that_guy_zach and I tried to do Wheeler five years ago. He was sick, we were slow, the day was getting late and weather was rolling in, so we quit about 3:00 p.m. and headed back down the mountain. I was determined to nail the peak this time, and I did -- but it was the roughest day hiking I can ever recall, in my entire life.
Being five years older and twenty-five pounds heavier didn't help much, but the altitude is the real factor, I think. It's only six miles or so from the trailhead to the summit, so I assumed that Wheeler would be like Marcy or Ben Nevis -- and, considering its rise from the trailhead, maybe that's so. But the trailhead itself starts at 9200' above sea level, and then rises almost 4000' to the summit at 13,161'.
Herewith, then, is the story, admixed with other matter (and plenty of photos, all of which can be enlarged by clicking upon).
I arrived in Colorado Springs in the morning and called the directors of the John Wesley Ranch, who arranged for me to tour the facilities there. This is a church camp operated by Colorado Springs First UMC. We plan to use it next year as the staging and preparation area for our first-ever UM Philmont Trek.
The JW Ranch is at Divide, Colorado, just below Pikes Peak. As I drove there and back, I noticed one little town is called Bust, Colorado (as in, "Pikes Peak or Bust"). Josh, a 20-year-old working there, showed me around. The facilities are quite adequate, and the area is very beautiful. I've been getting over the crud, so the 9400' elevation at the JW Ranch really walloped me.
After getting the grand tour, I headed down I-25 to New Mexico. I stopped in at Philmont to buy souvenirs at the Tooth of Time Traders (oh, the goodies!). Then I drove through the mountains, past Taos, and camped in the Carson National Forest right beside a rushing mountain stream in full spate from snowmelt.
The next morning, I was up at 4:00 a.m. local time and at the trailhead by 5:30, ready for anything. My goal was to summit by noon.
|John Wesley Ranch
|Carson National Forest
|Wheeler Peak trail map
It was just getting light as I started up the trail. And when I say, up, I mean UP. The first 1.8 miles up to Bull-of-the-Woods Pasture are really steep. For the first mile, one follows a tumbling stream; after that, one works around the mountainside until reaching Bull-of-the-Woods Pasture, a lovesome spot for a rest. I reached the pasture at nearly 7:30 a.m. 'Bout a mile an hour -- not bad, I thought, for so steep a trail. Wheeler would be mine before you knew it.
7:30 a.m. meant 9:30 a.m. back home. Church was just getting ready to start. So while I rested and sipped water at Bull-of-the-Woods, I prayed for all the people back home, and for the church, and for my critters, and for my family. Solo hiking is like being on retreat. You and God have a lot to say to each other. But even being apart from others, you are still connected to them and to everyone else, and praying for others is a better use of your time than feeling sorry for yourself.
I was carrying only 2.5 liters of water, but I brought my trusty filter, and I planned on refilling at Bull-of-the-Woods Pasture on the way back down. I also noticed that someone has built a doggone road to a private home at Bull-of-the-Woods. It's probably a private road; still, fantasies of driving to the pasture and hiking the peak from there were tantalizing.
The trail continued to rise, though not as steeply. I describe my method of attack as the "one-man caterpillar." When a crew is caterpillaring, the person in the rear starts forward while everyone else stands in line. As each rearmost person reaches the third person ahead of him, he calls out for the next person to start. As each person passes the head of the line, he takes a few steps and stops to rest in position. In this way, the whole crew looks like a tractor tread in motion. The result is, everybody rests as much as climbs, but the crew as a whole makes steady progress. Well, when you're on your own, all you can do is rest every few steps, which is what I found myself doing. My heart was pounding, and my head was a bit light, but with frequent pauses and sips of water, I kept going.
Near the top of Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain, I reached the Red River Canyon Overlook, then turned along the ridgeline toward Wheeler Peak. Snow lay in patches here and there -- about 11,200'. The snowpack was patchy, but increased as I climbed higher. Several groups had passed me on the trail. One group of two men and one woman, all about my age, I kept catching up to.
I noticed that the trail signs were better and the trail showed signs of improvement since I was last here, five years ago. From Bull-of-the-Woods Mountain, the trail crossed over the hump of Frazer Mountain, and came down on the other side. There, La Cal Basin stretched out below me.
La Cal is the shallow head of a canyon. The trail just seems to get lost there. I mean, you can see it on both sides of the basin, but in between, the ground is steep and rocky and full of snow patches, with no obvious way to easily cross. It's frustrating, and I was already getting tired. This is where that_guy_zach and I finally gave up five years ago.
