Saturday, April 25, 2015

Wheeler Peak, New Mexico

April 25, 2015
Wheeler Peak (13,159 ft.) via Williams Lake Trail

Wheeler Peak is part of the Sangre de Cristo range and is the state highpoint of New Mexico at 13,159 ft. The Sangre de Cristo range overlooks the Rio Grande Rift of northern New Mexico and represents the southern extension of the Colorado Rockies. Generally, Wheeler Peak is climbed between June and September when the snow cover is gone and the trail is easy to follow. Phil and I, too impatient to wait until the summer, decided to climb the route in April and knock off another western state high point; a goal we are both working towards.

As the western state high points go, this mountain isn't particularly spectacular, nor is the climbing especially challenging. But climbing the mountain in winter conditions in April made the outing more rewarding and adventurous. We drove from Flagstaff, AZ to Taos, NM on Friday night, not without stopping in Albuquerque to eat at the Frontier Restaurant and throwing a pizza onto Skyler White's roof. 

Red = Williams Lake Trail (our ascent)
Blue = Ridge run over Walter Peak and down couloir (our descent)

We started hiking on Saturday morning at 7 am at the base of the deserted Taos Ski Valley. We made our way up the Williams Lake Trail through pine forest on hard-packed snow covered in a couple inches of fresh snow. We both wore boots and carried trekking poles, which made the hiking much easier on the variable ground. After 2 miles, we bore a left and followed the blue painted trees and the faint tracks of other hikers up the western flanks of Wheeler Peak. We eventually emerged from the trees. The cloud levels hovered around 12,500 ft, obscuring the highest peaks in the area, including Wheeler. We continued up steep terrain, over some rocks and thin snow cover and reached the ridge. The clouds broke apart from time to time, allowing short glimpses of the surrounding topography and the peak above. We followed the ridge to the summit, which we reached at 10 am.

On our descent, we backtracked along the ridge, but continued further down the ridge instead of following our tracks the way we came. We followed the ridge to the north and hiked over a couple sub-peaks, including Mount Walter (13,138 - 2nd highest in NM). We stayed on the ridge until we found a decent place to descend back into the forest below. We settled on down-climbing the edges of a steep couloir, which proved to be the crux of the day. We reached the car a bit after noon. 5 hours round trip. 2 western state high points left: (1) Granite Peak (Montana) and (2) Denali (Alaska)
Phil on the approach. The high peaks are shrouded by the low clouds.
Looking down our route, wishing I had brought my skis.
Phil - profile pic wassup
Steep ascent on the western flanks of Wheeler Peak
Phil climbing up the rime-covered rocks on Wheeler Peak
Break in the clouds
Phil on the summit ridge
Chillin on the summit
Looking east from the summit of Wheeler Peak
Me scouting a descent path
Looking back at our descent path down the steep couloir