Wheeler Peak, Breaking Bad in the Mountains of New Mexico

Wheeler Peak, Breaking Bad in the Mountains of New Mexico

Wheeler Peak

Breaking Bad in the Mountains of New Mexico

7 miles, 13,161 ft.

November 9, 2013

Wes Chapman

Sangre de Cristo Mts at Sunup

Sangre de Cristo Mts. In the early morning light

I had the opportunity to travel to Albuquerque on business the Friday before Veterans Day, and got to indulge my Highpointing passion over the weekend with a triple play: 1) Geographic highpoint, a wonderful climb of the high point of New Mexico – Wheeler Peak, 2) Cultural highpoint, and following in the footsteps of Walter White in the tour of the high points of the TV series Breaking Bad, and 3) Anthropological highpoint, a visit to the 1,000 year old Acoma Indian village of Sky City.

Walter White home

Home of Walter White; the “Baddest” Chemist since Fritz Haber

City on the Mesa

Acoma Pueblo – The village on the mesa

Wheeler Peak is neighbor to and accessed from Taos Ski Valley. It is composed of a big complicated mess of highly metamorphosed Precambrian gneiss and schist with a little more recent limestone still left around the edges. From a geology perspective it reminds me a lot of the Adirondacks, and the scars of recent glaciation were everywhere – it felt like home and I loved it. This southern part of the Rockies is called the Sangre de Christo Mountains, extends into southern Colorado and offers some terrific hiking, climbing and back country skiing. I got to see all of it in my day on Wheeler.

Taos from Wheeler

Taos from the Summit of Wheeler

The day was clear, cold and there was a lot of snow in the mountains – the snow line extended down to 7,500 feet. The drive up to the Williams Lake Trail parking area was a sporting undertaking in my rental Chrysler 200 – steep and solid ice. I gleefully ignored the 4 wheel drive only signs, for I had the fastest and most sure-footed vehicle on earth – a fully insured rental car. The parking lot was full of fellow pilgrims to the mountains – all back country skiers looking for a little fresh snow. The first couple of miles were relatively flat, hard packed snow in the trees. At Williams Lake the trail splits, and within half a mile you are on the open face of the mountain – wind-blown snow, and a very difficult slog. At this point the crowd thinned out to one – me – and I enjoyed only the company of bighorn sheep the rest of the trip.

Looking up to the summit

A long slow slog up to the summit

Sheep Photo to use

Bighorn Sheep on the Summit Ridge

Solitary Big Horn

A lone bighorn ewe on the summit of Wheeler Peak

There was a herd of 30-40 sheep on the summit ridge, enjoying the late autumn grazing. The big horn sheep were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century, but have recovered remarkably well. They enjoyed my Walmart trail mix more than I did, eating all that I had. The trip down was fast, fun and included a bunch of glissading – wet butt and a big smile.

Taos Back country

Back Country near Taos from Wheeler

Lone Sheeep on the Summit

A lone sheep at the Summit of Wheeler

Dog House

Heisenberg’s Dog House

Breaking Bad was a recent cultural icon, in which the protagonist, a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White (AKA Heisenberg), contracts lung cancer, and becomes as malignant as the disease itself, cooking up crystal meth and destroying everything in his path. The Breaking Bad tour was self-guided, visiting local sets used in the show including the homes, hot dog stand and Walt’s family car wash – equally adept at washing cars and laundering money. This was a brilliantly written series, turning the mundane (high school chemistry, a car wash) into pure malevolence – kind of like Tony Soprano with an IQ of 175. Seeing the places that it was shot was fun – but a little creepy.

Car Wash

White’s car wash & Money Laundry

Difficult trail up

Difficult foot trail up to Sky City

 The final highpoint of the weekend was a visit to the 360 foot high, Mesa top pueblo of the Acoma Tribe – Sky City. This has been the home of this tribe for over 1,000 years and these people have managed to survive marauding Apaches, Navahos, Spaniards, and us – but not without a whole lot of misery – particularly from the Spanish. We were struck by the absolutely free-form mixing of Catholicism with the traditional animist religions. The views were terrific, the legends inspiring and the pottery beautiful.

Ladders to Prayer

Ladders to the Kiva Prayer areas on the upper levels

The tribe has managed to maintain a simple lifestyle on the sandstone monolith – no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. The buildings are 3 story adobe and stone structures – some dating with radiocarbon to over 1,000 years old. It is a clan based matriarchal society originally based on subsistence farming and hunting in the valley below the mesa. Today the incomes are substantially augmented by a casino, and the majority of the tribe now lives off the mesa in easier accommodations – a pattern reminiscent of Venice.

A Tribute on High

A tribute in the sky

I was struck by the wonderful views of Mt. Taylor off in the distance – a mountain that I had occasion to race up a couple of times back in the ‘80’s in the famous Mt. Taylor Quadrathalon. This race was a lot of fun, but I learned that the Hill was sacred to the Acoma, and had been their traditional hunting and ceremonial grounds. The Spaniards had forced the Acoma men into slave labor on its slopes, deforesting the mountain for wood to build their Mission. It certainly put the mountain in an entirely different perspective.

Enchanted Mesa

Enchanted Mesa

Driving in I noticed a beautiful Mesa, and stopped to take a few pictures – the light was terrific. We learned that this was the Enchanted Mesa of the Acoma people. Legend has it that this was the first point of settlement of the Acoma when they arrived in the Valley. They set up camp at the summit, and the men went down to gather wood and food. In a terrific thunderstorm the pathway up collapsed, and the people on the top were trapped – ultimately throwing themselves from the Mesa rather than die of starvation. It is said that the butterflies that proliferate in the area are the souls of the dead Acoma from this tragedy – finally freed of the surly bonds of earth.

Mt. Taylor

Adios, from Mt. Taylor and the Enchanted State of New Mexico

Wes Chapman
Written by Wes Chapman

5 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    November 11, 2013

    Fabulous report, Wes. Thank you for sharing! We miss you and Martha in the Upper Valley.


  2. Avatar
    November 11, 2013

    Great job, Wes! Loved seeing you and Martha. I enjoyed leading the Breaking Bad Tour and glad you went to Acoma;)



  3. Avatar
    November 12, 2013

    Wow! Great photos, Wes. Looks like you had a great time. We miss you in Hanover. Cheers, Carolynne


  4. Avatar
    November 12, 2013

    Another adventure travel writing gem, Wes. You are the Anthony Bourdain/Paul Theroux of the Bangor outdoor set. You should do this for a living.


  5. Avatar
    November 15, 2013

    Nice report Wes! Wish I knew about Sky City when I was down in the area, sounds like a very worthy side trip!