Club has been hitting trails in the Sandias since 1965
“We don’t do this for the exercise,” said Jim Koehler as a group of nearly 30 hikers stopped at a small clearing along the Sandia Mountain’s North Crest Trail on a recent Wednesday and started to pull snacks from their daypacks.
It was time for the “banana break” for the group. These members of the New Mexico Mountain Club form the “Wednesday Walkers.” Winter and summer this group meets for what the organizers call a Class II hike, 5 to 7 miles with about 1,000 feet of climbing. The group has been walking on Wednesdays since 1965, according to Don Tailby, who has been a member of the Mountain Club since 1972.
The group hikes the trails of the Sandia Mountains, using the high-altitude trails in the summer months and the lower trails on the western slope foothills when snow clogs the higher trails.
Koehler says average size of the group over the past five years or so has been about 25 each week.
On this particular late-June Wednesday, the group included regulars, like Koehler, Tailby and Joe Warner. But it also included a young woman who had planned to hike with a meet-up group she found on the Internet. That group departed the trailhead without her, so she was invited to join the Walkers.
The regular leader of the group was on vacation, so Warner had been planning the routes of late.
It had been nearly 100 degrees for a few days in Albuquerque, so Warner led the group on a high-country walk among the tall pines and aspen trees skirting the crest.
“I like taking the paths less traveled,” he said during a lunch break. So his routes often piece together sections of trails listed in the hiking guidebooks along with lesser-known routes often used by rock climbers.
After assembling in town about 8:30 a.m., the hikers re-grouped at Ellis Trailhead and set off. The first part of the walk zigzagged its way along trails most commonly used by cross-country skiers in the winter. Many made comments about the welcome cool air, and the group organized itself naturally by pace.
Warner moved up front at a brisk but comfortable pace and Koehler was the designated “sweep” for the day, making sure those at the rear of the long line all made the correct turns at trail junctions.
Not far from the beginning of the hike, someone spotted some wild turkeys in the brush and six or eight hikers stopped to observe. As the hikers moved on, the conversations turned to wildlife encounters from bears to snakes.
The group emerged near the crest overlook and headed down the North Crest Trail, past the field of communication towers.
“I got stuck in there not too long ago,” Tailby said, “and had to scale the fence to get out.” Tailby, in his early 80s, has been an avid hiker for many years.
Tailby calls the group “a godsend” for him, mentally. And he says the best parts of the club are making good friends and “going places I may not have.”
The New Mexico Mountain club is in its 60th year in 2012 and Tailby has one of the few “institutional memories.”
During the group’s first break of the morning – the banana break – Tailby said the group is a clearinghouse for those who love the outdoors, noting the umbrella group has outdoor adventures that not only include day hikes but also backpacking, technical climbing, car camping and even treks out of the country. The club also has monthly meetings where, among other things, slide shows of members’ travels (a recent one was a trip to Patagonia) are shared.
Even within the hiking bailiwick, Tailby said, groups form with similar interests – such as birds, flowers or abandoned mines – and hike with the intention of paying attention to those things.
“It really brings people with different backgrounds together around their interests,” Tailby said.
At the Muralla Grande overlook, landmarks were pointed out while the hikers took another short break. After a short rest, a small group headed back while about 15 or so took a side trail that parallels the crest. The group, with its many conversations, got quiet as the hikers made their way across the exposed trail to another small clearing and a final break for lunch.
The last leg of the hike was on the upper segments of La Luz then back along the Gravel Pit to Rocky Point and back to Ellis.
As the group assembled under the trees, Warner brought out coffee, iced coffee, cinnamon rolls and cookies for the group to enjoy.
“This keeps us off the streets and out of gangs,” one hiker said.