How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains! John Muir, the great Scottish-American naturalist.
80 miles west of Albuquerque a lone mountain peak rises above the horizon; it seems distant but significant, an alpine oasis in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. The peak is Mt. Taylor, an extinct stratavolcano that towers some 5000 feet above the uranium mining boom town of Grants. The high point of Mt. Taylor is 11,305′, located along the lip of an eroded caldera, and offers unobstructed views for at least 90 miles in all directions of the compass. The mountain is one of four sacred peaks that surround the Dinetah, the traditional homeland of the Navajo. The name Mt. Taylor was assigned in 1849 to honor President Zachary Taylor, but the Navajo call the mountain Tsoodzil, and more informally, the turquoise mountain – a name that it deserves as it appears to be a deep blue gem on the horizon.
Mt Taylor is home to one of the three crown jewels of northern New Mexico trail running (the others being the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs and the La Luz Trail Run). It is a relatively new event (the inaugural race was in 2012, although early versions of the run existed), but its fame, or at least admiration, has grown rapidly. The start and finish of the Mt Taylor 50k is a couple of miles west of the caldera rim and is at 9400′ elevation. The course has some steep climbs (and equally steep descents) – about 7000′ elevation gain – much on single track, and through unspoiled mountain top wilderness. I have wanted to do this race for some time, and signed up for the run within minutes of when the registration was opened in early February of 2014. The run is limited to 175 people, and indeed, the roster fills early creating a waiting list.
Although I grew up about 100 miles north of Mt. Taylor, I had only visited the peak once; that was back in the summer of 1975 when I was an undergraduate student working summers at Los Alamos National Lab. We installed a temporary seismic station near La Mosca lookout – which is on the course of the 50k! – to record seismic waveforms from a number of underground nuclear tests conducted in Nevada. The nuclear weapons tests were part of Project Anvil, a series of 21 tests. In 1974 the US and Soviet Union agreed to the terms of a bilateral treaty that would limit the size of nuclear weapons tests to 150 kt or less; this treaty is known as the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT). Although the terms of the TTBT were negotiated in 1974, both nations wanted to conduct a series of tests before it would come into force — this resulted in a period of frenzied activity for nuclear testing. The treaty was submitted to the US Senate (but not acted on) in July 1976, and 150 kt became the punch line in numerous conflicts with the Soviets in the subsequent 15 years. Little did I know at the time, but the concept of monitoring nuclear tests, and more importantly, determining the nuclear yield from geophysical data would dominate my career. However, the installation of the seismic station on Mt. Taylor nearly 40 years ago was mostly a just a chance to visit at really interesting mountain top. I was far more familiar with the flanks of the Mt. Taylor were my father and I had collected numerous radioactive mineral species in the early 1970s. The Mt. Taylor 50k provided a long overdue opportunity to visit a wonderful New Mexico mountain.
Mt Taylor – A beautiful stratavolcano and tombstone
Mt. Taylor is a magnificent landmark – it really is an isolated volcanic peak on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, a huge region (more than 130,000 square miles) of relatively flat mesas and valleys with an average elevation of about 7000′. The Plateau is a geologic mystery; it represents a region of relative geologic stability that has existed for nearly a half a billion years. All around the plateau there are geologic provinces that suffered tremendous episodes of geologic deformation – the Rocky Mountains, the Basin and Range in Arizona and Nevada, and the Rio Grande rift in New Mexico. Why did the Colorado Plateau escape these tectonic spasms?
Mt. Taylor seems unique, but is actually part of a much larger geologic phenomena – a ring of volcanoes that surrounds the southern boundary of the Colorado Plateau. The most famous of these mountains in this “ring of fire” is the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff. The Plateau is defined by a thick sequence of sedimentary rocks – some of these rocks were deposited in marine environments, others in wide river valley flood plains, and still others represent long periods of time when the surface was covered with wind blown dunes. Taken together, this block of real estate was near sea level for nearly an eighth of the entire age of the Earth. Around 25 million years ago the Plateau began to rise uniformly to its present elevation of 7000’ feet. The cause of this rise is a subject of much speculation and research, but most geoscientists accept that the uplift was due to a hot mantle. This idea holds the key to why the edge of the plateau has so much volcanism, similar to that that that produced Mt. Taylor. The juxtaposition of the thick, and obviously stable, lithosphere of the plateau and the much thinner lithosphere of the Basin and Range created what is know as Edge Driven Convection (EDC). This EDC brought hot mantle materials up toward the surface along the edges of the plateau and it melted rocks both in the upper mantle and lower crust which then erupted in a series of volcanoes. The same reason Los Alamos has the marvelous Jemez Mountains is the reason Grants celebrates the glorious vista of Mt. Taylor.
