Collisions at the Bottom of the World II; Ice and Granite

It was soon after I began collecting stones, i.e., when 9 or 10, that I distinctly recollect the desire I had of being able to know something about every pebble in front of the hall door–it was my earliest and only geological aspiration at that time, Charles Darwin in his autobiographical notes.

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Sunset on the Cordillera del Paine as viewed from the south across Lago Sarmiento (picture taken 12/29/16). An amazing mountain range carved of granite crafted by the ice of glaciers.

The Cordillera del Paine is an awe inspiring mountain range. Although the Paine massif is modest in areal extent, it simply defies gravity.  Towering cliffs of white granite seem to magically jump out of the gently rolling hills of the Patagonia steppe.  I first saw a picture of the Torres del Paine – three impossibly slender yet massive towers of stone – in a National Geographic magazine in the 1960s.  The imagine was stunning and stayed with me for 50 years.  When I was 20 I imagined I would climb the towers; when I was forty I imagined I would scale the cliffs to the base of the towers; now that I am sixty I am thrilled just for the opportunity to trek to the glacial lake beneath the towers and drink in the perfection of nature.

I worked extensively in South America in the 1990s thru 2002.  Along with a few academic colleagues and a legion of outstanding graduate students, we deployed seismic stations across the Andes to record earthquakes.  These seismograms allowed us to image the structure of this remarkable mountain range, and help understand the dynamics of mountain building.  I worked in Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Venezuela. Despite all the time in the field in South America, I never made it to Patagonia.  It was one of my great regrets; finally this year my wife and I vowed to remedy that regret.  We planned a trip to the “bottom of the world” and aimed to visit the Cordillera del Paine. It is  hard to describe the exhilaration of seeing the ragged mountain peaks, the white and blue ice of moving glaciers, and the rollings caps of waves created by the ceaseless winds blowing across lakes to a non-geologist.  Everyone thinks these things are beautiful, but to me they are more – they are are spiritual. They are the art work of a dynamic planet.

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Torres del Paine (the Towers of Paine) as sketched in Lady Florence Dixie’s book Across Patagonia (1881).

The first European account of the Cordillera del Paine was contained in a travel novel written by an amazing Scottish woman, Lady Florence Dixie, Across Patagonia. Lady Dixie was first and foremost a feminist, and then an adventurer and writer.  Her brother, Lord Francis Douglas was on a team that made the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn in July 1865 (although he died on the descent – a lesson that all mountain climbers learn; the job is to get to the bottom not the top). In 1878-79 Dixie traveled across Patagonia – she chose this adventure because “few European men, and no women had ever visited it”.  After traveling many weeks across the wind swept Pampas she was startled at the majestic rise of the Andes.  Her description upon catching her first glimpse of the Cordillera del Paine:   “From behind the green hills that bound it rose a tall chaine of heights, whose jagged peaks were cleft in the most fantastic fashion and fretted and worn by the action of the air and moisture into forms, some bearing the semblance of delicate Gothic spires, other imitating with surprising closeness the bolder outlines of battlemented buttresses and lofty towers….three huge Cleopatra peak rising from out of the snow glaciers far ahead of us.”

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Cleopatra Needles, 140 years after Lady Dixie visited (photograph 12/29/16).

Dixie’s description resonants with me.  It also causes a few pangs of jealously.  What it most have been like to see something such majestic landscapes without expecting it? Discovering the impossible!  Our trip was planned to see both the great granite spires and the glaciers that relentlessly carve the rock away. Of course, unlike Lady Dixie, we had expectations on what we would see.  However, “seeing” the Cordillera del Paine in pictures is nothing like physically standing in the shadow of a 3,000 foot shear cliffs.  The long journey to the bottom of the world was amply rewarded.

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General tectonic setting at the bottom of the World.  The bulk of South America is shaped by the interaction of the South American continental block and the subduction of the Nazca Oceanic plate beneath it’s western margin.  In the far south the tectonics are far more complex and have evolved significantly in the last 25 million years.

