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Storm at the Summit

By Hal Humphreys
The Savvy Traveler

Editor's note: The Savvy Traveler is produced by Minnesota Public Radio and features firsthand experiences and observations of travelers around the globe.

Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest mountain
Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest mountain

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(The Savvy Traveler) -- Contributor Hal Humphreys had a number of mountain peaks notched on his climbing belt even before he thought about attempting the ascent of Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest mountain, with a seasoned mountain adventurer.

But as the clouds thickened, the thunder boomed and winds began to gust during their climb, they realized that no matter how strong and experienced you are, Mother Nature will tell you what you can and can't do on any given day -- and on that day, she stood in the way of their journey.

Hal Humphreys reporting:

It rained all week here in New Mexico. Kim and I planned this trip months ago and we are, by God, going to climb Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest mountain.

It's early Friday morning. We're huddled at the trailhead near Williams Lake, just outside of the Taos Ski Valley. I tell mom and dad to pick us up by the Bavarian, a closed restaurant at the base of a closed ski lift.

Wheeler hides her head in the clouds.

Kim leads the way, hiking through the trees toward the rocky summit. Each step takes its toll; each breath is deliberate. We make good time and the tree line slowly slips away. Kim's pace is so good that I struggle to keep up.

The clouds thicken.

Six bedraggled hikers pass us on their way down; they look exhausted. "It's really blowing up there," one says. "It's cold as hell." Another hiker just stops, breathes heavy and stares with a face that wants to speak, but can't. The wind picks up. I wonder, "Should we even be here?"

Suddenly, we're in the clouds, climbing now, our hands and feet engaged. I stop to listen. Is that wind screaming over a distant ridge? At 12,600 feet, just 500 feet shy of the top, I catch sight of a nasty blue-gray thunderhead storming across a peak. It doesn't look good. A quick flash illuminates the cloud. That rumble's not wind -- it's thunder. We're the only things on this mountain capable of conducting electricity -- and here we stand, in the heart of a raging thunderstorm. I feel electricity washing over us.

Turning to Kim, I yell, "Go!" In a rush, we fling ourselves down the mountain into near whiteout conditions. Williams Lake, the trees, the trail -- they all disappear under a blanket of white. Small, dry bits of snow hit us in the face. It hurts, and we slide, run and quickstep our descent.

Another flash and we drop, huddled together to hear the thunder roll over us and up the ridge. It echoes through the bowl and fills our ears. I'm scared. I tell Kim that we're OK. I tell her to go. We repeat the run, slip, slide, quickstep, drop, huddle, go routine all the way back to the tree line. Oddly, we laugh the whole way down -- adrenalin. We're soaking wet.

Safe at Williams Lake, we look up toward the summit, still hidden and now angry. Kim looks at me and we smile. We hug one of those awkward hugs that hikers give when they reach safety. We hike back towards the trailhead, expecting our ride in three hours. We're freezing.

From time to time, fortune smiles on the stupid, wet and cold of this world. As we pass the ski resort restaurant, the one we thought closed for the season, I hear Michael Stipe and REM belting through the stereo. Apparently, the Bavarian is open. Inside, the six hikers we met on the way down greet us with hugs all around. The one who couldn't speak says, "I'm sure glad to see you kids."

We all lie about our past mountaineering prowess. We all laugh at the weather and our bad good luck, share several pitchers of beer, and wait in the warmth of new friendship for our ride.

The Savvy Traveler ® is produced by Minnesota Public Radio
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