Roof of New Mexico Challenge

This season’s little adventure: Attempt to hike all of New Mexico’s ranked 12,000+ foot peaks in one go, sans vehicle support. Starting end of May. Photos will be added here during the trip (mainly summit pics, also accessible via interactive Google map). For full trip details, scroll below the map…

Zoom map and click icons to interact. Red Paddle = Ranked 12,000+ foot peak (on route, objective); White Paddle = Unranked 12,000+ foot peak or ranked/unranked 11k peak (on route, incidental); Red Circle = Ranked 12,000+ foot peak (not on route due to private access concerns); White Circle = Unranked 12,000+ foot peak (not on route); Shopping Basket = resupply point; Red Line = main route of travel; Blue Lines = summit spurs; Purple Lines = bad weather (or other) alternate route options; Yellow Lines = resupply spurs. Successfully attained ranked summits will turn green (Green Paddle) during trip, as internet access allows (click on these for a panoramic photo from on top).

Last season’s Northern New Mexico Loop was a fantastic adventure, one of my favorites of recent years. I continue to be amazed that it’s possible to walk 500+ miles across the arid state of New Mexico and yet spend so much time immersed in the high country. Of all the memorable places on that journey, the standout region that keeps turning over in my mind’s eye after all these months is the Sangre de Cristo Mountains portion of the hike. The return leg to Santa Fe, as it were; the eastern half of the trip, hiking clockwise, down to where the Rockies meet their most southerly extent. There I spent two-and-change weeks among the highest peaks in the state, in a land redolent with spruce and fir, painted by wildflowers too many to name, a place of deep forested canyons carved by running snowmelt waters, bejeweled with glacial lakes set high where the forest meets the tundra in the shadow of peaks rising to the very roof of New Mexico. How sweet it was…

Horseshoe Lake, Wheeler Peak Wilderness

Horseshoe Lake, Wheeler Peak Wilderness

It’s a country like no other the state has to offer. And it was perfect in June, utterly perfect last year. The snows of the previous winter were largely gone, making travel straightforward, yet the monsoon pattern had for the most part yet to arrive, limiting weather-related concerns, lightning most especially. I’d taken a high route across a high land, summitting Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s tallest, and dabbling with many a scenic mile above the trees. But there was so much more to see and do here, I came to believe—more than I had budgeted time or frankly the energy for. I was ready to be done by the time my feet found their way back to the cobblestone-lined streets of old Santa Fe Plaza, and I would do it all again the same way, without fear of it ever growing old. But there was also more to be found up there in the hills outside town, high in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristos. More than that broad-brush loop tour could account for. Indeed, there seemed to be an altogether different journey waiting to be lived, something for another year, perhaps, an adventure for another perfect New Mexican high country June. And so the seed was planted.

Truth be told, I’m generally not much for peakbagging, the venerable and supremely popular pastime of hiking to summits and back (“because it’s there”). Although I was introduced to hiking and wilderness as a kid by climbing New England’s ragged summits, and have hiked most of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, I mostly fell out of practice once I entered the realm of long-distance hiking in my 20’s. Peakbagging just isn’t something long-distance hikers get a lot of practice with. Other than the Appalachian Trail, where bagging summits is an inevitable byproduct of attempting to follow the ancient, weathered spine of the Eastern states, most long trails in the U.S. merely “spend time” in the loftier regions, showing pedestrians the sights without committing them to excessive, some might say obsessive, amounts of elevation gain and loss—just the sort of thing that the cult of peakbagging explicitly calls for. Most dedicated peakbaggers—or high-pointers as the clan is sometimes known—don’t seem to mind the effort, and really it’s not such an issue for them. Peakbagging is almost exclusively the dominion of the day hiker and the weekender; with a vehicle waiting patiently back at the trailhead, a cooler full of beer doing likewise, maybe a support crew grilling up steaks in time for your expected return, who can blame these steely folks of steady habits for putting in the requisite effort in order to reap the rewards? Indeed, peakbagging is an activity that is ideally suited to short-duration excursions into the backcountry; it gives these fleeting trips to the hinterlands a purpose and the hiker a focus, beyond just wandering about for a few hours. Or going fishing. Who am I to argue with that? On a tight schedule, the take-away from some far-flung summit offering commanding views in all directions, a sense of isolation from modern life, often even a contextualizing visual perspective on modern life way down below, is likely to be pretty darn rewarding. And the pastime can be addictive, as far as I can tell from my naive thru-hiker corner at least.

