Cycling Up White Mountain Peak in the Inyo National Forest

For the past few years, a tale has been passed around within our circle of friends about cycling up White Mountain Peak. The story has changed a bit over the years, or perhaps the details have simply been refined, but what I knew was this: three of my friends rode, well, hiked their bikes up White Mountain Peak. A lightening storm hit, they had to vacate the vicinity and retreat to a car, which was waiting for them close to the top. All I ever saw were a few photos from the trip, but it was enough to whet my interest in White.

Fast forward three years or so and I’m now living in California, eager to explore this amazing state in the cooler months. I’ve mentioned to friends various times that I’m willing to take off during the week and do some of these rides that are a few hours drive from LA. Knowing good and well the climate window for the Inyo National Forest is slim, Eric Brunt invited me to accompany him on a return trip to White. Eric was one of the three who summited years ago, the other two you’re probably more familiar with: Ryan Wilson and Kyle Kelley.

That brings me to the background on this ride. White Mountain Peak sits at 14,252′. Still not as high as Whitney or Mount Williamson, California’s other juggernauts, yet it is the only one that you can ride, er… push your bike up to the summit. Hence the motivation with our friends, who are all a little loosely-screwed together if you know what I mean.

Just because we’re all a little crazy, doesn’t mean you’ve gotta make yourself the same in planning this ride, so I’m trying something a little different with this Reportage…

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Logistics

There are options for ascending White Mountain Peak by bicycle, yet each are limited by a few conditions. The first and most important tidbit to know is that there is no water on the mountain. Anywhere. Unless you happen to come across some researchers at the Barcroft Station, and they allow you to fill up your bottles or bladders from their glacial melt reservoir. That’s at a whopping 12,470′ though. The solution: one of those giant water jugs from REI or an army surplus store – if you’re car camping somewhere on the mountain. Otherwise, drive up and do water drops until the gate at around 11,000′. Or just bring approximately 4 liters of water with you if you end up doing our route.

Once your water situation is figured out, perhaps you should think about where to start your ride. Grandview Campground sits at 8,500′. Sleeping there the night before will help you acclimate to the elevation. Some sadists will begin this ride from Big Pine – which sits at 3,700′. I might be loosely screwed together, but I’m not that dumb. Eric and I camped at 8,500′ and planned on riding at a steady, yet social pace. I wanted to shoot photos and Eric, having done this ride before, knew that slow and steady meant we’d remain intact emotionally and physically. After some back and forth, we opted to start at the Visitor Center which sits at 10,500′, providing us with a 48 mile round trip with around 8,800′ of elevation.

A few other notes: You should be mindful of the weather. There is no shelter at the top and things can get nasty. Fast. My GPS watch has a storm alarm that went off a dozen or so times on our ride back. If it looks shitty at the peak, do not proceed…

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Equipment

Some people ride all-road or cyclocross bikes, others mountain bikes. I’m talking full suspension carbon trail bikes. There isn’t a right or a wrong bicycle for this ride. It’s all about how much you’re willing to compromise. Since it’s not a straight up, and straight down route – there’s actually a ton of ascending and descending going both ways – it’s all about what you’re comfortable riding downhill more-so than uphill. It doesn’t matter what you’re on when you’re climbing washboarded and rutted roads, but shit gets old descending realllll quick on a road bike.

At the time when my friends did this ride first, Eric was riding a canti-brake Ibis Hakkalugi with standard cyclocross gearing, Kyle rode his SpaceHorse and Ryan was on a hardtail.

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This round our equipment wasn’t all that different. Eric would ride his Speedvagen Rugged Road with Di2 and I would ride my Independent Fabrication rigid 29’r with flats and hiking boots. My thoughts were, I’d benefit from having actual hiking boots once we hit the 12,000′ mark, the moment when arguably the elevation hits you and suddenly, you notice the peak of White Mountain staring you down. I had a 3L water bladder in my frame pack, which I drank all of. I rode in shorts, a merino shirt and a Mission Workshop Faroe hoodie. With hiking boots. Strapped to my saddle rails was a rain jacket in case the weather deteriorated. Food and clothing filled the rest of the space up.

