Lifeless, motionless, and odorless, the land above the tree line is a stark landscape of clear skies, intense sun, and thin air. To acclimatize for our upcoming Mt. Whitney attempt, we entered this barren and breathtaking world on three training hikes of increasing altitude and elevation gain. The contrasting hikes included a steep ascent of a mammoth volcano, a climb along the spine of the Sierra Crest, and a long trek to the top of an exposed high desert mountain.
On our initial crossing of the tree line, we slayed the scary-sounding Dragon’s Back Trail to the 11,053-foot (3,370 m) volcanic summit of Mammoth Mountain. On the steep relentless trail, we met an older gentleman who had hiked Mt. Whitney more than 40 times. Over a cup of hot tea in the summit lodge, he shared his experiences with us, and encouraged us toward our higher goal.
Upon reaching the summit of Mammoth Mountain, we were informed that we could ride the scenic gondola back down the mountain for free. Never ones to pass up an easy way out, we hopped into the small metal capsule, and suspended by a thread we descended back below the tree line.
On our second training hike, we reached altitude by first driving up a paved road to Mosquito Flat at an elevation of 10,272 feet (3,131 m), the highest designated trailhead in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. From there, we ascended the decomposed granite trail to the saddle of Mono Pass at an elevation of 12,077 feet (3,681 m).
The 8-mile (13-km) roundtrip hike passed through the John Muir Wilderness, and into a landscape of whitish vertical rock faces against concentrated blue skies. The panoramic vistas from the trail included the toothy Mt. Abbot mountain group, the serrated Sierra Crest, and an overview of brilliant Ruby Lake and the entire Little Lakes Valley.
For our final acclimatizing hike, we upped our game by making it to the top of White Mountain Peak, the third highest point in California at 14,252 feet (4,344 m). We began at a locked gate at 11,670 feet (3,557 m), walked along a four-wheel drive road past the University of California White Mountain Research Station, and followed the rocky trail all the way to the summit.
Light-headed, short of breath, and with tingling fingers, we stood on the top of the exposed desert mountain peak, and looked across the Owens Valley at Mt. Whitney itself, just 253 feet (77 m) above our heads. With new-found confidence after climbing our first 14er, we have now clearly set our sights on our ultimate goal of reaching the highest point in the contiguous United States.
Returning to the timberline of the White Mountains, we were greeted by a forest of stunted and gnarly Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva), the oldest living non-clonal organisms on Earth. Alive for over 5,000 years, these ancient trees flourish and succeed at this extreme elevation in the hard dolomitic rock, devoid of water, shade, and competition.
For us to flourish and succeed at high altitude, we went on three hikes to the timberline and beyond. Crossing into this lifeless landscape, under clear cloudless skies and the intense shadowless sun, we marched on as high as we could go. This Monday, we will attempt to go one step higher, to the summit of Mt. Whitney, and the crown of the Lower 48.