Tragedy struck the Sandias when the body of 20-year old Brandon Foster was found just off of La Luz Trail last weekend. It took rescue crews over 24 hours to locate and recover his body. Deaths and rescue operations in the Sandias are surprisingly commonplace, especially as more people get out on the trail.
Last September, the body of Gibran Hernandez-Avila, was found after rescue crews spent over five days searching for him. The body was found near the Crest far from the La Luz Trailhead, which he informed his family he intended to hike. Authorities believe that Avila had strayed from the trail at night, and that’s when he fell.
So what makes La Luz Trail and other areas of the Sandias so dangerous? According to Steve Larese of the Albuquerque Mountain Rescue Council (AMRC), a nonprofit that focuses on rescue operations in the Sandia Mountains, the danger of the Sandias is a combination of exposure, terrain, and hikers being woefully unprepared for trail conditions. “Heat-related medical issues are a big problem on La Luz during the summer. People often don’t bring enough water for hiking La Luz in the summer. They start out in the cool morning, but temperatures quickly rise,” Larese said. AMRC estimates that they have conducted 15 rescue operations in the Sandias so far this year.
Despite La Luz Trail being on one of the most popular and well-established trails in the Sandias, many rescue and recovery operations take place on the popular trail. Larese notes the number of “false trails” created by hikers can lead people to stray from the trail. “People deviating from La Luz have created false trails that get people lost or lead to dangerous overlooks where if a person isn’t careful can result in a fall,” Larese said. Many popular trails in the Sandias are also just yards from a ravine or cliff, and the ruggedness of the terrain often masks these dangers.
“People do get lost, usually by leaving the trail and getting cliffed out or stuck in a canyon,” Larese said. “There are many hidden cliffs just off of La Luz, and people leaving the trail for views and photos run the risk of slipping on loose gravel and falling over the edge.” Many recoveries made by the AMRC are believed to have been caused by these factors.
Exposure and hikers underestimating the range are some of the leading factors that lead people to call for help, according to Larese. La Luz is without tree cover for the first three miles. Cool high desert mornings often inspire a false sense of security for many hikers, who believe that the day will follow suit. During the summer, this is never the case. Temperatures on the trail often climb well into the 90s, and there are no water sources on the trail.
Larese urges hikers and anyone who ventures into the deceptive vastness of the Sandias to be aware and be prepared. “Bottom line, pay attention to the weather before setting out, carry plenty of water, make sure your cell phone has enough power for the day, download a map beforehand and use your phone’s GPS to stay on the trail. Always tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back,” Larese said.
The Sandia Peak Tramway is available for anyone who needs a ride back to the trailhead. Rates and hours of operation can be found on their website.