Trouble in the Sandia Mountains06 Dec 2012
Last night I made a series of decisions that seriously jeopardized my life.
The Sandia mountains rise up to the East of Albuquerque and provide views of a beautiful Southwest sunset. You can take a cable car up to a lodge at the crest of the mountains. When we arrived at the departure point, I decided I would go for a quick trail run when we got to the top. Having been trapped in the car all day on our way from Flagstaff, I was excited to move. I had been running mostly in San Francisco the last few months and missed the rugged terrain I frequented while I was living in Palo Alto over the summer.
But more than that, I had hiked on South Crest Trail before, six years ago when visiting Albuquerque with a then-girlfriend. I thought the trail was amazing and wanted to push further, but she was pragmatic and made me turn around earlier than I wanted. From the cable car you can track the crest of the trail and see dozens of spectacular Western-facing viewpoints along the way. I thought this was a great opportunity to see some of the views that I had missed a few years ago.
We arrived with only 75 minutes of sunlight left, so I dressed quickly and left my phone in the car. It was 65 degrees, sunny, and calm at the base of the mountain, but in the waiting room for the cable car, there is a weather station showing that going up to 10,000 feet of elevation would drop the temperature to 36 degrees and increase the wind to 28mph. I looked down at my shorts and running hoodie and decided it would be ok but that I was pushing it.
When we got the top I quaffed some water at the fountain in the tram station and took off to the South. It was immediately familiar so I stopped to enjoy a few views very briefly but pushed on to see what was further. The trail was rough: lots of rocks and quick elevation changes, surrounded by dense pine trees. I figured I would run about 25 minutes out and then turn around in time to use dusk-light to find my way back. The trail didn’t seem complicated enough to get lost with only a couple of obvious-seeming turns.
Sadly, the trail meandered to the left along the Eastern side of the ridge. This meant two things: no views of the sun setting to the West and it was getting darker faster than I thought. I figured if ran a bit further eventually it would come back up the crest and I could catch the beginning of the sunset. I picked up my pace.
This actually worked-as the trail winded to the right almost 180 degrees and ended up giving me some of the views I was craving. Perhaps it was altitude-induced optimism, but I thought that maybe it would provide me an alternative route home that wouldn’t require retracing all my steps. I pushed on for longer than I should have before realizing I was on a completely separate ridge in the mountain. I would need to run even further to get home.
I ran faster as I realized I was running out of daylight. The Eastern side of the mountain was already quite dark. As I ran out of light, I had to slow my pace to avoid turning my ankle on a rock. After 20 minutes of hurrying to get back I realized I was actually descending the mountain on the Eastern side. I had made a wrong turn at some point and it wasn’t obvious to me where. The difference between the trail and the woods was now barely visible.
I began yelling “Hello” and “Help” at regular intervals, hoping that I could find another hiker. I never heard a response. I turned around and headed back, straining my eyes to look for landmarks. I knew that keeping calm was the most important thing but it was a struggle to do so. It was only getting colder and darker. The one upshot was that I knew I couldn’t be more than a couple miles from the cable car station and that my dad and sister would be wondering where I was. At worst I would need to be found by rangers with flashlights. The questions were whether it would get to that point and how long that would take.
Doubling back, I felt more lost than before because I was headed in the wrong direction. Perhaps the scariest part was finding a turn in the right direction, following it for awhile and realizing I was looping back in the wrong direction. Then I experienced the old “getting lost” trope of seeing the same landmark twice, in this case a pair of white logs crossed in an X which were visible in the moonlight.
At this point it was so dark I was barely staying on the trail. I had to reach down and feel the ground to make sure it was soft and loose to make sure I was walking where I was supposed to. Despite this strategy, I made countless mistakes and tore up my legs walking through brush. Losing the trail like this was the scariest thing I experienced. At some points I would get on my hands and knees and crawl around until I found soft dirt to walk on.
I backtracked more and found a signpost I knew was on my original route. This was where I had made the wrong turn. Following the trail out from here was harder than I expected, but from here it was only a matter of time until I found my out. I knew this and started deliriously belting out “99 bottles of beer on the wall” as I marched toward the station. This last bit was firmly on the ridge and dimly lit by Albuquerque city lights. I knew I would be ok.
I arrived at the cable car station at around 7:15pm, two hours after I expected to be getting home. I was deliriously happy until I saw how upset my dad and sister were. They were on the phone with the state police and desperately trying to get them to send out a search party. I had gotten there just in time to prevent that.
The lessons in this story can only be described as common sense. I went running too late, pushed too hard, and underestimated how dark it would get. It was pure trail-runner arrogance that got me into this situation. I hadn’t brought a flashlight or a phone, either of which would have made this situation far less hopeless.
Despite the stupidity I demonstrated, I feel like it was a valuable experience. Sometimes you need to make stupid mistakes and suffer the consequences to learn lessons. Escaping the danger I faced in the woods, in the dark, has made me more appreciative than ever at how wonderful my life is.