An Extraordinary Land, by Rich Wargo

Working in the White Mountains is extraordinary in a number of ways. Some you can’t avoid, like the demands of working in thin air, and the not-so-subtle effects you experience as you suddenly realize that you aren’t at sea-level.

Some experiences are subtle, demanding patient and passive observation, like the incredible silence that you almost don’t notice–but once you do, is almost other-worldly.

Other experiences are more assertive with one’s senses. For one, the White Mountains are one of the most visually stunning settings anywhere. The whole ensemble of color, light, shadows and textures seems somehow accentuated. Scuttling clouds create an ever-changing mosaic that flows over the rolling landscape. At the height of midday the sky is a searing blue that darkens to a deep azure zenith set firmly in space. At dusk, the mountains bathe in alpenglow and the sunset reflects off of clouds that seem close enough to touch.

Clouds leave an ever-changing pattern on the slopes of White Mountain
Yes, on a clear day, the sky is that blue at the higher altitudes in the White Mountains. When looking at the zenith, you feel like you are looking right into outer space.
A Sierra Wave above the Sierras as seen from White Mountain. (Photo: Joe Szewczak)

Another extraordinary aspect of these mountains is the relationship of earth and sky. Except on very rare occasions the thin air here is much more clear than in any more urban setting, making for grand and distant vistas–and one can truly see the dome of the sky set upon an endless horizon.

The view looking north from the summit of White Mountain. In the distant foreground is the Pelissier plateau, an expanse of alpine tundra above 13,000. The view extends on towards Reno, Nevada. (Photo: Joe Szewczak)

From the summit of White Mountain or some other lofty vantage point, all the world seems below you, and for thousands and thousands of square miles around you much of it actually is. Your vision extends for hundreds of miles, across entire states, and for hundreds of miles you get the impression of a thin slice of earth and a huge arc of sky above, dominating most of what your eyes take in.

The view northeast, across Pelissier flat and on into Nevada. (Photo: Joe Szewczak)

The penumbral shadow of White Mountain as it extends east into Nevada at sunset. The shadow above is cause by a cloud above the summit. (Photo: Joe Szewczak)

Hopefully we have captured some of this, and In the Shadow of White Mountain will give viewers a sense of these stunning vistas. But one thing the program will never capture is an equally compelling quality of this special landscape–a sense of its timelessness. For that you must come and visit one of this environment’s most notable inhabitants, the Bristlecone Pine.

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Scenes From White Mountain

UCSD-TV Science producer Rich Wargo took his first trip to the White Mountain Research Station near Bishop, California on the first day of spring 2002, barely outrunning a snowstorm that hammered the high altitude station with 2 feet of snow in whiteout conditions. With such an auspicious start, it’s no surprise that In the Shadow of White Mountain has become one of UCSD-TV’s most eagerly anticipated new programs for the new year.

Scenic Photos
Research Photos
Production Photos

Scenic Photos (click thumbnail to enlarge)

Sunset over the Sierras as seen from the Owens Valley Laboratory

The imposing east slope of White Mountain

Skypilots near the summit of White Mountain

A Sierra Wave in the White Mountain sky

This spectacular sight occurs when a cold front approaches California from the northwest, and the westerly airflow increases over the Sierra crest

A Sierra Wave as seen from Barcroft Station. Photo: Joe Szewczak

A relic Bristlecone Pine. For more about relic Bristlecones read Wisdom from the Ancients in Stories from White Mountain. Photo: Joe Szewczak

The penumbral shadow of White Mountain as it extends east into Nevada at sunset. The shadow above is cause by a cloud above the summit. Photo: Joe Szewczak

Research Photos (click thumbnail to enlarge)

Researchers prepare mules for their participation in tests measuring high altitude performance

A UC Davis research group unloads equipment in preparation for a week of physical testing at high altitudes.

These sheep, frequently seen on the tortuous jeep trail up the west slope of the White Mountains, live in the White and Inyo mountains and are actually genetically distinct from the endangered Sierra Bighorn sheep that inhabit the Sierra Nevada range, only a few miles to the west across Owens valley.

Shoveling out the SnoCat

The SnoCat, the quickest mode of transport in and out of the research station during the winter months – which sometimes extend from October to May. White Mountain is the tallest peak, Mt. Barcroft (13,040) is the peak to the left. Photo: Joe Szewczak

A researcher approaches the summit of White Mountain in January. The roof of the summit facility can be seen peeking above the ridge at upper left. Photo: Joe Szewczak

Production Photos (click thumbnail to enlarge)

Cameraman Gil Barba Jr. using the camera jib at the Owens River near Owens Valley Laboratory

Happy crew at the summit – L to R White Mountain Research Station Associate Director John Smiley with his trusty companion Pulguero, Mike Weber, Matt Alioto, Rich Wargo and White Mountain Research Station Director Frank Powell

Directing an interview at the summit of White Mountain

Rich Wargo prepares a shot in Pine Creek.

