| Tour de Wheeler Peak, N.M.
Wheeler Peak, 13,161'
Highest point in New Mexico
Ascent Route: Twining-Blue Lake Trail / Bull-of-the-Woods route / Trail No. 90
Descent Route: West Slope / Williams Lake Trail
Distance up (trailhead to summit): between 7.2 and 8 miles (distance varies, depending on the source)
Distance down (from the summit to Williams Lake trailhead): about 3.5 miles
Distance from Williams Lake trailhead to Bull-of-the-Woods trailhead: about 2 miles (on the gravel road)
Total mileage of our loop: about 13
Total elevation gain (including La Cal Basin loss/gain): about 4,200'
Last Friday I was talking with one of my co-workers and he asked me which "hill" I was going to climb over the weekend. His tone was sarcastic, probably due to his jealousy, which he wasn't good at hiding. In his eyes, we always seem to be gallivanting around the mountains while he's at home tending his yard. Since he asked, I told him we were going down to Taos to climb Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highpoint.
"How many days are you taking off?" he asked.
"None," I replied.
Many people think we're crazy for taking long road trips over just two or three days (especially with the astronomical gas prices), but as long as we have the adventurous spirit running through our veins (and jobs), we're going to keep on keepin' on. Besides, if we stayed home, we'd just spend that money on gear we don't need. And I'd much rather take a weekend trip than waste time on things like yard work. Speaking of which, I just received a "courtesy" (aka, "threat") letter from my HOA for some dead areas in my lawn ...
Saturday, June 21, 2008
From our house, on Denver's north side, we can usually make it to Taos in just about five hours. After we passed through Walsenburg and started up toward La Veta Pass, I was thinking we might beat that record, as we were making good time. But then, all of a sudden, the tachometer's needle dropped and our Tucson lost power. I pulled over onto a wide shoulder and shut off the engine, not sure of what else to do. Jen was adamant about me checking under the hood to try and figure out what was wrong, which I did, but I didn't really know what to look for. I suppose she thought that when your car breaks down, that that's just what you're supposed to do. Makes sense, because when you see someone broken down on the side of the road, they're always fiddling with something under the hood.
For the record, I'm not completely clueless, mechanically speaking. I know a thing or two about cars, but when it comes to a car's computer/electronics, forget it.
Fortunately for us, it started right up and the problem never happened again (yet).
Not far from Fort Garland, Jen took this photo of the Blanca Group while we whizzed by at 70 mph:
I think those mountains are so striking, especially the way they shoot straight up 6,400 feet from the flat valley floor.
That evening, in Taos, we ate at the Eske's Brewery, our second brewery stop for the day (we ate lunch at the Shamrock Brewing Co. in Pueblo), and then we drove to the Taos Ski Area where we checked into our hotel room.
Our room's shower curtain was pretty cool:
We had a couple more beers to cleave off the caffeine and then we hit the hay.
Sunday, June 23, 2008
Since the route we chose was so long, we wanted to get the earliest start possible – right at daybreak. But being one of the longest days of the year, getting started at daybreak ended up being more difficult than we could manage.
At 6 a.m., after parking at the Coyote Parking Lot, we started up the Bull-of-the-Woods trail, also known as Twining-Blue Lake, among other nomenclature. The trail was dry and it had a healthy angle of ascent. I wondered if our heavy "winter" packs were really necessary.
At one point the trail ran right into a raging stream. Crossing at that point would have been suicidal. Luckily, there's a path to the left that leads to a log bridge.
At Bull-of-the-Woods Pasture, we hung a right (there were friendly signs to guide us) and followed the road-trail, which skirted below Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain. This is where we encountered our first bit of snow. It wasn't bad, though. Portions and edges of the trail poked through.
Me, with Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain in the background:
We encountered our first snowfield on the side of Point 11,762. The trail was completely covered in snow. While it could be crossed without an ice axe, I wouldn't feel comfortable doing so, and I was glad I brought mine. We crossed half of the snowfield and then skirted along the edge until we met back up with the dry trail. At this time, I suppose you could bypass all the snow by bushwhacking around it and over Point 11,762's summit.
