Wheeler Peak


By: Louise Werner


THE 8000-FOOT public campground, shaded by yellow pines, was loud with the clamor of Lehman Creek and its many tributaries that wander past tables and stoves and improvised rock fireplaces. Tall cane-like grasses, yellow mimu1us and blue penstemons were lush along the crooked little stream. The scent of wild roses filled the air.

A sign reading Ste1la Lake, 5 Miles--Wheeler Peak, 7 Miles," ushered the Sierra Club knapsackers onto a path cut through rose thickets, young aspen and mountain mahogany.

A feathery cloud enve1oped many of the mountain mahogany trees - a myriad of cycle-shaped wings on which the seeds would shortly escape. Yellow-brown eyes looked up from the dephts of creamy mariposa tulips. Grasshoppers clapped their wings, hopping from tall grass to gray sage to scarlet penstemon.

It was the Fourth of July week end, and we were in eastern Nevada on the flank of 13,000-foot Wheeler Peak, heart of the proposed Great Basin National Park - an alpine island in the midst of a vast ocean of desert.

In September, 1955, writer Weldon Heald of Tucson rediscovered a live glacier, complete with bergschrund, crevasses and fresh moraines, in a basin hidden under a lowering cliff on the northeast face of Wheeler. Heald named it Matthes Glacier after Francois Emile Matthes (1874-1948), one of America's most distinguished geologists and a world authority on glaciers. The ice mass, roughly triangular and about 2000 feet at its greatest dimension, has been seen by few, hidden as it is in a pocket in the shadow of the peak.

This icy remnant of an age long past has become the center of a movement to set aside 145 square miles of the Snake Range, including Lehman Caves National Monument, as a national park. Heald and fellow supporters of the park idea point out that the Wheeler Peak area, with its glacier, lakes, caves, easy stream-side trail passing in seven miles through five life zones, and its spectacular views of the surrounding desert, is a worthy candidate for national park status. The Sierra Club members making this hike all carried these items in their back packs: sleeping bag, some type of shelter (from a mere sheet of plastic yardage to tents), dehydrated food, cooking and eating utensils, sweaters, coats or parkas, matches, first aid and toiletries. We had boiled down our needs to the bare minimum. My husband, Niles, and I carried 19 and 17 pounds respectively, exclusive of camera equipment. Our down sleeping bags weigh about five pounds each; air mattress two pounds; long woolen underwear for sleeping, one pound; food for two days, two pounds; cooking can, cup, spoon and canteen, one pound; wool sweater and nylon parka, 10 ounces; first aid and toiletries, eight ounces; plastic shelter, two pounds; knapsack, three pounds.

The trail climbed gently through a forest of aspen, the sun sifting through yellow-green foliage to white bark and to red columbines luxuriating underneath. Butterflies hovered over musky-smelling white yarrow and lavender shooting stars. A wall of rock slabs piled in layers looked as if it might come tumbling down if you pulled out one of the lower pebbles.

Hike leader Dick Kenyon set a slow pace at first to allow us time to get used to our packs, but the rise in elevation was so gradual and the trail in such good condition that fast hikers were allowed to forge ahead. Desert Peakers usually stay behind the leader if there is any question about the route. In cases like this, however, where the route is known to be uncomplicated by forking or disappearing trails, hikers who prefer a fast pace are allowed to go on-provided the leader feels they are capable of looking after themselves. Some hikers keep their eye steadily on the day's goal, others saunter along as if each moment holds all there is.

On our left, Lehman Creek babbled by. A couple of zigzags brought us to the top of a ridge where we stopped to look back over our route. Our eyes followed the creek down to the wide Snake Valley.

We crossed the stream on a log, admiring maidenhair ferns and a clump or two of heuchera whose heart-shaped leaves drooped to catch their reflection in the water. The top of Wheeler Peak came into view through a break in a dense stand of Engelmann's spruce. Busy clouds were drifting up behind the rocky mass. The sight of our destination was a good excuse for a rest stop. We took off our packs, which were beginning to feel somewhat heavier, and dug out some lunch: dates, cheese and crackers, nuts and hard candy. Elevation here was 9500 feet. After his third cup of sparkling water from the creek, Niles observed that he had seldom seen a mountain stream as accommodating as Lehman Creek-always within reach, never running away to tantalize the thirsty hiker with liquid sounds from unreachable canyon depths.

The boiling clouds reminded us of the mountain's reputation as a rainmaker. Reluctantly we shouldered our packs and started up the last thousand feet to Stella Lake. Young aspen bowed to the ground, prostrated by last winter's snow, patches of which still remained. Dead logs lay about, in varying states of decay. Armies of ants, driven by a compulsive urgency, marched endlessly in and out of dust piles left by decaying spruce.

