The boy cried and cried. The blood came out, and
finally he died. With his tears our lakes became.
with his blood the red clay became. With his body
our mountains became, and that was how Earth
Taos Pueblo Creation Story
Like my successful highpointing of Mount Humphreys in Arizona last year, I had been thinking about climbing Wheeler Peak ever since I had joined the Highpointers Club in 1997. From the beginning I had decided to take the Williams Lake approach. My reasoning (at the time) was that I didn’t feel I had the stamina to endure the longer Bull-of-the-Woods trail to the summit. Williams Lake seemed more feasible despite the descriptions of the steep slope up the mountain.
Strangely, with one or two exceptions, most trip reports which discuss the Williams Lake route have been very vague about what the trail offers to hikers. Despite the lack of information, I felt compelled to give the route a try. My bagging of Wheeler Peak was part of my vacation trip to Taos. I also visited the Rio Grande gorge, the Taos Pueblo reservation, the D.H. Lawrence cabin and his tomb located in the Carson National Forest, various museums in and around Taos, and added two daytrips to Santa Fe for good measure.
I arrived in Taos on September 12 and, after checking into my hotel, went on a reconnaissance hike of the Williams Lake trail. Last year I had performed a recon hike of the lower approaches to Mount Humphreys trail both to get better acclimatized to the altitude and to get acquainted with the trail. The recon was a success on both counts. This year I decided to repeat the process. I arrived at the Williams Lake trailhead, got into my gear, and began to hike the trail. The idea was to make it to the lake and return after eye-balling the beginning of the trail up the slope towards Wheeler Peak.
The recon was interesting. I only had one bottle of water with me so I had to conserve my water intake. (I mistakenly had left the other water bottle at the hotel). I was huffing and puffing from the altitude and had momentary flutters trying to find the right trail (just before the fork mentioned in Holmes’ book there is another minor fork as well. This fork goes left and doubles back. Don’t take it! Stay straight. I mistakenly took it, realized my mistake immediately and retraced my steps to the right trail). After that little episode it was simply a long walk to the lake. It took me 45 to 50 minutes to get there--with a quick rest break in between. I was tired from the hike but feeling good that I had made it. There were some people at the lakeside and a middle-aged couple relaxing on a rise above. Someone was using binoculars to watch hikers descend the slope from Wheeler Peak. I stood there with him and tried to sneak a peak. I couldn’t see a thing but seeing the slope towards Wheeler Peak amazed me.
It looked more awesome (and difficult) than I had imagined. My doubts about my ability to climb this slope grew. They grew even more when I spoke to a couple that had come off the mountain. They told me about the loose talus and the need to watch your footing. Still, I was surprised--after voicing doubts about my own ability to climb the slope--when the couple told me that they thought I could do the job. They told me it didn’t require super physical conditioning to climb the slope—just patience. I took their advice to heart. The hike back to the trailhead was uneventful. Along the way I encountered Gordon and Jan. Gordon was an Austrian air pilot who was spending his summer at Taos Ski Valley and Jan, his girlfriend, who lived there. They had come off the mountain and were hiking back as well. When I got to my car, they asked me if I could drive them back to the Bull-of-the-woods trailhead. Ordinarily I don’t take hitchhikers but since I felt good in their presence and since they were accompanied by a dog, I decided they were harmless and gave them a lift.
I spent the rest of the week getting all of my sight-seeing out of the way before attempting to climb Wheeler Peak. The Weather Channel had promised good weather for Friday the 17th all week long so I opted for that day. (I also chose Friday because if my attempt had been unsuccessful then I wouldn’t have been bummed out for the rest of my trip). The only problem I faced was finding a place to eat breakfast before attempting the hike. Surprisingly, Taos does not have a 24-hour eatery. Even though this town likes to see itself as an outpost in the tradition of Jack Kerouac, Peter Fonda, and Dennis Hopper, it does not have the all night diner so essential to existential roadsters everywhere. It was a dilemma I would have to resolve.
