Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Winter Ascent of Wheeler Peak - Day Two

 If you missed it, this story begins here.

Day Two. I slept off and on during the night, anticipating the next day's trip to the top of Wheeler Peak. The warm water bottle at my feet eventually cooled off. I tried opening a hand warmer to put in my sleeping bag, but it was too old and didn't work. So I tried thinking warm thoughts. Winter camping is definitely not my favorite, but it wasn't too bad. And then the wind started, making the trees rustle all around us. I tried not to groan. Wind meant that the hike to the top would be extra cold. We could face extreme wind chills. We could face icier slopes. Somehow the early wake up time didn't seem so bad, it meant that I'd be doing something and not just imagining worse-case scenarios.

Our plan was to get up at 3:30 a.m., but some others in our group were up earlier. After all, when you go to bed at 6 p.m., it's easy to wake up early. I wasn't exactly eager to get out of my sleeping bag because it would be cold, but soon enough it was time to get going. With lots of layers, we started snowshoeing towards Stella Lake, our headlamps on and illuminating just a tiny part of the landscape ahead of us. Soon we started up the gully above the lake, the skies gradually lightening. I had hoped for a beautiful sunrise, but it was just kind of gray.

Soon it brightened enough we could turn our headlamps off. The snow in the gully turned out to be wide enough I could switchback up it.

The wind continued, with gusts strong enough we would just stop and brace ourselves and wait for them to pass. The gully was long, but it wasn't that bad. The snow was fairly hard packed, so we weren't sinking in much.

When we got to the top the sun started coming out, making for marvelous landscapes. The lenticular clouds over the North Snake Range were a little alarming, but we weren't turning back.

Four of us took off our snow shoes. Our leader, Paul, continued towards the top with his on, while Jodie switched to crampons, and the rest of us chose to just wear our mountaineering boots. I had to do a quick patch on my heel, which was sore, but not blistered. (I've learned if you take care of hot spots soon enough, you can avoid the blisters.)

Then we were up and towards the peak. The summer trail is further to the west, so this was a new view of the peak for me. It didn't look that far away. We had already gained 2,000 feet and only had 1,200 to go.

The views were marvelous, and I stopped a lot to take photos. It looked like such a different place with snow on it. But I was a bit surprised by how much rock was visible, the winds had really blown a lot of snow away.

Paul, with his snowshoes, opted for the snowy part of the ridge, and the rest of us alternated between snow and rock, depending on what seemed easier at the time. I certainly learned during this trip that snow can have so many textures.

 As we climbed higher it got colder, and clouds covered the top of Mount Moriah to the north. I hoped we wouldn't be in a cloud bank at the top of Wheeler.

I thanked Tom for wearing such a bright jacket, as it turns out well in the photos!

We kept plugging along. You don't want to stop too long, it's too cold, so you just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I was in awe of the stunning views. The winter light certainly makes the landscape even more dramatic.

Finally I was at the top, catching up with Paul and Jodie.

We tried for a group shot, but Tom kind of got lost.

He really did make it to the top, as shown by him signing into the summit register. It was just barely accessible in the mailbox on the top.

Paul at the top. He had organized this trip, and we were all so grateful to be at the top. It was cold but gorgeous.

Soon the clouds started rolling in.

I couldn't leave until I walked the summit ridge, though, as some of the best views are at the end. The snow was hard packed and I stayed on top. On some other trips I've postholed my way to the end of the ridge, which isn't very pleasant.

The clouds actually made for really interesting scenery, especially with the sun on the landscape below them.

Jodie and Paul had already headed down. Tom was next, still in his boots, but with his ice axe out. Mike and I decided on crampons, and those turned out to be a great choice.

You can barely tell it's me, I had so many layers on! Three on my head, five on my torso, three on my lower body.

The clouds made for more dramatic scenery as we hiked down. The crampons allowed us to stay on the snow, which turned out to be a very easy descent, even easier than hiking in summer where you really have to watch your footing on the talus.

The steepness wasn't bad at all, and it was fun going anywhere on the mountain where we wanted and not being constricted by a trail.

When we got back to the chute, Tom decided to have some fun and started sliding down it with his ice axe ready to slow him down if he got going too fast.

The patterns in the snow were really cool.

And then I saw a pattern that made me do a double take. Was this an avalanche? It sure looked like it. I hadn't noticed it in the morning, but we had probably crossed right over it in the semi-darkness without giving it a second thought. On the top left of the photo you can see a crack in the snow, which might have been where it originated. It was in a spot that I never would have suspected for an avalanche, as it came from the side into the gully, and I thought an avalanche would just come straight down the gully.

As we continued down, I saw some movement on Stella Lake. Were those people? Sure enough, they were. Two skiers were ascending, hoping to find some better snow on the other side of Wheeler Peak.

We had started hiking from camp about 4:40 a.m. and made it to the summit in about five hours. We spent about 20-30 minutes at the top and then it took about two and a half hours to get back to camp.  I was ravenous and eagerly ate some ramen noodles I had brought along as extra food. We all packed up and made our way down to the trailhead, and I got there about 4:15 p.m. Almost 12 miles in 12 hours of hiking. The hard-packed snow certainly made travel much easier than it could have been.

Many thanks to Paul, who organized the trip; Greg, who invited me but then couldn't come; and new friends Mike, Jodie, and Tom. This was an amazing experience!
Paul at Stella Lake on the descent


BnT ranch said...

WOW! Bess and I never made all the way to the top your photos were wonderful. Great Basin is a magical place.

iamtjc said...

Looks like cold fun.

Andrew said...

That is a tough hike on a nice day. Way to go!

Deanna Stever said...

Very cool trip. I love your photos!

Sandy said...


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