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Published: March 29th 2008
A road trip to the White Mountains is something to be remembered. Its a long drive to a worthy destination, and no matter which direction you come from the scenery is like nothing else in the country. 4000 meter peaks, sagebrush desert, Ponderosa Pine and Juniper forests, rivers and canyons, lakes, lava and glaciers. My friend and I stopped at Hot Creek, a pleasant reminder that a boiling chamber of magma sits below the Long Valley Caldera waiting to erupt again. Convict Lake is another mandatory stop, carved out by glaciers and surrounded by impossibly steep peaks. In fact the peaks around Convict Lake contain the oldest fossils in the Sierra Nevada, lithified marine organisms over 400 million years old that somehow escaped the intrusion of rocks and explosions of volcano's. We also hiked around Mono Lake- one of the oldest lakes in the world at 760,000 years old! Its waters have grown and receded with the glaciers that carved the Sierra Nevada, but in the last 100 years- a heartbeat in its lifetime- Southern California water projects have diverted life giving rivers away from the lake receding its shores by over 11 meters.
The road itself to the White
Middle Palisade(4200m) to Owens Valley(1200m)
Probably the most dramatic meeting of mountain in Valley in the United States. The Palisades contain the largest glaciers in the Sierra Nevada.
Mountains goes nowhere but up, up into the dry forests of juniper and sage. The rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada leave little moisture for the White Mountains, but the plants don't seem to mind. In fact the Bristlecone Pines(Pinus longaeva) which call the White Mountains home have been shown to love harsh conditions. The colder and dryer it is, the more they thrive. Their ecological and elevational niche helps them to create sky islands: isolated forests in high mountains surrounded by hundreds of kilometers of desert.
White Mountain peak itself is the most easily accessible 14,000 foot peak in California. That is if you can handle the final hike after the road ends. Its 12.5 km and 600 meters uphill, but this is done above 3500 meters in elevation at a time when you just violently ascended from the 1000 meter floor of Owens Valley with little acclimatization! I came down with extreme altitude sickness the first night, denying our attempts to summit White Mountain Peak... maybe next time?
The real showstopper of this trip, the reason for going- was the tree's themselves. Bristlecone Pines
live to be over 4000 years old, making them the worlds oldest living
thing. Yes, one could argue creosote bushes and coral reefs clone themselves and some "individuals" are over 10,000 years old... But we are talking about one single organism, one set of roots, one continuous life- not a clone!
Just imagine this: Before humans had written language, one seed sprouted over 4000 years ago on the slopes of the White Mountains. Never receiving rain, it has only been given a few feet of snow a year, constant 50km winds, freezing temperatures nearly every night and terribly poor soil. Yet the individual has grown and thrived. Slowly but surely it added their tree rings until 1964 when a curious human had a hunch that this tree was very old. He took a chainsaw, chopped it down at the base and took it back to the laboratory. Ring by ring the years were counted, until the Scientist discovered the most tragic event in the history of Botany.... he had just killed the world's oldest living thing: a 4,844 year old tree.
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