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Breaking trail to Trujillo Meadow yurt

Time to head back home. Photo credit: —Photos by John Knight

Winter break

—Ty Belknap

Over the first weekend in February, seven of us set off for a back-country yurt trip. The forecast predicted eighty-mile-per-hour winds and blowing snow for northern New Mexico, but the sun was still shining in Placitas, so off we went. It clouded up in Chama, and the blizzard started a few miles up the Cumbres Pass, just across the Colorado state line. We followed snowplows along the icy road to the Trujillo Meadow trailhead and skidded to a stop while the plows cleared our place to park.

Gusts were less than eighty, but a tailwind was howling as we geezers strapped on gear and backpacks and set off up the four-and-a-half mile ski to one of the five Southwest Nordic Center’s yurts. About half way in, the wind picked up and started to swirl. A snow devil blew my wife Barb right off her feet—probably due to the ukelele case that stuck out like a sail on the top of her backpack. We all took turns breaking trail through the heavy snow for three-and-a-half hours as the snow deepened and the light faded.

Packs were getting heavier and mild panic prompted the usual “I’m-too-old-for-this-shit” banter, but with the help of a good GPS reading, we found the yurt tucked away in a little glade off the main trail. The fire was soon blazing, the path to the outhouse was cleared, and buckets of snow shoveled from porch were melting on the woodstove for water. Cocktails were served, and a nice pasta dinner simmered on the stove.

Nobody ventured out for more skiing, and a foot of light powder fell overnight. Finding shelter in a mountain yurt during the dead of winter always seems like a miraculous thing. It’s remote, exclusive, safe—however crowded and uncomfortable—and it sure beats a snow cave.

In the morning, we skied some trails up to a frozen mountain lake. The skies cleared in the afternoon for a lazy run down to Trujillo Meadow. We stayed off steep exposed slopes due to extreme avalanche danger, as every few minutes, the snow would shift with a loud whump, sometimes dropping an inch or so underfoot.

On the last day, we used the GPS to pick a pristine route, free of snowmobiles, back to the trailhead. It was brilliant and sunny, temperatures reaching a balmy fifteen degrees. We ran in to a former Placitan on the trail, who shared hot toddies—organic peach tea mixed with Old Forester. She was accompanied by the owner of another bigger and better yurt further up the pass. We immediately booked it for next year.

Our cars had to be dug out of an island of snow in the middle of a freshly plowed parking lot. Barb and I bid good-bye to our companions and moved on to the next phase our vacation. I turned a couple of 360s to clear the wheel wells before leaving the pass and driving to the outskirts of Durango for a Super Bowl party at the home of friends. After Seattle’s second-half-kickoff touchdown, the disheartened Denver fans retired to the music room and jammed with accordion, guitar, and mandolins late into the night. I took a much-needed shower and hit the sack.

It wasn’t easy rousting the musicians in the morning, but the best conditions of the season—over a foot of new snow—awaited at Durango Mountain Resort. Coffee, lox, bagels, and then we were back in the great outdoors where a moderate snowfall continued throughout the day. I held up the skiers pushing my snowboard along the catwalks, but finally found my way to the steepest and deepest. At the end of the day, I barely made the last lift from the back side.

The next day, we woke up to blaring sunshine. The mountains, though, were clouded over. We pulled off the road and discussed going home as we sat in a blizzard in downtown Durango. When the skies cleared a bit, we continued on as this would probably our best chance of the year—and we still had another two-for-one lift ticket.  Scattered snow showers all day made for fun goggled-up powder skiing, but the four hours south on US 550 lay ahead, so we quit a little early and headed home.

Driving conditions were pretty good until another blizzard hit at sunset on that long stretch from Bloomfield to Cuba, causing a white-knuckled thirty-mile-an-hour slog down La Via de la Muerte.

By the time we got back to Placitas and had a cozy plate of enchilatas at the Café, Barb and I agreed that was enough of winter. All too soon, though, we watched the snow melt on the Sandias. Our winter break was just a brief respite from the worst drought in a hundred years. Think snow

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