I woke up at 5:30AM on the 17th. The pre-dawn morning was black and cold. I suited up and loaded up my rental car (a white Dodge Stratus with Texas plates). In no time I arrived at the Taoseno Restaurant and Lounge on the main drag of the town. The Taoseno opens for breakfast at 6:00AM on weekdays and 6:30AM on weekends. I was there early and waited for the place to open. Sitting in my car I saw the sky change from black to light blue to faint traces of orange as sunlight began to penetrate the Sangre de Christo Mountain range. When the restaurant opened I quickly ordered breakfast and was out the door by 6:36AM. Sunrise was at 6:46AM and I wanted to be at the trailhead as quickly as possible.
The Williams Lake trailhead is at the Taos Ski Valley resort. To get there you have to go north out of town and head for the intersection where Routes 522, 68, and150 meet. At the intersection you turn right and spend the next fifteen miles driving towards the resort. I was listening to Albuquerque classic-rock radio station Coyote 102.5 playing the Youngblood’s Get Together (still a relevant song now as it was back then)—funny thing, radio reception is bad in Taos because of the mountains but the higher up you go the better radio reception you get.
When I entered the resort parking lot I saw a young couple making their way towards the Bull-of-the-woods trailhead but saw no one else besides them. A special note for highpointers: this is not mentioned in the Holmes and Zumwalt books I have but when you take Twining and Zaps Roads to get to the Williams Lake trailhead be aware that the roads are not paved at all. They are earth and gravel with huge ruts in places. I put my economy-sized car through its paces to get to the trailhead. My advice to future highpointers is to either rent a 4-wheel drive vehicle or get LDW insurance for your rental car. Those two roads were rough on my car.
I reached the Williams Lake trailhead parking lot at 7:13AM and quickly got prepared for the hike. I would be wearing the same kit I wore last year for the hike on Mount Humphreys, with one exception: instead of wearing a flannel shirt I chose to wear a grey sweatshirt. The weather remained cold. The temperature was in the mid-40s at the trailhead. I was glad I had my wool socks and winter gloves with me because I would need them. Sadly I did not enjoy a peaceful departure from the trailhead. There was an earthmover moving back and forth between the parking lot and a culvert just up the trail ahead. The noise of the earthmover and its grinding gears violated the monastic silence of the Carson State Forest. Simply put, I was pissed off at the intrusion.
I set off for the mountain at 7:30AM. My pace was rather quick. Over the years I had come up with the strategy of being the hare and the tortoise while doing the Williams Lake approach. I would move quickly towards Williams Lake but once I reached the lake I would adopt a much slower pace going up the slope towards the summit. I would need all the time I could get ascending that slope so I needed to reach the lake as quickly as I could.
This time, while hiking the trail, I had plenty of water to drink, plus raisins and some candy bars for food. Although there were several cars and trucks at the Williams Lake trailhead I was all alone on the trail once I put the earthmover behind me. After you pass the Bavarian Lodge and go underneath the ski lift you enter the forest trail and hike parallel to the mountain ridge to the east. I was enshrouded in the early morning shadows of the mountains and the forest. The only sound I heard was my rhythmic breathing (interrupted by frequent swigs from my water bottle). The trail ascends gently as you approach the lake with minor switchbacks and turns but nothing that confuses the hiker. There was never a moment of uncertain navigation.
Just before you reach the lake--going south on the trail--you enter a clearing where there are boulders to the right—the remnants of avalanches past. When you come around the corner and behold Williams Lake it takes your breath away. You are in an amphitheater of stone, sky, and timber a little over 11,000 feet high. You stand on a rise and down below is the lake: crystal clear in its purity, lying there, mirror-like, reflecting the awesome green majesty of the mountains enveloping it. From afar the lake looks deep but when you get up close and personal to it you see that it is not. It was 8:17AM—just in time for my first rest break. The lake looked cool in the early morning shadows cast by the mountains. The only thing disturbing the pristine silence of the lake was the muffled cascading of a waterfall somewhere in the woods south of the lake.
