Greg Heads up Wheeler Peak
The Williams Lake trail has ample parking, is easy to locate, and starts behind the Bavarian Inn near the Taos ski area. The trail is well used that travels, more or less, in a direct line to Williams Lake. In the winter time you will occasionally see cross country ski tracks going off the trail but the trail itself is well packed by snowshoers and hikers. One way will take about one and a half to two hours with approximately 800 feet of elevation gain starting at about 10,200 feet. The hike isn't overly strenuous but it will increase the heart rate and pushing yourself at that elevation could cause some shortness of breath. Stopping frequently to take in the spectacular mountain scenery helps to ease the heart rate and give the body a necessary break.
Arriving at Williams Lake in the winter time is well worth the energy expended. During the hike a ridge of mountains are on your right as you head south to the lake. This rocky ridgeline with peaks over 12,000 feet appears and disappears as you pass through the forest. Resting is pleasant and easy. The scenic views of these snow blanketed mountains and the stunted pines and boulders along the way create a broad range of shadows that crisscross the mountain sides. Occasional winter grasses will push through the snow seeking a bit of light as they sway quietly in the winter wind. The scenery might be sparser in the winter but the snowfall adds a type of stillness not felt in the summertime.
Williams Lake is actually a cirque formed by a glacier centuries ago. The lake sits in this bowl surrounded by some of the tallest peaks in New Mexico. Clearly visible are Mt. Walter directly west along with the ridgeline to Wheeler Peak. Lake Peak is slightly to the east as it joins with other unnamed peaks and forms the ridgeline that heads north to the ski area. After snowshoeing at this high elevation for over 2 miles resting amongst these majestic peaks is energizing and calming at the same time.
Unfortunately for this trip Luna wasn't along. She lost her dew claw playing with our other animals and was limping about the house. When I asked her about the hike she just held up her paw for my inspection. Sadly I told her she would have to stay home.
At the lake the sky was a crystal clear deep blue and the snow thick and fresh. One set of ski tracks crossed the lake and as I stared east looking at Lake Peak I recalled the difficulty of snowshoeing up there last year. I looked towards Wheeler Peak and the steep slope that went to the ridge between Wheeler and Walter. At Williams Lake there are two choices. Heading back down the trail is an easy two miles ending at the Bavarian Inn. There you can enjoy your favorite beverage along with a Bavarian style meal. Or, you attempt to get to Wheeler. The climb is steep, covering 2000 feet of elevation gain in less than 2 miles with the last ¾ mile gaining 1300 feet. It's a mix of snow, ice, rock, and frozen ground. Fortunately my crampons were dangling from a clip on my pack. There is a slight goat trail that can be followed in the summer but now it's covered. The way up is by line of sight, aiming for the saddle and digging in. The snow was deep and my heart rate was feeling the rise in altitude. Williams Lake is at 11,000 feet and Wheeler is 13,161 feet. The pace was slow with frequent rest stops not only to allow a break for my tachycardia but to enjoy the views back down to the lake.
After 12,000 feet the snow thins out and dealing with frozen rock and earth has to be faced in a safe manner. I took a photo break and switched to crampons and used my winter backpack to hold my snowshoes. The crampons worked well but at this elevation and slope my pace slowed so that every 20-30 steps I stopped and took a nice deep cleansing breath and then moved on up.
I had started later then I hoped and didn't reach Wheeler Peak until 3 pm. This only gave me a half hour to take some shots and enjoy the winter majesty of New Mexico's tallest mountain. My only regret was not having Luna along but then we've been here a few times in the warmer seasons.
Going back down is a cautious trek, the breathing gets easier but the chances for a slip and fall are greater than going up. Most mountaineering accidents occur on the way down. Being aware of my weight distribution and using my poles was the safest way. Staying mindful of the terrain was paramount. The trek down can be distracting because the mountain views are so close you feel as though you can reach out to them.
I knew it would be late getting back to Williams Lake, half way down the trail I put my headlight on and made it safely to my car by 6:30 pm.
Luna missed a fantastic hike. Since her foot is healing I told her next time we'll go the Santa Fe ski area and have some fun there.