White Mountains Backpack July 2>3, 2006

This recent Independence Day holiday, my friend Doug and I began a 5-day road trip Thursday evening to east of the Sierra, concentrating on a few days in the ancient bristlecone pine forests of the White Mountains, part of Inyo National Forest. We had made the long 400 mile drive in my disgustingly dirty Subaru sedan from the SF Bay Area to the end of the paved road at the Schulman grove by Friday afternoon. There we hiked out to a magnificent tree I had shot several years before with my 6x7 camera and he with 35mm. However since then both of us have armed ourselves with 4x5 view cameras as our end vision passion is making large prints. That evening we drove further north on the very bumpy dirt road to a legal area we often sleep at out of the reserve near the famous Patriarch Grove. The next morning we had another successful session at that grove. The above 4x5 image on the Provia 100F film I use is representative of the upper bristlecone forest timberline. One frustration that would dog us during our roadtrip were clouds to the east blocking the sunrise. Gathering our gear we drove off to an obscure area, parked my car, packed our gear, then set on out for a remote location with gnarly bristlecone pines I'd explored in 1990 and expected to return to some day. In order to protect the location, I purposely have not shown landscapes below that might give the area away to others. Having spent hours stumbling up and down for miles among remote White Mountain ridges and canyons, often without finding any interesting trees, I'd rather others enjoy finding places like this on their own. The area is vast with far more to explore than I'll ever see in my lifetime even if I someday move to Bishop.


Of note, one cannot even park a car overnight within the large designated boundaries of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest that is part of Inyo National Forest, much less camp or backpack overnight. Thus to avoid doing so one must find a parking spot outside the reserve and then target a location outside the reserve where those pines grow. There are vast areas outside the reserve and White Mountain Peak is an example many overnight summit at. However there are no trees anywhere near the summit as is the case for much of the top ridgeline areas of the range. However there are bristlecones in localized zones all the way north to Boundary Peak and south along the crest of the Inyo Range.


The route was not too tricky but did require up and down through unstable small dolomite talus. Since this was both our first backpacking trips of 2006, we were not yet acclimated to the 11,000 foot plus altitude, and I was still a bit weak from a rare cold the previous week, we took our time stopping several times along the way and snapping digital camera pics. There were growing clouds all this partly cloudy day. A thunderstorm late afternoon did provide some lightning in the distance. At the 11k altitude temps were just in the 60s midday though the sun was intense especially in the bright white dolomite geology. I did not expect to find any liquid water so we both carried two quarts of water. However there would be small snowfields about at this time of year that we were able to easily melt snow from with the intense sunshine.

Bristlecone pines, pinus longaeva, are the world's oldest single trunk trees with some in the Schulman Grove over 4000 years old. Leafless still standing dead snags on these slopes have been dated by dendrocrinologists to over twice that age. The wood is able to last that long because it is hardened by pitch. Bristlecones thrive on outcrops of sterile white dolomite geology which is metamorphosized limestone that accumulated along seashores just like they do today in corral reefs. In this case, the outcrops are some of the oldest rocks in North America from the Cambrian Period a half a billion years ago. The most magnificent trees I look for are those that occur in the less dense timberline slopes at the extreme elevation limits of the forest. There the tree spacing is sparse enough that I can more easily isolate them in an image. That is also where the extreme elements of intense high altitude sun, winds, wintry blowing snow crystals, and summer thunderstorm hails carve the wood chip by chip, molecule by molecule, over great lengths of time into elegant works of natural art. The small stony white dolomite rocks that cover this alpine world are interspersed with numerous wind stunted belly flowers, lichens, and turf that only are apparent at close distances.


As we reached the destination, it might as well have been my first time there as I had but vague memories of my earlier visit 16 years ago. We were both quite excited seeing the trees as it is every bit as magnificent a grove as the Patriarch Grove though much smaller. And it is also absolutely pristine. Very very few people backpack in the White Mountains mainly because it is like similar backpacking out in desert areas with little water except at narrow windows while snow is still melting. Within a short time I found a nice spot to camp beneath a group of three trees, one being a gnarly old snag. Both of us were simply using our bivy's atop blue plastic tarps. An occasional large mosquitoes did visit us about every half-hour at night so we had to sleep with nets as I hate waking up after being dined on by those blood suckers that are certain to result later in itchy welts. In this picture we had made our lunch, then both of us retired midday into our sleeping bags to nap an hour. The next picture is our camp from the other direction, showing our old snag with my white Ursack food bag hanging from a branch between the right gap in the trunk. Although most of the dolomite stones were small, others were up to tv-sized and not always white. Some of those below the trees of our campsite had a beautiful pastelpeach and rose color and many throughout the area had patches of colorful orange lichen.


Later in the afternoon we set out with our weighty large format camera gear. We walked around interesting looking trees, moving about evaluating good perspectives to frame each tree, then considering what time of day each would receive best light. We stopped at a particularly magnificent tree, maybe the most ancient of the grove, likely having seen millenniums. It had a wide trunk though only of modest height that was obviously due to its wind.


