White Mountain Peak - California
July 12th, 2005
I'm writing this on the one year anniversary date of my successful bagging of White Mountain Peak near Bishop, California in the White Mountains range. This was an amazing 14,246 foot mountain in the high desert of central California. The landscape was barren and rocky, yet had a green hue from the short ground vegetation on many of the surrounding hills in the lower elevations. Take away the clear blue sky and replace it with total blackness and this location could probably pass for the moon (minus the snow and occasional appearance of a groundhog type animal).
Obviously, to date, this is my greatest high altitude climb, though I would say the Kyes Peak attempt was more physically gruelling. I suppose my experience with Kyes peak gave me a better understanding of the kind of physical condition I'd have to be in to bag a peak of this altitude, and so I made sure to physically (and mentally) prepare a lot more than the previous year. This consisted of doing a lot more jogging and hiking than normal. I think that preparation made the climb possible.
As was recommended in many other trip reports I had read, we (Alice and I) spent the night before the hike at the high altitude Grandview campground (8600 feet) to try and acclimatize to the lower oxygen before heading up. It was a cold night filled with vivid, nervous dreams in anticipation of the climb. Alice felt nauseated throughout the night, foreshadowing what was to come for her on the mountain.
Waking up early the next morning we took the long, windy road passing by the ancient Bristlecone Forest (where apparently lives the oldest tree on earth... the "Methuselah" at 4,767 years old) and eventually making it to Schulman Grove where the last 21km of narrow dirt road can be pretty intimidating with a small car like our rented Neon. We arrived without incident at the gate of the White Mountain research station where the trailhead begins. There were two cars already parked, with one of the owners already on the trail and the other two about to head off. Alice and I took our time to allow for some distance between us and them, which was not necessary since they were so quick on their feet and in top physical form (later learned they had climbed Mount Whitney only the day before!!).
After an awkward time trying to find a private spot to respond to the call of nature in such an exposed area, we were finally off by 8am! The "trail" begins at about 11,700 feet as a road that heads to the research stations main base of operations (Barcroft Station). It was relatively easy going along here, but it still felt a bit more difficult than it normally would due to the altitude. Two miles in, at about 12,500 feet, we passed by the Barcroft facility and wondered if the sheep in the pen felt as drained at this altitude as us... probably not. From here the road turned more into a path for ATV's and it winded its way up a steeper incline towards a small, abandoned looking observatory building. It was harder going ascending this part of the trail due to the elevation gain required, but once at the observatory, the view of the journey ahead was incredible.
The path descended into the distance and further ahead was the thick "mound" of White Mountain's peak. From the vantage point of the observatory, distances were incredibly deceiving. The lack of trees and other features to help judge size and proportion caused the mountain to appear a lot closer than we realized. It was only after some time of descending the path down into the valley that we started to get some sense of distance, but even then, the peak was always in clear view egging us on to sally forth. By the time the path began to ascend once more up a hill I was beginning to feel the affects of the altitude in a bad way. The relatively light weight of the pack suddenly felt like an incredible drain on my energy and strength. So much so I was forced to pass it on to Alice and sit for a moment to try and recover.
As I watched her continue on up the hill undetered and seemingly unstoppable, it wasn't long before the strong male ego kicked in and refused to be defeated so easily. Getting on my feet was an effort, but I marched on up that hill trying not to think too much of the main leg of the climb still awaiting us. We followed the trail up and back down the hill into the final dip before the trail started it's way up the base to the peak. It was at the bottom of this final dip before the main push that Alice hit her "wall". Stopping for a drink and snack of beef jerky, Alice began to feel incredibly nauseated. With her keeled over and ready to hurl at any moment, I stared weakly at the massive mound of dirt and rock that is White Mountain in front of me. I can honestly say at this point I felt so tired and weak that I was fully willing to give up and turn around. With Alice looking like she was out of commision I figured there were no other choices, but like a real trooper, she told me she could go on... in fact, that we should go on and keep pushing it.
Once again, her strength and will poked at my pride and I refused to be the one to stop first... typical male, I know! So we continued on. This section of the trail felt like one of the hardest physical and mental challenges we've ever done. The mental will to continue was tested as it became more and more of a challenge to breath. The lack of oxygen caused muscle cramps, throbbing headaches and nausea. Every step seemed more difficult than the last and the going was so slow that it seemed like we'd never reach the top. To add insult to injury, the two hikers who had left only minutes before us at the gate were now already passing us and heading back down from the peak... and without any signs of fatigue!
