Wheeler Peak, 13,161ft
Date climbed: June 2000
Report Written February 2011 (climbed June 2000)
It can be tough to remember experiences from eleven years ago. A lot of mountains can be climbed in eleven years and they can all start to blend together. But New Mexico’s Wheeler Peak is not one of those mountains. It is not one of those fuzzy memories. I still remember vividly from Wheeler – our 2nd state high point – my first very encounter with altitude sickness. I also remember the thrill of snow in June. It was the first big Rocky Mountain that we climbed, and helped to ignite interest in mountaineering.
Our destination that summer was the Holiest Land in all of Boy Scouting – Philmont. We were on a pilgrimage to the large Boy Scout Ranch in Northeastern New Mexico to learn the art of backpacking from the kung fu masters who had trained generations of scouts. Our Dad had visited Philmont several times on Boy Scout trips when he was a kid and got hooked. He worked there for a few summers too, teaching scouts how to pan for gold, fly-fish, and how to keep from getting eaten by bears. Now it was our turn to follow in his footsteps. The plan was to climb Mt Wheeler before heading a few miles over to Philmont.
I would say that Islam is to Mecca as Boy Scouting is to Philmont. All self-respecting Boy Scouts must at some point in their lives complete a trek at Philmont. More than once Eric and I have been hiking somewhere in the country and met another hiker who proclaimed they were an Eagle Scout. Eric and I would momentarily pause with respect to acknowledge their notable achievement. Then, to level the playing field, we would reply that we have been to Philmont, and we soon became equals with the other hiker again.
Our plan that summer was to drive from Kentucky to Philmont, then embark on a five-day trek and drive back, for a total of about 3 weeks. But things became complicated when we signed up for a calculus class at Berea College that summer. We really wanted to take the class but doubted it would be acceptable to miss three whole weeks of class. We presented our dilemma to our professor, Prof. Schmidt. Surprisingly, he said it would be all right to miss that much class, but to make up for it we needed to do every odd-numbered problem in the first half of the textbook. Every odd-numbered problem. Ouch. We said we’d do it. We brought the textbook in the van with us and started driving west.
The route from Berea, KY to the summit of New Mexico’s Wheeler Peak is long indeed. It took us through Tennessee, Arkansas, and then Texas. We stopped in El Paso to cross into the country of Mexico at Ciudad Juárez. The quick hour-long visit made us appreciate our US citizenship. Next we headed over to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico for some awesome dune jumping. We visited some friends in Deming and then drove north.
The main trailhead for Wheeler Peak begins in Taos (‘tauss’ – one syllable), the home of a big ski resort. As we drove in we looked up at the mountains and couldn’t believe the snow we were seeing. It’s June, for goodness sake, what’s snow doing around here in June?
The place was deserted but there was some kind of a German festival going on and for some reason that meant we got a good rate on the room. We stayed the night in the lodge and headed out the next morning. Our mom would manage base camp (9,400ft) while we pushed on for the summit (13,161ft).
We headed up the Bull of the Woods trail early that morning. We planned to stay overnight at the Bull of the Woods Meadow campsite to make things more interesting. We climbed through the trees up to about 12,000ft and starting running into our first snow. We just couldn’t believe how much snow there was for June. Some of the drifts were three feet high in the trees. For us it was unbelievable. We had only seen summer snow one other time, in the Big Horn Mountains of Montana.
Luckily we found a clear spot amongst the trees and pitched the tent. I remember feeling awful that evening. I couldn’t eat anything. I couldn’t even force down the Ramen noodles. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was suffering from AMS (acute mountain sickness). For some reason I was the only one affected. Little Jacob, Eric, and our Dad were fine. We just assumed that I was sick and would get over it in the morning.
I think I bounced back a little in the morning, probably because I had acclimated a little overnight. We kept climbing and soon emerged onto the biggest snowfield I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe it. Here it was, June, and we were standing on top of a fifteen foot deep pile of snow the area of a couple of football fields. At that time I didn’t know that was possible. It certainly didn’t happen in Berea, KY. Our hiking horizons were beginning to expand.
After following some footprints in the snow we soon made it to the top of Wheeler Peak, the summit of
the Land of Enchantment. I don’t remember much of the view but from the pictures it looks like it was spectacular. I was feeling awful from altitude sickness, but at the time I just thought it was something I had eaten. Nowadays we know better than to hike when you’ve got that pounding headache and feel like you’re going to throw up.
We tried to open the summit register, which was a steel pipe cemented to the ground with a cap at one end. But the cap was on too tight. So this is the only written record that we actually made it to the summit.
Wheeler peak was our second high point. The following week we learned the art of backpacking at Philmont during a five day trek. I really believe that these two experiences ignited the flame of our mountaineering careers.