Wheeler Peak, New Mexico
WINTER ASCENT (WILLIAMS
by Roger Roots, Hawkins, Texas
I was driving from Texas
to Montana and decided to swing wide into New Mexico and try to “bag” Wheeler
Peak on the way. I’ve been occupied as a
college instructor in Texas, so I didn’t have any cold-weather outdoor gear
with me. When I opened the door of my
car in the Taos Valley parking lot, the temperature was twenty degrees. I put a second pair of dress slacks over my
first pair and doubled up my socks inside my New Balance running shoes. I left the car at 7:00 a.m. as the sun was
Snow at the base was above mid thigh but the beginning of
the trail was well packed by skiers and snowshoers. At about the 2-mile point, a smaller trail
led off through snow toward the right and to the summit. It was this trail that turned out to be
treacherous. I postholed through the
surface and up to my thighs at least a few dozen times. This was extremely draining.
After a few switchbacks
in this manner, I managed to scramble up to some exposed rocks. Eventually
I worked my way up to the top ridgeline by way of various rocky areas and
shallow snow fields.
The weather forecast had
predicted great weather in the Taos valley.
But as I gained elevation, there were fewer and fewer mountains around
me to break the wind. By the time I
reached the top ridge, the wind was ferocious, blasting me from the right with
what must have been gusts of 70 miles an hour or higher. The wind chill easily penetrated through my
leather work gloves.
Thankfully, I had worn a
heavy black leather jacket which stopped the wind on my torso fairly well. But when I reached the monument at the summit
I was so wasted from the wind that my fingers simply didn’t work. I flopped down on the “lee” side of the
monument to catch my breath and try to warm my fingers before I addressed the
Eventually, I realized
the safest decision was to get off the top as quickly as possible. I took a couple pictures, opened the iron
pipe register, dropped my gloves and pulled out a pad and pencil that was
inside the pipe. Unable to sign my name
in a normal manner, I wielded the pencil like a knife blade and scratched my
name and the incorrect date. (I saw that
the signature directly above mine indicated someone had been there on December
12 and blanked out as to what the date was; I entered December 13, but I
realized later it was December 18.)
It was on the descent
that this trip turned harrowing. I
plodded quickly down by the most direct route possible, finding that the
blasting wind grew weaker with each hundred feet of elevation loss. I made the decision to glissade down a large
steep snowfield, assuming that its entirety was made up of the kind of snow
that existed at the top, which was somewhat powdery. Instead, I found myself gaining speed on the
icy surface of a hard-packed snowfield that I was unable to claw or kick
into. Even worse, I was flopping,
rolling and twisting awkwardly—at times plummeting downward ON MY BACK, HEAD
FIRST toward large rocks at the bottom.
For a moment I thought I
may have climbed my last highpoint or maybe even breathed my last breath. If I became incapacitated by slamming into
the rocks I would surely die there, as no one was anywhere within miles and my
broken body would not be located until spring.
I had not even notified anyone of my intention to climb Wheeler and no
one who knows me was even aware that I was in New Mexico. At best someone might notice when my car with
Texas plates seemed to be there for an unusually long period of days and start
wondering about its driver.
But it was not to be my
last breath. Even as my body reached
breakneck speed down the ice, the snowfield turned softer near the bottom, and
my running shoes plunged into this softer snow shortly before hitting the
rocks, causing me to flip over onto the rocks in a fairly gentle manner. I was left hyperventilating on my back with
my head pointed downhill. I was in shock
but still alive.
After I caught my breath
I made my way to another snowfield and stupidly tried to glissade this one in a
similar manner while holding a sharp rock for use as an impromptu ice axe. Once again, I slipped into a direct plummet
downward on an icy snow surface. And once
again my life was saved only because the ice layer gave way to a powdery
surface just before the snow met the rocks at the bottom. By now I was more leery of the snowfields and
started to pluck my way down on rocks and brushy snow areas that looked quite
The steepness gradually
faded and the snowfields grew softer. I
tried sledding down a few snowfields on my slacks and made it down a few
hundred feet. Then when the grade grew less
steep, I flopped around on my back and kicked my way down headfirst, a trick I used
to get down Mt. Hood in 2011. Anything
other than postholing step after step through the snow.
Eventually I had to try
to walk, and postholed at almost every step.
When I got back onto packed trail I was quite grateful. There was some melting going on, but by and
large the packed trail from the Lake turnoff to the trailhead was well packed
and held my weight.