Hike-A-Bike in the White Mountains
Hike-A-Bike in the White Mountains: A wanton act of adventure goes terribly wrong.
I had just completed a guided ice climb in the Sierra Nevada, and had a couple free days to play, so I drove up into the White Mountains to do some bike riding. I hadn't been up there since I was young (25 years ago) and had very little information except that the main road traversed the ridge top.
Now, my typical MO is to go out and just explore randomly. I usually shun the map and compass, and I don't like to be too informed about a potential adventure - that's cheating!! In this case, my propensity toward 'getting lost' really got me into BIG trouble.
Saturday, September 25th, 1999
I found an acceptable campsite at about 11,400' level, just past the Patriarch Grove spur. I relaxed for a while, snacked, and prepared to ride. A few vehicles had passed my campsite, which was on a spur road leading east from the crest. This made me think it was worth exploring. At 3:30 PM I began to descend this road into a broad basin with bristlecone pines and aspens and meadows.
The Cottonwood Basin on the east side of the White Mountains
About a mile later I passed a nice old cabin made from bristlecone logs. It looked like it hadn't been used for some time. I snooped around and found a little trash here and there, but nothing very interresting. I continued downhill through the forest. The road became less steep and rocky, and the riding more enjoyable.
Soon I passed a couple and their 4x4 truck. The lady standing by the truck said I had reached a dead end. The road seemed to continue down the canyon, so I decided to check it out. Sure enough, about 200 yards later the road ended at a beautiful meadow. I hiked down the meadow, carrying my bike. The aspens surrounding the meadow were just turning yellow and orange. A small creek appeared, and I followed this to where it plunged through some huge boulders choking the canyon.
I dropped my bike above the boulders and scrambled down through a tunnel and into a dense grove of aspens. I figured this was probably the end of the line, so I was looking for a nice place to sit and rest. I passed through the grove and came upon a well-maintained trail. This was quite a pleasant surprise. I jogged down the trail for about 1/4 mile to check it out, and things seemed to be kosher. I returned to fetch my bike, then hit the trail. I figured the trail probably crossed one of the other roads dropping off the ridge. My optimism was already misleading me.
The trail was excellent! Beautiful straights lead through meadows ringed with aspens and bristlecones and large domes of black-and-tan granite. There were plenty of technical sections, riding over large flattish boulders in the trail, sharp corners, all kinds of difficulties.
It was getting late, and I still hadn't seen any sign of an escape route. I figured I had to be close, as I had been riding for quite a while. The trail began to peter out, and I kep loosing and relocating it. The creek crossings were becoming problematic, choked with willows and thorn bushes.
I passed a grave site, and while I can't remember the name (someone Avery, I think) I do remember the inscription - "Beloved husband and father - 1957-1989." By coincidence, my 32nd birthday was one day away. I spent a reverent moment reflecting on the transient nature of life, and wondered if he had died happy, or at least with dignity.
I kept going, now carrying the bike as much as riding it. The sun was nearly down, so I figured I'd probably be riding late into the night. Things just kept getting worse. The brush got thicker, and the trail had completely disappeared. Only faint game trails remained. After a while, I even lost any signs of the presence of range cattle.
By this point, I was so far into the canyon that I figured it must be easier to go down than back up. I took a header while crossing the creek, and the water was deep enough that I got totally soaked. It was almost dark, and I couldn't continue safely anymore. I found a nice wind-free place behind a pinyon pine and built a fire - time to bivouack.
Forced bivouacks are never pleasant. The idea is to rest as much as possible while remaining alert enough to stoke the fire. I ate some of the little food I had left, and finished off my water and some Tang. I now had to make a frightening decision. I had no water filter and no iodine, so I was forced to drink untreated water directly from the stream. As I write this, I am hoping desparately that I do not contract giardiasis or some other water-borne malady.
The night passed slowly. By 1:00 AM I was mostly dry, and slightly less uncomfortable. Once an hour I had to go out and look for more fire wood. Leaving the warmth of the fire was unpleasant, but not as cold as I expected. Near dawn, the temparature plummeted, and I began to get anxious. I was keeping an eye on my watch and the minutes were oozing by like cold molases.
A faint glow in the east propped up my hopes. As soon as I could see I packed up and headed down canyon again.
The thrashing seemed endless. The thorn bushes surrounding the creek got more dense. There were many ways to continue, but one way was just as bad as the other, each having it's own set of obstacles. Occasionally I would pass a fire ring, so I was still optomistic about reaching a road.
My bike had become my best friend and my worst enemy. I couldn't stand dragging it through the dense brush or up over rocky outcrops, and considered abandoning it. This would have been foolish, however, as I would have no transpo when (if) I reached a road. I ticked off the miles slowly.
The canyon seemed endless. Whenever I thought the end was in sight, I'd round a corner to find more bending canyon below. I was talking to myself - not simply muttering but yelling, cursing, whining, nearly crying, and generally jabbering in dismay. "Dammit!! I want outa here...please???"
I felt like I had been transported into Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" - the beauty of the canyon and the incredible harshness were battling for control of my emotions. I'll probably never view willows and alders as "pretty streamside vegitation" ever again. They now represent something evil and malicious for me. It seemed as if my surroundings were trying to beguile me into giving up and resigning to death by exhaustion.