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Speaking of, you’ll need to bring a lot of food. Not just bars, but actual food. Preferably “wet” food. Dehydrated foods like bars and even bread can pull water from your body to digest. Studies have shown that even with bars, your body can’t use the nutrients for over 14 hours. Eat simple foods like fruit, nuts or a sandwich. Sugars help too. Feast on easy-to-digest and high energy snacks.

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Routing

There are options to go up and down White, yet we chose the most straight forward. We took White Mountain Rd all the way up. You could ride up White Mountain and go down Wyman Creek, or the Bishop 4×4 road. Both of which look hella fun, but we decided to leave those for another trip.

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Reportage

Eric and I loaded up my truck with our bikes and food for the entirety of our three-day excursion. Leaving early from LA meant we could make it to Bishop, California by lunch, just in time to feast on any number of local digs. Sorry, I won’t name drop any. Find your own special place. ;-)

Hey Aaron! Nice to meet you!

After leaving Bishop, we made the slow and steady climb up the 168 for camp. Along the way, we noticed a few people on road bikes, including one spry fella in a Ringtail jersey, riding an All-City Macho Man! His name is Aaron and from our brief interaction, he seemed so stoked on this ride. We gave him a churro hand-up and he peeled off up the mountain.

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Camp that night was pleasant. Clear skies, no Crackoons or pesky critters, just our fire crackling, skillet sizzlin and a calm breeze, exposing the milkyway and stars for us to fall asleep under. It’s hard for me to sleep at elevation, so I was wishing I had brought a Tylenol PM to aid in my slumber since the morning would come fast…

5am. Alarms echoed, waking us both. We decided the night before to leave camp and drive to the Visitor’s Center where we’d cook breakfast, brew coffee and take advantage of their facilities before leaving on our ride. Remember, there’s NO WATER on the mountain…

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Watching the sun peel up through the clear autumn sky and dance amongst the ancient Bristlecone pines was unreal. Things like that I capture with my mind because no camera on the planet can relay the warmth and humbling feeling of witnessing something that’s been happening for thousands of years in that very place.

Once we were warmed around 7am, we began to pedal. Slowly. Man, feeling that elevation right out of the gate is not pleasant. We both popped some Advil and sipped water before ripping down a 1,000′ descent. As we’re climbing back up, I yelled to Eric “We’re lower now than when we started!”

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The sun was awake and the weather was changing every few minutes. Eric quickly tired of taking off his arm warmers, so he left them around his wrists, like some kickboxer from a movie in the 80’s. Coincidentally, most of our conversation hovered around movies from that era.

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Riding in this landscape is unlike anything I’ve witnessed before. It’s barren yet intrinsic to the detail oriented. Rocks changed hue and consistency. The plantlife was thriving and the geological formations are straight out of a sci-fi flick. Cue Total Recall or Dune.

Once we hit the gate with the pit toilet and the marmot warning (they’ll crawl into your engine compartment,) we pushed onward to the Barcroft Station for lunch. Turkey, havarti, hummus, bread and sour worms. Two apples. Down the hatch, along with more water. It’s noon. Eric thinks we’ll summit by 2pm, even though we’ve only got 7 miles to go.

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Those last 7 miles feel like your body is at a doom metal concert with the amps all the way up. No, scratch that. You’re strapped to the amps with no ear plugs and you’re carrying them. It’s heavy. I think we were both surprised how much we had to walk this stretch and it’s not even the hard part!

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White Mountain Peak sits atop a mound of scree; shaley rock that slides when your tire hits it, much less your shoes. Luckily, I had hiking boots on. Eric was in clipless mountain shoes and he was sliding everywhere. We both stopped a number of times and just laughed. There was no point in attempting to communicate with English.

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The summit hit us and we posed with the American flag that was in the box, sent text messages, alerting our ladies of our safety and put on our jackets for the descent. For me, it was time to let the demons flee. I ripped down the jeep trail, rocks pinging off my downtube and trying to keep the bike, along with myself, upright. We were in one piece for now and I wanted to keep it that way.

Scale.

Riding “down” from the peak is actually a lot of riding “up” and if it weren’t for the two fellas at Barcroft who let me fill up my water bladder, the rest of the ride “down” would have been very painful. Oh wait, that didn’t help. It still hurt like hell but at least I could stay hydrated. Oh and my Di2 battery didn’t drain randomly, leaving me stuck in my 12t cassette like Eric.

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He was bummed! Truthfully though, he was walking at the same speed I was climbing with my 1x MTB.

