Sandia Peak Ski Area Rises Again!

Aerial shot of Sandia Peak

It was a trip down memory runs when this writer spent a recent Friday under a warm sun and bluebird skies back at Sandia Peak Ski Area, located on the eastern flank of Albuquerque.

Sandia was my “home hill” growing up, as it was for thousands of Albuquerqueans who learned to ski or snowboard on its generally easy-going slopes. Opened in 1937, it is the oldest in the state and one of the oldest in the West. Its closure the past two previous seasons was a big loss for the city and for New Mexico skiing in general. But now under ownership and management of Mountain Capital Partners, new life is being breathed into the old beast. Once again, its slopes are dotted with laughing kids, families, and the occasional ripper arching fast G.S. turns down its immaculately groomed slopes.

Looking at Sandia Peak from a distance
Sandia Peak rises in the distance from desert-like lowlands. Photo by Daniel Gibson

As MCP executive and Sandia’s acting manager Scott Leigh notes as we ride the chair together, “It’s day five here and we’re stoked to be open! This is a special place to the community and is an amazing mountain. The vert you have from one lift is incredible. And, it is such a remarkable contrast from the Albuquerque side of the mountain to this side, from high desert to alpine. It’s such fun to ski! I’m just loving it.”

One Chair but 1,700 Vert!

The one lift he refers to is a double, center post chair that first spun in 1980. Over its 7,500-foot length, it climbs 1,700 vertical feet to the area’s highest point, allowing access to every run. The ski area has two other chairs but neither is operational this year. One serves dedicated beginner slopes at the bottom of the area and another at mid-mountain accesses intermediate slopes. Thus, true first-timers should be aware that they will need to load onto a pretty fast running lift, and ski or board down intermediate runs to reach the base again. (Two, Cibola and Fred’s Run, are classified as beginner but are not true beginner in character.) Nor can the ski slopes be accessed at present by the fabulous Sandia Peak Tram, which is undergoing renovations until mid-March.

The ski area hopes to remain open through late March, if the weather cooperates, so there may be an opportunity to ride the tram before the season ends. The tram reopening will also signal the return to service of the fine-dining restaurant and bar, Ten 3. Named for its altitude of 10,300 feet, it perches at the summit next to the tram terminal and at the top of the chairlift. For now, dining is limited to the inexpensive cafeteria at the base.

Sandia Peak Tramway on a sunny winter's day
The awe-inducing Sandia Peak Tram approaches its upper terminal, where it offers access to the ski area and restaurant Ten 3. It is undergoing renovations until mid-March. Photo courtesy Sandia Peak Tram Co.

Pluses: Views, Topography

I was reminded on my visit of several key aspects of Sandia Peak, where I perfected my snowplow as an eight-year old and my stem Christie at age 10 or so. The views are stupendous. To the east lies a sliver of the Great Plains rolling out to Texas and beyond. To the north lie the snowcapped Sangre de Cristos marching past Santa Fe and Taos into Colorado. In the foreground are the Ortiz Mountains and San Pedros, with a patchwork of snow and pastel-colored earth. If standing on the rim of the Sandias, to the west one looks straight down onto the urban grid of Albuquerque and beyond it across a tan landscape to Mount Taylor near the Arizona border. Southward lies the sloping alluvial plains and summits of the Manzano Mountains.

Sandia Mountain overlooking Albuquerque New Mexico
The precipitous west face of the Sandias tower over Albuquerque right at its feet. Photo by Daniel Gibson

I also forgot the complex topography of the ski area, with small ridges extending like fingers from the rim. These create canyons the runs funnel into, with banked sides perfect for swooping turns. The ridges also offer some cliffy drops for those with the right chops. And between the runs lie some intriguing forests with enough openings here and there for intrepid tree skiers to explore.

But mostly, Sandia is a cruising paradise with white boulevards rolling off the top, like the superb Exhibition. Hidden here and there are narrow runs like Diablo snaking through the woods that remind me of Eastern ski runs. These require quicker, more precise turns on shallow moguls. And, experts can be challenged on short steep pitches like Suicide, Greg’s and Burn. I also was re-impressed with the length of its runs, all descending 1,700 vertical feet, with the longest—Double Eagle— spanning 2 miles.

Sandia Peak trail map at ski area
Scoping out the route at the base of Sandia Peak, which is narrow side to side but looooong top to bottom. Photo by Daniel Gibson

Downright Cheap!

It was refreshing to see how inexpensive everything is, from lift tickets to rentals to cheeseburgers. Tickets are as cheap as $19 on Wednesdays and Thursdays, rising to $39 on Fridays and an astonishing $39-$44 on Saturdays.

