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.


What exactly does “unhealthy air” mean? Running in Beijing

All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure, Mark Twain, American philosopher.


Beijing skyline, Thursday morning, St. Patrick’s Day, 2016. This picture was taken on the second ring of the Chinese Capital on the way to a meeting about 8:30 in the morning. The AQI (air quality index) is about 400, and the visibility is a few hundred yards at best….photo taken a few hours after a run in this air. Click on any figure to get a large image.

One of the joys in my life is to “experience” the places I visit with a run — usually hoping to sample the geology, although I am delighted to be able to sample the human culture with my slow sorties of 5 to 6 miles an hour. I don’t run much on city streets, but when I visit a new place I always plan a run to one of the iconic features of the city.  I visited Beijing for work in March, and despite admonishments about running in the Chinese capital, I planned for a 5+ mile run to and around Tiananmen Square.


Mark Zuckerberg running in Tiananmen Square hours after me – if only I had known, I could have run with Facebook (banned in China, btw). Note the air quality. Also, note Zuckerberg’s feet – something is odd about how he floats across the paving stone.

Tiananmen Square is one of the largest city plazas in the world; the square covers more than 100 acres, and is surrounded by, or encloses, some of the most famous fixtures of Beijing. The square is framed by the Tiananmen Gate (roughly translates to “The Gate of Heavenly Peace”) in the north, The Great Hall of the People on the West, the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall on the south (inside this museum is the embalmed body of Mao resting in a clear coffin), and the National Museum of China on the east.  There is so much history within the Square especially with respect to the founding of the People’s Republic of China:  Mao gave a speech from Tiananmen Gate proclaiming the People’s Republic of China in 1949 (and, of course, the PRC  quashed uprising democratic uprising in the Square 50 years later), and in the center of the Square is Monument to the People’s Heroes, a tall tower honoring those that gave their lives to found the Republic.

Given my limited time for anything other than work on my trip to China, it was obvious that my run had to be to Tiananmen Square.  However, I also knew that I would have to run early in the morning – before the sun would rise – and thus, had to plan my trip with more care than usual.  I checked the US Embassy website that broadcasts information about air quality, and although the prediction for the day I could run was “not great”, it seemed that short trot would be tolerable…..


Topographic geography of China. Beijing is located in near the northern apex of the North China Basin. The Beijing metro area has seen explosive growth, far outstripping its infrastructure; in 1990 there were 10.8 million people, 13.6 million in 2000 and today there are 21.5 million people

Beijing, the Megacity of the First Quarter of the 21st Century

Beijing is a true megacity – it has a population about 21.5 million people and a huge transient workforce that might push the total populous to greater than 25 million on a given day.  Beijing does not have the largest population of a metro area in China; both Chongqing and Shanghai have larger metro-populations.  However, Beijing is the center of power in China, and it’s gravitational pull is great. In 1990 Beijing had less than 11 million people, and in the ensuing 25 years this population doubled.  I visited Beijing in 1990 as a member of a USGS delegation celebrating Sino-American cooperation in seismology.  At the time I was struck by the size of city, but also by the less-than first world nature of the infrastructure.  There were high rises, but Soviet style squat grey concrete architecture ruled the viewscape. Roads were choked bicycles – all riding in a style that seemed chaotic, but somehow worked.  Today there are brilliant high rise buildings with wonderful and unique architecture, and bikes are much rarer.  The streets – and there are many, many more multilane hiways – are filled with cars (Audi, BMW, Lexus, are common), all looking pretty new (I guess considering that the population is “new” to Beijing, the cars should be new also).  However, the new buildings and infrastructure of Beijing did not replace the old Beijing, it just built around it.  This is particularly true of the hutong, the traditional alley like streets that run every direction only a few yards from the multi-lane hiways.  To me, it is this contrast of dynastic China and superpower China that best captures Beijing.


The electrical grid in a hutong near the JW Marriott Central Beijing. This single photograph explains the infrastructure of Beijing. Masses of wires, random coils, and even some dangling, unattached cable.

