White Mountains Traverse

Traverse from Boundary


This White Mountains Traverse is a loosely-defined route between Queen Mine Saddle and Barcroft Gate (or vice versa) in California’s White Mountains. It is about 35 miles long, with more than half cross-country, and involves a bit of third class scrambling. Peaks along the way include Boundary (a bump on a ridge, Nevada’s lame highpoint), Montgomery, Dubois, Hogue, Headley, 13,615′, and White Mountain Peak. It is normally done south to north, in the slightly downhill direction, and the FKT is 11h25, set by Jed Porter back in 2014. It requires a 100+-mile car shuttle including miles of annoying dirt road, which discourages many people, but it still seems to see one or two parties per year.

I had originally planned to do it casually, with a partner and a car shuttle, but when that stopped making sense, I came up with another plan. While the drive around via the 2WD Barcroft road is close to 100 miles, it is possible to cut it to only about 60 via Silver Canyon if you have a Jeep…. or a bike. With a forecast for a tailwind up the Owens Valley, I thought I could do the foot portion north to south in 11 hours or less, and the whole thing in under 18. This was a nice theory, but ultimately I found myself spending the better part of two days doing things I did not enjoy, and failing to accomplish something about which I was indifferent, all for the wrong reasons. Call it “training.”

I enjoyed the drive up 168 from Big Pine, then endured the winding asphalt and rocky, washboard dirt north to Barcroft. This is a slow drive at best, and I had to go even slower to protect my worn tires. I arrived on a Sunday evening, and found a couple of cars at the gate, their owners returning from the hike to White Mountain. I took advantage of the chance to sleep at altitude, then stashed my bike, helmet, and some food before returning to Bishop. I had hoped to bathe for the first time in a week at Keough’s along the way, but noticed that, despite my cautious driving, I had developed a slow leak in one tire. I topped it off with my bike pump, then hurried into town and pulled into the one tire place open on Sundays, Perez Tire. I lucked out, as they sold me two AT tires for a fair price, and installed them in about 30 minutes; the other Bishop tire places I’ve visited are ripoffs.

Peak happiness

Greasy and in a bad mood from the unexpected expense, I drove up to the north end of the valley, then turned on the Queen Mine road. It starts out as good graded dirt, then slowly deteriorates as it climbs. I eventually stopped about 2.2 miles from the saddle; while I could probably have driven farther, this seemed about as far as I would be able to ride a bike, so there was no point in continuing. I packed some discount energy bars and eight PB&Hs, set my alarm for 3:00, and got some amount of sleep.

Sunrise before Boundary

I hadn’t done such an early start in awhile, so I did not get going until almost 4:00. I spent about 45 minutes hiking the road to the saddle, then easily found the popular trail up Boundary. I jogged some of the flatter sections leading to Trail Canyon Saddle, then hiked up one of the braided trails through sand and talus toward the summit. It was already somewhat breezy at the top, and bitterly cold, so I did not even pause before starting down the ridge to Montgomery. The route was slow going but mostly only class 2, alternating between the shaded northwest side, and the sunny but windy southeast.

Descending Montgomery’s N ridge

At Montgomery’s summit, I stopped to take a few photos and sign the register. The forecast had anticipated temperatures in the 30s or 40s, but it seemed colder, and my phone battery died when I tried to send a text. Fortunately I had brought my battery pack, so I plugged it in and stashed it closer to my body for warmth. I continued in all my layers, my fingers aching inside my gloves. With steady wind and light cloud-cover most of the day, there was only about a half-hour in which I was warm enough to jog in a t-shirt. Wind and cold, plus tedious terrain, kept the day well short of fun.

Montgomery from south

Only a handful of people continue beyond Montgomery, so while I found a handful of cairns, I was mostly following faint sheep tracks or traveling cross-country. Montgomery’s south ridge is loose class 2-3, with a broken crest that is best avoided. I found a couple of short, sketchy snow traverses along the east side, but did not have much trouble reaching the saddle. From there, a long talus climb leads to “the Jumpoff” at the northern end of Dubois vast summit plateau. I had hoped for a long stretch easy jogging here, but the tundra was rolling and studded with sharp talus, making for slow and cautious progress.

