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A trip to Sandia Peak May 22, 2008

Posted by dorigo in personal, travel.
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Not far east of Albuquerque stands Sandia Peak, a surprising mountain more than 10,000 feet high, which can be reached with a gondola (the longest air way in the world, it seems) from the plain north of Albuquerque. Atop the peak there is a large array of antennas for telecommunications, but the impact on the lineshape is not too damaging. To be honest, as seen from the city Sandia peak does not look too impressive: the lack of any references to size up the height of the mountain appears to make one underestimate it.

I decided to take an afternoon off the conference today, and I drove together with Riccardo Cerulli, an italian colleague who works in the DAMA experiment, to the top of the mountain. As we drove up the winding road, I was surprised to see a dramatic change of vegetation, from the desert bushes which cover the sandy ground around Albuquerque, to greener trees, and finally to pine trees. What surprised me the most though was finding in shady places large amounts of ground covered with snow!

Ok, the peak sits at 10,500 feet above sea level, but only 5000 feet below the temperature was a hot 94 farenheit. Atop Sandia peak the temperature was 63 degrees, and the weather was nice. Not a very good visibility at the horizon, but a strong south-west wind that is quite common in the area, as testified by the many trees that show the phenomenon of “flagging”, i.e. bending in one direction to indicate their continuous withstanding of winds. The wind on the crest had gusts at 50 miles per hour, and it made a huge hissing sound which added fascination to the place. As we walked along the crest, the wind was hitting us hard, luckily pushing us in the safe direction!

I took a few pictures during a short hike we did towards the station of the gondola, which stands 1.5 miles south at a slightly lower elevation. I found the place really beautiful, especially due to the stark contrast of the alpine setting with the flat plains just a few miles below.

The array of antennas crowding the very peak. The red car is the nice liberty I got from Thrifty…

Behind me, the plain with the suburban area of Albuquerque.

Another view towards south-west from the crest.

A view from inside a small refuge made of stones.

The cliffs on the west face of Sandia peak.

A nice view looking east from the trail.


1. Kea - May 22, 2008

What! An afternoon off? Go on, get back to the talks and more blogging ….

2. carlbrannen - May 22, 2008

The last few years there was an insect or something killing many of them out, but a substantial percentage of the pine trees you see should be pinon pines. Their nuts are said to be among the most tasty in the world. Be sure and obtain some before you leave.

The plain you’re looking out over is alluvial that has filled in one of the world’s amazing geological oddities, a rift valleys. The top of the Sandias is limestone, below that is intrusive granite. The Rio Grande rift (named for the river that, farther south, forms the border between Texas and and Mexico) runs north south. The view of the city is looking west. In the distance, you might have been able to see the volcanos on the west side of the rift.

And this reminds me of yet another gruesome way to die entertaining oneself in New Mexico. The stiff wind at Sandia Crest typically comes from the west, against the cliff side. This makes for a very strong and steady updraft and so this an attractive place for dare devils to commit suicide using hang gliders. There may be some altitude or flight time records set here, but I don’t know of any.

There are several problems with the hobby. Landing in a cactus pach is one of the least. The cliffs are rugged and easy to fly into; it could be days before they are able to retrieve your battered remains. But the most interesting fate is that achieved by those who hang glide too close to the sun. Rather than losing the feathers on their wings they lose conciousness at something above 15,000 feet. The lucky ones end up with wild stories such as landing 140 miles away, or flying all the way to Texas and having to land on a little league baseball (well lit) after nightfall.

Kea would love it.

3. abdulkahhar - May 22, 2008

When I took the tram it was lovely, if vertiginous, ride, but after I arrived at the top I wandered around a bit and then noticed that I was taking a deep sigh every ninety seconds or so. After a few minutes of this I realized I had a mild case of altitude sickness and took the next tram down. At the time I weighted about 350 pounds, so it is not hard to understand, Still, for those with impaired pulmonary function, a word to the wise.

4. dorigo - May 22, 2008


I imagine it may have been problematic for you. I did not experience discomfort during my hike, but I only weigh half as much as you do…


5. dorigo - May 22, 2008

Hi Carl,

your list of ways to procure oneself a horrible death in Albuquerque is quite entertaining. I wonder if you are compiling a similar list for every place you visit. What is a trendy way to die in Seattle ?


6. carlbrannen - May 22, 2008


That reminds me, yet another thing one can do in New Mexico is to go hiking in the desert mountains. Choose a clear summer night, Antares will watch over you. It will be cool and the milky-way will charm you.

There are a few things to watch out for. The thing that haunted my dreams was mine shafts. These are particularly dangerous when you are going down slope. You cannot necessarily see where you are going. You start sliding, and down the shaft you go.

I did this once in broad daylight. I was accompanied by a man who began screaming when I disappeared down the shaft. I was lucky, it was only a few meters deep, a prospecting pit intended just to go down to bedrock, to get a peek at what lies under the soil.

This is a good reason to prefer well moon-lit nights. But even by the light of the moon I’ve walked full tilt into barbed wire fence while hiking cross country. These are not dangerous, but they are a surprise. But when you see the black hole in the ground, don’t walk over it imagining that it is just a trick of the soil color. If it’s a deep mine shaft you will be dead before you hit the bottom (from glancing collisions with the walls at high speed) and will likely never be found.

Certain predators hunt at night, especially mountain lions also called cougars. They kill a few people each year in the US. When they notice you walking their territory they will follow you, and stalk you. But when they see that you are a man, another hunter, they will probably leave you alone. Women and children should avoid the desert mountains at night. They say the voice of the lion is like a woman screaming. I’ve never heard it, but I have been stalked. Which reminds me, yet another thing to worry about at night is gun-toting hikers.

Seattle has large numbers of trees. It turns out that nature concentrates more on quantity than quality and some of them are not very sturdy. A few weeks of heavy rain and their root systems give out and they start falling over. Even a small limb falling from 100 meters will have a lot of energy. Imagine a baseball bat falling this distance. And a large tree has a very large number of branches. So they kill a few (typically very surprised) people each year.

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