The only good thing about La Cal is that I was finally out of the wind, which was blowing fiercely on the mountainside. The sun was shining brightly, but the wind was very cold. I was in shorts, but I had a flannel jacket on under my raincoat/wind breaker. I wasn't too uncomfortable, but my knees are feeling the burn now. I had foolishly brought mosquito repellent on my hike, but not sunblock. Live and learn.
There were lots of interesting critters in and around La Cal Basin. There were bighorn sheep and lots of marmots. The marmots were all too frisky to pose for a photo, except for the dead one in the middle of the trail. There were also robins and ground squirrels.
Marmots are basically groundhogs. In Pennsylvania, they call them whistlepigs. I thought at first a bird was calling from time to time, but marmots whistle to each other at signs of danger.
Working my way up the far side of La Cal Basin, I finally saw what I took to be Wheeler Peak peering over the side of the mountain I was on. It was only a half mile away -- I thought. It wasn't until I was completely on the level with this false summit that Wheeler Peak finally showed himself. I had another half mile or more to go, and I was so tired that I was shaky, headachy, and even sometimes slightly faint.
I pressed on, very, very slowly, reciting Psalms of Ascent -- especially Psalm 121 -- and finally summitted at 1:10 p.m. I flopped down for an hour of rest and some food, mostly out of the wind, which was blocked by a cirque of stones at the very peak. Three Philmont staffers were there. One, Brian, had packed a watermelon up to the top, which he proceeded to slice up and share around with his trusty pocketknife. I figured for sure he was a Ranger, but no, he worked in videography. At Philmont, even the artistes are buff.
There were a dozen or more people, and a couple of large, happy dogs at the top. Several people found they got cell phone reception up there, though it was spotty.
I finally started back down just after 2:00 p.m. I was already exhausted, and the trip down was as slow and painful as any hiking I've ever done. Plus, I was out of water. I still had a mile to go before I reached Bull-of-the-Woods Pasture, when I found a wee rivulet on the mountainside. It was just a tiny flow of melting snow in the middle of the muddy path, maybe an inch wide by an inch or so deep, but it looked like my intake hose's prefilter might stay in it and suck. I easily pumped a whole liter bottle, which I sipped on all the way down to Bull-of-the-Woods Pasture. It was like the miracle of water from the rock, and I was profoundly grateful to God for it.
Meanwhile, my guts were cramping, and my bowels were hyper-active. TMI, I know, but I tell you, if I'd had any way to stay warm and dry on the mountain, I would have been severely tempted to spend the night up there, just to stop moving.
Back at Bull-of-the-Woods Pasture, I rested a goodish while and pumped more water. Then, I started down the agonizingly steep trail to the trailhead. I finally got back to my starting point around 8:30 p.m. Fifteen hours on the trail, in all. I was utterly whipped.
Slowly, painfully, I got out my tent and pitched it right there at the trailhead. I went immediately to bed. I had done it. I don't ever have to do it again. God is good. All the time.
In the morning, I discovered that my rental car -- a Chevy HHR (= Humongous Heap of Rubbish) -- wouldn't let me turn the key. The ignition was locked up tight. Fortunately, my cell phone was working, and I could call for help. At 7:30 a.m., the rental company said they would get somebody working on it as soon as their office in Santa Fe opened. At 8:00 a.m., the Santa Fe guy called me and said he'd be up there with a replacement car by 11:00 a.m. At 12:30, he finally arrived, I signed for a new car, and I was on my way.
I used the time while waiting productively. I took a field bath. Washed my hair and shaved in the campsite, then took some warm water and soap up to the latrine and washed my less presentable parts. That was the only bath I got in four days on this trip. I had no other time to do it, either, so it was time well spent.
Breathing in the air of the Western mountains, it occurred to me how much I have missed the smell of sagebrush.
Once I got my replacement car, I hightailed it over the mountains to Philmont, where I got to my seminar with only an hour to spare. I presented my NAUMS stuff at the UM Scouters Workshop and had supper with the Methodists. My, the food at PTC has improved! Unbelievable chow.
I camped the night in Cimarron Canyon S.P. The next morning, I was up early and had breakfast at Heck's (no visit to Cimarron is complete with some sort of meal there). Then, it was back up the road to Colorado Springs.
I got there way early, so I dinked over to Garden of the Gods to check it out. Then I got on my plane and took a nap. At O'Hare, I had to change terminals as well as planes. As I prepared to go down a flight of steps to the tarmac to catch the shuttle bus, an airport employee -- a nice African-American lady -- pulled me aside and said, "There are stairs down here and stairs up over there. Are you able to do stairs?" I suddenly realized that she was asking me because I was walking with a cane (my hiking stick). Astonished, all I could say was, "I just climbed Wheeler Peak in New Mexico!"
Philmont Scout Ranch
|Garden of the Gods
As seen from Garden of the Gods