Six Things I learned from Failing to Reach the Summit of Wheeler Peak

My good friend and I took our two twelve-year-old sons to hike to the top of Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico, on June 5. 

Wheeler Peak is in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico near Taos and Red River. At 13,159 feet, it is the highest point in the state. There are at least two trails that lead to the top. One begins near Red River, NM. Because it’s a shorter hike, we chose Williams Lake Trail, which begins in the Taos Ski Valley. 

The four of us arrived Friday evening and stayed just a mile from the trailhead. Everything around us was stunning. As we walked around a little to explore, we could tell that the elevation would be a real factor.

We knew we needed to start no later than 6 A.M. so that we could reach the summit before afternoon thunderstorms. New Mexico ranks second in the nation for lightning strikes, and with our two boys we couldn’t risk it.

The round trip was supposed to be eight miles. After the first two, hikers are rewarded with an amazing view of Williams Lake—probably the prettiest place I’ve seen in real life. To get there we followed a forested path with much more snow than we expected considering it was June. Still, the hike was easy and gave us a false confidence. 

After a break at the lake, we turned up Wheeler Peak trail and quickly saw that it was about to get tough.

Through the timber, we were able to follow the trail most of the time despite the snow. But once we were above the timberline, the best we could do was try to find the safest way forward. The shortest distance was often through the snow, but after sinking to our waists fifty times, we realized it wasn’t always the quickest. Going around the snow meant going over fields of boulders, sometimes stable and sometimes not. I should have paid more attention to the phrase “rocky scree slope” in the trail description. 

We made it to the top of the saddle, which is technically on top of the mountain, but not the peak, in a little over five hours. We could see the peak, but we could also see dark clouds building up all around. We pretended like we didn’t hear the thunder until people ahead of us began running toward us. “There’s lightning everywhere,” said the first person who darted past. We knew then that the peak would have to wait for another day.

At the end of the day, we had spent a hard nine hours in some of the most beautiful country we’d ever seen. We faced and overcame several obstacles and dangers but stayed positive and made it down with two uninjured boys who both have memories that will last a lifetime, and who both want to go back.

Despite that, we failed to reach our goal. Regardless of how close we got, we were not on Wheeler Peak. Because of missing our goal, we analyzed the trip more deeply than we may have had all gone as planned. Here’s what we learned through our failure.  

1.       Mileage is deceiving

Last December, my same friend and I took our sons to hike Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas. It, like Wheeler, is an eight-mile hike. 

Both hikes involve tough mountains and are the same distance, so they should be similar. At least that’s what I thought.

How wrong I was. There are many factors that determine the difficulty of a hike. Besides the grade of the mountain and differences in elevation, the terrain itself makes a huge difference. Four miles in waist deep snow cannot be compared to four miles on a cleared trail. Four miles of a hidden trail can also turn in to five or six miles of trail. When planning future hikes, I’ll ask a lot more questions than “How long is it?”

2.       Elevation is for real

I’m in relatively good shape and can hike a decent distance. But hiking at 10,000, 11,000, or 12,000 feet is not the same as hiking at 5,000 feet. All four of us dealt with swollen hands, nausea, headaches, and being out of breath from 11,000 feet and up. By the time we were close to the summit, we needed a break every few minutes. If possible, it would be a good idea to spend a day or two more in the mountains before the day of the actual hike. I now know why some people camp at Williams Lake before finishing the hike to the peak.

3.       Snow is serious

We all agreed that had it not been for the snow, we would have been to the peak and started back down in time to miss the thunderstorm.

If you’ve ever been skiing, you know what it’s like to post hole your way across a blue or black slope, get stuck, slide ten feet, crawl out, and do it all over again trying to get to the skis that are fifty yards away. That’s what we did for two of the five hours it took us to get to the top. And inevitably, where the boys could walk on top of the snow, the dads would break through. Even in June, we needed snowshoes. 

Our most stressful ten minutes came when three of us slid about one hundred yards down a steep slope of deep snow. This was while we were still trying to get below the timberline to be safe from the lightening. The last boy to go, instead of sliding, turned a summersault and then sunk to his waist and was stuck. We tried to get back to him but realized it would be nearly impossible. Thankfully, despite his initial panic, he dug himself out and finally slid down to the rest of us. 

I knew that we didn’t want to hike through deep snow; that’s why we planned our trip in June. Next time, it will be no earlier than late July.  

