New Mexico, Wheeler Peak (13,161 feet)
Date of hike: September 28, 2014
Distance: 6.2 miles (7 miles, including trek from parking lot)
Route: Williams Lake Trail
Elevation gain: 3,250 feet
Time on trail: 5 hours
As we drove into Taos the day before the climb, we caught our first glimpse of Wheeler. As with all bigger mountains, I had my normal ‘Oh, crap’ moment standing in its shadow. The weather forecast promised a 60% chance of rain that Sunday starting at 7:00 am, continuing throughout the day. Rain in 32 degree weather – perfect.
Leading up to the climb, I’d read a great deal about the various route options to summit Wheeler. I talked with several people who had previously climbed the mountain, soliciting opinions about the best route. Everyone seemed to feel their route choice was great (choices had all varied), and one man I spoke with had summited via several different routes, enjoying them all. With those kind of endorsements, I felt I couldn’t go wrong no matter what. The two main options I considered boiled down to 14.2 miles (or 16 miles depending on the source) with 4,700 elevation gain and beautiful views (Bull of the Woods Trail) or 7 miles with 3,250 elevation gain over a steep talus field with no views (Williams Lake Trail). Initially, we had planned to do the longer, more scenic route. We had also kicked around the idea of doing Bull of the Woods up and Williams Lake down, then trekking back to the car via the road. Given the weather we were up against, we decided late the night before that it was probably best to get up and down as quickly as possible. Hence, our choice of Williams Lake.
I’d read several reviews recommending hikers arrive at the parking lot no later than 6:00 am or you’d be at risk of not getting a spot. Maybe that’s during July and August or on days when weather promises to be better. We arrived at 6:00 and were the second car there.
I’m normally headlamp challenged, often forgetting it or handing it off when really I still need it. This time, I remembered to pack it and carry it. Good thing because we needed it to start and were able to catch a beautiful sunrise on the mountain.
The first leg of the mountain is only a slight upward slope. When the trail splits between Williams Lake and the summit trail, the climbing begins.
Several switchbacks through the trees lands you at the base of the talus field, which I’ve read was built to serve as a wind guard. Once you’ve cleared the tree line, you get a glimpse of the summit. At that point, my husband busted out with, “We’ve got this bitch!” I blinked at him in astonishment. He’s never called a mountain a bitch before and he’s also never demonstrated true motivation to reach a summit, so his proclamation caught me off guard. He followed it up with, “We’re coming for you, Wheeler.” Now, here was some drive I could appreciate and feed off of. Onward we went across rocks of varying sizes and stability.
At this point, we were largely in the shade. Naturally, the temperature continued to drop as we climbed. Despite my well insulated gloves, all of my fingers began to swell with the pain of the cold and eventually began to lose all sensation. Seriously worried about frostbite, I began to pull the fingers of one hand into the center of the glove, while carrying my poles in the opposite hand. When one hand warmed up enough, I switched. This continued as long as I could get away with using one hand for poles.
Most reviews say this trail does not offer any views, but maybe that’s in comparison to the Bull of the Woods trail. We enjoyed a nice view of Williams Lake along the way, which was a good distraction from the cold and the steep climb up the seemingly endless talus and scree.
By the time we reached the top of the mountain, we still had another .25 miles one way to the summit. The one person in front of us (a man and his dog) was just coming back. He warned – “Be quick! It’s windy and tough to keep your footing.” He wasn’t kidding. If anything, he’d understated what we were up against.
All of the wind from the side of the mountain seemed to blow upward and over the ridge we needed to traverse. It was so windy that I would take a step and my foot would land inches from where I’d intended it to go. The cold was making my nose run, but no worries there – the wind was so fierce that it carried my snot away before it had time to drip. I’m grateful I had poles because it took my entire upper body strength planting the poles to keep me grounded on the ridge. This situation was so intense that my only natural reaction was to laugh, except that my face was frozen. So, a laugh would come out, but my face couldn’t turn appropriately into a smile while I was laughing. Add to that, the ability to communicate verbally was non-existent with the wind overpowering even the heartiest of shouting. Life came down to hand signals for this stretch. My husband estimates the winds were about 75 mph. I have little context for whether or not that’s even in the right ballpark, but I can say for certain this was by far the fiercest wind I’d ever experienced, including hurricanes.
When I got to the trademark Wheeler sign, my husband barked, “No photos – it’s too windy.” He had a valid point. But, I threw myself onto the sign so I wouldn’t blow away and demanded a photo anyway. He knew I wouldn’t leave the summit without one, so he somehow found a spot shielded enough from the wind to take a few quick shots. Dark clouds were moving in quickly and we had a lot of ground to cover before we reached the safety of the tree line, so a fast descent was in order.
On the way down, we began seeing more people who we warned about the wind. Evidently, high wind on this summit ridge is normal, but all agreed that today’s intensity meant we were in for quite the storm. The descent seemed to fly by. We stopped only once this entire hike for a brief rest – once we were back among the trees.
By the time we’d returned to the parking lot, it was getting full. Many later climbers were making a go of the summit, while several families were headed to the lake. While it was not necessary to arrive by 6:00 am at the end of September, an early start is still a good idea.
With the gale force winds, cold temperature, talus, and steep elevation gain, Wheeler is a mountain I’m proud to have successfully climbed. As we descended, we mused that it’s one of those mountains you remember fondly after some time has passed because it wasn’t exactly pleasant to live through. Normally, my husband’s elevation capacity tops out at 13,000 feet, where he’ll sleep and be investigated by marmots. This time, he made the summit both nap and marmot-free. Wheeler is the highest elevation he’s ever attained, a proud accomplishment for him too.
We made our way back to the hotel for a nap (since my husband didn’t get one on the mountain) before continuing into downtown Taos for some much needed food and recommended margaritas. When you’re in Taos, be sure to enjoy the locally grown green chilies. They are divine and maybe even worth the trip just for that.
If your hotel does not offer a hot tub to restore your muscles (or you’re looking for something better), I recommend an evening visit to the hot springs at Ojo Caliente. In addition to several natural hot spring tubs each containing their own healing mineral, they offer relaxing mountain views, a steam room, and a sauna all with a whisper-only policy. After you’re sufficiently restored, the spa’s restaurant will deliver a yummy dinner.
For a great breakfast that will replenish burned calories, I highly recommend the Taos Diner. Portions are large and the food is delicious (try the papas and huevos – with green chilies!). It’s the perfect post-Wheeler reward.