“MCP prides itself on keeping skiing affordable,” notes another senior member of Sandia’s management team, Tom Long. Long began decades of fieldwork at Sandia, then managed Pajarito for many years. His son, Tommy, is mountain manager at Ski Santa Fe. “You’re sitting with the fellow that helped build the (functioning) chair,” he explains. “Benny Abruzzo dug the foundation holes, and I put in the steel and concrete in. Then the rest of our crew helped us stand up the towers. This reopening is really good for the ski community, the city of Albuquerque, the East Mountain area. The excitement we’ve seen from everybody we’ve seen here has been overwhelming. Opening day last Saturday (Feb. 17) we had hundreds of people on hand skiing on fresh snow. It was unbelievable! It’s like the Phoenix rising from the ashes.”

Tom Long Veteran Manager

Long came on site in September and “took a broad brush approach to what was needed to get it up and running.” Adds Leigh, “The goal was to open as quickly as possible, and things went our way. We didn’t really know what it would take, for instance, to get the chair going. It had sat for two years unused.” But they found it in pretty good shape and had it ready to go—along with a functioning ski patrol, ski school, lift crew, and dining operations—by Feb. 2. But they first had to secure the special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service, and work out the details of the transfer of ownership from Sandia Peak Ski Company to MCP. Notes Long, “It just took some time. It was a complicated change.”

Sandia Peak double chair with Albuquerque New Mexico in the distance
This Sandia Peak chair awaits renovation and next year’s season. Photo by Daniel Gibson

Snowmaking & Other Improvements

The team was so consumed by getting the basics in place and the permitting process, that they did not undertake any snowmaking this season. But fortunately and reassuringly, Mother Nature came through in a big way. With previous careful manicuring of the runs, the ski area can offer excellent coverage on a modest base. This is key, as it averages just 125 inches of snowfall a year, which it has failed to reach many years in the past decade.

For snowmaking, the area has a two million gallon and 900,000-gallon water storage pond and waterlines reaching 22 acres of terrain (out of its total of 300). Leigh says “for sure” they will undertake snowmaking next year with the existing fleet of wands and snow guns that cover portions of the lower mountain. “We’ll leverage the existing system next year and will get open as early as we can. We are definitely looking into increasing water holdings,” he says. But he notes this will require building new storage systems and approval from USFS. “If you look into snowmaking around the world, it is a key component to durability. It allows you open a little sooner, to stay open a little longer, and get a consistent product that holds up to weather fluctuations.”

As for replacing the existing double chair, Leigh says, “It’s definitely something we are considering. But, next season’s priority is getting the two beginner/intermediate chairs functioning.”

MCP’s Deep Pockets

One of the great pluses of MCP’s acquisition of Sandia Peak from the Abruzzo family, who operated it for decades, is MCP’s deep pockets. Beginning with the acquisition of tiny Sipapu in New Mexico in 2000, MCP now owns and operates 11 ski areas in six Western states, plus Purgatory Snowcats and the largest in South America, Valle Nevado in Chile. Since 2015, they have invested $75 million into their ski operations, including new gondolas, chairs, snowmaking and facilities. MCP has the financial resources to do what’s needed to keep Sandia running and improve it. “They get in with both feet, I’ll tell you,” says Long. “They are not short on ideas and ambition.” MCP’s president, Scott Price, has been on site, showing the company’s level of commitment.

Leigh is representative of the professional caliber personnel brought to re-launch Sandia. Though youthful in look, he has a boatload of experience. “I’ve been in the industry since 1997, beginning at Vail Resorts, where I spent nine years,” he explains. “Then I was at Telluride for five years, in Aspen for three, and in Breckenridge for five. Then I went to run a ski area in Wisconsin called Wilmot Mountain. Last year, I oversaw the world’s first and only human-powered ski area, Bluebird Backcountry in Colorado.” He was hired by MCP in August 2023 and arrived on the scene at Sandia in October.

He is obviously thrilled to be here. “We’ve been extremely pleased with the turnout and the enthusiasm. This is Albuquerque’s hometown ski hill, and anytime we can put a ski area back on the map as an operator we’re excited.” Long echoes this sentiment. “We don’t want to be losing ski areas. For skiing in New Mexico, having Sandia Peak operational again is huge.”

If you want more details on Sandia Peak Ski Area, click here or call 505/242-9052. For Albuquerque information, click here or call 800/284-2282.