Clouds overtook the sun; gloom overwhelmed the forest, and suddenly we missed the warblings of birds. Faint thunder rumbled up canyon, and a few drops of rain fell. Then the sun came out again, more brilliant than ever, or so it seemed. Coming upon a lake in a desert mountain range was a new experience for me. My California desert mountains boast no lakes, not even the White Mountain Range which rises to 14,242 feet, and is the highest desert mountain range in the U.S. Stella Lake, at 10,500 feet, and Teresa Lake, a few hundred feet higher, are not large or deep when compared to Sierra Nevada lakes at this elevation, but in this desert setting they were a rare find-at least so they seemed to me as we searched the slopes surrounding Stella Lake for level campsites. A robin was combing a large snowfield for insects. A grosbeak's fine little melody, heard from the top of a tall spruce, was scoffed at by two crows, and a light brown bird sitting on a low limb kept saying, "thrt, thrt, three-o-wheat," as if adding a commercial.

There was plenty of firewood at hand and Niles soon had the tea water sizzling in a pound coffee can-one of two that constituted our entire set of cooking utensils. A pound coffee can, with its broad bottom, allows food to heat quickly, is about the right size for a one-dish hot meal for two, and is expendable. We long ago reneged at bringiing home blackened pots to clean. Raindrops hissed on our fire and spattered into our chowder-a dish containing dehydrated corn, potatoes, milk, onions and seasonings. At this elevation it required about a half hour's simmering. Our ounce packages of pre-cooked dehydrated beef being new to us, we nibbled right out of the package. It tasted so good we sprinkled the remainder on top of the chowder after dishing it up, rather than dumping it into the pot and losing sight of it. A sauce of diced apricots (we cooked enough for breakfast, too) made a fine dessert.

Our entire dinner - including tea and sugar- only weighed six ounces per serving in our knapsacks. Improved dehydrated foods like these, along with plastic shelters, down sleeping bags and nylon parkas, have revolutionized knapsacking. Today you can go into the mountains for a long week end with less than 20 pounds on your back and be better equipped than was the knapsacker of 15 years ago who carried 50 pounds.

Now and again, during our meal, showers sent us running for our plastic shelter. Clouds hung low when we got together around the campfire that evening. Bedtime comes early for knapsackers, and at nine o'clock we dispersed-happy to see quite a few stars against patches of cobalt blue sky.

After a breakfast of coffee, frosted flakes with powdered milk and the left-over apricot sauce, we joined the group on the trail. The hikers left most of their gear in camp, I carried a lunch, quart of water, parka, first aid and camera. Thin ice edged the lake in places, and most of us were puffing when we clambered up the slope beyond the lake. Large snow fields were numerous now, and the spruce was becoming more and more scrubby in this "alpine island."

On top of the ridge we found remnants of an old trail used more than a hundred years ago when the top of Wheeler Peak served as a heliograph station. The flashing mirrors of the heliograph sent messages in Morse code before the telegraph came into use. These messages were relayed as far as 200 miles-from one mountaintop to another. Wheeler was an intermediate station between Mt. Nebo in Utah and an unknown peak to the west. Historians have pretty much neglected this form of early-day communication.

Although the old heliograph trail appeared and disappeared, we needed no path to the summit of Wheeler. We followed the backbone of the ridge all the way. At 12,000 feet we were breathing hard, barely putting one foot in front of the other. Patches of pink phlox and white phlox seemed to find the thin air invigorating. There was a bite in the wind that came over the ridge in little puffs to slap us in the face. We stopped to put on our wraps. As noon approached, clouds were gathering about us.

At 13,000 feet lavender-blue polemonium hugged the rocks. Looking back over our route the ridge curved down to a snow-corniced edge above Stella Lake. To the right Teresa Lake had come into view. Far beyond Lehman Creek Canyon the highway threaded the flat toward Sacramento Pass to the northwest. On top of Wheeler we found remnants of the old stone walls of the heliograph station. The attendant's job must have been a cold one. For years after the station was abandoned a little wood stove had remained in the shelter until an "antique lover" hauled it away.

Eager to glimpse Matthes Glacier, we edged as close as we dared to the 2000-foot precipice that overhangs the cirque. All we could see of the glacier from this vantage point was a ragged edge of snow on the ice mass far side. To properly view the glacier you have to make a different approach, perhaps over the rugged ridge above Teresa Lake-and the best time to do this is in September after the year's fresh snow has melted off of the crevasses, fresh moraines and bergschrund.

When we returned to the summit it was snowing-in the very heart of the Desert Southwest-on the Fourth of July! --END

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