The Sound of Silence, by Rich Wargo

In film and video production there is something called the “noise floor”. It is literally the sound of silence. Except that it isn’t really silence, it’s that little bit of sound left after the assistant director has called “quiet on the set!” and everyone on the set or location becomes perfectly still and silent. In some places, like a city street, the “noise floor” is a din, while on the best sound stages you can hear a grip’s stomach growling across the stage. But everywhere there is always some tiny intrusion of sound. Whether it is the barely perceptible sixty cycle hum of a light high in the studio rigging, or the far off murmur of an engine–there is always something that the indiscriminate sensitivity of the microphone picks up–except in the White Mountains.

In much of the Whites there is virtually no noise floor. Nothing. And in a sense it is truly deafening. It is an eerie sensation, as if a burden of our modern reality is lifted from your whole being and you suddenly become aware of the presence of a different world. One’s ears strain to pick up some sound, and when conditions are so silent, one is usually rewarded with only the silent hush of a gentle breath of wind, or the sound of your own blood coursing through your ears as your body works to capture every bit of precious oxygen it can at this altitude.

Even in the process of reviewing tapes for editing, I often found myself double-checking to make sure the headphones were plugged in or that the tape was running, because between statements from the interviewee, or calls from a distant Clark’s Nutcracker that were inadvertently recorded, there wasn’t the usual signal of an indistinct murmur of sound anywhere on the tapes.

I don’t exactly know why this is so. For one thing you are pretty far removed from the onslaughts of all those things technological that like to make noise, however faint. Another is that the air is thin and dry–there is just less material for sound waves to travel in. And except for communicating danger or territory the animals here are fairly elusive. There isn’t usually the gleeful din of birdsong typical of other mountain habitats, or even the occasional nighttime wail of a coyote. But one thing is certain–it is a quiet I have never heard anywhere else, even far out at sea. It is also something that the program will never be able to re-create for you, for wherever you will be when you see In the Shadow of White Mountain will surely be noisier. The sound of silence there is something that you must experience for yourself, and is an experience that shouldn’t be missed.

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The Big White Blind

As biologist John Wehausen explained, one of the Sierra Bighorn Sheep’s chief protective measures is their incredible vision. That helped to make taping Sierra Bighorns one of the most challenging episodes of this production.

He theorizes that they take a regular visual inventory of their surroundings, checking what the visual landscape looks like every few moments, and then focusing on any changes with intense scrutiny, making sure that they have the upper hand in access to an escape route before once again feeling secure in their surroundings, or fleeing.

A herd watches intently as their picture is taken.

While this made approach challenging, this actually seemed to work in our favor once the sheep felt secure with our presence. The tactic was to approach slowly, letting the sheep see you from afar, and then watching to gauge their reaction as you moved closer. However, the method of employing this strategy might seem a little strange in the annals of wildlife photography.

That’s because this approach is not executed with camouflage or even particular stealth. We didn’t creep and crawl, attempting to become one with the rocks, as a Wolfgang Bayer or an Iain Douglas-Hamilton, famed for their African wildlife documentaries extraordinaire may have done.

Nor did we work from a blind, well, not a blind per se–we used a vehicle, a big white official-looking truck. Now I don’t think Wolfgang or Iain used this method in filming their most elusive quarry–perhaps they did, maybe that was their secret. But somehow I don’t think so…

John Wehausen gets into The Big White Blind.

As John pointed out, the sheep seem less concerned with a vehicle than they are with a bi-ped animal that moves slowly. He figures humans look more like something that might be moving like a predator than a vehicle does.

So, we would approach slowly in a truck. First “glassing” them at the bottom of the hill, where they were sure to have seen us. The key was to let them see us and make sure we didn’t restrict their avenue of escape. If too close, we would drive right by them slowly, to a distance at which the sheep felt safe with our presence. Once within range we would let the sheep become aware and secure with our presence, and their access to escape–which is basically straight up–then I could get close enough and tape with the use of an extreme telephoto lens. Of course the “Big White Blind” approach is only possible in a place like Pine Creek, where a road serves an old tungsten mine.

Producer Rich Wargo taping at Pine Creek

We used the “Big White Blind” approach due to constraints, and avoided grueling treks into the high country because on the occasions that we did trek with crew and equipment we were unsuccessful. This is not unusual because as John was apt to note, there had been more than one occasion where he would spend days on his own employing the best of his stealthy and well practiced tracking and stalking skills and never see a single sheep where he knew they were from all the evidence he would find, including a radio collar he was tracking–only to be greeted upon his exit by untrained tourists who would relate stories of the half-dozen magnificent rams they came upon standing right next to the trail, just up around the bend, nonchalantly watching the strange two-legged beasts gawk at them.

As you will see in In the Shadow of White Mountain, we employed the “Big White Blind” approach to some success. In Pine Creek, under the imposing shadow of Mt. Tom, the sheep were coming down to the winter range where the first tufts of new growth were starting to show at this lower elevation. This is the range that provides pregnant ewes and new kids important nutrition that they need after scratching by through the long winter. It is also the range that brings them into harm’s way from mountain lions, which as In the Shadow of White Mountain explains, may be the consequence of large-scale ecosystem change caused by human influence.

John Wehausen tracking
John Wehausen glassing

Photos courtesy of Frank Green and John Wehausen.