Our plan was to hike about 4 miles the first day to the Wheeler Peak campground at 9,820 feet elevation, starting at the parking area at 7,600 feet. The second day we would summit and then return to our vehicles.
Five of us went on the trip, and it was the first time for me to meet them all in person. Michael and I had a similar hiking speed as we went up the trail. About half way we got our first view of Wheeler Peak. It still looked pretty far away!
Here's Michael. We talked some along the way, but the snow crunching under the snowshoes makes a lot of noise and makes it hard to carry a conversation. The snow had really changed a lot in a week, consolidating and melting and forming a crust. In other words, it wasn't very good skiing snow, but fortunately it was fine for snowshoeing.
So what do you need for a two-day winter mountain-climbing trip? I packed quite a few of the same things I had for when we climbed Mount Rainier two years ago. That trip taught me more than I thought it had about being comfortable in the snow. International Mountain Guides, the guide company we went with, has a nice gear list. I added tent, stove, pot, water filter, shovel and subtracted helmet, harness, and carabiners as our hike wouldn't be technical.
As we continued hiking up (we gained 2,200 feet elevation that day), the trees changed from pinyon pine and juniper and mahogany to white fir and then to Engelmann spruce and limber pine, with aspen mixed in.
When Mike and I reached the trailhead, we found Tom and Jodie relaxing. We discussed our plans and decided we would find a place to camp. Our desires: a campsite with a picnic table, close to creek water, and near a bathroom.
Well, we found a campsite with two of our desired things, the picnic table (can you see it buried in snow under the backpacks?) and some running water in the creek. That meant we could easily get water and not have to melt snow. We stomped down our tent sites with our snowshoes and then leveled them with shovels. Before long we had tents set up and the picnic table cleared. It was only 1 p.m. What next?
There was talk of trying for the summit right then, but decided that we probably wouldn't reach the peak until dark, and that didn't sound like fun. But we could go to Stella Lake and make a trail for the next morning's early start.
So Jodie, Mike, and I set out, going through the campground and over the gate that closes the campground.
We checked out the emergency cabin, but the snow is so high outside of it (and the door opens outwards), that it would take a lot of work to get into it (and it's locked). We could see the stovepipe from the wood stove and the wood stacked outside it.
Right next to it is the Wheeler Peak Snotel site, where we had checked on temperature before even starting the trip. The previous two days, it had warmed up to 50 degrees in the campground!
Some skiers had already traveled this way (I'm guessing the previous Wednesday, when I had seen their tracks lower on the mountain). These tracks made it so much easier, as the they had compacted the snow so we didn't sink in as much. Usually snow shoers try to stay off ski tracks, as it really messes them up for other skiers, but with the very limited use up here, we used them.
Before long we got to Stella Lake. See the lake? Ha, it's totally covered with snow! The ski tracks went right across the lake and up the gully, which is the route we wanted to take the next morning.
We enjoyed the beautiful day for awhile, soaking in the sunshine and quiet. Eventually the shadows grew long and we decided we should head back to camp.
Our snowy abode for the night was peaceful, we were the only ones in the campground.
Even though it was only a little bit after 4 p.m., we decided to eat dinner. Soon a bunch of little stoves were going. After I ate my food, I warmed up some water to put into a Nalgene bottle to keep my feet warm at night. That worked great!
We joked that the next time we came up we should bring some hot dogs, as the grill was above the snow! For now, they kept the snowshoes dry.
I didn't really want to go to bed at 5 p.m., even if we were getting up at 3:30 a.m. the next morning, so I wandered around the campground for a little bit with Mike. It was a good way to get warm before climbing into the sleeping bag. I also called my family--it's amazing to have cell service there. It was kind of tempting to just hike down the mountain and go join them in the warm house. But instead I climbed into my sleeping bag along with all my water bottles (so they wouldn't freeze) and various clothing (so it would be warm in the morning), and went to sleep.