Jason and I, ever the ready adventurers, decided that we were going to break camp early our last morning in Great Basin and leave our buddies to hike Wheeler Peak. Wheeler Peak, at 13,063 feet, is Great Basin’s tallest mountain and a mere 89 feet shy of being Nevada’s highest. For those that need a comparison closer to home, Wheeler is just 500 feet shorter than Kings Peak, Utah’s loftiest. As one would expect from a path this elevated, the trail up Wheeler leaves the timberline far behind and zigzags through massive piles of rock for the majority of its duration. The barren nature of those hillsides, in combination with the frequency of their summer afternoon thunderstorms, meant that we needed to start our nearly 9-mile journey promptly in the morning as a safety precaution. But, alas, our well-planned precautions didn’t prevent anything. Here is the woeful tale of our trek up Wheeler and my faithful account of how Mother Nature tried to give us the bird.
About a mile in, our destination still loomed far above us.
The appeal of hiking Wheeler Peak, for many, is the amount of bang you get for your walk. I’ve summited Kings Peak multiple times and know firsthand how three tiring days of backpacking are required to reach its craggy top. The trail to Wheeler, on the other hand, starts at about 10,000 feet and is only 8.6 miles round-trip. So for just 4-10 hours of work, depending on your speed, you can witness the world from a soaring perspective. That’s a pretty dang good deal if you ask me. It took us 6 hours, truly a bargain. Don’t let the reasonable distance convince you that conquering Wheeler is easy though for that’s certainly not the case. Gaining 3,000 feet in 4.3 miles, with most of that increase in the last 2, means ascending some extremely steep hillsides. Add terrain exclusively composed of rocks and boulders and toss in some thin air and you’ve got a recipe for exhaustion. We made it to the summit after 2 hours and 45 minutes of grueling climbing and we felt pretty good about that.
The numerous wind shelters found throughout our route hinted at just how bad the weather on Wheeler can be.
The rocky slopes heading up Wheeler all looked about the same giving the disheartening impression that, no matter how far you climbed, you hadn’t moved at all.
The peak was sunny and beautiful when we reached it but, far off in the distance, we could see some potential storm clouds brewing so we didn’t dillydally there at the top. After a quick half-hour break for pictures and lunch, we started scurrying down those same tricky stones that we had just climbed. Only about an hour into our descent, the clouds became much more threatening as they congregated directly over our heads. Since we were still above the timberline and the highest things sticking out of the ground for miles, we were eager to reach the cover of the pines before things got any worse. That eagerness manifested itself in the closest approximation of a run that the rough terrain would allow. Our haste, it turns out, was not unwarranted. Just minutes after our earnest dash began, a blinding light about 100 yards to our left, followed immediately by a crash so loud it made our ears ring, confirmed that hurrying was an excellent idea. That bang was many, many decibels beyond any rumble either of us had ever heard before and way too close for comfort. This disturbance, of course, prompted further bolting on our part and we hurried down those rocky slopes in a panic. We rushed past the point where a few hardy trees were growing sporadically to the place where the forest became denser without incident but then all hail broke loose.
Jason carted my tripod all the way to the top just so we could take this picture together. What a trooper.
Rugged deserts, stony rises and bristly forests all spread out below us like the tiny workings of a proficient tinkerer.
Right as we reached a concentration of trees thick enough for the term “wooded” to apply, rain started to fall by the bucketful so Jason and I stopped in a clump of pines to put on the emergency ponchos that I had had the foresight to bring. In front of us lay a stretching meadow that would take 10-20 minutes to traverse before the trail fell under timbered foliage again. We were standing at the edge of this pasture, reluctant to give up our newfound protection, when lightning and thunder suddenly began shaking the ground all around us. The heavens, apparently, had abruptly and arbitrarily declared a dazzling war on the mountainside we occupied.
Although we didn’t stick around long to celebrate, we had a few deserved moments to savor our victory at the peak.
The little wind house at the summit was better than a pillow fort as far as Jason was concerned.
