Friday, August 8, 2014

Wheeler Peak

When I was a young lad, me and my best friend Don would go fishing at swampy Simas Lake. The lake was inhabited by carp and we would easily catch carp by the bucket load. However, carp is such a singularly unappealing fish so we just tossed them up on the bank where they would flop around in bug-eyed panic, just trying to breathe. I was reminded of the carp fishing because as Dollie and I hiked above 11,000 feet of altitude on Wheeler Peak, I also flopped around on the ground and gasped for breath just like a landed carp. Having obtained some insight into the carp's experience, I vowed never to be mean to another carp as long as I live.

Thar she (Wheeler Peak) blows!

At Great Basin National Park, we had been putting off the hike to Wheeler Peak summit. Even though we were in the desert, each day of our stay brought in rain showers and lightning. A poncho can ward off rain, but there is no outerwear stout enough to repel 300 kiloamperes of electrical current so we waited, ever hopeful that the weather would clear sufficiently enough for a safe hike. The weather forecast for our last day at the park called for a sunny day so a trek to the summit would be the coda and grand finale of our Great Basin tap dance.

Trail through the aspen
Just past dawn we started the hike by walking on a trail through an aspen forest. In our local forests, Douglas fir grows everywhere like the world's tallest weed. We just don't see aspen and they seem sort of alien to us Oregonians with their twisted white trunks and round leaves quaking in the slightest breeze. The uniqueness of the trees totally distracted us from noticing we were walking uphill at about 10,000 feet of elevation.

Rock garden
In a grassy meadow, we parted ways with the familiar Stella Lake Trail and veered up the bald slopes of Bald Peak, Wheeler Peak's immediate neighbor. Short, round, and balder than ruggedly handsome Wheeler Peak, Bald Peak must feel like my brother does when he stands next to me. Anyway, it was back and forth through alpine meadows and rock gardens until we hit the saddle between the two mountains. And then the "fun" started.

Dollie begins to hate me
Shortly after the saddle, we climbed past tree line and entered a world of rock. A very steep world of rock, I might add. Up, up, up, the trail went, as merciless as Torquemada in a bad mood. Somewhere on the climb, we rose over the 11,000 foot mark and legs soon went rubbery and hikers began fish flopping due to the altitude.

Wind shelter
There were no trees here, but there were mats of tundra wedged between the rocks. Life is incredibly miniature at high elevation, and I noticed purple flowers in bloom, each the size of a dull pencil point. Amazingly, equally small beetles were crawling in and around the flowers! Because there were no trees, the view was tremendous as we trudged on upwards.

Incoming storm
We could see Spring Valley to the west, with wind farms dotting the valley floor. To the east lay dusty Snake Valley, ringed by a wall of confusion; that is to say, the Confusion Range bordered the northeast edge of the valley. Unfortunately, we could also see an ominous wall of clouds blowing in from the southwest. A storm was on its way.

We decided not to risk the lightning
Knowing when to stop hiking is a large part of hiking safely. Many hikers get into trouble with an affliction known as "peak fever", a condition that occurs when hikers must hike to the summit in sight, even though common sense says not to. We were talking to a younger hiker in his mid-20's about the high probability of lightning and he blithely shrugged his shoulders and said "If I get electrocuted, so will everybody else", and away he went towards the top.

Thunderclouds form over Bald Peak
Resting at 11,800 feet in a stone windbreak just below the final push, we dithered about whether to continue. We were so close, only 1,200 feet of climbing in about 0.7 mile of trail and the mountain was right there, tantalizingly close. As we dithered, the clouds began to embrace the peak and there was less and less blue sky and more tall towering clouds formed over the Snake Range. Boom! A nearby clap of thunder cinched the deal and we dithered no more, heading back down the mountain to safer environs. Several other parties likewise headed down, with (advanced) age being the common factor.

Snake Valley gets swallowed up by the storm
Leaving Wheeler Peak to the younger and foolhardier set, we hiked back to the trailhead under dark clouds as lightning flashed in the next valley over. The storm basically grazed Wheeler Peek and followed us instead. Snake Valley disappeared in the mist as we dropped into the aspen again. No regrets however, we got in a nice hike with fantastic scenery and carp will no longer have to fear my presence.

Yup, we were right up there
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album

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