Ascent of Wheeler Peak on 1989-05-09

Climber: Greg Slayden

Other People:Solo Ascent
Date:Tuesday, May 9, 1989
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Wheeler Peak
    Location:USA-New Mexico
    Elevation:13161 ft / 4011 m

Ascent Trip Report

Monday, May 8, 1989:

The road was a nice and paved as it soon left the arid flatlands and entered a deep, forested ravine, leading to the gravel, under construction parking lot for the Taos Ski Valley ski area. Some guy came up to me after I had parked and was getting organized for my hike and asked me if there was still skiing here—I laughed and said that there wasn’t even enough snow at this ski area for a snowball—he was a foreign tourist of some kind.

I had decided to hike a mile or two up the trail to Wheeler Peak, camp out, and thus make my hike for tomorrow shorter, so I loaded up my big Gregory pack with my A-frame tent, -20 rated sleeping bag, food (no stove), and daypack while having a brief conversation with an older guy who was planning to ride a horse up to Wheeler Peak the next day. He said he hoped there wasn’t too much snow on the higher slopes.

Hoping that my car would be undisturbed by the construction in the huge, almost empty parking lot area, I shouldered my heavy pack and started up the trail, a wide path beside a brook in a ravine, sometimes steep, sometimes eroded. The weather was very cloudy, but this always happened in the afternoon in the rockies (always!), and I planned to camp out at the Bull-of-the-Woods Pasture, which I reached after over an hour of uphill toiling. The “Pasture” was a flat area at the height of land of a low pass, marked by small meadows that were now covered with the remnants of snowfields and huge puddles of meltwater. I found an out of the way corner of dry meadow, near the forest, to pitch my tent.

I ate my dinner of canned meat and candy as the sun set and it got very cold (a huge contrast to broiling Santa Fe earlier in the day), and I crawled into my sleeping bag to try to fall asleep, which I eventually did. Somehow, though, whenever I slept in a tent, I always stayed awake for a long time, probably because I would crash as soon as it got dark, which was very early by my usual standards.

Tuesday, May 9:

I woke up at the crack of dawn to my beeping alarm clock, quickly put on warm clothes (it was cold!), ate a cold breakfast of candy, nuts and stuff, then put my big pack and sleeping bag in the tent and started up the trail towards Wheeler Peak with just food, first aid gear, and clothes in my daypack.

The trail, still in deep forest, was largely covered with hard snow, frozen from the low overnight temperatures. This perturbed me, since I thought that the snow conditions would be like those on Humphreys Peak in Arizona, i.e. hardly any at all, and I didn’t want a repeat of the Mt. Elbert debacle. I continued, though, and shortly the slabbing trail emerged from the forest to the open, grassy meadows of above-timberline at the saddle north of Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain, where there was no snow. I therefore left the trail, which returned to the forest, and climbed up the first shoulder of Fraser Mountain by climbing up the steep, grassy slope past the split-rail fence in the saddle. Once up, I crossed a small open snowfield to regain the ridge and the trail.

The next section of path was entirely snow-free, and the crest of Fraser Mountain offered views in all directions as I moseyed along the largely flat path, or what I thought was the path—it didn’t really matter, since the terrain was totally open, and I could soon see Wheeler Peak way ahead of me.

I made a slight detour to gain the grassy, windy summit of Fraser Mountain, then descended, following the trail the best I could, into the huge, flat, open bowl of La Cal Basin, whose floor was about half snow-covered. I had to cross it, and picked a route that avoided as much snow as possible, only to find that there was thick twisted above-timberline scrub (called krummholz in the White Mountains) that also had to be avoided. After some rock-hopping and snowfield crossing I made for a switchbacking path on the far side of the basin, which led up the steep, grassy, snowless slope in huge swings to the crest of a ridge, where I could see that what I had thought was Wheeler Peak was only a false summit, and that I still had a ways to go on this ridge.

This final stage, though, was a nice hike, with crystal clear weather, no snow on the ground, easy gradients, views in all directions (including ones of the Taos ski area on the next mountain mass over), and a nice wind to keep me cool. I climbed easily along, scaling a false summit, then 13,080 foot Mt. Walter (hardly a separate peak), then finally up to the rocky summit of Mt. Wheeler, the 13,161 foot apex of New Mexico and the southern Sangre de Cristo Range.

It was only about 10:30 A.M. or so, and I did my usual state high point chores: taking pictures (including one of myself), eating some food, taking a long rest, admiring views, writing in the summit log (here in a cannon-like chamber sticking out of a rock), and determining which actual mathematical point was actually highest. Here my rest was especially long, as I crashed out on a grassy slope in the lee of the strong wind just below the summit for a while, just soaking up the quiet and solitude. As usual for one of my spring hikes in the Rockies, I hadn’t seen a single soul yet all day.

I left the summit and returned more of less the same way I had come, over Mt. Walter, finding some way across the now-mushy snow of La Cal basin, where I also saw and heard some other hikers way above me that I didn’t meet, and over grassy Fraser Mountain, where I noticed that it was starting to get very cloudy.

When I reached the split rail fence in the saddle the clouds were looking very malevolent and dark, but I still took a five-minute detour up to the rocky summit of Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain, whose summit was full of mine tailings and crater-like excavations. The wind was picking up, and the clouds were still coming in, so I returned to the saddle and started down the snowy trail through deep forest to my tent, flagrantly postholing for long stretches through the soft snow, but it was nowhere near as bad as what I had done on Elbert a few weeks earlier—the trail was clear, and the snowy stretch fairly short, as I soon arrived back at the flooded meadows of the Bull-of-the Woods Pasture, where my tent was still intact.

I quickly took down the tent, jammed all my gear into my big pack, and took off down the steep, snowless, eroded path towards my car as the clouds turned positively dark. I hoped that the heavens wouldn’t open on me, but I was still glad to be off the high slopes of the mountain. I wearily remembered the landmarks as they flew past me, and I came back out to the ski area parking lot immediately after telling a couple of women coming up the trail that this was not the way to the pond they were trying to get to.

I threw my stuff back into the car, and as I was taking off my hiking boots (fairly dry despite the snow) and eating some random food the guy I had spoken to yesterday came by, with his horse, and we talked for a while—he told me that his horse couldn’t deal with the snow, so he didn’t get past where I had camped the night before. Afterwards I set off on foot to check out the base lodge of the famous Taos Ski Area, and to pick up a trail map, but the place was under construction (I think that’s all they do at ski areas during the off-season).

The summit of Wheeler Peak from above La Cal Basin (1989-05-09).
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:81 ft / 24 m
    Quality:4 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Snow on Ground
    Gear Used:
Tent Camp
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:81 ft / 24 m
    Start Trailhead:13080 ft / 3986 m
Descent Statistics
Ascent Part of Trip: 1989 - Wheeler Peak (1 nights total away from roads)

Complete Trip Sequence:
1Frazer Mountain1989-05-09 a2773 ft / 845 m
2Mount Walter1989-05-09 b1173 ft / 358 m
3Wheeler Peak1989-05-09 c81 ft / 25 m
4Mount Walter1989-05-09 d53 ft / 16 m
5Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain1989-05-09 e126 ft / 38 m
Total Trip Gain: 4206 ft / 1282 m    Total Trip Loss: 2250 ft / 686 m
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

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