Wheeler Peak Wilderness Adventure
For the last 11 years that I have lived in New Mexico, a mid-winter staple has been our annual trip to one of the rustic yurts maintained by the Southwest Nordic Center. Operated in cooperation with the Rio Grande and Carson National Forests, these yurts provide a comfortable backcountry wilderness home for those who love the rigors of mountain adventure and appreciate the simple luxury of a small woodstove and a warm, dry respite from the storms– both literal and metaphorical-of life.
Four of these dwellings straddle the New Mexico/Colorado border at Cumbres Pass near Chama, NM. The other, The Bull of the Woods yurt, nestles in a valley at 10,800 feet in the mountains north of Taos, NM. It was to this place that we went February 3-6, 2015. The party consisted of myself, my lovely wife, my 62 -year- old mother visiting from northern New York State, our New Mexico friend Jackie (who completed her 52nd year of life during the trip), and another upstate NY visitor, Silent Kyle.
Day 1: Up To The Meadow
The ascent to the yurt begins at a bracing altitude of 9,300′ with an in-your-face view of the drool-inducing bumps on Al’s Run at Taos Ski Valley. Climbing stiffly for about 2 miles, the trail provides an unmonitored cardiac stress test and delightful views of the Taos Ski Valley (including the new lift on Kachina Peak!)
My mother Sue had expressed concerns about experiencing altitude sickness, but proved to be a trooper and made the climb, bearing her circa 1981 JanSport external frame backpack, without a single whimper. When the group arrived at the yurt, we promptly threw ourselves into the rhythm of this by-now-comfortingly familiar ritual.
Clearing snow off the deck, melting snow on the woodstove for drinking water, stacking split wood inside the yurt, stoking the emphysemic woodstove, making scatological observations about the tower of feces in the dank pit of the pre-enjoyed outhouse, setting up our “refrigerator”- a plastic tub full of snow- in the far…I can’t really say corner, of the yurt.
We disgorge from our backpacks the rations for the following few days (Indian Dal, bacon, eggs, steak, quinoa, bell peppers, Cabernet, bacon, cheese, onions, garlic, bourbon and oh, yes, bacon!)
We pore over maps, talk about Ed Viesturs, George Leigh Mallory, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir, and read aloud the Bible and Robert Service poetry.
Sleep is a farce, interrupted by the comforting crackle of the burning wood, the less pleasant incessant squeaking of the steel bunk beds and the frequent need to clamber out of one’s sleeping bag and totter to the outhouse to pee and gape at the bright universe sprinkled across the fierce black night.
Nonetheless, we feel the peace of the mountains.
Day 2: Gold Hill
The day dawned the color of the peak that was to be it’s bugaboo. We did not dawn with it, but snoozed till 8 AM, breakfasted richly and lolled about for several hours sipping coffee.
Gold Hill is a 12,711′ peak to the northwest of New Mexico’s highest mountain, 13,161′ Wheeler Peak. We had summited Wheeler in the winter several years ago buffeted by ferocious winds and groped by frigid temperatures the entire time. We stumbled back to the haven of the yurt nearly hypothermic, blue-lipped and spent. The following winter, Gold Hill had proved to be a relatively easy ascent in fine weather with fantastic views, fantastic snow, and a positively delicious ski down through steep glades of evergreens.
Silent Kyle and I decided to re-climb Gold Hill with the idea of acclimatizing a bit for a possible attempt on Wheeler Peak the next day. Rather than taking the trail, we chose to exercise our wilderness route-finding and compass skills and, taking a bearing from a topographical map, plunged into the untracked snow heading up the slope to the northwest of the yurt. We carried backpacks with food, extra clothes, water and emergency supplies. Climbing skins on the bottom of our skis allowed us to wend our way uphill through the forest, which was draped with old man’s beard.
The snow was a baseless mush, not well-consolidated, and occasioned frequent sinking to the thigh. We pressed upward, battling our way through the cumbrous obstacle, confident in our endurance and experience.
As the gravity-battle continued, however, our legs leadened after, with the accumulated steps, they had lifted literally tons of the wet snow. We reached the summit ridge after 3 pm quite fatigued, and realizing that the course of wisdom would be to retreat.
After enjoying the stunning southward views towards Mt. Walter, Wheeler Peak, and the mountains above Taos Ski Valley, we stripped the climbing skins from our skis and prepared to descend. The heavy snow with it’s varied texture was a flat out disaster. We floundered our way down the mountain and through the pines, falling frequently.
The extreme attention required to avoid cracking our skulls on trees led us to not pay enough attention to where we were going. At some point during the debacle, I realized that we had strayed too far to the south and were headed for the steep rocky cliffs tottering above Lost Canyon.
Not good. Who wants to end up at a place with a name like that?
We were able to escape from our dilemma only by making a seemingly endless grueling up mountain traverse to the northeast. Eventually, we cut our previous track from the climb up and skied back down through the forest to the welcome sight of lazy smoke drifting from the yurt stovepipe.
Water and Knob Creek soon restored us and a pleasant time was had by all as we dined on heaping plates of Bethany’s macaroni and cheese liberally enhanced with garlic and bacon.
Night crept across the white meadow, we melted snow and snuggled into our sleeping bags. I dozed off with the events of the bright day flashing like old-school filmstrips across the inside of my eyelids.
