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An Adventure in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

I wake with a start.  It is eerily quiet in the inky blackness of the, as yet, moonless night.  My mouth is parched and my head throbs with a dull ache.  Wondering what time it is, I fumble with the light on my watch to discover that it is only 9:30 PM.  In my sleepy state, it takes a few minutes to remember that I am in the White Mountains. I had come to photograph the ancient Bristlecone-Pines forest, home of the oldest living things on earth.  What I can’t figure out is; what possessed me to be here, at 11,000 feet, in a tent on the side of a mountain, at least four hundred steep feet below the nearest Bristlecone pine.  And worst of all, I can’t imagine how I’m going to get through this night. 

I have wanted to photograph in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine forests ever since seeing images of these incredible survivors taken by the late Galen Rowell.  The most impressive of which is a gnarled old tree growing on a barren, snow-covered landscape that was captured at the Patriarch grove – the higher of the two groves that make up the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.  Heading east from Big Pine – a small community on US 395, 14 miles south of Bishop, California, accesses both groves.  Over 26 steep miles, the road climbs from 4000 feet at the floor of the Owens Valley, to about 10,000 feet at Schulman grove, the first of the groves.  To reach Patriarch grove, situated at about 11,400 feet above sBristlecone Pines Image ID: apb002ea level, requires an additional 12-mile surreal drive over a dirt road through a virtual moonscape. 

The White Mountains lie in the rain shadow of the much younger and much larger Sierra Nevada mountain range.  The Bristlecone Pines have adapted well to their dry, wind-swept habitat.  The oldest of them – the Methuselah tree – is over 4,700 years old.  Although they have a long lifespan, these trees don’t achieve the enormous dimensions   of their Sierra Nevada neighbors – the Giant Sequoia.  These hardy survivors grow less than one inch per year over their lifetime.  They survive on the tiny amount of precipitation that escapes the grasp of the Sierras.  Most of this precipitation comes in the form of snowfall.  When the snows come - the road to the groves closes, to be reopened only after the snow has melted – usually sometime in June.  

Starting in May, I began calling the road condition hotline weekly.  I was anxious to drive up on the first weekend that the road was open.  My hope was that I would arrive while there was still snow on the ground.  I now realize; that was wishful thinking.  The first week of June good news finally arrived; the road was scheduled to open the coming weekend.  I made plans to leave early on that Saturday morning from my home near the coast of the Pacific Ocean in Orange County, CA.  One can't camp within the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest so I needed to get a permit to camp just outside the forest boundaries.   Bishop, about a five-hour drive from home, is headquarters to the White Mountain ranger station where I would get the needed permits.  Arriving in time for breakfast, I picked up the permit and continued my journey upward. 

 The only campground in the area lies at about 9,000 feet. I stopped briefly to scout it out and, for just a moment, considered spending the night there rather than in the backcountry at the higher elevation.  Continuing on up the steep road a few miles further brought me to the Schulman grove.  This grove lies at the end of the paved road.  I checked in with the Ranger on duty at the visitor center and inquired about the road conditions and the best location to set up camp for the night.  The road, I was told, was open except for the last half-mile before the Patriarch grove parking lot.  “Just park on the roadside,” I was told.  And off I went. 

Veering onto the dirt road, I was greeted by a beautifully surreal landscape. Low-growing sage carpeted the tree-barren rolling hills over the entire course of the meandering road.  It took an hour to negotiate the twelve miles to the grove.  Upon reaching the section of closed road, I found that someone had previously set aside the barricades and plunged on through the last small patch of snow thBarren Landscape Image ID: abp-sage01at remained.  Feeling that I caught a break, I followed the tracks through the snow.  Mine was the only vehicle in the parking lot.  I quickly threw what I needed – and then some – into my backpack and attached a few extra liters of water and my tripod onto the outside of the pack.  I wasn’t very selective and brought much more gear than I needed because I was in a hurry and only needed to hike about a mile.  All told, the pack weighed about 80 pounds.  Consulting my map and compass, I turned on the tracking feature of my GPS unit and set off in the direction of camp. 

