Thursday, September 27, 2012

Highpointing 2012, Part Four -- Highpoint: New Mexico. Wheeler Peak. 13,161 feet. September 6, 2012

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Williams Lake Trail.  Around 8 miles roundtrip with about 3000 feet of elevation gain.

The afternoon before our hike, the girls and I checked out the trailhead.  The area is under construction, so finding the start of the trail can be confusing.

First, walk down the pedestrian path to the right of the parking lot (where the bulldozers are in the picture below)...

Next, look for the signs.  The only confusing sign is the one below.  It looks like it's pointing to a trail that goes through those woods...but if you take that path, you will wander about aimlessly until you arrive at Nowhere in Particular.  Trust us.

The sign is NOT indicating you should walk through those woods.  It's telling you to keep walking up the road.

Once you've walked up the road, the signs become more obvious and you shouldn't have any trouble finding the trailhead.

Back to our trip report -- we got an after-sunrise start on this one, since there was no one around to hike with before dawn.  We set off as soon as we could see without headlamps.

It's probably a half-mile walk to the trailhead from the parking lot, FYI.

From this point on, Sage (squeaky soprano voice) was not allowed to talk until we reached treeline.  Alex and I spoke in loud, deep voices.  Yes, I was once again experiencing mountain lion paranoia.

Shortly after the below picture was taken, I heard the snap of a stick.  In New Hampshire, my response to an unexpected noise is to boom, "Yo bear!"  I did the same thing here, but in a super-aggressive way (again, I had mountain lion worries).  I got a "Good Morning!" in response...turns out a fellow was camping not far from the trail...I think I made his day, he was grinning from ear to ear...he had probably heard us coming from a mile away.

We came to a rocky clearing not far from Williams Lake.  A pika sat up and stared at us.  I tried to get its picture, but it darted back under the rocks as soon as I raised my camera.

Past this junction lies Williams Lake.  We took a left here and headed up.

I emitted another "Yo Bear" around this area when I heard a nearby noise.  Turned out to be a chipmunk walking over some leaves...the thing jumped three feet in the air in response to my holler and ran off.

After a few tenths of a mile in the woods, the trail broke above treeline.

I had heard all kinds of things about this trail from old trip reports on the web.  Apparently, the trail used to go straight up the mountain and was a horrendous mess of loose scree.  In 2011, however, the Forest Service built a new trail; we ascended switchbacks that were never steep and we enjoyed excellent footing all the way up.
View from a switchback...

Looking toward the summit (you can see part of the trail in the photo).

Looking down at Williams Lake from the trail.

Continuing up...

View from the trail...


When we got to the little bit of rocky trail in the below picture, I began to feel the way I had on Elbert around 13,800 feet; I had to stop every ten paces and gasp for air.  The girls felt perfectly normal.  We weren't even at 13,000 feet yet, so I was a bit annoyed with myself for feeling the altitude, but Alex and Sage were patient with me and slowed down.  I had to keep asking them to slow down from this point forward, though -- they kept quickening their paces without realizing it and leaving me in the dust.

We reached the ridge and took a small break.

View into the Horseshoe Lake region from the ridge, a couple tenths of a mile from Wheeler's summit...

After a brief rest, we continued to the summit.

The summit of Wheeler Peak!  Highpoint number 41.

Views from the top of New Mexico...

The girls and I signed the summit register...

We found the survey marker...

The time was 9:30; we had made it up in three hours.  Since there wasn't an ominous cloud in the sky, we decided to hang about for as long as possible.

Alex made a town for bugs out of rocks.  She built a bug hospital, a bug house, a mountain for bugs to climb on (complete with cairn), and a bug playground.

Sage made a picnic area for bugs (tables and benches).

We met quite a few folks as we lounged on the summit.  One group of guys hiked up from Horseshoe Lake where they had spent the night.  They told us of the bighorn sheep that had stood outside their tents.  One of the fellows was celebrating his 50th birthday -- he and I spoke for a while about New Mexico's mountains and hiking in general, then the group continued on their way.  Another fellow reached the summit and we struck up a conversation.  Turns out he had lived on the East Coast for a while and had done New Hampshire's 48 4000-Footers.  Awesome!  He had quite a few highpoints under his belt as well, including Utah's Kings Peak, which he had done on Labor Day while we were doing Colorado's Elbert.

The clouds eventually began to look a bit scary (though the weather stayed lovely the rest of the day).  We therefore descended. 

Mike, the fellow highpointer who had also done the NH48, caught up to us on the way down. He was great company -- AND he lent us his map for Kings Peak. Though we didn't wind up using it, we certainly appreciated his generosity (we mailed the map to his home address at the end of our trip).

While descending, we passed dozens of people headed up.  Hmmm...tons of people going up in the late morning...what about the potential for afternoon thunderstorms?  Guess the locals know the Wheeler weather patterns well enough to take the risk.

Back at the trailhead...

Back at the parking lot...

We never saw one of these...I credit my Yo Bears...

This was an awesome hike.  The girls and I felt it was much easier than Colorado's Elbert.  Many thanks to the Forest Service for rebuilding the trail.  The path is an easy-to-moderate switchback hike with excellent footing.

Come back tomorrow for Highpointing 2012, Part Five: "(Kind of) Staying Acclimated Between Wheeler and Boundary."

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