Intro/StatsBull-of-the-Woods Mtn (11660')-unranked
Frazer Mtn (12163')-unranked
Mt Walter (13133')-unranked
Wheeler Pk (13161')-highest point in New Mexico
10.3 miles RT, 4200' gain
up Bull-of-the Woods route
down Williams Lake route
Participants: Jim and Jennie Johnson, Katie Schindall, Laina Stensvold, Jack & Mark Styczynski, Kevin and Jenni Baker
My wife Jenni wanted to climb Wheeler to add to her state highpoint tally as she is running out of the "easy" ones to do. I figured Sept would be a great time to climb it as we wouldn't have to worry about t-storms as much since Sept is usually a great hiking month, but Wheeler wouldn't exactly be easy on this day! We made plans with fellow highpointer Mark Styczynski and his dad from NY, who had just climbed Guadalupe in TX the day before. I had done the Presidential Traverse in NH with Mark last year and he ran me in the ground!
Since I had already done Wheeler just after moving to CO in 2003 via the short but steep Williams Lake route, I figured the longer but more gentle Bull-of-the-Woods route was in order. A few days before the hike Mark and I started coming up with ideas of running the ridge all the way over to ranked 12er Lake Fork. This ridge run would pick up 9 peaks and would dump us at the top of the Taos ski runs. I thought I would be able to get by with trail runners on this hike, but little did we know how much snow was up there!
Jenni and I didn't arrive in Taos until around 10pm Friday night, so we had no idea how much snow Wheeler had received from the storm on Friday. The hotel attendant said the peaks received the first dusting of the season on Wed. Sat we headed up NM-150 to meet Mark and his dad at the higher Williams Lake trailhead, so we could leave one car there and start at Bull-of-the-Woods. It took me quite awhile to find the trailhead as we missed it a couple times. The road to the trailhead had some snow and ice, so it looks like boots were in order and the traverse was questionable. Mark and his dad soon arrived after we did and gave us a ride down to the lower trailhead. Mark's rental Saturn VUE slid off the road at one point, but we were able to push it out of an embankment.
We finally set out at 7:20am under crystal clear skies. It looked like there was a fair amount of snow up high that we would soon be dealing with. We adopted a slow but steady pace following the pleasant road up to the Bull-of-the Woods pasture at 10900'. Mark's dad set a goal of reaching the ridge just below Bull-of-the-Woods saddle and decided to head back down just below it. Mark and his dad were doing well for being at altitude for less than 48 hrs.
The snow continued to get deeper as we headed up the road and was now consistently 6-10" deep with drifts over a foot! I headed straight up the bare western slopes of Bull-of-the-Woods and topped out on this unranked
11er at 10:16. The exposed rock was covered in ice, as presumably it rained before turning to snow. I wiped out at one point and decided to forego the idea of doing a solo traverse of unknown terrain to Lake Fork Peak. I never would have had a shot at it anyway because the snow really held us up.
The view of the next segment of the hike from Bull-of-the-Woods Mtn summit.
As we cleared the trees onto open tundra, the snow depth abated somewhat but the trail was still filled in for the most part. The views of the fresh snow over to Lake Fork and Kachina were breathtaking.
Majestic Lake Fork and Kachina across the basin with a fresh blanket of snow.
Just below the summit of Frazer, Mark decided to head back down as he understandably was not feeling well. He would give Wheeler a shot on Monday via the shorter route after a rest day. At this point, a couple women (Laina from MN and Katie from MA) caught up with us and really didn't have Wheeler in mind to climb. I told them it was the state highpoint and they must climb it! I headed off the trail to tag unranked 12er Frazer and had Jenni follow as I wanted to stay on the ridge to avoid loosing elevation into La Cal Basin.
The descent to La Cal Basin from Frazer.
At this point, Laina and Katie decided to hike with us since they felt more comfortable as a group. I told them I wanted to stay on the ridge as it would save some time, but knew it would be rougher. They along with Jenni wanted to stay on the trail, so we headed down into the deeper snows of La Cal Basin. The trailbreaking was now getting to be tiresome at this point as we descended into the woods again. Another group caught up with us as we were breaking (Jim and Jennie from NM) and we all decided to hike as a group, taking turns breaking trail. The switchbacks up to Pt 13045 were sort of counter productive as I wanted to just head straight up, but we made steady progress.
Upon topping out on 13045, we got our first full view of Wheeler as we now had just a gentle climb to unranked 13er Walter, followed by the pleasant stroll to Wheeler. The drifts on the ridge were quite impressive for so early in the year as I would imagine huge cornices form later in the year.
The gentle climb to Wheeler's false summit from the saddle.
Jenni was feeling the effects of the long trudge in the snow, but she hung in there and we topped out at 3:04pm, not exactly setting any speed records! This was Jenni's 42nd state highpoint with MN probably being her last next year. A couple other groups were on the summit and we had a good time chatting.
Williams Lake Descent
The ridge over to Simpson looking inviting, but we all decided to descend the steep Williams Lake route and I was the only one who had done it. I stayed with the group and we headed down around 3:35. The steep descent from the Walter-Wheeler saddle drops some 2100' in a little less than one mile. I remember it hammering my knees the first time, but this time the snow was a nice cushion and the scree/snow surf was awesome. I had a blast as the scree felt smooth compared to some of the nasty descents I had done this summer. We made it down to Williams Lake just as the sun was dropping behind the ridge as the views were incredible here.
Pt 12819, the 5th highest peak in NM, from Williams Lake.
The trail back to the car was snow packed or slushy from the day hikers that had come to the lake and we finally made it back to the car around 6:30. Wheeler was indeed more of a challenge with the new snow, but the views more than made up for the added effort as we enjoyed the hike with a great group of people!