TO THE HEIGHTS
Alpine touring opens the door to Northern New Mexico’s stunning backcountry— and new skiing challenges.
By Steve Larese
Santa Fe New Mexican
INSIDE THIS ISSUE
Alpine touring opens the door to Northern New Mexico’s stunning backcountry — and new skiing challenges. I’m sweating despite the windy 35-degree weather as I shuffle to a stop and take in the panorama before me. The snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains stretch to the horizon, and a few wispy clouds streak through an otherwise bluebird sky. “I’ll dig a pit, but it looks good,” my skiing partner Scott says, pulling his shovel out of his pack. We’ve just traversed Raven’s Ridge to the Nambe Chutes, a north-facing bowl of steep terrain in the Pecos Wilderness near Ski Santa Fe. Several chutes, or backcountry runs like this one, descend more than a half mile from Deception Peak and Lake Peak; all funnel to Nambe Lake. Ski Santa Fe closed for the season more than a month ago, but the snow is still holding and nearly perfect this mid-May afternoon. The only tracks we’ll cross today are our own. Scott, trained to look for avalanche potential, quickly digs a cross section of snow several feet down and crouches to squint at the layers representing a season’s accumulation. He pokes and analyzes the layers like a field scientist. He pops up with a grin. “It’s bomber,” he declares of the snow’s stability. It has finally cured into a solid snowpack, greatly reducing the chances of an avalanche on the chute’s 40-degree upper slopes. We peel the skins — strips of friction-creating fabric that allow us to ski uphill — off the bottom of our skis. “Go for it,” Scott tells me, and with a short hop I’m carving down the buttery snow. The skiing is still great in New Mexico’s backcountry. Alpine touring (AT) has gotten us off the beaten track of ski areas and resorts. We’re skiing public lands — without handy lifts to cart us uphill. AT is often called ski touring or skinning because of the skins used to ascend slopes. Some AT skiers use splitboards, which can be divided into two skis for uphill travel and reunited into a snowboard for the ride down. Alpine touring can be as mellow as a hike in the woods or as arduous as an all-day climb of several thousand feet, rewarded with soaring mountain views and deep powder turns on the descent. Social media is full of backcountry skiers launching off cliff faces and outrunning avalanches, but the sport is available to anyone who enjoys forests and mountains in winter. New Mexico offers both peaceful tours through woods and double black diamond descents best left to experts. “One of the best things about backcountry touring in New Mexico is that it’s not overcrowded. It’s like how it used to be everywhere,” says James Marc Beverly, owner of Beverly Mountain Guides (beverlymountainguides. com), based in Taos. “We have mellow routes close to ski areas in our backcountry and some pretty extreme terrain that takes work to get to, but it’s so worth it. With our varied terrain, backcountry skiing in New Mexico is really great for all skill levels, and it’s pretty much undiscovered.” Beverly has been guiding in New Mexico since 1995 and says business has exploded since the COVID-19 pandemic. With ski areas closed and urgent calls for social distancing in 2020, alpine touring saw the perfect snowstorm for a popularity boom. Determined not to let the pandemic ruin their winter season, skiers added alpine touring gear at record levels; in 2020 AT gear sales soared 260 percent over the previous year, according to market research firm NPD Group. That trend is still holding strong. After people took the AT plunge, they immediately realized the benefits: no lift lines or tickets to purchase, no opening dates or operating times to abide by, new terrain to explore, favorite summer trails offering a whole new experience in winter, and the promise of solitude. “Pre-pandemic, most of our business was from skiers coming in from out of state,” Beverly says. “But those numbers have really flipped as more people who live here get into backcountry skiing and want to get out there safely.” New Mexico guides and ski business owners also credit technology with backcountry touring’s rise in New Mexico. Most notably, in the past few years, splitboards have increased in quality and come down in price, allowing snowboarders to enjoy alpine touring as well. Snowshoers and crosscountry skiers who want to take on more dynamic terrain are also adding AT skis to their winter gear. But with all the benefits backcountry skiers enjoy, there’s also no ski patrol to help when needed or warm lodges to duck into. Things can go very wrong in the backcountry, especially in winter. Beyond grabbing the latest gear, anyone interested in alpine touring should educate themselves about the dangers of winter travel, go with experienced guides or friends, and learn about avalanche safety, experts say. “One of the first things I tell new alpine touring customers is that safety training is as important as the gear, if not more so,” says Jeremy Cole, owner of Alpine Sports in Santa Fe. “We’ve seen a huge increase in sales in the past few years, and we also rent alpine touring gear. We always stress skiing in the backcountry isn’t like skiing in-bounds at the ski area. You really have to know your gear and safety skills, especially in avalanche terrain. Taking an AIARE [American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education] course is a great thing to do.” As I race my own snow slough down the mountain, I curve to the bottom of the Nambe Chutes. I arc to a stop and take in my tracks framed by the magnificent Sangre de Cristos. A dark dot against a white canvas comes into focus as Scott completes his run. We just grin for a minute, taking in the backcountry beauty. Then, with a shared look, we hike back up the chutes for another unfettered run beneath dazzling blue skies.