Beijing sits at the northern apex of a large triangular-shaped geomorphic feature called the Northern China Plain (NCP).  The NCP is really a large alluvial fan that was deposited as the Huang He River (sometimes called the “Yellow river”) meandered through history. The resulting plain is indeed “plain” – it is flat, all the geology is covered!  The soil is fertile, which means that agriculture was important, especially before the rise of the supercity.  When Mao established Beijing as the capital of the PRC, it had a population of about 2 million. It began to grow rapidly after that time, but projects to build infrastructure kept some sense of pace.  However, after 1990 and the growth rates of doubling in less that 25 years, the human push far outstripped the ability to accommodate a leisurely infrastructure construction rate.  Further, the dramatic growth in the Chinese GDP over the same time meant money – for cars.  Cars, plus the demand for energy, lead to one of most rapid increase in carbon based fuel use in a geographic area ever observed. Today, Beijing is a bustling center – and home to some of the worst air quality anywhere in the world.

Air Pollution – No really, I mean AIR POLLUTION

The most common way to measure air quality is with a composite index called the “Air Quality Index” or AQI.  There are slight variations from country to country, but the heart of all AQI measurements are the quantitative assessment of 5 or 6 pollutants averaged over a specific period of time (usually a day).  In China the AQI is based on SO2, NO2, CO2, O3, and suspended, or aerodynamic, particles of two sizes (diameters smaller than 10 microns, and smaller than 2.5 microns).  The AQI score is based on a formula that converts these pollutants to a number between 0 and 500 (the original intent was that the top of the scale could not be reached).  It is a very non-linear scale; air that has an AQI of 100 is not twice as bad as air with an AQI of 50.  In Beijing nearly the only pollutant that is important is the smallest scale suspended particles, known as PM2.5.  These are tiny particles are particularly harmful to humans because we have no filtration system to stop them from entering the deepest part of the lungs and there these particles can be absorbed into the blood stream.


AQI, or Air Quality Index, and the international standards for quality of air.

Excellent quality air has AQI scores of 0-50, and must have a suspended load of PM2.5 that is less than 12 micrograms per cubic meter (12 micrograms per 1000 liters of air).  This is pretty typical of the air in Los Alamos, my home.  There are many days with the measured average of PM2.5 is less an 3 micrograms per cubic meter. Unhealthy air registers an AQI of 151-200, which means that the PM2.5 load is less than 150 micrograms per cubic meter. The scale originally envisioned that an AQI of 500 was unattainable because it was so polluted — this would correspond to a PM2.5 of 500 micrograms/m**3.  However, in the last 2 years there have been observations in Beijing where in excess of 800 micrograms/m**3 were measured!


The composition of PM 2.5 in Beijing. The annual average “load” for the air in Beijing is about 120 micrograms of very fine material (PM 2.5, or suspended particles with diameters less that 2.5 micrometers). Then majority of the material is carbon and chemical byproducts of burning coal and gasoline.

The PM2.5 particles are very tiny — about 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair.  They are quite dangerous because humans evolved without a defense mechanism – ancient man was mostly worried about dust, with is a much larger particle.  The PM 2.5 are inhaled deeply into the respiratory tract, reaching the deepest recesses of the lungs. These particles  cause short-term health effects due to destruction of lung tissue, and can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. There are many studies on how PM 2.5 decreases lung function, but few studies on the effects from short time exposure.  The dominate source of PM 2.5 particles is from automobile exhaust and other operations that involve the burning of fuels – in particular coal. In Beijing, automobiles plus coal power plants account for 75% of the PM2.5 particles.

When I was in Beijing in March (2016) there was a period where the AQI reached 460 – unbelievably bad air. The visibility was hundreds of feet, and eyes water freely — for everyone.

A Brief Run to Tiananmen Square

I planned to run to Tiananmen Square early in the morning on St. Patrick’s day.  The air was predicted to be bad, but I figured (see the Mark Twain quote at the top of this article) the run would be short.  If I had actually done the calculation on ingested PM 2.5 I would never have run – but ignorance is bless (and ill).


The AQI for a measuring station near Tiananmen Square. My run began on Thursday at about 5 am – which can be seen to have an AQI of  about 282. BAD air.

I had planned out a route to travel through the hutong to Tiananmen that would be about 2 miles.  I awake at 4 am (14 hours difference in time between Los Alamos and Beijing – jet lag is inappropriate to describe the effects of this time shift!).  I checked the temperature outside, and it was cool – seemed like great running weather.  I exited the hotel and immediately noticed that the air looked foggy, but it was dry as a bone.  I ran a slow place and took it the sites (although it was dark! no street lights).  In hindsight the route was not that well thought out – it was not like I could actually read the few street signs that were present.  It took me 2.4 miles before I even spied Tiananmen.


