White Mountain Peak
By: Rich Henke
Timing is everything on a ski tour in the White Mountains. Early in the season, high winds and very low temperatures are commonplace. Late in the season when the weather is better, there is typically not enough snow for skiing. Although I had wanted to do a complete traverse of the Whites for many years, a combination of those factors always caused prospective trips to be canceled.
It appeared that 1995, the heaviest snow year since 1983, was the right time. We planned a late trip at the end of April, after the winter storms were gone. Heavy snow all year had left lots of white on the Whites.
On 27 April, Bryan Johnson and I left LA. and met Armando Menocal at Benton, about 40 miles northeast of Bishop. Our proposed route was to ski from south to north starting at Westguard Pass and finishing at Queen Canyon. We would ski past Bancroft Laboratory, over White Mountain (about hallway through the tour in distance), along the high 13,000 foot ridge north of White Mountain, over Montgomery Peak and Boundary Peak, and finally down a long ridge to our waiting car in Queen Canyon.
After leaving a car in Queen Canyon we drove to Westguard Pass and were able to drive 9 miles to Sierra View at 9,400 feet before reaching a locked gate. From Sierra View, we had 51 miles to ski in 4 days. We started walking along the road early the next morning and were able to start skiing after 1 1/2 miles. We skied along the road under cloudy skies with light wind conditions. The snow covered Sierras were visible to the west. They were covered with high clouds also which did not give us much confidence for good weather. That night we camped near the Patriarch Grove on the snow covered road, surrounded by bristle cone pines.
The following morning we continued towards the Bancroft Laboratory, but by the time we arrived, the winds had increased and were quite heavy. We had lunch inside the unoccupied laboratory, just to get out of the wind for a while. We continued on toward White Mountain with the winds getting progressively worse as we climbed. A gust knocked two of us to the ground simultaneously. It was clear we had to find a sheltered place to camp. We were at 13,000 feet and hoped to avoid the strong west wind by skiing around to the east side of the peak. No such luck. We encountered steep cliffs, while still in the main force of the wind. We descended several hundred feet to a saddle east of White Mountain and found a flat spot where we thought the wind was lighter.
We pitched Bryan's 4 person, 4 season Bibler tent. This is a very comfortable tent for 3 people, weighing less than 6 pounds. However, when Bibler called this a 4 season tent he must have excluded the White Mountain winds. An hour later as we were busily melting snow in our hanging stove, the wind gusts resumed. It was unfortunate that we did not have 4 people in the tent because that way we would have had one person to hold a pole in each of the 4 corners. With only 3 people, one of us had to hold on to 2 poles. Even with our efforts, the tent buckled as the heavy gusts hit. We estimated them at near 70 mph. Finally the wind abated somewhat, and we were able to finish dinner. For entertainment, we read out loud, Galen Rowell's account of the first winter traverse of the Whites in 1973, a trip from north to south which took 16 days. We managed to sleep without having to sit in the comers of the tent. It snowed much of the night with 'light' winds in the 30-40 mph range. In the morning, conditions were no better; little visibility, light snow, and incessant wind. Halfway through our tour in terms of distance, we decided to retreat. We should have brought a stronger tent! Had we continued north, we would have encountered a difficult technical ridge, the crux of the trip, followed by many miles of skiing on an exposed 13,000 foot ridge. In addition, we would have had to climb over 2 high peaks to reach our car.
The ski out was anticlimactic. As we dropped down to below 11,000 feet, the winds abated and we managed to ski 17 miles on day 3. We reached our car early on day 4 and spent the next several hours collecting our second car at Queen Canyon.
We concluded that the secret to skiing the Whites is doing it when the winds aren't blowing. What isn't clear is how to determine when this might be. Maybe 1996 won't have winter storms in the last week of April.
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