There was no time to go down to the lakebed. I would do so on the return but not now. Instead I caught my breath, finished off my first bottle of water, and snacked on raisins while formulating a method of attacking the trail up the slope towards Wheeler Peak.
I remembered my own hike up Mount Washington two years ago. That trail had been steep as well and I had been extremely aggressive in attacking the trail. The end result was that I made it to the summit but lacked the strength to get back down on my own two feet. Instead I had to take the shuttle bus back down to Pinkham Notch. There was no shuttle bus here at Wheeler Peak. Whatever I had to do I would have to do by myself. I remembered reading about the legendary climber Kurt Diemberger’s method of climbing. He always moved deliberately while climbing which allowed him to conserve energy and survive situations that killed other climbers with equal skill. I thought his method was applicable to the slope up to Wheeler Peak. The best metaphor to use in climbing the slope to Wheeler Peak is that you shouldn’t attack the slope but negotiate with it instead and take what the slope offers you. It was then I knew what I had to do.
It was 8:30AM when I began the ascent up the slope towards the summit. My tactics were as follows: I would ascend the slope taking very small, almost baby-like steps. I would gently zigzag going up the trail and I would hike for 30 minutes and take ten minute breaks in between. The strategy worked. After my first rest break, I was amazed at the progress I had made. I was nearly above the tree-line; my legs felt fine and the altitude was not affecting me at all.
For the record the trail up the slope towards Wheeler Peak can be broken into three distinct parts: the lower part is the easiest section. It is mostly dark brown earth carpeted with pine needles with rocks embedded deep in the trail. The footing is very firm, especially on the grassier parts. Just beyond the tree-line the second part of the trail is rockier and the footing becomes more crumbly and loose as you ascend. Tundra grass flanks both edges of the trail and I found that by keeping on the tundra grass I could maintain a firmer footing than by walking the trail itself. When you reach the second part you leave the protection of the woods and enter exposed ground. The only sounds you can hear are bird calls and the fierce updrafts emanating from the opposite slope of the mountain.
When I was taking my second rest break on the slope I heard voices below me and I scanned the trail below to see if I had company. No one could be seen so I wondered if the mountain walls were playing acoustic tricks with me.
The top third of the trail is the toughest nut to crack. It is there that you encounter the talus fields noted in earlier reports. The trail (in my eyes) seemed to give out and I began to ascend by feel. I was between my second and third rest breaks when I reached the talus. In this area the talus field forms a chute between Mount Walter and Wheeler Peak. Entering the field my footing began to give way and I had to lower my center of gravity to compensate. It was awkward going and I found the talus to be disconcerting. I had a bottle of water in one hand and I was carrying a heavy pack. I was ascending in a crouch and my progress slowed immeasurably. It was here that I must have deviated from the main trail. Where I was I thought the trail had given out. What I didn’t realize was that I was going East-Northeast up the slope whereas the trail goes more East-Southeast. I wasn’t lost and I don’t believe that I made a mistake. It was only later on that I realized that I had made a deviation.
I know I didn’t get very far before it was time to take my third rest break. I was disappointed. I had hoped to reach the top of the ridge by this time but I hadn’t. The top of the ridge looked close (the Sun peaked tantalizingly over the top of the ridge) but I was wondering if my eyes were playing tricks with me. Even resting was difficult. I had to dig my feet deep into the slope to keep from sliding down. I had gouged out a small pocket in the loose rock with my right hip. I stayed there for ten minutes, finishing off my second water bottle and deciding that I would need all four limbs to climb this last part of the slope before reaching the top of the ridge.
Despite these difficulties, I was feeling something incredible. I was exerting myself but I wasn’t exhausted. My legs felt fine. My strategy was working so far. I knew if I could reach the top of the ridge I would be home free. The issue was getting there. The rest break over. I jammed the empty water bottle in my back pocket and began to climb the last bit of the trail on all fours. It was a good thing I was wearing thick winter gloves. The rocks were small but sharp. I was crawling like a tortoise but I found that if I could aim for those small clumps of tundra grass that dotted the slope then I could make progress. I inched up further and further when suddenly the ground became firm once more. I could stand up and walk up the last couple of yards to the top of the ridge.
