Hike to the top of Wheeler Peak is quite the challenge, but the way down is no easy task, either
Editor’s note: The first weekend in September, Taos Ski Valley Mayor Neal King led a group of two dozen hikers to the top of Wheeler Peak. Writer Isabel Bearman Bucher shares her experience.
At 7:40 a.m. on a glorious late-summer morning, more than a dozen hikers began a trek from the hiker’s parking lot in Taos Ski Valley to New Mexico’s Wheeler Peak, the state’s highest point at 13,161 feet.
It is not known who made the first ascent of Wheeler; probably the inhabitants of the Taos Pueblo. But it is named for U.S. Army Maj. George M. Wheeler, who surveyed much of New Mexico in the late 1870s.
This day’s hike is led by Taos Ski Valley Mayor Neal King, who imparts hiking tips and stories to the group and declares his leadership style by saying: “I never interfere with the hiking style of anybody.”
And so our journey began.
The hike begins down the Williams Lake trail, which starts at 10,191 feet. Officially, it is two miles to the lake and just before the lake, the trail that goes to the peak starts its upward journey. This is the newest route to the summit and is becoming more popular as a day hike. It is approximately seven miles round trip and is a steep Class 2 trail, with the final 1,000 feet being a rocky scree slope.
According to the National Forest Service, this trail was completed in 14 days nearly two years ago by a crew of eight people working 12 hours per day.
As the group climbs on, the sun rises from behind the mountain string, and lays a golden carpet on everything; dew blazes to life on every plant, creating a forest floor of diamonds.
“Drink water,” King says, peeling off his first layer of insulation. At this point, he offers the hiking plan to the group and tells some stories.
An hour in, the hikers walk along and enjoy the quiet and fragrance of the deep forest, until we emerge on the almost treeless belly of the cirque. Two hours in, the group begins the first of four scree crossings, where one must keep eyes to the ground.
The trail is packed with holiday hikers and dogs. Those coming down from the summit are smiling, jauntily dancing the decline; those still on the trek up are breathing heavily, hurting, feeling the weight of their packs, glad to show politeness by stopping to allow others to pass. It’s a sneak rest.
The vista fills with only mountains, whose great upward sweeps dress in the amber, orange and yellow of the coming fall. Little Golden Mantled Chipmunks sound the alarm and the whole mountain seems alive with their calls.
It’s tough. Very tough now. Looking back, Williams Lake is a small blue heart-shaped body of water. The view sweeps us all away; “spectacular” seems such an inadequate word. “We’re doin’ the down time,” King says, when things flatten out enough to be able to sit and snack.
“Best to rest here now, eat and drink plenty. We’re on the assent, and we’ll stop, rest, recover and go on again.”
The minutes turn to hours. Two female runners, who passed us coming up, are now going down; one wears long knee socks decorated with black steely sheaves.
“How can they do it?” asks someone in the group.
We trek on until – finally – we arrive at the point where there’s a pile of rocks that marks Mount Walter. Mount Walter is the second-highest named summit in New Mexico. But it isn’t usually counted as an independent mountain since it has only about 53 feet of topographic prominence, and is only 0.4 miles north-northeast of Wheeler Peak.
“We go that way, straight over the top,” Neal says pointing south. “If you go around to the left, then you gotta climb on all fours back up.”
People hiking the ridge look like ants against a darkening sky. Wheeler Peak tends to catch every type of ill weather moving across the state, which it then tosses down upon the helpless humanity below. Just for fun, it will sometimes start sheet lightning, and as the humans drop to their bellies, their hair stands up.
We walk through the crowd atop Wheeler. We all made it!
We turn, doing 360s, drinking in the hundred-mile view with its layers of lavender, approaching gray and cerulean blue. Taos Ski Valley and the hiking trails look like pencil tracings against such immensity.
Neal changes socks; we take a nibble, tie our boot laces as tightly as possible so our feet don’t pound the toes against the boots on the descent.
“Down is always harder,” somebody says.
At the bottom, we find our way to the cars and bid each other goodbye, knowing everything was incredible.
Here are the stats for the day:
8.2 miles; 7 hours, 40 minutes; 1.7 miles per hour; 2,900-foot gain in altitude.