Climbing a Mountain 3 Times: Tours through the rocks of Humboldt

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as the sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves – John Muir, in Mountains of California, 1894.


Crestone Needle towering more than 2000′ above upper South Colony Lake as seen along the trail to the summit of Humboldt Peak (photo taken 9/24/16).

One of the greatest geologic thinkers of all time was James Hutton. A scotsman that made an early career of farming and dabbled in chemisty, he developed some of the most important concepts in geosciences including deep time and the theory of uniformitarianism.   The concepts were diametrically opposed to many of the societal norms of the mid-18th century; conservative religious views on the literal interpretation of the bible dictated that the Earth was only a few thousands of years old, and that the surface of the planet was shaped by catastrophes (like giant floods and earthquakes cast upon the planet to punish a sinful mankind).  Towards the end of Hutton’s life he published his concepts in a short paper: Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe (1788). In this paper he laid out some simple principles: (1) that the surface of the Earth was constantly being reworked, and the rocks must have been uplifted, eroded and buried many times over, and (2) it must have taken 10s or 100s of millions of years to make the surface of the Earth since the processes of uplift and erosion were so slow.  Hutton’s clear thought on geologic processes were not unlike Einstein’s clear brake with classical mechanics – the leap in reasoning is so profound that it can only be described as genius.

Hutton found the inspiration for his theories in every rock he could find – to him they told a story of conditions, and forces, and chemistry in the distant past. I am no James Hutton, but I too, tend to look at rocks as clues to a grand “who done it”.  Especially when I run or hike high in a mountain wilderness where great expanses of rock are laid bare by elevation and erosion, I am easily lost in thought about what this place must of looked like millions or billions of years ago.  Many people see a imposing landscape, like the shear cliff in the photo above of Crestone Needle, and are awestruck – I am much more likely to be asking “why is it here?”.  There is beauty in that shear cliff that many will miss – the base of the cliff is 1.7 billion year old granite, and the wall is a series of ancient sedimentary rocks that is composed of rocks fragments that were long ago eroded off another tall mountain that has completely disappeared from the face of the Earth.


A slab of rock near the summit of Humboldt Peak – this is a sedimentary rock with layers what were deposited on the flood plain of a river draining a ancient mountain.  The middle layer of the rock has large fragments deposited along the river bottom.  These fragments once crowned the top of a peak, perhaps taller than even Humboldt.

I wanted to hike one more 14er in 2016 before the weather ushered in snow and ice.  Although I have hiked and ran about 40 of the 14ers in Colorado, I had never visited the area around the high country of the Crestone group, home to 5 14ers in a small 2 square mile area; Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, Kit Carson Peak, Challenger Point and Humboldt Peak. So, a late September a summit party was set for Humboldt Peak – and what was discovered was the most incredible collection of rocks that reminded me of James Hutton. A window into ancient mountains long past, a glimpse of roaring Alpine streams that must have flowed for millions of years, and a realization that the highest mountains I climb today were once beneath the surface of the sea.


Looking down the spine of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range from the north.  The Range is narrow – only 10-12 miles wide on average – and rises some 7,000′ above flat wide valleys to the east and west.  Humboldt Peak is marked in the right center part of the photograph, and is part of a cluster of 5 peaks with summit elevations above 14,000′. Photo is from PikesPeakPhoto.

Mountains are More than a Pile of Rocks

The Sangre de Cristo Range are one of the longest continuous chain of mountains in the world, and stretches from Salida, Colorado to Glorieta Pass — about 220 miles.  The Sangres owe their present topography to the opening of the Rio Grande Rift. The rift, which began to “open” approximately 25 million years ago represents the latest example  of extension of the southwestern lithosphere which has stretched to nearly twice its lateral extent in the last 35 million years. When the Rio Grande Rift opening it created a series of normal faults to accommodate the extension; along these normal faults mountain ranges rose as the rift floor “dropped” (in reality, the rift floor represent new continental real estate).  The Sangres are the eastern margin of the rift.  The northern most Sangres, which are shown in the map below, are a remarkable range.  They are very narrow and very high – they almost appear to be a spine connecting Salida and Fort Garland, Colorado.


The Northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains (annotated Landsat image).  The Sangres run north-south from Salida, Colorado to Glorieta Pass, New Mexico.  The image above shows the northern most part of the range with separates two broad valleys (San Luis to the west and Wet Mountain to the east).

The present day Sangre de Cristo mountains are an ephemeral feature – at least as far as geology is concerned.  The rocks that make up the range tell a story that is 1.7 billion years old.  The majestic range today is only the latest in a long linage of great mountain ranges.  The oldest rocks exposed in the northern Sangres are Precambrian in age, and were formed in island arcs where ancient oceanic plates collided; these collision resulted in subduction when one of the plates was forced back into the Earth’s mantle.  This resulted in extensive melting, and fractionation of the rocks being melted.  The fractionation separated some of the “lighter” materials like quartz and feldspar.  These materials coalesced into large plutons – granitic bodies – that had a lower density than the oceanic plates and thus, could not be subducted.  These plutons became the first continental crust.  The Precambrian rocks in the Sangres were once associated with large volcanoes, and no doubt had high elevation.  They were the first mountains to occupy the territory that the Sangres now reside.


A cartoon of the land area centered on southern Colorado about 320 million years ago.  The present location of the Sangre de Cristo mountain was mostly in a broad depression called the Colorado Trough.  The blue shading shows the location of sea – so the Uncompahgre Uplift was a mountainous island. (figure from Lindsey, 2010). 

After these mountains were formed there appears to be a long period – nearly a billion and a half years – where the dominate geologic agent in the region was erosion. Slowly, the Precambrian mountain ranges were eroded, and the sediments were washed away into ancient seas. Eventually, the seas rose and covered the ancient rocks; in the case of the northern Sangres this happened about 350 million years ago.  Amazingly, there is NO rock record for the intervening time between with the Precambrian plutonic rocks and when the ocean sedimentary rocks were deposited. This is called the great unconformity, and was documented by John Wesley Powell in the Grand Canyon in the 1870s.  James Hutton used a similar unconformity in Scotland to crystallize his theory of uniformitarianism. 

Around 320 million years ago a large mountain block began to rise to the west of the present location of the Sangres.  This mountain range, called the Uncompahgre Uplift (or simply the Ancestral Rockies), is shown in the map above.  This highland was created by plate tectonic interactions, probably to the southwest.  The Uncompahgre was quite high and shed detritus into streams and rivers flowing out of the mountains.  Much of that erosional material was deposited in a basin called the Colorado Trough.  This trough captured streams and rivers that carried silt, sands, and boulders that would become sandstones and conglomerates. The most famous of these sedimentary rocks is the Crestone Conglomerate – the locus for the deposition of the conglomerate was the area that would become the Sangres.  This depositional sink could not have been far from the high country because the cobbles preserved today did not travel great distances.  The second mountain range that influenced the Sangre was the Uncompahgre; and even though climbing the Sangre today does not mean passing the ancient summit, but certainly a climb up Humboldt is a shadow climb of the ancient Uncompahgre!


A cross section through the modern Sangre de Cristo Mountains; east to west slice, located slightly south of the Crestone group.  The rock layers have been extensively shortened along thrust faults – what once was a layered cake geology is now a smashed accordion. (figure from Lindsey, 2010).

The sandstones and conglomerates that were deposited in the Colorado Trough are known as the Sangre de Cristo formation. The formation is of late Pennsylvanian and  Permian age, and in places is more than 8,000 ft. thick. Once these beds were nearly horizontal, but today are often exposed as steeply dipping strata.  This distortion and reconfiguration is due to a major geologic episode known as the Laramide orogeny that lasted from 80 to 40 million years before the present. Much of the crust of the western US was compressed, and the shortening was accommodated by large scale folding and thrusting.  The cross section shown above is through the Sangre de Cristo range just south of the Creston Group.  It can be seen that the former “layered cake” stratigraphy is now smashed together.  In fact, there are many cases where older rocks overlie younger rocks.


The present high elevation of the Sangre de Cristo mountains is due to the opening of the Rio Grande Rift approximately 25 million years ago.  As the crust was stretched and extended, large normal faults were formed and the mountains were uplifted on the rift margin. (figure form Lindsey, 2010).

The final major geologic episode that shaped the Sangre de Cristo range was the opening of the Rio Grande Rift, beginning about 25 million years ago. Quite simply, the continental crust of the North American plate began to be “stretched” and pulled apart. As rifting occurs lower crustal rocks melt and rise, filling the region beneath the extension.  This causes uplift, and also produces large normal faults to accommodate the uplift. The margins of rifts typically have fault block mountain ranges – and that is what the Sangre de Cristo mountains are!  It is not understood why the Sangres are so narrow and so high; there are 10 (or 11 depending how you count) 14ers in the Sangres, and all the 13ers in the state of New Mexico are in the Sangres.

It is tempting to look at something like the Crestone group as a eternal monument to mysterious geologic forces.  However, it is remarkably temporary – we are fortunate to be living at this moment on the long strand of Earth history.  But the rocks tell of mountains past, and the monument is more like a library.


A view of Humboldt Peak (center of the photograph) from Wet Mountain Valley. The distance to the summit as a crow flies from this vantage point is about 4 miles – it is also a climb of nearly 7,000′. We drove a couple of miles to a higher trail head.

Humboldt Dreams

Picking  a climb of Humboldt Peak was easy – I really wanted to visit the Crestone Group, and Humboldt is the easiest of the peaks to climb. Further, Humboldt Peak was named for a great German naturalist explorer, Alexander von Humboldt (his observations of mining practices in South America and Mexico in 1801-1804 are a classic).  However, Humboldt believed in the Neptunist theory of the Earth, the exact opposite of Hutton’s thoughts (oh, the geology nexus is just too rich!). I asked my friend, and equal in terms of loving the high country, Dave Zerkle to venture to southern Colorado in late September.  The weather can be “dicey” after the calendar signals that fall has started; indeed the day before we were scheduled to climb a storm blew through southern Colorado and left cold temperatures and a dusting of snow in the high country.  But the passing storm also left the skies crystal clear, and views of the fall foliage were a magnetic pull to the mountains.


2.5 miles into the trek the trail enters the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area.  The sign warns  Dave Zerkle that no hang gliders are allowed.  It was humorous at the time, but the high winds at the summit made the ban practical.

The trail up to the summit of Humboldt starts in the track of an old mining road, and climbs rapidly in a narrow valley towards the South Colony Lakes.  These lakes are two small alpine ponds of a deep emerald color that sit in a magnificent glacial cirque surrounded by Crestone Needle, Crestone and Humboldt. The fresh snow – 1 to 2″ of very soft and dry ice crystals – is clean and without much evidence of fellow hikers. After hiking 2.5 miles the trail veers to single track and enters the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area. Looming to the right of the trail is the ridgeline of Humboldt, and the view to the front is dominated by the brooding escarpment of Crestone Needle.


A view up the shoulder of Humboldt Peak from Colony Lakes Creek at about 11,300′ elevation.

After about 4 miles the trail passes by the South Colony Lakes; the view at the upper lake is surreal.  The sky is cloudless, and an unnatural deep blue.  The lake is a vibrant green, and the grey-tan rocks of Crestone Needle are highlighted by brushes of bright white snow (photograph at the top of the article). Although we have been seeing wonderful examples of Crestone Conglomerate on the way up to the alpine lakes, it is here that some truly stunning examples appear.  Huge boulders that have toppled from the cirque cliffs lie scattered about.  The boulders have angular clasts that vary in size from a few cm to a meter, and many have the light red color typical of a felsic granite.  The size and shape of the clasts suggests that they were deposited by high energy river not far from the high ground of the Uncompahgre Uplift.  The rocks look like the flood plains of the present day Arkansas River as it drains the high country of the Sawatch and Mosquito Ranges.


Large boulders of Crestone Conglomerate near upper South Colony Lake.  Individual cobbles in the boulders are up to 50 cm in length, and are mostly composed of Precambrian granite

The elevation of the upper South Colony lake is approximately 12,000′. That means that the remaining climb to the top of Humboldt is steep – approximately 2,100′ in less than 1.75 miles. I checked my thermometer as we started up the switchbacks towards the ridgeline and it was 27 degrees F – but only moderate winds.  However, with each 500′ climb the temperature drops, and the winds begin to howl. By 13,000′ the winds are uncomfortable on my face (everything thing else is covered!) – I am beginning to experience windburn, which is a strange experience unique to high mountains.  The cold  temperatures and high winds strip the face of oils and moisture, and the bright sun burns the skin within only a few minutes of exposure.


A view back to Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak from the ridge leading to the summit of Humboldt Peak.  In the far distance the San Juan Mountains are visible.

Despite the cold and wind, the views are spectacular.  I don’t really want to dawdle and take pictures because it is just too cold.  The last mile of the ascent is a scramble, picking ones way through a jumble of boulders of conglomerate.  After a false summit the true peak top comes into view – but the winds actually make walking difficult.


Dave Zerkle approaching the summit of Humboldt Peak. The northside of the peak is a shear cliff.  Dave is crossing blocks of Sangre de Cristo Formation. In the distance is Wet Mountain Valley, some 7,000 below the summit.

The summit is broad, and in fact it is a bit difficult to tell exactly where the high point is located.  But the views in all directions are breathtaking.  Looking to the north you can see as far as Cottonwood Peak. To the northeast Pike’s Peak is obvious, and to the south Spanish Peaks are more than 60 miles away. My thermometer says the temperature is 21 degrees – but the wind is at least 20 miles per hour, and may be significantly higher than that. Using a wind chill calculator like NOAAs ( indicates that we “felt” temperatures between 0 and 6 degrees F. In these conditions the time to frost bite is minutes – and I can attest to that short time because when I took off my gloves to snap photographs I experienced a rapid freezing sensation!


On the summit of Humboldt.  Over my right shoulder is Crestone Needle and Creston Peak.  Over my right shoulder is Kit Carson.

The total time we spent at the summit was only 10 minutes – a true touch and go.  It was just too cold for a lingering embrace. The scramble down should be easy – except for the cold.  However, my bad knee is stiff, and it takes me much longer than my climbing partner to return to the veritable tropics of South Colony Lakes.


View to the north from Humboldt Peak.  The tall peak in the left center is Mt. Adams which has an elevation of 13,940′.  The peak in the right foreground is Colony Baldy which has an elevation of 13,711′


View to the south from Humboldt Peak.  The peak in the foreground is Marble Mountain.  In the far distance on the left side of the photo are the two humps of Spanish Peaks.  The clouds partially obscure the 14ers in the Blanca group.

Despite the slow scramble descent, the rocks are really interesting. There are alternating layers of Crestone Conglomerate where the clasts are poorly sorted and of large size, and layers that almost look like sandstone.  There are millions of years of erosion of the Uncompahgre Uplift locked away in the geologic section we traverse as we drop down 2000′ and return to the South Colony Lakes.


Dave Zerkle reluctantly points out a large boulder of Crestone Conglomerate at 13,500′ elevation.  This boulder was part of a flood plain that had an estimated elevation of 6,000′ 250 million years ago.  The flood plain eventually was buried, and the detritus was fused into the incredibly hard conglomerate.  The opening of the Rio Grande Rift some 25 million years ago began a process that uplift this boulder to its present location.

Once we arrive back at the Lakes the temperature is in the upper 30s.  Perfect weather for trail running, but too warm for the layered clothing that we had on for the ascent. We passed several hikers on the way back to the trail head; many were on their way to camp near the lakes and hoped to climb Crestone Needle the next day.  The Needle was so impressive – it had a siren call to us also, but that will have to be another day.


Heading down from upper South Colony Lake looking at Marble Mountain.  The snow coverage accentuates the bedding of the Minim formation, sediments that are older than the Crestone conglomerate.



The Santa Fe Ultra: Lost, Climbs, Friends

The rocks are not so close akin to us as the soil; they are one more remove from us; but they lie back of all, and are the final source of all. … Time, geologic time, looks out at us from the rocks as from no other objects in the landscape, John Burroughs, early 20th century American naturalist.


