Neff yurt, Cumbres Pass, Colorado
Rico Meleski, our expert backcountry consultant, studies the avalanche column
he dug to determine the stability of the slope behind the yurt.
Rico finds the first slideable layer of the slope
Cross-country yurt report
—Barb and Ty Belknap
Even in the driest years, the snow piles up in the back country and winter storms bring fresh powder in February, our favorite month for cross-country skiing. This year was no exception, and we made the most of it with two trips to the yurt system north of Chama and a rare ski into San Antonio hot springs in the Jemez Mountains.
The Southwest Nordic Center (SouthwestNordicCenter.com) has placed four yurts in the mountains above the Cumbres Pass north of Chama. Some of our readers may already know (this being the third time we’ve written about them over the past ten years) that yurts are insulated canvas structures supported by a lattice-work frame on a wooden platform.
A yurt trip is comparable to river rafting—offering a wilderness experience with all the amenities. The porch is piled high with firewood for the stove and the yurt provides beds, a kitchen complete with a two-burner propane stove, lanterns, and board games. There is even an outhouse with a heated toilet seat—that is, as long as you remember to hang the seat behind the wood stove when not in use.
The trick is to pack light with just the right stuff and leave the trailhead early in the day. This is something we never seem to accomplish, although this year we came close. Sitting smugly on the porch of the yurt in the mid-afternoon sunshine, we decided to cook dinner for the stragglers on our trip who had forgotten to pick up rental skis a day early. They were about an hour behind us. Unfortunately, we found that the key ingredient to our dinner had been forgotten in the car back at the trailhead, so Ty was elected to ski the three miles back.
Skiing out proved to be a pleasure, especially the downhill half of the journey. Coming back up reinforced the vow to pack light though it was much easier to climb up to the yurt carrying only two pounds of chicken and a bottle of water. From now on, we’ll only take dried food and the most compact intoxicants. Snow melt tastes okayonce you get used to it.
By sunset, six of us had settled in and it started to snow. By morning there was six inches of fresh powder, which grew to a foot by the end of the day. We all set out together to explore the slopes and forests on the way to the summit of Neff Mountain. Our global positioning system helped find the way back to the yurt by nap time.
That’s when the demons arrived on their snowmobiles. We entertained primitive homicidal fantasies while they buzzed our refuge for hours. Signs suggest snowmobilers and skiers to voluntarily avoid each other, but snowmobilers have joined forces with ATVs intent on destroying every remaining square inch of wilderness.
Enough whining. They were gone by dark and didn't come back the next day because it was Super Bowl Sunday. We enjoyed some more exploring, and still made it to the Second Street Brewery in time to see Janet’s breast at half-time.
Two weeks later, Friday the thirteenth, we were back again, this time taking advantage of a free night at Grouse Creek Yurt. The owner of Southwest Nordic Center had graciously comped us a night because last Valentine’s Day he had double-booked our destination yurt, requiring us to turn around and find a hotel in Chama. That was a continuation of a trip during which everything had gone wrong.
We packed light and set off early, breaking trail through a foot of heavy powder. The trail led steadily uphill four miles and took an exhausting three and a half hours. (Was that chest pain?) The storm that had passed to the south circulated back around—just as the weatherman had predicted. By the time we reached the yurt, the temperature had dropped to a breezy 0° F, and it had started to snow. Last year’s Valentine curse continued when we could not open the combination lock with the number we had been mailed.
It was too late to turn around this time, so with freezing fingers we took turns unscrewing the hasp to break in. Soon the yurt was warm, snow was melting on the stove, and the sky turned pink as the storm swirled back around to the south.
The Valentine’s curse had fully lifted by the next day and we enjoyed spring-like conditions as we skied to a ridge top with a glorious view of the San Luis Valley. Following our trail back to the car was a breeze.
It takes a certain amount of yurt-mania effort, both physically and logistically, to undertake such an adventure. This may not end up being our favorite geriatric pastime.
Cross-country skiing day trips will continue as long as we can still walk and the snow still falls. Some of the best trails lie just a tram ride away at the top of the Sandias. The trails into the Sangre de Cristos from the Santa Fe Ski area are spectacular. The Jemez Mountains have lacked snow for the last couple of years, but this February’s storms changed even that, opening our favorite trail to San Antonio Hot Springs—another story that will have to wait.
Two bosque restoration projects completed in Rio Rancho
Two large areas of bosque have been restored as native plant and wildlife habitats on the west side of the Rio Grande in Rio Rancho. Friends of Rio Rancho Open Space, Inc., a nonprofit citizens group, announced completion on February 6 of a six-month project of clearing Russian olive and salt cedar trees from 23 acres along the river frontage of the Rivers Edge II and Rivers Edge III neighborhoods.
FORROS is seeking funds to work next on clearing and restoring a bosque area of about eight acres on Rio Rancho’s north end, at the Spruce Mountain Loop parking area.
Correction: Ojito open in part to mountain bikes
Last month Jeff Watson drove out to the Ojito Wilderness Study Area to ride the trail described in the November Time Off column. He wrote that he was disappointed to discover a new sign that declared the area off-limits to all vehicles, including mountain bikes.
BLM spokesperson Denita Burns told the Signpost that mountain bikes are allowed in wilderness study areas; however, part of the area described in the November article is classified as an area of critical environmental concern. Burns said that the new sign makes it clear that mechanized (mountain bikes) and motorized vehicles are prohibited from the ridgeline that is so much fun to ride.
Burns explained that the ridgeline was designated an ACEC several years ago because it is an fragile geological formation mainly composed of gypsum. The gypsum soil supports several rare plants. The ACEC overlaps parts of the WSA.
Burns suggested an alternative area just across US-550 from Ojito and west of San Ysidro that is a popular area for both mountain biking and motorized off-road vehicles.