Experience: A trek up White Mountain Peak

A full moon sets over the Sierra Nevada as a rising sun paints the escarpment – as seen from the trailhead for White Mountain Peak.
A full moon sets over the Sierra Nevada as a rising sun paints the escarpment – as seen from the trailhead for White Mountain Peak.

A full moon of hammered silver balanced on the Sierra’s saw-toothed ridge. A rising sun began to paint bands of rose and gold on the steep escarpment of this vast range. I was in a good spot to take it all in, since I stood on the next mountains to the east – the outdoor equivalent of a balcony seat.

At the trailhead for White Mountain Peak, I twisted open a tube of sunscreen to prepare for our long hike ahead. I’d closed the tube at sea-level. Now, my wife and I stood at 11,630 feet. The instant the cap was off, a geyser of pale goo spurted out. The difference in atmospheric pressure made pinching the tube unnecessary.

White Mountain Peak, at 14,252 feet, is California’s third-highest summit. It’s arguably the state’s easiest one to attain of all those above 14,000 feet. Don’t get me wrong: It’s no slam-dunk. Yet with proper care and preparation, most people with a decent amount of fitness can bag this summit and return to the trailhead in a single day. It’s a round-trip of 15 miles with about 3,000 feet of total elevation gain.

And if you should not make it up to the top, so what? You’ll score a trek of whatever length in one of the globe’s most scenic high-desert regions.

“White Mountain Peak does get a bit overshadowed in fame and popularity by Mount Whitney in the Sierra,” says Deb Schweizer, public information officer for the Inyo National Forest. “So it doesn’t get super busy up there. But all visitors ought to remember – this is desert hiking at a high elevation. You need to spend time acclimatizing, bring water and rain gear. On any given day, you could be hot and thirsty and sunburned, or you could get yourself snowed on.”

I last did this hike solo in 2000. And back then, I hadn’t prepared correctly. My main mistake was spending only a single day at high elevation, seeking to acclimatize myself, not the two to four days that are recommended. I did make the peak, but descended woozy and weak with altitude sickness, as well as mild dehydration. This time, since I’d be hiking with my wife, I made sure every “I” was dotted and “T” crossed, including toting along a lot of topped-off water bottles. (I should mention that I’m 64, while my wife’s about a decade younger. We’re both casual athletes.)

The White Mountain Range seems an anomaly when first glimpsed. Its rampart soars up right on our border with Nevada and defines the east side of the Owens Valley. But compared to the Sierra Nevada just to the west, it seems a geologic midget, since it’s a mere 60 miles long and 10 wide, whereas the Sierra range is 400 miles by 70.

For decades the Whites were like the Rodney Dangerfield of mountains, not awarded a huge amount of respect.

But after the 1950s, closer inspection began to prompt some celebration of the splendors and marvels of this range. For one, it’s a major site for the Great Basin’s crowning glory, ancient bristlecone pines, long celebrated as the oldest living things on earth. Nowadays, that “oldest” title has acquired more contenders. But none of them can match the beauty of these frozen gold flames of resinous wood, twisting up from the rocky, white dolomite soil. Strips of living bark wind around a bristlecone trunk sculpted by ice and wind to culminate in the green bottle-brush of a branch that brandishes a few fertile cones. Few living things can still be sexy while closing in on an age of 5,000 years, as does the Methuselah tree – the oldest bristlecone known to inhabit the Whites.

14,252Height of White Mountain Peak

The best way to get acclimatized is to stay at the Grandview Campground, a primitive camp at an elevation of 8,500 feet. Then walk trails at the visitor center for the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest at 10,100 feet; and next explore trails in the Patriarch Grove at 11,300 feet. Time spent hanging out in the Whites will acquaint you with more of their charms, such as the spectacular displays of meteor showers and stars, constellations and moon phases the night skies bestow – unimpaired by any glow from surrounding towns, since there are so few. A further charm is this region’s profound tranquility. Except for sounds from wind, it’s drenched in a nearly palpable silence.