Sunset on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, as seen from near my house in Los Alamos, NM. The course of the Santa Fe Ultra went from near the top of the high peak in the right center (Lake Peak) to the valley floor.

Morning sunrise in Los Alamos is a special celebration.  No matter the season, the sun slowly ascends above the rugged horizon famed by the high country of the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  Santa Fe Baldy, composed of PreCambrian gneiss and criss crossed with the wide pegmatite veins and dikes, begins the morning as a dark shade of gray.  If clouds are present — and they often are — the skyline is crowned in an orange glow.  Slowly the carved landscape of the Pajarito Plateau becomes visible; steep canyon walls framing the flat tops of mesas. Finally, the entire Rio Grande Valley nestled between Los Alamos and Baldy appears in a pastel glow.  I never grow tired of the quotidian cycle, and feel blessed to live in such a wonderful place.

Early this year the inaugural Ultra Santa Fe race(s) was announced, and I signed up immediately.  The race promised a complete tour of that distant landscape I see so many mornings.  A trail circuit from the top of the ridge line at 12,000′ to the juniper covered arroyos at 7,200′ along the easter margin of the Rio Grande Valley. When I first signed up I was in the middle of training for the San Juan Solstice 50 miler, and was assuming the Santa Fe race would be the last long run of the 2016 season.  However, as Yogi Berra said “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. The wheels fell off after the San Juan, and I was forced to scale way back on my running.  No matter, I was still excited about the Ultra Santa Fe, and treated it as a true training run.  50km has long ago faded as an intimidating distance for a run, especially if there is no expectation on how fast I would run.

Many runners from Los Alamos travel over to run in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains – running from the Santa Fe Ski Valley to the top of Santa Fe Baldy is one of my very favorite training activities.  I was joined by several of my friends for the Ultra Santa Fe; we all shared the trait of being undertrained at the end of the summer, so we formed a team with the name “Team DFL”.  The moniker was at first whimsical, but it did prove prothetic! However, that did not diminish the adventure of traveling through a mountain wilderness, and the joy of friendship.



Team DFL (Dave Zerkle, Terry Wallace and Dave Dogruel) at the beginning of the Ultra Santa Fe 50km (really it was 56 km).  Photo from Carl Gable.

The Race

It takes about 1hr 15 minutes to drive from Los Alamos to the Santa Fe Ski Valley, so we departed about 5 am from the hill.  This left way more time that was necessary, but it also allowed the copious consumption of coffee (not really a performance enhancing substance, but rather, the lack of coffee is a well known performance depressant).  The temperature at start time was in the mid-40s, perfect for running. The logistics of putting on any Ultra is challenging, and certainly the chance of a first-time event having a “hiccup” is high.  However, the crew that put on the Ultra Santa Fe were commendable.  A few hours earlier in the dark, 24 runners had started the 50 mile version of the race.  The 50 km and 50 mile courses shared much of the same trail, and Race Director gave detailed instructions to the runners on how “not to confuse” the courses.  A few hours after our 50 km start there would be a half marathon, which also shared some of the same trail….because it was later in the day, why listen to that instruction, eh?


The course of the 50 km, complete with the lost spur.  The course descends from the Ski Valley down the drainage of the Rio en Medio, skirts the alluvial foothills above Tesuque, and then climbs back up to Tesuque Peak.  Mileage posting help to locate discussion in the text.

About 40 runners toed the line for the 50 km race at 7 am.  I had run on all the trails that the course covered in the past, so I knew we were in for a long day.  However, despite the familiarity with the trail network, I quickly fell into the pack mentality once the exclaimation of “GO” was shouted by the Race Director. The course loops around the Ski Lodge, and after about 1/2 of mile joins the Rio en Medio trail. A short distance after joining the trail, the actual Rio en Medio is visible, and everyone at the back of the pack settles in at a 12 min/mile pace realizing it will be a long day. Only a few hundred feet into the trail run there is a trail split – on the right hand side is the Rio en Medio trail, and on the left is a branch of the Windsor trail.  Everyone in front of me turns left (it was marked with flags, but the flags for the half-marathon course).  I am oblivious to the wrong turn, but immediately begin to question whether I have early onset Alzheimers.  The trail is nothing like the Rio en Medio I thought I knew – instead of a steep descent along a very rocky trail (the rocks are from a glacial outflow), it is a sinuous up-and-down smooth single track.  After a mile many people begin to realize something is wrong, and a group of us stop and discuss the discrepancy in direction and trail markings.  I whip out my Gaia app on my iPhone, and sure enough we are already a mile off course! I can only explain this by hiding my geoscience background, and mumbling that I am a “manager”.  About a dozen runners cut back to the hiway and run back to the beginning of the Rio en Medio trail, and start the descent again.  It ends up that we did an extra two miles, but in the scheme of events, it is just a tiny diversion!


Dave Zerkle along the Rio en Medio trail after dropping about 1,500′ in elevation from the start line.  The river flows a well defined canyon for about 6 miles.

Rio en Medio is one of three perennial streams that drain the high country around Lake Peak; Rio Nambe, Rio en Medio and Tesuque Creek (which has two branches). The Rio en Medio is quite modest by most standards, but in New Mexico any perennial stream is a major asset!  The mean annual runoff for the stream is 1,740 acre-feet (the discharge from the Colorado river is about 20 million acre-feet).  Northern New Mexico has experienced a wet monsoon in 2016 (started late, but July and August were robust!), and the stream crossing along the trail result in wet feet.


The Rio en Medio drainage basin. The first 6 miles of the course follows the Rio from 10,200′ elevation to 7,600′ elevation.

Around mile 5 in the race the canyon narrows and there a a number of waterfalls.  This is a truly beautiful section of the race, and does not belie the long climbs to come.


One of several waterfalls along the Rio en Medio.  The water has carved a smooth shoot in the Precambrian metamorphic gneiss.

We arrive at the first aid station after running for 1hr and 50 minutes; the mileage is 7.76 miles, and even though we have descended 2,500′, the trail is still cool and in the shade of forest growth. However, after only a few more miles, the trail begins to zig-zags through Pinon-Juniper forest with its sparse tree spacing and low growth. It is now mid-morning, and instead of the temperatures being in the mid-40s, they are in the high 70s.


Dogruel and Zerkle running along a short section of road into Aid Station 2. No one can carry enough water for this kind of running – thank goodness for aid stations!

Aid station 2 is only 4 miles from where the course leaves the Rio en Medio, but I end up drinking both my bottle of water in that hour long ramble. Every aid station in the Ultra Santa Fe is incredibly well stocked (and each is different) and manned by helpful volunteers.  The trail now is on the alluvial apron derived from some 25 million years of the Rio Grand Rift slowly opening up, and filled by the erosion off the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  The rocks that are visible are round cobbles, no two looking alike.  It makes for sort of boring running – but I still manage to trip along the trail at mile 14, cutting my knee, right wrist, and my cheek just below my right eye.  It was one of those falls that looked worse than it felt, but a powerful reminder that running along a trail requires full attention.  I tend to have an active imagination, and get lost in thoughts.  When I tripped I was thinking about the North Korean nuclear test the day before. My slightly blackened eye was a gift from Kim Jong-un.

After my stumble my pace begins to falter.  The fall probably only has a little to do with this – my longest run since the San Juan Solstice in June has been 17 miles, and I have been on a restrict to keep my runs under 4 hours in duration (note – the limit on the time out on a run does not easily translate to a distance.  On steep terrain 4 hours might only be 10 miles!).  I urge my team mates to power ahead, and assure them that I will finish even if I am slow.  However, they will have nothing of this blatant attempt by me to truly secure the title of DFL.


The view towards the west at about mile 16.  The distant mountains, about 30 miles away, are the Jemez and the Valles Grande.  Home.  Los Alamos sits on the eastern flank of the giant volcanic complex.

We roll into Aid Station 3 at about 4hrs 30 minutes.  The aid station is the low point of the course (elevation wise — spirit wise the low point was still to come!), and is at the Lower Windsor trailhead, only a short distance from the paved road back up to the ski hill. The elevation is 7,200′, and for our day, this is the halfway point in the race (17.5 miles).  We have 15 miles of uphill ahead of us to climb a little over 5,000′.


The long climb means that we all take out our trekking poles.  Over the last couple of years I have learned that trekking poles dramatically improve my climbing.  There are many testimonials to the power of poles, but surprisingly little scientific research into how much poles help.  I have found three studies in the biomechanics of pole use; the best study was done in 2010 with a small control group (Trekking Poles Reduce Exercise Induced Muscle Injury during Mountain Running, by Howatson et al.). The control groups ascended and descended steep mountain grades with and without poles, and the researchers concluded that “When hiking uphill at significant grade, under significant load,  trekking poles increase efficiency by approximately 10% and decrease perceived effort by 20%.”  


The effect of trekking poles.  Use of trekking poles increases heart rate (so can tire you out faster) but dramatically improve speed, and something called “relative perceived effort”.

Using trekking poles is an art – it allows you to transfer workload away from your legs to your arms and shoulders, which can decrease your overall level of fatigue.  However, using your arms tends to increase your heart rate, so you do use more calories/mile.  Further, unless you practice with poles a runner’s cadence tends to slow (and your arms get really tired over 10s of miles!).  Our pace with poles as we climb the Big Tesuque Creek is steady, but pretty slow.  This slow pace is actually great for observing rocks…within a mile I find a wonderful boudinage.


Stretching of a quartz rich band within a gneissic boulder.  The stretching pattern breaks up the quartz band into sausage-shaped boudins.

Some 1.5 billion years ago this boulder – more correctly, the formation that this boulder would came from — was subjected to extension.  The extension broke apart the bands within the rock; think of pulling a thick roll of dough. This boulder is one of the reasons I like to run in the mountains!  Only a short distance later I discovered another treasure – glacial striations!


A medium sized boulder on the side of the Big Tesuque drainage that shows glacial striations. The groves, which run from the upper left of the photo to the center right, are scares from moving ice that was on the Sangre de Cristo mountains 12,000 years ago.

Glacial striations are scratches cut into bedrock by what is known as glacial abrasion. As the ice of a glacier moves down hill it carries debris – rocks of all sizes – and this debris is dragged across the bedrock leaving gouges.  I had heard about glacial striations near Lake Peak, but never have been able to find any.  I am not certain where grooves carved in the rock pictured above occurred; it is possible that it was far up the mountain, but the boulder had tumbled down to its present location.  No matter – the Ultra Santa Fe was getting really interesting!  Which was probably a really good thing.  By the time we pulled into the 4th Aid Station at Borrego, I was getting quite tired.  Mile 22.5, and only 1/3 the way up the hill.

Borrego is just off the paved road up to the ski hill, and thus was well stocked.  Better that “well stocked”.  There was a platter of bacon, a bowl of sliced avocado, ice cold coca cola, and for my running partners, an assortment of beers.  Dave Zerkle was particularly fond of the chocolate porter.  This aid station deserves to be in the Ultra Trail run hall of fame.  I could easily have stayed there for an hour.  Non-trail runners don’t understand the attraction of bacon after long hours on the trail, but the combination of salty crunch and nothing sweet is refreshing.  By 6 or 7 hours in a run I can’t really eat much because my stomach just does not want to be bothered.  However, bacon can go down…..

After we left the aid station we had a short climb and then a steep descent.  It was short, but it was enough to really aggravate my left knee.  This knee is about the last “natural” joint I have left in my legs.  My artificial joints always feel fine, but my left knee is long overdue for replacement.  My knee began to swell – I can control this with advil, but only so much.  I knew I could finish the run, but it was going to be slow and painful.  I urged the Daves to trek on without me.  However, they took turns rotating to pace me.  I was both a bit embarrassed and extremely grateful for the friendship.  They made the last 10 miles doable – actually more than “doable”, they were enjoyable.  I can’t thank them enough for what they did.


Approaching tree line on the Aspen Vista trail.  Only a few miles to go from here.

Aid station 5 is at the Big Tesuque Camp ground.  Here we found out that dozens of people behind us had dropped out of the race (and others were dropping out at this aid station).  It seemed that we might be the last ones left!  Only 8 miles to go, I decided not to stop at the aid station and continued on ahead of my companions.  I knew they would catch me, but I did not want to “freeze” up.  I have done the climb up along the Aspen Vista trail to the top of Tesuque mountain many times.  The familiarity of the trail was reassuring – although it also meant I knew exactly how much longer I had to go before I finished.


The last little climb until the top of the mountain.  It the background you can see the treeless peaks of Santa Fe Baldy (on the left) and Lake Peak (on the right).  The last aid station was at mile 33….still 2 miles to go, straight downhill.

Progress on the climb was slow, but very steady.  However, when we got to the top, and I realized we were more than 10 hours into the race and I was stunned.  I expected to finish in about 9 hours, and here we were at the top of the mountain, with two difficult miles ahead of us.  Those two miles meant a 2,000′ drop.  Sounds like it should be fast – and would be if it was the beginning of the race.  However, feet are tender, legs are shot, and it is just tough to run.  We began the descent knowing that we had locked up the DFL title, so all the pressure was off.  We did find some interesting rocks along the way down.


Dave Dogruel touching what has become the Team DFL totem.  This is a spectacular migmatic boulder could last 1.7 billion years, so we could last another mile.

We come across an absolute textbook example of a migmatite –  a mixture of metamorphic and granitic intrusions.  This became our totem – a good luck charm.  The Precambrian gneiss, black and sparkly with biotite, had been partially melted and recrystallized after the quartz had fractionated out.  Then the rock was stretched, making for a wild pattern.

About 300 yards from the finish line the sleepy volunteers that had been waiting for the last runners were awoken, and began to cheer us on.  Really.  When we crossed the line we had been on the course for over 11 hours.  It was a long day – but I was thankful for a great adventure, and even more joyful for the friendship I have with my fellow runners.


A Nice Way to End

I have run 25 different trail ultra races. I have run them in deserts and mountains; in snow and heat. But, I have never had a race like the Ultra Santa Fe.  It was hard and beautiful.  But it was also my last before I get my left knee replaced.  I am hoping to have surgery complete in the first week of January, and it will take me a year before I am running long distances again.  Who knows what 2018 will bring?  I am thankful that I got one last wonderful race in – even if others will scoff at the time, it was one of my favorites. Looking forward to recovery and continuing the journey!


Dead Presidents: Foggy Dew in the White Mountains in New Hampshire

Almost everything in nature, which can be supposed capable of inspiring ideas of the sublime and beautiful is here realized. Aged mountains, stupendous elevations, rolling clouds, impending rocks, verdant woods, crystal streams, the gentle rill, and the roaring torrent, all conspire to amaze, to soothe and to enrapture, Jeremy Belknap writing on the White Mountains in his book History of New Hampshire, 1793.


Silver Cascade; the southern most end of the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains. This water fall is at Crawford Notch, a narrow gorge that is home to the Saco River. Click on any photo to get a large version.

In 1816, Philip Cardigan, the New Hampshire Secretary of State, produced the first official map of the Granite State. He wrote of the White Mountains: “The natural scenery of mountains is of greater elevation than any others in the United States; Of lakes, of cateracts, of vallies it furnishes a profusion of the sublime and the beautiful. It may be called the Switzerland of America”. Although much has changed since the dawn of the 19th century, the White Mountains remain a magical place.  To a westerner, the statistics of the mountain range look pale: Mt. Washington is the high point – in fact it is the high point of the entire northeastern US at an elevation of 6,288 feet – but when you live at an elevation of nearly 7,500 feet this altitude seems pedestrian.  However, that western frame of reference misleads!  Mt Washington has a topographic prominence of 6,158′, which is greater than than any of the 14ers in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.  Further, the tree line for the White Mountains is about 4,300′ (2000′ below the summit of Mt. Washington) as compared to 11,600′ in the San Juans.  The dominant factor in determining tree line is the average summer time temperature; Uncompahgre Peak (the high point in the San Juans) has a higher average summer temperature than Mt. Washington.


