Wheeler Peak
New Mexico
Horseshoe LakeDave came back to Colorado for about a week before going to New York after finishing school in South Carolina. He and his family were going down to Red River, New Mexico on July 14 where the extended family held joint ownership of a quaint cabin by the river that in no way looks red. I rode a Greyhound bus down from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs Friday morning at 8:00. Normally thatís a drive that will take 2.5 hours, but it took us 5 hours with all the stops along the way. I got to Colorado Springs at 12:50. Dave picked me up from the bus station, and we went to his house to eat lunch with his mom. We loaded up the van shortly after, and by 4:00 we were on the road, heading south.

The cabin resides at around 9000', and the terrain is such that one could easily think himself in the Colorado Rockies rather than the Sangre DeChristo mountains of northern New Mexico. Daveís brother and his wife, Brian and Carrie, met us at the cabin later than night. We entertained ourselves with lawn darts and low-stakes Red Rivergambling for the first day, and on the second day, Sunday, Dave and I set out for Lost Lake. This particular Lost Lake was apparently not quite so lost as others Iíve seen, as we encountered about 8 backpacking parties descending the trail we were on. The hike in was around 8 miles, but not terribly steep. We didnít start getting any really nice, long-distance views until towards the lake, but by then heavy clouds had rolled in and thunder echoed through the valleys below, some originating from a disconcertingly-close proximity. We approached the lake over a small ridge, and without much fanfare, went to work finding a suitable campsite. We selected a location about 50 feet higher than the lake, and about 100 feet back from the shore. The ground was pretty flat, and the trees sheltered the area nicely. We immediately set up Chuckís tent. I borrowed his because it is bigger than mine. While we're on the subject, I throw out for public discussion the following querry: Did the designers of the "2 man tent" ever really expect 2 men to sleep in it? Together? I can see 1 man and 1 woman (if they're sweet on eachother) and I can see 1 man and a 1 big dog, maybe 2 medium-sized dogs, but certainly not 2 men. No sooner had this all been accomplished then it began to rain. We zipped up the tent from the inside, and lay down to wait it out. I had a raging headache from the altitude so I tried to sleep. Dave began to read his Popular Science magazine, and nudged me about 5 minutes later to point out that the tent was leaking. Dang. Thankfully, it was only in volumes of drops that we watched water enter our nice, dry shelter, and it only seemed to leak badly when the rain was particularly strong. I ended up dozing a bit, and after awhile it got chilly in the tent. 

After about 1.5 hours of steady precipitation, the plucks on the tent came fewer and lighter. We ventured out to find the area drenched, and, due to an unfortunate oversight on the ground tarp placement, water filling up the creases beneath the tent. After draining the tent ground tarp and our bladders, we set to work collecting firewood. Only a month prior to our trip, all New Mexico forests had a fire ban in effect in repercussions from the huge fire that enveloped Los Alamos just miles to the south of where we were camped. Luckily, the ban was lifted after copious rainfall over the weeks preceding our arrival (and during our stay). Firewood was difficult to locate at such a popular camping area, but we managed to find enough small stuff to comfortably last us awhile. The sun came out for a brief appearance and we went down to the lake to look around. The water was very clear, and at several points we spotted cutthroat trout slowly gliding through the water just off the shore. A brave marmot stared at us as we passed, the first marmot of many we would see. 

Along the trail to Wheeler PeakAs dark approached, we built up the fire and began to cook dinner...Uncle Benís Three Cheese Rice, and Knorr minestrone soup (backpacking food is for yuppies). While we prepared dinner, the fellow who had made his camp three feet from the trail some 60 feet down below came up to say hello. He was originally from Austin, TX, and seemed either disoriented by the altitude or a little tipsy from his beer that was foaming out the longneck from his scramble up the hill. A person has to really desire beer to haul it 8 miles from the trail head!  We chatted briefly and found out he was currently attending CU in Boulder. Being die-hard CSU fans, we immediately ordered him to go back to his own camp. He told us it was hard for him to start the fire. We started ours pretty easy, so I suppose we found the good wood, or maybe our soberness allowed us to light matches easier. We were about done with our delicious gourmet dinner when it began to rain again. We pulled out the still-wet ponchos and huddled near the fire. The fire, by the way, was a thing of beauty, as well as utility. It was situated within a rock bowl at the base of a 6 foot rock formation with a sheer side towards us. We managed to procure several perfectly flat-topped rocks to sit and cook on, and we placed them accordingly near the fire. In this way, the heat was reflected off the stone face of the rock formation behind the fire, and we stayed all the warmer, despite the rain. We talked and stared dumbly at the mesmerizing fire until around midnight, when the wood supply ran out. By then the clouds has dissipated somewhat, and the full moon cast sinister shadows slanting through the woods. 

