WINTER ASCENT (WILLIAMS LAKE TRAIL)
by Roger Roots,
Hawkins, Texas December 2013
I was driving from Texas to Montana and decided to swing wide into New Mexico and try to “bag” Wheeler Peak on the way. I’ve been occupied as a college instructor in Texas, so I didn’t have any cold-weather outdoor gear with me. When I opened the door of my car in the Taos Valley parking lot, the temperature was twenty degrees. I put a second pair of dress slacks over my first pair and doubled up my socks inside my New Balance running shoes. I left the car at 7:00 a.m. as the sun was coming up.
Snow at the base was above mid thigh but the beginning of the trail was well packed by skiers and snowshoers. At about the 2-mile point, a smaller trail led off through snow toward the right and to the summit. It was this trail that turned out to be treacherous. I postholed through the surface and up to my thighs at least a few dozen times. This was extremely draining.
After a few switchbacks in this manner, I managed to scramble up to some exposed rocks. Eventually I worked my way up to the top ridgeline by way of various rocky areas and shallow snow fields.
The weather forecast had predicted great weather in the Taos valley. But as I gained elevation, there were fewer and fewer mountains around me to break the wind. By the time I reached the top ridge, the wind was ferocious, blasting me from the right with what must have been gusts of 70 miles an hour or higher. The wind chill easily penetrated through my leather work gloves.
Thankfully, I had worn a heavy black leather jacket which stopped the wind on my torso fairly well. But when I reached the monument at the summit I was so wasted from the wind that my fingers simply didn’t work. I flopped down on the “lee” side of the monument to catch my breath and try to warm my fingers before I addressed the summit register.
Eventually, I realized the safest decision was to get off the top as quickly as possible. I took a couple pictures, opened the iron pipe register, dropped my gloves and pulled out a pad and pencil that was inside the pipe. Unable to sign my name in a normal manner, I wielded the pencil like a knife blade and scratched my name and the incorrect date. (I saw that the signature directly above mine indicated someone had been there on December 12 and blanked out as to what the date was; I entered December 13, but I realized later it was December 18.)
It was on the descent that this trip turned harrowing. I plodded quickly down by the most direct route possible, finding that the blasting wind grew weaker with each hundred feet of elevation loss. I made the decision to glissade down a large steep snowfield, assuming that its entirety was made up of the kind of snow that existed at the top, which was somewhat powdery. Instead, I found myself gaining speed on the icy surface of a hard-packed snowfield that I was unable to claw or kick into. Even worse, I was flopping, rolling and twisting awkwardly—at times plummeting downward ON MY BACK, HEAD FIRST toward large rocks at the bottom.
For a moment I thought I may have climbed my last highpoint or maybe even breathed my last breath. If I became incapacitated by slamming into the rocks I would surely die there, as no one was anywhere within miles and my broken body would not be located until spring. I had not even notified anyone of my intention to climb Wheeler and no one who knows me was even aware that I was in New Mexico. At best someone might notice when my car with Texas plates seemed to be there for an unusually long period of days and start wondering about its driver.
But it was not to be my last breath. Even as my body reached breakneck speed down the ice, the snowfield turned softer near the bottom, and my running shoes plunged into this softer snow shortly before hitting the rocks, causing me to flip over onto the rocks in a fairly gentle manner. I was left hyperventilating on my back with my head pointed downhill. I was in shock but still alive.
After I caught my breath I made my way to another snowfield and stupidly tried to glissade this one in a similar manner while holding a sharp rock for use as an impromptu ice axe. Once again, I slipped into a direct plummet downward on an icy snow surface. And once again my life was saved only because the ice layer gave way to a powdery surface just before the snow met the rocks at the bottom. By now I was more leery of the snowfields and started to pluck my way down on rocks and brushy snow areas that looked quite shallow.
The steepness gradually faded and the snowfields grew softer. I tried sledding down a few snowfields on my slacks and made it down a few hundred feet. Then when the grade grew less steep, I flopped around on my back and kicked my way down headfirst, a trick I used to get down Mt. Hood in 2011. Anything other than postholing step after step through the snow.
Eventually I had to try to walk, and postholed at almost every step. When I got back onto packed trail I was quite grateful. There was some melting going on, but by and large the packed trail from the Lake turnoff to the trailhead was well packed and held my weight.
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A Solo Winter Climb of New Mexico's Wheeler Peak
WINTER ASCENT (WILLIAMS LAKE TRAIL)