The White Mountains of New Hampshire as depicted on the “Cardigan map”, dated 1816. The Presidential Range is represented on the map by the sort of strange stack of pancakes – not a very accurate representation of the actual topography.

In the fall of 2015 I signed up for a multi-day trail run in central New Hampshire, scheduled to take place in August, 2016.  Unfortunately, the trail run was cancelled, but the purchased plane tickets provided the opportunity to pursue something I have long wanted to do – hike the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains.  The Presidential Traverse is a famous thru-hike; traveling a trail from end-to-end.  The Presidential Traverse (PT) is a relatively short – about 23 miles – but strenuous hike on in the Presidential Range, the northern end of the White Mountains.  The “challenge” is that there is about 9,000 feet of elevation gain, most of the mileage is above tree line, lots of boulder scrambling, and only the very lucky hiker escapes extreme weather changes (in August the temperatures at the trailheads are usually in the 80s by mid-morning, but Mt. Washington often freezes, is extremely windy, and is shrouded in clouds. In 1986 the record low August temperature of 20 F was recorded!).


Map of the Presidential Traverse; from Hiway 302 in the south to Hiway 2 in the north it is about 23 miles (there are many trail variations). Mt. Washington is the high point, right in the middle of the traverse. The starting point has an elevation of 1,110′ and the total elevation gain is approximately 9,000 feet.

Truth be told, when the multi-day stage race was cancelled I was despondent for about an hour, and then elated with the idea of doing the PT.  My first plan was to do the PT solo, and as a run.  Ultra runners of my modest skill level typically complete the transect in about 10 or 11 hours (the rocky course and slippery conditions slow down even the best runners).  However, my solo plan immediately tumbled into difficulty – especially the solo part.  My wise and loving, but very firm, spouse vetoed the “Into the Wild” act; she volunteered to accompany me, but we would make this traverse a fast hike, not a run.  Further, we would make it multi-day. The multi-day requirement was actually great – it meant more miles, more climbs, and more trails to explore.  But it also meant that the chance of a “perfect” weather window was vanishingly small.


Rime ice on the summit of Mt Washington. Rime ice is formed by freezing fog that is blown by strong winds – it first freezes on an object at temperatures colder than the air, and then forms long tails in the direction of the wind.

I believe that my wife’s vision of the PT was shaped by a visit we took to Mt. Washington some 10 years ago.  Hiking in Pinkham Notch we were roasted alive (80 degrees with “cut it with a knife” humidity) and eaten by mosquitos, and then froze at the summit of Mt Washington with winds “only” 70 miles per hour.  I recall telling her how great it would be to battle the elements in a real storm. Mt. Washington is the deadliest mountain in the US – more than 155 people have died on the mountain since 1849.  Most deaths are due to exposure (and most often that exposure is because of unexpected changes in weather or hikers that take much longer than they expect). When my wife suggested that going solo on the PT was not my wisest plan I responded with a Hunter Thompson quote: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!” Seems that 60 years of life has not taught me that discretion is the better part of valor – and my Thompson quip was not received quite as intended. On the other hand, a hike along the Appalachian Trail over one of the most famous mountains in all the US was ample reward.


The geologic provinces of the United States. The contiguous US has a varied physiography which is largely reflective of tectonic history. There are nine major provinces, and the eastern US is dominated by the Appalachian Mountains. Despite the appearance of being a continuous mountain belt, the Appalachians have differing and distinctive tectonic histories in the north and south.

Making of the White Mountains

The White Mountains are ancient – they were formed long before the modern Rockies, the Basin and Range, or the very young Cascadia Ranges in the Pacific Northwest. Yet, despite this primordial character, the White Mountains remain an imposing landscape. Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian explorer (and strangely forgotten map maker considering his accomplishments!) first mentioned “high interior mountains of white color” in 1524 as he sailed up the New England coast after leaving an anchorage in Narragansett Bay (the coast of modern day Rhode Island).  Indeed, on a clear day, from the summit of Mt. Washington one can see landmarks 130 miles away.


The Appalachian Mountains stretch some 1500 miles from northern Alabama to Maine, and are topographic remnants of multiple continental collisions over the past 480 million years. The northern Appalachians mountains have a different record of collisions than in the south, but overall the accordion landscape is all that remains of the opening and closing of many ocean basins.

This “high” elevation was created approximately 400 million years ago, but the birth of the White Mountains began some 750 million years before the present when the first “supercontinent”, Rohinia, began to be rifted apart.  Along the margin of one of the many rifts, the broad area that is today New England, became a coastal lowland on a new continental mass called Laurentia. The ancient New England coast bordered a broad ocean basin – this ocean is usually referred to as Iapetus. About 500 million years ago the ocean basin began to close due to a change in plate tectonic dynamics and the oceanic crust of Iapetus was consumed;  over a time period of about 80 million years  the oceanic portion of the tectonic plate was subducted beneath a growing island arc.


Cartoon of the building of the northern Appalachian Mountains from the USGS. Although there are some large scale granite intrusions in the White Mountains, the structure is dominated by collision of island arc and continental crust and the accordion like stacking of sediments and crustal fragments.

Eventually, the oceanic crust was completely subducted, and the edge of Laurentia collided with the island arc that had been formed above the subducting Iapetus plate.  More correctly, Laurentia collided with a series of island arcs as the ocean basins that had been created when Rohinia disappeared, and a new supercontinent was formed over a 150 million year period.  These collisions compressed, faulted, folded the converging crustal fragments and created a series of high mountain ranges.  The first collision and subsequent mountain building episode is called the Taconic Orogeny (the name comes from Taconic Mountains in New York and Vermont). The White Mountains were a direct result of this collision, which also accounts for most of the rock types that are seen along the Presidential Traverse today. Unlike the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, there was little volcanism (although there was some) involved in the original mountain building. The rocks that are mostly seen in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains are metamorphic – the Laurentia crust and Iapetus ocean sediments that have been squeezed, buried, heated and occasionally melted.

Although other continental collisions and rifting events occurred after the Taconic Orogeny, the geology of the White Mountains was largely set by about 400 million years ago. By the way, the zone of collision was much larger than what one sees today.  The Caledonides Mountains of Scotland and Ireland are really the siamese twin of the White Mountains – accreted onto the edge of Laurentia.  380 million years ago it would have been possible to hike from Mt. Washington to the Cairngorm mountains (south of Inverness). Eventually the collisions assembled a new supercontinent, Pangea.


Notional map of Pangea, circa 275 million years before the present. Almost all the landmasses recognized as continents today were temporarily assembled into one large “super continent”. Around 185 million years ago, Pangea began to break apart along rifts and the modern ocean basins began to form.

Around 185 million years ago Pangea began to break up – rifts criss-crossed the giant continent, and Pangea was slowly pulled apart.  The “pulling apart” created new oceans, and Pangea was diced into continental fragments that would become our modern continents.  One of the rifts developed east of what is now New England, and the Atlantic ocean slowly opened.  This rifting process brought hot mantle rocks closer to the Earth’s surface, and wide-scale melting of the lower crust was common. This melting produces large granitic plutons – that may, or may not, have had volcanic vents at the surface.  Either way, the granitic plutons were hot and buoyant, and caused the White Mountains to rise in elevation. By 160 million years ago the crustal melting had ceased; the rock building history of the White Mountains ended.  It is possible to find the granites associated with the opening of the Atlantic, but they are mostly “beneath” the Presidential Traverse, and exposed in the incised canyons,which are known locally as the “Notches”.

Although the geology and elevation of the White Mountains was the result of very ancient collisions and rifts, the present day topography was carved by a much more recent phenomena, glaciation. Geologist define the Pleistocene epoch (the period of time from 2.6 mya to 11,500 before the present) as a time of massive glaciation in the Northern Hemisphere. The glaciation – or more correctly, the cold climate – was episodic, and the White Mountains were occasionally completely covered by a thick ice sheet (not unlike Greenland today). The most recent “ice age”, referred to as the Wisconsin, started about 80,000 years ago. The Wisconsin age produced an ice sheet called the Laurentide; about 30,000 years ago the White Mountains were about 1 km beneath the ice of the Laurentide.


A map of the major alpine glaciers that carved the Presidential Range (map from Goldthwait, 1970). There are nine glaciers which are indicated by the gray regions. The largest was north of Mt. Washington and carved a cirque and glacial valley known as the “Great Gulf”

The Laurentide Ice Sheet retreated as the climate warmed, and exposed the White Mountains again about 13,000 years ago.  However, as the ice sheet retreated, alpine glaciers developed and carved cirques and U-shaped valleys that give the present Presidential Range its character.  The figure above shows the location of the 9 most prominent glaciers in the area been based on the geomorphic signatures seen today.


A large glacial erratic in Franconia Notch in the White Mountains. This boulder was moved some 200 miles from the north by glacial ice, probably about 30,000 years ago. It is named after a teamster that sought shelter beneath the rock’s overhang during a blizzard in the early 1800s.

The rugged topography of the White Mountains is only a part of the challenge of any hike or run across the Presidential Traverse. Much of the fame of the White Mountains, and Mt. Washington in particular, is associated with its weather – it is often called “Home of the World’s Worst Weather.”  The sobriquet is well earned even if many want to quibble with the definition of worst.  Mt. Washington towers above the surrounding New Hampshire landscape, and by elevation rise alone has temperatures 30 or 50 degrees F cooler than the trailheads leading up to the Presidential Traverse.  Add in the fact that on average, the Mt Washington experiences winds in excess of 75 miles per hour on 110 days every year, and it can be a very cold place. The lowest recorded temperature on Mt. Washington was -50 F (January 22, 1885), and the lowest recorded wind chill reading was -103 F (January 16, 2004)!


Major storm tracks for the US – storms form in the west and “track” across the continent, usually strengthening. Three of typical tracks (the red below is known as the Alberta Clipper, the blue is called the Pacific, and the light red is called the Texas) converge on the Northeast – the White Mountains are in bull’s eye of storms for the entire year.

The weather conditions of the White Mountains are controlled by three things:  (1) the mountains are at the convergence of three major storm tracks, (2) the mountains are oriented north-south and provide a significant block to the predominate winds from the west, and (3) many low pressure systems are created off the New England coast due to the significant temperature difference between the landmass and the Atlantic ocean (these low pressure systems “suck” air across the White Mountains).  All three of these factors contribute to wind, and wind over mountains creates precipitation. Air cools as it passes up and over high terrain; as the air cools it loses it ability to hold moisture (first forming clouds or fog, and then rain and snow – this is called the Foehn effect).  Mt. Washington receives the equivalent of 97 inches of rain every year (“equivalent” because Mt. Washington receives 280 inches of snow every year!).  No season is spared the winds or precipitation – clouds shroud the top of Mt. Washington 60 percent of the time!


A view of the summit of Mt. Washington (8/12/16). I am standing about 10′ from the sign, and the visibility is not just different…the wind was blowing more than 45 miles per hour, and less than 90 minutes later a monster rain/hail storm would deluge the southern Presidential range. Hiking the Presidential is as much about weather as it is tough trails.

The White Mountains are both a geologic marvel, and a most amazing coincidence of circumstances with regards to weather patterns.  Darby Field, a 32 year old ferry operator is reputed to have been the first recorded person to climb Mt. Washington in 1642. I say reputed because academics love to argue if Field actually climbed to the top, or even climbed at all.  However, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, recorded an interview with Darby that appears remarkably consistent with the geography. It is hard to image what that first ascent was like; primitive gear, no appreciation for the weather changes, and likely no real planning for the ascent. However, if Field could make it to the top, then clearly a modern man armed with geologic knowledge, an keen eye for weather, and lots of snacks in a pack could cross the Presidential Traverse!


Artistic rendition of the northern Presidential Range (postcard circa 1930). Mt Washington, in the center of the image, has an elevation of 6289′; the surrounding valley floors are on the order of 1000′.

Touching the Presidents

I arrived in New Hampshire with a plan for a 3-day hike (well, I was originally optimistic that I would be running some of the course – the trails and weather proved a far stronger force than personal optimism) in the White Mountains.  Day 1 was a “warm up” with a 9 mile loop near Franconia Notch; climbing up from the floor of the notch (elevation 1900′) to Haystack (elevation 4780′) crossing the Franconia Ridge to Lincoln (elevation 5089′) and on to Lafayette (elevation 5249′ ) before descending back to the floor. The Franconia Range is southwest of the Presidential Range within the White Mountains, and most of the rocks that are exposed are younger in age – primarily the granites associated with the breakup of Pangea.   The notch is a very narrow slice through the Franconia, and is perhaps most famous for a rock formation that looked resembled the profile of an old man (called Old Man of the Mountain).  Unfortunately, the rock formation collapsed in 2003 but not before the profile graced all the state hiway signs in New Hampshire and the backside of the US quarter commemorating the state (the perils of being famous for rocks….).


The ascent up the Mt. Lincoln Loop is along the Falling Waters Trail – homage to the numerous waterfalls on the first half of the climb.

The hike up to the Franconia Ridge is quite rugged – it is steep, rocky, and occasionally slippery.  It is also the arch-type White Mountain trail.  It was constructed in the 19th century and basically goes straight up; no switchbacks, no much taking advantage of contours.  In places the trail is a smoothed path, but mostly it is a hiway of rounded boulders varying in size from a few inches to several feet. Quad busting, ankle biting rocks.  I did see a couple of people “running” this section of the trail, but it looking more like hippos trying to get out of a water hole.


The profile for the Mt. Lincoln loop. The high peak in the middle of the profile is Mt. Lincoln, and the high point is Lafayette. The 3 mile climb to the ridge is a constant 15-35% grade.

It was a warm day (it was 82 degrees at the trailhead at 8:00 am), and it took us about 2 1/2 hours to arrive at Haystack.  It is a bit strange to be a few hundred feet about treeline, yet only at 4700′ elevation.  However, we were rewarded with great views – although the humidity limited the crispness of horizon.


One of the better sections of the Falling Waters Trail – nature’s stair master.

Across from Haystack is Cannon Mountain, which is the former “home” of the Old Man of the Mountain. Cannon has an elevation of a little more than 4000′, and its most pronounced feature is a huge wall of exfoliating granite.


View fromHaystack across the Franconia Notch to Cannon Mountain. The large exposure of rock is exfoliating granite – which also created the Old Man of the Mountain.

Once on Haystack the trail follows Franconia Ridge, and is mostly class 1 (maybe a class 2 section here and there).  There are many articles that describe the Ridge as a “knife edge”, but compared to the Knife Edge on Capitol Peak in Colorado, Franconia Ridge is a freeway.


View from Haystack to Mt. Lincoln and Franconia Ridge. I really had to do this loop to get Mt. Lincoln – the greatest President, and did not want to disrespect him in any run of the “Presidential Traverse”.

I was hoping for a good view of the Presidential Range from Lafayette, but the haze associated with the humidity precluded an impressive visa of “towering” Mt. Washington.  It was hard to imagine that a major series of storm cells was moving into the area, and by tomorrow the weather would be rain.


The summit of Mt. Lafayette. In the distance is the northern part of the Presidential Range. It is a tough 4 mile slog down with 3400′ drop in elevation.

The descent down Mt. Lafayette to the Franconia Trailhead is a slog.  It is a rocky trail, following the now familiar White Mountain tradition of vertical profiles and lots of boulders.  Michelle struggled with the descent – the trail taxes the small muscles that stabilize knees and hips (and not something that one strengthens by running road marathons).  By the end of the day she declares that she is done with these crazy hikes, and I am back to doing the Presidential Traverse solo, although supported.


Route of the Lincoln Loop – warmup to the Presidential Traverse.

