Trip Report: House to Sandia Crest Challenge

When I first moved to Albuquerque almost three years ago, on my very first run, I made the obvious decision of running toward the mountains. I barely watched where I placed my feet, because my eyes were glued to the mountain range that was now right outside my front door.

I happened upon a bike path less than a quarter of a mile into my run and continued to follow it toward my objective. The bike path quickly led me to a trail system less than a mile and a half from my apartment. Over the next few months, I continued to take that same path into the mountains, exploring the multitude of trails that I could find directly outside my front door.

Almost since that first day in Albuquerque, I have been mulling over the idea of running from out my front door to the top of the Sandia Mountains. Saturday I finally made that idea happen.wpid-CAM00669.jpg

The picture to the left shows the top of the Sandias in the distance as I walked out of my house around 7:00AM Saturday morning. The weather was fairly mild and I was comfortable in shorts and a long-sleeve running shirt. The route I had chosen for the project wasn’t necessarily the path of least resistance (or least mileage or elevation) but it was a combination of normal running segments meshed into one long run. I wanted to encompass my most familiar and most favorite paths and trails into one big push to the top.

It took one mile of neighborhood roads to get to the Paseo de los Montanas bike path. I followed that to Tramway, which is paralleled nearly its entire length by a well-maintained bike path. Six miles total at this point brought me to my first step on trail.

wpid-CAM00670.jpgThe top of the mountains looked a little closer at this point, but I still was trying to keep my focus on the next few miles, rather than the end-point. As I walked up the Embudito trail to connect with trail 365, I ate a burrito as part of my plan to keep taking in calories no matter what throughout the morning.

Up to this point 7 miles in, I had been steadily rattling off 10 minutes per mile almost exactly. The seventh mile, including the power-hiking up the start of Embudito, was right at twelve minutes, which was fine by me at this point in the run. I knew I had at least twice the mileage left and I was in no hurry to wear out my legs.

I hit the Sandia Tram station at almost exactly a half-marathon into the run. I had been feeling really good the entire time at this point, specifically marveling around mile 9 about how fresh I felt. I was aware that the difficult part of the run really didn’t begin until arriving at the Tram>La Luz Trail path. It is 2.3 miles of very technical, very up and down trail, making it very difficult to ever establish a comfortable rhythm. Almost the entirety of the short path requires a power-hiking instead of running. (There was someone on the trail behind me trying to run it and I kept out-pacing him with my hiking. He finally caught up to me at the La Luz trailhead and jokingly told me I was a jerk).

Finally reaching the La Luz Trail, one of the most iconic trails in New Mexico, felt great. I was still in relatively good shape and ready to tackle the final portion of the day’s journey. It’s an ongoing joke that I always do something stupid while on La Luz. I’ve gotten blocked by a rattlesnake, had all my calories melt into a large blob in my Camelbak, forgotten to bring a headlamp (multiple times), etc. On Saturday, my something stupid was an entirely new level of stupidity.

When I left the house in the morning, it was already around 45 degrees, with the metro area of Albuquerque forcasted to hit 60 degrees with just a chance of showers. Great, I thought, hopefully that would put La Luz and the Sandias still at around 40 degrees worst-case scenario. Following this logic, I felt fine leaving the house in shorts, ankle-high socks and my long-sleeve t-shirt.

wpid-CAM00672.jpg17 or 18 miles later, I was greeted with rapidly dropping temperatures, significant snowfall and pretty terrible trail conditions. Like on most of my long runs, I was wearing my Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest. I had water bottles, some calories and a few electrolyte tabs up front, but had left the back completely empty. Yes, the back mesh compartment that was designed to hold additional layers, gloves or even just a warm hat, I left COMPLETELY EMPTY. Had I taken the additional thirty seconds to include my buff, a pair of gloves and a windbreaker I wouldn’t have even added a pound of weight to the pack.

But I did not. So, nearly three and a half hours later, I found myself 10,000′ feet up the side of a mountain in a near-white out. The last two miles of my trek were miserable. I was having to use my hands for balance in the foot-deep snow pack, which was making them uncomfortably cold at a rapid pace. I knew my wife was waiting at the top of the mountain, worried about where I was, but my fingers were too cold to use my phone, even if either of us had reception at that moment.

Five hours and twenty minutes later, I stumbled over the ridge of the Sandias and into the parking lot near the crest. I had traveled more than 21 miles, with slightly more than 7,000′ of elevation gain. The first twelve miles of the trip took me barely more than two hours, while the following nine-plus miles took just over three hours. The last two miles alone took me almost an hour, most of which included carefully traversing a snow and ice covered trail in the middle of a snowstorm.

Despite my obvious mistakes, I was thrilled to finish this undertaking. Outside of actual races, this is probably the best feeling of accomplishment I’ve had as the result of a run. It also really emphasizes my current strengths and weaknesses. I am very happy with my current endurance and power-hiking ability on technical terrain. However, my logistical and contingency planning are still very weak, as is my ability to take in adequate calories throughout a challenging run.

Overall though, I was and still am, incredibly happy with checking off this particular goal. I plan to repeat the trip as part of my Leadville training this summer, once the mountains are clear of snow and ice.