Horseshoe LakeAll through the night the rain fell in spurts, and I thought for sure we would wake up to a cloudy, miserable morning. But at 6:30, the first rays of sunlight hit the tent, and I hurriedly got dressed to go take advantage of the morning light photography. Not a cloud was visible as I looked east over endless ridges of spruce and fir to the horizon. I walked around the edge of Lost Lake, which is pretty big by mountain lake standards, snapping photographs as I went. The morning was not as cold as I had anticipated, and when I got around to the sunny side of the lake, I had to shun my flannel in favor of the t-shirt. I got back to camp about 30 minutes later to find Dave up and about. He had retrieved the bear bag from the tree (we had successfully hoisted it up some 25 feet up the night before) and was already packing up his stuff. I got the fire going from the embers left over from the night before. We fed on instant oats and freeze-dried fruit bits (or something that looked, tasted and smelled like freeze-dried fruit bits). We went down to the lake to filter water, and when we came back, one of the local chipmunks had rifled through eight crackers still in the sleeve. Little turd. We packed up our goods, and stashed our packs behind a tree. I took only my camera and a water bottle while Dave had his sophisticated ďhydration systemĒ Camelback and a camera. We left our camp at 9:00 for Wheeler Peak. 

We initially had to backtrack 1 mile of the trail to get to a branch that led us to Horseshoe Lake. After about 45 minutes of brisk walking, we were at the tree-line location of Horseshoe Lake, a natural body of water aptly named. The trail continued up at a much steeper pace from then on, and I huffed and puffed in the thin air. We Wheeler Peakhiked through alpine fields all busy with flowers of every color, which was very nice, and somehow very Swiss-looking. Dave commented that he expected to see Julie Andrews at some point along the way. The skies were still a deep azure and the clouds that were building yet looked friendly. We met a few marmots along the way enjoying the view. 

We made it to the top of Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico at 13,161', by 11:40. Thereís not much in the way of dramatics for this peak, it is just the highest point on a ridge that spans about 3 miles. Consequently, there are about 5 other mountains within 100' elevation along the same ridge. We signed the register, ate some snacks, snapped some pictures and identified major landmarks in view. We could look down and see the slopesand lifts of the Taos Ski Resort. About 6 people shared the top with us at that time, with more on the way. One of the guys we saw up top was our acquaintance form Austin, TX who had hiked to the summit via an alternative route. 

Departure from the summit occured after only 10 minutes, and we headed down a different route than which we had arrived. The second route followed a higher path along a ridge, rather than the first which ran through a valley. From the ridge, I was able to take some excellent shots of Horseshoe Lake and the surrounding peaks. We scooted down pretty quickly, and much more comfortably than we had going up. I continued to have headache-problems, and by the time we made it back to Lost Lake I was in a bad way. I doped up on ibuprofen and downed a liter of water in hopes that I could shake it. We hung out next to the lake for a bit, enjoying the sunshine and the scenery. Filtered some more water, and snacked on whatever we had left that hadnít already been devoured by us or the chipmunks. We left Lost Lake at around 1:00. 

Dave on the final stretch to the summit
The trail led us steadily down for what seemed like quite along time before we hit the intersection with an ATV road that led to Middle Fork Lake in one direction and back to the cabin in the other. Dave had told his parents that we would be on that road at around 2:00, but we made it there a bit late. However, some people hanging The shore of Lost Lakeout nearby told us that a guy was looking for two backpackers not 7 minutes back , and had gone on up to Middle Fork Lake. Dave and I were both suffering from multiple-blister syndrome, and were encouraged by the prospect of Daveís dad hauling the packs back to the cabin on his ATV. So we walked down the road toward the cabin and passed many people on the way. Eventually, we made it back to the cabin before Daveís dad passed us. He had mistakenly thought that we would be hiking by Middle Fork Lake on our way back, and had waited patiently by the lake for an hour. 

All told, we hiked 14 miles that day, 22 miles round-trip with an overall elevation gain of 4,000 ft. It was weeks before my blisters and toes returned to normal. My middle toenail on the left foot turned black and loose. Other toenails were equally sore. It was all pretty painful. The next day was even worse as the leg muscles tightened up overnight. Dave and I discussed how odd it is, rationally speaking, that something like lugging up 40 pounds of gear, eating freeze-dried food, getting rained on, sleeping on the ground and tearing our feet and legs up while hiking could possibly be entertaining enough to keep us going back for more at every opportunity. Somehow it is. Personally, I think itís because nowhere else can I achieve such an intense feeling of being alive. It is as if all other times are merely waiting periods between my backpacking trips, where I get to really live. Or it could just be the great food. I mean, have you HAD Uncle Ben's Three Cheese Rice?

On top of Wheeler Peak
Back at the cabin, we showered and rested up. The next day we spent the entire morning following the cabin close-up procedure (as written by Granddad Carlton himself) before heading back to Colorado Springs, and then to Fort Collins.

Imagery from this trip location is available for sale in the New Mexico album at LandscapeImagery.com


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Page created July 29, 2000
Last updated April 10, 2003