Research Shangri-La Is Built From Leader's 18-Year Labor of Love


So, how exactly do nine gleaming new toilets from some movie mogul's Hollywood Hills mansion--complete with gold-plated flush handles--end up at 12,000 feet inside a mountaintop high-altitude research facility?

Dave Trydahl can tell you. The operations manager for the White Mountain Research Station also can explain how two nearly demolished wood-frame buildings in downtown Los Angeles were dismantled and carefully hauled north to their new home in a mountain meadow. There they are used as a dining hall and sleeping quarters for visiting researchers.

In 18 years at the University of California research station, the 58-year-old Trydahl has made it his quest to upgrade facilities at the isolated center while spending as little government money as possible.

To realize his goal, Trydahl has become the bearded Blanche DuBois of high altitude research. But he hasn't stopped at the kindness of strangers. He's cut telephone deals with cagey businessmen and leaned on friends for favors to improve the struggling research facility he has come to cherish.

For Trydahl, it's a labor of love, "high altitude research love."

Founded in the 1940s by the U.S. Navy, the center provides four different research stations between the base camp at 4,000 feet and the summit hut at just over 14,000 feet--itself one of the highest altitude research labs in the world.

Located in the desolate White Mountains, a jagged range that runs along the eastern side of the Owens Valley, the center initially was used for military and space research. The arid range, which includes the highest arctic desert in the United States outside Alaska, was well-suited for testing military radar. NASA once tested the lunar landing buggy on its rocky terrain.

Now owned and operated by the University of California, the center serves as a field research lab for high altitude biological and geological studies. At the station's Barcroft lab, a Navy Quonset hut at 12,200 feet, where it can snow in July, one student observes the reproductive habits of marmots. Nearby, 70 pregnant sheep are housed in a pen as part of a Loma Linda Hospital study of the effects of oxygen deprivation on fetal development.

Hired in 1981, Trydahl found a center in disrepair. At the higher altitudes, researchers slept in tents or in ramshackle World War II-era buildings infested by rats.

Trydahl went to work. Most neglected was the facility at 10,000 feet, Crooked Creek, which he considered almost unlivable. But funding was hard to come by because, as Trydahl soon found, isolated university field research stations didn't have the same ability to secure grants as high-tech labs located on campus.

With the design help of a Santa Monica architect, Trydahl proposed a $2-million project to upgrade the Crooked Creek station. University officials said no. "We saw our potential, but others saw us as an isolated outpost," said Trydahl, who with his mountain man beard resembles a prospector who might have rambled in these parts 150 years ago. "Why waste money on some camp in the middle of nowhere?"

In 1990, he heard through university contacts about two cedar log buildings in downtown L.A.--one of which served as the Starlight Bar and Grill--that were about to be demolished. Trydahl and his crew spent 10 weeks dismantling the buildings by hand. He persuaded truckers who hauled hay to Los Angeles from Bishop to carry the lumber north on what would otherwise have been empty trucks. Trydahl later hauled the logs to 10,000 feet for reassembling.

"Opportunities," he says, "are 10% luck and 90% elbow grease."

But Trydahl wasn't done. He raised money with yard sales of the center's old military equipment. And he helped coordinate dispatches sent to the campuses in the California university system for surplus supplies and furniture.

Within months, the station received mattresses, sofas, kitchenettes, desks and bedspreads from various dormitory refurbishment projects. He even got hundreds of dinner plates from UC Davis because a new food service director didn't like their color.

Then came the nine toilets from the home of a Hollywood producer--scored by architect Marc Appleton, who spotted them in a garage after designing a remodel of the producer's home.

"I love this research center for what it is, a simple, beautiful place," said Appleton, who has donated $250,000 in services to the station. "Under Dave's direction, it has accomplished so much with so little, just managing to scrape by and get along."

Directing a small staff of seasonal craftsmen, Trydahl plays jack of all trades--plowing roads and doing carpentry, electrical and plumbing work to keep the center going. He even delivers supplies by snowmobile to researchers braving the winter at the Barcroft facility--known among students as "Barcatraz" for its prison-like isolation.

But the place is no prison for Trydahl, who fell in love with the remote beauty of the range--whether driving his four-wheel-drive truck over rutted roads carved out a century ago, or watching playful coyotes trail his snowmobile along open mountain meadows.

On a limited salary, he raised two boys by himself in these mountains, always explaining that the real poor people "were driving their Mercedes in traffic on the Santa Ana Freeway."

Now, though, Trydahl needs both money and building materials to finish his improvements at the Crooked Creek station before he retires in two years. He stays a salesman to the end.

When the occasional public visitor complains about the lavishness of the facilities at Crooked Creek, which under Trydahl's care resemble a sprawl of Vail condominiums, the White Mountain research manager explains that no tax dollars were spent on the project.

"By the time I'm done explaining how we did it," he says proudly, "most people have their wallets out to make a contribution to the cause."

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