I awoke early Friday morning (8/12/16) ready to run the southern PT.  I studied the radar images long and hard – somehow I convinced myself that the storm track was mostly north of Mt. Washington, and I was going to have a miracle hike. Self delusion is an important skill for ultra runners – only equalled by the importance of a very short memory for pain and discomfort.  I was on the trail by 6:15 am; I took the Jewel Trail up from near the Cog Train station.  The trailhead had a temperature of 67 degrees and it was muggy.  I could not see Mt. Washington because it was shrouded in thick fog. The climb from the trailhead to Mt. Washington is about 5 miles and a gain in elevation of 3800′ (most of that gain is in the first 2.8 miles).


A view from the Jewel Trail at an elevation of 4200′ feet (just about treeline) towards the southern PT. The distance ridgeline is Monroe, Franklin, and the final “hump” is Eisenhower. The dark skies were a harbinger of things to come.

The PT is one of the classic American mountain routes – it was first done in September of 1882 by a pair of hikers, George Sargent and Eugene Cook. They hiked the PT from north to south in about 20 hours, and since that time thousands have accomplished this feat. The fastest known time for the traverse was made by Ben Nephew in 2013; only took him 4hr and 33 minutes! I had no illusions about being “fast”, and after taking 2hrs 30 minutes to get the five miles to Mt. Washington I was pretty sure the FKT is fiction!


Above 4,400 the fog rolled in and the wind began to roar. The visibility was 10s of feet by 5,000 feet elevation. The trail is marked with cairns which is the only way to not get lost. Along the trail are large blocks of white bull quartz – eerie ghosts in the fog.

The climb up Jewel Trail is very bucolic and although steep it probably is “runnable” to my colleagues back home. The path passes through several ecological zones. The trail starts in hard wood forest, and within about 1 mile and 1,000 feet elevation gain the vegetation is dominated by spruce and fir trees.  The tree line is around 4,200 feet, and the ground is covered with a dwarf spruce called kummholtz; after 4,400 feet there is only moss on the rock. By 4,400′ feet elevation the visibility on this day is only a few 10s of feet, and the wind is ferocious.  The trail in the alpine zone is not really a path, but a marked course through a rough jumble of rocks.  The course marking is done with cairns – mostly 3 to 5 feet tall, every 10 to 20 yards.  Even at that close spacing I find myself searching for the next cairn before venturing forward.  Along the way I see large blocks of bright white quartz scattered about, created during extreme metamorphism of the Taconic orogeny.  Often the keepers of the cairns have placed a block of this quartz on top of the rock piles, and they look like lighthouses in the stormy weather.  There also is some whimsy – several of the blocks have been carefully spray painted with gold metallic paint to look like nuggets of gold (a common association for the gold deposits of the western US). I am not fooled, but very amused!


A large video display greets guests at the top of Mt. Washington. It shows the temperatures on the way up the mountain, the wind speed, and the precipitation. For my journey the wind speeds gusted to 55 miles per hour, and were steady at about 45 miles per hour. Later in the day they would reach 75 miles an hour.

I arrived at the summit a few minutes before 9 am.  The visibility is near zero, and the wind is really blowing, but it is not really cold – and most importantly, it is not raining or snowing.  Except for the employees, the summit is deserted before 9.  To understand the significance of the “deserted”, it is important to realize that Mt. Washington is the equivalent to Pikes Peak in Colorado.  There is an auto road to the top as well as a cog railway bringing tourists in flip flops and tee shirts to experience the “worst weather in the world”.  Annually about 250,000 people visit the summit (only about 12,000 hikers – and those hikers often have short tours near the summit).  I am meeting Michelle at 9:30 for some previsions and a check on my progress. By 9:30 the tour vans and trains begin to arrive, and their are at least 100 people freezing their asses off getting a photograph at the summit sign. In someways this seemed truly surreal.


Leaving the summit of Mt. Washington to go down the southern PT. Beginning to rain.

The heavy fog and traffic coming up the mountain delays the arrival of Michelle and I getting very nervous.  There is a large video display of the weather radar, and it is clear that some nasty cells are soon to arrive.  I finally get on the trail about 10 am, and start down the Crawford Path toward Mt. Monroe.  The Crawford path runs the entire length of the southern PT (about 8 miles) and is the oldest trail in the US.  The trail was started by a Abel Crawford and son in 1819, and finished to the top of Mt. Washington in 1840.  Abel Crawford made the first ascent on the trail via horseback (!!) when he was 75 years old. As I start down the trail, it is rocky, but one of the best in the White Mountains. 30 minutes into the descent the winds increase, and everything becomes wet.  The rocks on the trail become first slippery, and then down right treacherous.  I can’t run because every step is an opportunity to stumble.  In fact, after about 1.5 miles descent I slip in the most precarious fashion – my right foot slips forward and my left knee is completely bent such that the back of my calf is touching my buttocks.  I have not bent like that since age 3 – I have the flexibility of dried wood in my ligaments.  In 2009 I had my right knee replaced and 2 months after surgery I was not getting the range of motion that I needed for full recovery.  This was “fixed” by a procedure called manipulation under anesthesia, or MUA.  MUA is ugly – after knocking you out the Dr. brutally flexes and bends your leg to break all the scar tissue that developed after surgery.  When you awaken your leg is black and blue, and it hurts like hell.  Well, the Crawford Path performed MUA on my left leg….just without the anesthesia.  However, there is no time to curse the misfortunate because the weather is getting worse.


Lake of the Clouds – in a cloud (8/12/16).

I am sore, but able to slowly build pace, and arrive at the Lake of the Clouds which is located some 1200′ in elevation below the summit.  The lake is reputed to be quite picturesque – but I don’t really know as Lake of the Clouds was in the clouds. I did use the water of the lake to clean the scraps on my knee, but I mostly thought about King Arthur and Lady of the Lake. Alas, no one arose from the water with an excalibur for me.  The lake is in saddle between Mt. Washington and Mt. Monroe, so shortly after passing the lake (and passing by the Lake of the Clouds hut filled with people waiting out the storm) I have another climb.  It is dark now even though it is only around noon.  The wind is howling, and I am mostly hoping just for completion of my journey.

I arrived at Monroe (elevation 5371′), and I hear a very distant rumble – I think thunder! The descent down Monroe is pretty easy, and the next section of the trail to Mt. Franklin is actually runnable – and I run as fast as I can.  I pass three different groups of hikers coming up the trail, and offer my advice and condolences. More thunder, and it is 2 hours since I left Mt. Washington.  I sprint up Mt. Eisenhower (one of my favorite presidents, BTW – very underrated, but anyone that calls out the military industrial complex deserves kudos), and arrive at 2hrs 31 minutes since summit. Eisenhower is only 4760′ elevation, but it quickly becomes the eye of a storm.  Thunder is all around, and sheets of rain begin to fall. The rain does not last long – because it turns to hail driven by 50+ mile per hour wind.  I realize I am in trouble and bushwhack down the leeward side of the mountain and crawl into a small opening within a pile of rocks and wait out the storm. After about 30 minutes the thunder ceases, and the rain/hail becomes a thick mist.  I decide to bail off the PT ridge and head for the valley below.  I am disappointed – I came very close to finishing the southern PT, only missing Mt. Pearce.  I justify not visiting Pearce because he really wasn’t much of a president – he signed the so called Kansas-Nebraska act that enforced the capture of any fugitive slave in the 1850s.


The Edmonds Trail after the storm – water, sometimes knee deep running in the channel carved by 100s of thousands of hikers over the last 200 year.

The hike of the southern PT amounted to a 11.4 mile jaunt with 5,130′ elevation gain.  The storm was epic – and certainly by early evening I was marveling at my survival.  Well, really, just happy to say the southern Presidentials were done.

Day three of the White Mountain adventure started auspiciously – I arose at 5 am hoping to be on the trail to climb the northern PT by 6 am.  The northern PT is infamous for it rocky trails, and I knew I was in for a long day even if the planned route was only 9 miles and 3,600′ elevation gain.  However, at 5 am it was raining; if it was raining at 1,000′ elevation what was it doing up on Mt. Jefferson (elevation 5,712′)? Depressed, and sore from my slips the previous day, I pondered my options.  Thankfully, Michelle counseled patience, and indeed the rain lifted by 6:30, and I was able to get to the Caps Ridge trailhead by 7:30.  Caps Ridge is a relatively high trail that travels straight up to Mt. Jefferson, the third highest peak in the PT.  However, it is not a “normal” trail – the last 1 1/2 miles to the summit of Jefferson is a fully exposed scramble.  Dicey in the best of times, but slick with rain and in the fog was “beyond epic”.


The view from the Caps Ridge trail towards the ridgeline of the southern PT. There are two layers of fog – one on the valley floor and the second at 4,300′. That higher altitude layer would be a constant companion for the entire northern PT.

Although I had researched the Caps Ridge trail I was surprised how difficult it was – more slimy than slippery, and I slipped and slid many times.  The scramble would have been exciting another time, but being alone, far from “help”, my heart was working overtime.


The beginning of the upper part of the Caps Ridge trail at about 4,200 feet elevation. Not a particularly welcome sight for someone that has no flexibility.

I was concerned that my flexed knee from the previous day would be a problem, but in fact it was just sore and not particularly stiff.  The scramble to the top of Jefferson was one of the hardest things I have done in years.  I banged my right knee, opening a pre-existing scab.  Blood pored forth, but there was no pain, so except for the fact that I looked like the “living dead” I was able to finally get to the top of Jefferson after 2hrs and 20 minutes.


The summit of Jefferson. Just a pile of rocks in the fog. This is pretty much how Adams and Madison looked later in the hike, so I need not add photos of those summits.

Cell phone coverage was perfect on Jefferson, so I texted Michelle and told her that I was on course for a 3:30 arrival at Appalachia Way.  Little did I know that my views of 10′ feet or so into the fog were among the best I would have for the entire day.  I had visions of magnificent panorama of the Great Gulf, the huge, deep glacial cirque only a few hundred yards from the summit. Instead, I had to settle for my imagination, and the very strong desire just to plow through.  The trail from Jefferson to Adams is called the Gulf Way, and it is truly my least favorite trail in the entire world.  It is just a bunch of boulders, all waiting to cause me to slip.  I took over an hour to cross the 1.5 miles to Mt Adams (elevation 5793′ – second highest in the PT).  Mt. Adams turns out to be just a tall stack of boulders.  I found no outcrop what so ever.  If a mountain could ever be called ugly, surely Adams earned that moniker.

The trip over to the final peak on the northern PT, Madison, was uneventful if slow. I was running on determination, and not really enjoying the adventure.  Tagging the top of Madison sent a wave of relief over my soul, and I realized all I had to do was descend 3.8 miles and 3,500′.  The first 2000′ of descent were slow, but once I entered the hardwood forest the canopy provided protection from the rain, and it was possible to maintain a decent pace.


Some type of fungus on birch trees – reminded me of how different New England was than New Mexico.

I finished the hike in a little under seven hours (for 9.2 miles…yes, a blistering 1.3 mile an hour pace).  It was a true adventure: 3 days, 31.7 miles, 13,932′ elevation gain.  I missed the vistas, but I also missed the crowds that had the sense not to be on the mountain in stormy weather.


The PT routes – day 1 and day 2. Just lines on a map now, but adventures in the fog when on the trail

It aint the Rockies

Hiking in the White Mountains is fundamentally different that running and hiking in the Rockies.  The trails are just different.  All the trails in the White Mountains were laid out in the 18th and 19th centuries, and simply were straight lines between point A and point B.  No switchbacks, no grooming.  I am sure that there are many talented runners and hikers that can hop from rock to rock and travel the Presidential Traverse with ease.  I am not one of those.  However, the PT was an adventure – in some ways it was exactly what I crave.  A challenge physically, a competition with nature, and a deep sense of history. Just no pictures – the fog rules the day.


Corrie Cruising: Running the Alpine Loop above Williams Lake

The Wilderness holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask, Nancy Wynne Newhall, Ansel Adams biographer


Panorama of the Williams Lake Cirque from Simpson Peak (7/16/16). On the far right hand side of the photo is Wheeler Peak, and the left side is dominated by the ridge connecting Simpson Peak with Sin Nombre (all a class 4 scramble). The high points of New Mexico. Click on any thumbnail to get a large version of the photo.

On September 3rd, 1964, the President of the United States signed into law “the Wilderness Act”, a profound articulation of societal values that seemed to be at odds with the 200 years of manifest destiny that had driven the country to spread from shore to shore and taming every inch of the land for the “good of man”. The act stated it was the policy of Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness. Wilderness is a highly abstract concept – for some it means a place of danger and darkness, but for others, including me, it is a place where nature and the forces of nature rule supreme, and the imprint of man is superficial.


The poetic definition of WILDERNESS from US public law 88-557, the Wilderness Act, passed in 1964. “…where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Running, climbing, breathing high in the mountain wilderness is a special, spiritual joy. Away from the hubbub of humanity – the constant noise of commitments, the stress of conflict and confusion, the muddle of minutia – wilderness allows my mind to clear, and my spirit to lift. I love being alone high on a mountain with the tremendous forces of geology laid bare. Those forces, driven by the steady heat engine of Earth, constantly remake and renew the planet.  The landscape tells stories; painted with the brush of enormous time, the rocks and minerals hold the secrets of pressure and temperature. Really, I am not much of a runner or climber, but they are primal acts that allow an individual connection with something that dwarfs humanity.

Fortunately, there are many places in the southwest where it is possible to escape into wilderness.  The highest point in New Mexico is Wheeler Peak, which is located in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness area – a fantastic place to experience “wilderness”.  The wilderness area is about 20,000 acres, and within this modest tract sits 5 out of the 10 highest peaks in New Mexico.  One of the very best “bushwhack” runs in the entire country connects these high points; it is called the Alpine loop, and it is a 12 mile, horse shoe shaped tract that frames a classic alpine geomorphic structure, the Williams Lake cirque. For various reasons I am restricted on how far (or how long) I can run right now, and the Alpine loop is a perfect challenge that gives the full “geology is immense” experience.


Google Earth view from the north looking into Williams Lake cirque. Today Williams Lake is tiny – it is barely visible in the center of the field of view. 11,000 years ago an alpine glacier scoured  out the cirque. Snows falling on the high peaks compacted into a glacier that gravity constantly pulled downhill. The rubble the glacier carried with it served as a sort of “sand paper”, and carved the cirque.

Something Old, Something New

The skyline of northern New Mexico is dominated by a narrow chain of north-south trending high mountains, the Sangre de Cristo.  The Sangre are a remarkable (and often unappreciated) range; they rise in the north at Salida, Colorado, and terminate to the southeast of Santa Fe at Glorieta Pass.  There are 10 14ers in the range which dramatically towers over the Rio Grande Valley which is located to west of the range – in fact, the Sangre de Cristo owe their prominence to the Rio Grande Rift which began to open about 27 million years before the present.  As the rift developed, stretching the crust, faults fractured the crust and Sangre were uplifted to elevations thousands of feet above the rift.


A cartoon view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains viewed from high above Los Alamos, NM. The range is very narrow in the north, and has a much broader expression near Taos. To the west of the Sangre is the Rio Grande Rift.

This uplift exposed rocks that had been deeply buried in the Earth’s crust, allowing a view into deep time – in the Taos block of the Sangre, the rocks on the tops of the high peaks are among the oldest in New Mexico, having been created some 1.7 billion years ago. These rocks were formed along the collision zones between two ancient oceanic plates. The subduction of one plate beneath the other resulted in volcanism and the construction of “island arcs” – this volcanism melted the oceanic crust and slowly separated out lighter elements and rock types and built fragments of continental crust (the crust now sits beneath all of New Mexico). The rocks of the Taos block are complex as would be expected for an island arc environment.  There are metasedimentary, metavolcanic and granitic rocks along with some diabase dikes exposed within 20 miles of the Taos Ski Valley.  Although the 1.7 billion year old rocks are exposed elsewhere in a few places in northern New Mexico, a small outcrop on Lake Fork Peak holds the record for oldest dated sample in the state – 1.765 billion years.  You have to climb high to see the birth marks of our state.