Geology at the End of the World

The story of the Cordillera del Paine is both short (in time) and sweet. But, it is different than that of the rest of the Andes, and that makes it history complex. The Andes are spectacular mountains that occupy the west coast of South America, stretching nearly 7,500 km from Colombia in the north to Chile in the south. They contain peaks second in height only to the Himalayas; Chimborazo in Ecuador rises to 6,277m, Huascaran in Peru is 6,768 m, Tocorpuri on the border of Chile and Bolivia is 6,873 m, and the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, Aconcagua at 6,950 m, marks the boundary between Argentina and Chile. Incredibly deep valleys and impassable terrain break the line of towing peaks, which are often capped with glaciers. In some places the Andes narrow to only 35 km, whereas in Bolivia they divide into two ranges and bound a high-altitude plateau, the Altiplano, which is nearly 640 kilometers (400 miles) across. The imposing mountain chain shapes the ecology of the entire continent by forming a barrier to moisture, which usually travels from the Atlantic toward the west. The peaks trigger enormous rainfall that feeds the great Amazon jungle, leaving little moisture for the incredibly dry Atacama Desert, where decades may pass without measurable precipitation.

Convergence between the continental South American plate and the oceanic Nazca plate gives rise to the Andes; the subduction or consumption of the Nazca plate beneath South America is a violent and spectacular geologic engine. As the Nazca plate descends beneath South America into Earth’s mantle, the sediments, minerals, and rocks carried downward respond to the increasing pressures and temperatures by melting. In turn, the melt rises toward the surface and erupts in spectacular volcanoes.

In southern most Chile the subduction boundary between the Nazca plate and South America ends.  There is a triple junction near the Taitao Peninsula; this is the junction, called the Chile Triple Junction (CTJ), and marks the interactions between the Nazca, Antarctic and South American plates.  South of the junction Antarctic subducts beneath South America, but at a much slower rate than the Nazca subduction north of the triple junction.  This marks a major change in the Andes – and this is the reason Patagonia is “different” than the rest of South America.

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The very first geologic map of Patagonia was drawn by Charles Darwin ca 1840.  There is no evidence that Darwin actually gazed upon the Cordillera del Paine, but the father of evolution theory clearly understood Patagonia was a very special place.

Charles Darwin visited South America during the 5 year voyage of the HMS Beagle (1831-1835).  Darwin wrote extensively on the geology of the continent;  On the connection of certain volcanic phenomena in South America (1838), On the distribution of erratic boulders and on the contemporaneous stratified deposits of South America (1841)and a classic book Geological Observations on South America (1846).  It is fair to say that Darwin’s geologic insights were not as deep as his thoughts on plants and animals.  However, in the preparation of his book he did draft the first geologic map of Patagonia (figure above).  This map was never published but is the Darwin archive at Cambridge.  Although it is highly simplified, it does capture the broad geology of Patagonia; mountain ranges in the west that have uplifted sediments that had been deposited in a shallow marine basin located in the Atlantic ocean. Most of the exposed geology in Patagonia was created by the history of the CTJ.  Around 15 million years ago the southern most section of the Nazca Plate and its spreading ridge were subducted and the CTJ was formed.  The CTJ migrated northward to its present location as more and more of the Nazca Plate is consumed.This migration is accompanied by localized intrusions of granitic laccoliths (sheets or domes of igneous rock injected within a sedimentary sequence of rocks).

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A view of the great Paine Massif from across Lago Nordenskjol.  The white colored rock is the a series of granites injected 12.2 million years ago; the dark rocks are ~100 million old marine sedimentary rocks that “received” the injected laccolith. (picture taken 12/29/16).

The CTJ passed the area of present day Torres del Paine about 13 million years ago, and ~12.2 million years ago the Cordillera del Paine laccolith was injected into gently dipping sedimentary rocks formed in a sedimentary basin between 60 and 100 mya.  There were at least 5 pulses of injection over a 50,000 year interval.  The laccolith has an areal extent of 10 x 20 km, and is 1800 m thick at its maximum.  This laccolith uplifted the surrounding sediments – it looked like a large bubble on the Patagonia landscape.

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A notional cross-section through the Cordillera del Paine.  The main intrusion is the sausage shaped unit denoted with “+”.  To accommodate the intrusion the sediments folded and faulted.

The intrusive phase was remarkably short lived, and as the CTJ continued its migration north there was no further magmatic activity. Around 10 mya the region of the Cordillera del Paine was probably a broad highlands, with minor peaks.  Starting in the late Miocene (~5 mya) the region began to be covered with a large ice sheet, and the erosive forces of ice began to carve the del Paine into to the familiar landscape of today.  Interestingly, the first scientific observations about Patagonian glaciations were presented by Charles Darwin who, along with Robert Fitz Roy explored Patagonia 150 km north of the Cordillera del Paine. Darwin postulated that “miles of rock” had been removed by ice.