At that point in the afternoon, the otherwise harsh sun had lowered enough that we began taking a few images. My third image turned out to be particularly fine. The snag had a long branch reaching out to one side that appeared as though several whimsical creatures were riding its back so I named it "Riding the Beast". It framed other trees and snags below the limb in the background. The last of the characters at left seemed to be almost missing the ride as it clasped a long branch-like arm around the base of the trunk to hang on. The wood of this long branch had long linear ridges and grooves like those carved by a master woodworker that were polished to glow with a shiny finish in the sun. At the base a small curving root in the foreground looked like a front leg angling back to a foot. After setting up and framing the shot, I waited a bit for clouds in the background to slowly move to an aesthetic position under the branch before actuating the shutter release that exposed my sheet of film.


Again at midday we retired to our shady camp area, cooked our lunches, and then took pleasant naps. High southern monsoonal clouds had been increasing all day creating a high blanket across the range. To the north a thunderstorm built up. We located some particularly good groups of trees to photograph however the clouds never gave us a chance for any more wider landscape images. Instead I went to work with my digital camera including taking some pictures of the most spectacular weathered branch I've ever seen. Bristlecone wood often erodes into a surface of yellowish orange rock hard half inch or less small ridges and grooves. The most interesting structures occur when the wood finally becomes so thin that the ridges and grooves become separated by air. One upright shaft of wood coming out of a severely eroded trunk at shoulder height had a head-like feature with an eye, nose, mouth, and a modern 21st century hairdoo Bart Simpson wood be proud of. I mean would be proud of. :)


Well before sunset, the sun dipped below the ridge to the west. At dusk I found a tree to attempt a photograph with the rising pink earth shadow. However focusing a view camera in dim light is difficult and the night wedge changes quickly minute by minute requiring a continually changing exposure setting that is further complicated with a view camera in having to mechanically deal with the film holder. The top of the White Mountains is one of the best places for dawn, sunrise, sunset, and dusk because elevations are high and the air is dry with little water vapor in the air. Thus sky colors have a potential to be magnificent. After the trip my film for the two sheets I exposed showed the foreground focus too soft though I'd managed to get the tricky exposure right. Back at our camp we made dinner and discussed what to do? During the afternoon we'd located a fine tree to catch the sunrise alpenglow in the morning so made plans to shoot that the next morning. We'd found some excellent afternoon subjects but the clouds had made exposing any sheets futile. Our plan had been to photograph this area the next morning and then hike back out then drive back down to Bishop. We considered our food resources and easily had enough to stretch out another night. There was also a snowfield not far from our camp that took care of our water needs. Thus we went to sleep with a new plan.

Each night of the trip, one of my chores before going to sleep is changing my sheet film in a small light impervious black plastic bag. I recall doing so looking up through the long pine needle branches above my head with tiny stars coming through the gaps. I'd always wanted to do a bristlecone pine backpack and this was a magnificent location to be enjoying it. Looking up at the Universe at such high clear elevations, it has an immensity and grandeur that provoked feelings I know my ancestors must also have felt back through ages far beyond even these trees I was intimately communing with. We are not alone and someday yes... That done sleep came quickly and soundly that night, as the area was nicely quiet. While wondering awake during one interval of the night I'd decided on a better plan to still leave the next day except that we would do so just before sunset thereby getting another chance for photography during the afternoon.

As dawn rose, we did likewise and were frustrated to see yet another blanket of monsoonal clouds to the east blocking our second straight sunrise. Once the sun rose above the cloud bank, we began taking images of favored trees we'd surveyed, one of which was the below that I've named "Riding the Dinosaur" because it looks like whimsical characters riding on the back of a dinosaur with a curving tail towards the camera. Below the snag one will note some of the pinkish dolomite I mentioned earlier that was also about our camp trees. Beyond, on a starkly surreal dolomite hill, a few other long dead skeletons er trees, forever bare witness to the Universe each night and photonic bullets of day. Appropriately a very healthy baby dinosaur er bristlecone below added a wonderful live green extremely contrasting dimension to my otherwise stark frame.


After exposing sheets on more bristlecones, the sun had risen enough that light was getting harsh. Once again we passed away some hours relaxing at our sleeping bags in cool shade. When the afternoon arrived, so had yet another band of monsoonal clouds though not enough that we gave up. Consequently we managed to expose a few modest images before packing up and leaving as the sun went over the ridge. The route back to my car went slowly and uneventfully. Well my feet were sore as they always are on the first summer trip carrying my huge pack weight. Stubborn as we were, we drove back over to the Patriarch Grove hopefully to take an image at the top of this page at sunrise. However the morning of July 3, was a repeat of the others so we simply got in the car and drove down to the Owens Valley where we first enjoyed soaking awhile at Keough Hot Springs before driving into Bishop to regroup. Later after returning home and receiving back my film, three of the above transparencies were fine enough that they are likely to be drum scanned, Photoshop processed, master printed, and show up on my website as available large fine print images. And both of us have enough of the bristlecone "bug" still in us that we are likely to revist the area this coming fall during our usual Eastern Sierra fall aspen road trip. That's fine though as many of the bristlecones have a better orientation with an October sun and the atmosphere is more often clear. ...David Senesac

   David Senesac

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