Runnin' Down A Tree











I've never had a tree as a destination for an out-and-back run in the mountains but apparantly there really is a first time for everything. I prefer loops, peaks make natural turnaround points, lakes are okay, but a tree? This wasn't just any old tree though...well, okay actually it was a really old tree: The Patriarch in the Bristlecone National Forest high up in the White Mountains, the largest known tree of its kind. At 6:15 am, with sunrise bathing the crest of the Sierra in a pinkish hue and Silver Canyon still shrouded in cold shadows, Brannon Forrester and I snapped a few photos and, pointed ourselves east and began the long, slow climb off the Owens Valley floor where the pavement ends above Laws: elevation 4180'. The Silver Canyon Road climbs gradually for the first 7 miles and these early miles passed by quickly and easily. Nearing 7000' the road veered away from the creek and began climbing in earnest. Running became fast hiking became slow walking and within 3 miles we were standing at the intersection with White Mountain Road at well over 10000'. An incredible expanse of the Sierra unfolded to the west. The view stretched from the Olancha Peak area to the south all the way north to Dunderberg Peak near Conway Summit. If the range seems mighty while playing from within, its size and scope seem to grow exponentially from this White Mountains viewing platform across the valley. Standing at the road junction taking it all in, my long-distance trail runner's mind couldn't help but fixate on two particular numbers on the signage. One sign pointing west back down Silver Canyon said "Bishop 15" and the other pointing east said "Deep Springs Valley 16." Way too much of a coincidence to dismiss. It will have to be done: the White Mountains Crossing 50K had been born in my mind. We weren't even halfway done with the day's adventure and I was already planning another. Continuing north on White Mountain Road we were soon dealing with snow in shaded areas, still firm and runnable this early in the morning, and a cold north wind on exposed high points that kept the layers on and the desire to move quickly strong. The 9 miles to Patriarch Grove passed by easily, the altitude a surprising non-factor as it was my first foray above 10,000' this year. Along the way we saw a lone wild mustang casually grazing its way across the plateau. Within minutes of leaving a meltwater puddle on the road that I had busted the ice off of in a desperate, failed attempt to enhance my meager water supply, the mustang was happily lapping up the silty water. I didn't have the fortitude to indulge. The water had a coffee with cream complexion that didn't inspire confidence. Five and a half hours after leaving Laws we found ourselves quietly paying our respects in the presence of incredibly old age: The Patriarch stood before us like a sentinel over the ages. A human lifetime seems really insignificant in comparison to longevity of these beautifully gnarled, wind-sculpted trees. The snow cover on the ground took away a bit of the extreme feeling of dryness that the Whites often exude. But water was an issue for the two humans standing around in silent reverie. It was a long way back to the water source at the base of the switchbacks in Silver Canyon and I was wondering how long my system was going to go along with my playing camel. By the time we had retraced our steps to the pavement in Laws, 10 hours of meditative motion had elapsed and my quads were ready for some horizontal time. There was really only one climb in this outing but it had taken us to 11,300' and as Tom Petty sang years ago, "I'm learnin' to fly but I ain't got wings...COMING DOWN IS THE HARDEST THING." Seems like Petty knows a thing or two about mountain running.