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Williams Lake Basin Circuit,
Wheeler Peak Wilderness, New Mexico


Author and Climber: Mark Schraad

  • Kachina Peak (12,500 feet)
  • Lake Fork Peak (12,920 feet)
  • Unnamed 12,840 (12,840 feet)
  • Unnamed 12,760 (12,760 feet)
  • Simpson Peak (13,000 feet)
  • Wheeler Peak (13,161 feet)

The first time that I climbed Wheeler Peak I couldn't help but notice the other peaks that surround the Williams Lake Basin. The ridge around this basin appears quite rugged in places and the many peaks, subpeaks and points along the ridge look much more interesing than any of terrain found in the vicinity of Wheeler's summit. With the exception of New Mexico's high point and Simpson Peak, which is simply a bump on the ridge south of Wheeler Peak, there are no maintained trails to the summits of the peaks that surround the remainder of the basin. In addition, the peaks are not named on most maps, and to the best of my knowledge, they do not appear in any guide books. Even Ungnade's comprehensive treatise on the New Mexico mountains does not describe climbing routes on this high ridge.

The weather in early November was particularly mild and we hadn't had any appreciable snow yet. I decided that it was a good opportunity to investigate the ridge around the Williams Lake Basin. My primary goal was the summit of Lake Fork Peak, which in my opinion is one of the most interesting mountains in New Mexico. My plan was to get to the summit of this peak and then decide whether to continue around the remainder of the basin.

Kachina Peak (12,500 feet) is actually the first peak encountered on the circuit around the Williams Lake Basin. I began my day at Taos Ski Valley at the base of the Kachina ski lift at 9:30 a.m. and hiked quickly up the jeep road to the top of the lift. From there I decided to take the easiest route to the ridge, and so headed straight up to the saddle situated to the north of Kachina Peak. This slope was quite slippery with the few inches of snow that covered it in patches. I stayed in the trees to make the going easier and made my way to the ridge by 10:30. The summit of Kachina Peak was easily reached after a short walk from the saddle along the rounded north ridge. I stood on the summit at 11:00 and contemplated the remainder of the route, which looked fun but long from that vantage point. One note: a more interesting route to the summit may be possible along Kachina Peak's northeast ridge. This route would require less hiking along the jeep road and would provide what looks like some fairly serious scrambling. It should definitely be investigated.

From Kachina Peak I walked quickly down to the Lake Fork-Kachina saddle, with one very short side trip to a rocky point with a precipitous drop to the east down to Williams Lake. The route from the saddle looked like it would involve some scrambling and the north slabby slopes of Lake Fork Peak (12,920 feet) were covered with a thin layer of snow---just enough to make it look a little serious. There were some goat tracks that traversed across the north slopes, and it appeared that this route would go and would take one to easier ground on the northwest side of the peak. I walked up to a point where the slopes steepend significantly and gazed across the steep northeast face of the peak. I saw more goat tracks that passed beneath this face and gained the east ridge, but this route looked quite serious. A nice gully was directly below me and I made a mental note of future snow climbing potential. Directly above me was a possible route to the summit, so instead of downclimbing to the traverse I scrambled up some third-class rock (possibly fourth class in one spot), and I was soon on the summit. I looked at my watch---it was 11:40. I thought that I might be able to make it to Wheeler by 2:00 p.m.

From Lake Fork Peak I walked over to an insignificant subpeak, then to the east to the low point on the ridge between Lake Fork Peak and the first unnamed peak along the route. The scrambling was very easy and the best route sticks directly to the ridge crest. The slopes on the inside of the basin are spectacular with craggy rocks and very steep dropoffs, but on the outside of the basin the slopes fall off more gradually and are covered mostly with grass at this point. From the low point on the ridge a short easy climb brings one to the summit of Unnamed 12,840, where I arrived at 12:30 p.m.

From Unnamed 12,840 I scrambled directly on the ridge crest down to the saddle between the two unnamed peaks. At a couple of points the route along the crest appears to get quite steep, but it always goes and is never as bad as it looks. To get off of the crest here, I believe, would require some major down climbing to get past the cliff bands on either side of the ridge. ONE VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: the easiest exit off of the entire ridge appears to be at this saddle. This slope looks like it would also be a good snow climb. From the saddle another short easy climb brings one to the second unnamed summit---Unnamed 12,760. I made it to this point by 1:15, and thought that I still had a shot at making Wheeler by 2:00---although the next section looked to be possibly the trickiest.

From Unnamed 12,760 I again scrambled directly on the ridge crest down to the Simpson-Unnamed 12,760 saddle. This downclimb was very similar to the previous one, but again, the best route appears to stay directly on the ridge crest. The final climb up to Simpson Peak (13,000 feet) takes one through some cliff bands on easy terrain and then along the final portion of ridge to the summit, where I arrived at 1:40. I didn't even stop for a breather, and continued on increasingly tired legs to my final goal---Wheeler Peak.

From Simpson Peak the route is simply a walk along the well-defined trail to the summit of Wheeler Peak (13,161 feet). I made it to the top of New Mexico only several minutes past 2:00 p.m. I was impressed with my earlier estimate of my climbing time. I was very tired, so I took a short break, drank the majority of my remaining water, and tried to force down a bagel. The weather was amazing for early November---very warm and absolutely no wind. I was perfectly comfortable in shorts and my capilene shirt. I peeled myself off the ground and left the summit at about 2:25. After a thigh-busting down climb I was at the lake at 3:15, and at the car shortly after 4:00 p.m. I offered a ride to another hiker whose friend had sprained his ankle. He was going to get a vehicle that they had left down at the Bull-o-the-Woods trailhead. He was going to drive back up and help his friend down the remainder of the easy (but icy) trail.

The entire circuit of the Williams Lake Basin took me approximately six-and-a-half hours. I would estimate the total distance to be between eight and nine miles with approximately 4,750 feet of total elevation gain. The terrain around Williams Lake is really quite interesting and gets you away from the throngs of hikers on Wheeler Peak. This ridge and its spurs definitely require further investigation.

One final note: with the exception of Wheeler Peak, all reported summit elevations are estimates and can be assumed to be within 40 feet of actual elevations.


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