The 10th Anniversary of the Jemez Mountain Trail Run: Surviving or thriving during a mountain ultra run

One thorn of experience is worth a whole wilderness of warning, James Russell Lowell, 19th Century American Poet

LosAlamos.morning

Sunrise in Los Alamos, New Mexico a few weeks before the running of the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs.

The May 23rd running of the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs marks the 10th anniversary of a wonderful group of trail runs hosted by the High Altitude Athletics Club and staffed by a most enthusiastic group of volunteers. 50 miles, 50 km, and a very “heavy” ½ marathon bring 600 runners to be challenged by steep climbs and descents traveling along the volcanic ruins of a magnificent caldera complex around Los Alamos, New Mexico. In the decade since the event was conceived as a modest local ultra event, much has changed in the world of long distance trail running; but the original goal of the JMTR – celebrating the joy of running in the mountains, is very much in evidence in Los Alamos in late May 2015.

Los Alamos has always been a unique community.  It is best known as the home of Los Alamos National Laboratory (and indeed the community would not exist without the Lab), and has a high concentration of world class scientists and engineers;  however, there are other national laboratories spread across the country, and it fair to say that in many ways the residents of Los Alamos are rather different. I grew up in Los Alamos, went away to be an academic for two decades, and had the privilege to return 13 years ago and work at the Lab.  There is a character to the town and it’s residents — lab employees or not — that embraces the rural mountain lifestyle.  People here love the outdoors and in general, they are likely to run, bike, hike, camp, hunt, swim, ski – most anything that celebrates nature.  The Jemez Mountain Trail Run is a good example of this romance.  The German website Deutsche Ultramarathon Verengung (DUV) tracks statistics for ultra trail runs, and although there is no doubt that some races are missed, it is a good measure of worldwide ultra (50 km races and beyond) participation.  In 2014, 34,954 Americans (unique names) ran in ultras.  There are 200 million adults in the US (between ages of 18 and 65);  assuming all adults could run an ultra, only .0175 percent of this population choses to do so.  The adult population of Los Alamos is approximately 12,000, which would imply that if the town was “like” the rest of the US, then about 2 of the residents would run an ultra.  In fact, in 2014, 49 Los Alamos residents ran at least one ultra — DUV and Ultrasign report that Los Alamos residents ran no less than 71 ultras, including 5 or 6 runners that entered and finished 100 mile races.  Applying bulk statistics is always fraught with danger, but it is clear that there is much Jemez love for being on the trail for long periods of time!

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Aaron Goldman, the force behind the original Jemez Mountain Trail Run in 2006. Photo from Sue Norwood, at the pre-race dinner in 2009.  Goldman passed away a short time before the 2010 JMTR.

In 2006 Aaron Goldman, a Los Alamos ultrarunner (and extraordinary humanitarian) called a friend Kristen Kern (coincidentally, the race director of the Valles Caldera Runs) and broached the idea of running a trail-based ultra.  There had always been a strong running community in the town, but access policies to land and roads adjacent to the 40 square miles of Los Alamos National Laboratory changed dramatically after 9/11.  This eventually spelled the end of long road races, and Goldman wanted to revive the racing scene on the spectacular trails in the adjacent Santa Fe National Forest.  Aaron and Kris thought about a 50 miler, a marathon and a long-distance relay race.  The marathon eventually morphed into a 50 km ultra, and the relay was dropped for logistic reasons (relay runners would actually have to travel further to their hand-off stations than they would actually run).  Goldman expected about 20 or 30 runners total – when he had an interview with the local newspaper to drum up support he stated “any weekend jogger can run our 50 mile course”.  The original race was successful beyond all hopes – about 100 runners started, although only 50 finished (apparently the non-finishers had not been jogging on weekends enough).  The next year there were two hundred runners, and the JMTR became a fixture.

Thecourse

The JMTR 50k course (made in 2014, so there are minor variations in 2015). The course starts and ends at the Posse Shack, on North Mesa in Los Alamos. The low point is at mile 9 at the bottom of Los Alamos Canyon, and the high point is at mile 17 on the top of Pajarito Mountain. Click on figure to make full size.

The course for the various races has changed a number of times over the decade.  The 2011 Las Conchas fire devastated much of the high country in the eastern reaches of the Jemez Mountains, and later trail improvements by the Forest Service made for an improved pathway, but the theme has always been “a couple of long steep climbs, and spending time above 10,000 elevation”.  The run(s) are wonderful because of the courses, but the most amazing feature of the JMTR are the volunteers.  A core group of more than a dozen work year long on the event, but as the the third saturday in May approaches dozens more join in;  seems there are at least a hundred enthusiastic volunteers on race day manning the aid stations, coordinating the tracking of the runners and providing first aid, staging the best ultra party at the end, and making sure that JMTR is an ultra to remember. I am both both happy running, and proud of my community as I prepare to slog the 33 miles from the Pajarito Plateau to Pajarito Mountain, and race down Guaje Ridge.

