Hiking White Mountain Peak
I was finally released into the wild for the season from working and I had no plans, so of course I immediately gravitated back towards the Sierra for at least a week or two of some stellar hiking. I knew being the end of October that the weather would potentially not be the greatest, but also that if I dressed just right I could still check out some amazing things before the snow finally came and shut down most of these mountains for the winter (at least for me!).
I started my journey from Ventura and decided to stop for the night right after Red Rock Canyon State Park. I’ve always driven by there and was curious about it but have never stopped. Technically I didn’t stop this time either, since I stayed at an OHV area slightly past it so I still must check it out as some point. I also wanted to stop there because I figured it would be slightly warmer than it was going to be in Lone Pine or wherever I would be staying the next week. I wasn’t wrong. The wind did start whipping around in the middle of the night and I discovered that would be something that would remain at least for the next few days wherever I was. Boo. I’m slowly beginning to tolerate colder temperatures, but I just can’t tolerate the wind. It makes everything more difficult.
I packed up the next morning and headed first to the Lone Pine Visitor Center to ask a couple of questions about my plan for the next few days and also to hopefully acquire a few more ideas for hikes. The ranger was very pleasant and I ended up walking out with a handful of printouts on hikes (sorry trees!). Next stop was my planning headquarters: McDonald’s! All the free wifi you could desire combined with a pretty cheap ice cream cone and you can find me in here a lot planning adventures. I sat and sat in my booth for a time longer than I hoped and I finally had a plan. I was going to drive another 1.5 hours to a campground called Grandview that is on the way to the Bristlecone Pine Forests (home to some of the oldest trees on the planet, no, really!!) and White Mountain, one of California’s 15 14ers, what I planned on hiking the following day.
The reviews online had mentioned how great the stargazing was at Grandview because of its higher elevation (8500ft.) and distance from light pollution, combined with a giant open field and lack of trees. I did happen to see the stars briefly before I departed to my hypothermic wrap inside my car and they were lovely but it was just too terribly cold to be outside at all! With the amount/type of blankets that I have in my car I’ve never had a truly cold night myself but I did wake up a few times swallowing cold air and being surprised by it. I arose to a lot of frost on the inside of my windows and was curious so I turned on the car to get a read on the outside temp. Eight degrees. EIGHT!! I think that was a record for me. At least I slept warm. Now time to get hiking?!
I started to hustle and get my car and myself ready for the rest of the drive up to the White Mountain Trailhead, which I heard was long (16 miles of dirt road), questionable, has tons of sharp rocks, and 4WD is required. Hmm. I also began to worry last night if I truly had enough gas to get all the way to the trailhead and back to Big Pine. That would be one heck of an adventure I didn’t really want to run into today. Fingers crossed.
The drive was indeed long, but also beautiful and the 4WD part, ehhh. I could see a couple spots where a small car might have a hard time getting up a gravely hill but it really wasn’t that bad. My gas tank however, that would torment me until I got to the bottom. After an hour drive I finally arrived at 8:30 and started the long contemplation of what I was going to wear. The wind was still whipping, even though I thought it was supposed to be over by now, and I was even questioning if I wanted to do this hike. I made a deal with myself. If I go out there and I’m just being bombarded by wind the whole time, it’s a struggle, and it becomes type III fun for too long, I turn around. Simple as that.
I had looked at different sites ahead of time and my Alltrails app had mentioned that it was an 11.5 mile RT hike. There were a few comments mentioning that that was indeed a lie and it clocked in more around 15 miles. I was kinda hoping for an 11.5 mile day but realized that it might not be the case. Either way I was going to give it a shot. I finally figured out what I hoped to be the right layering system and had shoved some food down my face before finally heading off around 9:15. Still cold, still windy. But not quite as terrible as I thought. I did have to keep wiggling the toes to get the circulation all the way down there before I finally got into the stride of things.
It started at a pretty gradual ascent and at 2 miles appeared the University of California White Mountain Research Center. I’m kinda curious what they’re researching up here. It is such an interesting environment. There are no trees from the time I began (the trailhead is at 11,680ft. elevation) and the plants look like they belong in a desert, but yet you’re up at 12,000 ft. elevation. Do desert ecosystems really exist that high? I suppose that might be part of the investigating…
After the center I started to climb more sharply and then there’s a bit of a descent. Once I clambered on a bit more I could finally see it, White Mountain. Hmm, looked rather red to me. But it was obvious which one it was. It stood out like a jewel with the surroundings mountains and rock piles being the ring it’s encased in. There were so many fascinating colors that the rock turned into in such a small space. It really did look like you were on another planet. It also really did look far away.
I really do believe in the things that I teach throughout the year and one of the things that I teach all the time are the principles of Leave No Trace. On this hike I felt like principle number one: Plan Ahead and Prepare, was hitting me on the head with its importance. Even though I did end up dressing properly, I was still worried about my gas, I didn’t plan ahead with that and that was something I could’ve easily changed. I also just mentally wasn’t entirely there. I had heard that this was one of the ‘easier’ 14ers out there to do since it’s almost on a dirt road the whole time but I underestimated how much having a good mental attitude towards the day would make a difference. I started out of the car thinking about potentially backing out. Not the best way to get in the mental head game. I also felt like throughout the hike, even though the scenery was gorgeous I was just hoping for it to finish and for me to get back to the car and warm clothes and hopefully warmer weather that night as well. That’s not to stay I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it. I was blown away by the scenery almost the whole time. I’m just recognizing that sometimes we can have off days, and this was one of mine.
Once I finally got to the point where the rock started to change more drastically to red and a melange of colors around me I looked up on the trail and saw a bighorn sheep! I was so stoked! I was dragging a bit before that but seeing that amazing animal energized me. I am glad, however, that it was the one that decided to take the high route on the rocks so we wouldn’t end up having a confrontation on the trail. It moved a tad more gracefully (and quicker!) than me over the rocks.
I was finally closer to the top! But yet it seemed to take forever and around every switchback and corner, was another surprising switchback! Where did they hide all those turns from afar? I got to the giant snow field and knew that at this point I really was closer. Thank God. I was ready for a seat and a snack.
I finally arrived at the summit! Wahoooo! At this point I could stare across and down at a lot of peaks in the Eastern Sierra, turn a little and check out the Panamints in Death Valley and even see straight on into Nevada. Sick. I attempted to take a few pictures of the wooden signs that I’m sure didn’t turn out well, finally had my seat and snack, read through some entries in the logs before adding my own and then got ready to leave. Ain’t nobody got time to hang out on this windy summit!
Ironically the wind wasn’t all that terrible on the summit but returned a tad on the way down. On the way back there were a few devastating uphills, one that I definitely remembered and wasn’t looking forward to and then a couple more that I swear snuck up on me. Either way I tried to do my best and jog slowly on the sharp rock strewn trail when I could, shedding layers as the wind finally was dissipating and the sun exacerbating. The uphill was of course less on the way back and I eventually made it to the car in about 6 solid hours with 15 miles, over 3,000ft elevation gain, and endless levels of stoke wrapped up in my belt for the day. Overall I think it was a pretty breathtaking hike that I didn’t give all my attention to so I feel like I might need to return at some point in the future to give it its due respect. White Mountain, I’ll be seeing you again.
Btw, I made it all the way to Bishop before having to fill up my gas tank.