Monday, July 28, 2008

Climbing California's White Mountain Peak

The White Mountains lie on the border between central California and Nevada. Unlike the Sierras, the White Mountains are "desert peaks" that receive little rain and thus have no tall trees, glaciers, or running water. But they also have the third-highest mountain in California: White Mountain Peak at 14,246 feet. And it's the easiest-to-climb "fourteener" in California and possibly the entire United States. To get to the trailhead, take Highway 395 north to Big Pine, California, and then head east on Highway 168 for about 13 miles until you reach the turn-off for White Mountain Road. From there, it is about 27 miles to the trailhead. The first 9.5 miles are paved, and then the road turns to graded gravel and gets very steep. I have made it in a 2WD passenger car, but a high clearance 4WD vehicle is a better idea.

What makes White Mountain Peak such a terrific first fourteener is because it is a completely non-technical climb the entire way. White Mountain Peak is the site of the University of California's Barcroft Station for high altitude research, and a smooth, level trail leads all the way to the summit. There are no steep drop-offs or dangerous slopes anywhere along the trail, and no specialized climbing gear is needed. In fact, some people have even ridden their bicycles to the summit. However, it is a physically demanding climb. The round trip from the trailhead is slightly over 14 miles, and the reduced oxygen content at the elevation makes altitude sickness a real possibility-----I can personally attest to that. Cold temperatures are common even in summer, as are thunderstorms and snowstorms. It's a good idea to be starting your descent from the mountain no later than 2:00 pm to avoid getting caught in a storm.

The trailhead is a flat, open area just over 12,000 feet in elevation. Public access to the graded dirt road ends at a locked gate; only personnel at the Barcroft Station have the key to the gate. Climbers spending the night to acclimate just pull off the road and set up camp. Below is a photo I took of the trailhead at sunset; the red Jeep Grand Cherokee at far left was my car and where I spent the night before I climbed. The views from the trailhead are spectacular. You can see from the Sierras into the Owens valley into Nevada. On the night I took this photo, I and my fellow climbers/campers were entertained by a big lightning show from a thunderstom that seemed parked over Tonopah, Nevada:

I chose a day in mid-August with a nearly full moon to climb, as I wanted to start before sunrise and use the moon for illumination. It was a good plan, as I was jolted awake around 4:00 am by the rising moon and was on my way to the summit by 4:30. As you can see in the photo above, the graded road is wide and was easy to follow in the moonlight. In fact, there was an almost mystical quality to the first part of the climb-----I was the only person on the trail, and it was completely silent with no wind----I could hear my heart beating hard from the exertion. The wide graded road leads two miles to Barcroft Station, whose lights could be seen soon after starting the trail. After Barcroft Station, the trail narrows considerably and becomes more rocky, although it is still well-marked and was no problem to follow in the moonlight. Dawn started to break shortly after passing Barcroft Station, and White Mountain Peak was a beautiful sight in the early light:

The upper reaches of the summit trail have been described as "lunar," and I agree. There are no trees or bushes of any sort, and only a few small sprigs of grass try to push up from between the rocks. The photo below shows both the desolation of the upper trail and how the summit region starts to loom impressively over you once you climb past 13,000 feet; the final push to the summit is made by climbing the slope at the right:

This is how the summit looks as you ascend the final slope. If you look carefully in the photo below, you can see a tiny building slightly left of center. That's a building at the summit housing instruments recording temperature, wind speed, atmospheric pressure, and other data:

And here's a look down the slope. This photo exaggerates its steepness; it's nowhere as steep (or scary) as the photo leads you to believe. Your biggest danger-----as you might expect from all those rocks-----is a sprained ankle:

Here's a look at the summit. I had it all to myself that morning, so I had to use my pack (the red object at right next to the summit cairn) as a stand-in for me in the summit photo:

Of course, I signed the summit register. The ammo box containing the register also contained some water, food, matches, and other emergency supplies. (Yes, that's a condom in the blue wrapper at left!):

Here's the view you get from the summit as you look south toward the Sierra Nevada range and Owens Valley; this is a crummy photo that doesn't do justice to what your eye sees:

