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.