Surrounded by Storms
As we came up over the saddle from La Cal Basin, we were able to see the skies in all directions and it didn't look good. Rain to the north, south, east and west. Huge black storm clouds surrounded us. We knew we needed to be off the ridge and below tree line NOW!
I had been planning this trip for a few months and was so excited when September 7th finally arrived. My climbing partner and I got an early start for our drive from Dallas to Taos on Monday morning. We allowed ourselves 12 hours to get to Twining Campground in Taos Ski Valley. We had a nice drive, taking our time and even nabbing a dozen Geocaches on the way. We stopped at Taos Mountain Outfitters, in the square, and picked up a topo map of Wheeler Peak Wilderness, then headed to the valley. By 4pm we had picked a campsite (the upper site) and had our tent set up.
First night @ Twining Campground
We were a little worried about the sign in the parking lot... "NO OVERNIGHT PARKING" until we talked to one of the ski valley employees and he said don't worry about it. We had dinner (sandwiches packed before we left Dallas) and then got our packs ready for the big hike in the morning. I think my pack weight ended up being around 30 lbs. We packed for 2 overnights @ La Cal Basin. We ended up climbing into our bags @ 8pm. The sky was so clear and the 3/4 moon so bright, that it looked like we were sleeping under a street light. It got pretty chilly overnight but I was warm in my down bag.
The Hike To La Cal Basin
We awoke long before sunrise but stayed in our bags as long as possible, finally climbing out at sunrise. We had a quick cup of coffee and some breakfast, then broke down camp and put all of our extra gear in the car.
We got started on the Bull Of The Woods trail at about 8:00. Starting elevation registered at 9,590 feet. The trail is pretty rocky for the first 1.5 miles or so. There are several side trails that are marked as horse trails. Don't take those. Just stay on the main trail. I think we had one small creek crossing that we were able to step on rocks to get across.
We took it slow on the hike up, stopping frequently to take in the views. Bull of the Woods Pasture came and went, as did Bull of the Woods Mountain, Fraser Mountain, and finally the saddle leading to La Cal Basin; our camp for the night. We dropped into the basin, losing about 400-500 feet of elevation. As the trail meandered down into the trees, we passed 3 hikers returning from the summit. They gave us pointers as to where the good tent sites were located. We took the site with the fire ring, next to the stream.
We pitched the tent up under the spruce trees on the flattest spot we could find without protruding roots. As soon as we got everything set up, it began to rain. Perfect timing. It was now about 2pm. We climbed into the tent to take cover.
The first bolt of lightning, followed by earth rumbling thunder nearly stopped my heart mid-beat. I have never felt the earth move like that during a storm. From then on, I counted "one thousand one, one thousand two...." every time lightning struck. It rained for about 4 hours, but the thunder and lightning stopped long before that. Finally at about sundown, I popped my head out of the tent to see clearing skies. We made a quick dinner... Mountain House Rice w/Chicken, and then back into the tent. As we lay there waiting for darkness, we could hear coyotes in the distance. We got a little worried when the cries started getting closer and more frequent. I ended up blowing my whistle as loud as I could and they went away for good. We were totally alone in the basin now.
It was about 4:00 am when I awoke to a shrill whining. I believe it was elk. I unzipped the tent and stepped out to clear skies and another big, bright moon. Since the weather looked good and we were wide awake, we went ahead and made breakfast and coffee while packing our summit pack. It was not as cold as it had been on the previous night @ Twining campground. Strange. I thought it would be much colder.
We set off for the summit at 5:17 am, in darkness, by the beams of our headlamps. It was pretty easy going since the moon was still high and bright. We followed the 13 switchbacks up and out of La Cal Basin. By the time we got to the saddle, the sun was beginning to rise. It was beautiful.
At this point, we realized that the mountains had gotten snow the previous night. (maybe while it rained in the basin?) The rising sun gave the fresh snow/ice a pinkish tint.