And here is the view as you look north toward Bishop and Mammoth Lakes; you can clearly the see the irrigated areas near Bishop that are used for growing hay for livestock:

White Mountain Peak is the only mountain where I came down with a full-blown case of altitude sickness. I arrived at the trailhead around 1:00 pm the day before my climb, but I started my trip from San Diego. Going directly from sea level to 12,000 feet turned out to be a big mistake. Even though I did everything you're supposed to do to help acclimate-----drank lots of water, took aspirin (to thin the blood), and rested by reading and listening to music-----I was still a little light-headed when I set out for the summit for the next morning. On my descent, I was dizzy, had a splitting headache and nausea, and my vision was like looking at the world through toliet paper tubes. I was in seriously bad shape by the the time I reached my Jeep. Fortunately, the symptoms began to improve as I drove down from trailhead, and I was okay by the time I reached Big Pine. My advice to anyone contemplating this climb would be not to attempt it without spending a night at some place like the Sierra View campground (at 8000 feet) on the road to the trailhead. It's just too difficult to acclimate to 12,000 feet without an intermediate stop.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Ghost Town Of Marietta, Nevada

The site of Marietta is really remote; it's in west-central Nevada off Highway 95 between Tonopah and Hawthorne and the nearest gasoline is in Mina, 30 miles away. Cell phones don't work out here. If you visit, you're on your own if you have a problem!

Marietta was founded in 1877. Unlike most other ghost towns, it was not a site of gold or silver mining. Instead, Marietta was the location of the first large-scale borax mining operation in the United States. Marietta grew rapidly, and soon boasted numerous buildings (including, reportedly, 13 saloons), a post office, several stores, and even a little "Chinatown" because many of the laborers were Chinese immigrants. But in the mid-1890s, new deposits of borax were discovered in what is now Death Valley National Park and mining activity rapidly shifted there. By the early 1900s, Marietta was essentially abandoned and its post office had closed. There were brief flurries of gold mining in the 1930s and uranium prospecting in the early 1960s, but today Marietta is a true ghost town. There are still a couple of caretakers on site to look after mine owners' claims, but these people live in modern travel trailers near the site of Marietta.

The road from Highway 95 to Marietta is kept well maintained by the Bureau of Land Management because the town lies within a range for wild burros and horses. I wasn't lucky enough to see any of those two animals as I approached the site, but the view of Marietta from afar is striking in its starkness:

The most impressive ruins in Marietta are those of a general store run by F.M. "Borax" Smith, who in the early 1890s became famous (and rich) for discovering the vast borax deposits in Death Valley. Judging from the size of these ruins, Smith must've been doing well in Marietta as a merchant:

The other stone ruins in Marietta are more modest, as in the photo below. If you look carefully in the background, you can faintly see the outline of the dirt road that leads into Marietta:

Large stone-walled corrals were the American West's equivalent to today's covered auto parking garages. Naturally, Marietta had a couple of nice places to "park" your horse, like the one below:

There were few wooden structures in Marietta, and fewer still have survived the past century. In the photo below, the building at left with the crumbling "false front" was the post office. I'm not sure what the structure at right in the background was, but it seems to have been some sort of barn or stable:

I had the pleasure of visiting Marietta in mid-week in winter, and the silence and isolation was awesome. It was so quiet I soon became aware of the sounds of my own breathing and heartbeats, and I got a real sense of what an isolated spot this must've been even at the town's peak in the 1880s. The people who settled places like this were certainly a hardy, self-contained breed!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ridin' The Storm Out

As I write this, Hurricane Dolly is getting ready to come ashore south of Corpus Christi. If you're watching coverage on CNN or the Weather Channel, you might think we're barely clinging to life in the face of this natural disaster. However, my biggest concern at the moment is what I should have for lunch.

So far, it's been like a strong cold front here-----lots of rain, gusty winds, some lightning, etc. There was a flurry of excitement around 10:00 am this morning when a waterspout was sighted on Corpus Christi Bay heading for downtown, but it dissipated before making landfall. And that's been about all. Conditions are expected to worsen this afternoon, and some flooding might happen in low-lying areas. Since the national news media are not interested in anything that happens between New York and Los Angeles unless 1) things are exploding, 2) things are on fire, 3) something crashed, or 4) debris is flying through the air, I guess that means there will be nothing about Corpus Christi on CNN tonight or in tomorrow's New York Times.

