Sunday, October 16, 2016

FTF Weekend at Wheeler Peak - Friend To Find? had a promotion going on where they were encouraging folks to bring newbies out geocaching, calling it "Friend To Find" a play on the cacher slang of FTF. I havn't been all that successful in introducing people to geocaching, but I do sometimes go hiking with non-cachers and show them geocaching while we were out. So it just happened that during this promotion, I went on a big day-hike out in the Wheeler Peak area with two non goecachers, co-workers who also were interested in a big long hike.

Wheeler Peak, the highest point in NM is one of the more popular hikes in the area, and the trails up it are well traveled. But the route I wanted to take was not the typical one. I was lured into taking a more circuitous route by an unfound cache on Lake Fork Peak, GC5779B. This cache had gone over two years without a find, and was right up my alley terrain wise: scrambling up rocky ridges to a high mountain peak. The other really attractive aspect of hitting this cache was that it presented us with a very interesting looking ridge-walk route to Wheeler.  Wheeler Peak is on the eastern side of a cirque of high peaks that surround Williams Lake. Lake Fork Peak was on the western side of that cirque. The logical route would be to walk the ridge-line, passing several un-named peaks along the way. ON a map this looked pretty straightforward, but pictures I found online showed that sections of this ridge were rocky, steep and possibly very challenging. It didn't look like any technical 5th class climbing would be required, but certainly 4th class was a possibility, as well as big mountain exposure. Just the kind of stuff I like.

Some of the worst terrain on the ascent to Lake Fork Peak
To make things even more strenuous, after completing this cirque, we could descend from Wheeler via the 8+ mile long Bull-of-the-woods trail, adding a lot more miles to our day... and a few more geocaches. I was pretty stoked to give this route a try.

Lake Fork Peak FTF
My hiking companions were two engineers that work from my department at LANL. They were pretty stoked about this ambitious hike, but I really had no idea of their capabilities. Fortunately, it seemed like we would have various bail options throughout the route, including an option to return from Wheeler via the Williams Lake trail and shave off several miles from the entire trip. We met at the trailhead at 6:30, while it was still dark and started up the trail shortly after. There were a few geocaches on the trail leading up to Williams Lake, and I used these as a means to introduce them to geocaching. They both signed the logsheets and politely commented how this was pretty interesting, but it didn't look like either of them was interested in creating a geocaching account and actually playing the game. Oh well, no souvenir for me. But I did take newbies geocaching! Too bad Groundspeak can't recognize me anyway.

Starting our Ridge-run
Gaining the ridge at Lake Fork Peak turned out to be a pretty good challenge. I ended up leading our group into some 4th class rock climbing, which was made extra exciting by there being some packed snow and ice on the route. One member of our group got sketched out and we spent a bit of time back-tracking with him so that he could take an alternate (and easier) route. I wrote more about it on my log for Lake Fork Peak.

Typical rocky bluff "obstacle" along the ridge
The FTF was an excellent one, and the fact that I found it durng the FTF-"Friends to Find" promotio was even better. Although neither of my companions have logged the cache online yet. Hmph... more Lonely Cache Poitns for me then! Once at our first summit we got a better look at what was in store for us for the ridge walk. There were indeed some very rocky, steep sections of the cirque, but also some that looked pretty easy to walk. There was also a lot of elevation changes that would be required, probably as much as simply descending to Williams Lake and then going up one of the regular Wheeler Peak trails. I mentioned this to our group, but no one seriously considered doing this. The ridge-line looked way cooler.

Some of the rougher terrain along the ridge
We set off along the ridge for some initially very easy hiking, and with amazing views all around. Occasionally we would encounter a rocky bluff that would need to be scrambled but we were making steady progress. At the highest peak along the cirque, an un-named peak that reaches 12,819 ft in elevation, I dropped a cache which would become GC6VYBJ. I came up with an idea for a puzzle to accompany the cache along our route that I thought was pretty fun. Hopefully the geocachers who go after it will think so too, but I bet it's going to be good and lonely.

Cool remote lake south of ridge, in Taos Pueblo Reservation land
There was one more un-named peak that we had to pass before we got to the final ridge climb up to the main ridge that leads to Wheeler Peak. Once we got around this peak it became apparent that this final ridge climb would be some of the toughest terrain we would face on the whole route. IN fact, it looked hairy enough that one member of our group decided against going up it. There was a faint/old trail off to our south along the flank of Old Mike Peak and he decided he would descend down to this trail and meet us at Old Mike Peak. This would cost him a whole  bunch of elevation change and additional miles, but he thought that was better than the exposed scramble that lay ahead of us. So we split up again. I hate doing this, it goes against what has been drilled into me from SAR training, and also good trip-leader practices, but we did it anyways.
Knife-edge section of ridge

The ridge was indeed exposed and dicey at parts, but never outside of our comfort zones. There was one knife-edge like portion that was especially "fun". Would I do it again? Definitely! Would I recommend it to others? Not unless I knew they liked this sort of thing. We ended up having to wait on Old Mike Peak for a good while for the third member of our party to catch up with us. His route was easier, but also a whole lot longer. By this time it was getting late in the afternoon, and the wind was ferociously strong. We tagged Wheeler Peak around 5pm. Definitely not enough tine to descend via the Bull-of-the-woods trail. Oh well, now I have an excuse to come back out here and hike that trail some day. My log on the Wheeler Peak geocache goes into a bit more detail about our route, which you can read if your really care to.

Old Mike Peak

Old Mike Peak
Our descent was on good trails, which was a relief after spending nearly the whole day off trail and in rough terrain. We were back to the car just after dark, having only put on our headlamps for the last 15 minutes of walking. It was an incredible day of hiking in the high peaks, and a strenuous one at that. Perhaps it wasn't the best way to introduce newbies to geocaching though. We'll see if these guys end up hiking with me again some time.

Wheeler Peak