Jason and I didn’t go out into that open terrain once the blasting began, thank goodness. Instead, we cowered under the trees as enough hail to cover the world in a lumpy blanket pelted us and rain soaked us in frosty rivulets that dripped down our ponchos. And, all the while, the firestorm continued to terrify. I don’t know how to explain the dread of being bombarded by bursting flashes of electrifying light and earsplitting thunder claps. I don’t know how to convey just how loud it was because nothing else I’ve ever witnessed compares. I’d never been in the middle of a thunderstorm like this before and, now that I have, I certainly hope that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Going up may have been physically difficult but coming down was an awkward test of coordination.
I put my ankle brace on for support just minutes before we resorted to running. Good thing because I surely would have done a number on my foot as I bolted over boulders had I not been wearing that contraption.
We seemed to be at the storm’s epicenter, a focal point that was not only horrifying but freezing. Temperatures plummeted 20 or 30 degrees in the middle of the ruckus so, as we crouched beneath those sheltering pines like frightened wet dogs, we were chilled to the bone. Neither of us thought to look at the time during the crash-boom-bang but I’d guess that we sat there for about half an hour, long enough for violent shivering to set in and complete saturation to occur. We had made a wise choice in staying put though as we saw several strings of lightning light up the meadow we would have been sprinting through. Eventually, the commotion let up enough that we dared to pick up our sopping bodies and make a run for it.
This is where I squatted through the worst of the storm. I remember yelling, “Just stop!” many times at the sky during the tumult. It didn’t seem to hear me.
We darted across that meadow as fast as we could, through ankle-deep puddles and icy mud. While the refuge of an occasional tree tempted Jason, I didn’t let temporary sanctuary get between me and my end goal: getting back to the car without becoming a lightning rod. Although the skies continued to grumble, we made it to our vehicle an hour or so later without any more near misses.
As you can see, the hail was in no short supply when all was said and done.
We stopped at the park’s visitor center café on our way home to get a hot beverage to help thaw us out. The exchange between Jason and the café cashier pretty much sums up this whole experience. He told her that he really needed some tea for his wife because she’d almost been struck by lightning. To this the clerk just nodded sympathetically and said, “Yeah, we get that a lot.”
Great Basin, one of America’s newest national parks, is only a few hours from our home yet Jason and I had never been there and that was just not right! I therefore planned a weekend of camping, caving and climbing in that remote region to remedy this wrong. (Yes, I somehow became the camping event organizer again. Next time it’s definitely someone else’s turn.)
It’s too bad that Drew and Isabelle didn’t make it to Stella Lake because they missed the grandeur of rocky mountaintops multiplied in unspoiled pools.
The kids cooperated for a few cute pictures along the lakeshore.
Great Basin turned out to be great indeed. It possesses a tougher kind of beauty; not the pristine forested prettiness that you’d expect from a national park but a hardier, rugged, determined sort of splendor. Within its borders, the sharp peaks of the South Snake Range burst from the surrounding sea of desert valleys with an almost 8,000-foot elevation change and, although much lusher than the arid lands from which they rise, these crests and summits show signs of a lasting struggle with their harsh environment. Dried browns and thirsty yellows mix with verdant greens on their hillsides creating a unique resolute landscape.
Stella Lake, one of the subalpine pools we looped around, was a transparent emerald hue.
The kids found the chilly waters of Stella Lake warm enough for some toe dipping and rock skipping.
Thanks to my expert planning skills, I was able to procure our company, which consisted of my brother Drew’s family and the Bresees, a secluded group campsite. Although there was a little drama over another traveler taking our reserved spot, it all ended well. We had enough room and isolation to be as loud as we wanted.
Our campsite was well secluded so “quiet hours” weren’t necessary but they were nice.
Lehman Caves, with its vast chambers of dripping limestone and marble, was a great grotto.
Since we had little kids with us, we did but miniscule hiking collectively during our stay. We did all manage to hit the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail, a short 2.7 mile circle, but Drew and Isabelle didn’t manage to hit it far. The rest of us, however, enjoyed refreshing waters in the form of two crystal clear subalpine lakes, a little hail and some torrential rain as we walked. Did I mention that the weather in Great Basin is often unpredictable, especially in the afternoons? That becomes important in the second half of this story so don’t forget it.
I brought my new camera to Great Basin and took practically innumerable pictures.
This is what I was shooting when Jason took the picture of me above.
