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One Packer's High Sierra Experience

All pictures are from the archives of Ray DeLea unless otherwise noted.




Olancha Pass Trail

In this picture you can see Olancha PaOlancha Corral2ss. It is the first saddle to the right of the peak (Round Mountain) on the far left of the picture.(Olancha Peak is the highest peak just to the right of center in the picture.) I packed over this pass some three or four times that I recall. Once while wrangling for some lost horses with Frosty Frost in the fall of 1970. I never put on more miles in the saddle in a week than that week spent with Frosty. Frosty was in his sixties, at least, and I had just graduated from St. Mary's College. He was looking for someone to help him out wrangling. I had just finished up the summer with Tommy at Mt. Whitney Pack Trains and was looking for work. Work found me trying to track lost horses amid thousands of fresh tracks in Monache, Little, Big, Redrock, Cold, Beer Keg, Casa Vieja, and Osa Meadows. Some sixty hours of riding in the saddle, for each of us, produced nothing. I seemed to recall Frosty mentioning one Christmas at Tommy & Barbara's that the stock eventually showed up at Kennedy Meadows some distance to the south. This trip had one really BIG bright spot in it - we made our base camp at Jordan Hot Springs on Nine Mile Creek. Being Fall, Jordan Hot Springs Resort was closed for the season and Frosty and I had the entire camp to ourselves. There was plenty of food and after each dusty day we were able walk buck naked from the camp down to the the bath tubs which were fed by hot springs in the Nine Mile Creek area. Since the tubs were fed by the hot water of the springs, we had to make several trips to the creek with a bucket to lower the water temperature to a bearable level. Frosty and I had a great time that fall "wrangling for ghosts." We weren't "Ghost Riders in the Sky" but certainly so on the ground! Frosty and his wife operated a farm in the San Joaquin Valley and I they always brought some of the best corn to Tommy and Barbara's.
Olancha Trail
Another time I packed a Sierra Club trip over Olancha Pass with several packers from MWPT. The trip was originally intended to go out of Horseshoe Meadows over Cottonwood Pass and into the surrounding backcountry. Unfortunately the snow was too deep and forced the trip 30 miles to the south over Olancha Pass.

The same scenario play itself out again on a Trail Riders of the Wilderness trip. This trip usually went in over New Army Pass from the Cottonwood Lakes basin and came out over Trail Crest, with a saddle trip to the summit of Mt. Whitney, and down to the corrals at Whitney Portals. This trip was always the last big "all expense paid" trip of the summer for the outfit; so it was unusual for that much snow to still be on Trail Crest Pass in mid August - but anything is possible with a pass that is 13,777' high. So off we were again over Olancha Pass, through Monache Meadows and north through Brown, Strawberry, Templeton, Ramshaw, and Mulkey Meadows. In the picture to the right you can see Owens Lake in the background as we head up the Olancha Pass Trail.

Last, but certainly not least, I packed one (perhaps two) deer hunting parties just over the summit of Olancha Pass. Typically the hunters made camp just west of Olancha Pass and then hunted in the surrounding high country. Round Mountain seemed to be their favorite hunting spot. The mountain is covered in chaparral that is only three feet high - sage brush and Manzanita. This makes the deer readily visible. The rifles the hunters used were so powerful that they could easily down a deer on the slopes of Round Mountain from 300 to 500 yards away! This wasn't quite my idea of hunting. I suppose my hunting season packing ended one morning when I was out wrangling for my three mules and horse. With a red vest and hat on I headed out of camp at about 5:00 A.M. About 30 minutes later I nearly had my head blown off by some hunter who mistakenly though one of Olancha Corral3my mules was a deer! That was the last deer season I packed for Tommy.

