Epic Winter Crossing of the Valles Caldera

Earlier this week while exploring the Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains of Northern New Mexico I reflected back on an epic winter adventure here.  This article recounts that experience.

Before the national preserve, this was the Baca Ranch, owned by the Dunnigan family.   The ranch was huge, a square area twelve miles on each side, high up in the Jemez.  Back then the Jemez Mountains were covered in deep snow in the winters, and the spruce forests were thick and wet.

Looking down into the Valle de los Posos on the right (east) and part of the Valle Toledo (west).

Four of us, Jim, Teo, Pete, and I, planned a nighttime ski traverse across the expansive “Valle.”  I had done this adventure a few times before and was excited to share this unique winter experience with my friends.   We were a good team together.  The ski route was long, and any rescue would be complicated as it would take a very long time for someone from our party to ski out and get help, leaving those in need of help stuck in a bitterly cold mountain valley.  In other words, this was one of those “don’t screw up” adventures.

Our route would start above Los Alamos and ski up and over the rim of the caldera at 10,000 feet, and then down into a network of huge mountain valleys (“valles” in Spanish).  We chose to use lightweight cross-country skis for efficiency in the long ski routes through the Valle de Los Posos, Valle Toledo, and Valle San Antonio.  Snow conditions were critically important to our success.  Crusty snow, or deep powder, would double our time.  Teo and I scouted the snow conditions on two different trips before the full ski traverse.  If we found firm and fast snow, we would go for it the next night.

On our second night scouting the snow conditions we skied down into the Valle de Los Posos.  A windy snow storm was brewing when we left our vehicle. Since this was just a scouting trip we skied off into the darkness and newly falling snow.  The cloud ceiling was dropping fast, and we noticed the blinking red light on top of Pajarito Mountain had disappeared into the storm clouds.

Snowstorm blowing into the Valle de Los Posos from the east over the rim of the Valles Caldera

While skiing down a long ridge into the caldera we heard a small airplane having engine trouble above us.  Teo and I looked up and saw the aircraft in a dive and sputtering down into the valley below us.  It was a white plane with blue markings.  We saw the tail number but it was moving too fast for us to register it. We watched the plane disappear below us into the darkness.  We did not hear a crash over the wind. We also did not hear the plane’s engine pull up out that dive.  We were convinced we just witnessed a plane crash.

At this point, the storm was a full on blizzard.  Regardless, we opted to ski in the direction we last saw the plane.  When we reached the valley floor the wind was blowing fiercely. We could barely see past our ski poles and were shouting at each other over the howling wind and white-out conditions.  We wandered around aimlessly in the storm, not sure what we would find.  After a couple of hours, we realized this effort was pointless in these conditions and we were risking our lives.  We would have to ski out a few hours before being able to contact anyone.

Looking north towards our route into the caldera

During the ski back up over the mountain we theorized on what we saw and what it all meant.  When we reached civilization, we called the police.  It took some convincing, frustratingly, to get through to the authorities that this was not a hoax, and we were not high on drugs.  The following morning we talked with the FAA. They had no records of any flight plans in that area and no reports of missing aircraft.  It was suggested that this may have been a drug plane or some other nefarious aerial activity.  After the snowstorm cleared out, they did aerial surveys of the area, and nothing has ever been found.

This was a long time ago, and the fact that this large parcel of mountain landscape has been transferred from private, to a conservation trust, and to the National Park System, without any discovery of a plane wreck is a mystery to us.   Two colossal forest fires have entirely transformed the area since that night.  I will not be surprised to learn that someday a wreckage, or pieces of aircraft aluminum are found.

Fog rises from the Valle de San Antonio on a cold fall morning

After the search for the plane was over and the storm cleared out we headed out on our valle crossing. We started skiing just before dark above Los Alamos. Darkness fell as we crested over the rim of the caldera. Descending the thick forest on skinny cross-country skis in the night was a thrill.

Suddenly we were launched out of the dark forest into a bright winter wonderland of virgin snow sparsely decorated with massive old growth blue spruce trees. It was quiet and cold. The white snow sparkled in the moonlight and the massive old growth blue spruce trees cast long shadows on snow.  We had just entered the Valle de Los Posos.  Ahead of us loomed a distant mountain pass that would lead us into the Valle Toledo.

The solitude of winter in the Jemez Mountains

The valleys were like freezers.  Cold air drops from the mountain peaks and collects in the bottoms of these vast valleys. The temperature difference between the higher elevations and valley bottoms was insane. On an earlier trip, I measured the temperature of trapped cold air in the valley bottom at -21 deg F, when the low temperatures in Los Alamos were only around +28 deg F. We avoided any slight depressions, in particular, creek bottoms, where the cold, stale air lingered. When we had to cross these areas, we could feel the cold down to our bones.

The longer we skied, the colder we became. After many hours of exercising in this extreme cold, our core had a hard time keeping up with the calories it was losing to exercise and to staying warm. The solution was to stuff our pockets with cookies, candy, and dried fruit to eat while we skied. It took a long time to thaw the food out in our mouth while we skied.