So everything is fine here. And I think I'll have some bean and cheese taquitos for lunch.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Howard Hughes, Ham Radio Operator

I haven't blogged for about a week because 1) I took a needed break from writing after finishing my latest book, and 2) I went on a buying rampage at my local Barnes & Noble and have since been in a reading frenzy.

Last night, I started a new book by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele titled Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness. This is shaping up as the best biography of Hughes I have ever read, with some original insights into how his personality was shaped by his overprotective mother and the death of both parents before his eighteenth birthday. Like Elvis, you get the sense Hughes died the day his mother died; he was never the same afterwards.

But what I'm blogging about today is the information that Howard Hughes was a ham radio operator in his youth. I knew from other Hughes biographies that Hughes was interested in electricity and built radio sets as a youth in Houston, but Barlett and Steele provide more details in this description of him at age twelve:

Howard's room was on the second floor, facing north. There he assembled his shortwave radio equipment and, using his call number 5CY, spent hours flashing messages to amateur operators all over the country and to ships at sea. With fellow radio enthusiasts, he formed the Radio Relay League, a local organization of young amateurs like himself. Since Howard had the latest equipment, the boys usually met in his room.

Zowie! This was news to me. I did a Google search and managed to come up with just one link mentioning Hughes's ham radio exploits. That link confirms the 5CY call sign, which means it could be verified by checking call books of the 1918-19 era. (Unfortunately, I don't have access to any.)

Enough for now; I've got stuff to read. . . . . . . . .

Thursday, July 10, 2008

More On The Ghost Town Of Coaldale, Nevada

Back in April, I wrote about the ghost town of Coaldale, Nevada. It was of fairly recent vintage and I wondered why it had been abandoned. I also asked if anyone had more information about the site.

Ah, the glories of internet search engines like Google and Yahoo! I received a remarkable e-mail today from Maria Avtgis, who actually lived at Coaldale. With her permission, I am reprinting part of her e-mail below:

Thank you for bringing a part of my past back to me.

My family and I lived at Coaldale for a short period of time when my children were young (about 15 years ago). We lived there when there was a much-needed operating gas station and a coffee shop with the best white clam chowder soup served by Mario, the cook. Mario was much like the other workers working the 'circuit'... He would work for a period of time, then vanish... only to return six months later, asking for a job.

Coaldale has a special place in my heart. I can recall strolling my baby, Stacey, around the front and calling out to my four-year old son not to ride his tricycle over the scorpions.

I can't remember why the owner, my father, left so much merchandise there. Shortly after the EPA claimed that the gas tanks were leaking and closed the gas station portion down, people no longer stopped in except for an occasional cup of coffee or to use the phone. Well, now you have my part of the story. No, there were no giant ants, only a couple of hard-working people trying to make an honest living.

I can't express how grateful I am to Maria for her memories. When I visit ghost towns and similar sites, I am always wondering about the people who lived there and what their lives were like. Thanks to Maria, I now have an idea of what went on in Coaldale; I can visualize her son riding a tricycle toward some scorpions!

Maria's mention of the EPA cracking down on "leaking gas tanks" is why almost all gas stations today are owned by major oil companies instead of independent retailers. Guess who pushed the EPA to insist gas stations install new and expensive gas storage tanks to fight the non-existent problem of leaking storage tanks? That's right; companies like Chevron, Exxon, Mobile, etc. And when independent retailers couldn't afford those new storage tanks, they went out of business and were replaced by stations owned by Chevron, Exxon, Mobile, etc. And-----warning: this is a how damn stupid are you anyway?? question-----what do you think happened to the retail price of gas when those independent retailers were replaced by company-owned stations?

I never cease to be amazed by those, especially from the more leftish parts of the political spectrum, who think a company or industry is being "public spirited" or altruistic when it advocates more regulations for its business area. Bullcrap. They do so for one reason: to strangle competition and increase their oligopolistic advantage.

And, in the process, they sometimes kill towns like Coaldale.

