Over the Top on Wheeler Peak

On the peak with my friend Richard on the right and our new friend and amazing summit coach, Kathy.

I considered calling this post, “Getting High in New Mexico.” I went another direction, but I do love the alternative title for its sillyness. (There is a bit more sillyness at the end of the post.)

Early in June, my good friend since college, Richard Barron, let me know that he and his wife were going on a vacation to Taos, NM. He wanted to know if I would climb Wheeler Peak with him. Wheeler Peak is about 30 minutes away from downtown.

Info on Wheeler Peak as well as the hike map and stats can be found at the end of this post.

After researching the hike and making sure the dates worked with my schedule, I was stoked to be able to make it work.

While this post speaks to the hike to Wheeler Peak, I have a separate post that talks about all of the travel and happenings to and from the hike.

On the morning of the hike, Richard and I left the hotel before 6a to drive to Taos Ski Valley to the trail head. It was about a 35 minute drive to the Taos Ski Valley, which is where there is a separate parking lot for those hiking the trail.

The trail head parking lot in the Taos Ski Valley

Before we geared up to begin the hike, Richard pulled out a map to give me a very technical debriefing on the trail we were taking as shown in the photo and video below.

A stickler for detail, Richard outlines the plan and safety protocols

Once we were geared up and ready to begin the trek up the mountain, we took a picture at the “arch du Wheeler”. We did not take the picture below. It was taken by our new found friend, Kathy. She was heading up for the hike at the same time as us and she was alone, so we invited her to join us. That turned out to be a very wise choice for us. More on that later.

This is Kathy, our new friend, as we began the journey up the mountain together

We were blessed with fantastic weather for the hike. It was in the 50s when we began. The sun stayed out all day with occassional mixed clouds. By the time we finished, it was in the lower 80s.

I was very excited to do this hike. I had watched several videos from those who had done it. It looked wonderful and at the same time, gave me pause as I have issues with acrophobia (heights). My only concern was for when we reach the saddle and would have to hike across the ridge line for a bit.

The closer we got, the more my anxiety was triggered.

I must say that the hike was actually BETTER than what I had gathered from the videos. The woods. which comprised the first third or so of the ascent, were stunningly beautiful. Below are a few of my favorite images from within forest.

The forest on the way up
Have I mentioned I love the forest?
The trail was full of diverse beauty

The trail transitioned from forest, to rocks, to full-blown scree, with variations and transitions within and between each. I attempt to show some of those differences in the next 11 photos below.

This was a strange juxtaposition between forest on the left and a massive pile of scree on the right
Right past that first pile of scree, was this scene at the apex of a hill. Straight ahead is Lake Williams. The trail goes left.
This was taken at the same place as the above photo. Note the stones and trees.
Here is a good transition point where there are less trees and more rocks.
We then came across this cool scree pile. The rocks were pink. I have never seen that before.
Another fun transition – fewer and fewer trees, more rocks and even wildflowers out in the sun.
Yours truly before we get totally above the tree line (Can’t rmember whether Kathy or Richard took this pic)
This picture looks like it is going downhill. It is actually part of the ascent.
Richard on one of the many incredible viewpoints on the trail. Williams Lke picture about 1000 ft below.
Almost out of the trees entirely at this point.
Kathy makes her way across one of the snow/scree combo areas.
Richard carefully steps through one of the several scree fields as we near the summit
Above the snow, scree and trees, Kathy pauses on the trail as we can see the summit from this point
Speaking of snow, Richard caught this great snap moments after I sunk into the snow.

We made several stops along the way to refuel, rest and fortify our resolve. It was fun getting to know Kathy. She is a P.E. teacher and softball coach from Texas. She is an experience outdoor person and spoke hiking, skiing and traveling. She has a very pleasant and calming, friendly demeanor.

The climb and elevation change in a short distance was taking its toll on us. We each had a range of experience with hiking, climbing and elevation. We had to make more frequent stops to catch our breath as we got higher and closer to the summit.

It was exhilarating hiking and seeing all of the beauty.

