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Owens Valley Part 4: White Mountain Peak

Updated: Aug 20, 2018

It was about midnight when I reached the trailhead to White Mountain Peak. It’s located at the end of an 18-mile, shitty, gravel road that necessitated my velocity being that of a grandma after getting her days mixed and accidentally taking Monday AND Tuesday’s Xanax. The lot/camping area is at about 11,700 feet in elevation, the highest elevation trailhead of any of the California 14ers (mountains over 14,000 feet), and even as I’m preparing my pack for tomorrow I can feel the difference. White Mountain would be my first 14er, and thus the new highest elevation of my life, breaking a mere 2-day old record. White Mountain Peak is the only 14er in the contiguous US that is not in the Sierras, Cascades, or Rockies; rather the White Mountains are rather small range just east of Sierras, on the other side of Owens Valley. The Peak is the 3rd highest in California, though it’s true claim to fame is that the mountain is the site of the oldest living trees on Earth, the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines, 5,000+ years young.

I wake up at 5:30 with the windows completely fogged up and translucent. The biggest difference up here so far is the cold – it’s in the 30s, and it’s crazy to think that not far away in Death Valley, it could approach the 130s later in the afternoon. As I set out at 6am, I have tights under my pants, two hats (one for warmth, one for sun protection), gloves, and a bandana around my face. It’s high up, but it’s summer, but the air is thin, but it’s sunny, but it’s windy, but I’ll be hiking. Who knows how all of those factors will cancel each other out as the day progresses?

All bundled up!

The trail starts as a dirt road that ascends rather mercifully through brown, grassy hills. I can get used to this. After a few miles I get to the Barcroft Research Station. While there are a few signs of regular human activity, much of it looks more like a deserted army barracks compound, the grounds strewn with rusted pipes, logs, building scraps, whatever. The elevation hits me like a bag of bowling balls and I’m feeling sleepy and hungry (5 hours of sleep probably wasn’t enough). I relax and snack for a good 20 minutes listening to the magically cryptic “Neptune, the Mystic” (click to listen) from Holst’s The Planets amid the eerie and all but deserted complex. It’s the final of seven movements in the work, and the entire movement is barely louder than a whisper, featuring a number of unusual timbres such as bass flute, celesta, and an offstage choir of women singing nothing but “Ah.” By the last bar of the piece, all of instruments have faded away, and we’re left with just the chorus, repeating that last bar “until the sound is lost in the distance” (from the score) often with the effect of the door to their offstage location being slowly shut.

From the research station I continue up the first of three crests along the trail. At the top of this steep hill is an old, derelict observatory. For the first time, the summit comes into view. Awwwww Hell – that is tall and hella far away still. The little, stone research hut on the summit is a barely visible spec.

White Mountain Peak, third tallest mountain in California

Even after just taking a sunbstantial break not long ago, the elevation is kicking my ass again like Germany v. Brazil in the 2014 World Cup semifinal. I lie down and am totally out of breath, basically hyperventilating. Up until now, elevation had mainly manifested itself as everything just being more plain ol’ difficult, with the occasional light-headedness and sleepiness. This is new however. I can feel air going quickly in and out of my lungs as I’m gasping for breath, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much. My lungs are heaving and hoeing to get air in and out, but the amount of oxygen I’m getting is as if I were sucking through a coffee straw. It’s a fundamentally unsettling sensation. I consider turning back, but after a half hour of lying there I feel marginally better. The next little bit is downhill, which is always easier (until it’s not that is).

Once I’m moving again, I get into a groove that’s tolerable. I recall that my spirit guide for this trip said that the best way to combat elevation sickness is water, water, water (personally I’ll add food to that). “You should be pissing your way up the mountain,” he told me. Taking that into counsel, after a certain point I don’t even bother zipping up my fly, since I’ll just need to pee again in a few minutes. By the time I would get to the top there would be enough of my urine on that mountain for an entire weeks worth of German dungeon porn. [I would later tell all this to altitude-sick young woman, who paused her misery to give me an “uhhhh…okaaay” that was equal parts abashed and horrified. Must be from either out of state or San Diego.]

I get to the next crest, where I encounter something I wasn’t anticipating: snow. A thin blanket of snow is covering a layer of hail on the side of the hill, reflecting the dazzling sunlight straight into my face. I reach for my sunglasses but they’re nowhere to be found. They must have fallen off my being either at the research station or at the observatory. Damn! The snow is blinding, and I carry on with eyes closed, opening them every 5 or so seconds to make sure I’m on the right track. Luckily, the trail is wide enough for a car, so I’m not in danger of running into anything or tripping. I make a mental note to add spf chapstick to the packing list of future such excursions as I feel my lips burn and crack.

