Opinion » Maxed Out

Maxed Out

Gondola up the Chief? Think bigger!

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By G.D. Maxwell

There are three routes up Pecos Baldy. Rising 1,000 feet above Pecos Baldy Lake in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northern New Mexico, the peak tops out well above treeline at just over 12,500 feet above sea level, offers a stunning view of the Pecos Wilderness to the north, east and south and drops several thousand feet on its west side into the headwaters of the Rio Medio. From the nearest trailhead, the hike to its base is seven hours or so of persistent, mostly uphill, packin’.

An easy switchback trail from a saddle on its south flank takes you to the top. It joins a much longer crestline trail headed back towards Santa Fe. A steep scramble along the northern horizon, often through a herd of big-horned sheep, will also get you to the top, winded but in relative safety.

The best way up though is straight up the face above the lake. It’s a non-technical climb requiring rudimentary bouldering skills and no susceptibility to vertigo. The exposure is deadly but you’d pretty much have to pass out to fall.

Nonetheless, it was heading up this route with a nascent case of altitude sickness when I first remember musing about how nice it would be to simply transport, Star Trek style, to the top. Once on the top, sprawled out in the September sun, watching eagles play an airborne game of tag and keeping an eye on thunderheads forming to the north, the thought of someone else transporting to the top was appalling. I didn’t even particularly appreciate the interruption when a marathoner and his 13 year-old daughter jogged up the crest trail and engaged me in conversation while they snacked and rehydrated, though I was impressed with their lung and leg power.

In a state with uncounted mountains and climbing routes, Pecos Baldy is not a destination climb. That didn’t change the fact climbing it infused me with a hard to define feeling of earned ownership, an attitude bordering on righteous that made the thought of someone arriving at the top without having spent the energy and felt the burn as phony as a deathbed conversion.

So I can understand the righteous indignation, the outrage of the climbing community – or at least that segment of it who regularly climb the Stawamus Chief – at the thought of someone building a gondola ride to the top of that awe-inspiring chunk of rock.

Clearly from a capacity and elbow room standpoint, there’s nothing mutually exclusive about rock climbers and gondolas. Both can co-exist. The objections are both experiential and esthetic. A gondola intruding on a climber’s focus is as unsettling and unwelcome as a ringing phone during coitus.

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