Monday, November 4, 2013

Wheeler Peak, high point of New Mexico, October 17, 2013

Wheeler Peak, New Mexico, Thursday, October 17, 2013


Thursday morning I wake at dawn, reach for my phone and opened the Taos webcam. I see blue sky and brilliant sunshine on big, snowy peaks, a big change from yesterday when all I saw was a snow-blasted lens. Game on.
I was in Albuquerque for work and had a few hours Thursday afternoon for a run up Wheeler Peak, the high point of New Mexico. My time was limited so it would have to be a run, literally, or else I’d be descending in the dark. Not that I had a problem with that but descending an unfamiliar mountain alone in the dark, then driving two hours back to the hotel was not my best plan.  I hoped to do Wheeler yesterday when I had ample time due to a short work day, but I missed that chance due to an early winter storm over  the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico. Not wanting to believe the forecast, I watched the Taos web cams all Wednesday morning hoping for breaking weather, but all saw was that snow-covered lens. The forecasters pegged this one right. By noon I realized my try for Wheeler was a bust so I opted for a run up the Sandia Crest (see previous post). I was scheduled to fly home to Salt Lake on Friday so Thursday was my last opportunity. Groggy and lying in bed early Thursday, I see that sunshine from the webcam, and I’m elated knowing I have one last chance for Wheeler.
My time was extremely tight; ditching work, changing in the hotel room, a two-hour race up the highway while avoiding state troopers through Santé Fe, Espanola and on to Taos. Add to that a quick trip to Big-5 Sports on the way to the hotel for a pair of sweat pants to deal with the snow and cold weather. The Thursday afternoon forecast called for sunny but cold weather at Taos’ 10,000 foot elevation. All I brought from home was light running shorts, shoes a tee-shirt and a cheap windbreaker. I almost went with just my running gear, but in the end I grabbed some soccer sweats off the clearance rack at Big-5, and they turned out to be a life saver.  
All was going to plan until I reached the Town of Taos, still 18 miles from the trailhead. It was there that I discovered I had lost my wallet. The gas gauge showed less than a quarter tank, but no wallet in my pocket. No cash in the console. No credit cards in the cup holder. I pull over and look everywhere but my wallet is simply not there. Maybe I left it at Big-5? In my hotel room? Maybe I just lost it? To be honest I was more frantic about botching my attempt on Wheeler than losing my credit cards. The problem was that I was over one hundred miles from the hotel, little gas and no money. Out of desperation I went into a bank and ask if they can transfer money from my bank. I know my account number, I know my pin, so I reasoned they could easily transfer some funds. With no identification that teller just looks at me like I’m an idiot, laughs and says “sorry”. I go back to the car and almost start back for Albuquerque, but then the realization hits: I’m screwed anyway so I might as well go climb Wheeler. I’ll deal with zero gas this later. I turn north and up the canyon to Taos Ski area.
Wheeler Peak is 13,161 feet in elevation. It is located near the Taos Ski area, which is about 18 miles from the town of Taos, which is about 130 miles, and over two hours of driving, from Albuquerque. The Williams Lake route starts at 10,100 and the trail (new this year) has many switchbacks making it about four miles one-way. The old, traditional route went straight up a sub ridge from Williams Lake to a saddle just north of Wheeler Peak.  Without the switchbacks the old route was about three miles, one-way. I figured I could run most of the trail because the new switchbacks take out the unforgiving angle. The route sounded like it’d be similar to running up the service road at Snowbird, to the top of the tram, in terms of both distance and elevation gain. I figured it’d be an easy run. Still I was short on time. It would be a race to get up and down before sunset. I’d already conceded that I’d be getting back to the hotel late, without dinner, assuming I found someone to buy me gas.
From the ski area parking lot the trail head is still two miles up a snow-covered dirt road. It really did snow here yesterday; it looked very wintry, with about 4 inches at the base of the lifts. The snow is packed on the road and kind of wet in the sun, but the rental car handles it without a problem. At the trail head I sort through my Camelbac, load up my Snickers and look through the pockets to make sure I have my windbreaker, gloves and headlamp. At the bottom of the main compartment, nearly tucked under the bladder, I feel something soft and round, like a hacky-sack. Not sure what it is, I pull it out to see it’s my Australian coin purse (a Kangaroo body part). Inside I find 17 dollars and 40 cents. Maybe there is a God after all? Can I drive 120 miles back to Albuquerque on just $17.40? Anything is possible with a little faith, and a Kangaroo ball sack.
