Driving south from Bishop, California, on our way to the trailhead at 4:30 AM, the lightning over the range was as beautiful as it was frightening. We were headed for a hike up White Mountain Peak, which at 14,246-foot is only a few hundred feet below the tallest in the lower-48. As you can imagine, lightning was the last thing in the world we wanted to see. The "we" was Bob Johnston, a just-turned-80-year-old friend from San Jose, and myself, and we had been fretting about the weather all week.
"This summer they've been coming up practically every afternoon", the US Forest Ranger in Bishop told us when we inquired about the probability of thunderstorms this week. We were concerned because almost half of the hike was on a 13,000-foot-high treeless ridge where we would be particularly defenseless against such electrical discharges. We had planned the climb so we would be off the peak by noon, but here was a light-show at sunrise. To say we were disappointed would be an understatement; in fact we almost turned around and went back to bed. But this was to be Bob's first "14-er" since he had summited Mt Shasta 15 years ago, and we decided to go look at conditions at the trailhead before making a final decision.
The 11,700-feet trailhead was gray, foggy and at 6:30AM quite chilly, and while the ground was still wet, there was no rain falling and no thunder. So we loaded up and headed out. We mentally went through three "go-no go" decision points – one, if we began to get soaked by rain, two, if we began to hear a lot of thunder, and three, if we got to the base of the peak and couldn't see the summit. We only fudged on the last one.
The climb, really more of a hike, albeit one with a fairly constant 10% grade, is about 7 miles each way and can be roughly divided into three segments. The first is a rather boring 2-mile uphill stretch along a rocky trail to the University of California's Mountain Research Laboratory at 12,400-feet. The second is a 3-plus-mile middle section involving a gradual traverse of a lichen and grass covered high plateau that looks more like Scotland than California and particularly so on this gray day. Finally the last mile or two involves an endless series of switchbacks up the east flank of the copper-colored peak that is almost devoid of flora. The last time I had climbed the mountain about 10 years ago, it had taken my son and me about 8 hours, although neither of us was 80 years of age.
I had started off in shorts and a pullover sweater while Bob was in long pants, a long sleeve shirt and sweater. After about twenty minutes of huffing and puffing we both shed the sweaters. It was to be a day of almost countless ensemble changes. We arrived at the laboratory around 8:30 AM just as the crew was beginning their workday and rested for a few minutes at a picnic bench. Bob had handled the first stage of the trip about as well as I had, giving me the feeling if the weather held off he could make the climb without a problem.
I asked one of the workers what the weather prognosis was and she replied, "we never know up here". Not the reassuring response I was hoping for. The lab itself is a rather unremarkable assortment of small buildings nestled in a protected notch, a few hundred feet below the exposed ridgeline. Anything of a permanent nature on the mountain must be somewhat protected from the monumental winds that frequently rake the range. I have talked to hikers who have been relegated to crawling along the trail in order to both make forward progress and avoid being blown over.
While we rested we put our sweaters back on to prevent over-cooling and then headed out again. We quickly climbed the 500-feet to the ridge and for the first time saw the peak, now visible above a lower layer of fog, but still below a completely overcast sky. Hiking by the weathered dome of an old observatory we felt cheered by the fact that at least the peak wasn't in the soup. As we walked along, always a little short of oxygen, we would stop and listen to every noise in the sky, but so far they were only airplanes very high above us.
Somewhere along this stretch I reached a horrible conclusion and immediately confessed to Bob that I had left my food in the truck. Bob confessed that food had been at the bottom of his list too but that at least he had an apple and a small bag of almonds and that he would gladly share them. We were both so preoccupied with the weather and what gear we should take, that we forgot any sustenance. At least we had plenty of water. We were both feeling a little like the biblical "child with the loaves and fishes and the crowd" wondering where our miracle would come from. It turned out to be compliments of some other hikers.
From the outset Bob had deferred to me as to whether we would complete the hike or not, a situation I was not entirely comfortable with as I had climbed the peak several times before and he hadn't. Added to that was the fact that he was acclimating very well to the elevation which would make any decision to turn back just that much harder. (It struck me ironic that he was trusting me, a person who couldn't even remember to bring along food.)