One part of the beauty was seeing the many marmots and a few mountain goats. I got a couple of fun pictures of the marmots. The mountains goats we far off on a ridge, so the photo is not so strong.

The mountain goats

The wildlife made for a nice distraction from the physical toll the climb was taking. The marmots were all over and they popped in and out of the rocks in the scree. It was almost like a game of whack of mole.

The Saddle and the Summit

When we made it up the last stretch of trail to the saddle, we were thrilled and I was just on the verge of my acrophobic anxiety episode.

In the video below, shot on my cell phone by Richard, you can see me going to me knees and staring at the ground. Once on the saddle, that is all I could do. If I stood up, I would see out into the distance and get a strong sense of falling down and impending death.

Yes, I know the saddle is wide. Yes, I know it was not sheer cliff-like. Yes, I know it was safe. All of that is logical.

But for me, acrophobia has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with logic. It just is.

It’s ok to smile and laugh at the video. I laugh at it…now.

In the video above, you can see Kathy looking at me as I am on the ground. Then Richard pans the camera around to show the view. I asked him to do that because I could not do it without freaking out.

While the camera was not on me, Kathy gently encouraged me to get up and start to finish the last portion to the mountain peak.

Me on the saddle. Kathy took the photo for me while I had my eyes closed

Kathy’s experience teaching, coaching and just being an all-around nice person, really came into play for me when we reached the saddle. I was convinced I was not going another step and I was willing to accept falling a bit short of making it to the summit that was about 200 yards away.

I was trapped in a negative cycle of anxiety based thinking. I was unable to coach myself.

This is where Kathy worked her magic.

She held the determination that I was unable to muster. She said, “We are going to do this. Only a little bit to go. I want you to just look at my feet. Focus on my feet.”

Another Richard Barron shot. This one showing me dutifully following Kathy up to the summit.

The saddle was wide enough, that if I intently focused on her feet, then I would not see anything else, most importantly, I would not see out into the distance.

“Focus on my feet”, she repeated.

My eyes were like laser darts on the backs of her heels. One step at a time.

Somehow, Kathy was able to guide me across the three small remaining inclines. I say “small” now, but they did not seem small while I was there finishing the ascent!

Richard gave me plenty of space following behind and within moments, all three of us were on the official peak of Wheeler. The photo at the top of this post shows the three of us at this point.

Here is link to a story that Richard published in the Ada Evening News upon his return home.

Below is a compilation video from all along the journey.

Another view of the three of us on the summit.

This hike was fabulous start to finish. I was thrilled to be spending some time with my friend Richard. I was happy to have made a new friend in Kathy. Finally I was proud to have overcome challenge to complete the hike as desired.

Since I was the tallest person on Wheeler Peak, I was techically the highest point in the state.

I love being on the trail and now that I have surpassed 13,000 feet, I can’t help but wonder what is next.

Stay tuned.


Be sure to check out Richard’s blog post that not only has amazing images from this hike but also his entire visit to NM.

CLICK HERE FOR LINK TO HIS BLOG POST

I will end with a re-write of a famous Afroman song.

I was gonna climb a mountain to get high.
I hiked up 3000 feet and then I was high.
My feet are still hurting today and I know why…
Cuz I got high,
Cuz I got high
I touched the sky.

I cannot wait to get high again!

Hike Info

Below is info about Wheeler Peak from Wikipedia.

Wheeler Peak is the highest natural point in the U.S. state of New Mexico. It is located northeast of Taos and south of Red River in the northern part of the state, and just 2 miles (3.2 km) southeast of the ski slopes of Taos Ski Valley. It lies in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost subrange of the Rocky Mountains. The peak’s elevation is 13,167 feet (4,013 m).

Formerly named Taos Peak, after the nearby town of Taos, New Mexico, it was renamed Wheeler Peak in 1950.[3] A plaque at the summit states that the mountain was:

Named in honor of Major George Montague Wheeler (1832–1909) who for ten years led a party of surveyors and naturalists collecting geologic, biologic, planimetric and topographic data in New Mexico and six other southwestern states.

The AllTrails map of the hike
The stats from the hike

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