Hike to the Top of Sandia Peak in New Mexico
see-through doors closed in front of me with a sense of finality.
There was no turning back. No bailing out. And hopefully,
no screaming, to be done. The air crackled with more than
the whirr and whine of metal cables sliding skyward; it crackled
with agitation, anticipation, apprehension.
others, grey-haired grandparent to wide-eyed first grader,
stared at the ground falling away below us. In the first minute
we rose 1,200 feet, leaving the docking area far behind. With
each passing second we climbed another 20. Only another 780
seconds to go before we'd reach the top, I thought, my heart
lodged as firmly in throat as my hand gripped the door rail.
Peak Tramway at the western edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico,
is a real adrenalin rush. When I signed up for the Tram ride
it was under the slight misconception that a tram was a wheeled
vehicle that runs on rails and is propelled by electricity-well,
you know, something like a train. I didn't consider the possibility
that the wheels and rails might be on top of the car, instead
of the bottom. Silly me. And I certainly didn't think of an
8,000 pound tramcar going up the side of a mountain. But it
Tram ride covers 2.7 miles with a total vertical rise of 3,819
feet above the desert floor. As the ground beneath us grew
further and further away we reached Tower One at 7,000 feet
elevation. Our Tram Operator pointed out the 232 foot support
tower sitting at an 18 degree angle, to match the diagonal
of the lift line from the lower to the upper terminals. I
took a quick glance, but my gaze stayed focused on the disappearing
ground with horrified fascination. Around me the hush had
been replaced with chatter as thrill-seekers oohed and ahhhed.
Tower Two the temperature started to drop-I yanked a sweater
out of my bag and pulled it on. Below us the Cibola National
Forest spread out over the mountain, although the trees were
beginning to look more like setting props in a child-sized
game than real pines.
Tram Operator said, "We're approaching the half-way point.
If you look to your left you'll see the other car on its way
like kindergarten kids, we turned and waved at the other car.
It was nearly empty. That's odd, I thought, since I'd seen
it leave packed full of people. Of course realization dawned
on me-we were getting off the Tram when it reached the end
of the line. Like Sir Edmund Hillary, I was going to stand
on top of the world. The view at the top gave me an insight into why mountain climbers
hang their lives on the strength of pegs hammered into solid
rock. It was spectacular. Spread out below was 11,000 square
miles of the Land of Enchantment. To the east, the Sangre
de Cristo Mountains I'd hiked earlier in the week filled the
far horizon, while winter ski runs and thick forest cascaded
down the backside of the Sandias below me. Cabezon, the stump
of an eroded volcano, stood out among other volcanic necks
and plugs in the north. The Rio Grande crossed the western
horizon, along with Mount Taylor, more than 100 miles away.
Farther to the south, the Estancia Valley and Manzao Mountains
finished the circle.
Shivering, more with awe than from the cool mountain wind, I decided to explore the Interpretive Center for awhile. Inside, I learned not only the story of Sandia Peak's Tramway, but also the geological history of the Sandia Mountains.
The Sandia Mountains are composed of ancient granite 1.4 billion years old. A thin, and proportionately young at only 300 million years, veneer of limestone caps the granite and forms the gentle eastern slope. What I found the most amazing, however, was the display showing how a large block of the earth's crust subsided to create the Rio Grande Rift, so that the same granite as on the Sandias is also found 15,000 feet below sea level in Albuquerque, showing a movement of almost five miles when the earth fractured. The limestone caps themselves also carry evidence of the change in abundant fossils of horn corals, crinoids, and brachiopods, which tell of a time when the mountain tops were really once the floor of a shallow sea.
On the way up the mountain we'd passed through four climatic life zones. The first, at the base, is the Sonoran at 6,500 feet. This zone supports such plant-life as chamisa, pinon-juniper, and apache plum. The next level, at Tower 1 is a transition area at 7,200 feet, and dominated by ponderosa pine. By Tower 2, we'd reached the Canadian zone at 8,500 feet, with its blend of aspen, scrub oak, and mixed conifers. Once we reached the top at 10,678 feet we were in the Hudsonian zone, with its Douglas fir, spruce, aspen, and limber pine.
Armed with information, I was ready to do a quick exploration of some of the Sandia Peak Trails. Mountain bikers love the 26 miles of trails through the mountains, particularly the Uphill Black trail, which is the most difficult, with the Downhill Blue intermediate trail coming in a close second. A few late-day riders were out practicing for the Sandia Peak Mountain Bike Challenge series, the fourth event of the summer that would soon run.
A mule deer stopped, peered around, then disappeared into the forest. Over 2,500 of them make their home on the mountain, along with more than 200 species of birds including hawks, turkey vultures, ravens, flickers and wrens. With 18 species of snakes, include rattlesnakes and bullsnakes, I certainly kept my eyes on the ground as well as on the cliffs around me.
As the sun started to sink over the city of Albuquerque the most amazing thing happened to the mountains. Right before my eyes the blend of mica, feldspar and quartz took on a pink glow. Indeed, hundreds of years earlier the first Spanish had named the mountains Sandia, which means watermelon.
It was time for the trip back down the mountain in the tramcar. It was difficult to imagine the technology that had created the Tram in the first place, in 1966 by a Swiss company. Robert Nordhaus, one of the founders and owners of the Sandia Peak Ski company, was inspired by European trams to create one on the mountain in order to make it more accessible to skiers and tourists. The project took two years and millions of dollars to construct.
The Tram itself is a Double Reversible Jigback Aerial Tramway. All of the materials to build the system were flown up the mountainside by helicopter, taking 5,000 trips for Tower 2 alone. It is the world's longest aerial tramway, and the third largest clear span in the world. Seven 30 foot deep stressed steel rod anchors hold the towers in place on the rock. There are full back-up procedures, including an auxiliary safety car with its own gas-driven motor and track, in case of power failure, to make even the most reluctant adventurer take a deep breath and climb aboard.
As the Tram slid gently through the last sunrays of day, Albuquerque's lights blinked to brightness one by one in the city stretched out in front of me. A plan to return during ski season was formulating in the back of my mind