On this particular deer hunting party Tommy accompanied me down to the public corrals at thOlancha Corrale Olancha trail roadend in the stock truck and helped me pack up the guests for the trip. He indicated that he was going to be out of town when I came out of the mountains, a week later, but that he would leave the stock truck at the roadend for me. Well, out we came after a week and there was the stock truck. After unpacking and unsaddling my mules I had lunch with the guests at the roadend and bade them a fond farewell. Soon it dawned on me that I was the only person at the roadend and that it was highly unlikely that anyone else was going to show up this late in the season; and, of course no one else ever did! What was so tragic about this you might ask? The stock truck was rear loading! Let me tell you that rear lift gate on the stock truck was incredibly heavy. Getting it down wasn't the problem. After I loaded all of the stock into the truck and the gear I had to get that gate back up. I was darn stout then; and, try as I may I was unable to get that gate any higher up then my head before collapsing in pain. I finally decided the only way I was going to get that thing up was to prop it up with poles of varying lengths until I finally got it shut. Every time I nudged the gate further shut, I would secure it in position with one of my mule's halter ropes. After about 45 minutes I finally managed to get the gate up and secured with the lift gate bolts. I was never so worn out in my life, except for the week of shoveling snow on Trail Crest Pass. It must have shown too. When I finally rolled into Olancha the road was blocked for quite a while due to road construction on U.S. 395 and a rancher pulled up along side of me in a pickup truck and gave me two beers before heading off somewhere. Ranchers and cowboys are just like that, don't you know!




Outposts of the PastMe and String

You will have to excuse the poor quality of these images. All were taken either before my 35mm camera days or taken by guests and later passed on to me. The Picture to the right is one of me seated on Rich. My mules for the summer of 1966 were: Bart, Dan, Kate, Bailey and Wendy. This was the first Sierra Club Family High Trip offered by the Sierra Club. The route took us out of Twin Lakes, in the Bridgeport area, over Rock Island Pass into Kerrick Meadows down Kerrick Canyon and over Seavey Pass an on to Benson Lake. (Since this was a family trip, the Clubbers only traveled between 4 -7 miles per day. It was GREAT. On top of that, we ended up retracing our path and going out the same way we came in.) If you have never been to Benson Lake it is a sight to behold. Here is this alpine lake with rock cliffs on the north and south sides of the lake and a magnificent beach on the east end of the lake. It is like nothing you'll ever encounter in the Sierra! It's as if you've stumbled on the sandy shores of some ocean. You just have to kick yourself to remind you that you are in the High Sierra and not at Seal Beach in Southern California.

Shoveling SnowThis next image, to the left, is one of my brother Tom (with the pick ax) and Ed Brown shoveling out Trail Crest Pass in June of 1965. I might have mentioned this before, but we spent nearly a week camped just below Mirror Lake at Bighorn Park on the Whitney Portal's trail to the summit of Mt. Whitney. It rained every day and every day we saddle up and rode to Trail Camp at 12,000'. From Trail Camp we hiked another mile, and 50 switchbacks, with our pick axes and shovels up to nearly 13,000' where the snow was and began shoveling snow for 6 hours. Ed swore he'd never smoke another cigarette after that, but it was the first thing he lit up when we finally arrived back at the Portal Store soaking wet and exhausted. We did discover one useful thing on this trip: powdered Wyler's Lemonade mix is excellent to start fires with when all you have is wet wood! I'm not quite sure how the three of us stumbled on this little known fact but it helped us stay dry during four days of rainy, sleety, snow shoveling hell. One day we found ourselves shoveling snow in a "white out" while it was snowing. Figure it out - we were crazy soldiers following the commandants orders. I think this was the huge straw that broke the back of my brother for he never returned to Mt. Whitney Pack Trains after this year. To me, it was worth every shovel since it eventually led to me getting my own string of mules an packing with the outfit for many summers.

This last image, to the right, is one of me on Judy riding east up Rock Creek towards the Miter Basin during Along Rock Creekmy second trip with the Boyds and Merlos into the Sierra just west of New Army and Cottonwood Passes. This was indeed a memorable trip. I had an opportunity to once again be with a wonderful girl, Cindy, that I had met previously when Charles Morgan packed this same group of people into the Sierra. Cindy and I had developed a great relationship corresponding with each other during the college year and now we were finally able to see other once again. We did have a terrific time together on this pack trip. Then it was called the Hunt Party. Charles once again led this pack trip, only this time I was a packer with a string of mules instead a pot boy. It was nice having something to be proud of instead of wondering if it was something I would ever achieve. Tommy Jefferson was a great boss and good teacher though whom I was quite proud of. I always looked forward at the end of each school year to once again seeing Tommy's family and spending the summer with them. I have so many exciting memories of Tommy,Barbara, Norman, Susan and Kathy - but those are for another page.




