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Owens Valley Part 2: Inyo Mountains

Updated: Aug 5, 2018

My next destination is the Inyo Mountains, a mountain chain that runs parallel to the Sierra Nevada Mountains across from the Owens Valley. They reach up to about 11,000 feet, not as tall as the 14k Sierras, but certainly nothing to scoff at. They are seldom climbed and there isn’t any trail. A sunrise fanatic, my main purpose for going is to wake up in the morning and watch the sun light up the Sierras.

Coming from Wildrose Peak, I make one more stop before I leave Death Valley NP: Father Crowley Vista, a spot on its very western border. At the entrance there’s a fresh-looking parking lot overlooking Rainbow Canyon. Most people just stop there, thinking that that’s the vista, and don’t notice the inconspicuous gravel road on the opposite side of the lot. If you keep going down this road a half mile or so, it takes you to the real Father Crowley Vista, a vast overlook above the Panamint Valley, with the imposing Panamint Mountains on the other side, and the Panamint Dunes below.

Sticking with the theme of The Planets, by Gustav Holst, I put on “Mars, Bringer of War.” This piece is probably the most famous classical piece written in 5/4 time signature, and it, along with “Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity,” are the most well-known movements of the work. The defining feature of the piece is an incessant, repeated rhythm that permeates the entire movement. Holst begins the piece with orchestration that displays incredible craft. He has the strings tapping out the signature rhythm col legno, which means that players are using the wooden part of the bow instead of the part made of horsehair. This yields a woody, brittle sound. Underneath this however, he has timpani and two harps also doing the rhythm, as well as a gong being quietly rolled at a steady soft dynamic. These instruments are all very resonant and wet, totally opposite the dry col legno strings. The combined effect is that of an unusual tapping sound which has a vastness that makes it sound like it’s in an enormous, ghastly cavern. Out of this texture enter the bassoons and the French horns in their very lowest register. They sneak in on the same note as the strings and then end up a tritone away, a dissonant interval that in Baroque times was referred to as the diabolus in musica (The Devil in Music) because of its jarring sound. As the piece builds, it grows more and more sinister. The incessant 5/4 rhythm is like some kind of alien war-march, and it brings to the forefront the openly hostile nature of my surroundings. This desert does not want me here. It’s 108 degrees outside, the wind is blowing, and the terrain is otherworldly, much like I would imagine Mars to be, uncoincidentally. Halfway through the piece, a thunderous roar drowns out the music as a fighter jet zooms out of Rainbow Canyon to my left, below me. I had forgotten that Rainbow Canyon is used as a training area for the Air Force. Mars, Bringer of War.

I proceed to the town of Lone Pine to restock supplies and am again awestruck in my approach to the Sierras. If you look at a topographical map of California, the Sierras rise relatively gradually from the west out of the state’s Central Valley, and then at the very eastern ridge, which has Mt. Whitney (the tallest mountain in the contiguous US) as well as many of California’ other tallest peaks, it drops sharply 10,000 feet into the Owens Valley. This view was basically the inspiration for this entire trip: to drive up the Owens Valley with the Sierras towering to my left and the Inyo and White Mountains towering on my right (the latter of which also reach 14,000 feet). I can only imagine what the early pioneers must have thought as they rounded the bend. They had just emerged from one of the hottiest and driest places on the planet only to be confronted by a literal wall of some of the tallest mountains for thousands of miles around. Luckily for them, once overcoming (presumably by circumambulation) this “final boss” of their journey, they would be rewarded with fertile valleys, beautiful coastline, the astonishing redwoods, and of course, gold.

Sierra Mountains in the late afternoon

Inyo Peak seemed like a greater commitment than I wanted for this already-packed trip; I didn’t need to get to the top to see the sun shine onto the Sierras, so I settled for a terraced ridge where I could set up camp called Forgotten Point, which would be sufficient for sunrise viewing. There’s a road that goes up to Union Wash, which is the entry point to where I need to go. After a mile and a half of this road that ages the suspension of my car faster than if it had served two terms as President of the United States, I make until my car literally can’t go any further. I gather my things, eat a quick meal, and set off down the path to Forgotten Point.

As I approach the Inyo Mountains I notice that it’s basically all just loose pebbles and dirt, no big rocks or plants really. This’ll be a bitch to climb. I also notice that these mountains are INCREDIBLY steep, sometimes literal 45 degree angles up. Forgotten Point is only a little over a mile away, and even though there isn’t a trail per se, I didn’t really think much of it when planning. As I look more carefully at my topographic map however, I notice that this mile contains 4,000 feet of elevation gain…in one mile. Yeah, fuck that shit. Forgotten Point will have to remain forgotten is far as I’m concerned. Keep in mind that the temperature is still in the 90s and I have a 30lb pack on my back. I instead cross the wash to another ridge just to the north. This ridge is nowhere near as tall, but it’s sufficiently prominent and has a flat area, which should make for a satisfactory perch for me. I manage to stumble my way up the pebbles to the ridge – yeah this will do just fine.