Surviving the JMTR

I have run the JMTR 50 km several times, and I run the trails that comprise the course pretty much every week. I would not rank the course as overly difficult, although it is challenging. However, most of the people that come to run the JMTR are from outside New Mexico (Texas and Colorado are state most commonly represented), and many are from home bases that are at a much lower elevation. In addition, informal surveys of the runners indicate that 15 to 25 percent identify the JMTR as their first trail ultra. In fact, this year my wife (who is an outstanding marathoner) and two colleagues from the Washington DC area ran the JMTR as their first trail ultra.  Elites and runners that routinely race in the Rockies don’t need any advice on the JMTR.  However, there are some simple things to be aware of if you are coming from lower elevation, or are a novice distance trail runner.  The single biggest issue is attitude – the race starts at an elevation of 7280′ and has a short dip down to 7190′ in Los Alamos Canyon, and tops out at 10,440′ on Pajarito Mountain.  The average elevation during the 50k is about 9100 feet (the average is determined by time spent running the different sections of the courses – the steep, high elevation climbs take a couple of hours for most runners).

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Altitude zones, and the reduction of atmospheric pressure (and available oxygen) as a function of elevation.

The largest environmental factor limiting human performance is access to oxygen. Over the range of athletic performance (from sea level to the top of Mt. Everest) the percentage of the atmosphere that is oxygen is constant (about 20% of atmosphere is O2); however, the amount of the atmosphere decreases rapidly with elevation.  At sea level the pressure of the atmosphere by definition is 1 atm.  Climb to 8000 feet and the atmospheric pressure decreases to about 3/4 of that at sea level, and thus the available O2 decreases the same amount.  The effects of decreasing O2 pressures have been studied extensively – especially after the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Although many world records were established in events like the high jump, NO records were recorded in “endurance” events at Mexico City.  Coincidentally, the elevation of Mexico City is nearly identical to the starting line of the JMTR.  The figure below shows a generalization of performance based on the duration of a particular event.  For all runners of the JMTR the expectation is that oxygen debt will translate to a race time that is somewhere between 15 and 25 percent slower than if the JMTR was run in Orlando, Florida.  That is a huge difference, and there is no way to “change” that value.  Arrival a day or two in Los Alamos before the JTMR will allow acclimatization so some high altitude effects (like dehydration), but it has nearly zero effect on athletic performance.  It typically takes 6 weeks to adjust endurance performance, and even then the high altitude performance will be significantly reduced from expected sea level performance.  I routinely visit Washington DC at least twice an month, and I have a standard running workout that allows me to compare this elevation effect.  I run a flat 6 miles with intervals; in Los Alamos my overall pace is about 10:20/mile, and in DC it is 9:00/mile.  No fooling mother nature!  This does not really make the JMTR “harder” than sea level ultras, just slower.  Expect slow, and accept the joy of running high.

performance

Generalized athletic performance as a function of elevation (from xxxx, 1998). Click on figure to see a larger version. Very short duration races – like the 100 m dash – benefit from the lower air pressures by reducing drag. However, long duration events – like an ultra run – see performance degradation due to lack of oxygen.

There are other effects of elevation in addition to lower oxygen pressures.  The lower atmospheric pressures mean lower water content also — relative humidity is not a great comparison between sea level and Los Alamos because it takes much less water content to saturate the high altitude atmosphere.  25% relative humidity in Los Alamos translates to the water content of a relative humidity of about 15% at sea level.  In addition, the higher elevation means lower temperatures, which additionally reduces the ability of the atmosphere to “hold” water.  It is a certainty that when you run the JMTR every expelled breath will contain much more water than the return inhaled breath.  The dry air has the advantage that sweat evaporates quickly, and it is easier to stay cool.  However, this also leads to dehydration – drink much more that you are use to!

Another effect of altitude is the intensity of UV radiation, the cause of sunburn.  The strength of UV radiation is directly proportional to the amount of atmosphere the photons pass through (UV is mostly absorbed by ozone).   The UV index is a standardized scale that relates UV intensity to “time to sunburn” for an fair-skinned person (the scale was invented in Canada, where fair skin = alabaster).  On a clear, sunny day the UV index at sea level might be a value of 8 — at 9000 feet a similar sunny day would have a UV value of 12.  The value of 12 translates to expected sunburn within 10 minutes for unprotected and exposed skin.  Sun screen is a must for the JMTR!

costofhill

The energy cost of climbing a hill — both running and walking.

