deer and a family of wild turkeys! Also, this part of the trail crosses the ski slopes, and I provided a bit of surprise for a family of tourists that was taking the ski lift to the top. They laughed at me for going up to the top the hard way. Meanwhile, I felt sad for them that they were missing out on the best parts of the mountain.

I made it back to my car a little after 5 p.m. This hike took longer than usual for me, I think because I took more breaks along the way. It was very hot that day, so I listened to my body and took breaks whenever I needed to. Also, I took lots of little pit stops along the crest to enjoy the amazing views!

Now that I've finished my required 10-milers, I'm excited to begin planning my 20-mile hike. I'm going to try to lose about 10 or 20 pounds before trying it, though. My current weight weighs me down and I know that every pound I lose will help me hike more efficiently. Meanwhile, I will keep hiking, possibly doing longer hikes to work up to the 20 miler. In any case, I'll keep you posted whatever I decide!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hiking: Fifth 10-mile trip plan - 10K and Crest Trails

On top of Sandia 400+ pounds - I only dreamed of hiking!
This is my fifth and final 10-mile trip plan. After this trek, I will begin planning the capstone 20-mile hike as part of my goal to complete the Boy Scouts Hiking Merit Badge requirements. In case you're just checking in to this blog for the first time, I should mention that I'm not currently a Boy Scout. I quit when I was 14, but I believe strongly in the Boy Scouts Merit Badge curriculum and this is my way of finishing something I gave up on before I even got started.

In any case, on Saturday, Khizer and I will take I-40 west from downtown Albuquerque, begin to drive north from Tijeras on the Turquoise Trail and then take the Sandia Crest National Scenic Byway up the east side of Sandia Mountain to reach the trail head for the 10K Trail. This is the first 10-mile trek I'll take witha partner, so I'm excited about that. We plan to set out on the trail by 8:30 a.m. to begin our 10-mile hike.

Starting out heading north, we will hike a loop that includes the 10K Trail and portions of the North and South Crest trails. This will be a moderately strenuous hike, but much easier I think than my previous 10-mile trek along the South Crest and CCC trails. For the most part, the trails we take will be going along the elevation lines. At most, we will hike up and down about 600 feet of elevation. I'm not sure what the net elevation gain would be, but I'm sure it will not be anywhere near the 3,000 foot gain of last week.

We will pack lunch, snacks, and about five or six liters of water each. If we need to we will be able to refill our water bottles at the Upper Tram Terminal or the Crest House, as we will pass by these at around the mid-point of the day's hike. I expect the total time spent on the trail will be around six hours, and as always I will keep extra snacks and water in the truck in case we end up spending more time and energy on the trail than planned.

I'm extremely excited about this hike. The last few times I was on Sandia Crest I drove there or took the tram. I dreamed of hiking there, but at more than 400 pounds I could barely walk from the car to the lookout point without losing my breath - especially at the 10,000+ altitude, so I know I will feel a great sense of accomplishment once it's done. I think I'll also be excited about the prospect of now planning a 20-mile trek. I've been considering options already, but I think the time spent out there on the trail this Saturday will help me make up my mind. On that topic, I'll write more on Sunday. Until then...wish me luck!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Hiking: Trail Food - It's better safe than sorry!

"Be prepared!" The Boy Scout motto could save your life!
I get questions about hiking all the time these days, and one of the most common questions is "What do you pack to eat?" Well, on every day hike (planned for up to 8 hours on the trail), I pretty much pack the same snacks. I actually only eat about a half or two-thirds of what's listed here, but as I learned in Boy Scouts, it's best to be prepared. And since I hike mostly in mountain wilderness areas, I've got to be ready to stay overnight in case of a sudden change in conditions or in the event I become injured while out on the trail.

Here's the list:

  • 2 bananas
  • Trail mix (unsalted)
    • 2 tbsp. sunflower seeds
    • 2 tbsp. pumpkin seeds
    • 2 shelled walnuts
    • 4 raw almonds
    • 4 prunes
    • 2 figs
  • 1 organic apple
  • 1 orange
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 celery stalks
  • 2 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
    • 2 slices whole wheat bread
    • 1 tbsp. no-sugar-added preserves
    • 1.5 tbsp. no-sugar-added, unsalted crunchy peanut butter
  • 1 granola bar
  • 5 to 6 liters of water (I live in the desert southwest and hydration is key!)

This list may seem like overkill to more experienced hikers - admittedly I've never needed all of what I carry (so far). But like I said before, I'd rather be safe than sorry! Also, I drink one liter of water as soon as I get up in the morning and another liter of water on my way to the trail head. Oh, and I keep a gallon of water in my truck for post-hike, too. The worst thing that can happen out on the trail is to become dehydrated. Food, you can live without. But lack of water can lead you to making poor decisions that can be fatal.

