Bristlecone Pines...There's many different reasons to bag a summit...
White Mountain is often an under-appreciated 14er in California, even though it's the state's 3rd highest. It doesn't have the stand-alone majestic grandeur of Shasta. It's not in the Sierra with all the others. It's the shortest hike for a California 14er, and there's a fire road to the top.
But for the last weekend of June 2008, White Mountain was the perfect peak for my son and me. We were looking for a high, nearby (relatively speaking) peak where we could do his 4th grade science project. For him, it would be a tough but reasonable hike to do... his longest and highest hike yet... and his first 14er.
White Mountain also had the added attraction of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Kids love seeing something that is the highest or biggest or mostest or leastest... and this grove of wind-blown, weather-worn trees offered the oldest... something even big kids like me love to see.
On Friday, we drove 5 hours up 395 to Big Pine and then on up Hwy 168 and White Mtn road. We got to the trees late in the afternoon, but still with plenty of time to do the 4-mile walk on the Methuselah Grove trail. The path leads you to the grove where many 3,000+ year old trees still stand, more than 20 of which are 4,000+ years old. Of course, the Methuselah Tree itself is not identified to protect it from the public, but we sure had fun trying to guess which one it might be. Of course, the great irony of the bristlecone pines is that in 1964 a grad student studying the trees cut down an old one on Wheeler Peak (in Nevada) only to discover later that he had cut down the oldest one! (The Prometheus Tree dated to be at least 4,862 years old, possibly older.)
As we walked among the bristlecones, it was interesting to see small, young seedlings sprouting up. It made me wonder if 4,000 years from now another father and son would be walking in this area remarking, Wow, what an old tree.
Even though my son is only 9 years old, he's a pretty smart kid. He remarked, "And Dad, I know you didn't plant these because then they wouldn't be the oldest living things."
With such resounding confidence in my youthfulness, I decided to cook him dinner and let him sleep in my tent. :-)
Boiling Water...The main goal of our trip up White Mountain was to do his science project for the upcoming school year. Parents of school kids know how stressful it can get lining up a reasonable and doable project for school. And of course, there's always the friendly competition with the other kids in the class to encourage a creative and unique science project.
Before heading to the mountains, we had read that water boils at 1 degree less for every 500' of altitude gain... and that would be our mathematical hypothesis. It would be interesting to see how it turned out.
On Friday night at Grandview Campground (elev. 8,600') we did our first experiment. My son, who loves math, calculated that the water should boil at 195° (i.e., 212° - 17°). We set up the backpacking stove, and voila, the water came to a full boil at 195°. Pretty cool.
Saturday morning would be our big hike. Before starting, we drove to the Visitor Center parking lot at 10,200'. My son had calculated that the water would boil at 192° (i.e., 212° - 20°). Sure 'nough, water boiled at that temperature. So far so good.
Now to the trailhead. It takes nearly an hour to drive out the winding dirt road to the Barcroft Gate. When you get there, you can't see the summit of White Mountain, and won't until nearly halfway there on the hike. Only then you realize, wow, most of the elevation gain (at least 2,300' of it) is in the last 1½ miles.
So my son and I started off. I was carrying the backpack that carried food, water, cold-weather clothes, and the science project stuff. The first mile is a little steep, but after that the road meanders up and down for 4½ miles without gaining much more elevation. When we got above the Barcroft Research Station, we boiled water at 12,500'. And it boiled at 187° just as he had calculated.
My son was getting tired in the thin air on the uphill grades. But I let him set the pace and take as many rest breaks as he wanted. If he wanted to turn back, that would be his call. But he's a very driven, goal-oriented, competitive kid. (I don't know where he gets that.) A few times, I thought he might say, Enough. But he surprised me. After a rest break, he suddenly looked up, smiled, and said, "Let's knock this sucker out." I couldn't help but laugh at him.
The last big obstacle was a huge, deep snowfield high on the mtn that covered the trail for about 200 yds. We met one hiker coming down who turned around at that point (only 200' from the summit). My son told me later that he thought we wouldn't make it. But I've been on enough peaks to know there was probably an alternate route around it. So it turned into a class-2 climb through the scree at 14,000'. And we made it.
By the time we summitted, word had already spread among those on top that a 9yo boy was on his way up. When we got there, everyone was congratulating him and raving about his hiking ability. And he loved every minute of it.
He was so exhausted that he laid down and quickly fell sound asleep. I let him nap as long as he wanted. The sky was cloudless so we had no storms to beat back to the car. After he had slept and ate, we boiled some more water. Sure 'nough, it boiled at 184° just as he calculated.
At this point, I was wondering how tired he would be for the 7-mile return to the car. But he had recharged his batteries. He talked my ear off on the way back. He was joking and goofing around just like his old normal, playful self... and he rarely took a rest break (except on a couple of steep climbs on the return). I was amazed because this was 6 miles farther than he had ever gone before, and he had rarely been anywhere near this altitude.
And so we did do his science project, testing the boiling temperature at 8,600' and 10,200' and 12,500' and 14,256'. And our working hypothesis was shown correct. The water boiled at 195°, 192°, 187°, and 184°(respectively). It was a really cool experiment for this upcoming school year.
I was very, very proud of my son. I think he learned some huge lessons about self-discipline and pressing on, even when you're tired. I've never seen him more exhausted in my life. But as I mentioned, I never pushed him or urged him to go on. We did it at his pace and he led the way.
And now this only fueled his addiction to hiking. We camped Saturday night at Lonepine Campground near Whitney Portal (the gateway to Mt Whitney). In the morning, he specifically wanted me to take him up to Whitney Portal and take his picture at the trailhead because he wants to hike Whitney as soon as he is big enough. (He does realize it's a longer hike, with more elevation, to a higher altitude.) Of course, this doesn't surprise me. Near the end of our hike to/from White Mtn on Saturday, he remarked (in all seriousness), "That was a nice little hike." I thought, "little"? Makes me wonder what's in store ahead for him.