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Success Poses Challenges for Ski Santa Fe

skiers on Tesuque chairlift at Ski Santa Fe on a sunny day

Ski Santa Fe, the smallish but excellent New Mexican ski area just 15 miles from the centuries-old Santa Fe Plaza, has a problem many others would envy. It’s become too successful. This winter has repeatedly seen capacity crowds almost every weekend and even on formerly sparse Fridays. Its windy access road has been clogged on many occasions, and it’s parking lots full, and hundreds of frustrated guests have been turned around on the road on these days sent back down the mountain.

I sat with general manager Ben Abruzzo recently to talk about these issues, and get a snapshot of the years ahead.

Ben Abruzzo of Ski Santa Fe
Ben Abruzzo, general manager of Ski Santa Fe and a third generation of New Mexico ski industry leaders. Photo courtesy Ski Santa Fe

The biggest news, previously announced, is the construction of the ski area’s first high-speed, detachable quad chairlift. That will occur this summer. More details follow below.

Other Key Takeaways

The beginner chair is being considered for replacement, alleviating crowding on that key lift. The ski area will issue a new master plan, as required by law, within a year or two to guide development for the next decade or more. That plan must go through an extensive public comment period. Don’t expect significant changes to the access road, which is a state highway. Don’t expect to see enforcement of the four-wheel drive or chains requirement during storms.

Totemoff's at Ski Santa Fe on a spring day
A busy spring day with a band playing on the deck at Totemoff’s at Ski Santa Fe. Image appears courtesy: Ski Santa Fe

What Changes to Expect

Do look for programs to incentivize car-pooling to free up prized parking spaces. Expansion of existing parking lots can’t be undertaken until the new master plan is approved, and even then space for that is extremely limited. The Tesuque Peak Chair, now 30 years old, will be replaced, if approved in the new master plan. Replacing Totemoff’s, the mid-mountain restaurant and bar, which was approved in the existing master plan, will be held off and folded into the next master plan. They will continue their liberal “uphill” skiing policy for backcountry skiers and boarders.

Ski Heritage Lineage

It’s an ambitious agenda, but Abruzzo seems well suited to the task. The son of the previous general manager, Benny Abruzzo, and grandson of the long-time director of Sandia Peak and co-founder of the Sandia Peak Tramway, Ben Abruzzo, Sr., the 45 year-old Abruzzo grew up on the ski slopes. “I love the ski business, and I love this ski area,” he notes. “It is our home. We’re here trying to continue to make it a better place to ski, without pricing people out of the experience.”

He assumed his current role in March 2020 after filling many other positions at both Sandia Peak and Ski Santa Fe. It was a difficult time to assume control, as the ski industry was hit was a slew of Covid-era restrictions and operational requirements. But, fortunately, his appointment came with the addition of key new staff to help carry the load. “My dad and I had planned for that. We’d brought on new mountain manager and a new operational manager. That was the only way I could deal with everything Covid threw at us. Prior to that, I was wearing way too many hats.” Today, Jack Dant, former ski patrol director, is his very able mountain manager. And, Tommy Long, son of veteran ski area professional Tom Long, is operations manager.

The Tesuque Peak Chair that would be replaced – Image appears courtesy: Ski Santa Fe

New Detachable Coming

To eliminate crowding at base chair on holidays and busy weekends, this summer a detachable high-speed quad chair will be installed. The Leitner Poma lift, dubbed the Santa Fe Express, will follow the exact same line as existing chair. The 4-minute ride will carry the same number of skiers, but because it will eliminate stops and starts, will increase the effective capacity.

The chair costs $6 million. Ski area personnel will install it themselves, except for stretching the cable, which requires specialized equipment. “We are one of the few ski areas in the nation with this skill set,” he noes. “I’m excited about a self-install because it’s that many more jobs for our staff and New Mexicans in general. And, our crew will get to know the lift in ways they wouldn’t if someone else built it for us.” While the effort will cost them about a million dollars, he says it will save them another million if an outside firm was employed.

Leitner Poma has completed the design plans, called the profile, with ski area input. It is now manufacturing the tubular metal tower pieces, the tower heads, the shive (wheel assemblies) and seats. It’s also building the electronic control panels in their factory in Grand Junction, Colorado. All will be trucked to the ski area this summer and lifted into place with a helicopter.

New Master Plan

A new master plan will be submitted to the U.S. Forest Service within a year or two. “What triggers the update is when most of the projects under the existing plan have been accomplished, and that’s the case here. We are about done with the current master plan.” The new plan will not include any expansion of the existing ski permit boundaries. “The footprint won’t change. In general, it will simply be to improve what we are now doing. How do we take what we already have and make it better?”

