June 16 , 2007

It's that time of year again, and this year, that time of year came a bit early. I'm speaking of the time when moisture gets thrown up into New Mexico from the Gulf of Mexico. When you mix that with a whole lot of sunshine, we grow thunderstorms, some of which are pretty darn spectacular.

I actually took this shot off my front balcony about 3 or 4 weeks ago and tucked it away in the pile of stuff to get to "later."

Well, now is later, and I'm going to use the image.

I watched as this thunderhead grew over the south peak of the Sandias sometime in the last two weekends. Note that the base of the cloud is near 11,000 feet, so that means the top there is boiling over somewhere in the 25,000 foot range, enough for the air up there to be downright chilly.

Other than that, one of the things I found quite spectacular about this particular storm was the amazing speed in which it formed.I think that from start to finish this cloud matured into a full blown storm in somewhat less than an hour.

Like I said, mix some moisture and lots of sun, and you get what most climbers know as the to be avoided, afternoon thunderstorms.

While climbing in Colorado we were frequently told that if we wanted to make a summit, we should be on it by noon and on our way down by 1:00 so as to not be on the summit when the storms rolled in.

Therefore, when I started out on this trail about 10:30, I knew better.

I really did... but I'm not a morning person, and I was having a hard time deciding on whether or not I would try and make the summit this Saturday. As I was packing and deciding on whether or not to try and make the trip, I tried to figure out which way the clouds were moving and see if perhaps they were blowing off the peak instead of down or across it.

I'll tell you something about weather here in New Mexico. It's tough to figure out what is going to happen next, and it is especially difficult to try and figure out which way the clouds are moving. Back east it was simple, just about always the movement was from west to East, in some form or another.

Not here... you get storms moving south one weekend, east the next and the following day they move west.

I decided to go for it while keeping my eye on the sky. If things turned nasty I would just head on back down trail, but the plan was to get to the tram, ride down and then call the Mrs to pick me up and drop me back at my car where I started. The one way looked to be about 8 miles.

Since I was planning a long hike to the summit I decided that just in case... I'd pack full rain gear, and not only rain gear but some cold weather stuff as well, things like gloves and an extra layer of clothes. I know from experience that starting out in shorts and a t-shirt can get you into big trouble if you don't have the right gear later in the day.

About mile 3 this storm was building right over the summit and actually, right over the tram area. The tram is in the notch just about in the center of the photo, another 5 and a half miles up the trail, and at the speed I was walking, about 3 hours away. I started to get a bit nervous as I approached the summit ridge an hour later, but was relieved to see the storm blowing off the summit to the south and west.

I was feeling quite pleased and self confident when I finally reached the summit ridge line only to look to the east and say to myself, OH SHIT.

About 5 or 6 miles away I saw another storm brewing over a range of peaks known as the three sisters. I noted that it was now about 3 and had to make a decision. If I turned back, it would mean a 5 mile hike downhill, and possibly a downhill hike in the rain which makes for a very slippery descent, not to mention the fact that the downhill just kills your knees.

The tram was "only" 2.5 miles away, or so I thought. As it turns out it was more like 3.5 miles and I covered the next mile in great time. The three sisters storm started to thunder and out of the corner of my right eye I sat the occasional flash of lightning. After more than an occasional drop of rain I stopped and pulled out my waterproof ski shell and put it on over my t-shirt.

I walked for another 10 or 15 minutes and then got smacked in the head.

"Ouch... what's that." I said aloud.

The answer started bouncing off of the ground in front of me and even more annoying, off my head. It was hail, not the ittie bittie stuff, but larger than peas, about the size of really plump blueberries.

Just about the time I decided to look for a tree to hide under a bright flash of light filled the sky. One one thousand, two.... SHIT

Count to 5 and its a mile away.

Don't get to 2 and you are a candidate to be the bbq.

<insert a whole bunch of S words here>

It's called the "ridge trail" because that's where it is.. just about on the ridge of the summit that runs the length of the Sandias, and there I was, only two or three hundred feet from the summit in tall stand of pines in the middle of a driving hail storm, holding two metal hiking poles.

I took a chance and decided to hide in the shelter of a tree.

Remember what they told you as a little kid. Don't hide under a tree...

Well, what do you do int he middle of a freaking forest?

I decided that "if it gets me, it gets me." I figured I had as good a chance of being hit by walking as by sitting still beneath the tree.

Before hunkering down I pulled out my waterproof pants and covered my legs with them since there was just too much hail falling to try and change without being pummled.

While sitting there in the middle of the hailstorm I pulled out my camera and tried to get a shot that would show the hail as it was falling, but it just didn't work.

You know what though?

Hail is ice.

In ten minutes or less the ground was covered in an inch or two of ice and I found myself in the equivalent of sitting in the middle of a giant freezer with most of my dry clothes still inside of my backpack.

As the temperature fell I started thinking about the whole process that led to where I found myself at that very moment. I remember thinking, "ok, so if I get killed here, I wonder which decision was the "fatal" one. Was it the decision to start out, or was it the one at the trail crest to go on to the tram?

I also though that if there was any consolation, at least I had packed the rain gear and the extra clothes. The only problem was whether I would get the chance to actually put them on.

And I did - in a break in the hail, I leaned up against the tree as I removed first one boot and then the other to get on the running pants and then the outer rain pants.

Note how much darker it got between the two images. And just as I set out when the hail stopped, the rain started. Not just rain mind you, but freaking freezing cold rain, pouring from the heavens like it was all the water New Mexico would see for the next century.

In 5 minutes or less the trail that had been 2 inches deep in hail became a river, but fortunately my boots are gore-tex as well.

I want to tell you thought, that slogging through a running creek in the pouring cold rain is not the way one wants to spend an afternoon in the mountains. And, unlike the weather fronts that move through the midwest, the afternoon storms in this part of the world sometimes just crawl along, which is why we have such problems with flash floods.

It seemed like this storm camped right on the peak, dumped its hail and then followed it up with a ton of cold rain.

Don't ask about the lightning, because it did not stop, not for the next hour or so.

I think I finally made the tram somewhere about 5:00 and as I looked down to my left, I saw that the storm had moved over the trail that I would have been descending, had I chosen to turn around.

So was it the better choice?

I don't know, since that kind of downpour on a 5 mile downhill would have been quite dangerous, at least for the probability of slipping and breaking an ankle or wrist, or worse.

On the other hand, I don't think that trail got nearly the number of lightning strikes as the crest did.

So lesson learned?

I guess so.

Don't leave late for a long climb, unless you know that there is no moisture in the air - or that you have a clear view of the surrounding weather before you venture out to the peak.

By the way, did I mention that the wildflowers were stunning?