Monday, September 27, 2010

White Mountain 14,246 feet (or how to cram a bunch into 52 hours)

That makes four 14,000 foot peaks this summer, though this was by far the easiest, more a "nice stretch of the legs" than a real climb (there's a jeep trail to the summit, just like many Colorado 14ners). White Mountain is, however, California's third tallest peak, so it is on the list and had to be hiked (I'm officially over half way through that list now). Of course, these trips are about much more than the summit, and that's what I'm here to share.
I got off work early on Friday and, since I was all packed up and ready to roll, came home, kissed Ruth, and headed up to Bishop for a little bouldering at the Buttermilk's. I had a good evening session, though the Ironman Traverse (below) has always given me trouble (I've only ever been able to do it once, years ago). As night fell I grabbed my kit and headed down to the Keohe Hot Springs for a soak before sleep.
Below: Keohe Hot Springs, no garden spot, but it's free and the water is nice.

I woke late, sat in the warm water, and drank my coffee before heading south to Big Pine. Outside of Big Pine is a radio-telescope array run by Caltech. This is a pretty interesting place, definitely good for pictures. The only sound out there is the humming of the electric motors that rotate the huge satellite dishes.
Done at Caltech, it was time to get to some real elevation, so it was off to the Bristlecone Forest at 11,000 feet. White Mountain Road is a trip. The road is as steep and curvy as anything I've driven, paved only as far as Schulman Grove, and long. The road itself is dirt for many miles after the Bristlecone Forest, weaving all over the peaks and ridges of the range. All of this is incredibly beautiful in a stark, alpine desert kind of way. This is the high&dry country and it resembles pictures of the Gobi Desert, Iceland, or the Alaskan tundra. It is a land of high contrast and solar radiation.
Above: the Palisade Crest, home of the highest concentration of 14,000 foot peaks in California.
Next Four pics: all shots taken from the truck on White Mountain Rd.
Below: White Mountain (the red one in the distance)
Below: lonely bristlecone skeleton
By 11:AM I was parked near the White Mountain trailhead at 11,700ft, temperature about 75. My only plan at this point was to do very little for the rest of the day, in other words, sit around and acclimate myself to the elevation. To this end I did some repairs on my ancient crash pad, got caught up on several magazines, put away few pages of the latest Micheal Connolly book, and completed a National Geographic crossword. I killed time and breathed.
Okay, Sunday morning had come and it was time to roll out of the rack and make tracks. You may have noticed that for the past week we have experienced an unusually full harvest moon. My plan for White Mountain has, for 2 years, been to night hike the mountain, and when I woke at 03:00, the moon was hitting like a blue flood light. I got the coffee going in the bed of the truck, crawled back in my bag and layered up (I had 31F degrees on my gauge). By 03:45 I was walking, with about 15 miles worth of day in front of me.
A word on the nite-hike; magical! The fall night sky is my favorite. I saw: Orion, Canis, Pleides, Venus, Jupiter, Acturus, the Dippers, and even some of Scorpio. Numerous meteors fell during my walk, and with so little atmosphere they appeared to be falling rockets. I felt as if all this was on display just for whoever was awake to enjoy it.
The walk took me past the UC Barcroft Facility at 12,000 feet. Not much to look at in daylight, it was just moonlit shadows as I wandered past. The temperature continued to dip during that last hour before sunlight. The moon stayed with me, keeping my shadow and I company. I walked past black jumbles of stone, through rolling plains and over barren ridges. Around 06:30 I was under the mountain proper and the light was about 50/50 moon and sun. By 07:45 I was standing on White's cold and breezy summit.
Above & Below: images of the White Mountain summit and research hut.
Below: on the summit, 07:45am.
I have to say that even if the hike felt like a give-away (easy), the views were incredible. To the west, the entire Sierra range was on display. Below, the Owen's Valley, the gorge, Bishop, Mammoth, and behind that Mt Ritter (done it), Banner Peak, and the Minarets. To the south I could see into Death Valley, and due east was an endless expanse of Nevada desert. This was just about the most panoramic site I've ever beheld. I could spot peaks I've climbed that were over 70 miles away. Unbelievable.
Below: summit research hut
Above: My entry in the summit book
Above: An abandoned observatory, now used for storage.
Below: Barcroft Station, 12,000 ft, a University of California research facility.
UC Barcroft Facility: where graduate students study rocks, weather, stars, and perform unpleasant experiments on sheep.
Above & below: White Mountain Road, one of the most scenic routes I've ever driven.
I was back at the truck in 7.5 hours from when I started. Passing the Barcroft Station I took a couple of pictures, but the place did not look any prettier under the glare of the morning sun. I passed some pens with sheep that were there for some evil scientific purpose. They all looked pretty normal and healthy which is the creepy part because you just know that something horrible is happening to their insides. I think.
Well, it was a nice hike but no challenge at all. The experience, however was pretty cool. I got back to Ventura at 6:30 PM, making this a well-lived 52 hours. Carpe Weekend, to twist Sarte.
Above: White Mountain Road
Below: The desert breeds individualists, Olancha.


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  2. Indeed, the White Mountains tell such a fascinating and incredible story of antiquity and destitute. It really is a stunning and Sun beaten plateau. So beautiful and sacred, but also very sinister in a way like a red headed step child... I have read your blog for many years. It has sparked my own solo adventures through the high country of the Eastern Sierras, and for that I thank you. I also come from the damned and splendid South facing SoCal bight, and really enjoyed your finds and thoughts of the local Chumash rock art. Respect on your decision as of late to now keep it under the rug. Lots to still explore. Keep it real brother. Peace.

  3. Headin' up White Mountain Road for a looksee in a few days. Looks inviting.