The locks are coming off for the bi-annual Open Gate Days at White Mountain Research Station (WMRS). It’s not exactly Wille Wonka opening the doors to the Chocolate Factory, but the open gate is a golden ticket for hikers and peak baggers looking to scale White Mountain Peak. The gates will open at 6:30 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 26, and again on Sept. 6. The annual open house to the facilities has been canceled this year due to lack of staffing.
The open gate, which allows parking at Barcroft Station at 12,470 feet, shaves 4 miles off the 14-mile round trip summit journey. White Mountain Peak dominates the range east of the Owens Valley, and at 14,242 feet, claims rank as third highest in the state.
It’s a popular mountain scaled by hundreds of hikers annually. An article from the Inyo Register in 1888 chronicles the first all-female ascent of the peak guided by Shepherd Jean Blanc, for which the road in the Owens Valley is named.
There is a summit hut on top, actually a laboratory, one of the highest elevation laboratories on the planet. Currently there is also a weather station and equipment collecting other atmospheric data, according to Jeremiah Eanes, Operations Manager for WMRS.
Daniel Pritchett, System Administrator and IT Specialist for WMRS and unofficial historian for the facilities, shared the story of the summit hut.
The U.S. Navy was the first to dream up a laboratory on White Mountain Peak. The Navy’s intent was to study solar radiation and sun spots. But given the stony terrain and harsh elements above 12,500 feet, a road only made it to the base of the peak in 1948.
In about 1950, however, a high-altitude physiologist, Nello Pace, resurrected the idea of constructing a high-altitude research facility. In the summer of 1951, he received a government grant and work commenced on the Barcroft facility.
Pace, regarded as the founder of White Mountain Research Station and namesake of the Pace Laboratory at Barcroft Station, also wanted to study from up high and lobbied for the building of the road to the top and the summit hut. A grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1955 provided the needed funds, Pritchett explained.
Pritchett said the construction crew had a heck of a time trying to get the road built, struggling to meet contract specifications on road width and the diameter of the switchbacks. The rocky summit block proved too much for the bulldozer trying to plow a road up. To cut the road, the bulldozer reached the summit first and then plowed down.
The contractors also made the summit hut too small, and UCLA threatened to sue and pull out of the whole project, but it was eventually completed. That same year, 1955, people began staying at the summit as high-altitude physiology test subjects.
The NSF granted more money in 1957 to hook Barcroft and the summit hut to the electrical grid, complete with overhead power-lines going all the way to the top. The winter at 14,000 feet quickly took down the lines, caking them in ice.
The summit has a history, too. Pritchett explained there was once a large cairn, or stone monument, more than five feet tall as early as 1953, before hut construction. The 1888 article says the cairn had been re-built in 1882. Pritchett said he’s still trying to find out by whom and when the cairn was erected.
A construction crew from the Crooked Creek Research Station in the Bristlecone Pine Forest, they called themselves “Dingos,” spent several nights on the summit remodeling the inside in the early 1990s. A thunder bolt struck the hut one night. The bright blue flash traveling from one Dingo to the next, according to stories from Dingos, Dave Lee, Kevin Ball, Scott Houghton and others. Ask Jimmy Nelson from Big Pine about it sometime, but if he starts talking, get something to drink, because its going to be a while. Jimmy likes to talk.
John Christiana allegedly tried to burn down the summit hut in 2008, vandalizing the inside and emptying gas cans out on the floor and furniture. He later admitted to burning down the visitor’s center at Schulman Grove in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest down the road from the peak and was apprehended in Lone Pine carrying gas cans, dressed in black, loitering around Lone Pine High.
White Mountain is considered by many guidebook authors and climbers to be the easiest 14’er, or 14,000 foot peak, to climb in California. The approach is the crux of the climb, as the trail to the summit is actually an old Jeep road and reaching the top requires not much more than stamina and maybe a lunch.
The sunset shadow of White Mountain Peak stretches far into Utah. The view to the east spans from Lone Pine past Yosemite—nearly the entire Sierra Nevada range. Get to the top and see for yourself.
To get there, drive to Big Pine, turn east on Highway 168 to Westgard Pass, and turn left on the road heading toward the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and research stations. Stay on the paved road past the Schulman Grove and onto a dirt road for another 15 miles to the gate. Two-wheel drive vehicles can make it, but watch for rocks. For more information call Owens Valley Laboratory at 760-873-4344 or go to wmrs.org.