Worker’s Statue, Tiananmen Square – in the early morning light and smog

When I arrived at the square I was coughing a bit, but I interpreted this as lingering colds from travel. The air was eery – a obscured skyline, and the feeling that it was closing in on me like a Stephen King novel.  I only took one picture (the image above), and that was of the Worker’s Statue.  The low level light and smog was certainly not ideal for iPhone pictures; I was also a bit nervous about being a “suspicious character”.

I took a more direct route back to the hotel.  I was struck by the wide hiways that had zero traffic on them at 5:30 in the morning knowing that in only 2 hours the traffic would be bumper to bumper.  I seems a staggered work day could solve at least some of the infrastructure issues. As I approached the hotel I was coughing frequently, and now it dawned on me that this really was a smog issue.  I checked the AQI for the area around Tiananmen Square, and found that the reading were now above 300 – which translates into a PM 2.5 load of about 250 micrograms/m**3.


The amount of air breathed per time for running: for then average 150 pound man, 60 liters are circulated in the lungs when running 5 miles/hr.

I pondered what the impact of breathing in these micro particles would really be – was it temporary, or more correctly, how temporary?  Deep in the lungs — in the alveoli, where the lungs perform the gas-exchange function — there are two distinct types of cells.  These cells are fragile, but also regenerate on a regular basis because of the fragility. Much work has been done on the rates of regeneration, mostly because of research on health benefits of cessation of smoking.  The rate of regeneration is on the order of weeks for localized areas, and the entire lung will be regenerated within the time frame of a year or two.  That was somewhat comforting, but I wanted to know exactly what damage I may have done with the run so I reasoned that it was based on the total PM 2.5 load I inhaled.  For an average male running 5 miles/hr about 60 liters of air is consumed per minute; my run as on the order of an hour, thus approximately 4000 liters of air was consumed.  I took the PM 2.5 load to be 250 micrograms per 1000 liters, and arrived at a total ingestion of 1000 micrograms of carbon crap.  Not pretty, but really quite modest in the scheme of things (if it was lead I would have been quite worried!) – I was confident that I would recover in hours, or days at worse.


Dilbert cartoon — humm, this appeared in the Dilbert Calendar for this year on March 17th! Same day as I ran….coincidence?

My confidence was shaken a few hours later when I had a sever coughing fit and small amounts of blood were in my phlegm.  Realistically, small amounts of bloody phlegm is a benign sign of bronchitis, and testament to extreme irritation. However, I was both surprised and a bit shaken by the sight of blood! But it passed within a few hours, although the coughing fits persisted for several days.

I would not repeat this experiment of running in smog! But, as time has passed, it is just another interesting running experience – not unlike falling down a mountain during a trail run, or make poor decision to plow through black thorn on an overgrown trail.


Granitic Gneiss in front of the new National Nuclear Security Center.

Not Much Geology

The lack of geology around Beijing is definitely a bummer — no rocks to tell the story of why Beijing is there, or what the area must have looked like in the distant past.  However, I was very pleasantly surprised to find some spectacular rocks on display at the State Nuclear Security Technical Center.  Feng shui is an important philosophical value of harmonizing man with the surrounding environment.  At the dedication of the new state center for nuclear security the Chinese had brought in several large rocks to achieve Feng shui; these rocks were trucked in from the most sacred mountain in all China.  Called the  Eastern Mountain, or Mt. Tai, which is located  about 150 km south of Beijing in Shandong province. Mt Tai is associated with the rising sun and thus, birth and renewal.  In the picture above I am standing in front of one of these rocks – to me it is a great example of granitic gneiss with bright streaks of biotite.  However, since the rock is also about renewal, I celebrate the recovery of my lungs!



The Serenity of Big Volcanoes: Recovery Running around Kilauea

The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire! It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky. Imagine it – imagine a coal-black sky shivered into a tangled network of angry fire! Mark Twain, on his visit to Kilauea in June, 1866.


Halemaumau – a crater within a crater. Halemaumau is a crater within the large summit crater of Kilauea, and has been active with lava lakes rising and falling in the last 2 years. This photo is from about a mile away and 1,500 feet above Halemaumau. The smoke is one of the main reasons the crater trail is closed. Click on any photo for full sized view.

Few things are more inspiring to a geoscientist, and disappointing to the average visitor, than the volcanoes of the Big Island of Hawaii.  In the last three quarters of a million years volcanic activity has built one of the largest mountains on Earth; in geologic terms this is almost a quantum time unit! Hawaii has 5 volcanic centers (and a sixth is waiting to emerge above sea level southeast of the island) which built a land mass with a surface area of over 4000 sq miles above sea level and has two summits topping 13,600 feet (Mauna Loa at 13,680′ and Mauna Kea at 13,800′ above sea level).  However, the average person that visits the Big Island is disappointed because these giants don’t have the crags and steep elevation gradients of stratvolcanoes like Mt. Rainier or Mt. St. Helens. True to their name, Hawaiian shield volcanoes the are shaped like the overturned shallow bowl shields of ancient Roman warriors.


First glimpse of Hawaii on a flight from the mainland. On the left is the summit of Mauna Kea, and in the distance is Mauna Loa. The distance between the coastline in the picture and the summit of Mauna Kea is only 20 miles – making for spectacular prominence! But, alas, for most this view does not captivate.

These gentle giants are formed by thousands of eruptions that pour out basaltic lava that has the viscosity of hot syrup – and when it cools it leaves a simple layered stack of black rock.  Rarely are Hawaiian eruptions violent – no towering clouds of hot ash reaching 50,000′ above the surface of the Earth, or decapitating the tops of mountains like the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens.  We like our geology violent…hence, the oft repeated comments at Volcanoes National Park, “is this all there is?  where is the lava?” When Mark Twain visited kilauea in 1866 he professed to being very disappointed.  He eventually warmed to the volcano, but was surprised at its “bland character”.

However, to the geoscientist, the enormity of Hawaii is spellbinding.  So much melted rock gives witness to the dynamics of a young and hot planet.  This is one of the wonders of the world that is so much bigger than mankind.  I have to frequently travel to Oahu for business, and I was able to stitch together a brief vacation on the Big Island which is coincident with the recovery period after running the Antelope Canyon Ultra.  There is no better way to experience geology than to run along the rocks;  recovery means sore legs (and in my case very tender feet), so the runs have to be short and slow (even slower than usual).  I planned a couple of short runs around Kilauea and long naps next to the wonderful beaches of the Kona Coast.  Running rejuvenated my body, but Kilauea soothed my soul.

Geologic map of the State of Hawai'i [Plate 8: Geologic map of the island of Hawai'i [scale 1:250,000]]

Geologic Map of the Big Island (scale 1:250,000).  The colors are largely related to age since all the rocks are pretty damn similar – basalt.  From the north (top of the map) the volcanoes are Kohala, Mauna Kea, Hualalai, Mauna Loa and Kilauea (all the red colored units).

Kilauea – Erupting since 1983!

The geology map of Hawaii resembles the tee-shirts seen at a Grateful Dead concert.  Colorful and vaguely psychedelic, the map is mostly stripes delineating lava flows.  The figure above shows the slow and steady march of the volcanoes to the south and east.  Kohala is now extinct, and Mauna Kea’s last eruption was more than 4500 years ago.  This volcanic trend, extending to all the Hawaiian Islands and the Emperor Seamount Chain located to the northwest, was one of the most mysterious geologic observations, and awaited the paradigm of plate tectonics for an explanation.  In 1963 J. Tuzo Wilson proposed that a “hot spot” caused all these volcanic islands – this hot spot was an upwelling of very hot mantle material  that melted through the cold oceanic plate (the Pacific Plate) as it moved to the northwest.  Imagine a blow torch beneath a piece of slowing moving tar paper.  The torch will melt the tar and leave a linear scar depicting the direction of motion of the tar paper.  Although Wilson’s hot spot model was a huge intellectual leap forward during the formative days of plate tectonics, it is now considered to be a gross simplification of a very complex process.  No matter, the theory does capture the fact that huge amounts of molten rock have reached the surface and built the Hawaiian Islands – and provides insight that Hawaii will continue to grow for millions of years into the future, with land masses emerging to the southeast of today’s Big Island (a far more benign process than what the Chinese are doing in the Spratly Islands….).


The summit of Mauna Loa from the crater of Kilauea. The passing of the guard – Kilauea is now the most active volcano in the world, and sits some 9000 feet between the summit of Mauna Loa.

Kilauea is now the center of volcanic activity on Hawaii.  Eruptions might still occur on Mauna Loa (likely), Hualalai (plausible) and Mauna Kea (probably not), but Kilauea is spewing out basalt at prodigious rate, and in a few hundred thousand years will have a summit about 13,000 feet.  I first visited Kilauea in 1984 as a relatively new faculty member on a boondoggle (field trips are one of the main reasons scientists choose “geology” as a profession).  My visit corresponded with the one year anniversary of the an eruption on Kilauea – an eruption that has continued to today!


