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Rip & Go: Wheeler Peak Loop – Wheeler Peak Wilderness, NM

Connect alpine lakes and tag three summits on this wildflower- and wildlife-packed loop.
september 09 ripngo wheeler 445x26050 feet from Wheeler Peak's Summit (Tom Till)

Key Skill: Recognize Altitude Sickness
Thin-air-induced misery isn’t just for Himalayan summits. Altitude-related illnesses can strike at 8,000 feet or even lower, which can make the 3,500-foot climb up Wheeler Peak a lung-straining struggle. Acute mountain sickness, or AMS, is the first stage of altitude-related illness associated with the brain. Here’s how to diagnose and treat it.

Symptoms usually appear within six to 10 hours of arrival at altitude, but they can pop up in as little as one hour. The most common (and usually first) complaint is a headache. Other signs include loss of appetite, nausea, insomnia, dizziness, and more fatigue than seems fitting for the day’s exertions. It’s a lot like feeling hungover or being extremely dehydrated.

Mild AMS won’t cause lasting damage, but it does show that you’re not acclimatizing well–and it will only get worse if you keep climbing. Stop ascending and take ibuprofen for the headache. Drink water, too (aim for four liters per day), since AMS and dehydration symptoms are very similar. Light exercise (like jumping jacks) may relieve a mild case, but if symptoms don’t resolve within 24 to 48 hours, descend.

See This
Bighorn sheep
Scan the high ridges above Horseshoe Lake for these crowned ungulates (females have horns, too, but they’re spiky, not curved). Once nearly wiped out by hunting and livestock diseases, the population has been growing since 33 sheep were reintroduced in 1993. At home on rocky mountainsides, bighorns use cupped hooves to balance on two-inch-wide ledges and charge up steep pitches without slipping. Go in late fall to witness 300-pound rams head-butting each other at 30 mph as they battle it out over ewes, or in June to see lambs frolicking on the grassy slopes.

Locals Know
Gaze to the southeast from the top of Old Mike Peak and you’ll glimpse more than just another high-alpine pool: It’s Blue Lake, one of the Taos Pueblo tribe’s most sacred sites. Lumped into the Carson National Forest in 1906, the lake and surrounding mountains were returned to the tribe in 1970 after years of intense protests, and are now deemed off-limits to outsiders–especially in mid-August, when the tribe congregates there for annual ceremonies. Though it’s okay to bag Old Mike, says Taos Pueblo War Chief Bernard Lujan, stay on the north side of the ridgeline and definitely don’t take any photos of Blue Lake or the basin. Tribe members patrol the boundary and might confiscate the cameras of anyone who doesn’t respect their wishes.

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