Sunday, August 12, 2012

Lessons Learned on the La Luz Trail

NOTE: This blog post talks about achieving goals, technical and day packs, and riparian ecology in the Transition Zone (among other things). Follow MyFitLife2Day and ManOfMerit for more interesting articles on everything that has to do with "setting up life goals and knocking 'em down".

ALBUQUERQUE - Yesterday I finally conquered the La Luz Trail - the holy grail of Albuquerque hiking and a goal I've held ever since I heard my uncles speak of hiking it more than 30 years ago. If you include the connector trail from the lower tram terminal to its trail head at the mouth of Juan Tabo Canyon, the La Luz hike is a 10-mile, 3,600-foot ascent up the steep western-facing slopes of the Sandia Mountains. It's a great hike for many reasons - not the least of which being that the views are spectacular. Also, it's the one trail on the mountain that you can hike all the way up to the top and not have to hike back down. The trick is, though, it's one hell of an ascent; Physical fitness and preparedness are paramount.

Chock full of optimism in the foothills as my 280 lbs sets out to tackle La Luz

A cool chick friend of mine had set up this hike and invited a few friends. I was glad to have someone to do this hike with me - honestly, I've been intimidated by the thought of doing this hike alone ever since I challenged myself with the thought of it two years ago. Besides, because I'm still struggling with obesity, being nearly 100 pounds overweight, I figured going it alone was probably not a good idea. Still, having never hiked in a group and not wanting the pressure of keeping up with the pack, I had a bit of trepidation. My friend assured me, though, that someone would stick with me throughout the hike, and fortunately, that was the case.

The cool chick and her cool friend enjoy the Upper Sonoran Zone view
In our group were two guys in their 60s, three women, a toddler, and me. That's right! One chick actually brought along her toddler and lugged him all the way along the trail in one of those Kelty backpack baby carriers. Besides this being very cool, it was also encouraging. This and the overall diversity of the group made me a lot more at ease and confident that I would be successful on this much-anticipated trek.


We parked at the lower Sandia Peak Tram terminal and set out on the Tramway foothills connector trail around 8 a.m. It took us about an hour to reach the actual bottom of the La Luz Trail. When we arrived close to the lower switchbacks, one of the guys in our group who's an avid hiker and knows many of the mountain's secrets, told us of the more scenic route along the Old La Luz Trail. Apparently, the forest service re-routed the old trail when it became so popular that it was endangering the delicate plant life of the canyon. The new trail has dozens of tedious switchbacks while the old trail is much more challenging and should only be taken by experienced hikers who are mindful to be minimally invasive to the riparian ecology.

Hiking through the riparian Transition Zone along Old La Luz Trail
We decided to take the old trail. This was a thrilling choice - as it was a way to avoid the crowds that have become common on La Luz. And it gave a chance to truly experience the amazing changes in plant life as we made our way from high desert in the Upper Sonoran Zone (full of juniper and piƱon trees, prickly pear cactus, and cholla cactus, according to Wikipedia), through the alpine Transition Zone (with ponderosa pines, blue spruce trees, and assorted wildflowers), and into the Canadian Zone (with quaking aspen and assorted pines). 


Locals call this boulder field we avoided the scree slope switchbacks
Along with the immense beauty of the old trail came a much more intense hiking experience than I was expecting. Still, I was prepared. I've been on many steep hikes to date - not the least of which being the White Cross and White Dot trails on Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire and the CCC Trail here on the eastern slopes of Sandia's south mountain - so I know the techniques of hiking on 20 to 30 percent grade. But the focus on technique kept me from stopping frequently for water breaks. Plus, the pack I was using was too large for the hike and was not convenient for the frequent stops on steep inclines that would have been necessary for proper hydration. As a result, I had only drunk three liters of water by the time we reached the top - a fact I would pay for later that evening.

Duck Rock and the scree slopes, home of 20-something switchbacks
I continued to hike hard, in my good old spurt and rest fashion, and after just more than seven hours I reached the top of the tram. I'm so thankful I took the alternate old trail on my first trip up La Luz - the multitude of switchbacks in the shade-less scree slope that plagues most hikers just over half the way to the top would have ruined the hike for me. Thanks, Old Timer!


I'd rather eat this Ponderosa Pine tree bark than food at High Finance again
I walked in to the  High Finance Restaurant, which reminded me a lot of the top of one of those globally important towers we all try not to forget (but without the red carpet). As a group, we celebrated at a table near the windows of the restaurant at the top of the tram, from a spot where you can see - on the observation decks, posing in successive posed pics backed by the remarkable view of downtown, the volcanoes, and everything west of the Rio Grand Rift, all the way to Mount Taylor - the non-hiker folks who could only fathom taking the tram both ways, not making it to 10,600 feet on foot.

Almost there - top of the tram in view!
We then made our separate ways back home, and in all of the excitement I failed to do my customary post-hike stretching. And I still was too distracted to remember to drink the rest of the water I had packed, which I had calculated to the letter of all sensible recommendations and so knew I should be drinking. Later that evening while I was resting in bed I learned the price I would have to pay for not drinking enough water all day - my inner thighs went into spasm, and just as I was at the height of pain I began to get intense chills. This was the result of intense muscle exertion without sufficient hydration. With a buddy's help, I treated it by taking some ibuprofen, chugging water, jumping into a hot shower and doing some stretches.


Not the right pack for the job - Brian with the Gregory Z40 on the La Luz Trail
The pack I used on the trail is the Gregory Z40, a technical pack. I had chosen it because I was trying to save money in the long run by buying a pack that would fit multiple needs - 10-20 mile day hikes and a little light wilderness camping. The 40-ounce pack fit the bill perfectly, in theory. But in reality, the technical pack proved to be too big, the wrong tool for the job, as some previous old-time in my life might have said. So I took the Z40 back today and opted for the CamelBak Explorer Alpine Hydration Pack. It's smaller, but it's not so big that I won't fill it for a day hike, so it will be easier to adjust perfectly to my stride.

I'll take the CamelBak for a test run on Tuesday, with a hike of the Crest and La Luz connectors to the tram and Crest House, including the brief jaunt to the CCC Cabin, a place for celebrating with a shout as if you're on top of the world. Two buddies will join me on the hike, one of whom I'll be introducing to the joy of hiking with that very outting. Fun will be had by all! And pics will follow.


  1. Oh Brian!
    What a great achievement! I am so proud of you dear! I know that you will always remember the painful lesson you learned on the trail. Thank you for sharing your experience, and leading by example as we navigate this weight loss trail!


  2. Wowza, that was seriously one hell of a hike! I can't wait to get to SoCal and be one step closer to finally hiking with you, Laina! (And Rhondi, too!). What do you think about this fall in the Redwoods?

  3. We are training hard to make it happen Brian! Fall it is!