Mt Taylor first erupted about 3.5 million years ago, and was active for 2 million years. The volcano had many eruptions that were mainly ash; these eruptions built an edifice that probably reached a maximum elevation of between 14 and 15,000 feet (which would have made the Mt. Taylor 50k much more difficult!). Today there is a pronounced depression at the top — it is called the amphitheater — that is the eroded remains of a caldera. The amphitheater is open towards the southeast and is drained by Water Canyon. The shape of the amphitheater looks eerily like Mt. St. Helens 30 years after that volcano blew its top. As the volcanism of Mt. Taylor was winding down, a whole series of small vents developed to the northwest. These vents extruded basalt rather than ash, and built a broad and flat table land known as Mesa Chivato.
As spectacular as Mt. Taylor is, the rocks of the Colorado Plateau that sit beneath the volcano are more unique. There is a 2 km thick sequence of sedimentary rocks hidden below Mt. Taylor and Mesa Chivato, and these rocks contain one of the largest known reserves of uranium ore in the world. This uranium fueled the American nuclear power and nuclear weapons enterprises for half a century; it also brought tremendous devastation to the miners, in particular the Navajo miners, that extracted the ore from underground workings.
The long history of stability of the Colorado Plateau played an important role in making it a “trap” for uranium. As great mountains of granite and ancient volcanoes rose and were eroded over the last half a billion years the rocks from these massifs were ground to cobbles and grains. In turn, these grains slowly released their constitute minerals which reacted with the environment; a tiny fraction of these minerals contained uranium, which was eventually mobilized by the ground waters and flowed through the rocks of the Plateau. Occasionally these ground waters would encounter conditions that caused the uranium to precipitate out of solution and be deposited as new minerals. When these conditions lasted millions of years the precipitates would become extensive enough to become uranium ore. After WWII the US government started a prospecting frenzy for uranium, and the sediments of the Colorado Plateau became site of a new “gold rush”.
Uranium was first discovered in New Mexico part of the Colorado Plateau in 1950. A Navajo shepherd, Paddy Martinez, had heard about the uranium rush, and seen some yellow colored ore. Martinez recalled seeing rocks with similar yellows stains at Haystack Butte, just west of Grants (strictly speaking, Martinez “rediscovered” the uranium deposits that others had noted in passing in the early 1920s), and started a mad era of exploration and mine development in the Grants Mineral Belt, which encircles Mt. Taylor. Legend has it that Martinez brought several pieces of yellow ore to stake his claim, and that the yellow ore was carnotite. I personally doubt this is true because carnotite is extremely rare in the grants Mineral Belt (I have never seen a single specimen). Nevertheless, the population of Grants went from a few thousand to 45,000 in a decade. Two major mines were developed; Ambrosia Lake, north and west of Grants (you can see the mine workings as you drive up to the start of the Mt Taylor 50k), and the Jackpile Mine, a few miles east of Grants. The Jackpile mine was remarkable; it was discovered in 1951, and between 1956 and 1960 it was the largest producer of uranium in the world – during the same time it produced more uranium than all other mines in the US combined!
The ore of the Jackpile mine is dispersed uranium — mostly in the form of the minerals uraninite (UO2) and coffinite (U(SiO4)1-x(OH)4x) — in a sandstone that was created by a systems of braided streams that flowed from somewhere west and south of present day Grants in Jurassic time (145 to 200 million years before the present). The host sandstone at the Jackpile defines a sausage shaped body that is about 50 km long and 25 km wide, and the average grade of ore is less than one percent. However, it is clear that one of the factors that contributed to the deposition of uranium out of the ground waters was the presence of carbonaceous materials — dead plants. Throughout the Jackpile sandstone there are large petrified logs – trees that must have been swept away in floods and then stranded as log jams – and these petrified logs are where uranium concentrations can rise to 20 percent or more. In 1972 my father got a call to visit the Jackpile because they had discovered a cluster of logs that appeared to be completely replaced by uraninite. I accompanied my father, and we collected about 20 pieces of petrified wood. From our geiger counters it was clear that the material was radioactively “hot”, but the uniform dark color made identifying the minerals by sight impossible. One of these logs became the source materials for my education in power diffraction. Back in Los Alamos we prepared about 15 different powder samples and my father performed the x-ray diffraction at work; he then brought home the films and it was my job to identify the diffraction peaks. The material ended up being almost all coffinite. I have long since gotten rid of all the material (safely and securely), but I learned how to identify minerals with x-rays on uranium grunge….sort of poetic justice I suppose.