As we descended into a saddle, the last milestone before the peak itself, the mountain was in and out of the clouds, but on occasion the sun would actually shine through. Thus far we had felt no rain and heard no thunder, and the decision to "go for it" was easily made.
Walking up the never-ending zigzags that define the trail on the last phase of the trip, we happened on three other hikers. We first asked about conditions on the peak, "beautiful up there but you can't see much" came the response, "but we're in for a pasting later in the day" they hastily added.
We next questioned their food status, and offered that we would pay any price for a couple of power bars. They said no charge was necessary and produced two 250-calorie jewels. It looked like a banquet to us.
When we finally reached the summit the peak was in and out of fog and the wind was blowing hard. We couldn't accurately tell the temperature but it felt like the high-40's or low-50's. The earlier visitors were indeed correct -- while the peak was in the sun there were several cloud decks below which prevented the awesome views of the Sierra Range and the Owens Valley I had remembered so vividly. So we took what shelter we could find and gorged on our feast.
During the sunny periods, we looked south in the direction of our return, we saw that thunderheads had formed and darkened the sky. Gauging height is hard when you are already over 14,0000 feet, but the clouds looked to be at least 30,000 feet which meant they would also have hail in them. But that would be dealt with later; meanwhile we high-fived each other on accomplishing our objective in spite of the fact that we had a little food in our stomachs. Then we donned our waterproof pants and jackets for the certain weather we would encounter on the way back.
We were giddy descending the peak, partly from the lack of air and partly because we were finally going down hill. That is until we reached what my son and I had dubbed "the insult" on our earlier hike. It's actually a saddle. However because it comes just as you leave the summit itself, it requires you to begin climbing again, which feels like a slap in the face. The familiar huffing and puffing began again as we trudged back up to the ridge that would take us back. I continued to be awed by Bob's stamina, particularly when I began feeling sorry for myself.
We had no sooner taken off our rain jackets during the brief climb than the rain started. It wasn't heavy but it was persistent. Soon the hail arrived, a positive development since we wouldn't get as wet from it as from the rain. (Our Gore-Tex was holding up well, but our leather boots were proving to be something less than waterproof.) At the half-way-point we began to finally hear thunder, but it stayed off in the distance, and we never saw any lightning. Besides we were almost back to the laboratory with its power lines and lightning arresters.
We again took refuge at the picnic table, as the work crew was about to finish their shift. We had been walking for eight hours. The precipitation had lessened and we felt no reason to hurry now. Our arrival at our truck coincided with the tenth hour of our excursion, and it was two weary guys who piled gear into the vehicle and grabbed at the food.
The way down and back to Bishop took an hour and a half and during the drive I called the motel and asked about pizza places in town that delivered. Given two names I called the first one and ordered a gigantic pizza and two large dinner salads to be delivered to our room. Ten minutes after disembarking, a knock came at the door and a wonderful smell entered the room. Soon the cork was pulled on a wine bottle and we appropriately celebrated our accomplishment.
Our accomplishment left me satisfied and jubilant but unfortunately with a new dilemma--how to be as fit as Bob when I'm 80.
Getting There from Bishop:
Drive south on US 395 15 miles to Big Pine and turn left on California 168 heading east towards the White Mountains. At the crest of the range and after negotiating a curvy trip through a very pretty canyon, turn left on the paved White Mountain Road (about 13 miles from Big Pine). The pavement lasts for almost 19 miles after which a well-graded gravel road (traversable by automobile) takes you the remaining 17 miles to a locked gate and the White Mountain Peak Trailhead. Getting to the trailhead takes most of 2 hours, but it's about 30 minutes shorter going back.
The best bet for determing conditions in the range is to call the Inyo National Forest offices in Bishop. Many years the range gets no snow well into November and the road stays open accordingly. After significant snowfall, the road is closed in sections and a call will determine exactly where it is closed and where you might start snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Several traverses of the entire White Mountain Range have been made in winter beginning where the road is closed and ending below Boundary Peak the northernmost peak across the Nevada border. The range is approximately 45 miles long.
Inyo National Forest
Distance: 7 miles, one-way
Elevation: 11,700-foot trailhead and a 14, 256-foot peak, and the total gain is in the neighborhood of 3000 feet.
Map Information: Inyo National Forest