Climbing Wheeler Peak
In my goal to reach the highest peak in every state, New Mexico was my first in the south west. Wheeler Peak is the seventh highest of the 50 state high points, and reaches 13,160 feet (4,010 meters). There are multiple routes to the summit, and I took the Williams Lake Trail. The trailhead starts at a parking lot if you’re lucky enough to be able to reach it. I had to walk an extra two miles from the Taos ski resort because I didn’t trust my rental car on the fresh snow!
Soon after I started hiking I could see some dramatic peaks of the Santo Christo mountains. I’m not sure what this peak is called, but it honestly looks much more impressive than Wheeler!
I just happened to start hiking at the same time as a local and his dog. The guy was sharing the trail with me and planned to head to the lake and back was He gave some friendly advice on Wheeler Peak, but clearly thought the feat an equal challenge to K2. He discouraged me from hiking alone, and mentioned how often people get rescued. I didn’t mention I had just climbed Everest the previous spring, but it was clear he was worried about me and seemed like he would have been happy if I didn’t even try.
The hike starts off with some gentle elevation increase through evergreens. At the time of my visit, this region of New Mexico had received the least amount of snow in 30 years. By chance a few inches had come the night before, but otherwise normally you can find waist deep snow here. Around 11,000 feet (3,350 meters) you’ll have to split from the Williams Leak trail and head up towards Wheeler Peak. At this point I left the man and his dog, which he probably believed I had hours left to live.
After the trail splits, you’ll continue ascending at a moderate incline. Around 11,500 feet (3,500 meters) the trail will start to get significantly steeper. You’ll come across some switchbacks that make the hike easy, but tend to feel like you’re doubling your mileage. By this point I was occasionally going in and out of the evergreen trees. I tried to be awesome and cut some switchbacks at some moderate looking terrain. After a short elevation gain the terrain got way steeper and I found wind blown snow that was nearly waist deep! By now the views were starting to get amazing, the photo below was taken when I had cut some switchbacks. The gentle slope below is after I found the trail again; much easier!
After ascending some more I finally was in the alpine environment. This photo above was taken around 12,000 feet (3,650 meters). The trees were gone, and you could get some unimpressive views of the summit. The photo below shows the saddle that is just west of the summit. Again, it looks like you can hike straight to the saddle, but it’s deceptively steep. I’m not sure what would be worse, the physical challenge of a direct hike straight up, or the psychological challenge of tripling your distance through switchbacks.
Just the day before I had come from sea level, so I was feeling the altitude now. Going from 0 to 4,000 meters is always a challenge, and in my case the switchbacks were probably essential. At this point I came across a few others climbing the mountain, and took their photo above as they traversed one of the final switchbacks.
From the top of the saddle, you have to hike a short distance across a ridge to the top of New Mexico. There isn’t much elevation gain here and it almost looks flat. The photo below shows a false summit which is immediately before the real one.
Just a few more minutes past the false summit, I reached the top of New Mexico! I had come out here for two reasons, one of course to reach another one of the 50 state high points, but another reason was to force myself back into shape! For some reason after climbing Mt. Everest last spring I found little motivation to be active. After about six months of being lazy, I found myself in poor fitness. This is a bit depressive after being in the best shape of your life. I figured climbing a 4,000 meter peak would be a good foundation to get back into climbing and a healthy lifestyle.
There’s always another reason for climbing mountains; the beautiful views. These two photos I took from the summit. The photo above is from the opposite side of the mountain that I had climbed. In the photo below you can see most of the route. From the summit I descended back down the switchbacks and into the forest. From there you follow the forest through the right into the valley towards Taos. I’m glad to finally knock out a 50 state high point in the southwest, I’m not sure what’s next, but there’s been lots of talk with my friends of Borah Peak, in Idaho.