Tramping the High Sierra, California

September 4-16, 2008

The Sierra Crest and the Owens Valley at Sunrise, viewed from the White Mountains.








The White Mountains, due east of Bishop California, made a good acclimatization stop before backpacking into the alpine country of the high sierra. We spent a few days camped at BLM's grandview campground and toured the stark highlands and bristlecone pine forests.

The famed Methuselah Bristlecone Pine Tree in the White Mountains is the oldest known living tree on the planet at nearly 4800 years. The bristlecones don't look so impressive at first glance, but they grow very slowly and the wood is extremely dense -- so dense it rings like a bell! The dead wood weathers to a beautiful golden-orange color and can remain intact for thousands of years in this arid environment. Their range once spread across the great basin, but now they are found only at these isolated high altitude ecological "islands".

Sadly, just one day before we arrived, the Schulman Grove Visitor Center burned to the ground. All that was left by the time we got there was a pile of charred timber and twisted metal. Several friends had mentioned that this visitor center was world class and a must-see.

The cause of the burn is still under investigation, but arson is suspected. There has been a lot of vandalism in the area recently: the nearby White Mountain Research Summit Lab was trashed and numerous vehicles were broken into at trailheads near Big Pine and Bishop. Some believe angry anti-wilderness locals are responsible, in reaction to proposed additions to nearby Table Mountain Wilderness.

Whatever the cause, plans are already afoot to rebuild a new center, to be opened in 2010. This month is also the 50-year anniversary of the establishment of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, protecting this important ecosystem!




Somehow twenty(!) years have slipped by since we last backpacked in the High Sierra. Finally, we have returned to that magical world of granite, alpine meadows, and sparkling lakes.

At the trailhead we were both feeling our age and some pain in our knees, wondering if maybe we're getting too old for this sort of thing. Just then, two guys came ambling down the trail, at the end of their five-day backpacking trip. We got to talking about life, hiking, and aging -- soon we discovered they were 68 and 79, and still going strong. Sure hope we'll still be up here when we get into our 70's...




Our six-day backpacking adventure took us over the 11,500' Piute Pass and into the Humphreys Basin -- ringed by many 13,000'+ peaks of the Glacier Divide and the sierra crest, including 13,986' Mount Humphreys. Most of the one hundred or so lakes here are off the main trails, so we were able to find plenty of solitude and room for one of our all-time favorite activities -- cross-country rambling in what one fellow hiker (who was here on his seventh visit) called a granite "playground".














Our resident dragonfly remained perched on his granite wall above our tent all night until the arrival of the morning sun.



A full moon rises over Mount Humphreys.

A cold sunrise on the Granite Divide.


After a six-day news blackout, we returned to our waiting car and turned on the radio, happy to pick up NPR's All Things Considered all the way from the bay area. While we were blissfully tramping the backcountry, it seems the world financial system was busy crashing! The largest bankruptcy in US history in Lehman Brothers, insurance giant AIG about to go under, Bank of America buying Merrill Lynch, the DOW dropping 504 points. What a day! For some reason, I couldn't help thinking of that Twilight Zone episode where the guy wakes up one day to find the streets completely deserted and wanders around trying to figure out what's going on...



Back to reality...On our way through Yosemite Park over Tioga Pass, we noticed a trail on the map that seemed like it would give a good view of Yosemite Valley. So we did a day hike to the top of North Dome from the Tioga road (9 miles round trip). Wow what a view -- highly recommended!

North Dome sits directly across from Half Dome with Tenaya Canyon and the Merced River winding far below.

From the top, we casually watched thunderstorms across the valley as they drifted over the nearby peaks. Quite suddenly, one moved into our neighborhood and we were hit by mighty wind gusts that threatened to blow us off our dome. We crouched down, bracing with handholds on the rock, as sand and debris blew over our heads and into our faces and raindrops pelted the ground. Yikes, an exciting ten minutes there!