Sunday, March 9, 2014

Wheeler Peak, Nevada - Ski Mountaineering

Date: Saturday March 8, 2013
RT distance: ~16 miles
Elevation gain: ~5,300 ft.

Wheeler Peak (13,065 ft.) is the centerpiece of Great Basin National Park located in eastern Nevada, near the Utah-Nevada border and is the 2nd highest point in the state of Nevada.  The mountain is the 12th most prominent mountain in the contiguous United States, which rises up over 7,500 ft. from the adjacent desert valley floor.  Wheeler Peak, and everything around it, is part of the Basin and Range geologic province, which stretches from the Sierra Nevada Range in the west to the Wasatch Range in the east.

Trip Report:
Luke and I have talked about doing Wheeler Peak for a couple years now so we made it happen this weekend.  Instead of outdoing ourselves and trying an alpine rock ascent of Mt. Whitney in the winter, we decided for a more mellow climb and ski descent down Wheeler - plus we could pull off the entire trip from SLC in 24 hours.  I couldn't find any trip reports of people skiing the mountain but it certainly seemed doable, based off the terrain and some time on Google Earth.  I mapped our route and it looked like it would be about 15 miles roundtrip with winter road closures, but the trip down on skis would take very little time - so a very doable day trip.

We made the 3.5 hour drive out to Great Basin National Park and parked at the trailhead, which is at Upper Lehman Campground during the winter months.  We got there around midnight and slept in the parking lot.

We got up at 5:30 am and were on the trail at 6:30.  We quickly learned that there wasn't enough snow cover to skin up the trail so we hauled our skis on our back for a couple miles until there was enough snow. The trail essentially followed the Lehman Creek drainage up to the base of the mountain.  We followed footsteps and ski tracks that we could faintly see in the snow through aspen groves, pine forests, and open meadows until we reached the Wheeler Peak campground.  This was the only point, where we saw signs of other people in the area - 3 empty tents and a stranded barking dog.  We didn't see a single person the whole day!

Our choice to blindly follow old ski tracks eventually led us astray but we quickly realized our mistake and forged our own path up the mountain. We climbed up Mt. Wheeler's northeast "gully," which is directly above Stella Lake.  I call it a gully because it's not steep or narrow enough to call it a couloir. This gully provided a super direct path to the summit ridge. Once on top of the gully and on the summit ridge, we dropped our skis and booted it to the top.  The summit ridge was wind-blown, icy, and rocky - not worth skiing.  Our fatigue and the high elevation caught up to us on the summit ridge, but we pushed through.  All we could think about was the skiing down!

The summit offered a great 360 degree panorama of the unique Basin and Range topography.  We refueled on the summit and made our way back to our skis.  We skied down the gully and into the trees on nice afternoon corn snow.  We skied as far as the snow lasted and hiked out the last bit to our car. The skiing was short but fun.  Luke summed up our descent with a question; "Why would you ever ski in a resort again?"    

Roundtrip time: 10 hours    
Upper Lehman Creek Campground (winter trailhead)
Northeast gully, Mt. Wheeler 
Jimmy riggin' my skins
Luke coming up the summit ridge (looking west)
Mt. Wheeler summit ridge (looking east)
Mt. Wheeler, Nevada summit  
Luke defending his allegiance to Larabars
Frozen Teresa Lake, Mt. Wheeler up top