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Approximate line of climb on the Shield in the Sandia Mountains

Epic adventures in the Sandias—Part 3

—Evan A. Belknap

Yesterday, December 20, my alarm went off at 4:55 a.m. I was lying awake when it did. I tend not to sleep very well before big expeditions, and that night was no different. All the plausible scenarios playing out in my dreams: falling rocks, lightning strikes, death torpedoed by peregrine falcons, putting my hand in a crack full of scorpions, decapitation, frostbite, bears. Sigh—I got up and looked out the window; the sky was clear, and I could see the flashing red lights from the radio towers on the mountain. Conditions were, so far, good. I ate hastily and was soon driving up the deserted Central Avenue to pick up my friend, and climbing partner, Will. We got to Sandia Crest at 6:20 a.m. and started hiking north along the Sandia Crest Trail in the dark.

The lights of Albuquerque glowed to the west—New Mexicans fast asleep as we crunched through the snow, driven forward by our icy clouds of breath and a grand mission. The sun slowly emerged, splashing red on the trees. The lights of Albuquerque and Rio Rancho and Bernalillo faded, and the Shield grew out of the darkness, massive and steep, as we post-holed our way through knee-high snow towards North Peak.

The Shield is the massive wall left of the Needle. It is the biggest face in the Sandias, over a thousand-feet tall and a half-mile wide. The rock is questionable, the protection is sparse, and once you get on the wall, the only real way off is up. (When there are no bolts or pitons on a wall, you have to find crevices or constrictions in the rock and place camming devices or metal stoppers. You place good gear when you can, and if you fall, that gear ideally stays in the rock and catches you.) I had always dreamed of climbing the Shield. It is the El Capitan of the Sandias, and I wanted it. I’d been waiting for years to feel strong enough and, moreso, gutsy enough to go for it. I also needed a willing partner. It was only later that I realized that we had picked the second shortest day of the year to climb one of the biggest walls in New Mexico.

We got to the base of our route around 10:30 a.m. and started climbing. The Shield lived up to its reputation—we continually tossed off toaster-sized loose rocks, quickly got off route, and only rarely found decent protection. But the sun was warm, we were living our dream, and we steadily made upward progress in good spirits.

Having lost our place on our mental map, we moved, pitch by pitch, up whatever crack or face looked like it might head upward. A few times, our imaginary vertical paths blanked out, and we had to down climb to try something else. We were having all the fun, but after about five-and-a-half hours of this, our inextinguishable psyche was starting to wear off.

The summit still hundreds of feet away, the day aging, and the clouds growing heavier, we felt relatively lost; all ways up looked unprotectable and fairly scary. We wandered back and forth along this shelf, eight hundred feet up, looking for a break in the rock that would lead us to the summit. With the sun getting low, I picked a way, and went off adventure climbing. I reached a tree and belayed Will up. We were one rope length from the top, and we could see a plausible escape route. The first snowflakes started to fall. I raced up the last pitch, adrenaline surging, and reached the top as the sun hit the horizon, blazing through the snow, and into my eyes. My relief was terrifying, and I whooped in delight. Will came up behind me with a big grin, and we knew that the dangerous part was over. We had a blizzardy two-hour hike out, but we had climbed the Shield! Our coolness was mind-blowing.

Will called his grandma to tell her that he was alive, then we slipped our dripping wet and freezing socks over our feet, put on our soggy shoes and all the clothes we had brought, and got on with it. Often on hands and knees, clawing up snow banks, we worked our way back up to the Crest Trail. The lights of Albuquerque were back on. It was surreal to have them coming in and going out.

This long exhausting hike through the snowy woods was like returning from another dimension. We were absolutely beat, swaying from hunger and fatigue, and eventually sat and split a granola bar, catching our breath. As we looked out over the lights and drank our quickly-freezing water, I thought about all the people down there, doing this and that, living their lives in one way or another, and I was happy that among them were pizza-makers.

We were back at the car around 7:10 p.m.—car to car in 13 hours. Not too bad.

So many hours of self-inflicted pain (I mean… fun) really changes your perspective on things. For the next few days, as you take the time to heal, all those little things that once stressed you out seem to disappear. You hold a calm and comfortable vastness inside. You sleep like a bear in a snow-sheltered cave.

Sign to Sandia Cave

View of Las Huertas Canyon from Sandia Cave, east of Placitas

When the world knew of Sandia Cave

—J. A. Ueckert

A 23-year-old graduate student of Princeton University came to New Mexico in 1933 and proceeded to set the world of archaeology on its collective ear.

Arriving at the University of New Mexico (UNM), with barely a moment to unpack, Frank Cumming Hibben followed a rancher into the wilds of New Mexico and discovered the strange, “Medieval-looking fortifications” in the Gallina river valley of the Jemez Mountains, fortifications used by, for want of a better name, the “Gallina people,” whose true identity remains a cultural mystery.

