Skinny ski aficionados, fat tire bikers and serious snowshoers from Northern New Mexico and southern Colorado gathered last weekend in the wintery enclave of Chama for the 45th annual staging of the Chama Chile Ski Classic.
Several hundred cross-country skiers, bikers and snowshoers competed in long and short races, including “rookie” divisions, and participated in free guided snowshoe and backcountry ski tours; paid clinics and lessons; workshops on waxing and award ceremonies at the rockin’ High Country Saloon with its live music and locals decked out in snowmobile gear and cowboy hats.
The competition was one of four events taking place this winter in the Southwest Nordic Race Series, which attracts major regional figures in the field, such as fitness coach and extreme athlete Steve Ilg of Durango, Colo., who has twice been on the cover of Outside magazine. The series also included stops in Pagosa Springs and Telluride, and will move to Purgatory on Feb. 17.
The racecourse, found atop Cumbres Pass just north of town in a spur of the vast San Juan Mountains, is set among lovely aspen groves, open meadows, rolling hills and forests of spruce and fir with breathtaking views in all directions. People in costumes, a kid’s play area with snow slides, a food stand, and sales and demos of fat bikes and other exotic snow gear created a festive atmosphere in which even the hardcore competitors wore wide smiles under a brilliant sun and bluebird skies.
This year’s hoedown was co-directed by Pam Alcorn and Chama Realtor Melissa Clark. Clark’s unflagging enthusiasm and hard work set the tone for the cadre of 75 or so volunteers. The course, she explained, was set up under a two-week permit granted by the U.S. Forest Service, and will be groomed this weekend as well. Friendly snowmobilers often run the course after the event, so a track is generally set for the remainder of the winter.
Rail-thin Karl Walczak of Albuquerque won the 18K cross-country race Saturday. He was still zooming about after the race and was set to teach a clinic later. So where does his inexhaustible energy come from? “I like to be outdoors,” he said, “so I train with trail running, hiking, mountain or road biking, and have started to get into CrossFit training.
“I grew up in the Twin Cities area and my sisters initially got me into it, on their gear after school,” he said. He plans to compete in the Southwest Nordic Series this winter but will miss one event while attending the American Birkebeiner, the granddaddy of North American cross-country events, launched in 1973 near Hayward, Wis.
A member of the Sandia Nordic Ski Club, which was formed in 2017, he said the club is busy this season grooming four miles of trails in the Sandias, beginning at the Ellis parking lot, just below the Crest. The trails are open to all.
Also of note in this range: the 16th annual Sandia Mountain Snowshoe Race will take place Saturday.
Another interesting participant last weekend was Peter May of Crestone, Colo.
He became a cross-country skier when he bought a pair of classic wooden Norwegian skis for $5 at a garage sale. He entered the all-wood 6K race at Chama that year and won, despite a broken binding.
“I decided this is the event for me,” he said.
He has participated every winter since and has also made pilgrimages to the American Birkebeiner and once to the mother event — the Birkebeiner Rennet of Norway, launched in 1932.
May makes his own waxes and pine tars, which evolved out of his profession as a healer with natural botanicals and essential oils, and his company Endurance Alchemy Lab. “I grew up in Michigan with my brother doing his own waxing in our basement. I loved the smell and never forgot it.”
Aaron Rosetta, of Navajo and Santo Domingo Pueblo heritage, was competing in the snow bike races for his second time. He got into snow biking through mountain biking, and he and his wife are now cross-country skiers as well.
“It has gotten into activities we’d not done before and into this winter environment,” he said. “The biking on soft snow today burned me out but was still fun.”
The young couple is now introducing their young son to it, who was enjoying his time on a sled.
If you go
Chama is 106 miles northwest of Santa Fe. Snow was piled up 12 feet at street corners and the town was locked under the icy grip of winter. If you love snow and winter sports, it cries out for a visit. In addition to cross-country skiing, overnight stays in the Spruce Hole Yurt or the yurts of Southwest Nordic Adventures, snowmobile tours or ice fishing, snowshoers and cross-country skiers often lay out a nice track on the Sargent State Wildlife Refuge on the town’s north edge.
Last weekend, Santa Fe native Patricia Peck led a wonderful free guided tour out into a vast valley and up a ridge with stunning views of the San Juans to the north and the white-blanketed Chama Valley to the south.
However, most of Chama shuts down in winter, with just a few places to eat and stay. The venerable Foster’s hotel, restaurant and bar remains open, with bartender Tabitha slinging out delicious jalapeño-infused house margaritas.
As for accommodations, the Cumbres Suites offers clean, warm, affordable, and very friendly digs with a free continental breakfast under the careful eye of Kip and Terrie Corey. For details, visit www. skichama.com or www.chamavalley.com.
Another surprise storm rolled through the region Monday, bumping up bases a bit. Ski Santa Fe picked up 7 inches and had a 60-inch base, with all runs open and its Boneyard Terrain Park on Lower Gayway with nine features. Taos gained just an inch and had a 50-inch base. Its Kachina Peak Chair remains closed and all peak runs are off limits after last week’s tragic avalanche that took two lives.
Sipapu had a 37-inch base; Red River 35 inches, Angel Fire 26 inches, Sandia Peak an impressive 40 inches, Ski Apache a rare 56 inches and Pajarito 34 inches.
Crested Butte picked up 2 feet in the last week and had a 57-inch base, with all lifts running and 100 of 121 runs open. Wolf Creek checked in with a 72-inch base, Purgatory with 54 inches, Monarch with 63 inches, and Telluride with 55 inches and all lifts running.