Geologic cross-section through the Sangre de Cristo mountains near Taos. The Sangre are a large horst uplifted along the Sangre de Cristo Fault system; the rocks of Wheeler Peak have been uplifted at least 10,000 feet.

After the formation of the ancient New Mexican crust in the Proterozoic times plate tectonics cast a dynamic history for northern New Mexico.  Unfortunately, that history has been mostly erased from the high Taos mountains. Uplift and erosion have removed the veneer of sedimentary rocks that recorded the growth and breakup of ancient continents like Pangea.  Today, the geology map of the Wheeler Peak Wilderness area is, well, sort of boring.


Geologic map of the Wheeler Peak Wilderness area. In faint lettering Wheeler Peak can be located in the center of the map, along with Williams Lake which is dead center in the figure. The symbols are indicators of rock type: X means proterzoic, with m,a, and g being a rock type. Q means recent – these are all talus slopes! No sedimentary rocks, almost no dirt.

But that relatively simple map belies the most recent geologic epochs that carved the present landscape. As the Sangre de Cristo began to rise with the opening the Rio Grande rift erosion also began – but overall, uplift won the competition.  However, simple “erosion” does not explain the rugged topography. The agent most responsible for today’s vista is ice. During the Pleistocene Epoch  (the last 1.8 million years) the Sangre have experience numerous episodes of cool, wet climate which saw glaciers develop and carve the mountains.  The Pleistocene is a bit of a odd epoch because it is defined by the growth and decay of continental ice sheets (ah, climate change! but climate change driven by Milankovitch cycles. By the way, I would be remise if I did not mention that the Pleistocene was named by the great Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell); the last of these ended about 11,000 years ago. When one drives up to the Taos Ski resort you travel through the Valley of Rio Hondo, which was carved by a glacier that flowed from Wheeler Peak to nearly the Rio Grande.


A cross section through an alpine glacier carving a cirque. The glacier is fed up slope with new snowfall. The seasonal snowfall also brings boulders and detritus into the glacier which acts as an abrasion agent to carve a basin as the ice flows.

The head of this glacier is the bowl shaped valley that is framed by the Alpine Loop. This is a classic glacial cirque – in the UK it would be called a Corrie after the Scottish Gaelic word corie, meaning a pot. In the Sangre, cirques are formed on the north side of high peaks – protected from the melting heat of the sun – near what is known as the “firn line”.   The alpine glacier is surrounded by 3 high walled cliffs; as the climate becomes warmer the glacier tail melts in the valley below the cirque, ultimately leaving behind a lake which forms above a dam of detritus – the glacial moraine.  Williams Lake is all the remains of the great Wheeler glacier today, but steep topography took tens of thousands of years for the ice to carve.

The ice has passed, but the youngest feature in the Williams Lake cirque is a glacier of a different sort – a rock glacier. Below Lake Fork Peak there is a debris flow; it looks like a viscous landslide. This is a rock glacier that was probably active until the last century.  Rock glaciers are talus fields that have fallen off the sides of a cirque onto the retreating and shrinking ice glacier.  Eventually, the rock blanket has only a small amount of ice within its core – but enough ice such that the rock blanket episodically “flows”, or more correctly, “creeps”.  The rock glacier in Williams Lake cirque does not have a name (at least that I know of), but is a geologic reminder of the changing climate.


Rock glacier flowing from Lake Fork Peak towards Williams Lake (take early in the morning, 7/16/16).

The juxtaposition of the New Mexico’s oldest rocks with one of its youngest geologic structures is compelling theater for an Earth scientist. The run of the Alpine loop affords fantastic views; it also tells a story of the tremendous forces shaping our world.


A view from Wheeler Peak across the Williams Lake Cirque to Lake Peak. The Alpine Loop follows the ridge line all the way around the cirque.

Running the Ridge Line

Growing old(er) is a two edged sword.  The positive slice is experience and the wisdom that experience brings. The negative slice is a decline in physical abilities, and at least in my case, memories of things unpleasant or hard fades far faster than those memories of excitement and joy.  Some 42 or 43 years ago I hiked the Alpine Loop with teen aged friends; memory serves that it was an exciting backcountry adventure, and although I recall some scrambling over steep and rocky outcrops, I don’t recall it being difficult in anyway. So my expectations on starting the hike/run at about 6:30 am on a warm Saturday morning (it was 47 degrees at the Williams Lake Trailhead, which is at 10,000′ elevation) was that I would cruise along the ridgeline above Williams Lake in a couple of hours, and “run” significant sections of terrain above timberline.


The GPS track for the Alpine Loop. Starting at the Williams Lake trailhead I went nearly straight up the steep valley that the Kachina Ski Lift now serves, and follow the ridgeline of the Williams Lake Cirque in counter-clockwise fashion. Once the ridge line merges into the high country of the eastern border the course becomes class one trail.

Kachina Peak is near the boundary between the Taos Ski Valley and the Wheeler Peak Wilderness.  The ski lift to the summit of Kachina was only built and opened in 2015 (and by all reviews, provides a spectacular ski venue).  The summit is about a 2000′ climb in elevation from the trail head over about 1.7 miles.


The view of the climb up Kachina shortly after leaving the Williams Lake Trail Head. The chairlift at the summit is visible in the center of the photo.

There are some service roads supporting the chair lift for about half the accent.  However, I chose to go “full wilderness” and trekked straight up slope.  In places it is quite steep – my nose was only a foot away from the ground slope on some sections of the climb.  The climb is strenuous, but not really difficult.  The reward at the top is a monument of Tibetan prayer flags.  Although beaten and shredded by the strong winds, the monument pays homage to the belief that prayers  blown by the wind will spread the good will and compassion on to the surrounding land.


The summit of Kachina Peak. Not one of New Mexico’s high peaks, but the beginning of the Williams Lake cirque ridgeline.

The summit of Kachina affords a view of the entire ridge line above Williams Lake. At 7:40 in the morning the sky is a beautiful blue, and surprisingly, there is no wind.  Only the high pitched chirp of a pair of marmots disturbs the scene.


A view of the journey ahead. My goal is to stay as close to the ridge line as possible. The high peak on the right is Lake Fork; in the middle of the photo is Sin Nombre. From this point until the descent off Wheelers the elevation never drops below 12,200′

The pathway to Lake Fork peak is not difficult.  Within a few hundred yards of Kachina there is no discernible trail to follow, but then it is possible to run — although at a slow pace — until a scramble over a boulder field on the shoulder of Lake Fork.  Along the scramble I pass three different collapsed mine shafts; all small, but nevertheless testament to the hardy breed of prospectors that covered this area in search of gold.  In 1869 placer gold was found near the present site of Red River, about 10 miles north of Williams Lake.  Although not much mining was done for 25 years, but the beginning of the 20th century the Taos block of the Sangre de Cristo was swarming with prospectors.  The mineral potential of the Precambrian rocks of Lake Fork is actually quite small – but it did not stop fortune hunters from exploring even the most inhospitable crags and crannies.


A small collapsed prospect on the shoulder of Lake Fork. I believe that the prospector was following the vein of white quartz scene in the left part of the photo. The rising sun makes for “interesting” photography!

I had predicted how long it would take me to run/hike the various parts of the Alpine Loop (one could argue that there was zero basis for these predictions, but that has never stopped me in the past).  I summited Lake Fork about 20 minutes behind schedule, and I was feeling that overall the route was actually easy.


The view from Lake Fork north, back to Kachina. The dome above timberline in the near skyline is Gold Peak.

However, the ill-founded optimism was soon tested.  Lake Fork peak is a smooth summit, and once again it is possible to run along the crest.  However, the descent down, and then up, to Sin Nombre is the first real taste of route finding.  It is not overly difficult, but the progress is cautious and slow.


Sin Nombre looking back to Lake Fork Peak. The route is along the crest that twists from left back to the center of the photograph.

The views in every direction from Sin Nombre are spectacular.  There is almost no wind, and the sun is bright – the temperature is rising, but still manageable.


A small, unnamed lake southwest of Sin Nombre. In the distance is the Truchas Peaks, where most of the other highest points in New Mexico reside.

After a nice food break I am ready for what I know will be the most difficult part of the Alpine Loop – the scramble down Sin Nombre followed by the rough climb up to Simpson Peak.  My childhood memories of this scramble are fuzzy – somehow I did not recall that the route ahead – maybe 1.2 miles – was a solid class 4 (the rating scheme states: “Climbing. Rope is often used on Class 4 routes because falls can be fatal. The terrain is often steep and dangerous. Some routes can be done without rope because the terrain is stable”).


The route to Simpson Peak (Old Mike is a 13er on the right hand skyline). This route alternates between very loose rock (I did take a nasty fall) and climbing. In hindsight it was fun….

It took me over 2 hours to cover the this traverse.  At sixty, and with artificial joints, I forget how inflexible I really am.  My knees barely bend; my hips even less. Climbs that younger hikers could scramble up required the power of prayer for me. I never really thought I could not make it, but it was tough.  However, my slow pace allowed me to experience the full adventure.  As I tumbled down a cornice I spied a spectacular boulder of metagreywacke!


Precambrian metagreywacke. Ancient sand and clay eroded from an island arc.

This boulder represents the sands and clays that were eroded off the volcanoes forming the continental crust 1.7 billion years ago.  This volcanic detritus was eventually buried and metamorphosed into the banded rock I see in rock before me.


Looking back at Sin Nombre from the low point between that peak and Simpson Peak. I left some blood on those rocks!

After the long climb back up to Simpson Peak (the peak is named for Smith H. Simpson, who moved to Taos in 1859 and served with Kit Carson), all the tough sections of the Alpine Loop were completed.  Although Simpson Peak is not far from Wheeler peak, it is usually abandoned.  Everyone wants to hike the high point in New Mexico, but ignore all the wonderful summits near by.


The summit of Old Mike looking toward the east; Eagle Nest is visible in the center of the frame. Old Mike is the third highest peak in New Mexico

From the summit of Simpson Peak it is only a short jog to Old Mike.  Old Mike is the southern most of the high peaks in the Taos block of the Sangre de Cristo.  I love the views from Old Mike – you can see the Truchas in the south, Eagle Nest lake in the east, and the community of Red River to the north.  It is only a mile from Wheeler Peak, but I have the summit and trail back to Wheeler to myself.  Wheeler peak looks like an ant hill from Old Mike with people swarming the top (what a difference that mile makes!).  On the journey over to Wheeler I meet up with a good friend, Dale Anderson.  He is my “pacer” for the journey back to the Williams Lake trailhead.


Dale Anderson and I at the summit of Wheeler Peak. Windy and always, we see about 50 people on the peak or in various stages of ascent and descent.

Wheeler Peak is a wonderful place – crowded, but still wonderful.  Wheeler Peak is named for George Wheeler who lead one of the great expeditions to map the western US in the 1860s and 70s.  Wheeler was only 27 when he was commissioned to lead an expedition to New Mexico and Arizona in 1869 – he was awestruck with what he found, and in 1871 convinced congress (a difficult feat even in the 19th century!) to fund mapping of the United States west of the 100th meridian on a scale of 8 miles to the inch.  Coarse resolution to be sure, but it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken for the country.


The view from Wheeler to the west, back over the Alpine Loop. The green marks the tree line in the Williams Lake cirque.

From Wheeler Peak it is a quick jog over to the second highest peak in New Mexico, Mount Walter.  Walter is along the Bull of the Woods trail to Wheeler, so it is fairly well traveled.  However, today no one is on the peak, and the journey of the Taos high country is complete.


The view from Mount Walter to Old Mike.

The trail from Walter back to the Williams Lake Trailhead is about 3 miles, and drops nearly 3000′.  Some of it is runable, some of it is not when you are tired – but it is all easy.


Elevation profile for the Alpine Loop (from my GPS track). There is some doubling back, but the profile is 8 miles well above 12,300′ What is missing is the class four scramble….

One last geologic landmark to pass on the Alpine loop is the glacial toe moraine for Williams Lake.  It does not look like much, but it is the last reminder of an ice age past.


Williams Lake is just beyond the ridge in the center of the photograph. The rubble is the moraine that dams the drainage from the high peaks – in turn creating Williams Lake.

Short Memories for Bad Things

The Alpine Loop is a wonderful wilderness experience.  For much of the trek you are truly alone, and the geology is spectacular.  Sometimes when I plan an adventure I like to frame it in terms of a “run” or “run/hike’ – but those are just tags that really have little meaning to experiencing the wilderness.  It is as congress wrote 52 years ago a place of “other” not of man.  By the way, any memories of the difficult times I had scrambling over loose rock and wondering if this “whole thing was a good idea” are already beginning to fade – what is left is the glow of joy.


A brief respite from the Class 4 adventure – color in the rocks.


The Golden Age of Mineral Collecting: Today is better than ever!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, Charles Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities (1859).


Mineral Collecting has evolved tremendously in the last 65 years. Many collectors bemoan the passing of the “golden age” when spectacular mineral specimens were available for purchase.  However, in terms of “classics”today is the true golden age (all thumbnail figures can be clicked for full-sized images).

In 1798 Thomas Malthus published his An Essay on the Principle of Population and postulated that catastrophe for mankind was inevitable because population growth is exponential and life essential resources (such as food and water) tended to only grow arithmetically. This simple essay gave rise to a school of gloom and doom, Malthusianism, that has been applied to everything from oil production to luxury items; basically, in a world of fast growing population the demand for commodities will eventually outstrip the supply, and the scarcity of the resources will lead to conflict and ultimately a decimation of demand. However, in the two centuries since Malthus first pinned his thoughts on the clash between supply and demand, the concept of “catastrophe” has been mostly avoided because the same demand that made resources scarce spurred unimaginable creativity and innovation. Between 1800 and the start of the new millennium the world’s population increased 6 fold, yet agriculture increased 10 fold! Many more people, and even more food – and the supply vs demand dynamic was tipped on it’s head.


Malthusianism — population and demand grows exponentially, while supply of resources increases arithmetically. When demand exceeds supply new dynamics happen – perhaps disaster, or perhaps innovation.

It seems a bizarre reach, and perhaps even a non-sequitur, to reference Malthusian theory in a discussion of the “golden age” of mineral collecting. However, the parallels with “peak oil” predictions and the demise of the modern mineral production of truly fine specimens are surprising. Since 1980 the number of significant mineral specimens discoveries is extraordinary; Bunker Hill pyromorphite, Sweet Home rhodochrosite, Red Cloud wulfenite, Milpillas azurite (and other secondary copper minerals), Fresnillo stephanite, Merelan tanzanite and the incredible gemstone minerals from Pakistan along with the  flood of minerals from China.  Never before has the quantity of high quality minerals been remotely like it is today.


Aquamarine from Pakistan recovered in the last 10 years – the quality is unrivaled in history.

There are many reasons why Malthusian thinking has failed in predicting the dynamics of the mineral collecting hobby, but mostly it is a change in what economists call the demand relationship.  Although there has always been a supply-demand relationship in mineral collecting, the foundations for that relationship changed as high-end mineral specimens became “works of art”. University of Chicago economist David Galenson likes to use the career arc of impressionist Paul Cézanne as an exemplar for the art market.  In 1895 Cézanne had his first one-man show in Paris, and sold a single painting for 400 francs.  A painting that did not sell in this show was later bought in 1899 for 4,400 francs – a tenfold increase in 4 years! In 1913 a Cézanne work sold for 25,000 francs, and in 1925 a painting was sold in auction for 528,000 francs.  What changed in those 30 years?  Certainly not Cézanne — he died in 1906. Some might argue that Cézanne’s work was simply unappreciated when first viewed, but a more nuanced analysis suggests that a very small number of art collectors were influenced by an even smaller number of art dealers to view the painter’s work as an absolute essential “to have”.  Passion – probably influenced by dealer manipulation – drove fierce competition.