A lone raven’s call startles you nearly as much as a gunshot might.

Deploying our hiking poles, we trudged 2 miles up an access road to the steel Quonset huts and telescope domes of the High Altitude Research Station operated since 1950 by UC Berkeley. Past this facility, the hike proper begins. Your next few miles traverse a sweeping alpine swale, garlanded with dwarf sage, cushion plants and the remains of ice-shattered boulders, called felsenmeer.

This is the home of yellow-bellied marmots – furry mountain creatures that resemble beavers with fluffy tails. They basked in the widening pools of sunlight unalarmed, strolling off to their burrows only when we closed within a few yards, yet halting to pose for photographs almost every step of the way.

White Mountain Peak itself, which played peek-a-boo throughout our 22-mile drive from the campground to the trailhead, now revealed its full grandeur. Unlike surrounding peaks, this one doesn’t happen to be white – more like, an orange-chocolate hue.

Where the Sierra is mostly composed of gray granite about 150 million years old, the Whites are made of compacted sediments of ancient seabed four times older. Much of that is the soft, pale, alkaline dolomite that gives the range its name – a kind of limestone preferred by the bristlecone pines. But the main summit is an overlying cone of volcanic rock. It would be a dark-chocolate color if the range was stable. But it uplifts at the rate of 13 inches every 1,000 years, and constantly sheds chips under the impact of wind and ice, revealing the fresh, bright shades that lurk under a dark crust of oxidation.

We crested a low ridge, dropped into another swale, this one a domicile for brilliant, high-altitude butterflies, plus one perky chipmunk. Next we assaulted the main summit pyramid itself. Halfway up, we were blessed by a magic encounter with some of the mountain’s most durable and traditional denizens – desert bighorn sheep. Circles of stacked rock that appear to crop up all over the Whites are blinds used by Indian tribesmen to hunt such bighorns over the course of many thousands of years.

A band of horned females and several lambs bent their path in an arc around us. We studied each other for a few minutes. Finally, we all continued peaceably on our way.

Reaching the summit at noon, we scrambled over a snowbank and up the last few yards to the top. It’s capped by a squat stone cabin used by the University of California scientists. Incredible vistas sprawled out to all sides from the cabin. Upon this high and isolated peak, one seems to soar above the pastel swaths of the landscapes far below, as if taking it all in from a raven’s point of view.

We also noticed the dark islands of cloud shadow that glided across the floor of the Owens Valley, 10,000 feet below. Thunderstorms – which can appear quickly on summer afternoons – seemed to be forming. Time to head down. We’d also noted another mute warning: The thick grounding cables that ran from lightning rods atop the cabin showed spots where the insulation was blasted open. Copper wires inside had melted, and black scorch marks fanned out on nearby rocks.

Shoved off the peak by the prospect of an incoming storm, we reached the trailhead about two hours before sunset. Soon my wife and I were high-fiving each other and offering toasts while we hoisted cups of cold pomegranate juice that had been stashed in the trunk of our car.

To have made the summit of White Mountain Peak at all was excellent. To have made it in improved style a second time around was even better.

The White Mountains

Getting there: On the east side of the Sierra Nevada. From the town of Big Pine, take Highway 168 east for 13 miles to White Mountain Road. The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest visitor center is 10 miles and Patriarch Grove 12 miles beyond that. Parts of the road are unpaved and can become rutted and rough.

Camping: The Grandview Campground (no supplied water) has 23 first-come, first-served sites with fire rings, picnic tables and pit privies. $5 per night

Peak hike: 15-mile round trip. Tips: Take more water than you think you’ll need, and a blister kit. Shield yourself against intense sunlight. Rest if you get short of breath. If a thunderstorm shows up, remove all metal objects from you and your companions, crouch in a shallow depression and allow the storm to pass.

Information: Inyo National Forest main visitor center, 798 N. Main St., Bishop; 8 a.m-5 p.m. daily (closed for lunch on Sundays) until Nov. 1.