On the Williams Lake/Wheeler Peak Trail I run as best I can through ankle deep snow. I’m not the first, several hikers have broken trail, but it is a gentle incline and while the running is slow, my pace is steady and it is not steep. My driveway is steeper. About half an hour later I meet two hikers and they tell me the Wheeler Peak trail (the new trail) is just around the bend, and sure enough, as I top a small rise there is the sign pointing east into the forest towards Wheeler. One set of footprints marks the way. From the junction I run up snow-hidden switchbacks, marked by blue-paint blazes on the tree trunks. As I reach timber line the trail has disappeared under the snow so I start straight up the mountain, first up a drainage then onto a minor sub ridge. I meet another hiker who tells me I’m on the old ‘direct’ trail, but his prints soon stop, apparently he wasn’t going for the top. I continue up and every hundred yards or so I find old rock cairns along that sub-ridge. I assume they are leading me to Wheeler. Above the forest, on the open slopes, the winds pick up and the temperature drops. I’m getting cold and my fingers are soon numb. My light jogging gloves offer little warmth.
I’m no longer running because it’s steep, but the pace is quick and I cover elevation quickly. I reach a small saddle and the bright sun on new snow, on big, stark mountains, is breathtaking. The scene fills me with life and I no longer feel the cold. At that saddle I look north then south, small peaks on either side, and I’m not sure which one is Wheeler. From the saddle the northern peak looks higher, so I head north and soon reach a summit with a plack marking it as Walter Peak, elevation 13,141 feet, the second highest point in New Mexico. I turn around and look south, the next peak over must be Wheeler.
The two peaks are very close, not really peaks, more high points along the ridge, and in five minutes I’ve covered the ground to Wheeler Peak. Some ambitious souls have built a rock and concrete alter, complete with a bomb-proof  mailbox (a cast iron pipe, 10X30 inches) mounted inside the concrete. I’m now feeling really cold, guessing that the wind-chill makes it sub-zero, and I sign the log with the penmanship of a stoned Dennis Hopper while filming Easy Rider (he’s buried near Taos by the way). I’m freezing and can only wonder how much colder I’d be without those clearance rack, Adidas Futbol sweats? Truth be told, I love those things. They might remind me of stupid soccer dads screaming at their kids, but they are now my favorite mountaineering pant: light, warm, roomy where needed, form-fitting everywhere else. Plus they really stopped the wind.
I stay at the summit just long enough to sign the log and take a photo, but the wind and the cold soon force me down, and I’m racing the sun and looking for relief from the icy gusts. Just off the summit I am nearly trampled by six stampeding  big horn sheep that have ran up the steep eastern side of Wheeler, over the ridge just five feet in front of me, and down the west side. It’s the closest I’ve come to getting run over since I rode a Big Wheel in Kindergarten. (Not really, I’m a cyclist and almost get run over every day.) As they run by I’m groping for my camera, but they are long gone before my frozen fingers can turn it on. I never see them again, even well below the ridge. Down into the forest I run down to Williams Lake. Sitting at 11,000 feet, it is small and frozen, at the base of Wheeler’s southwest face.
It’s an easy run from here back to the car and I arrive just as the sun is setting. My running shoes are soaked and I’m still freezing, so I crank up the heat hoping for warmth as I drive that icy, dirt road back to the ski resort base. I stop and call my wife to say everything is OK. She laughs when I tell my tale of begging for cash at the bank. Everything is OK when I hear her laugh. I drive to Taos and onto Espanola where the tank-empty-light finally comes on. I fill it to exactly $17.40. those five gallons were plenty to get me back to the hotel in Albuquerque. I arrive just before midnight, too late for room service. My wallet was in my room, just where I left it, but I wasn’t going back out for a Big Mac. Snickers and Mt. Dew were it. 

