Great Great Basin Part II
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”