In August of 1993 we visited the American Southwest for a second time. Our destination was Taos where we planned to spend a few days, following which we planned to travel on to Canyon de Chelly, Canyon Lands in Utah, and then head home through Colorado.
As Taos is a long four day drive from Canada our first thought was to find some place to rest up for the next stage of our trip. We travelled a few miles outside of Taos to the Taos Ski Village and settled into the Columbine Inn.
|Taos Mountain Watercolour Field Sketch 1993|
In winter Taos itself, sitting at an elevation of approximately 7,000 feet might receive a total of 3 feet of snow, but at 12,000 feet Taos Mountain receives as much as 30 feet of snow turning Taos into a winter ski destination. Art galleries take the art off of their walls and become ski shops. Our interest in the Taos Ski Village was in large part the ski trails, which in summer become hiking trails. It was our intent to hike to the top of Taos Mountain.
Sandra and I, avid naturalists, find that although it’s not necessary to explore difficult to get to places to enjoy being a naturalist, the fact that there’s a trail that leads somewhere, and that discoveries might be had along the way, however, was too strong of a lure to be ignored. So, the following morning after a hearty breakfast we gathered our hiking gear and headed off to the trailhead.
I say hiking gear, but back in those days there didn’t exist a lot of high-tech stuff. Our gear consisted of nothing much more than a nylon sack equipped with a side pocket and shoulder straps. In this bag we carried nylon shells, a couple of plastic bags in case it rained hard, a plastic water bottle, and sometimes a lunch, or snack. Our hiking boots were of the leather variety guaranteed to make your feet sweat, and definitely become soaked should you encounter damp areas. Hats were not considered essential, nor was sun screen. This was back in the days before skin cancer, or perhaps I should say in the time before it was determined that too much exposure to the sun will cause skin cancer . Off we went determined to get to the top of the mountain, and back, before nightfall.
There was a sign at the trailhead with trail directions and a cryptic warning dealing with the danger of hypothermia. I was puzzled. As it was mid August all that I could think was that reference to danger of hypothermia must be meant for those hiking later in the season, that time between summer and the first snowfall. After all, how could there be any danger of hypothermia when the sun was shining brightly and the temperature was almost 80 degrees fahrenheit. Dressed in tee shirts and jeans we were already feeling quite warm.
When you come from a place were the elevation is approximately 1,000 feet above sea level it takes awhile to become acclimatized to higher elevations. Taos Mountain has an elevation of almost 12,000 feet. The elevation at the trailhead was approximately 9,200 feet and we were heading up to an alpine lake located at just a shade under 11,500 feet, an uphill hike of almost 7 miles.
We set off at around 9:30 am and for the first hour, or so, we made good time; then the altitude began to take its toll. Shortness of breathe, and some slight dizziness caused us to slow our pace. Frequent stops, and sips of water helped. By 1:00 pm we had made it above the tree line where we encountered a rock-fall and discovered several Pikas, chinchilla like animals, hard at work gathering grasses to store as food for the approaching winter. We lingered to take photographs then continued on reaching our destination, the small alpine lake, at around 2:00 pm.
Aside from another small group consisting of four or five middle aged persons we seemed to be the only people on the trail this day. They started back down just as we arrived extending an invitation to meet later down in the ski village at the Stray Dog Cantina We wished them a good trip back down the mountain, and then found a good place to rest and eat our lunch. Rested and lunch eaten we began to ready ourselves for the long hike back to the trailhead when there was a sudden chill in the air.
Within seconds clouds swept over the mountain’s top turning a once idyllic alpine scene into a freezing, nightmarish, hell. As the dense clouds turn daylight into twilight a fierce wind with gale force sprang up from nowhere hurtling stinging drops of rain, that soon turned to pellets of hail, as the temperature plunged. As the few trees at the top of the mountain were shrub like affording no cover, and as there were lightning strikes all around us, it became evident that we had no choice but to somehow flee the mountain’s top.
We quickly donned our jackets which were immediately soaked in the downpour. Seeking additional protection I retrieved the plastic garbage bags from our hiking sack and ripped holes in the bottoms and sides so that they good be worn over our jackets. The garbage bags helped to trap our body heat and to reduce the chilling effect of the plunging temperature. We had in a few minutes experienced a drop in the temperature from something very summer like and comfortable to being able to see our exhaled breath.
If it wasn’t as scary as all get out I’d have to say that it was bloody amazing. All around us the ground was white with a couple of inches of hail. A fog was rising from the ground as the cold hail pellets came into contact with the warmth of the ground. What was more scary was the fact that the narrow trail that we had hiked up had been turned into a stream from the rain and melting hail. We were forced to navigate our way down the trail by walking along its rock covered sides having to tread carefully to avoid slipping and injuring ourselves. I set the pace carefully walking ahead of Sandra. I knew that if I let her set the pace then we’d never get down the mountain as she has a fear of slipping and falling. The lightning continued with strikes all around us filling the air with the smell of ozone. With each near strike the response was to duck, but the thought of avoiding being struck by lightning was overridden by the fear that to linger would also be as dangerous. Looking back I could see that Sandra was falling further behind. I waited and encouraged her to quicken her pace pointing out that to linger could be, to put it bluntly, fatal.
It seemed like forever before we reached the tree line and came out into a clearing. The hail had ceased but the downpour continued, and we were cold to the point of shivering. Suddenly, there was a voice, a man calling, and in the distance I could see that there was a small shack located under the ski chairlift. The voice was calling out Spanish, signalling that we should come to him. We hurried across the open area ducking with every flash of lightning, and crash of thunder. Reaching the shack the man opened the door and hurried us inside. Inside the shack were several men, all Spanish American, huddled around a small wood stove. Warmth, what pleasure.
The men were employed by the ski resort to do maintenance on the ski chairlift. Each of them carried a signaling device. When there was a lightning strike, which sometimes happened even during good weather, the signaling device set off a beeping alarm that grew in intensity as the cable became electrified. On hearing the beeper the men would quickly release their contact with anything metal connected to the chairlift to avoid being electrocuted. The shack was filled with the sound of beeping signaling devices.
We spoke very little Spanish and spent most of our fifteen minutes, or so, with the men in silence. The rain let up, and the sound of thunder became distant. The storm was moving on. Still wet, but now warm, we decided to continue down the mountain. We thanked the men as best we could and waved them goodbye. An hour and a half later we made it back to the ski village. We were completely soaked and chilled to the bone. It took the two of us to turn the key in the door lock of our mini van as my hands were numb with cold. We changed in our mini van, drying ourselves and put on dry clothes.
Remembering the invitation from the other hiking group we wandered over to the Stray Dog Cantina. On opening the door to the Stray Dog Cantina we were greeted with cheers. Apparently, they were concerned about us, and were about to send out a search party, just as soon as they finished another round of beers. They too had been caught in the sudden storm and had suffered as well.
Fortunately, we had all survived the experience. Not so lucky, we learned, were a group of scouts who had, a couple of weeks before, needed to be rescued and airlifted off of the mountaintop suffering hypothermia and broken bones.
Plastic garbage bags, who would have thought that they could save lives, eh!
Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Indian Paintbrush, and Petroglyphs (detail)