The mineral collecting hobby now has the same drivers as fine art. There are many rumors of individual mineral specimens that sell for several million dollars; “I could have bought that azurite for 100 dollars 10 years ago”  it has become an old saw for long-time collectors.  There is a community longing for years past when a collector of modest means could build a fabulous ensemble of minerals.  There is a malaise that a “golden age” has passed, and mineral collecting is in a death spiral. However, the very fact that there is a “minerals are art” market is probably why there are more how quality specimens than ever for sale.  This truly is the golden age of mineral collecting.


The Tucson Gem and Mineral Show began in 1955, and help span a “golden age” of mineral collecting that orbited around mineral clubs and annual shows. The TGMS show was in the quonset hut pictured above between 1955-1971. Humble beginning for a show that now has special exhibits and displays that are valued at 100 million dollars or more.

The First Golden Age: The Rock Hounding 50s and 60s

Mineral collecting – as a hobby, profession, scientific endeavor – has been around for at least 500 years.  Wendell Wilson wrote a fabulous tome on the origins of collecting, The History of Mineral Collecting, 1530-1799 in 1994.  “Collecting” coincided with the rise of science applied to mining, and Georgics Agricola’s De Natura Fossilium published in 1546 is considered the first modern textbook of mineralogy.  Although there are some exceptions, the first 350 years of mineral collecting was dominated by the gentleman naturalist, and specimen quality was not as important as documenting topographic mineralogy. By the end of the 19th century there were scores of serious mineral collectors in the US (and even more in Europe) – mostly rich business men — and minerals dealers became a real profession.  However, in the US the most important event in the later half of the 19th century that changed mineral collecting was the rise of high education. Hundreds of universities and colleges sprung up across the nation, and geology was taught in nearly all; remarkably, all these new colleges sought to acquire geology collections, including minerals.  In response to demand, companies like Ward’s (Ward’s Natural Science was founded in 1862 by Henry A. Ward) mass marketed minerals, and the “common man” could own specimens from around the world.  This spawned mineral clubs – The New York  Mineralogical Club was founded in 1886, the Philadelphia Mineralogical Society in 1892, and by 1900 there were at least 2 dozen amateur groups promoting mineralogy. These societies had a tremendous impact on a generation of scientists; one of my favorite stories is the connection between Linus Pauling and J. Robert Oppenheimer (all stories come back to Los Alamos…..) – they were both mineral collectors! In fact, Oppenheimer gave a several hundred specimens to Pauling when he was at Caltech, and in turn, Pauling gave many of these to his son-in-law, Barclay Kamb, who later became the head of the Earth and Planetary Sciences department  at Caltech (he was the department head when  I was a student there in the 1970s).


Quartz crystals originally in the Oppenheimer Collection that were given to Luis Pauling. Photograph by Anna Wilsey.

By the late 1930s there were at least 120 clubs in the US, and “rock hounding” was a popular past time. However, it was with the end of World War II that saw an explosion in rock hounding; the hobby literally swept across the country, and by 1947 there were at least a thousand clubs. The American Federation of Mineralogical Societies (AMFS) was founded in 1947, and club gem and mineral shows became common place.  One of the most influential of these clubs was the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society (TGMS) which was founded in 1946. Tucson was an international center for mineral exploration, and the University of Arizona had strong academic programs in economic geology and mining engineering.  There were more than a 1000 mines – active or abandon – within 100 miles of Tucson, and this was a collectors paradise (anecdotally, when I graduated from Caltech I chose to take a position at the University of Arizona based on this “center of the mineral universe” – it certainly was not the center of theoretical and computational geophysics).  In 1955 TGMS launched its annual show (nine dealers, but more than 1500 attendees!).  Soon the TGMS show aggressively moved to the national stage – and attracted exhibits from museums like the Smithsonian Institution – and by the mid-1960s was attracting an international cliental. The 1970 were halcyon days for mineral collecting – thousands of colorful minerals were pouring out of Mexico, and the TGMS show was a perfect market place.  This is what most collectors think of as the “golden age”.  One of the factors that contributes to the nostalgia was the modest prices charged for minerals – it was a mom and pop enterprise catering to a broad spectrum of collectors.


The TGMS show changed the mineral collecting hobby – it became big business. Satellite shows proliferated, including the hotel room collection of dealers that set up at the Desert Inn. This was the front end to the transformation of mineral collecting as a populist hobby to high art.

The dramatic growth the mineral collecting enterprise naturally became stratified.  The “best” minerals, especially those that were colorful, became much more expensive.  In addition, the concept of a market for minerals that paralleled the market for art pushed this segregation even further.  By the late 1970s there were mineral dealers in the TGMS show that only “dealt” with high end material; these dealers would sell individual specimens for more money that most of the mom and pop dealers would make during the entire TGMS show. It was the Malthusian end – demand crushed the supply side of the equation.  Further, it seemed advances in mechanized mining, solution extraction, and exploration of low grade ores meant that the flow of collectable minerals was slowing to a trickle.

Much grumbling was heard in the late 1970s that the mineral collecting hobby was “over”.  Purchasing high quality specimens was becoming out of reach for many collectors, and large number of the collecting localities in the US were being reclaimed or closed to the causal rock hound.  However, the very driver that caused this grumbling – money – was allowing collecting to be done on a commercial scale.  Collecting contracts were profitable in some large active mines, and the potential to realize profits began to entice wealthy collectors to invest in specialty mining: the Sweet Home Mine rhodochrosite and Red Cloud wulfenite mining endeavors would not have happened without a market for million dollar rocks.  In the mid-1990s dealers began to market on the internet – it was an innovative way to reach remote customers, but it also had the remarkable effect of democratizing the pricing of minerals.  Miners in Bolivia could actually see how much a dealer in the US was asking for the vivianite specimen the miner had sold to the dealer a month ago. A new supply-demand relationship in mineral collecting was born.


Silver in friable quartz, Andaychagua Mine, Peru (photograph by Jeff Scovil). The specimen is 5.2 cm tall, and shows a plate of spinel twins; mined in May, 2015.

Today’s Golden Age – At Least for Silver Minerals

There is no question that the mineral collecting hobby in 2016 is very different than it was in the 1970s.  However, the quality of minerals being bought and sold today is higher than ever.  The market model is excluding young collectors, and restricting collectors of modest means (I often hear about “bargains” to be found for the modest collector – however, when every display at a mineral show is filled with specimens that costs thousands of dollars, the collector of modest means is psychologically disposed to simply walk away). But, for collectors that can afford to invest, the minerals that are available today are exceptional.  This is especially true for colorful or gem minerals – but is also true for the “ugly” dark minerals, like silver minerals!
An exemplar for this new golden age are a few personal additions to my collection in the last 24 months – all specimens that were mined or recovered during in past few years.  I am a collector of modest means, but I have also been collecting minerals for nearly 55 years.  That long tenure means that I have many more avenues to acquiring minerals that beginners, or even most collectors, have at their disposal.  These examples are not “trophies”, but are still among the best known for the species.
During the summer of 2015 a few dozen acanthite specimens with specular luster were recovered along the Veta Madre of Guanajuato.  The Guanajuato mines are arguably the most famous silver locality in the world, and certainly the source of the  “best” classic acanthites — strings of stacked pseudo cubes.  This recent find is different, but still spectacular, from the classics.

Complex cluster of acanthite crystals, 3.2 cm high from the Mina La Cata, Guanajuato, GTO, Mexico (Jeff Scovil, photograph).

Guanajuato is located 475 km northwest of Mexico City, along the “silver channel” a string of incredible silver districts running along the spine of Mexico. In 1548, a group of ore haulers was returning to the recently discovered silver camp of Zacatecas after delivering their load to Mexico City. The haulers decided to camp beneath a rock outcrop that resembled a frog – the name Guanajuato is said to be a Spanish pronunciation of the Tarascan Indian word for hill of frogs (Martin, 1906).  A little prospecting uncovered a vein of silver, and a claim was staked on one of the world’s greatest mining camps. Over then next 475 years Guanajuato would go through periods of boom and bust; the booms were extraordinary! In the 18th century Guanajuato accounted for two thirds of the world’s total silver production. In 1906, Englishman Percy Martin wrote a promotional book call Mexico’s Treasure House (Guanajuato), in which he extolled the virtues of the silver district: “The silver mines of Guanajuato differ from most other mines in the world inasmuch as there is nothing conjectural nor problematic about them”. Hardly true, but there is nothing conjectural about the fact that for 450 years the district has supplied unsurpassed mineral specimens.


Basic geologic map of Guanajuato from Wendke, 1965. The Mina La Cata is located between the Valencia and Mellado.

During the summer of 2014, and again in the spring of 2015, very fine spinel twinned silvers were found at the Andaychagua Mine, in the San Cristobal District of Peru.  The San Cristobal District has long been known for silver minerals, but the new find are the best herring bone silvers to be mined since the Batopilas, Mexico silvers recovered in the 1980s.


Multiple plates of spinel twinned silver from the Andaychagua Mine Peru. The specimen is nine cm tall. Jeff Scovil photograph.

The San Cristobal District is located in the Cordillera Occidental about 120 km east of Peru and the first mines in this region were recorded in the 16th century.  The region has a rich history of producing silver-bearing mineral specimens and some fine spinel twins of native silver (from the San Cristobal Mine) in a crumbly siderite matrix were on the market in the mid-1980s.  The Andaychagua mine is one of four (the other three being the San Cristobal, Ticlio and Carahuacra) in the district that are active, and is presently owned by Volcan Compañía Minera S.A. (acquired in 1997). The annual silver production from the district is about 250,000 kg – however, specimens for collectors have been rare for the last 20 years.


Location of the major mining districts in Peru. San Cristobal is a mountainous district with an average elevation of approximately 14,500′ (map from Bartlet, 1984).

The Machacamarca District, also known as the Colavi District, is located in the Bolivian tin belt, a chain of related mineral deposits that extends nearly 1000 km north-to-south along the eastern Cordillera of Bolivia.  The northern part of the belt is marked by Suko, and the southern end is Pirquitas in Argentina. The world’s most famous silver deposit – Cerro Rico in Potosi – sits in the middle of the tin belt. Colavi is only a few 10s km north of Cerro Rico – but those few km are across the most rugged  mountainous terrain in the world.


The mine of the Bolivian Tin Belt. In the center is Potosi, home of Cerro Rico. Machacamarca, Colavi is located due north of Potosi.

In April of 2015 a significant find of freibergite crystals were recovered from an obscure mine identified as the Melgarejo Mine. Numerous geologists that work in the area scoff at the locality – they don’t doubt Colavi, but have never heard of nor seen the Melgarejo Mine.  Mariano Melgarejo is a Bolivian  historical figure of some considerable ill repute – he give a significant portion of eastern Bolivia to Brazil in the Treaty of Ayacucho in exchange for a magnificent white horse, and in 1870 ordered his troops to march to Paris to protect France from an invading Germany.  Nevertheless, the freibergite crystals are certainly the largest ever found.  It is difficult to tell the difference between friebergite and tetrahedrite (that carries some amount of silver), and many specimens labeled freibergite turn out to be the much more common tetrahedrite.  The specimen shown below is the one of the very best found, and I personally checked the structure to confirm its identification.  Considering that freibergite has been identified from hundreds of localities since the late 18th century, the fact that “world’s best” now appear is remarkable.


Freibergite crystals, 7.2 cm across (Jeff Scovil photograph). The reputed locality is the Melgarejo Mine, Machacamarca, Colvai, Bolivia. “Reputed” because some have questioned whether the actual locality was obscured to preserve a source.

The Imiter deposit is located in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, Morocco, northern Africa, and it is one of the largest silver deposits in the world.  Imiter has been producing wonderful collectable specimens for several decades; these include octahedral acanthites, dyscrasites, various silver-mercury amalgams, some of the world’s best xanthoconite, and is the type locality for imiterite. Proustite is well known from the mine, but most of the crystals have been small.  The specimen below is a large cauliflower like clump of crystals (the specimen weighs just under 3 pounds!) with individual crystals that are up to a cm across and several cm tall. It is impossible to know for sure when this specimen was recovered – it is clear that it was smuggled out of the mine, and passed through local merchants before coming to the US in late 2014.


13 cm cluster of proustite crystals from Imiter, Morocco (Jeff Scovil photograph). This small cabinet sized specimen is solid proustite, and contains individual crystals to 1.8 cm on a side. The luster, and deep vermillion color, and overall size make this a modern “classic”.

Although this is hardly a “classic” proustite as compared to a sharp dog’s tooth from Charnarcillo or individual cherry red crystal from Schneeberg, it is an amazing specimen.    The Imiter Mine had a capacity of 300,000 metric tons per year (t/yr) of ore and surely will continue to produce interesting specimens.

Metal mines of the Anti Atlas mountains in Morocco. Imiter is one of the largest silver mines in the world, and is a large open pit.

When will the Golden Age Wane?

Malthusian theory would predict that demand will outstrip supply in the future – maybe the near future. But mineral collecting is not dead, and in fact there is as much evidence based on the last 30 years that there will even more high quality specimens exchanging hands for decades to come.  Why is Malthusian theory is wrong?  Because demand for minerals – both as a commodity and as a collectable – is higher than it has ever been, and the world is responding. More mines, more mining, and more money in minerals.


Global silver production – looks just like the global growth in population! Each and every mine has the potential for specimens and even though historic localities are exhausted, new horizons are bright.

It is certain that the market of “art” will be what mineral collectors will have to deal with in the next quarter century.  If history of the art markets are predictors for minerals, there will be periods of malaise; but even during these periods the assessed worth of classics had an average annual escalation of several percent.  This leads to another question – where the heck do all these wealthy people come from?  Again, there are detailed studies of the art market, and one of the alarming (alarming if you are a collector, perhaps enticing if you are a dealer) lessons learned is that globalization will dramatically increase competition at the highest end.  However will mineral collecting evolve with a very stratified market?  That experiment is being played out in real time, and I hope for “niche markets” to develop – but that has not happened yet.  Hold on to your wallets, the golden age squeezes…….



The difference between Metric and USCU: Crashing and burning the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs 50 miler

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep, Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (1923).

Star Tracks above the JMTR course. This wonderful photograph by Jim Stein (a magnificent Los Alamos photographer) shows the night sky above the track of the JMTR 50 miler and 50 km course between the Ski Hill and Pipeline Aid Stations. Click on thumbnail photos to get larger images.

On December 11, 1998, NASA launched the Mars Climate Orbiter from Cape Canaveral. The orbiter was approximately a 2 meter cube that contained several instruments designed to map the details of the Martian atmosphere, and cost approximately 330 million dollars. Nine months after launch the satellite began maneuvers to assume an orbit around the red planet – but almost immediately NASA realized something had gone wrong. The orbiter was much closer to the surface of Mars than planned, and it ultimately disintegrated in the weak Martian atmosphere.  An ensuing investigation found that there was a software incompatibility in the orbiter – NASA had assumed metric units in its calculations, and controlling software supplied by Lockheed Martin used USCU (United States Customary Units). Miles vs Kilometers. Marvelous engineering, but the orbiter was lost because a kilometer is much, much different than a mile!

My home town trail ultra run, the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs (JMTR), has gained considerable fame as a challenging set of races – 50 miles, 50 km, and 15 miles (use to be a half marathon, but 13.1 miles is really just a warm up run, so it had to be stretched to 15 miles). I have run the 50 km race several times, and this year took the plunge and switched over to the 50 mile course (which is actually 52.7 miles long – ultra races have a strong culture of not wanting to “cheat” the runners and so usually run long).  It is obvious to even the most causal observer, 50 miles will be a more difficult run than 50 km.  But, it is not just miles (the JMTR 50 km race is 32.8 miles instead of the expected 31 miles – again, “more miles for the dollar”) that make the difference in a 50 km and 50 mile race – it is also time on one’s feet.  For slower runners, like myself, the body goes through stages of trauma when you run for 13 or 14 hours (or even 8 to 10 hours for a 50 km race); these include how your body processes fuel, the cumulative impact of 10s of thousands of joint jarring strikes on the ground as you run along the trail, and blood chemistry changes as muscle tissue breaks down.  A 50 miler becomes a set of different races within the overall run.  Elite runners can complete the JMTR in a little over 8 hours; very talented runners can run the course in 10 to 11 hours. Plodders like myself are several hours after that, and the extra time on the trail has significant consequences that are not intuitive (i.e., just being in the sun for an extra three hours has a tremendous impact on runners).


