White Mountain Peak is the highpoint of Mono County and the third-highest summit in California at 14,246'. It's also the easiest 14er in the state, but when I tried for it on August 7, 2005 I got to within about 100' of gain of the summit, and then turned around...
|The Sierras across the way.|
[2006 update: I summitted]
Normally the easiest route to the top is 14 miles round trip and about 3000' of total gain, including some on the return journey. That goes along a jeep road and it's all above treeline, making route finding a piece of cake. The jeep road ascends from a locked gate at around 11,700' to the Barcroft Station of the White Mountain Research Station at 12,500'. I believe that hikers do not need permission to walk up the road at any time.
However, each year the WMRS holds an open house to show the public the research they conduct there. They open the gate and allow you to drive up the road to Barcroft, which shaves about 4 miles round trip and 500' off the hike. This year the open house date was August 7, and in order to make things as easy as possible I decided to drive up and take advantage of the extra help.
Drive on Hwy 395 to Big Pine, then take 168 east into the White Mountains. 168 starts at the northern edge of town. If you're going to try for the peak, make sure that you have a full tank of gas, that your vehicle has its proper fluids, and that you're at least a little familiar with driving rough dirt roads. After ascending about 13 miles up the twisty and narrow 168 and perhaps enjoying the precipitous dips in the road, turn left on White Mountain Road. Another five miles or so brings you to the Grandview Campground (8600'). Five miles after that comes the Schulman Grove visitor center (~10,000'). Until that point all the roads are paved, but after Schulman White Mountain Road becomes dirt. Almost all of it is washboarded, and some portions demand complete attention. About 12 miles up from Schulman you reach a junction. Either of the two choices are both in even worse condition than what you just traveled. The righthand choice deadends in a mile at Patriach Grove, home of a rather impressive Bristlecone Pine and a few short nature hikes. The lefthand choice continues another four miles to the locked gate. I drove up to the gate and back down twice; the first time I went fairly slowly. The second time I briefly did 35MPH in spots, and that was in the rain. However, there are some sharp curves where you want to be doing 10MPH or even less unless you want to risk the possibility of skidding down into a meadow. And, there's one section that's extremely washboarded. Figure at least an hour to get from Schulman to the locked gate.
|It didn't look like this when I started..|
Grandview has 26 spaces, almost none of which appear to be very private. There are also some more isolated spaces tucked away up a hill behind the main campground. I only found out about those because I saw something metallic up there and, curious sort that I am, I went up to investigate and found out that it was a car. You might need a high clearance or 4WD to reach those spots though. There is no water available at the campground or, as far as I know, anywhere else. So, bring enough for both you and your car. I saw a couple tents further up White Mountain Road, but you might need a permit for that. You can camp outside the locked gate, but I believe you're only supposed to stay one night. Grandview is first-come, first-served. If that's full - and it looks like if you get there early enough it won't be - there's a county campground in Big Pine, and there are also several FS campgrounds on the edge of the Sierras. For those, take Crocker street from Big Pine until it deadends in about 9 miles.
Because of the elevation of the hike, proper acclimatization is necessary. I probably didn't do as much as I should have. On Friday I drove up from L.A. (hole'), spent a few hours driving along 395 (3000'-4000'), then set up my tent at Grandview. I then drove to 10,000' at Schulman. After a bit of waiting for a thunderstorm to abate, I took a short hike. The next day I drove to Patriach Grove and strolled up a nature trail, then I drove to the locked gate and hung out for a few hours. While there I took a short stroll up the road past the locked gate, assuring myself that I'd gotten close to if not over 12,000'.
|The trail is in the lower left.|
The whole time I was there, I only saw one of the furry little prairie dog-like rodents called marmots, and that was just outside the locked gate. In fact, aside from two-leggers, birds, and a large number of insects, I don't think I saw any other animals.
There's only a 1700' difference between Barcroft and the summit, but, most unfortunately, the trail descends along the way. That makes the total elevation gain probably somewhere around 2300'. And, of course, what that means is you don't have a quick escape: you need to climb up a bit to get out of there.
Unless there were a whiteout or dense fog, you would have little trouble constantly seeing not only the trail but where you want to go. You could probably do the whole hike blindfolded, although that might interfere with your ability to enjoy the scenery.
There are, of course, no trees. While some have called it a moonscape, I am not that poetic, simply referring to it as a high, dry, alpine meadow.
After Barcroft the trail ascends a bit, then starts its first dip. It levels off, dips again, rises, then starts its largest dip. After the end of that dip is where you gain most of the elevation of hike. A series of switchbacks leading up to the summit start around the 13,000' mark.
If the hike started at sea level, I could probably jog large portions of it and fast walk the rest, and I'm not in the best of shape. However, because of the elevation it is a great deal more difficult depending, of course, on your level of acclimatization.
So, what happened?
By now you're probably wondering why I turned around. Yes, getting up the switchbacks was very difficult. I paused two or three times per switchbacks and took several deep breaths, gasping for air that wasn't there. Nevertheless, given enough time I could have made it to the top. I had traipsed over some rocks and then I was very happy to see a small stretch of dirty snow, complete with steps already dug. I saw the summit laboratory just above me, and I was very happy to have made it this far. Then, things went south fast. All three days that I had been in the area were mostly cloudy, and clouds had been gathering during the hike. Yes, a bit worrisome to be above treeline with clouds gathering, but it seemed like I could make it up and down before it became dangerous. However, as I was staring up at the summit, I suddenly heard thunder. A group hurried down from the summit and said that they had seen the flash, and it was close. In consultation with another hiker, I decided that immediately diving was the the best choice. Because of the open house, there were dozens of other people making the hike, and most of them seemed to either turn around or immediately come off the summit.
As it turned out, that was a wise choice. The skies soon opened up and rain came down. It turned to hail the size of petit pois, which turned into large peas lower down. Other than the possibility of getting fried and the occasional pain when a hailstone hit one of my unarmored bits it was enjoyable, much like a winter wonderland. I had a heavy pack full of stuff (several pounds of camera, GPS, cell phone, 3L water and 2L of Gatorade, and on and on) so even if it had gotten much worse I could have walked out of there, but some of the trail runner types hadn't planned for anything like this and they weren't doing so well.
In any case, the biggest worry was the lightning, and it was necessary to get out of there ASAP. After jogging down the switchbacks and going x-country a bit, I shortly came to the section where you gain the greatest elevation on the way out. Some people were walking along the ridge, but I and others traversed below the ridge in order to avoid being exposed.
|The next day.|
When I got up to the ridge in preparation for descending a bit, lightning suddenly struck the hill to the east. Shortly after that I put my hiking poles into the ground, and I suddenly felt an electrical charge coming up the poles. I quickly threw them away and crouched down, fearing the worst. After a few seconds, I picked up the poles and carried them off as fast as I could. I'm no lightning expert, but what I felt might have been an incipient strike, with the current starting to rise up from the ground towards the clouds above, or vice versa. I also believe that throwing away the hiking poles didn't make that big of a difference: in this case, the lightning rod was me, not the poles.
Whatever you do, keep this comforting thought in mind:
It is good to know, however, that there has never been a documented case of somebody being injured or killed while in the lightning desperation postion.
At least four things contributed to me not getting to the summit: I started after 7am, I had trouble getting to sleep the night before and I probably only got a few hours sleep, I didn't sleep at the gate the night before, and I did this on the wrong day. Having to hike a longer distance and gain more elevation is probably a far better option than being forced into the WMRS's schedule. I'd suggest waiting for a day when the sky is clear; some have even done the hike in the moonlight.