Wheeler Peak – 4/11

Skiing in Nevada has always intrigued me. The Ruby Mountains get the bulk of the attention, housing the classic line, Terminal Cancer. But on drives through Nevada I’ve marveled at the many other peaks that dot the desert, rising sharply from flat, endless wilderness. With nice spring weather and no far-afield plans, Garrett, Cam, Ellen and I figured it would be the perfect weekend to go check out Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park. Sitting at just over 13,000 feet and with 7,500 feet of prominence, Wheeler Peak is the second highest peak in Nevada and exemplifies a kind of stark contrast of landscapes that seems unique to Nevada.

I don’t know anyone else who had been to Great Basin National Park, despite it being one of the closest National Parks to Salt Lake City at only three and a half hours so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Cam, Ellen and I left Salt Lake City Saturday morning and met Garrett down in Ibex for an afternoon of climbing. It was also my first time making it to Ibex and, while we just putzed around on some random moderates, it was a blast climbing in what felt like the middle of nowhere. After a couple hours of climbing the four of us hopped in the car and drove the hour and a half to Great Basin National Park. Wheeler Peak is largely hidden from view on the drive in so we set up camp at Upper Lehman Creek Campground, set an early alarm, and went to bed, excited for exploring in new terrain.

We were at the trailhead and moving at 6:15 the next morning. It was only about a mile or two to the snowline, but we found firmly frozen snow so we opted to keep our sneakers on, allowing for speedy travel. Soon enough the majestic Northeast face of Wheeler came into view, and we continued up, motivated by the knowledge that we would be skiing out underneath it on the way out.

Eventually we reached Wheeler Peak Campground and decided to switch to skinning as the snow was becoming less supportable for walking. Our planned ascent route was to head up towards the col between Wheeler Peak and Bald Mountain, and then take one of the low angle shots up to the north ridge of Wheeler. The gradual slopes and well spaced conifers made for easy travel and felt vaguely reminiscent of the Sierras. Before long the shot to the ridge came into view and we were pleased that it was as low angle as the map had made it look.

Heading up the chute we got our first real taste of the surreal landscape, with snowy peaks intermixed with miles and miles of empty desert. The skinning was reasonable, the winds were calm, and all around things were way more pleasant than I had expected for a day that I had categorized in my mind as a serious contender for an exploratory sufferfest.

We reached the north ridge of Wheeler about four hours after leaving the trailhead. The initial views of Wheeler had left us somewhat dubious if we would be able to ski off of the summit; this place obviously sees a lot of winter wind. It was a nice surprise then, to see a thin snowfield snaking down from the summit for most of the length of the ridge. It wasn’t going to be glory high speed turns, but it looked possible to ski most of the way off the top.

We all started to feel the altitude to varying degrees so we spread out as we worked our way up the ridge line. The vast Nevada desert made for one of the more unique backdrops of any ski adventure I’ve been on, and it definitely felt like being on an island in the sky.

After some booting and talus hopping, we crested the final summit ridge line and got our first views to the south. The south shot off Wheeler looked tempting and Garret remembered reading an old Dorais brother post about it but we decided to stick with our original plan and continued the final couple feet to the summit to enjoy the hard-earned views.

We had a brief lunch in which I managed to steal all of Garrett’s kale after it blew off his sandwich and, thinking it was just an extra piece, popped it into my mouth. Soon, fully fed and filled with delicious greens (some of us more than others), we grew cold in the wind and decided it was time to head down. The skiing down the ridge was of the survival variety, but we were all pleasantly surprised at finding at least one or two fun turns on the wind scoured snow.

A couple hundred feet of ridge skiing brought us to where we had to cut east to drop down beneath the northeast face. The upper shoulder here had been largely stripped of snow by the wind, but we found a couple small snow fields to link that allowed us to avoid any large sections of down-booting. Garrett captured us delicately dancing down through the rocks trying not the ruin our skis.

All four of us made it through the upper shoulder unscathed and we worked our way east to the top of our line. “This is more like it” I thought as I got my first views of the shot. The face started wide and then pinched down to a wide couloir that spilled out into the (great) basin below. The ambiance was out of this world, with jagged rock spires and massive walls on all sides.

The upper part of the face was a minefield of a couple inches of rotten snow on top of jagged talus. The four of us worked our way down slowly, sidestepping to avoid having to set the edges too aggressively. Eventually the snow grew deeper and we cheered on Ellen as she began linking turns down towards the pinch bellow. The scale was was hard to judge, and she was able to make far more turns than I expected before reaching the pinch and finding a safe zone to stop in. One by one we followed her. The snow was mushy and terrifyingly thin for the first couple of turns, but quickly turned into glory corn as I got further down.

Bringing up the rear, I got to ski through the group, and I continued down the apron of the couloir and out into the basin below. The skiing here was absolutely phenomenal, some of the best corn of the season, and the surrounding scenery made for some truly memorable turns. The rest of the group came down to join me, hooting and hollering at the perfect conditions.

We party skied out through the basin, taking in the amazing views all around us. Feeling like we had some more energy, Garrett, Cam and I decided to head up a north facing couloir off Jeff Davis Peak. Ellen was feeling the altitude and hung back for a nap in the sun.

The snow in the couloir was firm and variable so we ended up deciding to stop about halfway up, but the elevation gained gave us some great views of our descent line off of Wheeler and the skiing back to Ellen was low angle enough to be enjoyable, even with the difficult snow.

We rejoined Ellen at the floor of the basin and started the ski out. As we made our way towards the mouth of the basin, we entered a grove of some of the coolest trees I have ever seen. These Bristlecone Pines are some of the oldest trees in the world, with some having lived upwards of 4000 years. They grow extremely slowly in the harsh environment, and their rot resistant wood actually erodes like stone in the wind and snow, giving them whimsical shapes. Effortlessly gliding down through these ancient beauties was one of the highlights of the trip, and reason alone to make the trek up to Wheeler Peak.

Despite the day’s warmth and our dilly dallying to admire the trees, the snow remained wonderfully supportive as we made our way back down to the trailhead. We were able to make it to within about a mile of the trailhead with some acrobatic maneuvers and sacrificing of our bases, and we made quick work of the final hike back the the car and some cold beers.

All in all, our adventure on Wheeler Peak exceeded all of my expectations. The skiing wasn’t anything special for most of the descent, but the ambiance, views, and sheer novelty of the landscape more than made up for it. Despite being a National Park, we ran into only a couple of hikers and no other skiers, a welcome change from the Wasatch, and getting to appreciate the Bristlecone Pines as the only party in the basin was definitely magical. The stats for the day weren’t small, 14.5 miles and 6,1000 feet of vert, but the easy travel and smooth descent made it type I fun kind of day start to finish. What a great intro to Nevada skiing!