Monday, July 7, 2014

How to Hide a 14,000 Foot Peak in California? Make it Red, Call it White...

And then put a mountain right next to it that is actually white. Seriously.

So, quick, what's the name of the third highest mountain in California? And for a bonus point, what is the name of the second highest? No, quicker than that, and no Googling! What about the mountain range where these peaks are located?

When I was in my early teens, I developed a fascination for topographic maps, and with it a desire to know the heights of all the major mountains in Southern California and across the rest of the American west. This was closely tied to a desire to climb most of them, and I spent many weekends as a youth adding to my "hundred peaks" list. I was a bit limited by a lack of desire to be dangling by ropes, but there were plenty of peaks within my skill set, and I've enjoyed the view from many a mountaintop.

Two books had a powerful influence on me in those years. The first was a little book by Frank Ashley called "Highpoints of the States", which provided the name and location of the highpoints in each of the states (which is sometimes hard to pin down, some being in cornfields or in the middle of a city block). Ashley climbed (or drove) to all the 48 high points in the contiguous United States in 112 days, a road trip I imagine was fascinating.

The second was "The Thousand Mile Summer" by Colin Fletcher. Fletcher described his walk from the Mexican Border to Canada at a time long before the Pacific Crest Trail existed. He didn't follow (as would be expected) the John Muir Trail through the Sierra Nevada. Instead he opted to follow a more easterly route across the White Mountains on the other side of the Owens Valley. In doing so, he introduced me to a mountain range that has fascinated me ever since.
Nope, North Palisade Peak is fourth, at 14,248 feet (4343 meters). Viewed here from near Lida Summit in Nevada
So, how did you do? I know from my students that many have trouble recalling California's highest mountain. Mt. Shasta is often a first guess, but it is actually only number five at 14,179 ft
(4322 meters). The highest is Mt. Whitney, 14,505 feet (4421 meters) in the Sierra Nevada. Number two is Mt. Williamson, a few miles north of Whitney (14,379 ft, 4383 meters). But number three is one of the best kept secrets in the state of California. It's not in the Sierra Nevada or the Cascades. It's off to the east, forming the highest peak within the Basin and Range Province
Wild horses near the small village of Dyer, on the east side of the White Mountains
The mountain is called White Mountain Peak (14,252 feet, 4344 meters), and it is located in the White Mountains of the westernmost Basin and Range province on the border between California and Nevada. The mountain range has the distinction of having not only the third highest peak in California, but also the highest peak in the state of Nevada, at Boundary Peak (13,146 feet, 4007 meters).

I had a chance to see White Mountain Peak from a new perspective during our trip in early June. We were headed home after our marvelous journey through the western Colorado Plateau, and we really didn't want to drive over Tehachapi Pass and follow Highway 99 up the Central Valley through Fresno and Bakersfield. Been there, done that, a hundred times over. So we set out across the empty country north and west of Las Vegas, crossing Lida Summit and going north through Fish Lake Valley. Eventually we would climb Montgomery Pass and make our way home through Yosemite National Park via Tioga Pass. Yes, traveling through the Basin and Range province requires going over lots of passes.

For a mountain called "white" there is very little white, unless you count the winter snow. The mountain is mostly composed of red and brown metavolcanic rock dating from the early to middle Mesozoic era. The Basin and Range lies in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada, so despite being just as high, it receives far less rain and snow, but during the Pleistocene Ice Ages, small glaciers developed adjacent to the peak. From our vantage point on the valley floor we could pick out a prominent glacial cirque (below).
Glacial cirque near White Mountain Peak. Cirques are bowl-shaped valleys that form at the head of glacial valleys where the ice pluck boulders from the cliffs.

There are lots of biologic oddities about the White Mountains. They do not have extensive forests in the way we normally perceive forests. There are vast areas of pinyon-juniper woodland, and higher up there area thickets of Mountain Mahogany. At the highest elevations there are several open forests of Bristlecone Pine, including the oldest living tree on the planet at just over 5,000 years. There are also a few "relict" forests of Ponderosa, Jeffrey Pine, Lodgepole and Aspen, which were more widespread during the ice ages when precipitation levels were higher. There are no native fish, but trout have been introduced into some drainages, and in one, the Paiute Cutthroat Trout has been introduced as part of an effort to preserve the species. It may be the only genetically pure strain of the species left in the world (and no, until the species is stable you can't fish there!).

The highway winds around the north end of the range at Montgomery Pass and we turned west at Benton Hot Springs onto Highway 120 to make our way to Lee Vining for dinner. As we reached the ridge top, we got a stunning view of White Mountain Peak from the west (above). It is a huge mountain, maybe forever overshadowed by the Sierra Nevada, but a fascinating place nonetheless. 
No, this isn't White Mountain Peak, despite the color. It's Montgomery and Boundary Peaks, composed of light colored granitic rock. Even though Boundary is the shorter of the two, it is over the state line and is the highest point in Nevada.

Montgomery and Boundary Peaks, composed of light-colored granitic rock, are sometimes mistaken for White Mountain Peak, but they are both hundreds of feet shorter. Boundary is the shorter of the two, but because the state line passes between the two, it is the highest point in the state of Nevada.

I've flown over the White Mountains on a few occasions, and they are spectacular from above as well. I've not made it yet to the summit of White Mountain Peak. There is actually a "road" that reaches the summit, and  a high altitude research laboratory on top, but the roads are gated, and the climb is a pretty long hike. One of these days, though....

The White Mountains are scenic, geologically interesting, and remote. There is a lot to explore there, and we intend to during our fall field course to the eastern Sierra Nevada! 


Celia Lewis said...

Wonderful info, Garry. And I love seeing the mountains both from the air and from the ground. I've been going through the maps walking my fingers through the routes. Great trip!

Garry Hayes said...

Hi Celia! We'll be headed to BC in a few weeks for our next adventure. What do we look for on Vancouver Island and the Sea to Sky Highway?

Unknown said...

I am new to your blog and really enjoying it!

Giving me lots of travel ideas.