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Journey to top of Wheeler Peak hard - but worth the adventure

SHARE Journey to top of Wheeler Peak hard - but worth the adventure

Life is hard here, halfway down the eastern side of the state, where sagebrush goes thirsty in the valleys and snow piles high in the mountains.

The highest one in these parts is Wheeler Peak, which looms over Great Basin National Park at an elevation of 13,063 feet.It is the second-highest mountain in Nevada, a mere 77 feet lower than Boundary Peak.

It's a magnet for adventure hounds, and it had been pulling at my buddy, Mike Glasgow, for five years. One weekend last month he finally made his move - and I, literally, followed in his footsteps.

The approach was a long one: 322 miles of driving to the trail-head, barely a stone's throw from the Utah line, followed by a three-hour uphill slog on skis. For the record, the trail climbed more than 2,000 vertical feet in a little more than three miles.

We carried full packs, with me toting the tent and Mike hauling the rainfly and poles. A gap opened between us as soon as we left the truck. It was understandable, given that Mike is an Elko fireman who skis the Ruby Mountains regularly - and I type for a living. The trail led up Lehman Creek, winding through the trees, climbing relentlessly. The weather deteriorated as we ascended, and a few aimless snowflakes thickened into a high-country squall. There was nothing else to do but tighten my parka hood and continue plodding.

New faces

At around 10,000 feet - with daylight fading and the thermometer dropping - the trail lev-eled off and the trees thinned. I could see a rainfly, cunningly erected, and a figure hunched over a cook stove.

"Good work, Mike," I thought to myself, "you've mustered up some shelter and gotten started on dinner."

Then the figure turned toward me and announced in a thick Ger-man accent: "Hallo! Your friend passed by here a quarter of an hour ago."

It turned out there were two Germans at that lonely camp: Dirk Friess and Werner Trax. They invited me to sit and have a cup of tea - an offer I gladly accepted.

"Tomorrow," they said, "we climb Wheeler Peak."

"We'll be there too," I replied. "See you on the trail."

With that, I thanked them for the tea and pressed on.

Room with a view

I hooked up with Mike a few minutes later and we threw the tent together at the edge of a pleasant clearing.

To the east, the view stretched away to tomorrow - an ironclad guar-an-tee of early morning sun; to the south was an unforgettable chain of peaks.

Jefferson Davis Peak, a ragged 12,771 footer, gave way to a sawtoothed ridge that ran headlong into the sheer northeast face of Wheeler Peak.

I admired the view while Mike cooked a hearty dinner. After gob-bling it down, we settled into our sleeping bags.

Dawn brought the song of birds and a searingly blue, high-altitude sky.

After a quick breakfast, we shouldered our rucksacks and skied to the west end of the cirque.

We climbed toward a saddle and, about halfway up, I spotted the Germans on the trail far below; a few minutes later, they were at my heels.

Unlike our camp, conditions weren't warm and friendly on Wheeler's northwest ridge. The wind tore at my clothes like jackals, and my field of vision narrowed to a peephole as I tightened my hood.

Mike, Dirk and Werner were far ahead and I could see them climbing Wheeler's final bulge. Mike was on crampons, carrying his skis, while the Germans had crampons affixed to their bindings.

Step by step, breath by breath, I forged ahead. I picked out landmarks that split the final bulge into thirds, and I reached each landmark in a reasonable amount of time.

I was expecting an unforeseen wrinkle or two after the final landmark, but the summit was at hand.

The others were relaxing at the east end of the summit, so I plodded over and took a seat.

We shook hands and took a few parting photos. It was time to go.

The less said about the descent, the better. My three companions skied off in fine style, while I took the heel-and-toe route back to my skis.I made it back to camp without doing any permanent damage, then lolled around, savoring the relative thickness of the air at 10,000 feet.

The final morning dawned gray and cloudy, so we struck camp and headed out early. The trail was icy, so we descended on a snowbound road that looped around for nine miles before reaching the truck.

The snow got thinner as we scrubbed off elevation, and the adventure ended - perhaps fittingly - with us walking down a paved road, carrying our skis.