Each valley would take at least a couple of hours to ski across. They were inter-connected with gentle passes lined by thick spruce forests. Our ski tracks were the only sign of man out there. Through the cold night air, we saw herds of frosted elk huddled together. In one river valley, we saw what appeared to be a hibernation den of a bear.

We took a conservative approach in our ski route. Any falls, broken skis, or injury would be a disaster as it was too cold to stop and hang out. After Pete broke his ski pole, we skied in circles around him to stay warm as he hurriedly duct-taped the broken pole.

Storm light over the Valle Grande.

When we finished crossing the narrow, but long, Valle de Los Posos we entered the gigantic Valle Toledo. More elk were seen huddled on the higher ground of this valley. At night, in this winter landscape, our senses were dialed in. The sound of our skis told us all about the snow conditions — breakable crust, thin powder layers, or ice. Our eyes, now dark adjusted for hours, could see the forms of elk far to the sides of the valleys, and we could smell when one of us pulled out a new cookie.

After about 7 hours of non-stop skiing, we reached the pass between Valle Toldeo and Valle San Antonio. Situated at this pass, where San Antonio Creek meandered next to dense spruce forests, was a picturesque log cabin.

We stopped at this cabin to warm up. Although we had been skiing all night long, we were now only about half-way through our journey. Our clothes were covered in rime ice. Jim’s wool sweater was frozen and stiff as a board.  Close to the cabin was a natural hot spring inside a small wooden shelter. We did not utilize the hot springs as that would have stopped our momentum.

After our brief rest at the cabin, we skied the pre-dawn light into the Valle San Antonio. A bright light appeared behind us, way off in the distance. We were convinced this was one of the ranchers coming after us on a snow machine. It is sort of hard to hide when you are skiing untracked snow and being chased by an angry rancher!  Thankfully, once we got our wits about us, we realized the bright light was nothing more than a planet rising to the east.

The old cabin, looking NE towards the Valle Toledo, where we stopped and warmed and refueled in the wee hours of that winter morning.

As dawn lit up the snowy landscape, we could now see vast herds of elk surrounded by a cloud of steam, probably from their warm bodies and breath, and also from the warm springs in the area. By now we had been skiing for at least 10 hours or more. As long as we were in the “zone,” and we could keep a steady pace going, and efficiently ski the many miles.

Eventually, we exited the ranch and the Valle San Antonio. We only had about eight more miles to ski until we would reach a road in the Jemez and a truck we had left the day before. On this final leg, we would pass the San Antonio Hot Springs. We had been thinking of this ultimate reward for a long time to soothe our cold and tired bodies.

Rocky Mountain bull elk bugles in the Valle Grande during the fall rut.

We hiked up to the hot springs, reaching them around 9AM. A man was soaking in the Hot Springs. He had skied the six miles from the road to the springs. We did not say much as we were so tired. Gloating, this smug individual cracked, “what time did you guys leave at?”, Obviously wanting to boast about his skiing ability, or how early in the morning he started. Looking directly at him I calmly said, “we left at 6 PM last night in Los Alamos…”. With this, he seemed to gulp on his ego and turn a few shades of pale. We did not talk much with him after that, as we were literally too exhausted.

After the soak the last few miles to the road were tough. By then the light was bright, and we were getting a sense that soon we would be back in civilization, not necessarily a desire after experiencing the peaceful solitude of the nighttime valle crossing.

First light of the day starts to light up the expanse of the Valle Grande.

Now the large ranch is the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The cabin we visited is run down and locked up with the usual National Park Service rule signs on it.

As I looked in the windows of the cabin my memories of that cold night visit to the cabin were rekindled.  When we skied here there was not another human around for many miles.  A huge bull elk stood like a sentry at the entrance to one of the many sloped side valleys leading up into the thick spruce forest.  From the deck of the cabin we could see his warm breath by moonlight on that frigid winter night.  Whenever we stopped and listened the silence was powerful in this high mountain valley.

Looking at the old rundown cabin now made me realize how time flies by so fast. In my memories that was just yesterday, laughing together during our visit there, realizing that we were only halfway through our journey and cherishing the shelter for that moment.

Inside the old cabin.

Pete, Jim, Teo and I shared an awesome adventure that cold night.  I ended up doing the Valle Crossing four times.  The fastest trip was about 11 hours and longest, slogging through breakable crust, took over 26 hours to ski!

The deep snows we skied across and the thick spruce forests are also no longer in this landscape. Immense forest fires and climate change are reshaping the caldera.

In the years since that ski adventure, I have returned to explore the valleys and mountains in the preserve. There are still some large stands of unburnt spruce trees; however, most of the forests are now graveyards of burnt trees. In areas where floods and erosion have not scarred the land, you can see the regeneration of trees, mostly aspen, and oak. In other areas, the fires burned so intensely they cauterized the soil and left a stark and lifeless hardpan.

I did not carry a camera that night during the Valle Crossing. Even so, my memory of that adventure is vivid today. I hope that someday, it will be very far in the future, long after I am gone, that this beautiful caldera will once again have deep winter snows and large stands of big blue spruce.

Ghost forest after the big fires, Valle de Los Posos
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