Patriarch Grove sets atop the crest of a steep mountain.  Heading toward camp, the rocky terrain quickly receded before me.  After a short while I began searching for a flat area to pitch my tent.  The search proved elusive and as I continued lower and lower.  Finally finding a spot to camp, I shucked off my pack only to find that the weight of the extra water bottles had unzipped a flap on the pack and the contents had scattered behind me..   Already tired from the search for camp, I grabbed the GPS and proceeded to backtrack looking for the lost gear.  The scramble back up the loose rocks proved exhausting as I trekked all the way back to my car without finding the pack's lost contents.  So, turning around, I headed back to camp.  I was completely done in by the time I made it back.  Through pure force of will, I set up the tent.  I didn’t feel well and suddenly realizing that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast that morning, I decided to fix a pot of noodles and then rest a bit before heading back up the mountain for some evening photography.  By the time the noodles were ready, I could Barely choke them down.   Abandoning my plans for photography that evening, I settled for the comfort of my sleeping bag by crawling in.  

Two hours later I awoke in the pitch-blackness of the tent.  Guzzling water to quench my thirst, I contemplated my situation.  I have read numerous books on mountaineering since being enthralled with the adventure depicted into Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air – the story about nine people who died in a sudden storm on Mt. Everest in May 1996.  I recognized my current state as the symptoms of hypoxia – altitude sickness.  At altitude the air is much thinner than at sea level.  I had gone from sea level to over 11,000 feet in just a few hours.  Now my oxygen-starved brain was starting to play tricks on me.  I became delusional, imaging all sorts of irrational scenarios.  At one point I became terrified that in the event I managed to make it back to my car, I wouldn’t be able to negotiate the patch of snow that I had earlier plunged through.  In my delusional state, I imagined that because the road was uphill, I would lose control going through the snow patch and careen into the adjacent gully and I wouldn’t be found for days.  I also panicked that I would never be able to carry all that gear back up the steep talus to the car.  I gulped down more water and tried to sleep, hoping my anxieties would be chased away by sleep.  But sleep wouldn't come. 

Minutes seemed like hours.  I yearned for the moon to erase the blackness of the night.  But that was not to happen for hours.  There were endless cycles of drinking water and relieving myself.  I tried to pass time reading but couldn’t concentrate.  I prayed for sleep that wouldn’t come.  Finally the moon peaked over the crest of the mountain above me but by then it was of little consolation.  After what seemed like hours, I decided to document my predicament by photographing my campsite by the light of the moon.  Setting up the camera was a chore and trying to figure out how to work the tiBristlecone Pine Camp Image ID: abp-camp02mer on my watch was impossible.  I managed to capture just one image before finally giving up.

 After midnight I came up with a plan to get back to the car in the morning.  I would head out of camp early in the morning with only my camera equipment and then after shooting the Bristlecone Pines at sunrise leave the equipment at the car and return for the camping gear.  I spent the next hour meticulously arranging my camera equipment for the morning trek, set my alarm for 4:30 AM and once again tried to sleep.  After a time, sleep finally came.  The alarm jolted me from sleep and I peeked through the tent flap.  What I saw was too much for my oxygen-starved brain to handle.  The sun was rising in the north!  I knew that I was confused but I felt sure which direction was east.  I knew in which direction the car was so I consulted the GPS to confirm that I was right.  I was wrong and it was too much to deal with so I lay back down and drifted off to sleep.  A few hours later I dragged myself out of the bag and mustered the will to head back to the car.  Now that my plan was blown, I resigned myself to the fact that I must carry all of my stuff out in one trip.  Slowly the tent came down and the pack was filled all the while mulling over what seemed like a life or death decision;  Do I carry some of the water to drink on the hike back, or do I pour it all out to save weight.  Agonizing over the choices, I finally gulped down all the water that I could drink, poured out the rest, and headed up the mountain in the direction my GPS indicated. 

Sometime later I arrived at the parking lot relieved to see another car parked there.  Once at the car, I downed more water and found the other visitor.  After a short conversation I learned that he had come up to the grove and was getting ready to head back down to the valley.  I was still terrified that I wouldn’t make it past the snow patch so I rushed to make sure that I left before him.  As it turned out, I had nothing to be concerned about.  What should have been a seven-hour drive home took ten hours with frequent stops to guzzle more water and relieve myself.  Finally home at sea level, I was starting to feel a little better and after recounting my adventure to my brother-in-law who was staying at my house, I crawled into bed and enjoyed a sound night’s sleep.  Reflecting on my experience, I am surprised by the intensity of the emotions I felt during the long night.  I am also amazed that understanding what was happening and knowing that my mind was playing tricks did little to lessen the intensity of the experience.

 


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