9/50: Wheeler Peak, New Mexico [13,167′]

Roadtrip across New Mexico started off well, I cheerily stopped at roadside attractions and sang along to the Red Hot Chili Peppers as the highway rippled and wavered in the unbroken heat of the Southwest sun.

Red Dawn cowgirl sign Calumet Says Howdy Las Vegas NM   Saints and Sinners Liquor, Espanola NM    three dinosaurs Brontosaurus Larry Wilson New Mexico I-25   Abominable SnowMansion hostel Taos NM

It fell apart a bit later that evening when googlemaps sent me on a “shortcut” intended to bypass the town of Taos but instead led me to a rugged Forest Road that was not recommended for vehicles– a fact that I discovered at midnight, and had to backtrack for three hours on tiny twisty steep mountain roads, tree corridors hiding the moon from view and huge-eared deer eyeing me with quizzical expressions as they bounded obliviously through the weak glow of my headlights.

After five hours of sleep I haphazardly scraped together a breakfast of coffee and peanut butter, and then blinked in astonishment as I stepped outside– what I hadn’t seen in the night was a breathtaking view, the tall mountains of the Sangre de Cristo(!) range thundering overhead, furred with dark green pines and scarred with the crisscrossing of ski lifts, clouds sweeping majestically around their bald tops.

The trail starts off among the ski lifts, on a muddy access road that buzzed with off-season construction.  After a short time it crosses a few idyllic stream runoffs and then both the trail and I left behind the structure of civilization to disappear into the mossy green woods.  Soon I passed a tangled heap of avalanche debris, tiny mousey-rabbity pika darting underneath their newly formed habitat.

Wheeler Peak New Mexico      Wheeler Peak New Mexico

The trail leads to scenic Williams Lake, a small alpine clearing surrounded by craggy vertical rock that begged me to stay and boulder for a while, but then it doubles back on a tight turn to head further up the side of the peak.  Ghostly white trees dripped over the damp path, occasionally opening up to spray of purple-yellow-white wildflowers, or switchbacking with just a teasing glimpse of the distant mountain ranges to the west.  Among them Williams Lake popped into view once more, this time a glittering teal jewel far below.

Wheeler Peak New Mexico Williams Lake    Wheeler Peak New Mexico    Wheeler Peak New Mexico

The forest thinned to sparse stands of conifers and then opened up into a golden green meadow, splaying like an ocean across the rocky trail.  Curious marmots poked their heads out from the nearby rocks, chirping to each other and scampering across my path (every time one appeared, I mentally repeated a line from The Big Lebowski as the title character encountered a leashed ferret: “uh, nice marmot”).

Wheeler Peak New Mexico      Wheeler Peak New Mexico marmot

Suddenly I heard a low clattering sound and turned to the rocky slope on my left, expecting to be annoyed by clumsy hikers knocking scree down the slope, and then caught my breath as four bighorn sheep stately traversed the range.  Bighorns!  I’d never seen one in the wild before.  I yanked out my camera but they were gone, camouflaged by the pale rocks and darting over the hill too quickly to track.  Bummer, I thought, as I let out my breath and crested the next hill.  I would’ve really liked to… well hello, there.

Wheeler Peak New Mexico bighorn sheep ram

A ram stood on the trail, blocking my way.  He was only about three meters away.  Like all my close-up encounters with wild animals, I greeted him and blithered insipidly, my tone conversational.  “Hey there, dude.  You’ve got some horns, huh?  I’m just climbing your mountain here.  Must be easier with hooves.”

He cocked his head like a puppy trying to figure out my game and held his ground.  The slope dropped off sharply on either side; my options were either to stay here and wait, or to retreat back down the hill.  I took a couple tentative steps forward, wary of his heavy horns but bolstered by his relaxed posture.  He eyed me curiously until I was barely an arm’s distance away, where I stopped.  We regarded each other for a moment, then he huffed, turned sharply, and clambered up the hill, bored.

I watched him casually trot off the summit and then resumed my hike up the last of the peak, trudging now through the softball-sized fields of white rocks.  Finally, there it was, I crested the ridge, sending marmots scattering and finally getting a view of the greener, lower part of the enormous Sangre de Cristo range to the east.  Grey clouds had gathered over them but still seemed a safe distance away.

Wheeler Peak New Mexico bighorn sheep ram      Wheeler Peak New Mexico

Only a few more steps now, battling the sudden wet wind that poured up from the unprotected eastern slope.  The summit looked like a pile of rocks tumbled onto the slope– from below it was hard to tell which was actually the summit, this or neighboring Mount Walter (13,133′) across the small saddle of the ridge, but here on the ridge the peak loomed higher and the trail more worn.  I marched up the last bit of the climb and threw my bag down at the base of the rock pile, pulling on my windbreaker in the cold fog and marveling at the majestic view, the mountains dotted with snow and trailing on and on through the sky, rising above the lakes, the trees, the ski lifts below; those grandiose peaks rising loftily above everything in New Mexico except me and maybe one surefooted sheep.

Wheeler Peak New Mexico

  La Cumbre Elevated IPA - Wheeler Peak - New Mexico      marmot nibbling trekking poles salt - Wheeler Peak - New Mexico

ME: “beer, delicious beer.”  MARMOT:  “salt, delicious salt.”

About the beer: 

In a rush the previous morning, I’d stopped by the Albuquerque branch of Whole Foods to snag a local beer– previously I’d sampled a few tasty brews from Santa Fe and Marble brewing, but for my hike I was hoping to find a can instead of a heavy glass bottle.  I grabbed a pale ale somewhat at random and asked my epically-bearded, stereotypical-beer-aficionado cashier Elliot if he thought it was a good choice, briefly describing my “project.”  He nodded enthusiastically.

“This is good, yeah, but… you like IPAs?” he asked, throwing a LANE CLOSED sign down the conveyor belt with a clatter.  “Because I’ve got something for you.  Something perfect.”

I followed him on a fast circuit of the store, his fingers drumming the air as he searched a blank space in the beer aisle, then two separate endcaps, finally holding his fingers still in a pause signal to disappear into the back room.  He emerged a few moments later with a tallboy four-pack of La Cumbre Elevated IPA and presented it to me with the simple assurance that “it’s the best.”

Could there be a more perfect summit beer than something named Elevated?  The label art alone had me sold, but cracking it open above thirteen thousand feet was nearly as good as the summit itself.  I’m usually able to describe these with a lot of detail, but this beer just smells exactly like hops.  Citrusy sure, like sniffing a grapefruit in a grocery store, a touch of pinecone and a hint of floral tropical fruit trees and maybe something like a sweet yellow onion, but at the core it just smells and tastes exactly like hop flowers should taste.  It’s smooth and sharp without any kind of bitter oily aftertaste and just enough of a malt backbone to keep it drinkable and satisfying.  It is perfect, and as the fog turns to a light rain I tip my thanks to Elliot in the dry desert down below.

La Cumbre Elevated IPA - Wheeler Peak - New Mexico

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