Sunday, September 10, 2023

Wheeler Peak, NM (13,167)

32nd High Point Visited 

8th Highest State Highpoint 
12th Most Difficult

With some regards you could say I was on a roll, that is, living on the west coast I'm mostly isolated from every other state high point without doing some long distance traveling but I've now managed to hike 4 new state highpoints in the last 5 years including the dreaded "covid years".   Of the 4 states that included first, Katahdin (19') which was the farthest away possible from California in Maine.   Next followed by Texas (21'),  King's Peak (22'), and finally New Mexico (23').

Wheeler Peak has been on top of my list so it's been on my radar for a long time.   I first started thinking about Wheeler peak as far back as 2011.   In 2013 I traveled to Albuquerque for the Duke City marathon and thought about trying to coordinate a high point into the weekend but I thought the peak was tough enough on it's own without also running a marathon the same weekend!   I've seriously contemplated a trip to New Mexico since 2016, but like everything else there seems to be obstacles that constantly got in the way.  (Or other trips planned in it's place!)

Finally, January 2023 a New Mexico trip was in the beginning planning stages.  Like most high point adventures an outside catalyst helps keep the momentum rolling.   Both Mt. Whitney and Mt. Katahdin I hiked together with my good friend from Ohio Greg.   Those are both hard peaks so I knew he was one of my friends that would be up for another challenge.  Initial thoughts were to spend 3-4 days in New Mexico then stay another week and visit southwest Colorado.   Ideal summit conditions are supposed to be late May thru November, so September seemed like a safe bet.  It was eventually decided that we would go the week after Labor Day as hopefully there would be less people traveling yet still a chance for nice weather.  Flights were booked in July so the plan was already in action!

There are a couple routes and after comparing them it was decided the shortest (and steepest) route would be our preferred way to go via the Williams Lake trail.   Here are a few of the resources we used to determine our route:   

I tried to recruit Mai to join us and even bought her an airline ticket but she had a busy summer and didn't have time to train as much as she would have liked as well was preoccupied with selling her townhome and buying a new house so last minute backed out.  It would be my first trip without Mai since we met 3 years ago.   She did conquer both Texas and the much harder Utah highpoints the past two years, so she would be greatly missed for this long weekend adventure.

In 2009 when I climbed Mt. Whitney, another friend of mine Josh was in my summit group.   He since moved from Los Angeles to Albuquerque and I'd promised him for 10 years when I finally make it to New Mexico I would look him up and recruit him for the hike but ends up a busy weekend and he couldn't join us. 

Another trusty friend when it comes to high point adventures has been George, Greg and my friend from Ohio.  He had been having some back issues and needed more time to recover so unfortunately he couldn't join either.    That left just Greg and I for the hike but also his delightful wife and companion would be able to join us for the rest of the weekend's adventures.

Whenever possible, we always try to fit in as much as possible to a weekend.  This weekend would be no different.   Our plan was to include not only Wheeler Peak, but also La Luz trail in Albuquerque, Tent Rocks National Monument, Bandelier National Monument, Sante Fe, and Taos.   I would fly into Albuquerque and Greg and Maureen would fly into Dever and drive down.   I got into town a night earlier than them on Thursday night and would get up Friday and do a solo hike of La Luz Trail.  

I took a Lyft from the airport to the hotel Thursday night and another Friday morning to the trailhead.  I would hike to the summit and then take the tram down and they would meet me in the parking lot.    This plan worked perfectly and after a nice hike I was starved, and they hadn't had lunch yet so it was perfect that next stop we would find some southwestern Mexican food before heading back to the hotel. 