When I had nearly run out of gumption, I finally happened upon a section of constructed trail. It wasn't new, and had not been maintained in a very long time. I carried my bike down a long staircase of crumbling granite blocks above the creek, then entered a meadow where I saw hopeful signs - many fresh cow turds. I never though I'd be so happy to see a pasture pastry!
The trail improved, and I was able to hop on the bike again. Although this part of the canyon had been badly overrun by cattle, it was quaint and beautiful. Little meadows and stands of cottonwood and alder offset the harsh desert on the walls of the canyon.
Eventually I reached a 4x4 road with obvious motorcycle tracks. HOORAY!! I must be near the end. I sped down the road, happy to be cruising again. As I descended, I passed several nice campsites in cottonwood and maple groves. I rounded a corner and nearly broadsided a large black cow. I said "Hi, cow" and kept going.
The canyon opened up and I entered a huge valley. There were farms on the floor of the valley, but not much else. These farms were surrounded by some of the most empty terrain I had ever seen. Nothing, nothing, and more nothing. The road finally ended at Highway 168, right at the Inyo-Mono County line at an elevation of 5300 feet. At last I knew where I was, and I didn't like it one bit.
I turned right and headed southwest towards the mountains again. I knew now that I had to climb up over Westgard Pass to get back to the White Mountain road. What I didn't know was that I also had to cross another pass, Gilbert Summit, just to get to the base of Westgard Pass. I reached the top of Gilbert, at 6300 feet, and began an excellent and very fast descent into Deep Springs Valley. I was horrified when I realized what I had to do. Deep Springs was down at an elevation of 5400 feet, so I had just lost all that I had gained by climbing Gilbert.
Riding across Deep Springs Valley was actually pleasant. The going was mostly downhill, and there was enough breeze to keep things bearable. There were beautiful desert mountains on all sides, rising abruptly. A large 'dry' lake was positioned at the base of the mountains to the southwest, with a large pool of water in the middle.
Soon this segue was past, and I began a grueling climb up an alluvial fan below Westgard Pass. The breeze died, and the temps were in the high 90s F. As I climbed, I would stop for passing pickups and try to hitch a ride - no takers. Two good samaritans in compact cars did pass, each giving me what water I could carry. The second of the two actually had ice water with ice in it!
I kept climbing up the canyon and soon was blessed with shade and a breeze. I was really getting cooked, and stopped for a major rest at about 6600 feet. While I rested, a guy in some kind of SUV passed and waved, then a second SUV behind him stopped to ask if I was OK. My answer, plain and simple, was "No, I'm not." He used the CB to call the guy ahead of him, who returned in a few minutes. They did a passenger swap and rearranged some gear, threw my bike in the back, and gave me a ride to the top of the pass and the start of the White Mountain road. " A THOUSAND THANK-YOU'S!!! BLESS YOU!! BLESS YOU!! YOU'VE SAVED MY LIFE!!"
At about 4:30 PM I reached the entrance station for the White Mountains. I rested for a while in the cool shade of pinyons, then began riding up the dreaded climb to the bristlecones.
I was alternately riding and walking for quite a while. I tried to hitch a ride again, but still no takers. At this point I was hoping a ranger would happen by in a nice big comfy pickup. No luck. I kept trudging.
Some hours later the twilight was deepening. I had just passed Sierra View and was resting next to a locked gate. Looking out over a huge portion of the Sierra crest I could see the glaciers faintly glowing against the dark backdrop of the peaks. I heard a large engine grinding up the hill below me. Hope returned, though it was tempered with pessimism. A large pickup rounded the corner below me, so I walked to the edge of the road and held out a thumb...
He stopped, opened his window, and asked how I was doing. The answer, again, was "Not so good..." He asked where I was headed, and I told him. We discussed campsites, and where the bristlecones were, and he agreed to give me a ride as far as Silver Canyon, which was almost half way to my camp.
As we drove up the road, we talked about all kinds of stuff. As it turned out, I had hitched a ride with a ranger. His name was Jeff, and he was a backcountry patrol ranger in Kings Canyon National Park. He was on vacation and had never seen the bristlecones. This was his primary interrest, and we talked a lot about what kind of vegitation, snow cover, etc., existed along the ridge, which groves were particularly interresting, where to camp near them. We passed Silver Canyon, and he didn't stop. I asked, not seriously, if he was going to drop me here. I was incredibly relieved when he said "Naw...I can give you a ride to your camp. It's OK."
We continued up the road, now talking about computers and the internet. He and his co-workers were far from any source of broadcast entertainment like radio and tv. He said that since the nearest Blockbuster was 3 hours from home, one of the rangers had taken to renting DVDs by mail - the disc arrives in the mail, watch the disc for about a week, then pop it in a return envelope and the deal's done.
We passed the spur road on which I was camped, and continued as far as the locked gate before I realized we had missed it. He turned around and soon I recognized the turnoff. Since my truck was only about 1/4 mile down this road, I said he could drop me here. We said goodbye, and he wished me luck. Again, "A THOUSAND THANK-YOU'S!!"
I hopped on my bike and slowly descended the moonlit road. Soon I could see the gleaming white shell on the top of my pickup. "Hi, twuck!" I called. I reached the truck and patted it on the flanks - "Boy, am I glad to see you!!!" I hopped in the back to escape the wind and cooked up a big pot of rice and almonds for dinner - YUM YUM!! Then I crawled into my nice comfy down sleeping bag and konked out for 10 hours.
At last, the adventure is over...