Top of Pajarito Mountain, the high point of the JMTR course at 10,440 feet (photo taken the day before the race when I was practicing the descent to the Ski Hill Aid station). The climb to the top is relentless and long – and for 50 milers the climb is done twice. View to the west across the Valle Grande.

I have run about 20 trail ultras of 50 or 55 km length.  Each of these races are unique – terrain, elevation, sand (which is the single worst running surface), weather – so it is difficult to characterize what a “typical” trail race is like.  However, there are some generalities that can be made.  I have run all these races in times between 6hrs and 50 minutes and 8hrs and 55 minutes (so, on average, it takes me about 8 hours to run a trail 50 km ultra). Experience has taught me when to hike and not run, how to fuel during the race, how often I need to drink, and perhaps most importantly, how to mentally deal with being on the trail for 8+ hours. It is fair to say that 50/55 km trail runs no longer intimidate me, nor do I expect to require more than a week or two to recover from a race. But all is not necessarily well: in the last 18 months I have had a noted decline in my expected performance in 50 km races.  I have been slowing, and begun to cramp more often, and walked long sections of the course.  The leap from metric to USCU is huge – those extra 18-20 miles, at the end of a 50 mile race, are much harder than the first 50 km.  The JMTR is very known territory to me, and there is no part of the course that I have not run dozens of times. But putting those segmented runs into one long journey is a true test. 52.7 miles with 11,300 feet elevation gain (and then descent!) is a wild ride.  I will turn 60 years old in a few weeks after the 2016 JMTR – and I figured “what a way to celebrate!).  Unfortunately, NASA Mars missions and my ultra running have some things in common…….


Running an ultra is unlike any other athletic endeavor – there are parts physical, mental, and luck. Understanding which of these categories is making you miserable is essential. Plus, being a scientist, athletic misery allows infinite analysis!

Running Long: What Happens to the Body

There is a large body of scientific work on optimizing performance in marathons.  For example this paper is a classic: Noakes, T.D., K.H. Myburgh, J. Du Plessis, L. Lang, M. Lambert, C. Van Der Riet, and R. Schall. 1991. Metabolic rate, not percent dehydration, predicts rectal temperature in marathon runners. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 23(4):443-449 (yes, the investigators convinced some runners to put a thermometer up their rectum….). One is tempted to use this catalogue of studies to understand what is happening to your body during an ultra marathon in the mountains.  However, except for elite runners – the best of the best – the marathon analysis are almost irrelevant.


Running a marathon, even in a modest 4 hour time (and I say modest 4 hour with respect because it is really very difficult to run a 4 hour marathon!), is an intense athletic endeavor.  Heart rates are typically at 80 percent max or higher, the body is relying on fast twitch muscles, and those muscles are fueled by glycogen which is stored in the muscles and liver.  Typically, marathon runners store enough glycogen to run about 18 miles (and then hit the dreaded “wall” and bonk when unprepared).  Ultra runners of the run-of-the-mill variety typically run at heart rates of 60 or even 50% max.  My maximum heart rate is calculated to be about 165; when I run a competitive 10 km race on the road my heart rate is about 150.  When I run an ultra my heart rate is usually in the 120s.  This means that my body is using more slow twitch muscles, and I am burning less glycogen per mile and more fat.  The figure above is a notational comparison of fuels the body utilizes as a function of intensity of exercise.

Fueling is actually one of the lesser issues for the average ultra runner.  Consuming “real” food every 5 or 10 miles is much different that trying to get sugars into your system like a marathoner does.  The larger issues are hydration, the general breakdown of muscle tissue and the pounding joints take with 10 hours on the trail.  The impact of the muscle tissue breakdown is two fold – the muscle stop performing at their peak, and the byproducts of breakdown enter the blood stream and cause the certain internal organs to work much harder than would be expected for other forms of exercise.


Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone – it is often called the “stress hormone – and is responsible for the stress response within the body.

There are many different things that happen with muscle breakdown – and joint pounding – but one of the most important responses in the body is the production of cortisol. Cortisol is a powerful regulator of immune response; it is a hormone controlled by the adrenal cortex.  Cortisol is absolutely necessary for normal metabolic functionality.  However, under stress — like hours into an ultra – cortisol becomes elevated. Elevated cortisol levels resulting from physical stress triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. This can be good –  however, over time the high levels of cortisol leads to a state of constant muscle breakdown and suppressed immune function, and a decay of things like “running efficiency”.  One of the biggest differences between marathon runners and average ultra runners is the time the body is exposed to elevated levels of cortisol.  Although every person responds uniquely, all humans degrade in performance over time when exposed to stress.  This is not something that easily translates from one ultra runner to another.

Hydration is an essential element of metabolism.  In general, ultra runners think of hydration as a response to sweating, but in fact, it is mostly a response to heavy breathing, especially in very dry climates. A small number of studies have been performed on ultra runners and they show that on average male runners will loose about 4.4 pounds during a 50 mile run lasting 12-15 hours.  That weight loss is largely water.  Runners probably sweat away about 8 pounds over the same run, but are able to replace about 4 of those pounds by drinking (that equates to 1/2 of a gallon of water).  The rest of the loss effects other facets of the metabolism including the ability to process food and most importantly, cool the brain.  Long runs always generate what is called “central fatigue” which is a gradual decline in the nervous system’s ability to contract muscles.  In other words, your legs stop listening to the signals your brain sends them.  “Run Forrest Run” is a pipe dream at the end of a run not only because your muscles have broken down, but also because your brain is too tired to force the issue.  If your brain gets “hot” due to lack of cooling, the fatigue is greatly accelerated.

Given all these nasty things that happen during an ultra, why run?  Good question, but not one that is easily answered.  For me, more importantly, is “how do I understand WHY I am running the way I am” given the complexity of the human system.  Running an ultra is not a controlled experiment.  Every human is different – but thoughtful analysis can help understand “what happened”.


Dave Zerkle and I at 4:30 in the morning waiting for the 50 miler to start.

The 2016 JMTR 50 miler

Training for the JMTR 50 was an interesting endeavor this year.  Everyone in Los Alamos waited for a mega snow season promised by a massive El Nino year.  Indeed the El Nino as measured by sea surface temperatures along the equator in the Pacific was the largest in recorded history.


Sea Surface temperature anomaly for the 1997 and 2015 El Nino cycles. 1997 was a devastating global event, and brought a tripling of normal moisture to the US southwest.

The climate system is quite complex so it is very difficult to “model” and predict the effects of a developing El Nino.  Thus, most climate scientists and certainly most amateur weather forecasters, assume that past systems will do a pretty good job of predicting consequences for the developing system.  Below are the sea surface temperature observations for 1997 and 2015 – and, indeed, they look remarkably similar.  How different could the weather be in winter/spring 1998 and 2016?



Comparisons of the sea surface temperature anomalies for December 1997 and 2015. The dark brown colors along the equator outline the “warm water pool” that drives the weather conditions that including much more precipitation in the southwest, and generally cooler temperatures.

Well, the answer is “pretty damn different”.  Northern New Mexico got a significant increase in moisture, but it was incredibly uneven in its distribution.  Los Alamos did not get any early snow fall; in fact it only had two large events.  These storms were large enough to produce an adequate ski season, but not like that seen in 1998. The spring was colder than usual, and many small storms dumping a few inches of snow all the way up to the week of the JMTR.  The net effect was that despite the modest snowfall, many of the high country trails in the Jemez were unavailable for running until late April.  This meant training was done closer to town and at elevations that rarely exceeded 8000 feet elevation.  Many miles were run, but the climbs were less excruciating, the air was thick (instead of what we suck down at 10,000′).  When I towed the line for the 2016 50 miler I was uncertain of my fitness – the training was just different.

The JMTR starts at 5:00 am at the Posse Shack (some people get offended at the “Shack” label and prefer “Lodge”, but I grew up here in Los Alamos and we have called it the shack since the 1950s).  I am always impressed at the enthusiasm of the runners before a long day ahead.  However, I had some dread – it was 49 degrees at 5 am, which meant a warm day ahead.  I am not a warm weather runner by any stretch of imagination.  The start of the race is a dance of bouncing light beams from headlamps under a full moon sky.  The first couple of miles are along a rutted single track, and nice easy running.  My only thought was “not too fast, not too fast – it is a very long day”.  By mile three my headlamp is in my hand, but I note that the headband is soaked with sweat.  When we pull into Aid Station 1 we are 5 miles into the course — I can’t help but start the calculator in my brain and think I only have 90% to go!


GPS track of my JMTR run. The blue line looks so trivial on a oblique view of a topographic map. However, the distance covered is 32.8 miles with 6,917 feet elevation gain.

In all honesty I knew something was not right by the time I left AS 1 – I was only 3 minutes slower than the plan, but I felt like I was wearing concrete galoshes.  My muscles did not hurt, but I was sweating way more than usual, and my face no doubt had the patina of lethargy. The real race starts at about mile 8.25 when the trail descends in Los Alamos Canyon and bottoms out at an elevation of 7,200 feet.  Over the next 8.5 miles the trail points upward to the top of Pajarito Mountain, and an elevation of 10,440 feet.  I pull out my trekking poles in Los Alamos Canyon and along steep segments I switch from a jog to a walk with an occasional power hike.


Before the long climb up UPCT. Jim Stein photograph.

Aid Station 2 is at an elevation of 8,000 feet and at the 10 mile mark.  I am pretty tired here, but friends volunteer at this station, and that buoys the spirit (plus, thinking that 20 percent of the race is done!).  This is a fueling stop for me, and I grab 4 peanut and jelly squares and begin a walk up the trail.  I always make the same mistake: I grab PandB because it tastes good, but it sticks to the roof of my mouth, and makes it so I can’t breath.  After all these years you would think I would learn, but alas, this year is no different than all the previous races.  At this point my running partner surged on ahead to assure that he could make all the cut off times along the 50 mile course.

At mile 12.4 the climb up Upper Pajarito Canyon Trail (UPCT) starts.  Only 4.5 miles to the top, but the climb is 2100 feet.  The grade is relentless – runnable, but barely – and there are no sections of the trail built for resting.  Unfortunately for me on this day, nothing is runnable.  I am into power hiking at best, and it takes 1 1/2 hours to reach the summit.  I feel okay, but seem to be trapped in a gravitational well – everything is heavy and time is not particularly linear. I pause at the summit, and get out my iPhone to take a picture.  However, my hands are so swollen that my finger print will not activate the phone. I fold up my trekking poles and begin what should be a quick – at least 12 or 13 minutes/mile – run down to the Ski Hill Aid Station.


Coming into AS 3, at Pajarito Ski Hill. I am right at the time I predicted for “TROUBLE”, about 45 minutes behind schedule.

The aid station is at mile 18.1.  By my schedule I should have arrived at 9:30, and I had noted that if I arrive at 10:15 am then I am in trouble.  I arrive at 10:17 – I am pretty despondent. I have run this segment of trail (or some approximation of it) at least 20 times in the last 3 years.  Only twice before have I been slower.  My wife is at the aid station, and this always lifts my spirits.  I down a tall glass of coca cola, feast on watermelon, eat a handful of potato chips for salt (plus I love potato chips…), and ponder the rest of the run.  My joints – in particular the one knee that has not replaced – ache, and my feet hurt.  I decide to walk and trot to the next aid station and make the decision on whether to switch to the 50 km race or continue along the 50 mile route.  There is a cutoff time of 12:30 pm at AS 4 for 50 milers; any runners arriving after this time MUST change to the 50 km course.  I arrive at the AS in plenty of time – about 11:10 am.  But this is much later than I imagined I would be here.  The die is cast, and I decide I will only run the 50 km course.  Better to finish a race than be stranded at a distant aid station.  I call this the point of shame, or more categorically, the metric/english units point of debacle.  50 km is no 50 miles.  Crash and burn in the Martian atmosphere.

There is a brief bright spot at the Pipeline Aid Station. They have ice!  It seems so hot now (the weather station back at the ski hill registered a temperature of 71 degrees), and the ice is a god send.  I fill my water bottle with ice (and in my mind I apologize to all the runners that will come after me because I am hogging this crystalline commodity!), and make the turn realizing I only have 12 miles to go.  12 miles is nothing – literally, a training run of 12 miles is what I do on a short day.  However, I am incredibly slow – mostly walking for a couple of miles until I reach an important junction on the course between pipeline road and Guaje Ridge trail (which is almost exactly 10 miles to the finish).  Just a week earlier I had been marking this section of the course with flagging, and thinking that I was going to romp down this trail at breakneck speed.  Nope.  The sun was blazing, and there were strong gust of wind that were so dry I was worried about becoming a mummified seismologist.

I ran the wonderful section of single track at about 15 minutes/mile.  Occasionally walking for motivation, but most running.  Only an ultra runner would understand the difficulty with running at this point in a race.  Standing or walking there is NO pain; however, try to run, and the body just does not respond.  It is curious, but it is a response to the trauma that the joints have experienced earlier in the day. After a slow 2 miles I pull into the Mitchell Trail Aid Station, and know I am only 8.1 miles from the end!  2 weekends ago I had run this last section in 1 hr and 36 minutes.  Well, that past run really meant nothing.  The lower Guaje Ridge trail is beautiful as far as single track is concerned – but is sort of sucks as far as being a scenic racetrack.


The 2000 Cerro Grande fire completely denuded Guaje Ridge. No trees were left alive, and most were burned to the ground. The lower Guaje Ridge is beginning to recover, but barely. It is a barren landscape.

The sun is blazing, and I am drinking quite a bit of water as I head out on the home stretch.  As often is the case in my ultras, I drink what I think is a lot of water to accommodate my ridiculous sweating.  However, I almost never have to urinate during the 8-10 hour run.  I have water sloshing in the belly, but it never makes it to the badder.  Today is no exception.  A crude calculation indicates I have consumed about 1.6 gallons of fluid up to this point, which must have come out my pores (one of the joys of being a scientist on an ultra is that you can use that long, lonely time on the trail to calculate things – lots of things.  This run I calculated the amount of fluid I consumed, the effects of Martian gravity on energy use during a run, the total amount of water I must have breathed in given a humidity of 10 percent, and of course, how I was going to survive the next four years no matter who was elected president).  Although I am running okay I am mostly irritated that this section of the course is no fun.  Mile after mile it is just exercise.  3 miles from the end I here a call of my name – it is my wife! She climbed up to the Mitchell Trail Aid Station, arrived 20 minutes behind me, and ran me down so she could pace me to the finish.  How amazing!  The last 3 miles are brutal, but as enjoyable as any I have run in the JMTR.  When we pull into the last Aid Station at 30.6 miles I see so many friends volunteering.  I feel like Norm walking into the bar on Cheers – everyone knows my name and are so kind and helpful. What a wonderful near-end to the race.

I still have 2 miles to the race end, and I decide just to walk.  It is way slower than I have ever done, but I climb up through the deep ruts carved in the Bandolier Tuff, and stumble back into the Posse Shack.  Slowest 50 km ever, but done nevertheless.


My fourth JMTR 50 km run was by far my hardest. But, the finisher pottery — front and center — was just as sweet as all the rest.

