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c.Ty Belknap

Gold Hill sparkles in the distance —Photo credit: Ty Belknap

c. Barb Belknap

The yurt’s wood stove provides eighty-degree indoor heat in the zero-degree outdoor temperatures. —Photo credit: Barb Belknap

The quest for Gold Hill

—Ty Belknap

Waking in Bull of the Woods pasture on a subzero day in January is a gradual process. Crawl out of the sleeping bag to throw wood on the coals, crawl back in and doze while waiting for the yurt to get warm enough to dress and go to the outhouse. Chop frozen pee left by previous tenants from around the opening in the toilet bench, so the toilet seat doesn’t slide around. The seat itself—kept warm until needed next to the woodstove inside the yurt—offers a magnificent view across the meadow: four inches of fresh snow sparkling in the morning sun. Make coffee and read in front of the fire while the other five campers rouse, one by one. Yesterday’s two-mile uphill ski with heavy packs from the Taos Ski Valley parking lot has some of us moving slowly. Last night’s ukule fest and other activities may also have slowed us down a bit.

Nobody is in a hurry to meet my personal goal of skiing to the top of Gold Hill (12,771 feet) and back before dark. There are fresh oranges, scrambled eggs, homemade muffins, another pot of coffee, and a little more ukulele plunking before everyone finally dresses and straps on the skis. It’s nearly eleven by the time we head uphill through the woods. It’s probably too late, but I’m not that goal-oriented anymore. Besides—hard to believe—the guys are senior citizens. I am the youngest geezer at the tender age of sixty-two.

We lose the trail to Gold Hill in the new snow after only a hundred yards and start bushwhacking through the trees. I know the right general direction, having tried this a couple of times before over the years. A GPS is loaded with a map of the area, but I can’t figure out how to use it. My wife Barb (who is much, much younger than I) made a sundial by drawing a circle in the snow and inserting a ski pole perpendicular to the ground—a shadow of proof, she says while looking at her watch, that we are heading northwest.

Skins (adhesive-backed fabric stuck onto the bottom of the skis) make climbing easier. Layering of synthetic or wool clothing helps regulate body heat—you don’t want to be soaked with sweat when you stop for a rest, because it can get cold fast.

The terrain levels out after an hour and eventually we come to a meadow with a southern view across the mountainous Taos Ski Valley and another one east to 13,167-foot high Wheeler Peak—it is spectacular in every direction. We continue to break trail up gentle open slopes, then traverse to the top of a steep hill and see Gold Hill shining off to the west. We find a nice sunny spot out of the wind—a good place to laze around and have a lunch of bread and cheese, nuts, dried cherries, and other lightweight shareable things. Soon, the sky gets cloudy and the wind kicks up. Joints stiffen and hands get cold. Enthusiasm for the beckoning summit fades. One couple heads back, and another messes with their skins, while Barb and I ski to the edge of the tree-line for a better view of our destination. We can see the approach to take. If only we had started earlier.

It would be unpleasant to get hurt, stuck, or lost up there after dark with the temperature plummeting to fifteen below at night. Not so reluctantly, we decide to abandon my quest. Like I tell my son when he is goading me on, “I have reached a level of maturity—unlike you—that allows me to look up at a peak and not climb it, to get to the edge of a cliff and not jump in the water,”. . .  most of the time.

Anyway, it was fun to take off the skins and ski back downhill—huge vistas, fresh powder, open slopes, weaving through the pines. We get back to the yurt in no time. I venture to say that we could have easily made it to the top of Gold Hill, but am happy to take a nap instead. There is always next time.

The Bull of the Woods yurt above Taos is one of five Southwest Nordic Center yurts (southwestnordiccenter.com). The other four are in the Cumbres Pass, north of Chama. Weekend reservations fill up early in the season, but space is usually available at a cheaper rate during the week.

 
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