It was 10:40AM when I reached the saddle between Mount Walter and Wheeler Peak. I let out a whoop and a holler. I knew I had it made. The view from the top of the ridge was fantastic. Although the wind was blowing loudly there were very few clouds in the sky. Looking towards the east I could see Horseshoe Lake down below me. At first I thought I was all alone on the ridge when, suddenly, looking to my left I saw two guys resting about 100 yards or so north of my position. I called out to them but they couldn’t hear me in the wind. I decided not to wait. I took off my backpack, put my empty water bottle away and pulled out a fresh water bottle. Funny thing, the wind was blowing so violently that the bottle cap flew out of my hand. The last few steps towards the summit felt great. My legs were in great shape. I felt fine even though I was 13,000 feet high. I went over three false summits and beheld the Promised Land: the summit of Wheeler Peak. The plaque and metal tube containing the summit register were right there. There was a windbreak and a wooden pole flying a bandana beside the plaque. I made for the windbreak immediately. It was 10:51AM. It had taken me three hours and twenty-one minutes to reach the summit from the Williams Lake trailhead.
I was the first person to reach the summit (I later found out). I did the now familiar rituals. I kissed the summit, said my trinity of prayers of thanksgiving, took pictures of myself holding the U.S. flag and New Mexico state flag, took more pictures of the summit region and the area surrounding the summit, and left an entry in the summit register. (The summit register for Wheeler Peak is not well-organized. The canister contains several notebooks and the entries are widely scattered. I left my entry in one of the notebooks. I couldn’t help but sneak a peak at the some of the entries. Most of the recent entries had political statements endorsing either Bush or Kerry. If you’re interested in knowing who got the most endorsements from the highpointers, Kerry was leading in that department. I left my own endorsement in the register—if you’re interested in knowing who I endorsed, just climb the mountain and see for yourself!
The view from the summit is fantastic. You see the long spine of the mountain range to the north. To the west you behold the arboreal arena of the Carson National Forest and see how small Williams Lake is from the summit (all the while wondering how the hell I got up here?) To the east you see another mountain valley that is less green but no less beautiful than the other areas. To the south you see sky, mountains, clouds, and ravens hovering from the updrafts, watching for prey.
My lonely idyll on the summit was brief. I was joined by Larry, a middle-aged gentleman who came via Bull-of-the-woods. He would soon be joined by more middle-aged gentlemen from Albuquerque, who reached the trailhead at dawn after a pre-dawn drive from Albuquerque. They were five in number. We spent time chatting, taking pictures, sharing stories, and comparing mountain trails. I stayed for nearly an hour.
Larry wanted to know what it was like in descending the Williams Lake trail. I couldn’t answer him but did warn him about the loose talus on the upper third of the trail. It was 11:45AM when I began the descent. Interestingly, when I went down I saw a trail that I did not notice on my approach going up. Apparently I had taken a tangent from the established trail on my ascent. Going down I would keep to this trail. Larry had left earlier and from my perch I could see he was having difficulty going down. He kept losing his footing and was taking some spills on the loose talus. I decided I would glissade down the slope instead. I was wearing a pair of green raggedy jeans. I figured it would be no great loss if I slid on my butt down the hill. Before I did so I was treated to the sight of a line of male hikers slowly making their way up the slope towards my position. When I got closer a few of the hikers recognized me. Hours earlier when I had been ascending the slope and had heard voices below me, it had been the hiking group gathering at Williams Lake. They had been observing my movements up the slope and were watching as to how I was approaching the summit ridge. Hearing that, I had a weird feeling come over me. It was the first time I had had an audience watching me summit a mountain. It reminded me of the movie The Eiger Sanction where George Kennedy’s character uses a telescope to observe Clint Eastwood and his fellow climbers ascend the mountain. Once I passed the hikers it was safe for me to glissade down the mountain. I’ve never glissaded before. It was quite an experience. I slid down in a figure-four position, causing little avalanches of pebbles in my wake. For the most part it was smooth sailing but once in a while I would feel a sharp rock scraping against my butt. I would slide for about 20-30 feet, stop for a second and resume sliding. Meanwhile I could still see Larry below me having difficulty and occasionally slipping and falling.