Peering into Kilauea Crater from smoking cliffs. The view is disconcerting – below the grassy lip of the crater there is a 1500′ drop and then a nearly flat parking lot like layer of basalt. In the distance is a second crater, Halemaumau, which presently has a lave lake 300’below its crater lip.

On that first visit I got to hike through the Kilauea Crater, and right up to Halemuamau.  The 1983 eruption was producing lava several miles to the southeast of the crater, and there was little activity to indicate molten rock was ascending from some 60 km beneath the surface and collecting in shallower magma chambers.  Once the lava erupted it flows down the slopes of Kilauea into the sea. The focus of volcanic activity then was along what is called the southeastern rift zone; there were occasional fountains of lava out of a crater called Pu`u `Ō`ō, but it was not visible from the Kilauea Crater.


Eruptions near Kilauea crater. Although only a few of the eruptions of Kilauea surface in the crater, there are numerous flows that constantly remake the landscape. Recovery Trail Runs were in Kilauea Iki, a path along Chain of Craters Road, and Keanakakoi Crater.

I have visited Kilauea many times since 1984, mostly because my wife had a post doctoral stint (1992-1994) with the USGS and worked on the geodetics of Kilauea.  Although it is common to think of Kilauea as a shield volcano, therefore, like its older brothers Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, it is in fact very different at this stage of its development.  The magma being erupted from Kilauea most closely resembles the magma erupted from Mauna Kea.  So despite appearances – and being located high on the flank of Mauna Loa – Kilauea is the southwestern extension of Mauna Kea.


A tectonic map of Kilauea. There are three important features: the summit crater, the southwest rift and the east rift zone. As Kilauea builds on the slope of Mauna Loa the weight of eruptive lava flows “pull away” from the summit and slide towards the sea opening up the rift zones.

Every time Kilauea erupts and lava pours out, it travels down hill towards the Pacific ocean.  As the lava cools it places a load on the Mauna Loa slope; this load eventually is too much for the slope to support and a wedge is “torn” away.  This wedge is defined by the summit crater, southwest rift zone, and east rift zone.  This “tearing” is really the odd shaped pie piece sliding downhill.  The tearing opens up creates other pathways for the magma stored beneath Kilauea to erupt on to the surface.  Until Kilauea grows tall enough to minimize the elevation head of Mauna Loa the rift zones will continue to have eruptions.


Picture a lava flows exposed on the Chain of Craters Road. This is actually a tilted stack of basalt sheets. I took this picture on the Chain of Craters run.

This means that the volcano is not growing in a simple way – it builds, slips, and starts a new cycle of building that could be anywhere along the rift zones or the summit.  What is remarkable about the present eruption is that every part of the volcano has been active at one time or another; it started in east rift zone 10 miles from the summit and over a five year period 1 cubic mile of lava poured out.  In the 1990s the Pu`u `Ō`ō crater collapsed and numerous other new, smaller craters located northwest of Pu`u `Ō`ō opened up. Eventually, the volcanic center returned to Pu`u `Ō`ō, and by 2005 another couple of cubic miles of lava had flowed forth. In 2011 the volcanic activity shifted to the Kilauea Crater and southwestern rift zone, and on April 24, 2015, lava overflowed  Halema’uma’u crater within Kilauea.  It was this event that ultimately led to the closing of the trails and hiking near Kilauea.


Volume of lava erupted from Kilauea in the last 200 years. The strong uptick in volcano growth on the right hand side of the chart is due to the present ongoing eruption.

It is difficult to fathom the rapid nature of the changes on Kilauea.  For a geoscientist it is like watching a movie at 100 times normal viewing speed.  The rocks may all look the same – black basalt – but face of the volcano is changing a rate that is similar to the changes in my own face (sags here and there, some age spots, and teeth falling out).  Running on rocks younger than me – way younger in some cases – is a unique experience!


Running on the floor of Kilauea Iki. The basalt beneath my feet is from the 1959 eruption. Ever so slowly, trees are trying to reclaim the landscape.