It is hard for the average person to understand the incredible power of large scale glaciers.  In optimal settings glaciers can erode up to 1 m of bedrock for every 1 km of sliding.  Given a few million years the persistence of gravity dragging ice across granite, shale and sandstone will carve canyons 1000s of meters in depth. Today the glaciers have surrendered their massive size to a warmer climate.  The ice is still the primary erosion element in the Cordillera del Paine, but it is orders of magnitude smaller than it was 20,000 years ago.

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Heading up Seno Ultima Esperanza (the sound of last hope) to Monte Balmaceda and glaciers on the boundary of Torres del Paine National Park. The rainbow is created by the constant winds blowing spray into the air (picture taken 12/27/16).

West of the Cordillera del Paine is the Campo de Hielo Sur, or Southern Patagonia Ice Field. This is a massive extra-polar set of glaciers that covers nearly 12,500 square kilometers.  The ice field offers the best view of the glaciers near Torres del Paine; traveling up some of the large fjords allows a close up examination of these glaciers.

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Serrano glacier on Balmeceda, just south of the Cordillera del Paine.  The glacier is in rapid retreat due to rising temperatures.  Only 25 years ago the leading edge of the glacier was at the point that this photograph was taken (12/27/16).

One of the most famous glacier at the southern end of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field is Serrano.  Serrano is a “valley glacier” that  connects the ice pack on the high elevations of Monte Balmaceda, and terminates near the Seno Ultima Esperanza.  The valley glaciers are a delicate feature; they depend on air temperature and ice being deposited at the glacier head. Surprisingly, the ice creation is most important feature for the health of the Serrano (and other valley glaciers). A area is surprising arid – the annual precipitation rate at Natales, a town on the Seno Ultima Esperanza, is only 11 inches per year (about the same as Tucson, Arizona).  The Serrano is still an impressive glacier, but it is rapidly retreating.  The retreat is due doubt related to a rising temperature, but it is also the product of a decades long drought that is thinning the ice field.

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Float ice below Serrano glacier, and a great glacial erratic.  The rock perched on another rock in the lake are materials that the glacier removed from high up the mountain and when the ice melted left stranded.

The geology of the Cordillera del Paine is one of granite and changing plate boundaries. However, the artistry of the Paine is the handiwork of the ice that has flowed across the granites for millions of years.

Geo-Paparazzi disguised as Trekking

The pictures I saw in National Geographic when  I was ten years old made me dream of  climbing the Torres del Paine. However, certainly by middle age, I realized I had trouble even climbing a rope, and I was much better suited to hiking and scrambling, so there was never any chance I was going to scale anything like the towers.  When I was in my 40s I hiked many high mountains in the Andes including some 6000m peaks, but they were not technical (one of the advantages of climbing in the Andes is that it is possible to get high with persistence and planning, even without much athleticism). When I first was planning my visit to the Cordillera del Paine I had visions of trail runs to the bases of all the peaks I had dreamed of climbing, but in the end, the trip was about simply being able to trek around the stunning geology of Torres del Paine.

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Map of the Paine Massif.  The stars are the Torres del Paine (and the glacial cirque below them) in the east, the Cuerno (Horns) in the center, and Paine Grande (the highest point in the Cordillera) in the west.

The verticality of the Paine Massif becomes immediately obvious when you plan a trek.  The glacial lake bounding the southern extent of the range has an elevation of approximately 250′; the highest peak, 2 miles north of the lake has an elevation of 9,426′. That massive wall of elevation is a sequence of cliffs isolated by deep valleys.  It is hard to get to the higher elevations – the climbs are often technical, and the Park controls access (both for safety concerns, and for ecological concerns).  However, simply cruising in the shadows of the towers is an extraordinary experience.

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Michelle Hall and I on one of the trails that eventually leads to the Paine Massif in the background, and on up to the Torres del Paine, just out of view on the right of the photograph.

