Wheeler Peak, Nevada


This winter ascent of Wheeler Peak was surprisingly easy- except for the approach.

Note: click images to see a larger version in a new window

Julie picked out Wheeler Peak during a drive to Phoenix. Intrigued, I did some research into its locale, Great Basin National Park. The park web site noted that people occasionally climbed the peak in winter.

Art reluctantly joined me. He had hurt his back and was concerned about time in the car seat. No problem- Julie says its 5.5 hours to Ely. As it turns out, this is almost 3 full hours less than it takes.

After leaving home at 6am, we had a late lunch in Ely and drove the remaining hour to park headquarters. The picture on the right is taken from a pullout off the highway. The park headquarters is on the other side of the mountain.

After Art's traditional lengthy chat with the locals, we finally left the car at about 3:30 in the afternoon. The trailhead is at about 7800'. It was about 70 degrees, and the snow was a little ....soft. Even with snowshoes on, we were at times plunging through to our knees. Instead of our planned hike 4 miles to the upper campground at 9500', we camped about 1.5 miles up the trail at about 8800', totally exhausted.

We had high hopes that in the morning the crust would hold us up. We were wrong. It hadn't been cold enough, and the snow was too rotten. Our 6am start was not early enough to get us to the upper campground (at the right) before sunrise. Although the snow was firmer than the previous day, we still were breaking through. At least we weren't carrying full packs. Considering how bad the snow was, we decided to skip the "normal" route, which follows a winding trail through the snow; instead we set our sights on the bare ridge on the right horizon. Here Art checks the map.

As we approached the ridge, I spied the gully you see at the right. Art thought it looked dangerous, ripe for avalanches. But as we rounded the corner we found the walls of the gully were mostly bare. In addition, the scouring wind had left firm snow. We snowshoed up until the snowshoes were sliding backwards, then switched to crampons.

The cramponing was excellent, and we finally started making the kind of progress we're used to getting when working that hard. That is to say, instead of working to climb out of the pits in the snow, we were gaining elevation. Finally!

Our "shortcut" joined the main route at the ridge crest, at about 12,000'. The day was warming up, but the snow was still firm at this altitude. You can see a faint trail traversing the upper snowfield about 300' below the summit.

Surprisingly, those last 1000' went pretty quickly. We concentrated on placing our feet well, and breathing. Then we were on the summit. It was about 12:30. Not a cloud in the sky.

It was clear and windless on top, and in the upper 40s. Considering that this was technically a winter ascent, those are pretty good conditions.

In the distance, the paved road to the upper campground can be seen (closed at this time of year). Also the valley we hiked up is visible just above the summit rocks. That valley was the hardest part of this climb- the snow was even worse on the return trip. On the return, we took turns breaking through the trail, about 100 yards per turn. When we finally got to some established tracks, it was a huge relief. We spent the second night at our previous camp, and walked out on the crust the following morning.

If you go to this peak, leave time to visit the limestone caves at the park headquarters- we didn't, but it looked like it would be worth it.

Mr. Natural Home | 2004 | Back to top of page | Questions :: e-mail to splattski