Wheeler Peak, New Mexico (2014)

This would be a “revenge” high point. 

Back in 2010 my friend Dave and I tried climbing Wheeler Peak. We were out of shape and woefully unprepared for the thin air.

At noon, after 6.5 hours of hiking we were exhausted and still more than a mile from the top, and we decided to pack it in and turn around.

But I was prepared this time. Thirty pounds lighter and have been doing lots of running and biking.

I flew into Denver and picked up a Fiat 500,  (Not the best highpointing vehicle. More on that later) and drove down to Taos. 

Folks of a certain age will remember that Taos, New Mexico is the home of US Marshall Sam McCloud (played by Dennis Weaver) who was on semi-permanent “special assignment” to the NYPD on  the old NBC Sunday Night Mystery Movies.

For the last 100 miles or so I got off the Interstate and drove thru the San Luis Valley. I saw one guy bike touring and it planted a seed for a possible future bike trip.

In the very last town in Colorado, I saw a shop called La Casa Canabis!

I checked out the trail-head just to re-familiarize myself with the layout. I am glad I did. The lot where we parked in 2010 was under construction. I might have had trouble finding my way in the dark and the plan was to hit the trail at 4:30am.

I planned to take the Bull of the Woods Trail (7.1) miles to the top. Same as last time. In 2010 there was a second trail from Williams Lake that was shorter (4.1) miles but involved handholds, 60 degree inclines and stories of guys who froze up and couldn’t go up or down.

But in 2011 the USFS carved out a new trail. From online reports it sounded like the rock climbing and scrambling had been eliminated. But I didn’t want to take any chances, so I would stick with what I knew and if I made it up to the top, I would consider going down the new trail.

And indeed I hit the trail at 4:30. Still pitch dark. The trail was easy to follow, though. I did have a moment of doubt when I had to cross a stream about a mile into the hike. I didn’t remember that from 4 years ago, but there was no other way to go and not far after that a sign confirmed I was going in the right direction.

I burst through the treeline at 11500 ft and then up to top of Frazer Mountain, site of the best tasting peach I ever ate. You see, after Frazer Mountain the trail descends some 500 feet into La Cal Basin. When Dave and I had given up and were going back, we were beat. The only thing that saved us was the trip was downhill. Except for that 500 foot rise. And we really struggled. When I finally staggered to the top, I pulled out a peach from my bag, collapsed to the ground, took a big bite and pronounced, “This is the best tasting peach ever!”

I kept looking back to see if anyone was coming up the trail behind me. Didn’t see anyone, but did catch a glimpse of a campfire once.

Some elk were on the trail further ahead. Fortunately, I didn’t have to scare them or go around, by the time I got to their position, they had moved on. They had one fuzzy, white baby elk, following along.  Just so cute, but I wasn’t able to get a photo.

I had made it to the spot where Dave and I turned around in 2010. Back then some guys who had already summited, passed us and I asked hopefully, “Is that it?” pointing to the closest peak. They laughed and said, “No, that’s Mt. Walter, another 13er. Wheeler is on the other side.” So now I knew I was near.

The thin air wasn’t bothering me, but my acrophobia kicked in. Between the gusty wind and the drop-offs when I slipped below the ridge-line, I started to question if was really worth it. With no one to be the voice of reason, I started to pysch myself out. I sat down, took a few deep breaths, looked up instead of down, overcame my fear, and marched onward.

Based on what the guys from 2010 had told us, I had now passed Mt. Walter and should be heading up for the final assault on Wheeler. I was a little concerned that I had not seen the intersecting trail, but that’s okay, I was willing to go back down the way I came. As I traversed the scree, I could see a marker at the top. The wind was whipping, but I was so close, I scrambled up to the top to read the sign: Mt. Walter!?!?!??!? Those guys had given us bad information.

Normally I am not one to curse, but I really let the foul language fly when I read that sign.

After descending from Mt. Walter, I did find the intersection of the Williams Lake Trail. It was well marked with a cairn. I had one more false summit to over come and then arrived at Wheeler at 9am. Waiting for me were an art teacher from Fort Worth with her rescue dog, and a couple of millennial slackers (one from Willow Grove) who worked at a nearby campground and were climbing on their day off.

They had all come up from Williams Lake, so I quizzed them on just how difficult/scary the hike was. They assured me there was nothing to worry about.

Seven more folks (6 guys, 1 girl. All from Williams Lake) showed up while we were on the summit. We traded war stories and took each others photo. At 9:30, the art teacher (Amanda) and her rescue dog (Sadie) started back down, and I asked if I could tag along.

The trail down to Williams Lake is steep, but nothing I couldn’t handle. As I descended I would glance at my GPS and offer words of encouragement to those still climbing: “Only 900 vertical feet to go.” If I were to go back to Wheeler, I think I would have no trouble ascending on the Williams Lake Trail.

This was Sadie’s first high point. Amanda had climbed Elbert in Colorado and Guadalupe in Texas. For the trip down, she loaded Sadie’s pack with a couple of bottles of water and it didn’t seem to bother the dog a bit.

Got back to the hiker’s parking lot at 11:20. Amanda had a cooler in her truck and offered me an ice-cold Powerade and a lift back to my car. That was kind of her, because otherwise I had another 1.9 miles to walk.

By The Numbers

13,161 feet – 9th out of 50
Ascent – 7.7 miles,  Elevation Gain – 3700 ft, Time to the top – 4:30
Descent – 4.1 miles, Elevation Loss – 3000 ft – Time to the bottom – 1:50

Ranked by difficulty:

1. Maine
2. New Mexico
3. New York
4. Texas
5. South Dakota

Wildlife Watch:

Grazing Cattle
Big Horn Sheep
White tailed deer – but no mule deer 🙁

Wheeler Peak
On the trail before sunrise
Early Morning View of the Valley
La Cal Basin
Mandatory Solitary Hiker Shadow Photo
Frazer Mountain 12,000 feet
Grazing Catle
Another Elk!
Big Horn Sheep
Snow at 13000 feet
About a mile to go!
I cursed this mountain
12800 feet – looking back at where I came up from
Wheeler Peak – 13161 feet
Me – And I am not even out of breath
View from the top
View from the top 2
Going Down to Williams Lake
Almost done
Amanda and Sadie