California is experiencing a seriously dry winter right now. I believe we had 3% of our normal December precip in San Jose. January has been completely dry. The mountain passes are still open (record setting dates) and there are only pitiful patches of snow from earlier small storms in the high country. Ski resorts aren’t able to make enough snow and businesses are suffering.
While everyone frets about water resources and reschedules ski vacations, we decided to embrace the dry and try something I didn’t think I’d ever do: climb a 14er in January. California has fifteen peaks above 14,000 ft (summitpost page) of which I have climbed four. I’m planning on increasing that number this summer, but for this January adventure we decided to revisit arguably the easiest of them, White Mountain.
When there is no snow you can drive to the White Mountain trailhead at approximately 11,600 ft. That we did, taking the 4×4 Silver Canyon route from outside of Bishop. On Saturday morning at 8:30 am we met a group of friends at the trailhead and started off towards the peak. It is a 14 mile round trip to the 14,246 ft summit on an old road. The lack of route finding and gradual grades makes it an easy hike by sea level standards, but of course the altitude makes it more difficult.
The day started off sunny and beautiful, and the 27 degree air temperature was reasonable for hiking. In fact, although we were cold at the trailhead it was a short distance of hiking before I removed layers and felt quite comfortable. That lasted for two miles. As we passed the Barcroft research facility (all boarded up and empty for the winter) the wind picked up. As we crested the ridge behind the facility I stopped and put my layers back on, plus additional wind layers. I pulled out my Buff to cover my face.
We kept going and took a break behind a wind-blocking pile of rocks. Everyone was a bit frustrated by the cold and wind but was still in good spirits. We continued on.
At mile five and a half we reached the saddle below the summit. One and a half miles of switchbacks left. I could see the building on the top. But the wind, by this point, had sapped all of my energy. David was far ahead and I knew he’d make the summit. Everyone else caught up together and decided to turn around except for Greg who would try and catch up with David.
With the wind at our backs we hiked back to the cars. While it was a bummer not to reach the summit it was the right decision. Frostbite was a very real possibility – fortunately everyone took care of themselves and made correct decisions. David and Greg returned to the cars about half an hour after we got back and warmed up, David having successfully reached the summit.
David had his Kestrel weather station along and reported that he measured the air temp as 10 degrees, windchill as -19.4 degrees, and sustained winds at 40mph. Very different than the conditions under which I first hiked this peak in July of 2002!
I’m really glad we got out and tried this hike in January. It was a good reminder that winter is more than snow and you have to be prepared for cold and wind even when it is dry. It’s easy to look at the sunny skies and dry terrain and think it will be easy, but this hike was anything but. Still, it’s an adventure that I’ll remember for a long time – longer than many of my successful climbs.