More Photos Of Dub And Buck In Their New Homes

Kimberly Critz, the daughter of Sue and Ward Critiz-----the new owners of Dub and Buck-----sent along some photos of the boys she took over the July 4 weekend.

Here's a photo of Kimberly atop Dub as he strikes a classic "Dub pose"------what a great look on his face! Note that Dub is being ridden with a hackamore and not a bit; that's good clue as to how "dead broke" he was. And the saddle and riding tack Dub is wearing is my old saddle and tack (yep, we threw it in with the horses since they were accustomed to those saddles and tack):

Here's another photo of Kimberly atop "the Dubster." He is such a beautiful horse; this photo reminds me of why I decided I wanted to buy him as soon as I saw him!

One of the fascinating quirks in the relationship between Dub and Buck was how they were rivals in so many ways-----for food, for attention, for whatever------yet either would go nuts if the other was ridden out of sight. We noticed this whenever we would ride one horse around the Bar Nothing Ranch while the other was in the inner pasture or stalled in the barn; we could hear the "whinnying" of the other loud and clear! The photo below cracks me up; it's Buck calling out for Dub, and I can hear his plaintive "whinny!!" as I look at the picture!

In her e-mail, Kimberly told how they are up to their old antics in their new home, such as racing around the pasture in the evenings after it cools off. (Just wait until you see them on winter days when the high temperature is in the 60s!) All in all, it's reassuring to see how well the boys have adjusted to their new home and how well they are being cared for. They are really missed, but I'm glad they are happy with their new loving owners!

Report Card Time

I had my first visit with my new oncologist, Dr. Alfonso Villamil, of Coastal Bend Cancer Center in Corpus Christi, yesterday. In a nutshell, my situation is progressing "normally" (that being a very relative term when it comes to cancer) using my last visit to my Austin oncologist in April as a baseline. My blood markers for liver cancer are trending upward, as they were expected to, but otherwise things appear to be stable-----my red blood cell count is unchanged since April. Unless something happens, like a rapid drop in weight or development of pain, my next visit and round of tests will be in October. I feel very comfortable with Dr. Villamil as my oncologist; he understands my decision to forego "hail Mary" treatments with a low probability of success and instead concentrate on maximizing my functioning and comfort in daily life. There are two varieties of oncologists: 1) the type who feels you have a moral obligation to undergo any and all treatments and therapies, no matter how small the odds of success (or, at least, all therapies and treatments covered by your insurance), and 2) those who understand quality of life is the most important thing for some patients, and for such patients spending three months in a near-comotose state from chemotherapy in hopes you're one of the lucky 10% who get to live six more months is not a worthwhile bet or acceptable trade-off. Thankfully, Dr. Villamil is a type 2 oncologist. I feel I am going to have a good relationship with him.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Random Randomness

Odds and ends:

