Wheeler Peak by Lake Williams Solo
Wheeler Peak was the middle of a three State High Point trip that included Humphreys Peak, AZ and Black Mesa, OK. After looking at topo and hiking maps I thought that Williams Lake approach would be both the less used as well as the shortest route to the summit and I did not see why I should not try it, being an experienced bushwhacker. I was not too surprised, then, to read a description of the route on this very website. Afterall, if one person can think up a route it is a given that others of a like mind will too. So, I decided to try it. On the afternoon of Sept. 27, 2006 I found myself driving throught the Carson National Forest on my way to the Taos Ski area and the Williams Lake Trail-head.
From the top of the hikers parking lot, right behind a large sign I picked up Twining Road and after .5 miles I turned onto the Phoenix Switchback for .2 miles and finally the Kachina Road that in 1.2 miles took me directly to a rather new hikers parking lot. There was alot of work being done on some of the roads and new construction near the hiker's lot so the roads were a mess and difficult to navigate with my small rental car. Not to be "tongue-in-cheek" I would say that the greatest challenge of the trip was driving these back roads to the Williams Lake Trail-head.
Within half an hour of my arrival I had thrown together my overnight backpack and was started up the trail to the Lake, a distance of some 2 miles from the parking lot. I found that there were lots of new signs to quide me through the small community of Barvaria and into the forest. The trail initially follows a fading woods road that dwindles first to a two track and then to a single track. I saw few blazes to mark this trail, so don't look for them, but it is a very popular day use trail and easy to follow. In about an hour or less I was at the Lake and all of a sudden the dense and shaded forest of fir trees opened up to present a lovely view of Williams Lake lying nestled in a depression and surrounded by snow dusted rugged peaks. The late afternoon sun sent a warm light across all that it touched and at twilight the light deepened into alpine glow. It was a truely breath-taking sight and I was glad that I had made the choice to camp out.
The last of the day trippers were on their way out and I was surprised, and yet pleased, to notice that there were no other campers at Williams Lake, other then myself. I hunted around for about half an hour searching out a convivial campsite for the night and finally settled on the right side of the bowl, above the Lake and in the protection of a copse of fir trees. My camp was not near water, but I had a very good view of my next days destination- Wheeler Peak, as well as an eastern orientation to catch the mornings sun. But I was not totally alone, for I had company of the feathered variety when a trio of Grey Jays quickly moved in to make the aquaintance of my food supple.
Sept. 28, 2006
After a frosty night (temperatures in the high twenties) I got up with the first light and hung around enjoying the quiet before getting it in gear for the days hike. I wasn't in any particular hurry and as a more mature hiker I was as much interested in enjoying myself and relaxing as I was in summiting. By 10AM I was on my way back to the trail, where I had noticed a well worn narrow single track that veered off from main trail to the left (as you face the Lake) and that headed into the trees and up the chute between Walter and Wheeler Peaks. The first 500 vertical feet is through a forest of fir that thins out as you climb. Above that and you will be hiking up open slopes and the "main trail" (if there is one) becomes less clear. But, only an idiot could be confused as to the direction or where to go- it is up. Once you top out onto the ridge you will hit the ridge line trail immediately. All that one has to do is to make a right hand turn (south) and follow the ungulating trail as it rolls up over several false summits on its way to the much photographed and very recognizable top of Wheeler Peak. The views are even better then reported and exceeded all my expectations- the recent light snows were an added improvement, like frosting on an already great cake. I even enjoyed the views as I hiked up the chute from Williams Lake and contrary to some opinions I thought that the route was very scenic, for as you rise in elevation above the trees the vistas become more expansive until you are looking over all the lower peaks and ridges at a sea of mountain waves. I guess it is a matter of degrees- but for this mountain it was literally "it's all good" and I don't think that there is an unscenic route. I would definitely return here and do a longer backpacking loop.
That day I stood on the summit under clear skies, a light wind and temperatures in the 60's. I shared the summit with 6 other people, 4 of whom had come up the same route as myself. I had taken about 1 1/2 hours to travel from Williams Lake to the summit, and I would need about an hour to return. I was pleased with my times as I was hardly acclimatized to the elevation having come from NYC only days before.
One other benefit of the Williams Lake route is that it is somewhat more sheltered from the wind and the sun. But one must pick their times. I would make a strong argument for a very early start to take advantage of the sun being on the eastern side of the range and so your route in shadow. In this way there is a good chance that for most of the time (except on the hottest days) the route will be more stable as it will be frozen in place, also you will be out of the sun.
For myself, on this day and at the time that I choose to hike, I found that the slope was rather more stable, as the ground was
frozen. I had counted on this and hoped that at least for part of the time the route would remain frozen- at least as long as the slope was in the shadows. But, on the way down, the sun had climbed over the North-South running Range and now shone on the chute, and so the ground was starting to thaw out. For the return trip the footing was looser (as it usually is on the down-climb anyway), and I began to slip on the ball-bearing like stones. Whenever possible I make use of the new snow fields to plunge-step my way down, and this helped.
Once back at camp, I packed up and hiked back to my car to continue my trip, now on to Oklahoma and Black Mesa. As I drove away my mind's eye was filled with all the lovely sights from Wheeler Peak and environs and I felt that I would be back.
Walk In Beauty