"1960 High Trip"
[pdf]

from 1960 Sierra Club Bulletin





Tom Key of Los Gatos, CA writes:


Ray,

I was searching for information about Tunnel Meadows when I ran across your posts and saw that you had flow in with Bob White.

In about 1964 (I was 16) my dad, a neighbor and his son (the neighbor was a United Airlines captain) flew into Tunnel Meadows with Bob (it was the first time I had ever been in an airplane) and backpacked from there to a few high elevation lakes to fish for Golden Trout. At one of the lakes we found the shell of a USMC helicopter on the bank. When we returned to TM for Bob to fly us out we asked about the helicopter and he informed us a couple of USAF officers had flow in to fish and crashed into the lake oh take off.

Twenty-two years later my dad called me one day and told me to go to the book store and read the chapter titled "Operation Golden Trout" in Chuck Yeager's autobiography. Sure enough, Chuck and a USAF general had been drinking in the officer's club at Edwards AF base and after getting pretty smashed decided to go on a fishing trip for a few days. They got dropped off with all their camping and fishing equipment at the lake where we found the helicopter, but when the pilot returned to pick them up a few days later the altitude along with four passengers instead of two, plus all the equipment, was more weight than the chopper could lift. It crashed into the lake but Chuck, the general, pilot and co-pilot got out before it sunk. They hiked out and the general sent a recovery team back to salvage what they could - rank has it's privileges.

After 22 years the mystery had been solved.

Tom Key
April 2009


Yeager: An Autobiography by General Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos



Tunnel Meadow and Tunnel Airstrip
High Sierra Desert or Meadow?

Tunnel Air Strip
Tunnel Airstrip and Tunnel Meadow


More Tunnel Airstrip Photos

Tunnel Tower
Tunnel Water Tower
[photo courtesy of Hugh Warren]
This is I suppose it wouldn't be right to talk about the pristine beauty of the High Sierra without also talking about one of its problem areas. Sierra meadows come in many forms. We're all familiar with the low "golf course like" alpine meadow grass which is a prolific as the ground squirrel or marmot. Then there are the high grasses of the Sierra out of Bridgeport at Upper Paiute Meadows. The meadow grass is so deep that you can barely find your stock once you've turned them loose to graze. I distinctly remember a Sierra Club Family High Trip here in 1966. What a trip that was! We went up Buckeye Creek, through The Roughs, and down Kirkwood Creek to Upper Paiute Meadows where we made camp amid "the Tall Grass." From Paiute Meadows we made our way over Dorothy Lake Pass, and down Falls Creek to a spectacular camp and electrical storm on Tilden Lake. This summer Melvin Joseph was packing a string of bronc bay mules, Bonny, Clyde and three others whose names I can't remember. Melvin was either tying up or untying one of those mules to his picket line when it reared up and jumped on him with his front two feet flattening him on the spot. Melvin didn't take this lying down, even though he was at the time! He immediately jumped up and beat the living tar out of that mule. When Melvin got finished with him, it was the mule that was shaking with fear, broken, and not Melvin. It was all in days work for Melvin who often teamed roped with Tommy Jefferson in the rodeos.

Back to the meadows: let's see where were we, ah yes, alpine, grass and also there is the "low-shrub" meadow as I like to call it which is filled with short grass and sage such as Tunnel Meadow in the picture to the upper left. Tunnel Meadow is where Bob White's Flying Service, operating out of Lone Pine Pine for many years, ferried campers and hunters in and out of the High Sierra.

