Mt. Wheeler, the highest mountain in New Mexico, a commonly climbed peak, but challenging none the less…
My girlfriend and I first struck up the idea to climb it late one evening while eating dinner together. To be honest, I wasn’t totally convinced we would make it a reality. She was eager to make her first summit attempt. I was a bit more reserved, id made summits and fallen short of them before, but all with Sight Unseen. If the trip really did take place it would be my first summit without the team.
I agreed, excitedly and with a hint of caution. Immediately she started looking into the different kinds of gear she would need. She had been backpacking before, but never a summit. We had gone to Cabela’s a few months earlier and picked out a good starter pack for her, other than a pair of boots it was all she had for a trip. We stopped in at the local gear store in Arlington; it was like she was a 4year old in a toy store again, Kind of like I was when I first started getting in to mountaineering.
I had a few spare gear items for her to use, she was quickly learning all the basics, the brands we like, why we like them and the differences between types of things. I enjoyed being the mentor. We got her all set up and just needed a date and time to leave. This was the part I knew would cause problems.
I was still interning at the city of Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management to finish up my degree. I had been there since the start of the summer, and it was already early July before we had everything we needed. Finally we hammered out a timeframe. August 4th, we would leave with her dad, drive to Cimerron New Mexico and stay in their family’s cabin out in the hills, about an hour from the trail head.
At this point I was a little nervous mixed with frustration. Naturally I had to know where we were going, the trail we would take, the time frame, and all the essentials. For some reason my Google powers were quickly failing. Information on the mountain was hard to come by, a few sporadic trip reports, each one with different and conflicting information. I tried to plan our route the best I could with Google maps, but that’s not always reliable. Worst case scenario plans kept forming faster than an actual climbing plan ever did. I figured we might have better luck with information once we were actually there, so I locked down the emergency plan in case we were just out of luck.
Before I knew it we were piling into her dads pickup, the monster truck, as Caitlin’s 2 year old nephew would call it. We headed out to their cabin; her dad came to do some maintenance on it and would take us to and from the trail head. The evening before we started our climb, her dad handed me a guidebook he found in the cabin. “A guide to New Mexoc’s Mountians”, I flipped to the section on Mt Wheeler, reading through the many different trails to take. It was the first real bit of information regarding trails I had seen. It eased my concerns as I found the trail we were planning on taking.
The following morning we drove out to the trail head. Long winding mountain roads littered the path to the trail head. It was a good feeling to be back in the hills again. Eventually we found ourselves driving along a one lane, gravel road that lead to the parking area for the trail head. We went over the plan again and set off. The first leg of the climb would be roughly 8 miles to lost lake, our camp site. From there, we would get an early start to the summit and plan to be off the mountain by about 6pm the next day. As we started moving up the steep switchbacks, my heel started rubbing on my boot. I hadn’t worn them in awhile but I didn’t think they would hurt. We stopped and covered the hotspot, hoping to prevent a blister, luckily it did.
As we kept moving we stopped for lunch, a delicious combination of cliff bars and my personal favorite, gold fish. We had been hiking for a few hours and had gone roughly 4 miles, moving fast in some places and slower in others. Eventually we reached the altitude where we would start to traverse around protruding bends in the mountain, opening up the spectacular view of the valley below. Being visually impaired I could only actually see bits and pieces. Just knowing where we were and feeling the cool mountain breeze was exhilarating.
After crossing a few more bends we came up to lost lake. It was a small, crystal clear mountain lake at about 9,850. As I looked up I saw the dark rain clouds coming in, so we quickly searched for a campsite, hoping we could get everything set up before it started to rain. In a rush we found a rather sub par place, pitched the tent and hunkered down for what we were sure would be a heavy storm. It started to drizzle, and quickly stopped. It teased us for about an hour before we both were fed up with the site and the weather so we got up, put on our boots and went to look for a better site.
Not but 25 yards away we found a good one. Another group was camping not far from there, so we picked up our gear and quickly moved. As we started to settle in, a heard of mountain goats came striding through the camp area. Young and old, big and small, they constantly ran through the area, all day long, stopping only to stare at us.
Dinner time came and I broke out the whisperlite. It had been giving me problems before we left and I was praying it would be in a good mood. I was hungry. I started to work with it and it kept dying on me. Caitlin came over to take a look, and go figure, it fired right up for her on the first try. Not thinking much of it we slapped together a quick mountain house meal that soothed the soul.
We went to bed early, anticipating an early start. When the time came though, we didn’t leave until about 7am. We decided to go fast and light, taking only one pack, loaded with water and an extra warm layer. Eventually we came up on Horseshoe Lake at about 11,500 ft. We could see the summit. It looked closer than we thought. As we kept moving we came to a fork in the trail, naturally we took the more defined one which took us across a steep basin to a ridge just below the summit where it switched back. The summit was literally 30 feet above us with the trail leading on past the peak in the wrong direction.
Normally I don’t endorse what we did but the trail was becoming rather annoying with this many switchbacks and teasing manner. So we took our own path vertically about 30 feet until we reconnected with the trail again. We were at the summit, 13,161 feet. There were a few people already there, having lunch, signing the registry at the top and taking pictures. We did our share of the same and spent about 30 minutes admiring the view, savoring the moment. I was in awe that we had even made it a reality. Our first climb as a couple. It had more emotional value than physical, immensely different from a team summit, but still a summit.
As we followed the trail down, we ended up coming to the top of Mt Walter, Wheeler’s sister peak at about 13, 141. Not expecting it, we stopped and savored a second summit before heading back to lost lake. It was an interesting experience, two summits in as many hours.
On our way down we stopped for a quick rest at lost lake before packing up and heading out. The whole way down we discussed how we had actually just made our first summit together. Caitlin started talking about how she wanted to continue backpacking and mountaineering. It seemed as though a new found passion had been born. I was glad to hear her say that. While descending to the parking lot we kept discussing different peaks we could try, when the best time would be to climb them. Looking back on it now she was acting the same way I was after returning from Peru in 2006.
It was the first trip of many and the beginning of something new. I can only wonder where the next climb will be.