Experiments in High-Altitude Exposure
WHITE MOUNTAIN, CALIFORNIA — It would be a mistake to call White Mountain an easy fourteener (is there such a thing?). But it's not unreasonable to call White Mountain California's easiest fourteener.
Which is kind of funny, because from three directions—north, east, and west—White and its massive vertical offers just about as grueling a climb as can be had in North America. Thankfully there is also the south approach, via White Mountain Road, which will today zip hiking partner Trevor Benedict and I from our sea level city up to 11,700 feet in a scant few hours.
From there we'll park my car at the locked Barcroft gate and walk along a true Class 1 road all the way to White Mountain's 14,246-foot summit (bicycles optional).
What could possibly go wrong? Well, aside from White's somewhat longish 7-mile trek, one-way, the big threat is the quick elevation gain. You couldn't build a better laboratory to deliver a debilitating dose of altitude sickness.
For my own preparations, I've spent the past two weeks frolicking in the cool pines of Flagstaff, Arizona, elevation 7000 feet, plus a few days of smog exposure back home in L.A.
My hope is that this pre-acclimatization preparation will not only prevent me from getting struck by A.M.S. myself but will also counterbalance the inarguably superior fitness regimen of my partner Trevor, who would otherwise run circles around me, all things being equal. For now, driving above 9K, I seem to be breathing easy, but there's a long way to go. So: we'll see.
After the long and dusty drive up White Mountain Road, we park at the Barcroft gate and stretch our legs. My first impression is that this sunny September day is colder than expected. The air, too, seems a little thin. How much clothes to bring? We're starting this hike at a very lazy 2 p.m. The late start is intentional, in hopes of catching sunset glows over the Sierra as we're hiking back down.
Located in the lee shadow of the great Sierra to the west, White Mountain features one of the most exotic climates on Earth. Where you'd normally expect Alpine forests and streams there is only barren, high-altitude desert. At high noon the whole place is chalky-dry, with the flat, featureless look of an over-exposed photograph. Unique, to say the least. Last-minute sunscreen goes on exposed skin. I lace up my shoes, grab my hat and sunglasses, ready to begin.