Once “accepted” by the USFS, the plan will go into extensive public comment period, as stipulated by the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process. Then, specific parts of the plan will be submitted for approval by the USFS as they are tackled. While such consultation and reviews have slowed ski area developments down to a snails pace, Abruzzo says, “These requirements are there for a reason. I get it. There are environmental concerns, cultural concerns, tribal concerns, biological concerns to consider. It all makes sense.”

Road Issues

Abruzzo expects that repaving of the top half of the ski area access road will be completed this summer. But beyond that, the ski area’s hands are largely tied he says. While there’s lots of heat thrown at the snowplow drivers on the road, he comes to their defense. “We should all be appreciative and grateful of the state highway plow drivers. They do a fantastic job. You can’t find any ski area road in a snowstorm anywhere that’s perfect. They are plowing it while it’s snowing, and people are driving on it. The bad days are when it starts snowing hard at four a.m. It’s impossible to have it cleared by the morning commute because they’ve only been able to make one pass up.”

Many a morning this winter drivers have also found themselves trapped behind stuck vehicles. The ski area’s web site notes the state law requiring vehicles during storms to use chains or be a 4WD model, “but people simply ignore it.” With the need for state police to enforce the edict, he does not see much improvement ahead on that front.

So, what about increased use of public transportation? While the N.M. Rural Transportation Division does have a route to the ski area, Abruzzo notes they’re way short of needed drivers, and have actually reduced service. 

Parking

Parking on weekends and holidays has been another headache this season, but he notes it is an issue at many ski areas. “The ski industry is in a boom. Some places have 2,000-people lift lines! We have a very fine parking crew that works very, very hard to park the cars quickly and efficiently. It’s one of the most difficult jobs here. But I acknowledge there are problems. How do we make this better?”

They do not want to charge people for parking, which is known to reduce traffic, he says. Instead, they are exploring ways to encourage car-pooling, which could free up hundreds of parking spaces. They looked into issuing gift certificates to high occupancy vehicles, but this really slows down parking lot entry, so it was nixed. Now they are now leaning into designating lots closest to the base for car poolers. They are also looking into expanding staff carpooling.

Why not simply build new parking lots? “I’d do it in a second, but we are very limited in suitable terrain. There are steep drop offs all around.” And, such work would have to come in the next master plan, so it won’t be something done in the short term. One possible solution they are considering is a parking structure, but he notes they are very expensive and might be highly criticized.

snowmaking equipment at Ski Santa Fe in the early season
Image appears courtesy: Ski Santa Fe

All in on Snowmaking

“We decided a decade ago we needed to go all in on snowmaking, and that was approved in the master plan, so we’ve gone from twelve snowmaking guns to forty-two. We have the second largest fleet in the country of Demaclenko snow guns, which is kind of amazing considering our size” At a cost of $60,00 per unit, that cost a pretty $1.8 million. “We’ve built a five million gallon water storage tank. We’ve completed almost all the water lines we need, and buried all the electric lines. This has allowed us to do away with the old portable diesel generators we used for snowmaking.”

Other Recent Developments

He notes other positives at the ski area in recent years. The Santa Fe Ski Team is back training on the mountain after a few years at Sipapu. But Ski Santa Fe won’t be hosting any races in the near term, as they no longer have snowmaking on what used to be the racecourse on Muerte. “We live and die by our snowmaking. Our capacity has gone way, way up, but we have to be very strategic in where we use it and where it’s needed,” notes Abruzzo.  And those are high traffic zones. Our life-blood is the skiing public, and we first must serve their needs, versus having the ability to host two races a season.”

They greatly expanded the outdoor decks at Totemoff’s, redid the interior of the bar, and opened the outdoor grill kitchen on a daily basis, taking the number of people this mid-mountain pit stop could accommodate from 150 people to 400.

New Pass Reading System

This is the first season with the new electronic pass reading RFID system. “People like order and it feels far more orderly. It’s also better for our staff. They used to have to walk up to every single person to scan their ticket face to face. Now you can deal with folks from a distance, managing the groupings. It’s faster, there’s fewer missed chairs, there’s less fraud and we are getting exact skier counts. They’ve always been low, because we missed people scanning.”

Time marches on. Some of us miss the days of leisurely cruising up even on holidays to sample the delights of Ski Santa Fe’s 12,000-foot plus peaks, the superb tree skiing, amazing views, inexpensive prices, and assurance of seeing friends. These same attributes have now brought on a crush of new patrons. But, who can blame them? The question is, can the ski area figure out how to manage its newfound popularity?

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