Wheeler Peak, NM


Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico, throws a mean thunderstorm during monsoon season, but I summit in sunshine.

Note: click images to see a larger version in a new window

Driving up from Albuquerque a little after noon, I watched the lightning striking the Sangre de Cristo range and listened to the radio buzz in response. It rained briefly, then the storm seemed to ease as I passed through Taos. I got to Taos Ski Valley and searched for supplies. To my surprise, it's really just a ski lodge and some restaurants, mostly closed. Since no groceries were available, I bought two burritos: one to eat, one to go.

I parked in the upper lot and left the trailhead at about 3pm. I had planned on overnighting, but was going light.

I hit the saddle above Bull of the Woods meadow in about an hour. It's steep and rocky in places, but really just an old prospector's road. It was here that I met a couple- they had been on the summit ridge during the aforementioned storm, and described high winds, rain, hail, etc. Aware of the Williams Lake route but worried about the length, they had stayed atop the ridge through the whole storm. Transferring their lack of judgment onto my attempt- they were quite concerned that I didn't have hiking poles- they interogated me about my equipment, experience, etc.

Taos ski area

I continued moving up the mountain, but as thunder began off in the distance I increased my pace, striving to reach the trees again.

Near the top of the ridge in this picture, it became apparent that the storm was intent on making a comeback. I found a flattish spot in a protected area and set up camp at about 5pm at around 11,500'. Since it was short of my goal of LaCal basin, I hoped to continue on later in the evening. But it was not to be.

Bull of the Woods

It stormed off and on all night, with rain, hail, and some pretty intense- and close -thunder. Occasionally I got up to check on things, and saw stars or the moon through gaps in the clouds.

At about 4:45 the first hint of daylight showed. It had been quiet for some time, so I was on my feet at 5, moving fast- the clouds were still threatening. I got over the bare ridgetop, dropped down into the trees of LaCal basin in 30 minutes. I was again looking down on the basin at 6am.

Sunrise over LaCal basin
Turning around, I could see more switchbacks... and some darker clouds on the horizon, from the direction from which the weather was arriving. But there was blue sky as well. Despite the thin air at 12,500', I kept moving fast. Upper mountain

The high point from the last picture was not just a bump in the ridge, and Mount Walter appeared on the horizon. I knew from research that from the top of Mt. Walter, it wasn't much higher, nor further, to Wheeler.

Summit in view

Note the change in the sky.

Finally, with the summit of Walter just above me on the left, I could see the top of Wheeler, off to the right.

Descending Mount Idaho in the fog

The summit sign on Walter was in the sun, and so was Wheeler. With a clear view of the sky now, I slowed down and relaxed. But pushing hard to 13k had taken a toll on me.

I strolled across to the summit of Wheeler about 15 minutes later.

Mount Walter
It was 7am sharp. Not a soul around. I contemplated what to do... should I return the same way, drop down to Williams Lake, or continue on the ridge for some out-and-back fun? Summit

Here's the ascent ridge. In the event of a thunderstorm, you are left exposed for a long time.

With last night's thunder still ringing in my ears, I decided not to chance it. I took the shortcut off the ridge towards Williams Lake. The first few hundred feet are basically a talus slide. Descent to Willaims Lake

Then the climber's trail follows a steep gully. It is an obvious trail, and easy to descend- it took me just 30 minutes from the summit to drop the 2200' to the lake. I don't think I'd want to climb this- it's much shorter and faster, but ugly. Especially compared to the beautiful ridge I had climbed.

It didn't take long to reach the Williams Lake trailhead. To close the loop, I had to walk about 2 miles of tedious dirt road. Given another chance, I would camp at LaCal basin (grassy with a creek), continue out the ridge further, and then descend back down Bull of the Woods.

Williams Lake

Mr. Natural Home | 2006 | Back to top of page | Questions :: e-mail to splattski