Day 3: Of Sheep And Dirty Toenails
We are fully into the groove of simplicity now. We add fresh chopped pine needles to our water to diminish the unpleasant boiled flavor. 25 degrees in the sun is T-shirt weather and we spend some time on the porch soaking up sun and being ogled by hungry Gray Jays. Coffee, scrambled eggs, sauteed vegetables and a certain ubiquitous porcine ingredient fuel us for the day.
The plan is for Bethany, Silent Kyle, and I to climb up onto Fraser Mountain (12,163′) where we hope to spot some Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. Mom and Jackie will accompany us part of the way, planning to top out on Bull of the Woods Mountain (11,657′) and then turn around.
We begin climbing up around the shoulder of Bull Of The Woods Mountain, enjoying the views of Red River off to the northeast and later, the Taos Ski Valley below to the south. The snow is more pleasant today, although we do have some caking on the bottom of our climbing skins. The sky is the pure blue of beautiful eyes, and the sun is classic southwestern brilliance.
We dance fretfully across a rather exposed slope and reach the col , greeted by the north wind blasting over a ridgeline. Here we part ways, Jackie and Mom heading up BOW Mountain while we press upward toward the glistening peak ahead. Through the clear air, we two groups watch each other’s progress.
We cross a few exposed sections of mountainside, where cliffs plummet dizzily hundreds of feet below us. The surface underski is a rough mix of wind-packed snow and broken chunks of rock. We tentatively ascend, staying away from the curling lips of fragile cornice which festoons the cliff edges.
Bethany is in the lead for most of the way, climbing quickly as Silent Kyle and I follow. We reach the summit, and snap some pictures. Silent Kyle, never one for excessive elocution (according to legend, his first words-at age 3- were, “Please pass the mayonaise.”) mumbles a few observations about the spectacular scenery and wonders aloud if the sheep have adjourned to greener pastures.
We turn to head down hill and Bethany “hists!” us to a standstill. There they are, 4 large rams with ornately curled horns! Their grace and majesty are breathtaking as they lie comfortably in the spanking wind, nibbling the stunted alpine grasses. We have always marveled at their seemingly effortless ability to lightly bound up formidable mountainsides.
We approach nearer, taking pictures and being further impressed by the rolling musculature of the animals. They seem to confabulate and then decide to vamoose, disappearing around the slope, not afraid, but clearly valuing their solitude.
Our goal is accomplished and we set off down the peak, the late afternoon sunshine glaring off the crusty snow. Downhill we go, cruising around the rocky areas and skidding across the icy snow. The metal edges of our lightweight backcountry skis chatter in protest as we force them to bite into the irregular corduroy. Bethany is attempting to take video while skiing and drops her camera, which skitters down and away for several hundred yards. We wait as she adroitly slices her way down the ridge to reacquire it.
I am worried that she has too casual an attitude toward the cliffs that we will shortly perambulate, and insist that she stash the camera and focus on skiing. I never used to be so careful or worried, but I suppose maturity and experience have etched their wrinkle of reason. (I talk more about this malady here.)
A beautiful ski is had by all once we reach the softer, less wind-pummeled snow. We glide down, not in the testosterone-charged alpine style, but in the boyishly exuberant bliss brought on by the inherent instability of our lightweight 3-pin gear. Bethany resumes filming, pausing several times to catapult through the air and plunge her face into the cold, cold snow.
We arrive back at the yurt only moments behind the duo of Mom and Jackie, who move at more sedate pace on their snowshoes.
A sumptuous feast of brisket, potatoes and Cabernet is prepared as we snack on some quinoa tabbouleh which Mom has prepared and offers to us at 15 second intervals for the remainder of our time in the mountains.
We “round” off the evening with more poetry reading and Dirty Toenails, an invigorating beverage invented by my ever-creative wife and named after an eponymous scrap generously left by a previous yurt occupant!
2 squares of milk chocolate, melted in a tin cup on a woodstove
generous splash of Knob Creek Kentucky Bourbon
Day 4: Out Of The Woods
The final day of our adventure is always an admixture of sadness and satisfaction.
Mom is pleased that she didn’t succumb to altitude sickness or fatigue and that her ancient backpack has received some necessary TLC. Jackie glows happily with a newfound mountain comfort, a greater sense of awareness and topographic proprioception. Silent Kyle doesn’t say much. Bethany, always an animal lover, revels in having had a close encounter with wildlife and looks forward to seeing her cat. I am humbled by my navigational blunder on Gold Hill, but content that I kept my wits and that we didn’t get lost or damaged.
The descent to our vehicle is a horrendous melange of falling, flailing, floundering and in Silent Kyle’s case, wrenching his knee severely enough to necessitate taking off his skis and limping the rest of the way down. (He’s tough, though, and heals soon enough to trek a section of the Continental Divide Trail before returning to New York. More on this in a later post.)
The tonic of wilderness has refreshed me, the companionable silence of starlight and pine rinsed my soul clean of the detritus of civilization, and I return to it equal to the task. We are what we breathe, and I have breathed basic truth, beauty, and friendship for a few precious days.
Have you spent a night in a yurt? tipi? hogan? longhouse? wickiup? Have you smelled the sweetness of starlight in winter? Do your muscles and blood yearn for the hit of altitude? If you need to talk, we are listening...leave a comment!