So it’s with some surprise, perhaps, that I find myself now gearing up for what promises to be a peakbagging extravaganza across northern New Mexico. As I made my way through the Sangres last June, I had modest intentions of dabbling in this game, and there were peaks I’d looked forward to climbing but ultimately had to forgo, well-known summits in the region with names like Pecos Baldy and Truchas. Climbing these mountains right to their tops just seems a natural thing to do in such a place—the better to understand and appreciate the considerable range underfoot—if only I’d had more time and more energy… not to mention more food. I knew I had to return, that much was certain. But what’s surprising is how peakbagging has managed to transform itself, right before my eyes, from something vaguely off-putting to what now promises to be an ideal means of pulling off a unique, deeply immersing, and personally relevant exploration of these storied hills. As with the weekend warrior’s summit obsession, peakbagging suddenly offers meaning and purpose to my otherwise unfocused desire for further sojourning, as a long-distance hiker so charmed by his first fling with this region.

For the aspiring high-pointer, this part of New Mexico does not disappoint: the Sangre de Cristo Mountains play host to all of the state’s tallest summits. Every peak over 12,000 feet in elevation is located here, an impressive 63 of them all told, culminating atop Wheeler Peak, at 13,161 feet one of six summits with an elevation over 13k. These “12,000 footers,” as the full tally would be collectively described, all rise above treeline to one extent or another, offering unrestricted views and an alpine feel every bit as convincing as neighboring Colorado (with its more well-known and highly sought-after fourteeners, yet without requiring so much of Colorado’s mountaineering din and distraction; New Mexico’s Sangres are foremostly a walker’s range). To climb New Mexico’s 12,000 footers is in many ways to know this enchanting region more completely; from familiar climbs near popular trailheads to remote peaks of difficult, obscure approach, each one tells a portion of the larger story, and it’s a story only the peakbagger can fully know, in the Sangres as in any place of vertical splendor.

The appeal in ascending New Mexico’s highest summits seems obvious, then. But what may be less obvious at first approach is how one might combine such a goal with long-distance hiking, by its nature a horizontal migration by foot. As it turns out, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains themselves hold the answer. First, and most significantly, these highest peaks are located in a fairly compact area, geographically. At the same time, they are also spatially well-apportioned throughout this area. And finally, most of the summits are accessible either directly along or near established hiking trails and other common routes of travel. Put it all together and the region offers the perfect recipe for a long hike with frequent “excursions” to 12,000-foot summits. Most (though not all) days of the journey include the option to tag a high point or two (sometimes more), all while making steady forward progress along the route toward some ultimate objective… in this case, the final peak. And what better way to end such a venture than atop Wheeler, state’s highest and one of the very few in the region I’ve previously summitted (the other being Santa Fe Baldy, which comes right near the start of the trip as I’ve envisioned it).

So the mountains answer their own riddle, in this case. The rest, I suppose, is mere details. But as details are essential to making any long-distance thru-hike a reality, mine are as follows. The Roof of New Mexico Challenge will be a 300 mile hike across the state’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains and its three most prominent sub-ranges, the Santa Fe Mountains, Cimarron Range, and Taos Mountains. The route, as laid out via mapping work and taking into account various practicalities, offers access to a majority of the New Mexico 12,000 footers. Its focus, however, is exclusively on the so-called “ranked” 12,000 footers; of the 63 identified summits over 12k, thirty-six are considered to be ranked peaks (meaning, in technical peakbagger parlance, these peaks each feature at least 280 feet of clean prominence, which for example is the same method used for ranking summits in neighboring Colorado). Thirty-something summits also offers a better balance between peakbagging and making forward progress between resupply points, so I’m not having to lug too much food around in such rarefied air (it also gives better odds of actually summitting each of them, both by reducing the sheer numerical odds of a misadventure and by providing a bit of leeway to “wait and see” on a given peak, for the weather to clear and so forth).