Sandia Peak took me from 7,000 feet up to 10,678 feet.  I just came from sea level a day earlier and hadn't done any training hikes at elevation to prepare so the elevation really kicked my butt.  The first 1/4 mile was a reality check and I quickly figured out I need to slow down and pace myself to the top.  It was already warming up and the lower part of the trail while in the sun was already getting warm.   Soon the trail was protected from the sun and I got a little break from the heat.   Eventually high enough I even got a nice pleasant breeze to cool me down.   The final 1/2 mile to the top really was tough and I had to stop many times hunched over gasping for air and recover.  4,300 feet of climbing was a great way to see if I would be ready for 3,000 feet climb a couple days later.   More on this hike on my blog for Sandia Peak. 

I searched high and low when packing and couldn't find my first aid kit I always hike with, so Maureen and I headed out to a nearby REI where I picked up a new kit and some electrolyte tablets.   I wish I had those a day earlier on the La Luz trail.   One last stop at the grocery to pick up a few more necessities for the weekend.   The weather Friday was plenty warm and I sweated a lot in the dry heat.  Back at the hotel we looked over our travel plans as well as did a weather check.   A storm looked to be rolling in Sunday night and our original plan was for our summit day to be Monday.   We had to make some hotel adjustments which instead of two nights in Taos we would end up with 3 nights in Sante Fe and a two hour drive in the morning before our hike as well as two more hours home after the hike.

It ends up that Tent Rocks National Monument was still closed, due to Covid it appeared, so that left us with the entire day to drive to Bandelier National Monument and then onto Sante Fe.   On the drive to Bandelier National Monument I couldn't get Midnight Oil's song "Mountains of Burma" lyrics out of my head..."the mountains of Burma, the road to Mandalay".    Maybe it was the mountains that surrounded us or it was that I thought Bandelier rhymed with Mandalay or it wasn't I couldn't remember the name where "the road to" in the song lead. 

The road to Bandelier had amazing views of country side I'd never seen before.  We drove through the Jemez Mountains and over the Valles Caldera, a 13.7 miles wide volcanic caldera.  The park also was really cool and worth the drive plus a chance to explore a new area of the country.   We would meet a local in the parking lot that gave us a few suggestions of things to see or places to dine.   It ends up his restaurant recommendation took us to a unique dining experience at a place on the way to Sante Fe called Tesuque Village Market, truly a unique place to check out if ever in the area.  

We settled into our hotel on the outskirts of Sante Fe and relaxed the remainder of the day.   Even though we had a 2 hour drive Sunday morning to the trailhead, it was cold enough in the early a.m. that we were in no rush to get to the trailhead early.   Our goal was to leave at 7a.m. and be to the trailhead about 9a.m.  The road was easy to follow and driving to Taos was again a scenic route.   Only wish we had a little time to spend in the village/city of Taos.

Our first glimpse of Wheeler Peak when leaving Taos

There was quite some distance from the City of Taos to Taos Ski Valley, but the road was easy to follow.  We were supposed to look at the end of the ski parking lot for a dirt road that lead to Williams Lake trailhead.  It has been 23 years since I last visited Taos Ski Valley and I didn't remember the area being built up, but was pleasantly surprised to see the village had grown and even the dirt road to the trailhead was littered with tons of new homes along each side of the road.  All of them each with unique architecture and most of them fairly large $$$.  

I tried to teach Greg and Maureen a game we learned to plan on the way to the trailhead of our PCT hikes where we guess how many hikers we will see on the trail.   Greg went with 100 and I went more conservative with only 12.   We soon arrived at the trailhead and there were over 25 cars so I quickly  changed my guess to 50 as it seemed this Sunday the trail would be busier than I could have ever imagined.    

The hike was only about 8-9 miles round trip so we didn't have to carry much, just water, snacks, and a few extra layers of clothes.  Maureen would camp out at the Bavarian ski lodge all day while Greg & I hiked and I had to laugh because her bag for the day was bigger and heavier than both of our packs.  One last picture at the trailhead and we were off onto our adventure!