The Jackpile mine was an open pit mine, but many of the other mines had underground tunnels. In general, the ventilation in these underground facilities was poor, and the presence of the uranium means that there was radon, which is a radioactive decay product. U238 is marginally radioactive (it has a half life roughly equal to the age of the Earth!), but when it does decay it will eventually produce radon gas as a daughter. This gas is quite radioactive and decays by emitting an alpha particle. The progeny of radon, in particular polonium, also emits an alpha particle. Inhalation of radon allows the alpha particle emissions to interact with the very sensitive tissues of the lungs; this irritation of the lung tissue dramatically increases the chances of developing lung cancer. The cancer rates among Navajo uranium miners is extraordinary, and a very sad legacy of the mad rush to find the heavy metal. A mineralogical sidebar to this tale is that in the year 1530, Paracelsus described a wasting disease that afflicted miners in Joachimsthal which he called male metallorum – we now know that is lung cancer from the exposure to radon.
The Navajo also associate Mt. Taylor with the home of the chief of the monsters – and by monsters, the Navajo means those things that get in the way of a successful like. The monster the Navajo deal with now is leetso, the yellow dirt. It is strange to write about running an ultra race and spend so many words on things nuclear. But to me, there is always a celebration of the place of the race, and for Mt. Taylor there is a fabric that is very much woven by things nuclear; a high peak overlooking a legacy, a cenotaph.
I signed up for the Mt. Taylor 50k in February, and had every intention that it would be the my crowning achievement for ultra runs this year. However, my approach to the race was quixotic at best. I have run 4 ultras, many shorter trail run races, climbed Rainier, and done several cycling events this year, and by the end of September, my dedication to training for a long tail run had wained. As September 27 approached I oscillated between unrealistic optimism and trepidation. My base fitness was good – I run 30 to 35 miles per week and cycle 60 to 65. However, I had not put in the long miles on individual runs that I needed for a tough ultra. Further, much of the summer I had chosen to train for climbing Rainier (carrying a back pack, hiking 14ers in Colorado). In fact, I was still experiencing the effects of Rainier — I still had some blisters on my feet, and I had only partially recovered from an infection I got from stabbing myself in the leg with a crampon. Finally, I had been called unexpectedly to DC the week before the 50k run for a very tough set of meetings and only flew back to Albuquerque late in the afternoon before the race. But, then again, what could go wrong in 50 kilometers?
The race starts at 6:30 am – in the dark at Rock Tank Shelter. The runners head due east and climb about 1500′ over 3.5 miles to the ridge just below the Mosca Lookout. The goal is to reach the ridge as the sun rises above the horizon and welcomes Mt. Taylor to a new day. I am quite certain that many of the runners made the ridge as the sun rose — I settled for a little more leisurely ascent, but nevertheless basked in glow of autumn colors and fantastic views.
The course for the Mt. Taylor race has three major climbs; the Mosca Lookout ridge, the top of Mt. Taylor, and then a tough final climb up out of Water Canyon in the Amphitheater. After the first big climb the trail is descends down a forest road to about mile 10.5 This descent is fast and should be pretty easy. Lots of people pass me running fast. However, I realize that something is amiss on the descent. My toes are really hurting because of the blisters, and the downhill pounding irritates the wounds. I am a little unsure if my feet will betray me, or this will pass like the many aches and pains that appear during a 50k race. Around the 11 mile mark the course turns on to the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). This trail is soft single track, and rolling through conifer forest. It is just a pleasure to be running along the trail and thinking about the fact that you could actually follow this trail from Canada to Mexico, some 3100 miles , and straddle the drainage divide between the Pacific and Atlantic. No one is passing me on this section of the trail, but it hindsight that is because there is no one behind me.
