Back to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

I got up at 5 a.m. yesterday, packed and drove to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest to see some very old friends. It’s about 5 hours from here to the visitor center at the Shulman Grove, where a 4 mile or so trail starts at about 10,000 feet, and which in addition to descending 700 or 800 feet and then back up on the Death Valley side of White Mountain, takes one through the oldest known section of Bristlecone pine trees on White Mountain.


The Bristlecone Pine Forest, is a pretty special place to me. These trees are the oldest living non-clonal organisms in the world, and some there are nearly 5,000 years old. That’s older than the pyramids. I marvel at what’s happened around these sentinels at the hands of humans as they slowly grow, distanced from most everything. Many are scarred from lightening and burned, but they are survivors. The contours in the wood fascinate me. Dead ones have been found that had rings indicating they lived to 9,000 years old. They tend to thrive in dolomitic soil where there aren’t many other plants, and at altitudes where the climate keeps people substantially away. They are vulnerable to climate change and the Colorado Bristlecones have become vulnerable to a beetle that’s thriving because of warmer temperatures. I love how desolate the upper alpine area is on White Mountain on the road up to the Patriarch grove at around 11,300 feet, 11 miles on a dirt road past the Shulman grove. The meadows are dreamy and there’s a wild horse I’ve seen up there every time I’ve made the trek. I didn’t make it all the way there yesterday and didn’t see the horse.


On the Shulman grove trail yesterday, there was a fair bit of snow in dodgy places which was challenging to navigate safely, and for much of the trail there are steep fall-offs into valleys with lots of loose shale. My journey was a little heavier than usual as I had a pack on with two cameras, lenses, water, food, etc… My Garmin saved the day when I lost the trail a few times, and I helped orient a guy who’d passed me earlier, but who lost the trail along the way, as someone did for me with their Garmin my first time there. The pack on my back had an unexpected impact on my balance while attempting nuanced and technical stepping through some of the narrow, snow covered spots. Memo to self: bring a walking stick, less shit, or a sherpa. Shadow had a blast up there, tending to stay about 100 feet ahead of me and periodically coming back to check on me when I whistled for him, when I stopped to take pics, or when I stopped to figure out how to get across some of the tough spots.


Then I tried to see how far I could drive towards the Patriarch Grove. I knew the road was blocked with snow at some point but wanted to see where, as many of my favorite Bristlecones are on that drive en route before the Patriarch grove, there's a great spot to photograph lichen in afternoon sun and there are some astonishing views of the eastern Sierra’s from up there. I got to see most of my favorite trees on that road before it became impassable. On the way up a guy blew by me on the dirt road in a Jeep, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake. Bad road manners, I thought.


When I got to where the road was blocked with snow he was stuck in it. His Jeep didn’t have snow tires or even all terrain tires. The guy said he thought he could just put it in 4 Low and drive through anything. He might have made it had he been going faster, but there are risks associated with that up there. His partner was trying to clear snow around the tires with what looked like a hammer. I asked where they drove in from and she told me they live in Sacramento, but were from Argentina. They’d rented the Jeep for a weekend getaway. He was a little quieter, perhaps just frustrated with the moment on their holiday weekend. I thought they were a sweet couple, despite his driving manners. I also don’t think they knew how much trouble they were potentially in, stuck up there as they were.


They didn’t have any cold weather gear or food, and no satellite messaging Garmin or otherwise for rescue. It gets down to 11 degrees (f) up there at night last I checked and it was highly likely no one else would be up there yesterday after that time in the evening. I keep a tow strap and a shovel in my truck, and was able to get them out. And then he blew by me again on the way down the mountain as I was getting back in the car after taking some more pics down the road a bit.


I had packed planning to camp up there last night, but as the temperature started to plummet I rethought that plan. The morning is gorgeous up there, but it was forecast to be clear, and for photos I prefer some clouds with the sun rising behind me. Besides I’d already gotten some new afternoon shots of some of my favorite trees and I couldn’t make it to the Patriarch grove. So I bailed. I have a rule of the road which I loosely apply and that is, when within 5 hours of my bed, absent a compelling reason not to, I’ll go for it. So I did. I slept really well when I did get home. And of course I looked at the pics before I went to bed.


As always, it was worth the trek. Pics below.