From there, the trail was dry and easy to follow all the way to Frazer Mountain's summit (12,163'). After gaining Frazer's summit, it was decision time. The highpoint books we have (as well as some online route descriptions we read) all say to descend 350 feet down into La Cal Basin (to about 11,800'), then follow the trail up from there. Problem was, most of the trail was completely buried in deep snow.
It looked like we could stay high on the right and completely bypass the basin, but there had to be a reason very few go this way. We wondered if it cliffed out, or maybe it was too eroded.
We ended up following the trail until it was obscured by snow. Then, using a gps and a topo quad, we scouted our way through the dense forest and found the point where the summer trail crosses a couple merging creeks.
It took us a few minutes to find a good place to cross, and then we ascended up some steep, icy snowdrifts.
Eventually, after some tiresome snow tramping, dry ground could be seen.
This was about the time we noticed some hikers taking the high road, bypassing the basin altogether. We figured they crossed the deep ravine via a snowfield.
Here's a shot looking back toward the La Cal Basin (bypass area somewhere on the left):
We continued our long push toward the faraway peak.
I think we ended up summiting Point 13,045 because the summer trail was buried under an unbelievably steep snowfield. Crossing it, this late in the day (with its full sun exposure, no less), would have been crazy. If it slid, or if you slid, you'd have a 1,000-foot ride down to Horseshoe Lake.
The ridge to Mt. Walter (13,133') was wide but it felt airy at times. This is where we really started to feel a strong, steady wind.
Looking down the valley toward Williams Lake:
Wheeler Peak (and its west slope):
From Mt. Walter, it was an easy ridge hike to Wheeler Peak.
At 10:15 a.m. we made it to Wheeler Peak's windy summit.
Taken from Wheeler's summit, the Blanca Group (Little Bear Peak, Blanca Peak and Mt. Lindsey) could be seen in the distance:
Jen and I spent a good 15 minutes on the summit, and we had it all to ourselves. The one-sixteenth Native American blood running through my veins gave me a sense of pride making it up this sacred summit. Or maybe it was just the fact that it took so much effort to get there.
Going back the way we came didn't seem very appealing, as it was a long, tough slog (especially through that snow-filled basin), plus the weather was questionable. To add, we had already been above treeline for hours, and spending a few more up there might put us in a precarious spot (not to mention it was exhausting), so we opted to go down to Williams Lake.
At 10:30 a.m. we started down the notorious west slope to Williams Lake. As it turned out, I didn't think it was as bad as some make it out to be. Many 14ers are worse.
Even though there was a lot of loose scree on its upper half, we did find some solid sections of trail. That said, I wouldn't want to go up this way.
While most of the slope was snow-free, we did manage to make some short glissades down small patches of snow.
Here's Jen glissading down one section of snow:
A fearless marmot on Wheeler's west slope:
It took us just under an hour to make it from Wheeler's summit to the shores of Williams Lake. The scenery was amazing.
The three-mile, 900-foot descent back to Williams Lake Trailhead was a sloppy, slushy slog. Plastic pink ribbons marked the trail. Thankfully, the last mile or so was dry.
Shortly after noon we made it to the Williams Lake Trailhead parking lot. From there, we continued down the gravel road for two more miles to the Bull-of-the-Woods Trailhead.
At 12:45 p.m. we made it back to the car just as some dark clouds were developing above us.
To celebrate our summit success, we enjoyed some tasty New Mexican food and beers at Orlando's (1114 Don Juan Valdez Lane, Taos).
By the time we finished eating, dark rain clouds consumed the sky, while lightning flickered all around us. We enjoyed our adventurous climb, but we were glad to be off the mountain.
Taken from Orlando's, which is on the north side of Taos, looking back toward the Taos Ski Valley:
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):