We planned a trek of two days that took us from the western edge of the Paine Massif to a high glacial lake at the base of the Torres del Paine. The weather of Patagonia is legendary; every day often sees bright sunshine, rain, mist with visibility of no more than a few yards, and wind — oh, so much wind. The joy of the weather is that you know it will change (and change back again).  We started our trek on the shores of Lago Nordenskjold beneath the Cuernos, or Horns of the Paine.  Nordenskjold receives all the melt waters from the mountain glaciers in Cordillera; its milky green color reflects the large sediment content carried from the melt waters. This sediment is the finely ground rock remains caused by the glacier scraping the bedrock.  This fine grain material is called “rock flour”.

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Looking across Lago Nordenskjold to the horns.  On the left is Cuernos Principal, and on the right is Cuernos Este.  The contrast between the black of the shales and the white of the granite make this one of the most iconoclastic views in all of geology.

The view of the Horns is breath taking – and almost impossible to capture with a camera.  The contrast of a deep blue sky, low white clouds, pale white granite, black sedimentary rock and the green lake water make the view seem artificial.  The colors look more like they were conjured by an artist in a painting, than by the subtle hand of nature.  The tallest of the horns is Cuernos Prinicipal, and has an elevation of about 8,600′ (or a vertical scarp of 8300 above the lake). As the map at the top of this section of the blog shows that the majority of the great laccolith has been removed by glaciers – only 10 percent of the granite remains.  The spectacular view is a dying gasp of a great mountain range.

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Salto Grande.  A water fall that captures flow from Lago Nordenskjold to Lago Pehoe.  The water color of the various lakes depends on how much glacier runoff enters the lake.  Green colors mean that there is a significant amount of sediment, or rock flower, from glaciers.  Blue colors have little to no sediment.

Nordenskjold lake drains into Lago Pehoe, which in turn drains into Lago Toro, and finally into the Serrano River and on to Seno Ultima Esperanza. Nordenskjold and Pehoe are about 150′ different in elevation; this difference creates a water fall called Salto Grande.  The odd color of the water makes for a scenic, and unique, cascade.

The views from the Cuerno group to Torres del Paine are all stunning.  In fact, the views inflict soreness in the neck as the head is always looking up! The views also impede the progress in trekking to the east.  But the main event is in the east, the climb up to the towers.

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The trail to the Torres del Paine.  Valle Ascencio.  The path from the base of the Ascencio to the glacial lake is about 5 miles.  The first few miles are a rocky climb, but then the trail enters a lush forest.

Our climb up to the Torres del Paine starts on day two, and in less than auspicious weather conditions.  The morning is misty and intermittent rain, and it is impossible to see the Cordillera. We are hiking with a guide, and he seems to be preparing us for the likelihood that the towers will be invisible even up close.  The path is steep, but well traveled and for the first several miles the low clouds and lack of vegetation make the journey tiresome.  However, at about mile 5 we enter a dense forest of Patagonia birch trees.  These trees are a remarkable hardwood, and are coveted for their longevity in construction (hundreds of years!).

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Lush forest along the trail – the tree is lenga (Nothofagus pumilio), a variety of birch.

The last 1 km of the trek to the base of the towers is a scramble up the boulder field associated with the mountain glacier connected to Torres del Paine. The 1000′ climb is rewarded with an extraordinary view – and a sudden parting of the low clouds to allow the sun to shine in.

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The last km of the trek up to the view of the Torres del Paine is a scramble up the outwash from the glacier that carved the towers.  The elevation gain is about 1000′, and the tough climb makes the reward of the view even more sweet.

The elevation of the small glacial lake below the Torres del Paine is about 3200′.  The tallest of the towers has an elevation of approximately 8200′ (the exact elevation of the towers remains in dispute, and no accurate survey has been conducted). 5000 feet of granite relief!  Although the weather cooperated, pictures of the three towers simply do not do justice to the stand of rocks.  They are unlike anything else in the world – true spindles that are nearly vertical.  Torres del Paine translates to Towers of Paine, where paine means “blue” in the native Tehuelche language.   The blue is in reference to the apparent color of the towers, especially in late afternoon.  On a cloudy day it seems a stretch to call the granite blue; but the color is not the compelling feature.

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The view of the Torres del Paine on December 30, 2016 at 11 am in the morning.  For a brief period the clouds opened up and presented the image of the fierce teeth in the jawbone of some ancient dinosaur.