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Upon returning to the truck, we pulled out the camp grill and began consuming as much protein and water as we could. The ladies that were running the visitor center gave us a smile and a wave, while a few tourists stopped to chat. Mostly about how beautiful the mountain is and about how crazy we looked ripping down the last hill on such rough roads.

Ok, now our minds were blown!

Sated, sore and ready for rest, we made our way back to camp, only to have the sky erupt in one of the most foreboding sunsets I’ve witnessed to date.

White Mountain Peak lives up to its infamy. Eric and I are both pretty seasoned cyclists. We’re strong, fit and smart, yet at any moment this place could have taken our pedigree and turned it against us. Do not underestimate this ride, be smart, do your research and if you go, give yourself plenty of time. The last thing you’d want to do is move through without fully embracing its majestic beauty.

I’ll be back… Dammit, I told myself I wouldn’t end with an 80’s action movie quote!

  • JP Coates

    1up + FJ = Love

    • HJ ;-)

      But damn, the 1Up is the fucking best!

  • henrilefebvre

    goldddddd

  • barry mcwilliams

    Okay, this is pretty much the greatest.

    It’s time for me to up my epic quotient.

  • I think your Indy Fab is my favorite out of your bikes.

  • Justin Scoltock

    such a rad set of photos and reportage, john. we should trade white mt. war stories. Also need to get back up there…its been too long!

    • Can’t wait to hear your story!

    • hans

      lets go fucker!

  • Your photos always acutely capture the drama of the mountains. Nicely done.

  • Josh Caffrey

    Nice work dudes, looks rad! Eric, how were the Teravail tires?

  • Mark Finster

    Fan-friggin-tastic reportage. White Mountains = magical, otherworldly, overlooked. Couple things:
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5b002cdbe2cad39cdf7074d25c9924b52129f811d99329c2b40bca60d6b7355b.jpg
    1. The Wyman Creek route would have been buhh-rootal (extremely loose down there). A bit more doable to explore in a solid 4×4 – there are some sweet old (and I mean 100 years-ish old) cabins down there for emergency shelter. They are also extremely creepy. Pic attached.
    You definitely camped at Grandview the night prior, and did this whole ride (up and back) in 1 day? Gnarly.
    2. So you definitely camped at Grandview right? Out of sheer exhaustion, I recently camped down near Wyman Creek and was 100% convinced I’d wake up to a park ranger handing me a fine for camping illegally. Didn’t happen … but pretty sure I got lucky.
    3. Very good call stressing the H20 situation up there. Hope everyone that reads this and decides to go venture up the 168 understands how bone dry it is up there…

    • hantavirus will keep you from sleeping in that cabin, though!

  • Marc Gasch

    Man I got a new wallpaper for my compute with that FJ first pic! See you at Grinduro this weekend, flying tomorrow from Barcelona!

  • Daniel M

    I’ve ridden to the summit from the locked gate on an old hardtail mountain bike – I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to ride the last mile, but it’s worth pushing the bike up so you can ride/gravel-ski the bike down the whole way from the top!

    Years later, some friends and I decided to do the bike-touring version of the Badwater ultra-marathon – From Badwater below sea level to the top of White Mountain, 200 feet shy of Whitney, and back again in my case, over the course of a week. I cached a lot of water (and some beer) at a few places along the route, but I think it’s doable using native sources if you bring a filter and plan carefully. (You can buy bottled water at the visitor center for the Bristlecone grove above Grandview if they’re open, for example.) The short, steep, paved section after you pass the upper Bristlecone grove is one of the toughest things I’ve ever done on a bike – we were fully loaded at that point and didn’t ditch our bags until we got to the gate around 11,000′ and camped nearby. Also, I was completely unprepared for how much climbing there would be on the way BACK DOWN between the locked gate and Grandview. That day kicked my ass.

    I’ve ridden down, and 4x4ed both directions, the (Silver Canyon?) route to Bishop. 100% worth it in either vehicle, with a bunch of fun water crossings near the bottom. I’ve only done the Wyman canyon route in a 4×4. I agree with Mark that It’s so goddamn steep I can’t imagine doing it on a bicycle in either direction, but there is a flowing creek at the bottom near the highway which we camped at on our tour even though we climbed the paved road past Grandview. Sounds like the same spot Mark mentioned, which I believe is on BLM or NF land and should be 100% legal for camping.