Lastly, there is the meadow that I really wonder if it can be called a meadow at all. This is the big sandy expanse of a meadow that is prolific in the southern Sierra. Meadows such as Mulkey Meadow pictured below, Monache Meadows, Strawberry Meadows, Templeton Meadows, or large portions of Horseshoe Meadows and Ramshaw Meadows offer the packer and the backpacker little but glaring sun and seemingly endless dust. I ate my fare share of dust on many occasion packing through Mulkey Meadows on the way over Mulkey Pass to Horseshoe Meadows and the roadend at Cottonwood Creek. Sadly these "meadows" were not always sand and dust but were either the grassy type found at Tunnel Meadows or the high alpine type. Unfortunately these meadows suffered the fate of overgrazing by sheep and cattle during the summer months in the early part of the 20th century. It can be argued as to who did the worst damage. We all know that cattle eat the grass short, but sheep eat what's left and the root as well. It was because of the damage that the sheep did that there arose a regular "High Sierra Range War" in the early part of the 20th century between the cattlemen and the sheep herders. The cattlemen eventually won the war but the damage was forever done to the High Sierra Meadows. They probably will not recover until the Master comes in glory in the clouds restoring those things which we have been neglectful caretakers of.

Mulkey Meadows
Mulkey Meadows



Rick Otto writes:

I was flying into Tunnel with my dad in the early 1960's. My dad and I would fly to Lone Pine and Bob White would fly us in. I've flown my entire life but I never was in a airplane that was loaded with as much stuff as Bob would care into the meadow. I always loved the place so much I talked my wife into back packing out of tunnel for our honeymoon in 1975. It was the last time I got to go in, a few years after our trip I heard that Bob had returned from Tunnel laid down on the couch at the airport and passed away in his sleep. I remember that Bob only had one good hand, his left. He had tried to hand prop a airplane at Tunnel and had not gotten his hand out of the way. The accident had broken all the bones in his hand, but had not broken the skin. He had the doctors form his hand into a position that let him "grip" the control yoke and also he had two fingers spread apart so he could operate the throttle He was a great guy.

Last week my wife back packed into Tunnel for our wedding anniversary and was happy to find that we could still tell where the runway and camp were. Its great to go back to a place and find its still as beautiful as I remember it.

Thanks for your web site
July 2005

From the archives of Bobby Douglas, images of Tunnel Meadows circa 1928.
Many thanks to Bobby Douglas for sharing these photos of his grandparents and Mom.

alfred biering
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L to R: Alfreda Biering(Bobby's mother), Alfred Biering, Litta Biering

tunnel meadow
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The Biering's home in Tunnel Meadow circa 1928 while they were taking care of cattle.
L to R: Alfreda Biering, unknown, Litta Biering (Alfred's wife)

alfred bierging
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Afred Biering in Tunnel Meadow area.

alfreda douglas
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Alfreda Biering, with her faithful companions next to her, and Afred Biering in Tunnel Meadow. Bobby's mother, Alfreda, was approximately 8 years old at the time of this photo.



Nadine White Sigman (Bob White's eldest daughter) writes:
Hi,

My name is Nadine White Sigman. My dad was Bob White from Lone Pine Airport and Tunnel Meadows. These are very happy memories. The list of all the original packers and their sons and daughters. Lepy Diaz cowboyed for my dad, Bob White, in Tunnel Meadows in the '40s and '50s in the summer. In the winter, he worked at the airport in Lone Pine. Lepy was, I am not sure if he was, the first driver of the Twenty Mule Team ,or one of the first ones.

I remember so many of the names of the packers list. When I was very young my dad would take me to Cottonwood to spend a few days with Bruce and Grace Morgan and play with their children.

I have this beautiful oil painting that one of the Morgan girls painted and gave to my dad. It's of Tunnel Meadows looking down from the Ranger Station.

I noticed you mentioned one of the guys in Anchorage. I was there in the late '40s and '50s. I was back and forth between my mom in Alaska and my dad in Tunnel and Lone Pine. In my senior year of high school I went to Lone Pine. The principal, Bill Bowers, was the principal in the winter and worked for my dad in the mountains in the summer. My English teacher, Mrs. Wright, taught in the winter and worked in Tunnel at the camp in the summer.

When my dad passed away so many of the people on your packer's list came to the funeral. There was horse trailers, hay trucks, everything you could imagine parked at the funeral home.

Thank you for what you are doing. I means a lot to me and to everyone else who remembers the old around-the-camp-fire days. That was when all the old stories that we remember today were told.

