California’s easiest 14er; hiking White Mountain
Appeal Staff Writer
Most everyone assumes that all of California’s 13 peaks over 14,000 feet are in the Mount Whitney Corridor. But Shasta is in the Cascades Range, and White Mountain is directly across Owens Valley from the corridor.
My fanatical hike-leading neighbor, T A, has always wanted to do a “14er” so Chip and I invited him to join us on an ascent of California’s easiest peak of that distinction, White, at 14,246 feet. You walk on a road for entire 15 miles round trip, so if you can hack the altitude, it’s within reach of any fit hiker.
White has another unique feature, two groves en route of bristlecone pines, including the Methuselah Tree, the world’s oldest living thing at more than 4,000 years. We stopped at the second grove, Patriarch, which is thriving with many young trees. Remarkably, bristlecones here are actually benefiting from global warming, creeping back up to their more-widespread ancestral range.
The trailhead ends at 12,470 feet. Most people do White as a dayhike, but sleeping the night before summiting at the trailhead, which we did, is a very good idea for altitude-acclimatization purposes. On a pre-sunset hike up to a 12,000-foot peak nearby, we flushed several blue grouse, which go that high to breed.
Unfortunately, we had caught the tail end of Hurricane Dean’s unsettled weather and had rain that night. The weather at sunrise was iffy, but we bundled up with ponchos at the ready, and hit the trail.
Two miles beyond the locked gate, you enter the somewhat ramshackle compound of the University of California’s Barcroft Station White Mountain Research Facility. Scientists and post-docs study the effects of high altitude on animals (you pass a large pen of sheep) and plants, and there is an observatory a mile farther.
This was my third time hiking up to White. As always, I was struck by the close similarity to what I’ve seen of the Andes’ altiplano – “high plain” – a barren, very high region. White is classified as a cold desert and receives very little snow, so unlike the Sierra, its treeline is very abrupt, and it has rock-strewn grasslands, versus tree-lined, flowery meadows. Normally, marmots peek at you from behind every rock, but not on that cold, rain-threatened day.
After maybe three miles, hail began falling; out came the ponchos and gloves, but we pushed onward. The summit was dramatically wreathed in clouds, with the night’s dusting of new snow.
A trailside herd of about 20 bighorn sheep allowed us to approach close enough for Chip to get some wonderful photographs. Then the animals swirled away for about 75 feet, stopped and stared at us, then repeated that action before dropping over the cliff’s edge. Later, Chip noticed in his pictures that the alpha male had a collar, so the domestic variety aren’t the only sheep Barcroft is studying.
Alas, at about 13,000 feet and two miles from the top, the heavens opened up with intense hail and great peals of thunder and cracks of lightning. So we sadly decided to abandon our summit attempt.
As my Reno friend Rick, with whom I’ve done six of California’s 14ers, used to admonish me when I showed fear on the climbs, “Pat, you gotta fight that survival instinct!” – but with age has come wisdom, and we turned back.
Now I will continue from memories of my two successful summitings of White. You soon reach a notch under the peak and climb many switchbacks of red, gray and black talus. Sharp cliffs indicate glaciers’ passage. The road ends in a small stone research lab.
Look north to Mount Montgomery (13,441 feet) then at Nevada’s highest point, 13,145-foot Boundary Peak. Look east to the vast Great Basin desert. To the south, the White range becomes the Inyos past Westgard Pass. But the unique view is to the west, at the miles of high peaks of the Whitney Corridor, seen at essentially the same level of the highest point in the Lower 48.
Yes, we were disappointed not to have summited, but safety is always more important than another notch on your peak-baggin’-reputation stick – and it gave us a good excuse to come back.
• Pat Devereux, of Stagecoach, is an avid hiker.