  • Area45

    Nice! Years ago we rode up Silver Canyon to the gate above Bristlecone Forest on motos. Silver Canyon is a blast. Then we rode down to Bishop for lunch and up Coyote Flats in the afternoon. Much easier with a moto!

    https://photos.smugmug.com/Motorcycles/Sierras-July-08-Errin-Pics/i-ZF9TtPC/0/S/100_2965-S.jpg

    https://photos.smugmug.com/Motorcycles/Sierras-July-08-Errin-Pics/i-zfgFvGq/0/S/100_3051-S.jpg

  • btompkins0112

    So rad…..damn, MS sucks for riding. I am headed to LA the 24th, it’s looking like maybe I need to extend the trip for some riding…..

  • Keith Gibson

    Great report and photos as usual. Epic!

  • Don Gouda

    Hey John, What type of car rack do you use? looks pretty nice would you recommend it?

    • It’s the best. Hands down. 1-Up Usa. They’re pricey but it’s the best purchase I’ve ever made for a bike rack.

  • Public_Parent

    Epic! Epic! Epic! Thanks for the photos and inspiration. #12 is rad!

  • Jake B Sorensen

    Just realized I’ve been up on White Mountain Road, at Bristlecone Ancient Pine Forest! Unfortunately behind a camera, and not on a bike. Hopefully next time. Awesome reportage. I can’t wait to live in LA and have these forests closer to home.

  • Brian Sims

    Major kudos dudes! That climb is a fucking beast.

    Loved this line “Some sadists will begin this ride from Lone Pine – which sits at 3,700′.” Good thing we stayed at Big Pine. ;)

    Hindsight being what it is, we totally should have started at the visitor center. 44 miles and 10,200′ of climbing to Barncroft, with another 6 miles and 1,700′ to the summit, was too much for this sadist.

    2017 White Mountain goes in the books as my 7th CA 14th!

  • BikesAndCoffee

    So good. Attempted that same route (starting from the end of the pavement) twice – First time had to turn around ~3 miles past barcroft due to going too hard at the start and getting hit hard by the elevation, made it the second time after spending a few days in Mammoth before hand. Agree with everything said above and unless you live in Nepal the ride will probably kick your ass but is so worth it (as evidenced by the pictures). Also HT MTB FTW, Eric is a badass for riding that road on a CX bike, especially with that gearing, so washboarded…

  • Daniel Lemke

    Woah 02 is my favorite picture of the bunch. How did Eric ride it with that kind of gearing?

  • Julien Nivol

    Lunar…

    So beautiful

  • I love your bikepacking stories but I think this one actually tops any of the bikepacking stories… in addition to the ones that have included my bags. The photos are amazing! Well done guys.

  • STW

    “Sorry, I won’t name drop any. Find your own special place.” Because why help small businesses that rely on tourists? Let’s just keep it to ourselves!

    • Trust me, those places in Bishop don’t need any plugs. The queues are already out the door.

  • Andy Moore

    Some incredible documentation of one hell of a ride, especially with someone riding with a dead Di2 battery!

  • Ryan

    I can’t help but snicker at the battery/shifting fiasco. Simplicity is not only beautiful, but reliable…and doesn’t require a charge. Beautiful shots and storytelling as usual, thanks for sharing.

  • noob_sauce

    Some really good stuff here. Were you going to clone out the spot on 58 before you realized it was a hawk? 67 is super nice as this month’s mobile wallpaper, made even better with the Mastodon reference. Cheers!

  • S. Harris

    Unreal. What a trip.

  • James Walton

    John Muir would be proud. Great adventure, thx John.

  • #47 through #51 are truly fantastic. Insane scale.

  • Dion Goldsworthy

    Fantastic story and photos! A lifetime ago, I used to run some Spring ski tours in the Whites and many of those views along the road from the Visitor Center to Schulman Grove and beyond bring back some wonderful memories. Prior to Hantavirus concerns we used to basecamp at a partially falling down old miner’s cabin a couple of miles from Barcroft – we’d spend about 5 days up here, skiing the open slopes and staying warm in the “cabin”, with firewood that we’d truck in in October, before the first snow. You got me dreaming of getting back there on a bike! Thanks for a great adventure!