The route was pretty simple.  It was less than 2 miles through the forest, take a left turn at Lake Williams and then just a little more than 2.5 more miles upwards where you exit treeline and thru several switchbacks to the ridgeline where you make a final right turn to the summit.   It seemed like "the lake" is a popular hike so my guess is many of the hikers were just going to the lake and back.   

The trailhead was about 10,200 feet, already a pretty high elevation to start and nearly as high as the top of my hike just two days earlier.  It's always good to get a little acclimated so I think my hike up Sandia Peak two days early was good for me as I both got used to the elevation as well as learned how my body would react.  I kept a close look at my heart rate and I was able to keep my max heart rate a consistent 10 bpm lower than just 2 days ago when hiking up Sandia Peak, however this time with a group of two my pace was also a little slower compared to hiking alone.   While effort was a little lower than a couple days ago there is no doubt the higher elevation beats you up!

As we get older life constantly throws new challenges at us.  Greg is 13 years older than me but there hasn't been a single adventure we've done together where I didn't have a hard time keeping up with him. Greg was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease four years ago so he's learning to cope with its effects on his body.  He had an interesting comment a couple times as he was winded on the way up, "I'm not sure if it's old age or my Parkinson's" but I could tell he was giving everything he had to keep moving.   He said before we began the hike that at some point he may want to turn around.   Then once we got above tree line he reminded me he might not be able to make it.   We slowed down the pace a little, took a fer more breaks, and stuck together all the way to the top.   Constant rest breaks benefited both of us!   

I discovered a new Facebook group the day after our summit called "50 States Highpointing Group".  Omg, it's great!  I've been traveling to new highpoints since 1999 and never had access to so many people with a similar interest.   I saw just in a couple days others doing Kings Peak in Utah which I just did a year ago as well as others that hiked Wheeler Peak days both before and after my hike.   Definitely some good motivation to keep going on as well as to gain valuable information for future summit adventures. 

So back to trail!  Now above tree line there was pretty much a clear view to the summit the remainder of the hike.  The route included one really long switchback as well as a couple shorter switchbacks.  It seems as every hike I do there always seems to be a "rock pile" that you need to hike across and this hike was no different.  Due to the switchbacks we hiked through the rock piles several times just at different elevations.  The trail description described the rocks as scree rock, however from my experience in the past scree is hard to hike thru, but all of the rocks on Wheeler Peak were firmly in place and provided solid footing so other than slowing you down a little they were easy to navigate.   Only had to be careful where you stepped so you didn't twist an ankle.  

In the middle section of the area above tree line soon we saw very dark colored marmots poking their heads out curious who these intruders were hiking across their homeland.  Marmots are one of my very favorite animals to see along the trail as they are so darn cute as well there have been so few trails that where I've hiked where they are present.      

As we continued higher the trail was relentless.  It seemed as every single step took us a little higher up the trail.  I've been blamed for taking too many pictures but I always love looking back at them as every picture together in order tells a story.   Since the mobile phone has come out I would say I've been mastering the "selfie".    I usually have the same smile in every picture but I felt that my smiles turned to grimaces the higher we got.    Greg, corrected me and said it's not a grimace but the look of determination.    I liked his logic and knew it that had to go into my recap!

We weren't moving fast, so never caught anyone on the way up.  At the time, only one couple caught and passed us.  I think they were also from the Midwest, either Michigan or Wisconsin?   They were also both at least half of our age.   They caught us faster from behind than the additional separation they achieved after passing us.   

It's always best to get an early start because storms tend to blow in in the afternoon.  Most of the hikers now had already summited and were heading down so we had a constant flow of new faces to say hi to as we drudged onward.   Some had taken the long route up and were taking the short trip back.   As far as the head count I started to lose track.   We had two different figures I was trying to keep straight.  Either the hikers that were going to the lake or the hikers that continued to the summit.   I'm pretty sure just the summit alone there were close to 50 people we crossed paths with and quite a few more that just hiked to the lake.