It was spectacular. It was also at this point we realized that what we thought was Wheeler Peak, was actually Mt. Walter. And the peak in front of us was not listed on the map. Maybe it's a no name peak? At any rate, we had a little farther to go to reach the summit. As we made our way up and over Mt. Walter, the snow turned to ice. Nothing too terrible. Just had to watch our footing. Once we passed the Mt. Walter summit, it was easy going to reach Wheeler Peak. We got there @ 7:00 am, to clear skies, bright sunshine, and amazing views all around.
I opened the cover to the cannon barrel and sorted through the numerous note pads and other items. I was looking specifically for the Geocache log sheet. I'm not sure which one it was but I signed two different logs. I assume one was for the Geocache and the other was a summit register. From the looks of the log, we were the first to summit on 09/09/09.
The Hike Down
At 7:25, after signing the log and shooting our summit pics, we headed back down to Mt. Walter so that I could find another Geocache. It only took a few minutes to find and sign the log.
Off we went back down from the way we came. We got back to the no named peak and I glanced just off to the right about 50 feet below us and saw a herd of Big Horn Sheep.
I have been told that they are very leery of people and usually don't stick around once they spot you. This herd stayed right there for about 10 minutes. They would look up and keep an eye on us then go back to grazing. We got our photos before they decided to bolt down the mountainside into the basin below.
Once they were in the basin, we noticed 2 more herds running at full speed. It was very cool.
We got back down to camp in La Cal Basin at 9:20 am. It was at this point that we decided we would go ahead and pack up camp and head back down to Twining. We had heard from one of the locals, the day before, that there was weather moving in. We did not want to spend another afternoon / night in the tent with a storm blasting the mountains around us. We had another cup o' joe and then a hot lunch before breaking down camp. We departed the basin at about 11:20 am to clear, sunny skies.
The 500 ft hike out of the basin and back up to the saddle wasn't as bad as I had thought it would be. It probably went by quicker than it normally would have due to the look of the skies above. As we came up over the saddle from La Cal Basin, we were able to see the skies in all directions and it didn't look good. Rain to the north, south, east and west. Huge black storm clouds surrounded us. We knew we needed to be off the ridge and below tree line NOW! We could tell by the look of the clouds that it was pouring down rain in all directions. It seemed to be pretty far off in the distance at first, but was moving in quickly. We proceeded to beat feet and head down fast. All I was thinking was "get below tree line!"
We did get to see something totally amazing as we passed west of Fraser Mountain. I heard a huge roar coming from the ski valley and turned just in time to see an F-16 pass by us at eye level!!! I yelled at my climbing partner to look and she missed it. But luckily there was a second jet directly behind the first one. It also roared past us at eye level then banked up and over the approaching ridge. It was AWESOME! (I'm an aviation maintenance supervisor, so this was a thrill and a half for me) After the airshow, we continued our mission to get down low quickly.
Once we left trail #90 and got on Bull of the Woods trail, I felt relief. At this point we were still dry and the heavens were holding back their tears, however, something told me that when we made that left hand turn past the pasture, that we were going to get blasted. And my gut instinct was correct. We were 2 miles from the trailhead and had just made the turn to head south when it started to sprinkle. We stopped and donned our rain gear and also covered our backpacks. (the Deuter Futura Pro 42 has built in raingear)
It continued to spit for maybe a half mile when all of a sudden the sky let loose. It wasn't raining. It was hailing. Thank God it didn't get any bigger than pea size. My raingear is pretty sturdy so I didn't feel it on my head or arms, but my hands got pummeled. The hail went on for 20 minutes then as we got lower in altitude it turned to rain. No wait... it turned to torrential downpour. The small stream that we had crossed the day before had turned to a raging creek. Luckily we were able to cross at a wide point that had lots of big rocks across it. We continued to trudge onwards towards the ski valley. That last mile was definitely the longest. We finally made it back to the car and threw everything in the backseat and climbed in.
We had planned to camp a second night but changed to plan B which was a motel in town. I can definitely recommend Comfort Inn Suites. It was only $98. Had plenty of room to air out all of our gear. All in all, this trip was a giant success. We had a beautiful summit morning. Couldn't ask for anything more. This was state highpoint #11 for me.