Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hike 81: Wheeler Peak

Hiked Monday, August 9. Although listed as just 8.2 miles and 2,900 feet in altitude gain, the relatively high altitude of this trail (starts at 10,160 and finishes at 13,100 feet) made this hike a tough one. I could completely understand the "4-10 hour" length of time given for this hike: If someone is fully adapted to the altitude and in good aerobic condition, four hours would be easy. If one were of moderate conditioning but not yet adapted to hiking above 10,000 feet, it definitely could take 10 hours. As for me, I took 8 hours. I should have taken another 20 or 30 minutes and walked more along the rounded summit, but by the time I got to the top, I was too tired to think of that.

The recommended route is from the Wheeler Summit trailhead. If you instead attempt Wheeler Peak from the Alpine Lakes Loop/Bristlecone trailhead, it's actually about 1/4 mile shorter, but you need to gain an additional 350 feet or so in altitude. I took the recommended route. I was the first person that day to sign in at the trailhead register. During this entire hike, I saw all of five people on this trail. Two of them started out moments after me. Both soon passed me. One later turned around and did the Glacier trail, instead.

Because I had by now spent two nights sleeping at near 8,000 feet altitude, I didn't have an altitude problem at the start. Yes, the trail is pretty level, but even on the inclines, I could just about keep my normal 3 mph pace.

Just under one mile into the trail, we ran across a couple of deer. Ironically, this was less than .2 of a mile from where I ran across a deer the year before. Up through this area, the trail runs through a thick, mostly-Aspen forest.

Shortly thereafter, the Wheeler Peak trail merged with the Alpine Lakes Loop trail. They run along in tandem for about .1 mile, before the Wheeler Peak trail turns right and begins a winding ascent. After about .25 mile, I noticed we were now above Stella Lake, one of the two you pass along the Alpine Lakes Loop trail (which I had walked the previous year).

After another mile of compara-tively easy climbing, the trail moves above timber line. More climbing brought me to a saddle. What looked like several rock piles confused me, until I noticed they were actually crescent-shaped shields against the prevailing westernly winds. Indeed, just a bit higher up, the winds began to whip. I tightened my shell's hood around my face and continued up.

Soon, the incline became steeper. The air continued to thin as I cliimbed above 12,000 feet (which I'm pretty sure is higher than I've ever been on foot). Rest periods became more frequent, and I got to spend a lot of time admiring the view to the east. I was so out of breath that I was willing to be amused by some of the graffiti that had been etched into the dark portions of rocks along the trail. The one that said, "It's not worth it!" and "It's not too late to turnaround" were particularly entertaining.

A relatively larger picture of the rocks I crossed is uploaded here. Click on the pictures for better views:
While slowly moving up the trail, I also had plenty of time to admire the tundra-like plants scattered around me: Low, little plants with tiny flowers. Those pictures are pasted at the end of this post.

Of the eight total hours on this hike, I would suspect I spent three of them on that last 1,000 of altitude gain. It's steep and over talus. Sometimes you're on switchbacks, but often it's just heading straight up the hill.

[A cropped view of the picture above is here. The hiking man (first guy to the summit that day) is a little more obvious, and the contrast of the hiker against the big wide open is a a little clearer here.]

After one false summit (which, in reality, was not too much of a fakeout, since you could see the actual summit earlier in the hike), I reached the top somewhat unexpectedly. Several rock walls similar to what I saw at the saddle were at the top. A mailbox contained the summit register.

The summit is a rather rounded ridge. There's really not much of a "peak" to Wheeler Peak.

I enjoyed the view to the north on the way up. The views to the northwest and southeast were also great. Another cirque-like headwall peered back at me. Because of this mountain, I could not see as much of the large basin and next range over to the west from Wheeler Peak.

The white cut through the forest is the road that heads up to Wheeler Peak. If you blow the picture up (click on the picture), you can see Stella and Teresa Lakes.

What I did not realize until I was almost back in my car was how Wheeler Peak has such a long "scalp." I should have walked all the way to the end of the scalp for a view down on to the Bristlecone forest and glacier-like ice pocket. Ooops. That might be enough to convince me to try this trail again in a year or two.

Here's me doing my Eli Stone impersona-tion. If you saw the show, that might be funny. Or it might just be funny to me. You can see the 100 yards or so of "summit" that stretches behind me, with a little pile of rocks near the end. That's where I should have walked, just to look on over.

The initial part back down was also slow, because it's tough to pick your way down such a steep trail. Once I made it back to the timber line, however, my pace picked up. I'm sure I was making 3 mph on the last 1.5 miles (excluding the stops for pictures, of course).

At just about the same place I ran into the two deer on the way up, I saw a deer on the way down. No good pictures of him, though. So instead, here's another picture of one of the deer I saw in the morning, along with the two hikers who passed me.

Some flowers I saw along the way are below. I bought a little laminated, fold-out card with flowering plants of Great Basin, but I haven't come across it since I got home, yet. I hope it's somewhere so I can do my plant identifications.


  1. Yeah, the hiking part went well. The astronomy part was mostly clouded out and pretty frustrating, however. That's the official reason I went--to do some outreach with my telescope and join a few dozen other amateurs in celebrating the dark sky around Great Basin National Park. Unfortunately, the monsoonal flow was running pretty strong that weekend. Didn't affect the hiking much, but it did make doing astronomy pretty difficult.