White Mountain: The tale of a 50 year old beginner

2 Jul 1999 - by Thad Kellam

About 35 years ago, I read the book ANNAPURNA by Maurice Herzog and decided that I too wanted to climb a mountain. It became one of those things I daydreamed about from time to time but never took any concrete steps toward actually doing. About a year ago, I found the MountainZone web site and followed a team of climbers up Mount Everest. That was it. Since that time I've reread ANNAPURNA and about a dozen other mountain climbing adventure books including a book on California's 14er's.

One of my biggest concerns about climbing wasn't the physical effort but the concern about mountain sickness. I decided White Mountain was the hill for me to find out how I would react to 14,000 feet in altitude. And let me tell you something, I really found out.

I left Oakland at 11:00 am on July 2 and didn't arrive at the locked gate/trail head until about 7:30 PM that evening after a VERY HOT drive through part of the Owens Valley (I don't have air-conditioning in my mighty Samurai). When I left the valley floor, it was 105 degrees and an hour later at the trail head it was cold and very windy. There were only a few other climbers there; 5 tents in all I think. I pitched my tent in a ravine next to the gate, piled in my gear, and flopped down on top of my sleeping bag. I was exhausted and within the next hour my head began to feel awful. I took aspirin but it didn't help a bit. Between my head splitting open and the wind against the tent making so much noise, I only slept on and off.

I woke up with the sun on Saturday morning feeling like a piece of you know what. It took me about 30 minutes just to plan how I was going to get up and get ready for my climb and another 30 minutes just to do it. After a breakfast of a peach, banana and bagel, I started off. Within a short period of time, I was hiking past the Barcroft Research Facility that was 2 miles in. This gave me a big mental boost because I had already hiked two miles and I was starting to feel pretty good. After about a hour of hiking on the trail I got my first sight of the White Mountain peak itself and really began feeling excited. The place was alive with marmots and prairie dogs and I got a kick out of passing by snow on the 4th of July weekend. After about four hours more, I was near the top when I came to a large snow field covering one of the last switchbacks near the summit. I did what the rest of the climbers did and that was to scramble over very loose and steep rocks until I connected back with the trail. By the time I finished my scramble, I was gasping for air so hard that I became dizzy and started to loose my balance. I made it to the nearest flat-top rock, sat down and was finally able to catch my breath and, OOPS, HERE COMES BREAKFAST. After a brief but nasty episode of dry-heaves, I sat there and contemplated my next move. I felt like going down but I was so close to the summit I could see others walking about and taking pictures. I decided I was just too close to give up so I VERY SLOWLY resumed by climb. It took me about 45 minutes to reach the summit, which under normal conditions should have taken about 15 minutes. But never mind, I had made it and I was really happy despite how poorly I felt. The view is incredible. You can see far into Nevada and also a good part of the Sierra Crest. After a few minutes of rest I began to feel stronger and began my descent. I took my time and it was really very enjoyable to be able to look out off the side of the mountain as I went down. There are many different types of rock formations; everything from almost white granite to rock that was as black as tar and everything in-between.

I got back to my truck at 4:30 PM and decided to drive no further than Bishop and find a motel room at any price where I could collapse. But by the time I got down to the valley, I was getting a second wind and decided to continue on back to Oakland, arriving at 1:00 AM the following morning.

My first 14er was bagged. One down and fourteen to go. (But next time I'll try diamox.)

Michael Gordon adds:

> My first 14er was bagged. One down and fourteen to go. > (But next time I'll try diamox.)

Personally, I would hesitate to use medicine before I attempted a more proper method of acclimitization (read one of Hackett or Houston's books). It's not unreasonable for any person -regardless of fitness or age - to be at sea level one morning and a 14,000+ plus summit the next to experience acute mountain sickness.

Dana Chaney adds:

I would like to echo Mr. Kellam's experience on his first fourteener. I took a different approach to begin my mountaineering career at an age only a few years younger than Mr. Kellam. I was more concerned than he was about altitude sickness on a solo hike to an altitude several thousand feet higher than I had ever hiked before. I chose White Mountain Peak, the easiest fourteener because of the road to the top. I spent a day at 8,000 feet on Tioga Road, a day at 10,000 feet at Saddlebag Lake, then another night at the campground in the White Mountains at 8,000 feet with part of the day spent touring the Bristlecone Pine forests up to 11,000 feet. On the day of the climb I had no nausea, headache, cough or other symptom of altitude sickness. Admittedly, the acclimatization I went through was excessive and I have been able to get the acclimatization down to a single night at 8,000 or 9,000 feet. But for the first peak, who knows?

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