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Ben Abruzzo and Bob Nordhaus

Ben Abruzzo and Bob Nordhaus loading onto Chairlift #1, circa 1964

Sandia Peak’s Exhibition run

Sandia Peak’s Exhibition run looks about the same today as it did here in 1964.

Highest, longest, oldest, closest—Sandia Peak

—TY BELKNAP
After a particularly disastrous Valentine’s Day, my dog vomited all night in the hallway outside the guest room where I tried to sleep. At 7:00 a.m., we got the word that a friend of ours had died. But the storm clouds had cleared and, if anything, it was a perfect morning to go snowboarding at Sandia Peak.

Actually V-Day wasn’t all that bad. I did manage to transport our out-of-town visitors—who had occupied the guest room for over a week—to the airport. That was during another storm that had crippled traffic and dumped over two feet of snow on the Sandias.

Sacred to most of us for one reason or another, the watermelon mountain is best known for its red hues at sunset. It was spectacular, too, in the morning sun after a stormy day, towering above Tramway Boulevard as I left the commuters behind and headed for the Tram.

Albuquerque is not generally known as a ski town, but on a day like February 15, there are plenty of people who will drop what they are doing and head for the slopes. It’s right here, and it can be fabulous in a good snow year. Unfortunately, snow has been a rarity during some recent drought years.

The Tramway was inspired by Bob Nordhaus, one of the founders of La Madeira Ski Area, which built a 1,500-foot rope tow in 1937 to become New Mexico’s first commercial ski area. Although it was originally modeled after Swiss tramways to serve the ski area, the Tram provides all riders an opportunity to get close to the mountain. On this clear morning, the ride was especially awesome. Skiers and snowboarders with their gear crammed aboard alongside camera-toting tourists.

It looked like it would be a warm winter day in Albuquerque, but at the Crest, it was eight degrees Fahrenheit with forty-mile-an-hour gusts. Winds blew frantic swarms of snow snakes down the open slopes, forming drifts along the tree lines. Sandia Peak is not known for “the steeps,” like Taos, but offers a vast terrain of moderately sloped intermediate runs. It’s a great place for cruising and just enjoying the views of eleven thousand square miles (as they tell you on the Tram ride). Expert skiers usually prefer day trips to the Santa Fe Ski area, which is okay with the Abruzzos, who own both resorts.

I had the long, narrow, expert-designated “Diablo” run to myself several times. Snow was so deep in the woods that I got stuck and had to paddle out on my belly like a surfer. For a grieving, sleep-deprived, over-the-hill, solo boardhead, I had a ridiculous amount of fun. Cruising too fast compensated for the lack of steep challenges, and forty-mile-an-hour tailwinds made going slowly nearly impossible. Tailwinds also made the wind chill tolerable. Riders paid for it, though, on the mile-and-a-half chairlift ride back up the hill into the wind. (The mid-mountain lift was closed.) Time on a chairlift alone was a good opportunity to think about my so-recently deceased friend and deal with my own mortality issues.

By afternoon, clouds were exploding into the west face of the mountain and then dispersing into an impossibly blue sky. The effect was psychedelic. By three o’clock, the top of the mountain was engulfed in clouds and it became brutally cold.

I took refuge in the High Finance Restaurant—the highest year-round restaurant in the world at the top of the world’s longest tramway. A tall microbrew drowned any thought of going out for one last run. Next to me in the bar was a tourist from New Jersey who admitted to a fear of heights. He was having a couple pints of courage for the descent. The steep ride really gives a sense of the great height of a mountain that thrusts up abruptly from the high desert—from 5,000 to over 10,000 feet. That is thrill enough for most people.

Highest, longest, and oldest (in some respects), Sandia Peak Ski Area is best of all closest. It is not characterized by the superlatives attributed to ski areas to the north, but Sandia offers a good time without the bother of getting your affairs in order or going on a ski vacation.

For more useful information, visit www.sandiapeak.com or call 242-9052.

[The visionary Bob Nordhaus died on February 22, 2007, at age 97.]

 

 

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