Local hikers ride out quake on Whitney

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Local hikers ride out quake on WhitneyAs Indian Wells Valley residents rolled through a 5.8-magnitude earthquake — from the relatively safe distance of 60 miles away — two local hikers rode it out on Mount Whitney.

On Wednesday morning, Ann Rizzardini and her husband James headed up to the Whitney Portal to tackle the 6.5-mile hike to Lone Pine Lake.

“Early on we heard a rumbling and joked ‘is it an airplane or an earthquake’,” said Ann. With a 4.6-magnitude foreshock on Monday and a swarm of smaller earthquakes over the next few days, it could have been either.

But when the 5.8 hit 12 miles away from Lone Pine at 10:40 a.m. on Wednesday, “We just froze. In a building, you know what to do to protect yourself during an earthquake. It never occurred to me to consider what I would do if I was on a mountainside.”

For several seconds Ann and James watched as rocks, dirt and debris came hurtling down the slopes all around them. “Finally James pulled me behind a big boulder to shield us from all the rocks.

“It was really scary. Not just because of our location, but because it was not immediately clear to me how to find safety.”

Having survived last year’s 6.4 and 7.1 quakes, Ann said the force did not seem comparable, nor did the duration seem as long. “Honestly, by the time we took shelter behind the rock it was about over.”

The couple decided to finish their hike “we were so close by then!” But by the time they returned to the Portals, emergency responders were already on site to evacuate hikers.

Authorities from Inyo County Sheriff’s Office reported that rock slides have closed Whitney Portal road. Officers from the Ridgecrest Police Department were dispatched to lend mutual aid. Although no injuries have been reported yet, they did note that a giant boulder left a sizeable hole at the portal.

“It’s pretty amazing that we just happened to be up there for the quake,” said Ann. “You could see the rock and dust slides from the trail. Down at the portals all of the vehicles were just covered with dust.”

The portals have been closed, and ICSO has also reported debris on the road to Horseshoe Meadows.

At press time, the U.S. Geological Survey was still in the process of updating the details of the earthquake. However, structural geologist Emily Fisher, who started the “Geology Answers” Facebook page after the 2019 Ridgecrest Earthquake Sequence, said that the epicenter was right underneath Owen’s Valley Lake.

“It’s along the continuation of the Owen’s Valley Fault,” she said. “Faults aren’t just one clean, clear line, they are a series of faults that connect up to each other with time. This is the Eastern California Shear Zone, where we are seeing a lot more motion.”

Some seismologists are calling the ECSZ “the new San Andreas.”

Fisher said that at the Alabama Hills, located at the base of Mount Whitney, “you can see scarps where the fault comes to the surface.”

In 1872, an earthquake estimated at a magnitude of between 7.4 and 7.9 leveled the east side of Lone Pine. The quake killed 27 and injured 56. It remains one of the largest recorded earthquakes in California history.

Does this change Ann’s love for exploring local trails?

“I think the sound of airplanes overhead might be a little scarier for me now, but I still feel pretty safe. I don’t think this is going to keep me out of the mountains in the future.”

Pictured: Landslides in the Mount Whitney region, captured from the trail between the Portal and Lone Pine Lake. -- Photo by James Dreher

Story First Published: 2020-06-24