Colorado has experienced a fine winter snow season this year. Along with the snow came the gaper. The gaper has managed to cause a multi-car pile up on I-70 between Morrison to Avon every weekend from Christmas through the middle of March, like clockwork. Whether that gaper is CDOT, some out of towner, some jackass with a 2wd vehicle with no snow tires or just the rapid growth of Colorado – I’m not exactly sure, but it’s a reality of skiing in Colorado in 2014. Forcing us to devise a plan B on a weekly basis, Ben and I have also made note of the fact that we have survived this winter relatively unscathed from a Front Rangers standpoint with regards to the cataclysmic mess. With strategically (and luckily) planned powder trips to Steamboat, Monarch, Utah and methodically executed mornings at the Jane, we have managed to miss 99% of these pile ups that have become an assumed standard for Colorado ski country.
On this particular weekend, I-70 was not our main fear – Mother Nature was. Mother Nature can be equally, if not 10 times worse, than I-70, and sometimes, one needs to control their impulses in order to enjoy a successful, stress free weekend in the hills. Our plans metamorphosed from aggressive, moderate steep peaks on our ever changing and growing list, to green run equivolent bowls that would have 0 chance of sliding. On Monday, NOAA reported “partly sunny, minimal winds, 20% chance of light snow”, which evolved to “completely cloudy, 55mph gusts and 100% chance of lots of snow above 12,000 feet” by Thursday morning. Sometimes, a forecast like that can drive a Front Range weekend warrior insane, but in our case, it just meant creative thinking. Our creativity, inspired by Ben’s strong urges, led us 250 miles south to the high point of New Mexico – Wheeler Peak. The weather was bluebird, the snow was in an almost full on spring transition and the route was straightforward. Amazingly enough we were able to convince 2 brave souls on a moments notice to join. Dillon and my cousin Kevin both didn’t blink an eye and my new Outback would experience it’s virgin trip out of state. Everything was pointing in our favor.
We all met at Ben’s apartment complex around 2am, piled in to my boat and pointed our sails South. Lots of coffee was consumed on the drive down, maybe one too many Red Bulls and definitely one too many gas station hot pockets by Kevin. Some of the sounds that were made on the last leg of the drive were similar to that of the Pre-Cambrian time period. A box of the newly built Dunkin Donuts provided nourishment for the rest of the group and the Williams Lake Trailhead behind Taos Ski Resort couldn’t have arrived any faster.
We decided to use the Williams Lake approach for a number of reasons – access and ski potential being the biggest two. We drove through the Taos parking lot around 6:30am and found the paved, 2wd lot not too long after. After a quick gear up and some geographic orientation, we were on our way.
The trail to Williams Lake is about as easy as it gets from a snow travel standpoint. From the lot, you skin past Lift 4 and the Phoenix Grille/Bavarian Lodge, picking up a trail shortly beyond and then enjoying a well traveled skin/shoe track all the way to the lake for 2 miles. The skin through the trees is pleasant with green moss (aka “Gandalf’s Pubes”) covering most of the trees, reminiscent of the Cascades of the PNW. You don’t see too much of this particular moss in Colorado, other than maybe parts of the San Juans.
We reached Williams Lake a little after a hour after takeoff and were pleasantly surprised with the ski potential in Williams Lake Basin. Lake Fork is more or less the crown jewel of the basin from a skiers perspective, with Wheeler, Walter, No Name (or Sin Nombre) and the SE side of Kachina all holding moderately interesting ski routes for the initiated.
From the lake, the summer trail (covered in snow but visible) makes a zig-zagging traverse up to the Walter/Wheeler saddle. We decided to skin across the lake, climb up through the trees and find the snow line on the West Face we intended on skiing. It wasn’t fully visible from the North end of the lake and it wasn’t until we reached treeline where we saw we had continuous snow basically 100 feet from the summit of Wheeler.
The mostly filled in West Face made travel towards the summit relatively straightforward, with us able to skin to around a couple feet of the summit, before booting to snowline at around 12,900 feet and then stashing skis and hiking the remaining dry, loose scree feet to the top of New Mexico.
The summit register was a cast iron tube molded in to the cemented cairns. There were all kinds of signs, registers, memorabilia in there – but Dillon has printed out some flair of his own – Paco. Paco, Happy Campers and lots of Brookstone chocolate covered acai blueberries kept us entertained on the summit for a while before we started on our descent.
It started to get surprisingly cold so we all decided to head down after about a half hour hanging out at the summit, admiring the 360 views. The turns down the West Face were a little rough for the first couple hundred feet, but had transitioned to decent corn for around 1000 feet to treeline (We dropped in around 12pm). The turns in the trees were mostly semi-deep powder that put us right out on to the lake. Some shots of the ski:
As we were sitting at the lake waiting for Dillon on snowshoes, we heard a group of old dudes with long grey beards approaching us uttering some type of Gregorian chant (we asked the guys later what exactly they were saying and it was some form of prayer meaning “absolute truth”). They were there to spread one of the group members wife’s ashes at the lake, so we respected their privacy and were on our way. With all due respect to their purpose for being there, we all kind of got a kick out of what they were chanting and made our own versions on the ski out, as well as the entire drive home. We relayed this to the guy who was leader of the group, telling him we thought they kept chanting over and over “Ahi Tuna” and his laugh could have been heard from the border of Colorado. They recommended we join them at some natural foods/vegan establishment in town, but we respectfully declined and set our sights on the most gluttonous place Taos had to offer.
After contemplating New Mexican food at Orlando’s, but being turned off by the wait time (45 min) as well as driving to Rudy’s in Colorado Springs, we ended up at the flagship 5 Star Burger on the south end of Taos. After some mild brain damage to find the place (no thanks to those assclowns at Google Maps) we finally were able to sink our teeth in to some grade A beef.
I highly recommend the 5-Star burger with egg, pastrami and bacon, along with the sweet potato fries with a side of red chili sauce. Oh brother. The shenanigans did not stop there, as a tobacco pipe was whipped out on the drive back – which Ben took quite the liking to. We reached the border around sunset and took a quick break….
I’m not sure if it were too many Red Bulls, whatever was really in that pipe or just something in the air – but we all brought out our inner orangutan on the Colorado welcoming sign….
Thanks for reading. I’ve provided a topo map for reference: