wheeler peak april 1st! nice.
The weather forecast was good...highs in the 60's. The wind forecast was questionable with 50mph gusts being a possibility. The snow cover in Taos Ski Valley has been less than ideal, as the locals will mention. What better time to take advantage of the thin snow cover than to attempt Wheeler Peak this early in the season? We decided to give it a shot. If conditions were to get shifty, then we'd practice our self-arrest skills so we brought our ice axes...just in case.
We were parked in the Taos Ski Valley parking lot. There is a loop that can be done and after reading a couple other trip reports on Wheeler, we decided to go for it so we took The Williams Lake Trail up and The Bull-of-the-Woods Trail back to the Taos Ski Valley parking lot. One way hikes are not as interesting and going down steeps (on foot!) is definitely not as fun as going up. We left at about 9:30 am and walked Twining Road up to The Bavarian Lodge/Restaurant (about 1.3 miles, 10,200 ft.) a rise of about 1000ft., a pleasant enough hike in and of itself but some may prefer to hitchhike. Since there were two of us and a dog, hitchhiking was hard to come by. There is a parking lot for hikers just prior to the lodge itself. We continued through the hiker parking lot which leads you to the left of The Phoenix Grill (a ski chalet) and followed the groomed ski trail just beyond and to the left of a little coffee stand (probably there just during the ski season). We followed the groomed trail (foot steps, snowshoe tracks, and dog footprints, too) until there was a sign that said Williams Lake Trail which splits to the left of the groomed ski run. Much of the beginning of the trail was tracked out, it was early in the day, and the snow was hard enough to stay on top of it. We followed this trail to Williams Lake. The trail reaches its summit at about 11,142 feet about a quarter-mile from the lake. It descends a bit down to the lake. While the trail is regarded as easier than most in the ski valley area, it does climb more than 700 feet per mile. The reason it seems simpler is that although the steep stretches are very steep, the trail is short and there are several nearly level stretches. Chalk it up! about 2000 ft. up and about 2000 ft. to go! HA! You may be able to see the peak from the opening of the trail to the lake, I can't quite remember. either way, stay to the left of the lake! The trail is marked by nice big fat blue dots on some trees entering the woods. Follow these trees up a pretty mellow gully until you get above tree line. You can see the path of least resistance all the way up this gully to the shoulder of the ridge between Wheeler Peak and Mount Walter. Keep in mind, Wheeler Peak is to climber's right or to the southeast and Mount Walter is to climber's left or to the northwest. Yep, leave your packs on the shoulder of the hill and hike further on to Wheeler Peak which is the opposite direction of following the ridge trail which is Bull-of-the-Woods Trail where you will see Mount Walter on the way. The view from the peak really is amazing. Snow covered peaks as far as the eye can see. Prepare for high winds. They don't seem too bad at first...then they can become a real pain in the ass.
Conditions were pretty good for us through the trees. There was some soft snow that was high thigh deep on a couple occasions that was remedied by the anticipation of getting above the tree line. Conditions above the tree line were good for us on this day. The way was pretty steep and snow covered for the most part. We hiked/climbed the snow gully above the trees for about 1250 feet luckily staying on top of the snow but having to kick step and switchback. At this point it was about 12:30 pm and the temp was probably in the high 40's. The sky was clear so the sun was softening up the snow just right...not too much (impossible post-holing) and not too little (self-arrest practice!). We were dressed in minimal gear. A couple layers of poly/fleece, hat (visor), sunblock on my nose (wait, that's what I SHOULD'VE had!), sunglasses (mountaineering goggles in these conditions would NOT be over the top), fleece gloves, hiking shoes with gators (myself), mountaineering boots for my gal, and trekking poles for both of us. Our furry friend (husky/golden retriever) needed no extra gear, lucky guy! And, we brought the ice (mountaineering) axes just in case but didn't need to use them. We didn't bring crampons since it was a bit later in the day, a bit warmer, and sunny. The nice snow conditions were key.
Getting above the snow at about 12,500...?...the scree can really kick your butt. we decided to stay towards the left of the gully midway where the grade mellows out for a bit and more and more rock is exposed along with some grasses. It is at this point where I believe the trail shoots to climbers right. We weren't sure since all was covered in snow and it looked like crossing over the middle of the gully at this point was holding some DEEP post holing in store...so we continued up towards the scree sensing some relief. That led to some pretty steep scrambling. The scree was frozen for the most part which is good in that it stays put but bad in that it's slippery. We finally got to what looked like the trail and continued up to the shoulder! Bam! The Ridge! The summit (to the right)! Pictures! A fantastic view...of course. it's the Sangre de Cristos.
The return trip along the ridge heading to the Bull-of-the-Woods trail is easy to follow for quite a ways. Mount Walter is the first thing you'll see. The TSV is within view along with the backside of Kachina. If they really do get a lift up to Kachina Peak, the backside will be pretty tempting for extreme skiers. You'll come to La Cal Basin which, if I remember correctly, is the first time the ski valley is out of view. Once we were in the basin we had to cross the valley rather than dip into the trees due to the snow in the valley. The trail descends into the valley and back up to the ridge and Fraser Mountain where the wind was insane. At this point, the trail would disappear and reappear depending on the snow cover. The important thing is that you don't end up in Red Valley. Getting down to Bull-of-the-Woods pasture was a real treat comprised of 50% hoping we weren't going to post-hole and 50% post-hole. Well, it wasn't that bad...but it was a challenge staying on top of the snow in the trees. From Fraser Mountain, it took was about 4:30 and we got back to the VDub at about 6:30. It would've been ridiculous to try to do this route on the way UP to Wheeler at this time of the year with this much snow without snowshoes. We look back on it and both agree that snowshoes would've helped a bit but would've been a bit more to carry...they're not needed for so much of the trail that we are both glad we didn't have them.
The only other beating hearts we saw were about 100 or so mountain sheep! How excellent that is since I've heard so much about how busy the trail can be. Sometimes the off-season is right on.
Back to the VDub for some good grub, a beer, and a great sunset we went!