The CTD loops around to return to the Rock Tank Shelter at about mile 16. My feet are really bothering me as I approach the aid station, and I seriously consider dropping out here. However, the race organizers have hung a banner that basically paraphrases the famous Lance Armstrong quote: “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.” What, seriously? Like the Sword of Damocles, the quote on quitting hangs over me. I stumble into the aid station, get my drop bag, take off my shoes, change the bandages, and continue the journey.
The run between Rock Shelter and Gooseberry aid station is pretty flat and easy. I am slow, but I am also determined to finish now. Of course, I am beginning to fret about actually making the cut off times at the various aid stations! The Gooseberry aid station is at about mile 20, and the many volunteers admonish the runners to be prepared for the long climb to the top of Mt. Taylor. Indeed the climb is unrelenting for 2000 feet over the next 3.25 miles. I did not find the climb to be physically punishing, but it was a mental challenge. After about 2 miles the trail emerges from tree cover and you can see the top of the mountain; but as one gazes towards the goal you can see switch backs and tiny dots representing runners ahead of you that appear to be barely moving.
I actually began to pass people on the ascent to Mt. Taylor. Most of the runners (I use the words “runner” here out of respect. None of us are running up this climb) look pretty bad to me. Sweating, cursing, and asking the rhetorical question of “are we there yet?”. I suppose I looked the same, but in my mind I had to look better than that. The geology of the whole run is pretty uniform. The rocks are andesite – gray and sharp. However, on the ascent you begin to get views into the amphitheater, and magnitude of the stratavolcano comes into focus. On the far horizons you can see the pastels of the rocks of the Colorado Plateau, and even some of the volcanic plugs dotting Mesa Chivato.
The last few switchbacks brings you to the summit ridge. I can see the Jemez Mountains to the north and my home. I can see the Ladron Mountains to the south (just north of Socorro), and I can image that this very vista has invoked the same sense of wonder I have right now for 5 thousand years. Many others have come here before me, and I hope my son and grand children will follow.
At the summit I am surprised to see my wife Michelle who has been waiting patiently for me for 90 minutes. She has hiked up to take pictures, and seeing her provided a jolt of energy I needed to finish the race. The official photographer is also at the summit, and he deflates me as fast as seeing Michelle lifted me — he asks “is there anyone behind you?”. I want to say, “oh yeah, there are lots of slower people than me, and I will not experience the pain of quitting!”. But alas, I mumble that there are several people yet to come. From the summit there is a tricky descent into the aid station at mile 24. At this aid station the diabolical streak of the race organizers surfaces. The course descends nearly 1000 feet into the amphitheater over 2 miles only to reverse course, and climb back up those same contours fighting gravity for 1 1/2 miles back to the same aid station.
I comtemplate the sadistic streak in the race organizers, but any homicidal thoughts are quickly tempered by the truly outstanding volunteers that work on the course. They are among the best I have ever seen, and their kind words of encouragement and concern for the runners is amazing. There are now only a few miles remaining, mostly down hill, to the course finish. My feet feel pretty much like hamburger, but the end is in sight. I begin the descent – but wait, all those people I passed coming up the big hill start to pass me! They all say “great job” – I can’t believe I am actually being passed by those folks that looked terrible below the Mt. Taylor summit. They don’t look terrible now. I amble into the finish line a little dejected, but happy that I committed to doing the entire course. I feel I have some unfinished business, and will have to return next year to run the race the “right way”.
The great volunteers at the finish line have food, and make you feel like you must be in first place. That notion is quickly dispelled when you notice that your drop bag is quite lonely on the trap where there were 175 drop bags a few hours ago. However, I am informed I won a door prize, and it is a Patagonia jacket! I have never won any prize for running before, and even if the trophy is purely based on serendipity, I feel like a winner! It took me 8 hrs and 50 minutes, by far my worst ultra. But I am quite glad I did it. When I take off my shoes a survey the damage, I decide that I will not be running for a couple of weeks. I have to get these toes back into functional form. Within a couple of hours of the race conclusion all the pain has faded, and only the joy of the journey lingers. I loved the Mt. Taylor 50k.