Summiting Wheeler Peak

I looked up at the mountain. I don’t know about this, I thought. I had never summited something quite like this before. This was Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, at 13,065 feet. It was bold and bald, nothing grew on its mountain top.

The guys in the Rock the Park show, which I had become so accustomed to watching, didn’t make it to the top. They turned around in their Great Basin episode, but they had tried it in the winter, in the snow. I had the summer advantedge.

DSC05887 (2)I stood there in a prairie along the mountain side, among bunchgrass and black sage, looking up at the mountain peek. The view looked like Wheeler Peak, and the adjoining peaks, used to all be connected at a higher point, all composing one grand mountain, but over time that higher summit crumbled to pieces and formed the rock glacier. Nevertheless, Wheeler Peak stands very tall. It’s Nevada’s highest peak. Although just summiting the beast alone seemed impossible, one of my questions was, do I have time? I was not getting an early start. It was well into the afternoon.

I had started the day sitting at the Mather Overlook, which is  just a pull out from the main park road. I drove down there early and had a peaceful morning, reading some of my book about the history of the National Park Service while fittingly sitting there next to a plaque in honor of Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service. I then proceeded back down to the lower lands of the park, where I cleaned out my car at a dump station. I was waiting for my scheduled tour of Lehman Caves.

“What’s your favorite national park,” the park ranger asked each member of the group before our tour.

“Death Valley,” I shared, without hesitation.

“Alrighty,” she said, as she would say after completing, or beginning, every sentence. She also had an accent that was very indistinguishable. It’s a shame I remember more about the rangers speach patterns than the actual Lehman Caves. But the tour was very pleasant. I enjoyed it.

After the tour, I ate a sandwich in the cafe right next to the Lehman Caves Visitor Center. A little stand alone placard in the middle of my table, read “Ask a park ranger about ghost towns of Nevada.” I most certainly will, I thought, considering I would be traveling all across the state on Highway 50, and ghost towns fascinate me.   

After lunch I drove back up to the higher reaches of the park and eventually found myself geared up, looking at the towering Wheeler Peak and trying to decide if I should hike it. I tried to imagine where the trail might lead and tried to visualize it before me on the landscape. It looked like it made its way through the sparse forest of pinyon and juniper with granite out crops and prairie, until it reached the spine of an exposed ridge which gradually climbed until it hit a secondary base of the mountain, where a steep incline would begin around the back of the mountain. The total elevation gain would be 3,000 feet, not terrible, yet significant, especially since nearly all of it was completely exposed.

Welp, I’m here. I concluded it was time to give it a try. I figured the worst thing that could happen is that I’d had to turn around and come back, or be blown of the mountain by extreme winds. Actually the latter, I could have never imagined.

On my way through the prairie I spotted a group of wild turkey and some deer. On the other side of the prairie, growth became sparse, except for a tree every once in a while, jutting up from shambles of granite.

DSC05917Eventually there was nothing left except me on the slanted fields of rock crumble. The trail evolved into switchbacks, and since the landscape was so uniform, it was difficult at times to know exactly where the trail was supposed to be.

I reached a point where I could look down to my left and see Teresa and Stella lake  as miniature little puddles below. To my right, I looked out on the desert expanse of Nevada. Directly behind me I saw the spine ridge and the forest I had traversed, and in front of me there was just more rock leading up to the peak

Then it hit me, the realization of just how high up I was. It was disorienting. I’d never had such a clear 360 degree view at such an elevation. Also the way the landscape was not strictly in terms of vertical or horizontal orientation, but mountain ridges and landscapes were at odd diagonals, crooked, yet beautiful, made me feel uneasy. I began to feel a bit dizzy, and my heart began to beat a little extra fast, on top of what was already needed for this strenuous hike.

Just a little further up the mountain, and the wind was gusting. It made the loose fitting parts of my hoodie flap against  me violently. It blew into my ears so forcefully that it hurt. I pulled my hood over my head and held it tight, pinching it at the bottom so it wouldn’t blow off. It wasn’t enough to protect my ears. I had to turn my head sideways to evade the harsh gusts, and then I had to get low. When I stood tall, I felt my knees switching between wobbling and clenching, trying to maintain stance.

There was sincere fear that the wind would blow me off the mountain, that I could go flapping in the wind, tossed around and dropped somewhere out in the desert below. It didn’t help, that throughout the course of the year I had been having repeated nightmares involving the wind. In each one I’d be walking across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, and the wind would be so powerful it would always blow something valuable out of my hands and then the wind would wisp me off the bridge and I’d fall down into the cold water of the Hudson. No fun. It all stems back from one December on the Brooklyn Bridge when the wind did try to steal a backpack right off my back. As it had been ripped off me into the air I held on by one strap and was able to pull it back down. That event left a scarring impression on me.

But here on Wheeler Peak, this wasn’t just imagined. The wind was extreme and I could feel it trying to move my body. So, I proceeded up the mountain in a somewhat pitiful manner, reminding myself of Gollum from Lord of the Rings crawling over rocks never quite standing up fully.

DSC05922When I reached the top, the wind had dissipated greatly. I was stunned by the view. Hundreds of miles of Nevada was visible in all directions. Here I could truly see just how mountainous Nevada was, with mountains all over in near and far reaches, with sharp points, and slanted slopes, snow caps, and hidden forests, and valleys of desert between them all, covering great expanses. Just across from Wheeler peak was another peak that rose on a mountain which looked like it had been sliced by a knife with such a shark direct cut down to its base.

The sky up here was a very profound blue. It seemed as if I was elevated into a different atmosphere. When I looked out in the distance I could see a layer of lighter slightly murkier sky below, and I could see clouds in some far reaches that were well below where I was standing. As silly as it may sound, it felt like space was just a stone’s throw away.

Up here, there were two little topless shelters made of rocks, stacked on top each other, from the landscape. I imagined they were for people to camp in. I went inside, and wanted to rest a minute, and look out the structure door into the world below, but I didn’t trust these structures to hold up, especially if more wind was to come. I didn’t want rock collapsing on me. In one of these structures there was a mailbox stuck in the rocks, in it was a notebook- a log for people to record their accomplishments. Many people had filled it with Bible verses, I supposed they were inspired spiritually by such a view and height as this.

It’s spiritually affirming to reach a mountain top. It puts all of existence into focus. When you look down and ahead on the far reaches, you realize just how small your problems really are. And when you accomplish the task of reaching a mountain top, it reveals to you in a spiritual sense that you can get out of your canyons, traverse the desert, and reach the mountain top.

I also think mountain tops are places of hope and a taste of eternity- a place of beauty where we can look back on our lives, complete, and see what we have endured and how we fit into a bigger picture. You see, many of us, on our journey’s from the canyons and deserts of life into the mountains, find places of peace that God has hidden and given to us on the journey, like the little pristine forest hidden in the Great Basin National Park. But the mountaintop itself, the peek, is something that I believe can’t be reached in this life. The mountaintop is the pinnacle and completion of existence, a place of utter fulfillment, which we reach only when our time in this world is up and our souls have been accounted for. It’s the completion. It is the destination. And all of life’s journey in this world is preparing and leading us to it. 

So in this life, when we physically reach these mountaintops, they are appealing and satisfying to the soul. They inspire us, because they are a taste of an eternity and completion that we all naturally long for.

They also reflect the beauty of God and remind us that there is far more to existence than what we cling so tightly to in the world below


Read the next entry, “Welcome to America’s Loneliest Highway,” here:

Read the previous entry, “The Greatness of Great Basin,” here:




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