Trip Report - White Mountain, 14,246'

White Mountain Observatory (Matt Pritchard) More photos below.

By Matt Pritchard

It was a long weekend. Tough, awesome, and long. I was determined to get one of the mountains on my California 14er challenge out of the way this year. Other trips and conflicting schedules pushed our window of opportunity out to mid-October. By any measure, White Mountain is the easiest 14,000' mountain in the state to climb. Using the word climb is a misnomer. Gaining the summit of White Mountain requires no more technical skills than one would need during a day hike at the local state park. In its defense, it is 14 miles round trip and tops out well above 14,000'. So it may be a day hike, but it is certainly not your average day hike.

White Mountain is not only of interest to hikers and climbers, but to scientists as well. The University of California manages several facilities on White Mountain for use in high altitude research, including a small lab on the summit. Because of this lab, there is a rocky, dirt road that winds its was all the way up the mountain. This makes route finding idiot-proof. The hike generally takes a direct route to the summit, with the most noticeable elevation gain occurring during the final 2 miles, in series of seemingly endless switchbacks. Considering the height of its trailhead, White Mountain sees more than its fair share of climbers with AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness, aka Altitude Sickness). In less than 35 miles, visitors are whisked up from the Owens Valley (elevation 4,000') to the Barcroft Gate trailhead at nearly 12,000'. Since we were going to try this in one whirlwind weekend, we wanted to make good use of our time.

Jody and I left San Francisco on Friday evening with a stockpile of gear and food and headed out to Eileen's house in the Valley. We got to bed relatively early and were out the door before 7:00 on Saturday morning. From Eileen's, we headed to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite for a day of playing up high. We didn't do much - just hiked around a bit and generally enjoyed a relaxing day in a nearly empty park. More importantly, we were trying to squeeze as much acclimatization in as possible. Early in the afternoon, we got back in the car and went over Tioga Pass and then headed south to Big Pine. From there we picked up 168 and started going up. The last 17 miles of road to the trailhead are all dirt and all very rough. We heeded the numerous warnings about this road and took it very slow, not wanting to repeat the flat tire episode from our Trinity Alps trip.

We arrived at the trailhead relatively unscathed and setup camp while we still had available light. We saw a couple of orphaned climbers who were left behind to suffer in their AMS-induced stupor as the rest of their party did the climb. Moaning, vomiting, and staring off into space didn't look like much fun to us, so we agreed to keep ourselves on close watch the next day as we made our own attempt. We had friendly neighbors at the trailhead camp and traded chocolate for tacos as the light grew dim and the wind picked up. It was a pretty cold night and a bit restless as well.

We rolled out of bed and broke down camp at 5:00 AM. On the trail by 5:30, we hiked the first few miles in the dark, with just a bit of moonlight to illuminate the road. After two miles, we reached the Barcroft Lab and both felt good enough to keep going. A few steep switchbacks led us up to the observatory just as the sun was rising; offering up some of the most surreal light I've ever seen. We took a few pictures and kept moving. We trudged along at a slow, but steady pace, forcing ourselves to eat and drink as often as we could. Despite the thin air, we both felt pretty good.

From the observatory, the road descended and cut a long, but direct, route across the arid landscape; up to a plateau near the 13,000' mark. At this point, the wind was blowing hard, but the summit was in plain view. Another unfortunate descent took us to the base of the switchbacks where we began the long, arduous task of trudging up the rocky road. As we climbed up, everything seemed to slow down. Not only did our pace slow down, but everything around us had a slightly dull quality. I'm sure it was just a bit of hypoxia, but it was kind of a cool feeling.

About a half mile from the top, with the summit hut in plain view, I looked up to see a pack of Bighorn Sheep cruising down a rocky ridgeline a few hundred feet away. Just a few minutes later, we came across a lone ram, intently checking us out and walking within 50 feet of us. We were totally amazed. That was by far the coolest wildlife sighting we've ever had. A bit stupefied by what we just saw, we kept moving and reached the summit a few minutes later. It was 10 AM and we had been hiking for four and a half hours. To our surprise, we were the first to sign the summit log that day. A few minutes after we arrived, one of our neighbors from the trailhead camp cruised to the top - he had done the hike in only 3 hours. After taking some pictures and eating a bit of food, we took one last look at the amazing view of the Sierra crest and began our hike down.

The descent was pretty uneventful - just a long slog back to the car. It never did warm up much - I kept my jacket and hat on all day. I would not want to do this hike on a warm day. There isn't an ounce of shade on the entire route. It was a windy, chilly day for us, and that was just perfect. During the hike down we got a better look at the landscape. The high desert environment of White Mountain is beautiful in a harsh, caustic sort of way. There is very little plant life to speak of and only a few animals here and there. The scenery has a lunar quality to it.

We arrived at the car in the early afternoon and got going as soon as we could. The nasty dirt road was just as nasty on the way out. We took our time again and suffered no casualties. From Bishop, we had another 6 - 7 hours of driving ahead of us, the only highlight of which was a great dinner at the Whoa Nelly Deli in Lee Vining. Back to San Francisco just after midnight, we brought to a close a very exciting and very tiring weekend.

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