As the sun sets I find a spot out of the wind and put on the “Andante moderato” movement of Gustav Mahler’s 6thSymphony (there’s great contention over whether it’s the second or third movement). Whereas sunrise music starts quiet and has a slow build to a glorious climax, mostof my sunset pieces are slower, more melodic, and have a wistful quality to them, a nice winding down of the day and preparation for sleep. Mahler is in my mind most known as being so bombastic that you often become desensitized to the overdrama; I have to be in a very specific mindset to listen to an entire symphony of Mahler’s. This symphony, nicknamed “the Tragic,” is particularly fatalistic, an eighty minute howl of anxiety. The “Andante moderato” movement, however, is a respite from inevitable calamity and Mahler’s usual grandiosity: it’s slow, beautiful, contemplative, and mercilessly intimate.

Sierra Nevadas at sunset, as seen from the Inyo Mountains

As night arrives, it’s still 85 degrees and incredibly windy. I decide that if there were ever a time to sleep under the stars this would be it (also I forgot the stakes to the tent in the car, so there’s that). I use my tent as a tarp and put my sleeping pad and sleeping bag over it. I literally have to be sitting on it at all times so that it doesn’t blow right off the mountain, much to my annoyance. I take off my clothes, and lay there on my sleeping bag under billions of stars, my body tickled by the warm summer breeze. There’s something intensely satisfying about having an introspective moment while naked and in nature, far away from the rat race of civilization.

[Listen: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams]

I put on Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams, another English composer who was a good friend of Holst’s. It’s a piece that’s oddly scored for string quartet, small string orchestra, and large string orchestra…so basically strings upon strings upon strings. Even without any winds, brass, or percussion, nothing seems to be lacking. It reminds me of an excerpt from the book The Principles of Orchestration by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a composer whose biggest strength lie in orchestration, which is essentially the study of the ins and outs of all of the instruments and how they work together so that one can best execute the desired effect with the tools at hand. The excerpt goes as such:

“The student will probably pass through the following phases: 1. The phase during which he puts his entire faith in percussion instruments, believing that beauty of sound emanates entirely from this branch of the orchestra – this is the earliest stage; 2. The period when he acquires a passion for the harp, using it in every possible chord; 3. The stage during which he adores the wood-winds and horns, using stopped notes in conjunction with strings, muted or pizzicato; 4. The more advanced period, when he has come to recognize that the string group is the richest and most expressive of all.”

It’s unclear if Vaughan Williams ever read the book, though if not, he clearly knew the concept even if subconsciously, as he utilizes the strings with unparalleled expertise. Our friend from earlier, Gustav Mahler, once declared, “The symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything.” In Mahler’s music I hear the world of man and emotion and the toils and troubles therein. In Vaughan Williams, I hear the world from a cosmic perspective, where emotions are fleeting and foolish in the grand scheme of the universe.

Sunrise onto the Sierras from the Inyo Mountains. Mt. Whitney is at my 11 o'clock, and Mt. Williamson is at my 2 o'clock (2nd highest in CA, 6th in the contiguous US).

[Listen: Borodin's Symphony No. 2 - III. Andante]

I awake at my usual 5:15 and slowly but surely, the rays of the sun strike the tops of Mts. Whitney and Williamson, and steadily creep down the mountainsides and into the valley. For this sunrise I listen to third movement of Alexander Borodin’s Symphony No. 2. The piece starts with solos in the harp, clarinet, and French horn that perfectly capture the confident, calm optimism of first light on a clear day in the mountains. The climax in this piece isn’t quite as glorious in a fanfare-ish way with lots of trumpets and other brasses like many of my other sunrise pieces, but it is immensely passionate, again using the strings as the primary vehicle of expression, just as Rimsky-Korsakov recommends. I think this symphony is one of the most underrated that I’m aware of. The third movement goes directly into the fourth movement, which is rollicking and exhilarating, curiously reminiscent of cowboy music. The conductor who exposed me to this symphony alleged that vast, open steppes of Russia mirrored those of the Great Plains of the United States and as a result produced music that was similarly vast and open, echoing the great emptiness of the terrain. I can’t say I’ve seen enough data points to support this conjecture, but it’s an interesting theory nevertheless. In any case, the excitement of the final movement of the symphony is appropriately cowboyesque (over 800 films were filmed in Owens Valley, mostly old spaghetti westerns), and a good energy boost to get down the mountain and start on my next leg of the journey: climbing into that mountain wall at which I had just marveled, a journey in which I would get a bit more adventure than I bargained for.

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