Nadine White Sigman,
Bob White's oldest daughter
January 2009



Tunnel Airfield
(Excerpt from Abandoned & Little_known Airfields by Paul Freeman)
Pat Decano writes:

Tunnel Airfield was created by my uncle, Leonard Shellenbarger, at the request of a Dr. Shook in 1931. Dr. Shook was a friend of Bert Johnson, a cattleman, who wanted the airfield constructed so he could fly in and go fishing at the nearby Cottonwood Lakes. Leonard drug the airfield with a Fresno scraper pulled by a mule and was paid $40 by Dr. Shook for the job. The Fresno scraper was packed in on a mule [most likely by Mt. Whitney Pack Trains under the direction of Chrysler and Cook].

In 1931, "Hap" and a buddy flew in to Tunnel from March Air Force Base to do some fishing. When they were ready to leave in the afternoon, Leonard said that they could not make it out. Arnold's plane crashed and my son has a cigar-sized box that was made from scraps of the plane. My grandfather, Everett Shellenbarger, was the ranger there at the time.

The earliest aeronautical chart depicting Tunnel Meadows Airport was on the August 1945 Mt. Whitney World Aeronautical Chart. It depicted Tunnel Meadows as an auxiliary airfield, at an elevation of 9,100'. Ted Sarbin, who flew into Tunnel with his Cessna 180, recalled that the airfield was approximately 1,800 feet long. I flew into Tunnel twice with Bob White's flying service. I flew into Lone Pine but did not have the skill or a suitable plane to attempt a landing into Tunnel Meadows. There have been a number of accidents at the airfield.

There was a single-wire (the other half of the circuit was ground) party line Forest Service magneto-crank phone located at the Air Camp. Cranking long-short-short would get Bob White to answer in Lone Pine and fly in to pick us up. If one were landing to the west, a go around was possible. Approaching in the other direction was marginal. When the Air Camp was in operation, Bob White had guides, pack horses for rent, tables and refrigerators which were used as ice boxes, since there was no electricity at the camp. There was also a tractor for moving planes and taking the passenger's gear to their campsite.

According to Ted, Tunnel Air Camp was closed when Tunnel Meadow and the surrounding areas were declared a Wilderness Area.


1931 photo of Pat Decano in front of two Army Air Corps biplanes at Tunnel Air Camp. The biplanes brought Col. "Hap" Arnold from March Field to Tunnel Meadows.


Tunnel Airfield looking west.


Tunnel Airfield looking east.

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Joe Tysi or Berkeley, CA writes:

Ray,

A friend who has been a geologist in the Southern Sierra and White Mountains just reminded me of your site and sent me the link. Thank you for bringing back so many memories that are dear to me. I was one of the 2 rangers at Tunnel in 1967 and 1968, and worked the front country in 1970. Oh my, what a time that was for me. I left a small note in your guest book.

I promise to put together some stories and pictures and as a few questions where memory, which was never top notch, has failed.

Meanwhile, here's a photo from 1968 of a guy I only remember as Salty, in his cabin I think on the west side of Templeton Meadow.

Joe Tysl
Berkeley, CA


Salty at his cabin in Templeton Meadow.



Lee Hesse of Anchorage, Alaska writes:

My dad's name is Emil Hesse. As a boy I flew to Tunnel Meadows many times with my dad and mother. My dad owned a flight service out of Corona, CA called Corona Air Service and we used to fly to Lone Pine where my dad would visit with his old friend Bob White who flew charters in to Tunnel Meadows. We flew either our Cessna 180 or 185 when going to Tunnel.  I caught many a golden trout there as a boy.  My dad passed back in 1984.  I remember my dad telling me that he signed off Bob White's paperwork for his commercial flight rating.  My dad had been an advanced aerobatics instructor in WWII teaching Navy & Army Air Corp pilots.

September 2012


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Bill Leet of Volcano, HI / Davis, CA / Bellevue, ID writes:

At the end of the spring semester, 1965, I was finishing up my course work for a master’s degree in fisheries and simultaneously looking at job possibilities.  One day in mid-May, I looked at the bulletin board in the fisheries building and there was an announcement seeking an individual who had completed all the course work for a master’s in fisheries, who had fire fighting experience, and who had experience handling horses.  I went home and said to Theresa, my wife, “The only way they could have narrowed the qualifications to fit me better was to require sailing experience.”  I read her the job description and she said, “Let’s do it.”