  • I'm sad to learn the father of Hugh McCallum, my old high school buddy, has died. "Mr. Mac" was a teacher and a very positive influence on any and all young people who knew him, and I know that because I was one of them. His was a good life lived well and fully, and the world could use more people like him.
  • I was busy the last few days of June wrapping up my latest book, and at last the damn thing is finished. The title is 40 Lingering Questions About The 9/11 Attacks, and if my last two books haven't gotten me on some FBI watch list, this one certainly will! This is not some nutty "9/11 Truther" book-----no, I don't think the attacks were the result of a plot involving George W. Bush, the Israelis, and the Church of Scientology. Instead, I examine the incredible number of loose ends in the the final 9/11 Commission Report. Here's a sample "loose end," found on page 229 of the report: "By February 19, Atta and Shehhi were in Virginia. They rented a mailbox in Virginia Beach, cashed a check, and then promptly returned to Georgia, staying in Stone Mountain. We have found no explanation for these travels.” The report is full of such nous ne savons merde passages, they really grabbed my attention when I first read the report, and my book is the result. I'm going to be trying some different and non-traditional marketing efforts with this one, and I'll have more details here when the book is in print.
  • Clay Felker, the legendary editor of New York magazine, died last week. I was a huge fan of New York during Felker's editorship, both for the writing-----articles like Tom Wolfe's "Radical Chic" are just as much fun to read now as they were when first published-----and also for the tone and attitude Felker created as editor. Felker understood you must give creative people enough rope to hang themselves if you want to take full advantage of their talents; he gave it to them, and sometimes they did. But he also had an old-fashioned insistence on meticulous observation, fact-checking, and vigorous use of every tool in the English language. Through his work at New York, Felker taught me the most important job of an editor is not to tell writers how to write but instead to give them an environment in which they feel both challenged to do their best and free to take bold approaches to a subject. Clay was definitely one of my "career heroes."
  • I've done Google and Yahoo searches of people from my past that I've lost contact with, and I'm shocked at how few of my contemporaries in the writing and publishing business have an "internet trail" of any sort. Maybe they're on MySpace or Facebook-----I'm not active on those two------but they don't seem to be active on LinkedIn (even though I am now retired, I joined LinkedIn because you must be a member to recommend others). Why is this? Is it a generational thing, or are all of my erstwhile comrades-in-arms hiding out from something?? At any rate, I'd certainly like to locate and re-establish contact with David S. Gunzel, my boss at Radio Shack's technical publications group when I worked there in the late 1970s. Dave, if you're reading this, my e-mail address can be found on my profile at this blog, so please shoot me an e-mail and let me explain why I'm living in Texas again after all my complaining about the Dallas/Fort Worth area!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Climbing California's Telescope Peak

I can easily remember how I spent July 4, 1995. I spent it climbing Telescope Peak, the highest mounain in Death Valley National Park at an elevation of 11049 feet (3368 meters). It overlooks the lowest point in the western hemisphere, Badwater, on the floor of Death Valley at a "de-elevation" of -282 feet below sea level.

The summit climb begins from the Mahogany Flat trailhead at 8133 feet and it's a round trip of 14 miles to the summit and back. Because of its elevation, the mountain gets a good bit of snow-----it is a very spectacular sight from the floor of Death Valley in winter-----and the best time for climbing is between early June to late October. As always, it's best to begin a climb around sunrise and you want to be starting your descent by early afternoon in case a thunderstorm blows in.

Here's a shot from the beginning of the summit trail looking back toward Death Valley. While the trail is narrow, it's well maintained and no special climbing gear is needed:

When you start on the trail, Telescope Peak is hidden behind the ridges of Bennett Peak (9980 feet). But about a mile into the climb, its summit pops into view behind Bennett. It's the mountain at left with the snow patches on it. The summit trail goes to the right in the photo below, gains the ridgeline of Bennett Peak in the foreground, and continues left toward Telescope Peak:

After traversing Bennett Peak, the summit trail crosses a wide saddle between the mountains known as Arcane Meadows. Telescope Peak now looms impressively in front of you. The summit trail winds up the left ridge of the photo below:

One thing I loved about the summit of Telescope Peak is that it was a small one-----maybe 10x10 feet------instead of the broader summit plateaus often found in the Sierras. You have a real sensation of "flying through space" from the summit, especially when the wind was blowing. This is a view looking back down the trail from the summit. If you look carefully, you can make out the summit trail at the lower left. And, yes, that's a patch of snow in the center of the photo. It was mindblowing to be able to grab a handful of snow and cool myself off, knowing that on the floor of Death Valley the temperature was over 110 degrees!

Here's a view down into Death Valley from the summit. As an added bonus, you also get to see my shadow as I take the photo!

Here's another summit photo, this time looking toward the north. I was attempting to get a photo of the Sierras and Mount Whitney, but the camera recorded only the desert "heat haze." However, I could see the Sierras and Mount Whitney with my eye, meaning I was able to see both the highest and lowest points in the 48 contiguous states from the summit of Telescope Peak:

Like most other notable mountains, Telescope Peak has a summit log which is kept in a waterproof metal "ammo box" container wedged between some rocks. Below is a photo of the log; I added my signature and a few words about my climb to it. I understand the Sierra Club collects summit logs from California mountains periodically and they are forwarded to the University of California-Berkeley's main university library. I suppose that means some future student doing a term paper on Telescope Peak might one day quote my words of wisdom in his/her paper!