It's always encouraging when there are no false summits and in this case we could see a US flag blowing in the wind at the top which helped us gauge our (slow) progress.   Eventually we got to what I would consider the ridgeline.   Having read the maps I knew we had to take a right turn, however, looking both ways it wasn't easy to say that one way or another was much higher.   Most of the hike up we were shielded from the wind, but once we got to the ridgeline we got blasted by the wind.   It wasn't horrible, but a bit cooler than when not exposed.   Up until this point there was only one trail, but on the ridgeline the trail split.   The more direct route Greg took over some more rocks.  I was trying to postpone the final climb to the top and I chose the left path that seemed to snake around to the left of a small mound.   It didn't matter, each of the two paths ended up at the same place and took us equal time.  

We agreed to summit together as we had hiked the whole way step in step of each other, but once again I fumbled with my phone and was taking a ton more pictures so Greg actually went on about 20 steps in front of me and got to the summit first.   The couple from the Midwest was there with smiles on their faces as well as another group of two.   We learned on the way up there was a summit sign in a metal pipe which we pulled out and looked like we knew what we were doing.   I think there was also a register but we didn't pull it out and sign it. 

We could see a storm back towards the way we came moving in upon us so we didn't spend more than 5 or 10 minutes tops upon the summit.   Greg started heading down and I paused one more time to help a new group that just arrived on the summit with their ceremonial photo.    It was windy and when we stopped moving my body started cooling off.   Combined with the fear of the rain we could see heading our way I pulled my rain shell out of my pack and put it on for the trek back down the mountain.   It spluttered a little bit and glad I put it on but it was warm enough if it wasn't raining that I didn't even need it.   What's the old saying, if you wash your car it's bound to rain the next day.   Well same thing here.  Whenever I took my shell off it started to sprinkle again a little.  Whenever I put it back on it stopped.  Greg joked that the rain was all my fault.

We could see the Midwest couple about 50 yards ahead and whenever we had to go through another section of rocks they would gain distance on us and then when the path was more just dirt we bridged the gap.   We never actually caught them again until we got to the turn at the lake back towards the trailhead.   We passed a couple we didn't see on the way up, ends up they gave up and turned around.   

The last notable story was our last break.  We found a log at the turn from the lake and took a break and had a snack.  A girl that had hiked to the lake with two others was at the fork to do the summit and her new friends were just going back to the trailhead but she was still contemplating a hike to the summit by herself.   It was already late in the day so we did the math to figure out exactly how long it took us from that point to get up and back to this point.  While she was younger and appeared more fit than us she seemed to think she could do it but didn't think it would take her as long as it did us.  The sky was still iffy so not sure what the rest of the afternoon would bring her but I'm glad I was off the top of the mountain.  Depending on her pace I think she could have easily had to hike the last couple miles back in the dark, but none-the-less she pressed onward and we wished her luck.

The last almost two miles was uneventful.  A few hikers we passed were mostly heading down at this point.  By this time Maureen already had a long day just sitting at the lodge waiting on us and was thrilled when she saw us.   She had kept track of us all day by monitoring our progress with a link I had sent her to satellite tracker provided by my Garmin inReach Mini2.    I hadn't packed any lunch to eat on the hike so nothing sounded better than some good German cooking at the lodge.   We each had a pint of beer with our meal to celebrate our achievement.  

We still had a two hour drive back to Sante Fe.   I wished we had stayed one night in Taos so we could explore the town, but it wasn't in the cards this time around.   What a blessing that Maureen was our chauffer both to and from the trailhead.   There is nothing quite like a soak in a hot tub after a hike!  We had one more day to finally enjoy the downtown of Sante Fe before heading back to Albuquerque to catch a flight home a day later.   One last stop to Old Town which wasn't far from the airport before flying home. 

I've read where others have called Wheeler Peak one of their favorite high points and I can see why.  The trail offers a little bit of everything.   It's long enough for a good workout but not so long that kills you.   I would agree it's one of my favorites as well!

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