We had hiked 21 miles in 120 degree heat in the Grand Canyon in a single day, climbed the spectacular trails of Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Valley and The Narrows in Zion National Park, and our trip was almost done. We had been gone for about a week, and still had an eighteen-hour car drive to get back to our homes in Southern Oregon, but being fit, highly motivated individuals, Charles and I still had a little more energy, so we decided that in the morning, we would get up early, drive for four hours to Great Basin National Park in Eastern Nevada, and climb 13,063′ Wheeler Peak. It would be the perfect way to end out epic trip.
We arrived at the park at around 9 a.m., and swung by the ranger station to get permits and refill our water bottles. Then we headed up the winding, switchbacking road that led to the trailhead at just above 10,000 feet. It was an interesting experience, driving from 6000 feet at the ranger station to the trailhead at 10,000 feet in something like 20 minutes. By the time we got there, the altitude was already making me feel slightly buzzed, but I wasn’t worried. With all my experience in the mountains, I have yet to get any noticeable altitude sickness, so I was fairly certain I wouldn’t here either.
It was really windy at the trailhead, and I wondered what it would be like higher on the mountain. We sorted a small amount of gear and started up the trail, which initially passes through a beautiful forest of Aspens, a type of tree I have not been around too much, being from the Northwest. After about fifteen minutes we encountered a fellow climber who had turned back short of the summit due to the intensity of the winds. He warned us about it, we thanked him and continued on.
Soon the trail left the Aspens and began to cross meadows and grassy slopes beneath the mountain, which positively loomed above us. We snapped pictures and shot film as we took occasional breaks and adjusted our layers of clothes. Out of the wind, it was quite warm, but there were few spots where it was sheltered enough to avoid the near-constant gusts. We weren’t worried about it since so far it wasn’t anything scary.
We reached the saddle below the mountain after less than an hour of hiking, and here the wind was picking up, but still we weren’t worried. As we began to encounter more and more climbers, virtually all of them had turned back before the summit due to the intense winds. We still didn’t worry. There would be no exposure, no dangerous spots where a big gust could get us into trouble, so unless the wind just flat-out blew us off our feet, we were going to keep going. That is one of the differences between ‘true’ climbers and hikers.
Once we ascended above tree-line, the wind truly began. Down below, it had been blowing at thirty or forty miles an hour, but on the completely exposed shoulder it amped up to closer to 50-60 miles per hour, with gusts reaching even higher. Virtually everyone we met had forgone the summit because of the winds. We still kept going.
As we climbed higher, the wind increased in intensity, so that it became nearly impossible to walk without stumbling. I would walk, bent over into the wind, and then it would either let up or gust harder, pushing or pulling me in every direction. It grew frustrating. Fortunately, there are many wind-break stone walls built (mostly for shelters for tents), and so I would take occasional breaks out of the wind.
Charles had left me behind once we got to the base of the final ridge, and I watched him rapidly head away from me, despite being in excellent shape myself. I climbed the last hour pretty much alone.
Once I got above 12,500 feet, my hands began to tingle from the altitude and my lack of time to adjust to it, so I knew I was going to have to reach the summit as quickly as possible. After 2.5 hours of climbing, I reached the summit, reunited with Charles and took the time to sign the summit register. Ironically, it was far less windy on the summit than down below, and we enjoyed a break from the pounding we had been taking.
We only stayed on top for a few minutes, since we still had to get down, and finish driving the remaining 14+ hours to Roseburg. We hustled back down the mountain to the car, and headed west across Nevada. We would not reach home until seven the next morning.