Wheeler Peak -- Winter Climb
Every year, I try to get in at least one winter climb. I guess I should say "winter-like" climb since I typically go in March or April when days are longer, snow is hard, and the avalanche danger is much lower. By early May this year, I was starting to think I'd waited too long to get that true "alpine" feel to a mountain climb this season.
I ended up climbing 13,000-foot Wheeler Peak in Great Basin N.P., and if anything, it was a little more "wintery" than I expected.
Above: Spring thaw has certainly commenced in the high country, but there is an astoundingly large amount of snow yet to melt.
The normal access to the 10,000-foot Wheeler Peak trailhead is via the Scenic Drive. But you're not going to get too far up that road before hitting snow. So I decided to start at the Upper Lehman Campground at 7,600 feet, leaving me with a 7-mile (14 round-trip), 6,400-foot hike ahead of me .
Above: my first look at Wheeler Peak (high peak on right). Storm clouds threatened throughout the day. All I could do is hope that it would be clear when I got to the summit.
Conditions varied considerably throughout the day. The first mile or so was snow-free--then hard snow that I could walk right on top of with no snowshoes. Once I made it to the Wheeler Peak Campground, the snow had softened enough to where I began post-holing several inches, so out acme the snowshoes.
Above: I hope you didn't have any plans to camp at Wheeler Peak Campground on Memorial Day Weekend. It wouldn't surprise me if snow still lingered by the July 4th holiday.
Above: the eastern face of Wheeler that appears in most photos of the peak make it look practically unclimbable, but as you can see above, the the northern summit ridge is fairly mellow and doable without ropes and specialized equipment.
Above: the wind on the summit ridge was unbelievable. I'd say I had a steady and cold 40 mph wind the entire ridge. The last half mile or so was just steep and icy enough to require crampons.
I had descent weather and relatively mild temperatures until I reached the non-stop winds on the summit ridge. The wind passed right through the seems in my gloves and my fingers quickly went numb.
Above: the final knife-edge ridge traverse near the summit. Somewhere under all the snow is a small stone shelter that I've ducked into in the past to avoid lightning.
Above: the view of Jeff Davis Peak from the top of Wheeler.
A rather bizarre thing happened as I summitted. As I mentioned earlier, the wind blew incessantly on the ridge ascent. But the instant I reached the top, it became eerily calm. This was great for sitting down and taking in the view without having to worry about being blown off the mountain, but the combination of the noon-time sun and the lack of wind made my fingers quickly thaw, causing excruciating pain. I managed to snap just a couple of photos before I was on my may back down the mountain.
Above: view south from Wheeler's summit toward Baker Peak.
Above: brand new crampons are extremely sharp. Good for gripping icy snow, bad for pant legs. Looks like I need to get some heavy-duty gaiters to go along with these.
It was a great climb. I had a little light snow fall here and there, but otherwise, conditions were beautiful. I never saw another soul until I reached Wheeler Pk C.G. on the descent where I passed a cross-country skier that most likely came up the Scenic Drive. Navigation was easy, and my nutrition plan worked well--I felt well-energized the whole time. It took about 4.5 hours to get to the top and 3 hours to return, including time for photos and dealing with snowshoes/crampons.
On the drive back through Baker, I had to stop and check out the "Horse with No Name." Just one more memorable pile of junk lining the entrance to Great Basin.