At the time we had two daughters, ages two and one.  We would be going to the 10,000-foot-elevation Kern Plateau, just south of Mt. Whitney.  The nearest town, and for that matter, the nearest road, was 30 miles away, and we would be stationed there from early June to October in a cabin with no electricity.  “Are you sure?”  I asked, even knowing that Theresa was every bit as adventurous as I was. 

“Yep,” she said, “it sounds like fun.”  She proved that summer what I already knew:  that she was a trouper.

When I reported for work in Lone Pine, California, we were told that I would ride the thirty miles to the Tunnel Guard Station on horseback and Theresa and our daughters, Julie and Mary, would fly to a landing strip that was two miles from the log cabin that would be our home for the next half year.  My paychecks would be sent to the grocer in Lone Pine who would hold them until we emerged in the fall.  He would deduct the cost of the groceries that we would order once each week to be flown to the landing strip where there was a small camp run by a cowboy who would also conduct horse pack train trips for people who were willing to pay for such things. ....


Read the rest of Bill's story here:
Tunnel Guard Station by Bill Leet


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Bruce Gossard of Los Angeles, CA writes:

Thanks for the wonderful tour of this unique part of history in the Sierras. I had the good fortune to visit Bob White's flying camp as a youngster. 

In about 1965, when I was 16, Bob flew my dad and three boys into the Tunnel Meadows Camp for some fishing, riding, hiking, and growing up. Bob's championship flying skill was the great beginning. He gently side-slipped that big Cessna Stationair down the steep, curving approach to a perfect touchdown on the short narrow high-altitude dirt airstrip. The approach was not only crowded with mountains and trees, but also sprinkled with the wrecked airplanes of those who didn't get it right one time.

In a very short time at the camp, I fell in love forever with the wind in the trees, the cold, clear running stream beside the camp, and the still silence of the nights. Leaving the camp after two weeks was the hardest goodbye I ever said.

My wise old dad must have known that, because somehow he talked Bob White into "hiring" me the next summer to actually work at the camp with wrangler Bud Loniker, cook and tough-guy Shorty, and Bud's little dog he called "Peachy" who herded the stock better than anybody. I didn't get money, but I got time off, a horse to ride out on, and all the food I could eat. It was everything I needed. My main daily job was to get the stock into the corral every morning, brush them down, feedbag them, and get them saddled up for the guests' trips. I still can see the horses - Jimmy (only Bud could ride Jimmy), Bob, Roany, old Roy, and the pack mules Blackie (who bit) and Brownie (who didn't). I also helped Bud and Shorty with garbage detail, latrine digging, camp cleanup, etc.

To this day, that summer is as clear, sweet, and wondrous as any memory I have. We mended fences, guided the guests to lakes and fishing streams, cared for the stock, caught dinner in the local creeks, fried up those little Golden Trout that Shorty called "popcorn."

It was a big change for a city boy to rise before the sun and go to sleep with nightfall each day. Those rhythms still feel like the natural and right way to me. It makes a man, even just a boy, realize the blessings that surround us constantly. And then when you get a few moments alone in the forest, you realize you are never alone at all.

Thanks for your wonderful photographs and stories which bring all this memory rushing back to me. It's an honor to be acquainted with the White family of pioneers.

Sincerely,

Bruce Gossard, Los Angeles, 6-16-2013


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Rusty Harrison writes:
Ray,

I have so many memories of Tunnel Meadows. My dad and Bob White were good friends, both being WW II instructors. My dad flew for Bob when he was grounded with medical problems. My dad bought Bob's 1964 180 - N4792U - and used it to fly into Tunnel, Monache and Templeton Meadows. Each summer we would shuttle in our gear and set up tents on pads that remained year after year. We were there the year a Staggerwing ran off the end of the runway. As I recall, Bob's mechanic, Red, bought it and eventually repaired it enough to fly it out. We also witnessed a C 320 land and had to stay for several days until there was enough wind for him to take off. I never saw Bob as mad at anyone as he was at the 320 pilot. The fellow was a good stick but had no idea what he was up against at Tunnel.

Bob taught all of us a lot about back country flying. I still think of him every time I make a tail low wheel landing in my 180.

Rusty Harrison, 07-25-2015

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