Mind over Matter (or Madder)

The JMTR has left me with worry and concern.  I have seen a significant decline in my long distance running in the last 18 months.  I have actually improved my short distance (10 km) speed, but anything over 3 hours seems to trigger a reaction in my body and performance wanes.  I remain a determined climber, but slopes that I use to bound up I now hike up.  In a few weeks I will turn 60 so there is a tendency to attribute this decline to growing older.  However, it is much more precipitous than any maturity curve would suggest.  I have struggled with no longer having a functioning thyroid, but again, this decline seems to outsize even that.  Overtraining, under training, joint pain, workplace stress – all things that could effect my athletic performance (I barely can type athletic performance in any sentence I write about myself).  I need to refocus, and consider all the possible factors, and enter the next phase of wandering in the wilderness.


Running an Ultra at Moab; Slickrock, Arches and Salt Tectonics

This is the most beautiful place on earth…Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary…For myself, I’ll take Moab, Utah…The slick-rock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky—all that which lies beyond the end of the roads. Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire (1968).


View across Arches National Park towards the La Sal Mountains taken the day before the Behind the Rocks Ultra. The La Sals are a Laramie laccolithic range, and sit on top of the Jurassic sandstones that have been carved into spires and arches in the Park. Click on many thumbnail photo to get a full sized view.

My first visit to Moab, Utah was in the late 1960s when I accompanied my father on a mineral collecting adventure in search of exotic uranium and vanadium minerals.  Moab was perhaps the most famous modern mining boomtown in the world in the mid-1950s, but had already begun its decline by the late 1960s.   I don’t recall much about the mineral collecting part of the journey, but etched in my mind was the magical vista of carved rocks only a few miles north of Moab — Arches National Monument (today it is Arches National Park).  Arches was pretty much the end of the world in the late 1960s, and when we pulled in to a campsite late in the evening I don’t recall seeing another sole until we left the monument late the next evening. In the morning, as the sun rose I recall seeing a bizarre landscape of red-brown spires and towers.  We hiked out a trail and saw a dozen delicate arches – improbable spans of carved rock – that defied gravity.  Today I don’t recall what trail we hiked, or which arches we visited, but it was a seminal experience on my journey to becoming a naturalist.


Double Arch, in Arches National Park. This is a “pothole arch” that was formed by water erosion from above – not the standard way arches are constructed.

A few years after that visit to Moab I was enrolled in a contemporary literature class in High School, and I was assigned to read a modern novel;  I picked Edward Abbey’s Desert SolitaireA Season in the Wilderness. It is a non-fiction book that really is a series of essays by Abbey about his experiences as a ranger on the Colorado Plateau.  Chapter one is about Abbey’s time as a park ranger in Arches National Monument in the summer of 1956 (the year I was born).  I can honestly say that Desert Solitaire, and especially chapter one, was the first book I ever read that gripped me with emotion.  Abbey’s descriptions of Arches, and of the conflict and symbiosis between man and nature (with no answers by the way!) was pure passion.

I read an advertisement for an ultra run in a wilderness study area area just south of Moab, and decided it was something I had to do.  I imagined running on the slick rock – the recreational name of the hard sandstones of the Colorado Plateau – and pausing to take photographs of the arches and spires would be an ultimate ultra.  The race was relatively early in the year, and the miles would serve as training for the tough 50 milers to come. But the real adventure was returning to Arches.


Google Earth image of the area around Moab, Utah. The town of Moab sits in a northwest-southeast trending valley that was created by the collapse of a salt diapir. The landscape is dominated by the reddish colored Jurassic sandstones and the tall La Sal Mountains.

Carving Sandstone

The delicate arches and spires of Moab are the result of millions of years of geologic processes — there are far more rock arches (thousands!) in the area than anywhere in the world — and the story as to “why” is quite complex. The Colorado Plateau is a unique and amazing place; and every “geology” story about the Plateau has to start with the remarkable layered cake stack of sedimentary rocks that accounts for nearly 1/9 of the entire history of the Earth.  As I have written before, these sandstones, limestones, shales and coal beds of the Plateau were  deposited along the margin of the proto-North American continent.  That ancient continent drifted from equator to equator over a period of 500 million years, but the margin of the continent was remarkably stable.  Today the Plateau covers some 150,000 square miles, and has been lifted gently up to an average elevation of about 5,200′ (the mile-high table!). Wandering through the rocks today tells the long story of the continental margin;  sometimes it was below sea level, sometimes it was a continental swap like the bayou of Louisiana, and sometimes is was a dry desert covered with sand dunes.


Regional tectonics of southeastern Utah (from Nuncio and Condon, 1996). The Paradox Basin is an oblong, northwest trending feature that developed some 300 million years ago. The Paradox Basin was on the margin of the Uncompahgre Uplift to the northeast, and was marine basin that occasionally was uplifted and eventually filled with a thick sequence of evaporates including salt.

The present day geology of the area around Moab began to take shape about 320 million years ago.  Northeast of Moab was a large continental highlands knowns as the Uncompahgre uplift or plateau.  The formation history of this highlands was complex (and still much debated), but it clearly was associated with the creation of the super continent Pangea.  The highlands stretched for many hundreds of miles along the edge of the continent, and sediment was eroded from the mountains and hills and transported to the southwest and deposited in marine trough that today we call the Paradox Basin.  The regional geologic map above depicts the basin as an oval – about 190km in length on a northwest-southeast axis, and 95 km across at its widest point. The filling of the Paradox basin with debris occurred during what is known as the Carboniferous Period (so named because huge deposits of coal were deposited across northern Europe, Asia, and midwestern and eastern North America).  The Paradox basin had limited circulation from the ancient ocean, and would occasionally (over a period of millions of years) evaporite, and deposit salt (halite) and gypsum.  This salt would later pay an extraordinary role in shaping the topography and delicate rock architecture of Moab that we see today.


Notional geological cross section through the Paradox Basin about 310 million years before the present (from Baars and Stevenson, 1981). The “salt” contains both halite and gypsum.

The maximum salt thickness was on the order of a kilometer, although thinner on the southwestern margin of the basin.  Eventually the Uncompahgre uplift met its demise, and was mostly eroded away; the Paradox Basin was subsequently covered by the great sand dunes of the Jurassic and Triassic periods (250-150 million years ago), and then the shallow marine mudstones and shales of the Cretaceous (150-70 mybp).


A cross section through Spanish Valley from southwest to northeast.  Arches National Park is the surface on the right hand side of the figure (from Mueller, 2013).  During the Laramide the geologic column was squeezed from left-to-right in the figure, and the layered cake geology was bent upward in an anticline.  Eventually fractures in the hard rocks at the top of the anticline allowed water to circulate into the deep salt deposits which dissolved and moved away causing the anticline to collapse.

The large stack of sediments that covered the salt and sediments in the Paradox Basin were relatively undisturbed for several hundred million years.  However, about 70 million years ago the entire west coast of the continental mass that would become North America began to be compressed and shortened. This tectonic episode was known as the Laramide Orogeny, and much of what is the western US today was faulted and thrusted into a series of basins and high mountains — imagine an accordion being squeezed.  The Colorado Plateau rocks as a whole resisted the faulting, and really acted as a nearly rigid block.  However, over the 30 million years of the Laramide, the Plateau began to deform and reactivating ancient deeply buried structures.  In the Paradox Basin this deformation was expressed as a series of folds – synclines and anticlines.  The Spanish Valley, which can be seen in the Google Earth figure above, was one of these anticlines (usually called the Moab Anticline)  The anticline had a strike of northwest-southeast, and Moab is located at the northwestern end.  Anticline-Syncline folding is known the world over, but there was a special ingredient in the Paradox Basin – salt!  When squeezed salt does not act like a brittle rock; it flows like tar.  The folding caused the salt to flow into dome-like diapirs, which further bowed up the sedimentary rocks that lay above the salt.  This enhanced doming eventually fractured the overlying sedimentary rocks, which, in turn allowed surface waters to descend and interact with the salt.  The salt slowly dissolved, and the resulting brine exited to the surface.  This eventually called the doming sedimentary rocks to collapse.  Spanish Valley is a long, collapsed anticline (the figure above shows a notional cross section near Moab).  The collapse occurred along steep faults, leaving cliffs on either side of the valley.  The cliffs to the southwest, which is called the Moab Rim, are much steeper and higher than those to the northeast.


Ariel view of joints in the Entrada Sandstone along the flank on the Salt Valley anticline.  These joints serve as the seeds for erosion and the development of rock “fins” that eventually can form arches. From Mueller, 2013

The doming of the Jurassic sandstones above the salt beds of the Paradox Basin is a key ingredient in the creation of the rock arches that dot the Moab area.  Unlike salt, sandstone is quite brittle, and responds to the doming by developing cracks, or joints.  In turn, these joints allow water to penetrate into the formation, and through a process of freeze-thaw in the winter the sandstone is broken into a series of “fins” or thin slices of rock.


A view to the northwest from Windows Arches towards a whole series of sandstone fins – future arches!

These thin sheets can then be further eroded along the steep faces exposed.  A complex interaction between water dissolving some of the sandstone through erosion and “stress hardening” on the remaining rock, holes are carved.


North Windows Arch. The arch was carved in a fin of Entrada Sandstone (which was formed some 160-180 million years ago from beach dunes). Below the Entrada is the Navajo sandstone.

Eventually the erosion will win, and the supporting struts of the arch will no longer be strong enough to support the span heavy rock.  There are about 2000 mapped arches in Arches National Park, and about 45 have collapsed since Edward Abbey was a park ranger.  No where else on Earth  is there a concentration of natural stone arches that comes close to matching the Park.  But the landscape is ephemeral – the great arches today will be gone in a thousand years, and replaced by new carvings.  In addition to the arches there are large numbers of impressive spires and towers – all stages of the battle against erosion.


The Organ – an impressive tower of Entrada Sandstone.

Running the Behind the Rocks 50km Ultra

Behind the Rocks is a region south of Moab on the upturned limb of the Moab Anticline.  Much of the area of the ultra race skirts the Behind the Rocks Wilderness Area – and underfoot is almost exclusively the Jurassic age Navajo Sandstone.  The vistas are fins and arches of Entrada Sandstone, but the Navajo controls the footing. After my disastrous experience of blisters from running in exactly the same sand at the Antelope Canyon Ultra, I was fully fortified with extra socks, bandaids, mole skin, and a magic talisman. Traveling to the starting line from Moab means a very early morning drive, and the starting line is a cold 31 degrees.


A crescent moon over the Behind Rocks Ultra starting line. First trail ultra I have been in where you are issued a chip for timing – really! For me an sand hour glass would do.

The cold temperature temperature means lots of hopping around trying to stay warm, but I know that cold is much better for me.  The 50 km course mainly follows jeep trails, old and new.  The newer ones are covered with fine sand, but the older ones are mostly like single track trails.  The course is dominantly downhill for the first half of the race – which, unfortunately, means that it is all uphill for the miles 16-32.25!


GPS track for my version of the Behind the Rocks ultra – I say my version, because I was not always sure I was on the prescribed course – especially in the second half when I only briefly saw runners pass me with the standard “looking good buddy”. Lying is a skill ultra runners perfect.

I planned for the run out to the turn around point to take 3 hrs and 10 minutes (the turn around point is at just a hair under 16 miles).  In fact, it took me 3 hrs and 18 minutes, which is probably the first time one of my ultra running plans came together (I would have actually been right on schedule if the final drop down Hunters Canyon was not apparently a bouldering course).  The first 3 miles of the race are the usual madness with 150 runners sorting themselves out.  I averaged 11 min/mile (I had to hold back because I knew it was a long day).  The first landmark is Prostitute Butte – I have no idea as to the origin of the name, and no one I talked to had a plausible explanation.


The sun was just raising above the La Sal mountains when we arrived at Prostitute Butte a large Entrada Sandstone rock – isolated from any surrounding fins or ridges.

Running is easy in over the first 10 miles, although I am mostly passed by better runners, and only occasionally pass a newbe that went out too fast.  The north side of Prostitute Butte has a nice arch named Picture Frame.


Picture Frame Arch from the ultra course. Early morning shadows subdue the contrast, but is a pretty square arch!

After mile 6.5 the course mostly follows Hunters Canyon. It is scenic and pretty easy running although there are patches that require technical acumen.  There are a couple of stream crossings – mostly because it rained and snowed this week.  The stream water served to cool my feet; as the sun rose it seemed that temperature jumped up to the 60s.  I doubt it was that warm in the morning, but I was dripping sweat from my hat.


Descending down Hunters Canyon. There are runners ahead of me in the lower right of the photograph. I caught this group climbing out of the  aid station at the turn around…perhaps a first for me.

I kept a close eye on my pace, and was very pleased that I was right on schedule….then mile 15 came, and the trail dropped down Hunters Canyon to the turn around aid station.  The trail suddenly had narrow ledges, big drops where you hopped from boulder to boulder, and lots of scrambling that required both hands.  Unfortunately, I still have a brace on my right hand due to a fractured thumb.  It took a full twenty minutes to get to the aid station!


Elevation profile for the Behind the Rocks ultra. The final descent into the turn around point is as vertical as it appears in this profile. The long climb up from miles 17-24 required me to listen to my nanopod and hope that Celtic Punk would spur me on. However, the first song that came up was AC/DC and Highway to Hell….coincidence or Karma?

My total time for the ultra by my garmin watch was 7hrs 42 minutes. But, to be honest, I turned off my watch at the Hunters Canyon aid station while I changed shoes and socks, and redid the mole skin on my feet.  First time in a race that I completely changed out my foot gear – it felt great, although it is debatable whether it had any effect on my performance.  After the change, I switched back on the watch, and now I had to scramble up the same boulder field.  Strangely, it was easier going up, and I passed at least two dozen people. But after mile 17 the course is just a grind – a constant climb. Not too steep, but relentless.  I was much slower than I planned on from mile 17-24 (at least 3 minutes/mile).  Runners began to pass me, but NOT runners from the 50 km race, but runners from the 50 mile race.  The 50 milers started 1 hour before us, and now were passing me after having run an additional 18 miles. Wow – but I was pretty sure they did not know as much seismology as I do.


The view at mile 22 – in the background are the La Sal mountains, white capped with this weeks snow. I was hoping for some of that snow to cool me off.

The final 8 miles of the course is steep downhill, and 2 mile climb, and then what should be a nice sprint to the finish line.  I was slow – finishing about 40 minutes slower than I had planned.  However, It was just great to finish in under 8 hours. I drank an estimated 1.5 gallons of liquid during the race (and 4 cups of coffee before the start!), but I did not urinate during the race, or for 3 hours afterwards. Man I sweat a lot!


The swag for completing the race is a black cow bell. I assume to cheer other racers on, but it could be to wear to ward off bears.

Perfectly Fragile

I was excited to return to Moab – the geology is fabulous.  However, it was not the experience I longed for.  It was the last weekend for spring break for most families, and Moab was crowded with adventure seekers.  Unfortunately, the adventure most of the people seek is loud and dusty.  During the last few miles of the ultra race I was constantly passed by speeding dirt bikes and modified four wheel drive vehicles with grotesquely oversized tires.  The isolated high altitude desert that Abbey wrote about is largely gone.  It is hypocritical to wish that others did not intrude on my sense of place – today the United States has 324 million; in 1956 (the year Abbey was a park ranger here) it was 180 million.  The land belongs to all the people,  and I can’t claim some sense of primacy.

What I see in Moab is a collision with the delicate and fragile sense of nature in the here and now. The arches are temporary, and are something that will only be present for a million years.  Eventually all the Entrada Sandstone will be gone.  The fact that it is spectacularly beautiful today is a happy accident – or perhaps a challenge to humanity.  I watched as families marveled at the arches; but others wanted to climb them, scuff the rock, and treat them as personal garbage.  I mostly leave Moab sad.


Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. Picture is taken early the morning after the race and before the crowds arrive. What I see in the picture is a sandy beach 170 million years ago that was eventually covered and compressed to a hard sandstone. 60 million years ago it was uplifted by a salt diapir, and eventually carved into the arch people photograph daily. It will be gone within a hundred years.