White Mountain Peak sits atop (get outta here) the White Mountains, the highest and westernmost of the Great Basin ranges. It requires a left turn at The Boonies, a right turn once you reach Nowhere, then another left when you reach The Middle. To get to the trailhead, you have to cross-and I am only partially joking-the moon, and ascend a to a breath-stealing height of close to 12000 feet, higher than the large majority of the actual county highpoints.
It is in the rainshadow of the Sierras, so it is very dry. It is high elevation, so there is not much oxygen. And since it is nowhere near the tempering breezes of the Pacific Ocean, it is also cold. There is also lava, and dinosaurs, and locusts, and ...and... welcome, welcome indeed to the highpoint of Mono County, the second entry in the 55-part county highpoint series: Your California.
Population: 12,853 (.18 Sold-Out Memorial Stadiums, or 1.08 Haas Pavilions)
Major Towns: definitely none.
Highpoint: White Mountain Peak, elevation 14,241 (46.3 Sather Towers)
Location (Berkeley terms): near Tahoe
University of California Affiliations: Barcroft White Mountain Research Station. Research from many different fields use this facility. This telescope was erected in 1963 to study the temperature of foreign bodies with IR.
Mono County is located high on the western edge of the Great Basin (just south of the Great Faucet and near the Great Soap Dispenser), and immediately abuts the Sierras to the west. Every spring and summer, snowmelt from the nearby mountains fills the local streams, which drain into Mono Lake and supports an ecosystem of birds which feed on something called Brine Shrimp.
Delectable with a creamy béchamel
However, much of Mono County sits above 6000 feet, while the city of Los Angeles, three hundred miles due south, is nary above sea level, making the (comparatively) water-rich land the only easy way southern California could slake its ever-growing thirst for swimming pools and awful tasting tap water.
In the 1940s, the rapacious Department of Water and Power of Los Angeles built canals which drained inflow to Mono Lake to feed into their in-place systems from earlier in the century (which will be the topic of another entry). Without significant inflow and dry Nevada winds leading to intense evaporation, Mono Lake’s level began to fall. It took until 1974 for a group of folks from UC Davis to realize this, and eventually they sued to stop the LADWP. The lake’s level has slowly begun to rise since, and the shrimp, though not thriving as they once did, are more delicious these days than they were in the 70's.
Mono Lake from Mt. Dana
To get to the trailhead, take 120 through Yosemite (4 hrs) and go south on 395 until you hit Big Pine (2 hrs). Take a left on 168 in Big Pine, and then a left again on White Mountain Road (1hr). Pass the Bristlecone Pine forest, then go nearly 20 more miles on bone jarring dirt road that is passable with 2WD (but it sucks…another hr). It takes a long, long, long time.
After the forest, you’re essentially driving on an enormous, bare pile of rocks ten thousand feet in the sky. There is only space above and flat rocks all around you. There was not enough snow to glaciate this area in the last ice age, so what you get are scenes like these:
Sea of Tranquility
Sea of Serenity
The Big Sea (get it? OMFG GET IT?)
We didn’t reach the trailhead until 10am, and oddly, despite the cars, we'd see only one other person the entire day.
After a mile or so we reached Barcroft, and it was deserted but for some extremely out of place looking sheep.
Toto I don’t think we’re in New Zealand anymore…
There was, however, a free telescope, focused on nothing, in the middle of nowhere, that allowed us to look at more or less nothing in the middle of somewhere else, but UP CLOSE. It was like we were THERE. I'm sure if I was French and thought deeply about things and smoked I'm sure I could come up with some theory about how our presence telescopes into the visions of others lives along with truth and beauty as it relates to the meaning of post modernism, but I'll leave that to Twist (please don't kill me for making an art joke.)
Just as I thought. There are things over there.
Hey! It’s the observatory from the historic picture shown above! The true dedication of scientists never ceases to amaze me. When given the choice of an astrophysics PhD or MBA for grad school, what person said "No, I won’t use my gigantic brain to land a plum job at an IB firm, smoking fine cigars and sitting on swanky leather furniture and eating $40 lunches. I’d much rather work in a rusty, cramped, freezing, ten-foot metal boob straining my eyeballs to look through a telescope at nothing in particular, ten hours from civilization, at three in the morning. That’s the life for me!"
A hard knock life...
Continuing on, I ran into some CSU players conditioning for fall.
They immediately saw I went to Cal, went into a huddle, and decided the best play was to run off in terror. Hagan was down the slope, though, and they ran RIGHT by him.
Up to this point the climb had been fairly level.
As flat as old soda. Which is a beautiful name for a girl. Or a boy. But especially a girl.
But after about five miles the trail took a turn for the upward. Which is really when the elevation started getting to me. Having trouble with the altitude has always been maddening to me, as I tend to have two walking speeds: "off" and "full." Full speed at 13 thousand feet starts to get slower, and slower, and slower. You feel woozy constantly as your brain is starved for oxygen.
Pretending there's an In n Out at the top makes things easier. Until you get there.
Worse, your body’s fight to provide enough oxygen to the brain means it is starving the parts of your body you need to move: your legs. This means it feels as though your walk in the park has turned into a walk through tomato soup. Then beef stew. Then jello. Then oatmeal. In addition, you have to breathe much faster to obtain O2 so if there is any type of air pollution or dust, your lungs swell up and make you hack. The last half hour I remember feeling like I had a terrible flu.
Almost as high as the visitor seats at the Coliseum...
Near the top, we ran into a giant snowfield. In August.
Anyone for a rock flavored slurpee?
Finally, the summit station.
I called. It led to a sweepstakes center in Fullerton. I may have already won...
Highpoint of Mono county achieved. The views were huge but hazy, spanning the entire range of the Sierras. I felt if I had a hanglider I could go for days.
Dear god someone set up a zipline…
All that was left was to re-enter earth’s atmosphere and drive down to Bishop.
I remember on the road back down these bizarre birds would basically sit on the side of the road until the car came within about twenty yards of them. Then they would BOLT off in flight, then swoop back around onto the road, missing the car by what had to be inches, every time. It was freaky, until one bird misjudged and WHAM, right onto the hood. That thing was deader than a pile of rocks, and I tossed it off into the bushes.
The day ended, as usual, with blue and gold: