New Mexico High Point
March 7 2022
I spent last week in Taos, New Mexico with Sophi and our dog. The plan was to ski a day or two, work the rest of the week, then head back to the Wyoming border Saturday morning. While on a mid day walk our little trio stopped into Taos Mountain Outfitters, partly to support a local outdoor retailer, but mostly because other businesses in Taos don’t seem to operate on any recognizable schedule and were closed.
The shop, in addition to being chock full of gear, had multiple references to Wheeler Peak in it. I made an offhand comment about it while handing my selection, a pair of ski socks with little beer mugs on them, over to the cashier. Something to the effect of: “oh, is that the tallest peak in the county or something.” “Not just the county,” he replied, “the state.” I shot a glance at Soph, she rolled her eyes, I started scheming.
We packed our bags Thursday night and arrived at the Wheeler Peak trailhead Friday around 7am. Coverage on the mountain didn’t look great from the Sentinel weekly imagery I have access to via my CalTopo subscription but we figured that at the very least skinning to the base of the mountain would allow Roca to stretch her legs. The avalanche forecast for the day hadn’t been the clearest. It basically stated: ‘conditions in the alpine are tricky today.’ Okay, cool, thanks. A fellow backcountry enthusiast, and clearly local given they parked at the beginning of the skin track instead of a quarter mile away like us, inquired about our objective as we walked by. They had dug two pits in the area the day before. Failures on CT, no propagation on ECT. Thanks for the beta, but hard to trust given I don’t know where the pits were dug or this person's background. Still, I enjoyed chatting with them.
The two mile approach to the Wheeler base had fairly low visibility. A morning squall moved in and we were snowed on for a majority of the trek. I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to see the route and the objective would be a non-starter. Fortunately the cloud ceiling raised just as we reached our first decision point. The satellite imagery proved to be accurate and we were looking at a small sliver of snow that snaked its way up two thirds of the mountain before terminating into wind scoured, non-skiable, snow and scree. We made the decision to continue along our route and look for signs of instability.
The cloud cover and high winds were pretty unforgiving as we exited the trees. The route was too steep to skin without switch backing and that was out given we’d have to lay a skin track across more avalanche terrain than I felt comfortable with. We quickly realized this day was a booter and threw the skis on our backs. Post-holing for 800 or so vert to the end of the snow field wasn’t exactly wonderful, but it was nice to drop the skis there and continue on to the peak. We also appreciated having hard boots on given the wind hammered saddle had several snow/ice fields that required substantial kick stepping.
We made the summit around noon, tried to hide in vain from the now 60 mph gusts, then quickly proceeded down the mountain. We found our skis, clipped in, and were treated to our first sun of the day on the three mile ski to the car. Fortuitously, the trail passes right by The Bavarian, a German themed ski lodge on the backside of Taos Ski Valley. Is a ski tour really over until you’ve had a celebratory meal and beer?
Just a boy and his dog in the snow.
Just a girl and her dog in the snow. Can you tell who carries the treats?
Booter city. Soph was still holding the skis as she was not convinced this was our destiny yet.
Just a boy and his dog on wind scoured steeps.
Retreating from the windy summit almost as soon as we got there!