Running on Rock Younger than Me

When I first envisioned this mini-vacation on the Big Island I thought I would try the ultimate volcano trail run — up to the summit of Mauna Loa from a trail head located near Kilauea.  The run starts at 6,000′ and over 19 miles climbs 7,500′ with traverses of rough lava flows interspersed with clumps of forest.  However, a 38 mile round trip — unsupported — was a total pipe dream.  Especially after running a 55 km ultra only days before arriving in Hawaii.  My next plan was to run through Kilauea Crater and recreate the hikes I experienced on my first visit. However, the plan was foiled when I found that the crater was off limits since the Halemaumau lava lake rose, and there was a significant increase in SO2 emissions (a very toxic gas!).  This meant that I was on to plan C, the best idea anyway.  I spent 2 days on 3 runs of modest distance (4-8 miles), and just enjoyed the rocks.


The trail across Kilauea Iki. The view is approximately 1 mile to the southern rim.  A pathway can be made out streaking across the center of the frame.

The first run was down and across a crater located just southeast of Kilauea Crater, Kilauea Iki (see the map above – it is the green colored crater).  The trail is well maintained but rocky and challenging for a run.  Over a mile the path way drops 600 feet from the trail head to the Iki floor.  The Iki floor is a smooth surface, occasionally interrupted by fissures and blowouts. The age of the floor is easy to calculate – it is the 1959 eruption!  The rock is 3 years younger than me.  The race across the crater floor is easy and relatively fast (although fast is a relative term). The run from south to north in the crater took about 14 minutes – but then there is a long climb back up towards the rim.  The climb up is through thick vegetation – Iki is located right between the wet and dry side of Hawaii, and mists are a constant running companion.  The total trip is 4.5 miles; but the rain and mist meant that we had the crater nearly to our selves!


One of the many bizarre basalt structures in the 1974 flow. The hole in the lower left of the figure is where the lava surrounded a tree – it eventually burned the tree away leaving a tunnel behind, and a lava clump to mark the former timber stand.

The next day I completed two other runs along the east rift zone (or more accurately, along the Chain of Craters Road).  The trails here wander from small crater to small crater.  Any crater older than about 30 years is being reclaimed by the vegetation.  The landscape is eery and strange.  Long sheets of basalt, but occasionally these sheets are covered with mounds – it sort of looks like volcanic acne.  These mounds are monuments to former stands of tall trees.  As the lava flowed downhill the trees impeded the progress, some lava chilled and became solid around the burning tree trucks.  These chilled regions built up mounds – and today the mounds have perfect holes throughout where tree trucks where eventually burned away.  The figure above is one of these basalt pimples, and you can see the round “tube” of a former trunk in the lower left of the photo.  The most impressive flow on the run was from an eruption in 1974 (the same year I graduated from high school).  The lava is remarkable smooth, and easy running.  However, once you step off the flow it is extremely difficult running.  The total distance covered was just under 8 miles.  The run ends near a truly spectacular view of the ocean across a series of high cliffs, known as Pali.


Looking down towards the sea – 4 miles away, and a 2000′ drop. There are a series of steep cliffs, known as the Pali, that mark the breaking and sliding away of the stack of lava flows.

The Pali are fault scraps cutting across the lava flows – these scarps are the weak zones that fail once the load of basalt becomes too large.


Fault map of the southeastern side of Hawaii. The faults represent breakaway regions sliding the load created by the basalt towards the deep ocean. Each of the faults has a significant scar – a large cliff known as “pali” in Hawaiian.

Running down the scarps is easy work except the views are run-stopping.  This trail run is all on the dry side of Hawaii, so no pesky trees to obscure the view.  I was a graduate student at Caltech when seismologist began to model the seismograms from exotic sources, and the 1975 Hawaii earthquake, with an epicenter within the Pali, proved to have a source mechanism that it is consistent with a large landslide.  The 1975 event is the largest Hawaiian earthquake (or, more precisely, landslide induced earthquake), and had a magnitude of 7.2 and caused a 12 m high local tsunami.


The edge of Hawaii – although the flows and pali continue far out to sea.  The total elevation of Mauna Loa, as measured from the sea floor, is about 56,000 ft.  Nearly twice the height of Everest, but no high camp or oxygen is required to summit.

At the ocean my runs end – sort of trivial in terms of distance, but perfect therapy for recovery from an ultra run.  Actually, the real recovery was to my soul.  Immersed in the geologic equivalent to a black hole, all the trials and tribulations of the last 2 months seem like back ground noise.  Relaxed.


Sunset on the Kona Coast. Waves framing a sun disappearing behind Maui off in the distance.