I took approximately 1 million pictures of the towers.  Strangely, they all looked the same once I got back to the hotel and looked at them.  I struggled with the enormity of the landscape.  The south tower, the one on the left in the photo above was first climbed by Armando Aste in January 1963. Climbs of the towers remain some of the most difficult in the world, and attract the best alpinist every January. In 2015 two Chileans and an Argentine climbed all three towers in three days!

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A look back toward the Torres del Paine near the end of the trail.

Reluctantly, after an hour of picture taking and tasting the water in the lake (glacial runoff!), we had to leave and trace our path back to catch a ride to the hotel.  The journey down was rainy – the clouds began to move in, and we were reminded how lucky we were to have summited in relative sunshine.  Those few hours of trekking up and back to the Torres del Paine made all the difficulties of traveling to the bottom of the world worthwhile.

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Flying from Punta Arenas to Santiago we passed over the Cordillera del Paine – and got this extremely rare view given weather conditions and cloud cover.  The large glacier is Gray Glacier, and the green lake in the right center of photo is Nordenskjold. The Cuernos Principal is visible to the left of the jetty in Nordenskjold.

What will the future bring?

The Cordillera del Paine is truly a “wonder of the world”.  It is small in size – smaller than the Grand Tetons in Wyoming – but nature has conspired to build something that stretches the human experience.  About 150,000 people visit the park annually (compared with 2.8 million that visit the Grand Tetons for hiking); roughly 20% of those choose to trek into the interior of the park.  The park is strict about staying on trails, and requiring registration and tracking for all visitors.  However, it is not the same experience that Lady Dixie must have had 140 years ago.  The biggest difference is the retreat of the ice.  The glaciers in the Souther Patagonia Ice Field are all shrinking; there has been an areal loss of more than 60 sq km since 1945.  The loss of ice is not important for the dynamics of the Cordillera – the glaciers long ago did their work.  But the ice is a fundamental part of the spirt of the mountains.

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A view into Torres del Paine; the top photo was taken by Alberto De Agostino, circa 1920, the bottom view taken this year by Fabiano Ventura.  Although the towers look the same, careful observation will show that the glacier has nearly disappeared, and the glacial outwash has been removed over the last century creating a lake.

This year an Italian, Fabiano Ventura is photographing glaciers in Torres del Paine in the exact location as a Alberto De Agostino, missionary in Patagonia in the early part of the 20th century.  The contrast in his images shows the rapid change as the ice departs. Change is inevitable – in geologic terms this change is extraordinary powerful.  I don’t know what Torres del Paine will look like in 50 years…so I will return in 2 years after I recover from an new knee replacement.  I will be running the Torres del Paine Ultra! (http://www.ultratrailtorresdelpaine.com).

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Collisions at the Bottom of the World I; The 2016 Puerto Quellon Earthquake

“In Yosemite Valley, one morning about two o’clock I was aroused by an earthquake; and though I had never before enjoyed a storm of this sort, the strange, wild thrilling motion and rumbling could not be mistaken, and I ran out of my cabin, near the Sentinel Rock, both glad and frightened, shouting, “A noble earthquake!” feeling sure I was going to learn something”, John Muir, great American naturalist, writing about his feeling the  March 26, 1872, Owens Valley earthquake.

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Damage to the Pan American Hiway, just north of Puerto Quellon, Chiloe Island, Chile caused by a magnitude 7.6 earthquake on Christmas Day, 2016. Picture from various news services.

There is nothing more exciting to a seismologist than to feel the ground shaking during an earthquake.  The sense that the Earth is alive, that geology is dynamic, and for a brief moment in time it is possible to actually “see” tall mountains rise and deep valleys sink is palpable.  Alas, even seismologists rarely experience a large earthquake first hand – although there are 10-20 magnitude 7+ earthquakes annually, only a very few are located near population centers.  Seismologists mostly reside in the dingy halls of academic institutions, or worse yet, within the sterile offices of government agencies (first hand experience). It is only with great serendipity that seismologists have the happy happenstance to be standing on the ground above a suddenly slipping fault.  That “slip” is the breaking of rock caused by the accumulation of strain driven by the ceaseless movement within the Earth’s plates.  A small amount of the energy “released” by the rock breaking is converted to seismic waves that travel through the Earth.  The quote at the top of the article is from John Muir, and was his emotional response to feeling a large earthquake in Owens Valley 100 km from his cabin.  Muir’s words capture the pure joy seismologists feel when they recognize the vibrations from an earthquake.