4.       Not all trails are kid friendly

Our boys are not only tough, but also good athletes. We want them to gain the confidence that comes from doing hard things, and we want them to gain the toughness that comes from being uncomfortable. And they embrace it. They hiked to Guadalupe Peak, a hike many adults can’t do, with little trouble. And they’ve tent camped on their own in the snow. But this hike was beyond their limit, at least with that day’s conditions. There was a reason why they were the only kids we saw on the trail.

Though neither complained, they were in real distress by the time we were near the top. I considered calling “calf-rope” on their behalf before we were forced to turn back by the weather. Like my friend and me, their legs were fine. It was the elevation that got them.

Besides that, traversing slick patches of snow to cross steep grades that seemed to go on for a mile below us would have been thrilling for us men, but with the boys it was scary. They were brave, but when my friend’s son said, “This is sketchy,” that was the understatement of the day. In the end, we were thankful to deliver them in one piece to their mothers.

5.       You can try to do everything right, and still not win

We didn’t travel to Taos on a whim.

For two years, we read about and talked about the hike. We built up for it, we planned for it, and we trained for it. 

All four of us weight train regularly. We walked in weighted vests, or did lunges, stair steps, lap swims, and training runs. We jumped rope and did pull-ups and wall sits and calf raises. 

We planned our meals, and planned our trip, and never considered we wouldn’t make it. 

We wore the right clothes and packed the right drinks and snacks. 

Despite all that, we didn’t make it to the final goal. And it’s a good lesson for all four of us. Sometimes you just don’t win. 

6.       Failure is good for you

Or, at least, doing things that you’re likely to fail at is good for you.

We could have turned back at William’s Lake, or hiked a flat eight miles in Texas, or stayed home to watch the Brady Bunch. But we chose to tackle a tough goal—one we had grown weary of talking about doing “someday.” And though we didn’t make it to the exact point we had planned, our experience wasn’t much different than it would have been had we made it that last 400 or so meters. And besides, now we have a great excuse to go back—after the snow melts, that is.

About Nowhere Tribune

A husband and daddy, striving to love his neighbors and be kind to his pets. I love good food, good beer, and a few good friends. My other interests are hiking, taking walks, lifting weights, reading books by manly authors like Hemingway and Twain, and splitting fire wood with my bare hands.


14 thoughts on “Six Things I learned from Failing to Reach the Summit of Wheeler Peak

  1. First thought – wow. Just wow at the scenic beauty. The dark clouds photo? Simply stunning.
    Second – as someone who got altitude sickness at 4,500 feet in Sedona? I’m in awe that you didn’t die of hypoxia.
    Third – snow in June? Bravo. You managed to beat our crazy weather.
    Fourth – if I haven’t said it already? Awesome post!

    Posted by Rivergirl | June 14, 2021, 5:14 pm
  2. Good article, and some impressive views. Local to me, the peaks top out at under 11,000 ft. Still, I’ll note the snow elevation at the start of July each year. Summer visitors often underestimate the snow, effects of altitude, water needs, changing weather conditions, and wilderness navigation. Unfortunately, we had a very nearby recovery of remains just last September, a solo day-hiker apparently caught in weather about 10-months earlier. It’s beautiful. But there’s some informed judgment required.

    Posted by Lightness Traveling | June 14, 2021, 7:27 pm
  3. Hey, you tried. And as they say, it’s about the journey, not the destination. I love the photos, especially the one with the angry clouds. The landscape is stunning.

    Posted by Tippy Gnu | June 14, 2021, 7:52 pm
  4. That sounds like an amazing place. I’m sure you would’ve enjoyed yourselves despite not reaching your goals. One unfortunate reality of hiking in an alpine environment is knowing that sometimes you can’t do it when you want. The mountain will always be there for another day though 😊.

    Posted by Liberated | June 14, 2021, 8:03 pm
  5. I wouldn’t call that hike a failure at all! You tested your limits, made some good memories, and saw some stunning sights. I have every confidence you’ll make it to the summit one day. Thanks for sharing your adventure 😊

    Posted by Shayne | June 15, 2021, 8:56 am
  6. 👍🏻

    Posted by Sam | June 21, 2021, 10:53 am
  7. Glad it worked out okay. Great photos! Yes, so much to learn about climbing peaks. Scree sucks!! Not sure if you remember that I climbed up to 14k but still did not make it to the peak of Mt. Massive in CO. I want to go back and try again.

    Posted by pkadams | July 9, 2021, 8:37 am


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