Great Basin National Park: Wheeler Peak
We rolled up to the Upper Lehman Creek campground as it was getting dark. It was closed and all the campgrounds at the Lower campground were taken. We set up shop in the parking lot. A nice couple and their camper were also relegated to the concrete for the night. We made Annie's and went to bed.
In the morning the sun rose straight down-valley. I made potatoes, cabbage, and eggs. We ate and then headed up the Lehman Creek Trail in high spirits and vastly underestimating the adventure that lay ahead.
Oh, Wheeler Peak...13,064' high with 7,500' of vertical prominence. For the Jackson homies, that's 1000' more prominence than the Grand Teton, and for the East-coasters: six Empire State Buildings straight out of the Nevada desert. It is the shining beacon of Great Basin National Park. In addition to its vertical grandeur, the slopes of this incredible peak are home to the Great Basin bristlecone pines, the oldest known non-clonal organisms on Earth. Oh, Wheeler. Magical, magical Wheeler.
We walked for a bit and lost the trail. The forest got dense—it seemed to be in a confusing moment of succession, an ecological adolescence of sorts. Conifers mixed with aspens and random brush. The arboreal confusion made for tough travel.
We transitioned to skins at some point around 8500' and the snow stuck horrifically. At some point I got angry and hit the snow off the bottom of my ski with my pole, which snapped. One pole the rest of the time Liza somehow lost one of her running shoes and Evan managed to get some sort of near-heat stroke at some point after I'd frustratedly pulled ahead. I waited at Teresa Lake. It was hot.
We took a long break at Teresa. Evan thought he was going to turn around, but eventually gave himself an ultimatum, of sorts—if he threw up he'd bail. Great.
Liza led off up the North gully above Stella Lake. I ate peanut butter prezels and put my headphones back on. I was getting impatient and felt bad. Frank Ocean - Blond. We skinned up the gully and then started booting the ridge heading South. Just about here was were I finished the last of my one liter of water I'd brought. Yikes.
Just as we crested the N-S running summit ridge the wind showed up. Sustained 60-70mph, gusts probably around 100mph. I could hang at a 45 degree angle without falling over. It was surreal. We talked for a moment about 500' below the summit. Evan and Liza were hesitant. I was too, but felt excitement about hitting the summit, largely influenced by the "C" heuristic trap in FACETS, "Commitment". We'd come all this way! Awareness of these traps does not necessarily translate to behavior, especially for 25-year-old males. We agreed to head to the summit. If they felt uncomfortable they'd bail and I'd go alone. Sounds good, right?
And so they bailed after about 30 seconds and I headed up alone. Now, I think something to know about this summit is that it is remarkably unexposed. It is essentially a hiking trail for the majority of the year. Although there may be a high likelihood, the consequence of a fall here would be nearly zero. They could keep eyes on me the entire time from below. And so even with some variables being dubious, the overall situation seemed extremely mellow.
Anyway, somewhere just below the summit block the wind dropped, and dropped...and then disappeared. I walked around the summit for a bit taking it in. The curve of the Earth was visible in all directions. Fuck you Kyrie Irving. And then it was time to ski. I'd chosen the NW Face as the line. It was beautiful and'd make it easy to boot back up to the ridge and meet the others.
Not much to say about the skiing other than it was stable, relatively low angle, and consistent. I skied for about 1600' and then traversed and booted out. BUT it should be said, that if one were to ski the entire Northwest Face of Wheeler Peak you'd be looking at some consistent beautiful skiing for almost 4000', making this a completely classic line. The contrast between the bright white of the alpine and drab brown of the Nevada desert was stark and stunning.
We three met up and skied the North gully from the ridge and then cut right hard, traversing the basin high above Teresa Lake all the way to the bench above the Bristlecone Pine forest. They were all down there, below us in the basin. All so still and old. Thousands of years. Some perhaps older than our accurate histories. We descended and, I must say, the Bristlecone forest with the Wheeler cirque in the distance may be one of the most special places in our country. It was stunning and magical. Sublime but grounded in the wisdom of the trees. I think I lack the skills to fully articulate what I mean...
It was ghoulish getting out...snow transitioned from heavily crusted to soft and wet-slabby and then eventually just sort of disappeared. At some point Evan split his board and put his skins on backward, an epic tactic for walking downhill. It was all a tangle and we were all too tired and dehydrated to be mad. We wandered slap-happy for a while and eventually got back to the car just as the sun set.
Wheeler is a gem.