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Flying south from Santiago towards Chiloe early on Christmas eve, 2016.  The view is to the east, along the drainage of Laguna del Maule.  The fold and thrust belt of the central Andes is outlined by the low fog; parallel sub-ranges trending north-south.  I instrumented the Valley for a structural study in 1999.  Just beneath the plane is the epicenter of the 2010 magnitude 8.3 earthquake!

My wife and I planned a trip to visit southern most Chile to celebrate our anniversary over Christmas break.  The highlight of the trip was a visit to Patagonia (which is a subject of the article “Collisions at the Bottom of the World II), and trekking within Torres del Paine national park. I worked on various seismic experiments within Chile in the 1990s, but I never had the opportunity to visit Patagonia; I love the high Andes of central and northern Chile (along with Bolivia and Argentina), but pined for the “Blue Towers” at the very end of South America.

The long planned anniversary trip started not the most auspiciously—plane mechanical issues and gross incompetence by American Airlines meant we missed our plane to Santiago not once, but TWICE;  we arrived in Santiago on the evening of the 24th instead of the planned morning of December 22.  Finally, on Christmas Eve we made it to Chiloe, a beautiful island at the northern end of the Chiloe Archipelago. We were to stay a few days at an absolutely spectacular hotel, Tierra Chiloe (http://www.tierrahotels.com/tierra-chilo-hotel-boutique/). We planned for some trekking on the island mostly to see something unique culturally.  Earthquakes never crossed my mind, although that probably is a remarkable confession!  Early Christmas morning we arranged to trek on the Pacific Coast —and at the very beginning of our trek we got, oh so, oh so very close to the John Muir feeling of the “noble earthquake”.

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Location of Chiloe Island, southern Chile. Included is the bathymetry west of the Chilean coast.  The tectonics of South America are dominated by the subduction of the Nazca Plate beneath the South American Plate.  The spreading center is obvious from the bathymetry – spreading segments oriented mostly north-south separating Nazca and the Pacific plate.  The bottom of the figure shows the end of the Nazca and the beginning of the Antarctic Plate.

 Chile: Home of the Monster Earthquake

The entire coast line of Chile—all 2500+ miles of it from the border with Peru to the overlook into the Drake Passage, is a convergent boundary.  Mostly this convergent boundary is between the oceanic Nazca plate and the continental land mass of South America on the South American Plate.  The Nazca and South America are converging at a rate on the order of 10 cm/yr, and the Nazca plate disappears beneath Chile in a subduction zone.  This subduction gives rise to volcanoes, and the uplift of the Andes; it also makes Chile one of the most seismically active regions in the world.  In fact, Chile has seem more magnitude 8 earthquakes in the last 150 years than all other countries combined.

However, the subduction along the length of Chile is complicated by the oblique angle between the South American coastline and the Nazca-Pacific spreading direction.  In the north, the coastline is 1000s of km from the spreading center, but near Chiloe the spreading center is only a few hundreds of km from the coast.  The ocean crust of the Nazca plate is very young when it descends beneath Chiloe, and very old when it subducts beneath Iquique near Peru.  The young crust is very warm and therefore buoyant, thus it resists descending through the mantle.  This buoyancy translates to a very “stiff” subduction zone, and very large earthquakes.

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The fault areas of mega earthquakes in southern Chile.  The largest earthquake known is the May 22, Chilean earthquake that ruptured a fault nearly 1000 km from north to south. (figure from Berkeley Seismo Lab)

In fact, the largest earthquake known occurred along the southern section of the Chilean subduction zone on May 22, 1960.  The figure above shows the area that slipped in that earthquake (the pink color).  The earthquake ruptured a fault that started in the north (the epicenter of the earthquake) and moved to the south almost 1000 km.  The fault had a maximum slip of about 25 m – an extraordinary number! A single earthquake moved one side of the fault almost 100 feet relative to the opposite side. This earthquake created a huge tsunami that traveled across the Pacific ocean and caused fatalities in Hawaii and Japan.

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Damage to Castro, the capital of Chiloe after the 1960 earthquake.  Castro is located about 5 miles as the crow files from my hotel.