I rested twice on the descent: the first time at the end of the talus field and the second time in the woods. More people were ascending the slope. Amazingly every party I saw coming up had brought a dog with them. (Even more amazing is that the Williams Lake trail is a favorite place to walk your dog). One party had a Chihuahua with them. The other party had a larger dog. Whenever I encountered a party I would get asked about trail conditions. Each time I would tell them what I had faced. Amazingly none of the parties were aware of what they were going to face when they were climbing this slope.
It was 1:11PM when I reached Williams Lake. I felt so relieved. Ironically my legs had taken more of a pounding going down the mountain than going up. I felt tired and a little spent. I was soaked with sweat. At the lake, I refreshed myself. I doffed my heavy jacket, hat, and gloves, and spent the rest of the hike in my shirtsleeves. I had a nice quiet moment at the lake and enjoyed the welcome company of a young married couple with their two-year old daughter from Norman, Oklahoma. The afternoon sun was out in all its glory and the lake looked glorious. I was reluctant to leave but knew there was so much left to do.
I made my way back to the trailhead and didn’t reach the Bavarian Restaurant until 2:06PM. I used the bathroom and made a telephone call to my father letting him know I had reached the summit and had descended safely. Then it was back to trailhead parking lot. I spent a long time there. The soreness of my journey had finally reached me and I stopped to savor the pain of my exertions. It may seem odd but the soreness I experienced felt like a badge of courage to a concrete cowboy like me. I took my time getting out of my hiking gear and packing the equipment into my rental car. It was 2:40PM when I said goodbye forever to Wheeler Peak and the Taos Ski Valley.
There was one final act that had to be played. My main regret about my bagging Mount Humphreys last year was my not being able to celebrate the occasion with a ceremonial drink. I was taking medication at the time and was not allowed to drink alcohol. This year, after having stopped taking the medication, I resolved that, if successful in bagging Wheeler Peak, I would make up for the lost celebration of last year. That night, after getting cleaned up and having a lovely dinner, I went to the Zuni Lounge in Taos and drank two glasses of California red wine. Fantastic! I should say and amen.
No trip report is complete without the obligatory thanks to the following: to God, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen; to the Taoseno Restaurant and Lounge in Taos for opening so early in the morning and cooking a great meal. If you should eat dinner there order the double hamburger with the red chili sauce, delicious; to Michael’s Kitchen in Taos. They, too, served wonderful, huge breakfasts at fair prices; to the San Francisco Bar and Grill in Santa Fe; to the Carson National Forest for preserving D.H. Lawrence’s cabin. If you want to feel the Taos experience go there and you will understand what Lawrence felt when he stayed there and make sure you stand underneath the pine tree that Georgia O’Keefe painted when she visited Lawrence; to Orlando’s restaurant in Taos for making great Mexican food; to Gordon and Jan for being great companions when I was doing the recon hike of Williams Lake; to the bartender of the Zuni Lounge at my hotel in Taos for recommending the California red wine; to the Bavarian Restaurant at Taos Ski Valley for letting me use their telephone when I came off the mountain; to Mathew Yaquie, a member of the Taos Pueblo Nation and a World War Two veteran. Mathew Yaquie served in an engineer battalion in the U.S. Fifth Army in Italy and fought all the way up the Italian Peninsula. He survived the harrowing Anzio invasion in 1944 and knocked out two German tanks during that battle. He was wounded in the right side, survived the war, and returned to Taos Pueblo where he lives today with his family. His family has a shop at the Taos Pueblo. When you go there hopefully you will meet him and enjoy the pleasure of his company because he is a true hero; lastly, to Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda for making Easy Rider.
My next highpoint won’t be until October next year when I visit Texas and attempt Guadalupe Peak.