A Tale of Two Wheelers (Nevada and New Mexico)

Wheeler Peak, Nevada (October 17, 1999)


Click on any thumbnail (small image) below to see a full-sized image. Full-sized images average ~110 KB.

Topo Map of Peak Area

Park Map

West flank of Wheeler (from Route 6/50 in Spring Valley). Timberline starts below 11000'.

Bambi at ~ 9500'.

View of Wheeler (looking S from trail, at ~10300').

Looking SW over Lake Valley; at ~11200'.

Looking SW, ~11800'.

Plateau at 12000'; looking S toward summit.

Near summit; looking E over Wheeler-Davis cirque, toward Utah.

On summit; view N over Stella Lake and to Bald Mountain.

Just E of summit; view of Jeff Davis Peak, across deep Wheeler-Davis cirque.

On summit; view S, to Mt. Baker. Rock glacier in cirque.

View W over summit.

Back down to 12000', view SE.

Back down to 10500', view S toward Jeff Davis (L) and Wheeler (R).

Great Basin National Park is about 280 miles, by road, from Las Vegas. It is the youngest national park in the United States.

Wheeler Peak rises ~8000' above the surrounding plains. On the east side of the mountain is a deep, sheer-walled cirque, containing the southernmost glacier in the US.

Other Nevada mountain links

Wheeler Peak, New Mexico (October 9, 1982)


Click on any thumbnail (small image) below to see a full-sized image.

1:100,000 Topo large-area map, in meters.

1:24,000 Topo of trail from Twinings.

View of Old Mike. Looking SE, from just below Wheeler summit.

View SW from summit.

View W from summit. Note rock glacier W of Williams Lake.

Horseshoe Lake, from trail on east side of Wheeler.

View SSE toward our camp, at sunset.

View SW after sunset. The Sandia Range (near Albuquerque) is visible on the horizon, just left of center.

The Short Tale

George M. Wheeler certainly left his mark. The Wheeler Survey came through New Mexico and Nevada in the 1870s, naming many of the prominent geographic features. At least two mountains -- Wheeler Peak in New Mexico, and Wheeler Peak in Nevada -- were subsequently named after the good lieutenant (he was later promoted to major). To add to the confusion, the two Wheeler mountains have similar elevations, are variously described as "Mount Wheeler" amd "Wheeler Peak," and both lay some claim to "highest in the state." (Technically, Boundary Peak, Nevada, is about 80 feet higher than Wheeler, Nevada; but Boundary Peak is on a ridge, and the high point of the ridge is in California, less than a mile away.)

Curiously, there was a time when Wheeler Peak, New Mexico, lost the honor of "highest in the state." Another survey party came through New Mexico in the 1880's, botching up everything it touched. For a number of years, Sheep's Head (near Truchas, New Mexico) was listed as 13306'. The truly odd thing about this change: one clearly looks down on Sheep's Head from nearby South Truchas Peak (13102'). It took some years before another survey established Sheep's Head as only ~12600'.

A More Personal Tale

In July 1969, I backpacked through the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch in Northern New Mexico. While I awaited news of Apollo 11's progress to the moon, a Philmont "ranger", Ken Gronseth, described his outdoor adventures. Ken mentioned Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in the state. I vowed to return and climb Wheeler.

After I went home to Upstate New York, I visited a family of outdoor enthusiasts. The two oldest boys had been to Philmont; the cheerful daughter Christine… well, she is now my wife, and appears in some of the pictures above. At their home was an article on Mount Wheeler and the proposed Great Basin National Park. The mountain seemed wondrously beautiful and diverse -- about 13,000 feet high, replete with bristlecone pines, a glacier, caves, and soaring cliffs.

After graduate school, we moved to New Mexico. One of my coworkers in Albuquerque, John Eichelberger, organized a backpacking trip to Wheeler -- my vow would be fulfilled! We intended to sleep on the summit, so we planned the trip for autumn, when cool nights (~10F) would lessen the chance of thunderstorms. The latter precaution is well understood by anyone who has examined the top of Wheeler closely; blackened, lightning-fused rock provides a convincing argument to avoid the summit during rainstorms.

The trip up Wheeler Peak was great. Sleeping above 13000' is quite an experience -- I was the only person in the party who did not wake up with a headache, but I did wake up several times, gasping for breath. But there was a mystery. I saw semi-permanent snow patches, but no glacier; I saw steep slopes, but no 1500' cliffs. Furthermore, there are no bristlecone pines in New Mexico, and how could I expect caves in igneous rocks? Of course, you know the answer -- there are two Wheeler Peaks. Years passed; my job became more demanding, and outdoor adventures became less and less frequent.

It would take another 17 years before I really fulfilled my vow. In 1998, we moved to Las Vegas, Nevada. I mourned the loss of my cool Albuquerque nights, the loss of the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountains. But soon my young coworkers convinced me to start hiking with them, and I discovered that Nevada has some really nice real estate that isn't for sale.

On Saturday, October 16, Christine and I prepared for another working weekend. I lamented having lived in Nevada for 17 months, without finding time enough to climb the other Wheeler. She looked at her pile of work, and my pile of work, and in a split second she made the decision: let's go. At 4:15 PM we headed north, and drove 275 miles to Baker. We got up Sunday, climbed Wheeler, and then drove back Sunday night. Carpe Diem.

Oh yes, one more parting irony. On October 17, 1970, I was lost in a whiteout on Algonquin Peak, New York. Algonquin is 5114' high. Before you laugh: the mountain rises about 3500' from the surrounding plains, and there is a good reason timberline is near 4000' -- the weather on Algonquin can be awful. I came uncomfortably close to buying the farm that day (I have a total of one summit picture from that trip, a shot of snow blurring by the rock 4 feet away; I had to use a flash). I had a similar misadventure on October 17 a few years later, and took the date as some sort of curse; I subsequently avoided any climb on October 17. Until this year.