Wheeler Peak

Posted on September 3, 2012

What do you do when you have a long Labor Day weekend? I want a real trip, someplace fresh and exciting. I want a pool and a bit of a tan on my shoulders. The last few days of summer should be treated like summer, damn it. Entering fall with pale legs and an albino belly can not happen again.

A few days before the long weekend, travel plans to Denver evaporated. A jaunt to Albuquerque became a bit of a hassle. By the time the weekend arrived my good friend Will suggested hiking to the top of Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico. Not a bad option, really. At least it was something I could tell my co-workers. It may even produce something worth sticking on Facebook. Who am I kidding, I post almost anything on Facebook.

Will and I spent a few minutes discussing the details Friday night and arranged to meet Saturday morning for the trip.

The trail up to Wheeler Peak begins at Taos Ski Valley. We parked the car near the Bavarian Lodge and set out for the summit. After passing under the sleeping giant of a chair lift, we came to a chattering and sparkling series of waterfalls draining off the last little bits of melting snow.

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The forest floor had stepped past its short spring and summer. The colors of fall were arriving with the cold nights. Bright reds and oranges were frosting the tips of plants that were stung by the chill of the coming winter.

As we hiked past the frozen flow of giant boulder rivers resting in the valley of the trail, Will kicked our usual philosophic conversation into higher gear. The mountain path would have to listen to us debate. It’s only respite would come as the lack of oxygen beyond the tree line would starve our minds.

The forest gave way to Sound of Music fields and expressively undulating mountain crests. We each made our little jokes about Maria and the Von Trapp Family Singers. The trail switch backed through a giant bowl and crossed treacherous, ankle snapping rivers of rocks that gurgled up from the earth and grass.

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The scale of things changes as you begin to notice the curve of the earth. It isn’t really all about large things looking small – “those pine trees look so small” down in the valley near Williams Lake – though that may be a part of it. The scale of life and living is stripped down. Small grasses and succulents embed themselves between the stones. Fluorescent lichens paint and dapple themselves across rock canvases. Crickets and tiny rodents (Marmots?) chirp and chatter into the cool breezes.

The trail brings us up to a ridge line pathway. As you step across the ridge line the earth falls away to reveal the other side of the mountain. I had spent all day thinking about how beautiful this side of the mountain was but wasn’t quite prepared to mentally take in the whole other side. It was like drinking in an entire glass of water in one gulp. For a moment I wasn’t sure I could regain my breath.

As we join the small tribe of hikers laying out on the rooftop of New Mexico it is time for lunch.

A few simple photos, a bit of a nap, another application of sun-block, a few swigs of water and it was down the mountain for dinner. It is amazing how good pizza with freshly roasted green chile can taste after hiking up to 13K feet!