Our goal wasn’t Gold Hill, it was the Williams Lake basin. Tucked in behind the Taos Ski area, Williams Lake is the base camp for climbing Wheeler Peak, the states highest at 13,161 ft, and numerous other peaks, crags and slopes. We intended to climb and ski the chutes that empty into the basin, but the recent cold snap and snow, after a month of warm weather made the area very unstable. It didn’t help that the beacon Dan lent me broke when he attempted to show me how to turn it on. We took that as an omen and initiated plan B.
Plan B involved the same parking lot but a different trail. We hit that trail at 10:30 on Friday night in a very wet snow storm. The goal was Bull-of-the-Woods Meadow, but after and hour and a half of slogging in the dark we decided to set up camp in a lower, smaller clearing. The new plan was to climb Gold Hill (12,711 ft) the next day and ski back down the wooded South slope. The snow quality would be iffy, but at least there was no avalanche danger.
Paul, my partner for the trip, is hyperactive. That makes us polar opposites in the morning, which he thinks starts at 5:00. I can usually forgive him for waking me up early since he uses that alone time to brew tea, cook bacon and various other Martha Stewart activities, but I was hoping he would give me a break that Saturday morning. As luck would have it, Paul was sick on Saturday morning (good luck for me, bad for him). Not sick enough to cancel the days climb, but enough to let us sleep until 7:00. I took that as a good omen (for me, not him).
Lake Fork Peak...that was Plan A
After a breakfast of oatmeal and bacon we snapped on our skinned skis and headed up the trail. The weather was looking sunny and mild. As we reached Bull-of-the-Woods, we met a lady on snowshoes who was staying at a nearby yurt. She invited us to join her and her four yurt-mates for tea on our way down. We happily accepted and hurried on our way.
After three hours of switchbacks, plateaus, and future-trip-inspiring views, we reached the base of the Gold Hill summit pyramid. It was very picturesque with bold, gravity defying cornices on its South ridge. Thinking back, we should have suspected that a pyramid shaped peak would not be called Gold “Hill”. Nevertheless, our excitement trumped our powers of observation and we headed up, eagerly anticipating the pending ski descent and tea to follow. Gold Hill, however, is not a nice pyramid, but an uninspiring lump of rocks a quarter mile past our exalted false summit. We felt foolish. False summits are a part of the game. Experienced climbers cruise right by them and only rookies whine. But there we were, just about to start complaining. We didn’t though. We charged on, trying to out pace the disappointment.
A back drop of Wheeler Peak and the Williams Lake basin
Fifteen minutes later we tagged the summit and headed back, passing the fat Bighorn Sheep, grazing on the freezing rocks and dirt, for the second time. We scurried down the rocky slope to our skis and the fun began. It wasn’t like the chutes at Williams Lake, but it beat long slog up. The top of the mountain went quick. The snow was soft, but still cold enough to let us descend with ease. Once we hit the trees though, the snow turned to cement and we were forced to bail out on to the trail.
Tea at the Yurt
Paul and I had each been privately fantasizing about the yurt for most of the walk down. When it came into view, we were elated to see Linda standing on the balcony welcoming us. Inside we enjoyed the hospitality of the five nurses from the Sacred Heart Hospital in Taos. Paul remarked that he was sad he didn’t injure himself that day…
After our repast, we skied the fire road back to our tent, melted snow, ate dinner and hit the sack. It was 7:30PM. We slept well and headed out the next morning. Gold Hill may not have been our original goal, but it made for another beautiful weekend in the mountains of New Mexico.
The final steps up the false summit