Next, we were off on a ranger-led tour of the Lehman Caves, Great Basin’s claim to fame. Although not terribly impressive size-wise, the Lehman Caves (really just one cave) showcases many rare decorations, including cave shields, which look like two circular plates cemented down the middle, and bulbous stalactites. This intriguing cavern prompted many questions from me, which our good-natured guide kindly answered.
The harsher their environment, the longer bristlecone pines survive. One could say that they thrive in adversity. That’s my kind of tree.
The twisted gnarled wood of the bristlecone pines was texturally and visually absorbing.
After our descent into the ground, the kids were too beat for the second hike we had planned but that didn’t stop Jason and me from trekking it on our own. We took the Bristlecone Pine Trail to a grove of the earth’s oldest living creatures. The mountain hillsides covered in these ancient plants were fantastic. These resourceful stubborn trees live not centuries but millennia and, even at the end of their lifespan, they refuse to give up. “Dying” can take centuries and their twisted stone-like corpses still stand for thousands of years once the last of life has left their dense trunks. After beholding the majesty of such resolve, Jason and I continued up the trail to observe a different kind of perseverance in the form of a rock glacier, Nevada’s last remnant of a colder age. Though small, the immense impact this glacier has had on the steep gravelly valley that cradles it was obvious.
The grove of bristlecone pines that we walked through was ancient. The longevity of our surroundings made my own fleeting moments of life seem insignificant. It’s good to be reminded of your own unimportance now and then.
That night, when Jason and I returned to camp following our hike, the whole gang roasted hotdogs and marshmallows and chitchatted around the fire until rain broke up our party. The boys, not ready to retire, revived the flames and conversations several times when they thought the deluge had passed but, in the end, the persistent precipitation got the better of them. Although pelting showers woke everyone numerous times during the night, by morning the eager desert had soaked up all remnants of the storm as if it had never happened.
The craggy outcroppings surrounding the glacier may have been barren but they were enthralling nonetheless.
The glacier was at its smallest size of the year when we saw it but sheer sheets of ice camouflaged under dirty rubble could still be seen by the careful eye.
And that brings me to the last day of our outing, the day Jason and I hiked the 13,063-foot summit of Wheeler Peak and got in a battle with Mother Nature that we will not soon forget. Next week I will cover that thrilling tale, which you surely will not soon forget either.
Faster than you can say “apocalypse sandwich” Jason and I can be ready to be rotten. Recently we, once again, coated our skin in grey, covered ourselves with foul lacerations and painted ourselves bruised for the annual SLC Zombie Walk. This event is kind of like a flash mob only, instead of dancing, the thousands of zombies just limp along a mile of downtown looking freakish and surreal. Jason and I, oddly enough, have much experience behaving undead and we are always happy to lend our decrepit savvy to these ragtag hobblers.
I may be naturally pale but no, I’m not typically this pasty.
Jason’s wrinkly rotting checks were made possible by cotton balls and latex.
My particular style of undead, not surprisingly, reflects my style of not-dead. Whenever I get into zombie character the same gait and facial expression emerge: a dragging right foot, limp unthought-of arms, a vacant eerie stare and a slightly open mouth. Doesn’t it seem logical that an often spacey person, such as myself, would make an absentminded reanimated corpse? It’s as natural as the unnatural gets.
We shuffled our decaying corpses through a mile of Salt Lake City’s downtown.
Who says zombies can’t be upstanding citizens? We waited for the signal to cross the street just like all the good girls and boys.
Apparently, my reflexive zombie demeanor is quite convincing, however, it’s also quite slow. My unsymmetrical shuffle, according to Jason, makes a mile take a while. Unlike many at the walk, I never break character but this time I did do my best not to dawdle while still remaining authentic. It was a challenge but I think I pulled it off pretty well.
The sun got into character too. It was a menacing red hue that evening, probably due to a fire somewhere.
Wedding bells are going to whine?
Many entertained watchers, enthusiastic picture-takers and confused bystanders lined the walk’s route this time, more than we’ve seen other years. Some onlookers even brought lawn chairs and camped out for the rank parade. I hope all you roadside snacks found our dripping corpses and malicious gazes disturbingly diverting. Jason and I are looking forward to painting the town grey with decay again next year.