White from Dubois

The summit is one of a number of minor bumps on the plateau, fortunately marked with a large stick visible from a distance. The majority of the parties in the summit register were either sheep surveyors or people traversing, including a group on skis this past April. I signed in with a bit of Rammstein commentary (“Mir ist kalt. Zo kalt!”), then took off jogging on the downward-trending plateau. White Mountain remained soul-crushingly far away, but I reminded myself that I had covered greater distances before.

This part of the Whites is not a single well-defined ridge, but a broad, rolling plain, cut by valleys dropping to both sides. Finding the best route requires regularly consulting a topo map at the macro level. It also requires paying close attention to the terrain at the micro level, as it varies unpredictably from semi-runnable tundra to tediously loose and sharp talus. I had downloaded Jed’s track, but he skipped some of the peaks along the way. I knew I never wanted to return to this place so, being a peak-bagger, I made some minor detours to tag the summits.

Dubois from Hogue

First up was Hogue, a detour east just north of where the ridge drops far down to a saddle with some springs around 11,200′. I checked out a couple of the talus mounds on its summit plateau, but found only a few pieces of broken glass, perhaps a former register jar. I jogged the descent as best I could, squelching across a bog labeled as a “spring,” then hiked over Point 11,784′, which hid horribly loose talus on its south side. A spring and snowfield fed a pleasant stream southeast of the lowpoint, where I grabbed a couple of liters of water before beginning the climb toward Headley.

Continuing my quest to tag the ridge’s peaks, I took a less-direct line toward the point labeled Headley Peak. Most of the way up, I saw that it was 100 feet lower than “East Headley,” with almost no prominence, and slightly out of the way. Annoyed at having wasted time on a pointless detour, I tagged the higher East Headley, then continued toward White. Jed had sidehilled around 13,615′, but despite the looming reality of headlamp time, I made the short detour. It was only a few hundred yards out of the way, and one of only a handful of California’s 13,000-foot peaks I had yet to climb.

Final scramble

I signed in next to the familiar names, then suffered down to the saddle with White. The talus was all sharp and loose, and though it was cold, the snowfields had turned to bottomless slush. I cursed, stumbled, and postholed to my knees for awhile, then found drier ground on the final ridge to the hut. I had eaten my last food before 13,615′, but am still fat enough not to bonk badly while hiking. The final ridge to the summit turns surprisingly tricky, with some loose class 3-4 over and around a few towers. I might have enjoyed this in different circumstances, but at this point it was a demoralizing grind.

I finally reached the summit around 3:00, eleven hours from the start and far later than I had hoped. I texted a friend that I might be screwed: the days are long, but I estimated that I would be back to pavement around dark, still over thirty miles from the car. I cut all the lame road switchbacks down to the saddle, then put in a fair amount of jogging along the road past Barcroft Lab despite my fatigue. The lab was closed, the normally reeking sheep pen blessedly empty. There were no cars at the gate, but fortunately no one had stolen my bike or my food. I hid behind the outhouse for awhile, eating and recovering, then began the thirteen-mile bike to the head of Silver Canyon. My time to the gate was something like 12h20, putting me 10-15 minutes behind the FKT. I could make the excuses that I was heading in the uphill direction, and tagged two summits that Jed had skipped, but it was still a failure.

I was dreading this portion of the trip, as the road is rough, rolling, and headed both in the wrong direction and likely into the day’s prevailing wind. Surprisingly, though, I found it almost enjoyable on a bike. It felt no worse than many of the Argentine provincial roads I had cycled this past winter, and I was not towing a trailer. The two motorists who passed me even offered encouragement. I suffered mightily on the 600-foot climb before the Silver Canyon turnoff, but still made it in just over 1h30, better than I had hoped.