Smiling and squinting through the pain

To get my mind off the fact that I can barely see or breathe, I put on Alan Hovhaness’s Symphony No. 2, nicknamed “Mysterious Mountain,” a piece rather appropriate as I ascend the snowy peak, its shoulders caressed by ephemeral cloudcover. Hovhaness was an Armenian-American composer whose life spanned almost the entire twentieth century. While not well known, he was enormously prolific, writing over 500 works, including 67 symphonies. The first movement alternates between sections of Byzantine chant-like figures in the strings and meandering solos in the woodwinds, often with commentary from the celeste, an instrument that twinkles like the stars crowning this mysterious mountain. The piece has a reverent, spiritual quality to it, a meditative aimlessness of someone lost in thought. The next movement is in two parts, with the second part a burst of activity of strings, sawing away at their instruments with the dexterity that one only attains after decades of single-minded devotion. Following this surge of frenetic energy, the third and final movement begins with board chords in the muted brass. From there it builds in the brass and strings into something ominous, a brief peek into the malevolent potential of the mountain. It seems to evaporate into nothingness, just like the mountain clouds that seem to appear and vanish without much less than a second thought. The end of the last movement is reminiscent of the first movement, with musical gestures that wander for a while, until they consolidate into a chorale that is broad and rich, but not necessarily climactic. The piece in total has a quality of not knowing exactly where you just went, or exactly where you are now.

All of this travel by foot business sure isn’t for the faint of heart. I think about all of those young adult fantasy novels where an inconspicuous, 16-year-old farmer boy stumbles into some fantastical adventure that involves him traversing an entire continent on foot as if it were nothing, with no education, no geographical knowledge, no maps, no raingear, hardly any food, money, nothing. If anyone reading this is thinking of writing such a novel, spend a few days or more alone in the wilderness first!

A runner passes me. Running?! Fuck that guy!

I inevitably get to the part of any mountain hike that is the switchbacks leading to the summit. Ugh. On this particular trail, the switchback portion is about a third of the entire trek. It’s where the terrain becomes so steep that you can’t really just go up, you have to take a circuitous serpentine route that adds considerable length and at times is still all but impossibly steep. Every step I take is the new highest elevation I’ve ever been. I look back at the snowy crest and see the snow evaporating directly into clouds. I’m now past 13,000 feet and each stride is a chore, my trusty walking stick an utmost necessity.

Snow evaporating into clouds

As the going gets tough, I do what I know to do: put on music. I listen to the entirety of Mahler’s 5th and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, neither of which really fit the scenery, but they help pass the time/anguish. The way that the struggle in Shostakovich’s 5thsymphony mirrored my struggle getting up to Kearsarge Pass was crucial in that scenario (Read Part 3), so as the going gets even more difficult I put something in that same vein: Tchaikovky’s Symphony No. 5. Tchaikovsky was another one of classical music’s tortured souls: a gay composer in 19thcentury Russia, whose personal life was one harrowing tragedy after another. His 5th symphony was his last expression of hope before his 6th, which was his farewell to life before his controversial death. It’s unclear as to whether Tchaikovsky actually committed suicide, but the music of his sixth and final symphony certainly speaks of a man with death on his mind. In any case, back to the fifth. The introduction to the first movement is a somber dirge with the clarinets leading the way in their lowest register. When the piece picks up, it has a Tchaikovskian sophistication and elegance, but within that is a lilt that reels through many emotions: anger, joy, sadness, and a sense of questioning. “Why me?” “What I have I done to deserve this fate?” A question many of us gays ask at one point or another.

Meanwhile a 12-year-old boy powerwalks past me in nothing but a neon green t-shirt, shorts, and drawstring backpack, his brown curls thick and unruly in an I’m-a-middle-schooler-and-I’m-too-cool-to-care-what-I-look-like kind of way. He says that he heard a weather report that thunderstorms were coming in the afternoon, so he’s on a mission to get to the top and back down before them (understandable, considering his wardrobe #choices). He’s apparently covered the same distance in 2.5 hours that I have in about 5…damn, what the hell is this kid made of???

The second movement begins with another slow introduction, this time with warm strings, giving way to one of the most beautiful and well-known French horn solos of the repertoire. Rather than using the instrument as part of a battalion of brass and as a vehicle for heroicism, it now sings as a solitary voice, tender and heartsick, yearning for love and for a society which validates that love. The melody is taken over by the strings who take those emotions to new heights, just as they onerously carry me past 14,000 feet, trudging slowly but surely as ever, my mind focused on the music as much as possible to distract myself from my own severe reality.

The third movement is a waltz, seemingly from a different universe; the complete opposite of what preceded it. It’s delightful, enchanting, and graceful, as if a pleasant daydream; what life could have been under different circumstances. Every once in a while is a tinge of sadness, fleeting moments where he recognizes that this is all nothing but an impossible dream. Less than half the length of the other movements, in comparison it’s gone almost as quickly as it arrived. A girl can dream, right?

The finale of the symphony starts with the initial threnody from the first movement now redone with an air of accomplishment and congratulations, with lush strings in their lower, full-bodied registers. However this is just the introduction, and we have a ways to go. What follows is the agitated theme of a severely conflicted man, somewhat bipolar in its expressions of turbulence and triumph, both of which are vying for control of Tchaikovsky’s mind. Who wins? Triumph, because it has to. The prospect of it not winning is unthinkable, a reality that is a pill too hard to swallow. It’s Tchaikovksy still maintaining hope, and wishing that he can musically write a happy destiny into fruition; maybe if he writes himself a happy ending, he’ll get one [and that is the main difference between his 5th symphony and his 6th symphony, where he writes a tragic ending]. The music consolidates into a chord that is resolved by the opening theme now as a celebratory march, a future in which all of his present torment is a distant memory, where everything is in harmony and he’s free from the bonds of depression and anxiety. If only.

At about noon I finally reach this celebration just as I finally ascend the summit, where the entirety of Owens Valley lay at my feet. Because White Mountain Peak is the highest thing for miles and miles, and because the valleys are 10,000 feet below, it feels more like a view from an airplane window than from a mountain. To east are the harsh deserts of the Great Basin, being welcomingly drenched by the evaporated snow from White Mountain, and to west, beyond the valley are the Sierras, no longer towering over me but my equal. To the northwest, the mountains of Yosemite are barely discernable through the haze of the Ferguson Fire.

Summit of White Mountain Peak, 14,252 ft

At the top is a stone hut with a large metal box, containing several notebooks of registry, plus an entire assortment of miscellaneous items: small wooden planks with initials scrawled onto them, a half empty bottle of Gatorade, a whoopee cushion, and a menagerie of various other trinkets and tokens. I dally about a half hour at the summit as I catch my breath, whereupon I meet the aforementioned altitude-sick girl, who literally touches the registry box and is immediately on her way back down. Poor dear.

Not far into my way back down I run into the kid (or is he a replicant perhaps?), his neon-green shirt sticking out among the rocks like a rich white man in the county jail. He must have summited an hour ago! What is he doing coming up again? “Did you forget something at the top?” I ask. He informs me that once he got back down to the bottom of the switchbacks, his parents scolded him for not waiting for them at the top, so he’s just done by far the most difficult part of the hike TWICE, back-to-back. “I’m fucking pissed,” he tells me, his voice cracking under the affliction of puberty. “Yeah I would be too. They better get you some damn good ice cream when you get back.”

The way back down soon becomes no easier than the way up. My knee is acting up again and each step downhill is a literal pain. By the time I get down the switchbacks, I’m looking forward to the uphill portions – how’s that for irony? If only my knee were as obedient as that kid. The crests up and down are now filled with marmots, scrambling around the rocks and grass, their obese rumps bobbing up and down among the uneven terrain. Some of them don’t seem particularly afraid of people either, approaching within a few feet. They’re awfully cute.

As I pass the observatory and descend the hill to the research station, I see something that wasn’t within sight on my way up. I assumed that the research station was weather-related until I happen upon an enclosure of about 50 sheep. They all look at me as if I’m the first living thing they’ve seen in days that wasn’t also a sheep. What the hell are 50 sheep doing on this mountain at 12,000 feet??? Were there not more practical places to study sheep? Like I dunno, a nice, green pasture?

I find my sunglasses (better late than never), and hobble my way down the last third of the trail. I figured out a way to walk downhill that puts less pressure on my knee, utilizing my calf muscles more, and by now those are sore as well. I arrive at the car at about 5pm, a full eleven hours after I left, and eat my first real meal since breakfast (this time I brought enough snacks, but forgot to bring any meal – doh!). I meet some hikers who are planning to hike the mountain the next day. I warn them that just because it’s “the easiest 14er,” doesn’t mean it’s easy.

White Mountain Peak from the observatory on the descent

I drive down my favorite gravel rode to the Patriarch Grove of the bristlecone pines, which has the largest Great Basin Bristlecone Pine in the world with regard to diameter, a tree named “The Patriarch Tree”. Mine is the only car in the lot, and I park it about 40 feet from an outhouse. Needing to use said outhouse, I get out of the car only to find that my legs can barely walk. It’s as if my brain told them “all right, hiking is done for the day,” and they just shut off. My left knee feels as if it’s a good three decades older than the rest of my body, and by now my calves are as if they haven’t been carrying me around for the past 29 years or something. I sit back down and drive to where I’m 10 feet away from the bathroom, and wait until I have the fortitude to try and walk again. What was that acronym again? RICE? Rest, Ice, Elevation….what was the C again? Hmmm. While I don’t have super strenuous hikes planned for the next two days, I will in fact still need my legs. Seeing the Patriarch Tree will just have to wait until tomorrow I suppose.

Whelp, that was it, my first 14er. I broke my personal records both for steps in a day (38,974) as well as miles walked (15.1). I tackled the final boss of my trip, and I reflect on how much I’ve grown since I had to turn around on Telescope Peak at 9k feet just five days ago. It would be all smooth sailing from here. Tomorrow would be devoted to the Bristlecone Pines, the oldest trees on Earth, and I had some very special music planned for them!

Read Part 1: Death Valley NP

Read Part 2: Inyo Mountains

Read Part 3: Kings Canyon NP

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