Hibben then followed a guide across the Rio Grande, south of Albuquerque to the “Los Lunas Decalogue,” an eighty–ton rock on the side of a mountain inscribed with the Ten Commandments in a hitherto unknown Paleo-Hebrew script. Charges of forgery were immediate and the stone’s authenticity remains a heated topic to this day.

While either of these finds makes for a great story, the editor of this publication insists that I keep the scope focused to more local environments. To that end, what Hibben did next was to discover the “Sandia Points,” used by “Sandia Man” in Las Huertas Canyon in the Sandia Mountains.

Time Magazine trumpeted the news on May 6, 1940, in the “Mystery of Sandia Man Cave,” saying Hibben had discovered evidence of the oldest human culture in the New World, predating Folsom Man by as much as 15,000 years. Academia voiced charges of fraud and of “salting” the find. Hibbens stated that the Sandia Points were of a similar style of manufacture to points found in southern Spain and France, known to be made by people of the “Solutrean” culture, at some time over 21,000 years ago. One implication—if what Hibbens said is true—is that occupation of the New World by Paleo-European people predated those of Asian/ Native American peoples by many thousands of years.

After the yellow ultra dust in Sandia Cave began to settle, arguments surfaced about Hibben’s sloppy excavation and documentation methods and the very legitimacy of his finds. One huge problem the archeological community had with the Sandia site was the total lack of any corroborating finds.

In a 1995 interview with Douglas Preston of the New Yorker Magazine, Hibbens stated, “Why argue about this site? We excavated to the best of our ability and interpreted it the very best we could. If the interpretation isn’t correct, we’ll change it as we get new evidence. I’m not going to defend myself. Let them find their own sites.”

Then in 1954, Kenneth Kendell, a local flint point collector, led Hibben and graduate student William Roosa to the lake beds near Lucy, southeast of Estancia. There, sticking out of the sand was a large bone of an ancient mammoth. Hibben knelt town and dug beside the bone, and retrieved—a Sandia Point. He handed it to Roosa and said, “Here’s your dissertation.” Roosa worked on the find further, discovering additional Sandia Points and earning his doctorate.

Once again, the archaeological community remained skeptical, castigating Hibben at every opportunity. Seemingly unfazed, Hibben’s star continued to shine even brighter. He authored a dozen books and became a legendary big game hunter. ABC produced a 28-part series: “On Safari with Frank Hibben.”

As a professor, Hibben was dynamic and charismatic. A former student told The New Yorker, “When I saw the Indiana Jones movie, the first thing I thought was, ‘This is Frank Hibben.’”

Hibben died in 2002 at the age of 92, bequeathing the University of New Mexico with a multi-million dollar scholarship endowment. In 2012, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institute and Bruce Bradley, University of Exeter, published “Across Atlantic Ice: the Origin of America’s Clovis Culture,” in which they introduced the “Solutrean Hypothesis,” proposing that Solutrean sailed across the Atlantic, hugging the Southern edge of the Arctic icepack.

The proposition was considered unworkable by many and heretical by others. One critic, David Meltzer, stated, “Few, if any, archaeologists—or, for that matter, geneticists, linguists, or physical anthropologists—takes seriously the idea of a Solutrean colonization of America.”

Contrary to Meltzer’s assertion, however, geneticists have documented a particular genetic subgroup, “mtDNA haplogroup x2,” tying Solutrean DNA to certain Native American cultures in varying concentrations, up to 25 percent in the Algonquian Culture, 15 percent in the Sioux, 13 percent in the Nuu-chah-nulth of the Pacific Northwest, and seven percent in the Navajo. This is in contrast to zero percent in Asian and South American cultures.

So, was Frank Hibben a true genius with phenomenal insight or a self-aggrandizing megalomaniac? Before you answer, consider than in 1940, Hibben took a hiatus from UNM to earn his PhD in anthropology at Harvard in only one year—something no one else had ever accomplished. Hibbens said, “I had to do it in one year. If I didn’t come back to UNM in a year, I lost my job.”

Reprinted with permission from The Independent, a weekly newspaper serving the East Mountain area.

US Forest Service waives fees in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

—U. S. Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service will waive fees at most of its day-use recreation sites on January 20, 2014, in honor of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The fee waiver day is the first of four such days and one full weekend to be offered by the agency during 2014.

“Our public lands are open to everyone, and we hope these free days offer an incentive to all people to visit any of the 193 million acres of land held in trust for their enjoyment and use,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.

No fees are charged at any time on 98 percent of national forests and grasslands, and approximately two-thirds of developed recreation sites in national forests and grasslands can be used for free. Check with your local forest or grassland or on to see if your destination charges a fee.

The other scheduled fee-free days observed by the Forest Service are President’s Day weekend (February 15 to 17); National Get Outdoors Day (June 14); National Public Lands Day (September 27); and Veterans Day weekend (November 8 to 11).
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