I was nervous about descending the upper Silver Canyon road on my touring bike, as it is relentlessly steep and sometimes loose, but I took it slow, rode my brakes, and made it down without crashing, only putting a foot down on a few of the sharp, steep switchbacks higher up. I filled up on water at the first creek crossing, burned my finger feeling my brake rotor, then dared a bit more speed as the slope eased. I normally dismount for the creek crossings, but my bike was already filthy, so I rode through the first few, spraying my bike and myself with water and grit. The creek had hopped its banks in places, turning the road into a secondary stream, so picking my way through the crossings would have been pointless.

The descent to Highway 6 took another 1h30 or so, giving me about an hour of usable light to ride north. I started off motivated, but soon started questioning the wisdom of continuing. My 750-lumen bike headlamp had been stolen in Argentina, so all I had was a tiny 100-ish-lumen hiking lamp; not anticipating much headlamp time, I had not bothered to dig out my taillight. I felt energetic at the moment, but nearly two hours riding uphill at night on a highway, without a taillight, then another hour on a dirt road, began to seem stupid. Before getting too far from Bishop, I gave up and called my friend, who kindly fetched me and let me use a spare sleeping setup.

Having already made myself enough of a nuisance, and failed to achieve anything, I was determined to at least finish under my own power. The previous day’s tailwind had of course reverted to the seasonal headwind, so I got to relive one of my less favorite Argentine experiences: riding uphill into the wind along a truck route. I finally started bonking on the dirt road, stopping frequently in bits of shade to rest, finally crawling up to the car. I crammed down a bunch of food, then drove back down-valley to begin preparing to hit the road.

10 responses to “White Mountains Traverse

  1. Dude! You could have saved all those forgettable peaks for equally horrible ridge ascents!

    • I’m waiting for you to come out with your comprehensive guidebook to the Whites. I only want to spend my time on the *best* ridges.

  2. Mike Gilliland

    Sean, Seems like life would be so much easier at the Ranch. Spread a little paint, fix a couple bikes, eat a specially prepared lunch, listen to a little music, run up Teewinot before breakfast. Yeah, that’s the ticket. I truly miss work week, but I always enjoy reading your adventure posts. I really enjoyed ‘our’ trip to the southern hemisphere last winter-‘summer’. Hope you enjoy your summer. I’ll be lurking.
    Mike (the plumber)

    • Yeah, I was thinking of Work Week as I slogged across those frigid desert peaks. The first week of June would have been so much happier there. Next year in the Tetons…

  3. You’re a machine. Nice work

  4. Hi Sean,
    Always enjoy your trip reports. I see you posted this June 3, but which day did you do the traverse? I plan on doing dayhike of just Boundary/Montgomery on June 20 and trying to assess the snow conditions. Did you encounter any snow on the climb to Boundary? What about on the traverse between Boundary and Montgomery? Also, do you have any recommendations/tips for optimal traverse between the 2 peaks? Thank you, Amin

    • I did it on June 1. Based on conditions, and on Dubois’ summit register, I think most people do it later in the month, so the 20th should work well. Almost no snow on Boundary. There was snow on the east side of the ridge between Boundary and the Jumpoff, but I only had to cross a couple short sections, and you shouldn’t have any issues. There was also some snow near White, which was slushy and miserable, but it will probably be gone.

      I didn’t encounter anything more than class 3 by staying on or near the ridge on the traverse, though a lot of it is loose. I used both sides, with one significant deviation to the east descending Montgomery toward the Jumpoff. You can really gain or lose time route-finding along the broad plateau past Dubois, since it’s not always obvious where the “ridge” is. Jed’s track from fastestknowntime.com is pretty good.

      Good luck — it’s a character-building experience.

  5. Hey Sean,
    I forgot to ask. How were the road conditions to Queen Mine itself? How about from Queen Mine to Kennedy Saddle? I am hoping to at least be able to drive to Queen Mine and start from there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *