Wheeler Peak. May 24, 2003. Alan, Jackie, and son, Andrew. Wheeler has been a goal of mine for a couple of years. We planned to go several times, but something always came up. This time it was a go!
We drove all day to Taos Ski Valley where we shared the scenery with every biker in the southwest. Apparently, there was a biker rally at Red River that weekend. Our hotel was 50 yards from the Bull-of-the-Woods trailhead. We got there around 4:00 PM, so I shot up the trail to scout out the first couple of miles so we could do it in the dark the next morning. That done, early to bed.
Up at 5:00 am and on the trail by 5:30. I couldn’t believe it was already getting light, so we didn’t need the headlamps. Had I known that, we would have left an hour earlier. On the trail and Jackie is already having trouble with the pace. I am not being very patient with her because the trail is not that steep. She is apparently having trouble with the altitude which is normal for her. Moving along, we pass a couple of sections of the trail where snow covers the trail. Luckily, a friend loaned me 4 pairs of snowshoes just before we left and we eagerly anticipated a snow climb. Upon reaching Bull-of-the-Woods pasture, the snow is becoming more frequent. I took Jackie’s day pack to help speed up her pace. It seemed to help and we soon reached our first stretch of deep snow. On with the snowshoes which is what we had been waiting for. The snow on the trail lasted a mile or so while traversing Bull-of-the-Woods mountain, then appeared only in patches until reaching the wooden fence. At the fence, the trail disappeared to the right into a maze of woods and snow. We chose to head straight up the hill and avoid the route-finding difficulties. Once on top, a huge snow slope greeted us. We promptly hiked up the slope and headed off towards Frazer Mountain. At Frazer, two big horn sheep lounged about 25 yards off the trail. After a few photos, we headed off again, only to notice a huge herd of big horn off in the distance.
We arrived at the rim of La Cal Basin where we got our first view of Wheeler Peak. The basin had a lot of snow and the trail was difficult to see, so we opted to climb the ridge on the west side of the basin. I don’t know if this was a mistake or not, but the ridge was more difficult than expected with sections of class 3 and loose boulders. That done, Point 13,045 loomed above us. This point is the last lung-buster before reaching the summit ridge to Mount Walter and Wheeler Peak. I managed to forge ahead of Jackie and Andrew. Two other guys passed us while in the basin and I could see them on the summit waiting for me to catch up and take their picture. So after conquering Point 13,045, I dashed across the ridge to the summit. There, I took about 20 pictures of these guys with their four cameras. They took one photo of me and high-tailed it.
The storms were beginning to move in and move in fast. The storms had begun building rather early that day, but mostly north and east of us, so we kept moving. But as we neared the summit, the clouds began to move over us. Jackie and Andrew arrived shortly after and we snapped a couple of photos before deciding what to do. Our original plan was to descend the mountain via the same route, but with the storms brewing, we decided that an hour or more above tree line would not be safe. So we opted to descend via the Williams Lake route. The north side of the west slope, which is the standard route, looked dicey due to lots of snow, so we started descending via the south side of the west slope of Wheeler. The descent went well and we arrived at the tree line without mishap. The snow started at this point, so we put on the snowshoes and began slogging through four foot of loose snow. A nasty bushwhack through the snow-filled woods, then a manky traverse of Williams Lake via class 4 rock over icy water concluded the descent.
Once on the north side of the lake, a trail appeared and quickly turned to a snow trail for the last three miles to the trail head. Those three miles were a rather pleasant snowshoe hike as the sun came out and the storm clouds went away. We arrived at the Bavarian restaurant and a nice waitress met us with a pitcher of water. After conversation with one of the customers, we managed to bum a ride back to our hotel which prevented a mile hike down a boring dirt road. It was a great adventure. Thanks to Grant (jgsman) for calling us the day before with the conditions. And a special thanks to Marc Johnson who loaned us the snowshoes. Without them, we would have made it!
Check out our web site with photos of this trip here.