Monday, July 21, 2008

Desert Destination: Wheeler and Jeff Davis Peaks

Towering over the Great Basin Desert is Wheeler Peak at 13,063 feet, the peak slightly right of center in the above photo. The trailhead begins at about 10,000 feet, with a well-marked trail weaving through groves of aspen, sub-alpine meadows, patches of Engelmann spruce and limber pine, erratic groupings of stunted trees called krummholtz, and finally large amounts of big boulders called talus. The 3,000 foot hike up the mountain is not easy, but someone in relatively good shape can make it in half a day. I've climbed Wheeler Peak several times, but I've never climbed its sister peak, Jeff Davis, on the left side of the above photo. Jeff Davis has no trail to it, is about 12,770 feet high, and it's been on my to do list for a few years. So today's destination involves these two peaks in one massive hike.

So the plan was to climb Wheeler Peak, and then go across the ridge to Jeff Davis. Sounds simple, right? We started up Wheeler at a nice steady pace. The spectacular views of the valleys on either side, other mountain ranges, and flowers like this Parry's primrose (Primula parryi) kept our minds off the steadily decreasing oxygen.

About half way up the trail becomes a little harder to find as it enters a talus field. The trail ascends the steep ridge right up to the top of the peak. Some rain moved in, and because we had gotten a late start, we were passed by people who had already summited and now were on their way back down with big smiles on their faces.

It was amazing how many tiny wildflowers were nestled among the rocks. This is an alpine paintbrush (Castilleja nana). Close to most of the flowers were an array of pollinators, including flies, bees, and butterflies. We also saw some birds like rosy-finches and rock wrens.

After about three hours we made it to the top and were rewarded with this view looking south. The South Snake Range has many peaks over 11,000 feet. The snow covered area in the foreground is part of a glacial cirque, with a rock glacier at the bottom of it. A rock glacier is basically a piece of ice that has a layer of crumbled rock over it that acts as an insulating blanket, protecting the ice from warm temperatures and solar radiation.

A really spectacular view of a rock glacier came after we had a snack and started over on the ridge to Jeff Davis. This rock glacier is quite long and near the end of it a grove of bristlecone pines can be found. If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you may be able to see a couple pools of turquoise water about halfway down the rock glacier. I've never seen them before, and am very curious about why they are there and how they formed.

Here's a photo of the cliff side face of Wheeler Peak. The rock is very loose Prospect Mountain Quartzite, a metamorphic rock. Incredibly, some people have climbed this face, despite the huge amount of crumbly rock. There's a good reason that a rock glacier exists below--plenty of rock is added by the mountain each year.

Here's a view of one of my hiking partners working her way up Jeff Davis, with Wheeler Peak in the background. The ridge between the two was longer than I had expected, and I started getting a bad headache. That's a classic sign of elevation sickness (or as one person put it, altitude poisoning). I had never really had elevation sickness before, and I wasn't liking it. The best thing to do is go down, but one side was a cliff face; behind us was Wheeler Peak, even higher; and to the other side was a steep talus slope that led to a long hike out. So we kept heading ahead to Jeff Davis Peak.

I wasn't enjoying the view that much because I felt icky, but I managed to snap a couple photos, and I'm glad I did, because the scenery was spectacular and I can enjoy it now. Clouds and a sporadic light rain kept the temperatures wonderful, and we lucked out and didn't have much wind. When we got to the top of Jeff Davis I laid down and took a quick nap and that made me feel a little better and ready to start down.

This was the way down, over 2,000 foot descent on talus. That green patch at the bottom is trees, but the trees are so far away you can't even make out individual ones. I got dizzy looking at the whole slope, so I just focused on where to put my feet. And foot by foot, we made our way down.

As the oxygen thickened I felt better and even took time to stop and admire this blue columbine (Aquilegia scopulorum), with some daisies (Erigeron species) in the background. At one point on the talus we could hear water moving underneath, but we couldn't see any. 

After about 10 hours of hiking we finally made it back to the vehicle. We all decided that we never again wanted to descend Jeff Davis down the steep talus slope, it was too steep and unsteady. But overall it was a beautiful hike, and a good warmup to another 10 hour hike a couple days later that included four mountain peaks. I'll save that story for another day!


Anonymous said...

Don't go hiking with Desert Survivor. You won't live to tell about it!

I Am Woody said...

What a great day! I agree about not hiking down the talus slope - that looks scary. Hope you are feeling better now that you are back at a lower elevation!

Anonymous said...

It's not far. It's relatively flat. GASP!!!!

beautiful pix

Now I won't have to die to enjoy the scenery.


Anonymous said...

Wheeeew! I think that I'm more suited for conquering the hammock, not the mountain.

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