Ascent of Wheeler Peak on 2011-08-20

Climber: Alan Barber

Date:Saturday, August 20, 2011
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Wheeler Peak
    Location:USA-New Mexico
    Elevation:13161 ft / 4011 m

Ascent Trip Report

The high point trek covered the two main routes to the summit: the Bull-of-the-Woods Trail, and the Williams Lake Trail. The Bull-of-the-Woods trail (also called the Wheeler Peak Trail) is about 16 miles round trip and is a well-marked class 1 trail. It leads uphill towards Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain before making a sharp right turn to traverse over Fraser Mountain, only to dip down into the La Cal Basin and climb out of the basin to Mount Walter (a barely discernable sub peak) and finally to the summit. By contrast, the round trip on the Williams Lake trail is about seven miles round trip and is a steep class 2 trail. This year the previous final 1000 ft grind to the top was augmented by the Forest Service with a new switch back trail which provides a much easier ascent over the rocky scree covered slope.

We stayed at the El Monte Sagrado hotel in Taos for the weekend. After a couple of days of acclamation I was ready for the climb. I got up at 5:15 am and was dressed geared up and downstairs to meet my friend Jim by 5:45 am. Jim drove me from the hotel in Taos to the Taos Ski Valley where I met up with the rest of the group. The Taos music festival was being held that weekend and an otherwise deserted parking lot have many cars and campers and tents dotted the area. One of Jim’s partners (Jeb) was leading this group (including two of the three new fellows, all three wives, Jeb’s son “Wreck”, myself and two dogs – a Catahoula mix and a Golden). Jim was still recovering from ankle surgery and grudgingly decided to forgo the trip. Our plan was to climb Wheeler by way of the Bull of the Woods trail and then descend by the Williams lake trail.

We arrived at the trail head a little before 6:30 am. Jeb arrived before us and dropped his truck at the Williams Lake trailhead. That gave us a welcomed ride back to the main parking lot and saved us what otherwise would have be a wet and very tedious additional two plus mile hike. It was getting light so we started out up the Bull-of-the-Woods trail.

The trail head started at the RV parking lot near a gravel road. A wooden sign clearly pointed the way. We started out passing the tents of a few campers and were almost immediately in the trees. The initial trail was fairly steep. There were thick pine woods, a mountain stream flowing along on the right side of the trail that the dogs drank from, and lots of evidence that this trail was also use by horses! Several short trails led off into pastures which were camping grounds for hikers wanting to overnight. We crossed the stream on a bridge of logs.

In less than an hour of climbing up the Bull-of-the-Woods trail, the trees began to thin and we had some outstanding views of the Taos Ski valley. We could clearly see the Kachina bowl lift and look down the ski valley. The trail crossed Frazer Mountain which offered views of the Red River basin. We reached a crest and were able to see over the mountain in the other direction. Immediately below us was the Red River ski area. Having skied both areas I could appreciate the long drive from Red River to Taos. It was quite a sight to see both areas from the same general ridge. We continued our ascent until we arrived at the rim of the La Cal Basin.

We reached the entrance into the La Cal Basin and got our first view of Wheeler Peak off to the right of the top of the basin. At this point we were about at the tree line. We had to drop down off this ridge and back into the trees before ascending again up the far slope of the La Cal Basin. When we left the trees we had great views of the area. We were at about 12,500 feet when the overcast became more significant and the sun was hidden from view. Unfortunately this condition continued to worsen and we did not see the sun during the rest of that day.

The occasional light drops of rain changed to light sleet. At that point it was more of a novelty than a real issue. As we wound our way back and forth on the switch back trail above tree line, we gained the rest of the altitude and approached the 13,000 foot level. The sleet turned to a light rain and then a steady drizzle. We broke out the rain gear and kept on climbing. The climb was a class 1 trail and not as daunting as what I had experienced on Mount Elbert in July, but it did require an occasional “breather”. For the most part, I was able to keep climbing by just slowing my pace. Finally we reached the summit ridge at the top of the La Cal Basin and approached the first of the two 13,000+ peaks on the ridge: Mount Walter. In the distance we could see Wheeler Peak.

From the ridge off to the left we looked down into the valley and saw Horseshoe Lake. Looking ahead of us on the trail, Mount Walter and Wheeler Peek were visible. We reached Mount Walter and appreciated the rock cairn and sign for a couple of minutes. After conquering Mount Walter at 13,141, the trail continued down a slight incline on the crest into a saddle between Walter and Wheeler. There was a small mound which required a mild scramble to ascend and then we were on the final ridge to the top. We it to stand at the top of Wheeler Peak at 13,161 feet.

The plaque at the top is fixed on top of the tube containing the summit register. The USGS marker is on a separate block of granite a few feet from the plaque. It was raining steadily by then and it was pretty cold. My fingers were white and numb despite the fleece gloves. None of us wanted to stay around a lot. After a short celebration (a piece of Foccacia bread and some slices of salami), we took the “summit shot” and prepared to head down the Williams Lake trail.

The rain was continuing steadily as we moved off the peak and back to the saddle between Wheeler and Mount Walter. There we found the trail down and headed for Williams Lake. It is almost a 2000 ft descent from this ridge to Williams Lake. The hiking was easier heading down on the new switch back trail through the scree field. The descent to Williams Lake was shorter than the Bull of the Woods route up (about 4 miles versus about 9) but the rain made the scree slick and I was very thankful for my poles and high top boots. I reached the tree line at the based without mishap. The trail through the trees was well traveled and was also marked with blue blazes on the trunks. When we reached the Williams Lake trail Jeb said the lake was off to the left. However, the prospect of a half mile round trip to see it was too much for any of us to want to go back up hill in the rain to take pictures.

The hike down the Williams Lake trail through the woods was winding and some of the rocks were slippery. We arrived at the Phoenix Grill and the Kachina #4 lift. The (Bavarian) restaurant is about 1000 ft higher than the main ski valley parking lot. There were many campers with their tents in this area because of the Music Festival. We walked by these campers and eventually came to his prepositioned truck. Everyone climbed on board and appreciated not having to hike the additional miles back to the bottom.
Summary Total Data
    Quality:6 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Stream Ford, Scramble
    Gear Used:
Ski Poles
    Weather:Raining, Cold, Windy, Low Clouds

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