Topping out on the Espanola Pass, overlooking the town of Taos, Wheeler Peak is one of those white, balds mid-frame. 

Taos Ski Resort. The trail head to Wheeler Peak is two miles east (left) up a switch-backing dirt road.

The Williams Lake/Wheeler Peak trailhead parking lot. It snowed four inches here yesterday (15 inches at the summit of Wheeler) while I was running Sandia Crest, my Plan B due to the storm. Don't tell Budget, two miles of snow-covered dirt roads may violate the rental agreement.
Signage pointing the way to the new Wheeler Peak trail. This is about two miles from the car, maybe a quarter mile from Williams Lake. The trail was built in 2010 ( I think), adding multiple switchbacks instead of the old straight shot up the 2,000 vertical feet from Williams Lake. The first mile runs through a thick lodge pole pine forest, then suddenly emerges into open slopes. 

Emerging from the forest the trail is still visible. Just above here the trail disappears under the snow so I just booted straight up, which I prefer anyway as it makes for quick work of steep terrain.  

View southeast from the lower slopes of Wheeler Peak. Kachina Peak (part of Taos Ski area) is hidden by the trees on the right.  

View south toward Kachina Peak, from lower Wheeler Peak. 

Old trail marker from the old "straight up trail".

View southwest from mid-slope on Wheeler.

Elevation about 12,500 feet and the snow mid-calf. Walter Peak directly above (2nd highest point in N.M.). I'm liking my Big-5 Sports, clearance-rack, soccer warm-ups. I wasn't counting on snow and cold so had to make a gear purchase in Albuquerque before hiking Wheeler Peak. Seriously, those warm-ups made for great mountain pants. Lionel Messi and Gareth Bale aren't stupid.  

Another shot of Kachina Peak, view southwest from upper slopes of Wheeler.  

Kachina Peak and the ski runs of Taos.

The trail emerges as I near the summit ridge.

Wheeler Peak from where the trail gains the ridge. A route description said Wheeler was to the south (right) once you gain the ridge, but the north peak looked higher, so I went north. 

The north peak. Turns out this is Walter Peak, the 2nd highest point in New Mexico, 13,141 feet.

Bird crap aside, no harm in tagging the wrong peak. (Taos ski runs on left.)

Wheeler Peak from Walter Peak. About a quarter mile, hop, skip and stumble away.

With all due respect to George, who carried this thing up here with a couple of bags of cement? Someone with much more ambition than I. A similar plaque on Utah's high point, Kings Peak, went missing about ten years ago. Either a boy scout or his leader (my guess). 

Miserable or what? I've back-country skied for nearly 40 years, in all sorts of conditions and I've never been colder than now. Sunny yes, but the wind was raging and the temps were bitter. I'm guessing the wind-chill was sub-zero. It doesn't help  that I have only a cheap wind-breaker and headband from the Big-5. 

So cold my entry looks like it was written by an illiterate first-grader. My fingers were paralyzed with cold. 

Always a nerd and always watching the clock. A bad habit I can't seem to break. I should leave all electronics at home, I'm sure the experience would be more enjoyable. Nearly six minutes after topping out on Wheeler, and on the correct peak this time, I snap this photo to prove my time, distance and elevation. Why does it matter??  

Like I said, who carries this crap up here? That pipe must weight 50 pounds. Ten inch diameter by three feet of cast iron. Crazy, but I still signed the log. 

Still freezing on Wheeler, but looking stylish in my new futbol tights.

A big cairn (three feet) on the ridge looking back toward Wheeler. Who builds these things? Yeah, I'm going to get lost without this thing!? On my descent a herd of Bighorn Sheep nearly ran me over as they charged over the ridge. I tried to get a photo but they were long gone by the time I had camera in hand. 

View southeast towards Simpson Peak, 3rd highest in New Mexico?

View back up while descending Wheeler.

Descending the open slopes of Wheeler. Consistently steep (35+degrees) and open, this would be a great ski run, but south aspects means quick sun damage after a storm.

View southeast from Williams Lake.

Wheeler Peak from Williams Lake.

1 comment:

  1. Owen, what beautiful pics and your trip description cracks me up! Sounds like it was quite the adventure!