Of the 36 ranked peaks on the list, six are located on private land with little hope of attaining access privileges, and will be left out of the plan. This should leave me with a clean conscience and a somewhat lighter itinerary, which is not to suggest that the hike will be easy or anything resembling that. I’m planning to hike this route in traditional thru-hiker fashion, without vehicle support and by resupplying myself along the way wherever possible. Some peaks will be located on “spur routes” allowing me to drop my full pack and summit in fanny-pack style. But many others are more conveniently positioned along the actual route of forward progress, and I’ll need to carry my weight over these in addition to daily making something akin to “distance hiker mileage.” (The main route of forward progress, I should note, is a discreet line that does not intersect itself or double-back, etc. Only when returning from summit spurs will I step in my own boot tracks, and then only to get back to the main route. Sort of like hiking to and from a blue blaze shelter trail on the A.T.) There are any number of reasons I may ultimately need to abandon a particular summit here or there, though I’m at least going into this thing with the high-minded notion that I might be able to check each one off the list in the end. As it turns out, the route does take in the occasional unranked peak as well, just incidentally given the tack I’ll chart. So perhaps I might even manage forty all told if I’m so lucky. That’s, of course, where the challenge in Roof of New Mexico Challenge comes in.

I’m planning to begin the journey just outside Santa Fe at the end of May. There I’ll walk north, climbing every worthy mountain in sight (or fixing to try). I’ll wander breathlessly through the majestic Pecos Wilderness, where a good number of vaunted 12k’ers dwell, including Santa Fe Baldy, Pecos Baldy, the 13k Truchas group, and Jicarita. Much of this segment will follow the general line of last year’s Northern New Mexico Loop hike, though in reverse, and with some convolutions in order to accommodate the layout of the peaks as well as to resupply part way through this leg, (at Peñasco) reducing pack weight. A second resupply, this one at familiar (and thru-hiker friendly) Sipapu ski resort, neatly divides the Pecos Wilderness / Santa Fe Mountains segment to the south from the start of the Taos Mountains to the north. This first foray into the Taos Mountains remains brief, and its highest point keeps just shy of 12,000 feet (Cerro Vista, 11,939′, ever a worthy climb all the same). The route will then cross the Moreno Valley at another recently-familiar-to-me little ski town, Angel Fire, and there trade the Taos Mountains for the Cimarron Range, which by contrast is entirely new to me. After another quick recharge at the picturesque village of Eagle Nest, I’ll climb more earnestly into these mountains in pursuit of the sibling peaks Touch-Me-Not and Baldy, and then farther north, Little Costilla Peak, the most isolated summit of the trek. Here the journey arcs westward on approach to the Taos Mountains once more, though now in the company of considerably taller peaks, including the seven ranked 12,000 footers of the Latir Peaks Wilderness, all of them closely bunched and ripe for picking in an (effortful) day or two of hiking. A final resupply at neighboring Red River then grants access to what is likely to be the most challenging segment of the route: After peakbagging my way across the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area, I’ll cross Taos ski valley and enter Wheeler Peak Wilderness, home to the state’s eponymous high point. Here I fully expect the mountains to throw down the gauntlet, testing whatever I’ve managed to learn thus far on journey, as I face several peaks requiring lung-busting ascents, cross-country travel, and even some seldom-traveled class 3 ridgeline traverses, all the while as opening day of monsoon season is likely to be inching ever closer. But the prize will be to stand atop Wheeler Peak once more, to glance toward the north, toward the east, and to Santa Fe at the foot of distant stately silhouettes to my south, and to know for the first time what it means to truly know these mountains. Now that will surely be a prize worth fighting for!

I’m hoping to document the Roof of New Mexico Challenge throughout the journey in photos as well as via Google map updates. The map (see the top of this post) shows the route I’ll follow, including summit spurs and bad-weather detour options. And of course it shows all of the peaks I’ll attempt to bag (I’ve always disliked that term, but perhaps it’ll grow on me once I’ve bagged a baker’s dozen). In fact, the map shows all sixty-three peaks over 12,000 feet. Of these, the thirty ranked peaks of interest are labelled with red “paddles,” and each one I successfully manage to climb will turn green and hopefully include a link to a panoramic photo I’ll take from on top. I’ll have internet access here and there, so apologies in advance for any lag in the reporting.

No tour of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains and its highest summits in particular would be complete without an acknowledgement of gratitude to Phil Robinson. An Albuquerque area resident and intrepid weekend hiker, Phil has hiked and climbed exhaustively throughout the Sangres and is the driving force behind this corner of the peakbagger.com website, documenting his trips over many years to nearly every significant summit, including GPS tracks, helpful do’s and dont’s, and a reassuring, matter-of-fact narrative that just makes you want to tag along with him on his next peakbagging foray with Daisy, his trusty dog. I could never have put together a coherent route, let alone a practical and safety-conscious one, without his sage advice. So thanks, Phil, and I hope to meet you one of these days atop los cerros de Nuevo Mexico.

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