Ski Mountaineering

White Mountain and Saddleback Lakes

July 12-16, 2020

Reiner Stenzel

Last year in October I tried to summit the White Mountain but literally was blown off in high winds with freezing temperatures. I learned the hard lesson that summer is the right season to have a pleasant experience. A macho trip of skiing the White Mountain in March has been done 30 years ago and shall not be attempted again.

My daughter Isa was also eager to climb the third highest peak in CA. She wanted to test her transplanted lungs and I wanted to test my age limits. Weather conditions are vital, and in mid July there was a stable high pressure condition formed over the entire western US. It was very hot with temps over 100 deg F in the San Joaquin and the Owens valleys. Thus we chose to camp high to escape the heat and to acclimatize to the lower air pressure.

Since the White Mtn range is east of the Sierra we had to cross the Sierras from our homes in the Bay Area. Tioga Pass is the natural way to cross, but covid-19 rules limited passing through Yosemite unless you have made a reservation which is as good as a pass for Whitney. Thus we chose Sonora Pass. There is free camping near the road and we found one place at about 9,000' elevation near a nice creek and meadow. The next day we drove down to Hwy 395. We made an excursion to look at Bodie Ghost Town which we had visited 27 years ago on an SMS ski tour. Then we continued south to Big Pine, 13 mi east on Hwy 168, turned north on the White Mtn Road. After 10 mi paved road we stopped at the Schulman Grove to visit the oldest Bristlecone tree, the Methuselah at age 4,851. The visitor center was closed and boarded up. We hiked along a trail where the oldest tree should be, but nobody knows which one it is to protect it from us visitors. We also saw impressive bristlecones in the Patriarch Grove which we once explored on skis.

We proceeded 15 mi on a bumpy dirt road to the closure of the White Mtn Road and set up camp. It was windy and cool at 11,400' elevation. The night was peaceful. There are no bears, snakes, mosquitoes, only singing coyotes in the distance. Before a half moon rose the sky was filled with innumerable stars in the crisp and clean air. Once a while a wind gust came in, otherwise it was quiet.

We got up by sunrise, had breakfast, packed and got on our way at 7 am. In an hour we were at the Barcroft Research Station, which looked like an abandoned Ghost town. After a short climb one passes a small observatory, also locked up and inactive. The pandemic must have halted everything. For the next two hours the trail gently drops and rises. When it reaches a saddle and trail turns toward the mountain, first drops, then ascends on switch backs toward the summit. The thin air takes its toll climbing. By noon we were on the summit, 14,234'. Nobody else was there although we saw others ascending with two dogs. We had lunch, called home, took pictures, signed the register, and talked to the new arrivers. After an hour on the summit it was time to descend. On the switchbacks we ran into a herd of Bighorn sheep. A male guarded his family, females guarded the young goats, thus we kept long social distances to avoid potential trouble.

Later a young man with a bicycle ascended the mountain and rode it down, over rocks, through sand and lots of potholes. We took much longer for the descent and were back by 5 pm. We decided to stay overnight at our cool place compared to the 100 deg temps in Owens Valley. Next morning we returned on the dusty dirt road, but made stops at scenic places. We passed through the heat at low elevations then ascended the Tioga Pass road, but had to turn back at the entrance gate. We drove to Saddlebag Lake where there is a first-come, first serve camping place. We were lucky and found a site with view over the lake. After lunch we went for a hike around several lakes and to fish if time permits. The lakes were all very low. Clouds were billowing and soon the sun was gone. On the way back the first raindrops fell. Thunder was heard but rare. The clouds were difficult to predict but we were fortunate and arrived without getting too wet. After dinner the storm broke up and at sunset we had a spectacular evening sky with colorful clouds.

Next morning we drove back over Sonora Pass into the heat of the low lands and cooler temps in the Bay Area. It was a happy end of a fine trip.

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