Seismologists measure the size of earthquakes with seismic moment, which is defined as Mo = u D A.  This simple formula states that moment (Mo) is the product of the fault slip (D), fault area (A) and the rigidity (u) of the fault (think of this as the strength of the rock that slips along the fault surface during an earthquake).  The long age of the Nazca plate translates to a large value for rigidity.  It is possible to convert seismic moment to a value of magnitude – which is not particularly useful to seismologists, but is very important to the public because of their familiarity with Richter’s magnitude.  For the 1960 earthquake the magnitude is calculated to be 9.6, by far the largest earthquake ever.  A careful examination of the map of the Chilean earthquake fault zone above will show that the very center of the fault is …. Chiloe!

The large size of the 1960 earthquake obviously causes every resident of Chiloe to treat terremotos with concern.  However, it is possible to calculate the average “return time” for the 1960 event by comparing convergence rate and slip in the event.  This return rate is about 300 years.  This means it is unlikely to have another monster earthquake (M > 9.0) near Chiloe in the next few decades; but it also means that great earthquakes (M>8.0) are going to happen every 50 years or so, and large earthquakes (M>7.0) every few decades.  In other words, when I made our plans for visiting Chiloe I should have AT LEAST THOUGHT about earthquakes!

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Looking south towards Mueller de las Almas moments before the magnitude 7.6 earthquake.  The bar is about 8 m high and was once exploited as a placer deposit.

 Missed it by that Much!

We started our Christmas day trek with a drive to the west coast of the Chiloe Island about 8:45 am.  Around 11:15 we made a stop near Cucoa on our way to Muelle de las Almas.  The stop was at a remarkable pebble bar that broke the surf. The bar is about 8 m high, and 30 m wide, and with every surge of the surf, the pebbles are pulled seaward causing a loud clacking.  The bar was once a site of a placer operation that recovered meager amounts of gold.  We were on a tight schedule or I would have explored the bar for much longer.  However, we got back into our 4WD vehicle and headed for the trailhead.  Within minutes of getting into the car we noticed that the power poles were swaying—the wires between poles looked to be moving 3 or more meters.  My first thought was where the heck did those hurricane force winds come from?  Within another few minutes we had started our trek and my phone went crazy with emergency notifications.  At first I thought they were from New Mexico, but closer examination, it became obvious that they where Chilean, and warned that a large earthquake had just occurred and a Tsunami warning was issued.  Soon, our guide was being called on his radio, and told to evacuate immediately.  A quick search showed that the USGS had reported a magnitude 7.7 (later downgraded to 7.6) earthquake under the southern tip of Chiloe – only 45 km south of us!

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Isoseismal Map from the Chiloe earthquake (USGS).  The contours show regions of similar shaking. The earthquake was felt about 250 km away from the epicenter.

My strong inclination was to continue the trek and wait on a high ridge to see a tsunami come ashore.  However, I was over ruled by the guide (for the record, Michelle was voting with me – wait for the frick’in waves!). There were numerous reports of landslide, and within 30 minutes there were reports of 20 homes destroyed at Puerto Quellon.  Discretion once again trumped valor — we abandon the trek and headed back to the hotel.  Along the road we encountered numerous landslides, and cracked roads and bridges.

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Michelle showing one of many landslides covering the road back from the coast.  This particular slide nearly closed the road…but we squeezed through.

The earthquake knocked out power to the entire island, and broke water pipes up to 80 km from the epicenter.  When we got back to Castro there were lines of cars trying to fill up with gasoline – scores of cars at each station.  The lack of power and the concern of future earthquakes caused a mini-panic.  I don’t mean to give the impression of chaos, just concern driven by the haunting memory of 1960.

In the end, we ended up with a cancelled trek, a quiet afternoon looking for birds instead of interesting rocks, and thoughts about if we had only waited 10 minutes on the gravel bar we would have experience shaking with an intensity of 6 or 7.  Instead, we had the soft rubber of tires and the suspension system of a truck to damp out the shaking…missed it by oh so little.

There remains a remote chance that this earthquake is a foreshock to a large earthquake.  But it seems unlikely.  However, it is still a great anniversary present to an old seismologist on vacation.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mountains are More than a Pile of Rocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

basinandrange

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

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

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

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

Humboldt Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

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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.

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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!).

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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.

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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.

usageologicprovinces

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)!

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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!

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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!

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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….).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”).

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

prostitebutte

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…..

GeogMap

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.

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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.

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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!

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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).

PM2.5

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.

Struggle

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!