The will can be a strong thing however, and we just kept pushing on in spite of the discomfort and pain. Amazingly enough, when we reached about the 13,900 foot level... only a few hundred feet from the top, a whole section of the mountain top was covered in snow, obscuring the trail. I looked up at the research station on the top of the peak... close enough to almost taste... and figured we'd have to climb straight up the hillside without the trail. This, to Alice, was an all too dangerous suggestion and refused to even consider it. In reality, the slope was not steep and dangerous in the sense that one could fall, but only in the sense that one could twist an ankle in the loose rock.
As unbelievable as it sounds, we turned around and started heading back down the trail... This is when we noticed a sole hiker already at the top waving at us. As he headed back down we waited for him to pass us and maybe give us the scoop. This is when Melvin, our inspiration on White Mountain, told us just how close we are to the top and that we can reconnect with the trail if we just scramble up the loose rock a little bit. He injected us with a good dose of motivation, telling us there's no way we can turn around now after travelling all the way from Canada and hiking all these strenuous miles to within a few hundred feet of the 3rd highest peak in California! No one has ever been so right!
This great speech by a complete stranger got us back on track and we headed straight back up the trail confident in the feeling that we're nearly there. We scrambled up the rock and did find the trail again and once more continued the slow slog of one foot in front of the other. What would normally take a few minutes at sea level to complete, these final few hundred feet took over half an hour! I was pretty amazed by the amount of time it had taken from the moment we left Melvin to the final last step on the top of that mountain.
Basking in the joy of the accomplishment and taking photos, I realized how dead quiet it was. There was no wind even. One would figure at the top of a 14,000 foot mountain, the wind would have been roaring! Not then, not that day. In fact, it was so calm there were some annoying little bugs buzzing in our faces without issue. We rushed to fill in the log book, thanking Melvin for the encouragement, and made a hasty retreat, knowing the sooner we got to lower elevation, the better we would feel. Realizing just how difficult it had been for us, it blew me away to remember reading about some people who had done the whole ascent on unicycles!! Yes, you read that correctly. Look it up.
From here, like every other climb, a new challenge begins. Did we use too much of our energy to climb this thing that we now don't have enough to get back? Well let me just say that every step we took that lowered our elevation seemed to help. We cut across the trail as we descended to avoid walking the extra distance by following the switchbacks... the slope of the mountain was gradual enough to allow it. By the time we reached the bottom of the White Mountain "mound", I thought it might be faster and easier to cross the valley off the path instead of heading back up the smaller hill along the trail. Not sure if it made things more difficult, but it certainly didn't make it any faster.
It was on the slope heading back up towards the Observatory that I started to feel exhausted... physically and mentally. I had to pause at one point, sitting on a rock I looked back at where we had come from... the music playing on my CD player had a strong emotional memory associated with it and feeling both the accomplishment and complete exhaustion of the climb sent me into an unusually tearful state. It was of such a pure quality, I can't compare it to anything I've ever experienced.
It took another push of willpower to get back on my feet and continue walking... the tenderness in my feet and blisters making it clear that I'm nearing the end of what my body can handle... but then again, how many times do humans think they've reached their limit and continue on nonetheless? Reaching the observatory, I knew it would all be downhill from here for just another couple of miles, but the desire to rest and get off my feet was becoming pronounced.
We plodded on, now at the point where we don't have much energy to even talk to each other. The sun was getting lower in the sky and an orange hue began to colour everything. Turning the last corner of the road and heading down the final hill towards the gate, the sight of our car and Melvin patiently waiting for us was an incredible relief and joy. He welcomed us back and congratulated us on our successful ascent of White Mountain Peak. We exchanged food, addresses and pictures of each other, then said our farewells.
Eleven hours and 14 miles later, we said goodbye to the beautiful White Mountain.
Distance: 14.7 miles roundtrip (based on Google Earth tool: measure - path)
Time: 10-11 hour trip
Elevation Gain: 3200 feet (approximation including the dips in the valley)
Trailhead Elevation: 11,700 feet
White Mountain Peak elevation: 14,246 feet
Based on the time stamp of the photos we took on the digital camera, here are some figures:
|Trail Section||Elapsed time|
|Trailhead gate to Barcroft facility||1 hour|
|Barcroft facility to Observatory||20 minutes|
|Observatory to base of White Mountain||2 hours|
|Base to peak||3 hours|
Total hike time: 10 to 11 hours
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