Hiking: Fourth 10-mile report - South Crest and CCC Trails (Albuquerque's Sandia Mountains)

Starting off on the South Crest Trail
A year ago, when I first started hiking, planning a two-mile hike into the woods would have made me nervous. But yesterday I hiked 10 miles through the Sandia Mountain Wilderness in the Cibola National Forest - with a 3,000-foot elevation gain - to nearly reach the mountain's South Peak Summit.

This was my fourth 10-mile trek since I started this mission in November 2011, and it was by far the most difficult. Besides the distance and elevation gain, my weight - at 270 pounds - also added to the difficulty. (Going up wasn't so bad, but coming down I felt like I was carrying another person on my back.)

I started out on the South Crest Trail at 8:15, just after arriving at the Canyon Estates Trail Head, located just off Interstate 40 in Tijeras, New Mexico. The South Crest Trail is a through trail that starts in Tijeras and winds the entire length of Sandia's Crest to reach Placitas some 26 miles later. The trail begins by climbing steadily through the densest forest I've seen since I began hiking the Sandias in January.

Trail markings on the South Crest Trail
Located on the mountain's lush eastern slope, the trail for the first two miles follows several switchbacks that take you up through Hondo Canyon. Early on, the trail passes by the Travertine Falls, a nice fresh water feature - not to be confused with the amazing falls of the same name in Arizona.

At this lower section, I encountered two pairs of hikers, apparently enjoying a quick hike to the falls and back; They had no packs with them and didn't even appear to be carrying water. These were the last hikers I would encounter for a very long while.

En route to the Sandia's South Summit
At about the one-mile mark, the South Crest Trail passes the junction with the Faulty Trail, which rises quickly to the north. After another mile, the South Crest Trail reaches a clearing where the Upper Faulty Trail and CCC Trail head off to the north and west, respectively.

The CCC Trail is a very steep trail that my guide book recommends taking down from the crest, which I did (more on that later).

Just after passing the Upper Faulty Trail spur, the South Crest Trail makes a big loop around to the south, with sweeping views of Tijeras Canyon and the Manzanita Mountains. Then it heads back to the north again, where it follows the ridge line for a while, featuring even more amazing views of an unnamed wide canyon below.

My lunch spot
Two switchbacks from the ridge line took me into some very interesting terrain. It was a mix of desert with lush forest, dotted by large pines and reddish brown stones. After the switchbacks, the trail follows the ridge line for some distance.

The views from the approximate four-mile mark are breathtaking, so I decided this would be a good place to stop and have some lunch. I took a small spur trail to the rock face and found a nice spot on a rock overlooking the canyon and enjoyed the cool breezes flowing up from the canyon.

Looking out at the expanse of mountains to the west and the city of Albuquerque in the distance, I recognized the canyon below as being the place where I had hiked the Three Gun Springs Trail two times this spring while waiting for snow to melt at these upper elevations. I remembered being impressed at how much higher those rock faces were than the ridge those shorter five-mile hikes in the foothills. Now, as I was standing there on the precipice some 1,000 feet higher than I'd ever climbed before, I was elated, and a swell of accomplishment came over me.

About 20 minutes of rest, some food and hydration is all I needed to regain some energy. Then, I decided it was time to get going again.

The lush variety of Sandia's plant life is surprising
Once back on the main trail, I trekked on another half mile or so and soon came into an entirely different type of landscape. This one was dense with scrub trees - I think scrub oak mostly - and was dotted with only some pine bushes, juniper perhaps, and some smaller trees. The trail in this section was spectacular, as it was lined with five or six types of wildflowers and had sweeping views of a huge valley to the south and the Ortiz Mountains to the north and west.

This section of about a mile or two was listed on my map as moderate hiking, but it was pretty challenging due to the narrow width of the overgrown path. Beyond this stretch, though, things leveled out for a while as I reached what seemed to be a plateau at the top of the mountain. This gentle plateau led me to Deer Pass and the junction of the South Crest and Embudito trails.

I wanted to continue hiking to the summit at this point, but I surmised that this could add as much as two miles to my hike, and my legs were already feeling the burn! Besides, my planned route down along the CCC Trail made me a bit anxious. The grade on that trail, and the fact that it was a historic, non-maintained route, made me think I needed to have my wits and my strength about me in case I should run into any problems on the way down. In hindsight, I'm VERY glad I made this decision.

Winding toward Sandia's South Summit
I continued on just about another minute until I saw the CCC Trail. I wouldn't have noticed it if it weren't so well described in my guide book (The Sandia Mountain Hiking Guide). The trail actually had some timber lain at the entrance - a brush in.

