A few weeks ago I went to Taos, NM to run the Ski Valley Up and Over 10K (see my previous post below). Since Wheeler Peak (13,159’), the tallest mountain in New Mexico, was looming above the village where we were staying, I decided to give it a try. The loop trail is about 12-13 miles long, but there is a shorter out-and-back route that starts near the Bavarian Lodge and Restaurant.
Just before daylight I took off from the Taos Ski Village at over 9000’ elevation, along the Bull-of-the-Woods Trail (#90). I began this steady 4000’ foot climb on sore and rubbery legs because of the 2000 foot climb I did the day before in my race. My biggest worry though, was the possibility of spooking a bear since they are most active as night transitions to morning. An unfortunate hiker was attacked by a grizzly, partially eaten and covered up for later consumption in Yellowstone NP recently. Although my chances of being attacked by an animal were greater as I hiked in the wilderness, I firmly believe that my risk of death was much higher when I was driving to Taos.
Read: Grizzly Attack
The trail, shared by horseback riders, follows the Hondo Rio, a fast moving stream that drains Long Canyon. After huffing and puffing up the trail for a while a grey generic looking bird landed on a branch right in front of me as I turned a corner. We looked at each other for a minute and then I went on my way. A little while later I realized that it was probably a water ouzel, aka American dipper, the only songbird that catches all its prey underwater by swimming or walking on the rocky stream bed.
I remember reading about these entertaining birds in John Muir’s, The Mountains of California where he writes:
[The water ouzel] is the mountain streams' own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows. Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings, --none so unfailingly. For both in winter and summer he sings, sweetly, cheerily, independent alike of sunshine and of love, requiring no other inspiration than the stream on which he dwells. While water sings, so must he, in heat or cold, calm or storm, ever attuning his voice in sure accord; low in the drought of summer and the drought of winter, but never silent.
As I walked along the stream I searched for the ouzel hoping to get a glimpse of it feeding or frolicking in the water but to no avail. Because I had a long arduous climb ahead of me, I didn’t have much time for bird watching. Soon I crossed the stream via a rickety bridge made simply of downed logs thrown into the creek resembling a beaver dam more than a pedestrian route.
Once across the stream, I continued along some dirt roads that bordered private residences, cabins and vacation homes. The weather was overcast with a chill in the air which was hard to believe because we had been having 100 degree heat down in Texas just a few days earlier. The road continued through a forest of fir trees and then opened up with a view of the Red River Valley surrounded by a sea of green peaks.
I was hungry by this point so decided to try out an Epic bison cranberry bar for use in future ultramarathons. The latest trend in running nutrition is to add more protein and fat to your diet to train the body to burn fat instead of relying on glycogen stores. After figuring out how to open the package, I took a few bites. The texture was unexpected; a bit too mushy and I didn’t care for the flavor. The convenience may be worth it for some though because the bars will keep for a long time. As for me, I’ll stick to a little salami for fat and protein during races.
After slogging up another thousand feet or so the forest gave way to lush green meadows with patches of lingering snow. Once I climbed high on the ridge the wind started to chill my bones as my hands became numb. I had an extra shirt tied to my waist so I pulled it on tucking my hands inside the sleeves for warmth. Exposure can pose serious problems in the mountains even in August so I also brought a rain shell in case of a storm. Lightning storms hit these peaks almost every afternoon during the monsoon season so you should plan to be off the mountain early in the day.
The altitude made it tough to run, but I tried whenever the terrain allowed. One of my goals on this trip was to asses my ability to run in high altitudes in hopes of attempting an ultramarathon in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado someday. In the past, I’ve felt very sluggish and nauseous running at over 10,000 feet, but felt pretty good on this particular weekend.
As I traversed the grassy slopes, I kept hearing a whistling noise that resembled a chirping bird. I scanned the ground looking for the culprit, but could not locate the critter. Marmots, a type of large ground squirrel, make this alarm call to alert others of possible danger. The mother marmots or whistling pigs, as some call them, sit by their dens and call to their young when they perceive danger. It was quite a while before I finally located one far in the distance.
|How about this one?|
From this point I could see over both sides of the ridge with a great view of Horseshoe Lake on one side and Williams Lake on the other. It was here that I stumbled across a mule-shoe on the trail so picked it up and put it in my pack hoping that it may bring me good luck. I figured it was close enough to a horseshoe to count as a good luck charm. Besides, you never know when you may need a little extra luck when you are in danger of being mauled by a bear, struck by lightning, falling off a cliff or attacked by zombies.
Finally I started up the last part towards the top of New Mexico, first reaching Mt Walter and then Wheeler Peak which is just 20 feet taller. The panorama was fantastic with views of Simpson Peak in close proximity. Some other hikers were there who offered to take my picture and then I rested for a spell while being entertained by a hungry chipmunk. I’m sure he was used to getting lots of trail mix and other goodies from the many hikers who have lunch on this peak.
After soaking up the view, I backtracked and then took the Wheeler Peak Summit Trail (#67) down a precipitous slope with several scree crossings. Here I stumbled on a couple of marmots, probably males because they weren’t very shy or whistling to protect their kids. The downhill running was tough in spots because of the steepness, but there were a few sections of hard packed dirt that were fun to run. Before long I spotted a few bighorn rams with huge spiraling horns. I stopped to watch these majestic animals for a while and then continued on reaching the Williams Lake Trail (#62).
This took me to a ski lift where the Bavarian Lodge and Restaurant is located. On the way, I ran into a couple of my running friends on their way back from hiking to the Lake. It’s always a pleasure to meet friendly faces on the trail.
I made it to the restaurant by 10:30am so gave Cara a call to see if her and Maddie were ready for a lunch date. The day before, we tried to take a scenic ski lift ride, but a lightning storm rained on our parade. They drove the few miles from our hotel to meet me and we enjoyed a lift ride up and down the mountain. Following this, we ate our hearts content of schnitzel and Spätzle at the German place. Why does food always taste better after a long hike in the mountains?
This trip reminded me of my days living in Germany where I walked or ran volksmarches almost every weekend and went hut-hopping in the alps on occasion. The cool weather, green forest and German fare took me back a good 20 years. Wheeler Peak is a very challenging hiking destination. I recommend doing the entire loop if you are up to the task and have time. The Bull-of-the-Woods trail is much more scenic than the Williams Lake route in my opinion, but it’s all good.
See you on the trail.