I have never crossed a brush-in before; I typically stick only to official and maintained trails because I figure whoever did the brush-in had a reason, probably to remediate some problem like erosion or because it is in some way unsuitable for hiking. But since the CCC Trail was listed in the guide book and listed on the map I was using, though, I figured it would be okay. Besides, I have a fondness for the Civilian Conservation Corps and have taken many CCC trails before, in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

The top of Sandia reminds me of forests back east
Just over a crest to the east, the CCC Trail begins an unrelenting descent. I estimate that the grade was between 20 and 30 percent for much of this two mile section of trail. There was quite a bit of erosion, with loose rocks being the typical trail surface for at least 80 percent of its length. The CCC trail often built trails by placing small rocks and boulders along the route. This works great when the soil is sturdy enough to keep these rocks in place. But in the dry climate of the southwest, the soil over time has allowed this trail to deteriorate.

The CCC Trail is definitely a dangerous hike, and I would not recommend it for anyone who is a novice. In fact, I doubt I will ever take it again. By the time I reached the bottom of it and reconnected with the South Crest Trail for the final two miles of my descent, I felt totally and utterly spent.

I took several breaks in that last portion and found myself having to convince myself to keep going. I really just wanted to take a nap - but from experience I learned that this is a cue to drink more water. So I downed a half liter each time these thoughts entered my mind and I was given extra bursts of energy which allowed me to reach the end of the trail safe and sound.

This 10-mile hike took me about 7.25 hours. I started at 8:15 a.m. and plopped into my truck at just after 3:30 p.m. I took several breaks along the way, but I guess I was hiking for at least 6.25 hours in total. I'm so glad to have finally accomplished this amazing hike! As I look to complete my fifth and final 10-miler before then beginning to plan my capstone 20-mile hike, I'm not sure if I'll look for something easier or just something different. I'll be posting more on that in the coming week.

One thing I know for sure is I need to lose some weight before doing the 20-mile hike. I'm going to focus more on weight loss in the coming weeks so I can get back down to 255 by the end of August. I'll plan to do the 20-mile hike once I reach that goal.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Hiking: Fourth 10-mile trip plan - South Crest Trail to Sandia's South Peak

While living in the Boston area last fall, I set a goal to complete five 10-mile hikes to be followed by a capstone 20-mile hike, each to be done contiguously in one day. I started mid-November, and within just three weeks I had completed three of my 10-milers (Blue Hills, Kendall Green to Concord, and Middlesex Fells). I originally had decided I would complete my final two hikes immediately after moving to Albuquerque in January. But once here, I realized quickly that hiking at a mile's elevation was much different than hiking near sea level. So after some considerable delay, tomorrow I will finally complete my fourth.

My first setback after arriving to Albuquerque was the altitude. Then, after planning three possible 10-milers at the end of January, I got discouraged that the nearby mountain's best hikes would remain snow-covered until spring. I planned a couple of low-elevation 10-mile hikes, and though I never got around to completing them for one reason or another, I continued conditioning for the big hikes, focusing on several intense hikes of between four and seven miles.

The snow's long gone now, and I'm ready to get back at it. Picking from one of the previously planned 10-mile hikes, I have decided to to a hike in the southern Sandias up to the mountain's South Peak. I will drive to Tijeras in the morning to arrive at the Canyon Estates trail head by 9 a.m. From there, I will take Trail 135 about two miles through Hondo Canyon to the junction where the South Crest Trail heads east and breaks away from two other trails (the CCC Trail and the Upper Faulty Trail).\

From the junction, I will follow the South Crest Trail for a little more than four miles to the Embudito Trail. From there I will take a spur that leads north to the South Peak (where I will jump for joy - in lieu of shouting out  "I did it!" - if I can find stable footing). Then, after doing my happy dance, I'll follow the spur back to the South Crest Trail and go slightly further north to where it meets the top of the CCC Trail, which I will follow down a steep slope for about two miles to reach the 135 Trail again and follow it two miles again to the trail head.

This hike is more than 10 miles, though I'm not sure exactly how much more because the spur to the peak is not an official trail and mileage is not available for it on the map I'll be using (DHARMA Maps, Sandia Mountain, NM01). If I remember, I'll count my steps for the final ascent to get an approximation.

By the way, I post these trip plans for several reasons - one is to set personal goals and keep me accountable to following through on them and the other is to leave a trace of where I'm going in case I run into some trouble out there in the wilderness and need to be looked for. I am telling several people locally where I'm going, too, and when I plan to return. I'm also packing plenty of food and water and will practice safe hiking! Check back in with me tomorrow night for a follow-up trip report replete with pictures galore!