The final challenge of the JMTR is the steep climbs – and to some extent, the fast descents.  The figure above shows the energy cost for climbing a hill (the y axis is Joules per kg-minute, and x axis is the gradient, as measured in feet climbed divided by horizontal feet traveled).  The graph shows two sets of curves – one for walking (Cw) and one for running (Cr).  The biomechanics of running and walking are different, and the energy cost of running is higher – it takes twice as many calories to run a minute as it does to walk a minute.  A gradient of 20 percent (~climbing 1000 feet in a mile) takes twice as much energy as compared to running a flat course.  Between mile 13 and 17 on the JMTR the gradient is approximately 10 percent, and the energy penalty is 50%!  This will tire even seasoned runners.  Although relative penalty for walking is about the same (50%), the energy used while walking is much lower, and therefore, walking some or most of this this long ascent of Pajarito Mountain will significantly increase your energy reserve for running the last section of the JMTR.  By the way, there is a slight energy penalty associated with running downhill also due to the pounding motion on the legs.  However, this is small – the body is most efficient running down a 10% grade.

summitpajarito

I have much experience in walking the race course to the top of Pajarito Mountain – over a dozen races along this course has taught me that power walking a few miles improves my overall race time significantly. Picture from the 2014 Pajarito Trail Fest on a beautiful fall day.

All the best advice for running any ultra can only go so far.  On race day many factors – health, sleep, injuries, etc. will actually determine the outcome.  I was reminded of this lesson this year – flu like symptoms and dehydration forced me to drop the JMTR at the 18.2 mile point.  It was my first DNF in an ultra, but it was clear that my body was not in tune with my hopes!  All ultras are a struggle, and runners go through physical and mental cycles of feeling well.  Sometimes the troughs are deeper than the crests.

Trying to run the 2015 JMTR

The starting and ending point for the JMTR is a historical log-cabin known as the “Posse Shack”.  The Los Alamos Sheriff’s Posse – a group of equestrian enthusiasts for the most part – built the shack as a meeting place and social center in 1958.  The Posse Shack is located on North Mesa (although many locals call it “Horse Mesa” because of the stables), one of a dozen mesas that make up the Pajarito Plateau.  The mesa is an erosional remanent and is composed of Bandelier Tuff – volcanic ash that was erupted in two mega eruptions about 1.4 million years before the present from volcanic vents that were above the Valles Caldera.  The tuff was laid down as a hot ash cloud, and “welded” by internal heat.  Despite the moniker of welded tuff, the rock is quite soft, and easily eroded.  The course takes off due east and then drops into Bayo Canyon, and runners, hikers and horse riders of the past have carved a narrow track in the tuff.

EarlyPosse

The Posse Shack, shortly after it open 57 years ago. The modest building still serves as a gathering point for events in Los Alamos.

It has been an unusual spring in Los Alamos, and for five weeks in a row before race there has been snow and rain on the town.  This moisture is most welcome even if it generated endless discussion about the consequences for the JMTR.  Last year (2014) a noon time snow squall ended up chasing a hundred runners off the course.  However, this year the weather is perfect at race time – the temperature was 47 degrees, and there was almost no chance of rain.  I awoke at 4:00 am, but had a heart rate of 41 beats per minute.  I would love to claim that this was due to extraordinary conditioning, but alas, this low heart rate means that the lack of a thyroid is “acting up”. I fixed the heart rate by downing several cups of strong coffee – got it up to 50 by race time, but knew running 50 k was going to be difficult.  2015 has been a tough year physically for me, and the latest challenge started as a toothache about 4 weeks before the JMTR.  10 days before the race it degenerated into a full blown abscess, and I awoke to a swollen face that caused one of my eyes to be shut.  The swelling was remedied by a regiment of penicillin, and after a week (3 days before the race) my face was normal, and the tooth(s) although dead did not bother me.  However, the penicillin also killed all the useful bacteria in my digestive track.  I knew that there was a chance of dehydration during the run because of digestive issues (that is a “delicate” euphemism), but prepared for the long run.

startline

Starting line at 5:50 am, May 23, 2015. Note that the white chalk line is more like a gathering point than anything else.

The start of the 50 k is always strange.  The race director and staff are mellow, and the  “ready, set, go” is decidedly informal. However, once the start is announced the runners sprint away. Sprint!  There is 33+ miles to cover and thousands of feet to climb, but the emotion of the start catches up even the most jaded runner.  I always resist the urge to sprint – for about 10 seconds, and then I am stampeding with everyone else. As the course dips down into Bayo Canyon I always feel like a lemming that follows the pack to certain doom.

lemmings-at-the-cliff.2

The start of the 50 km race is always crazy. It very much reminds me of lemmings running as fast as they can off a cliff – no return!

The first five miles of the run is deceptively easy, and although the there is some steady climbing it is pretty easy to roll into the first aid station in under an hour.  Of course, the fastest runners have past the aid station in 45 minutes or less, so the field of runners is spread out. I arrive at the aid station at 55 minutes, but I am not feeling great.  Fortunately, for the next 10 miles or so I have great company and discuss everything from basketball to lab politics.  Mile 9 really defines the beginning of the JMTR – that is the low point elevation wise in Los Alamos Canyon.  Over the next 9 miles the climb is steady and unrelenting.  Conversation makes the miles seem pretty easy, and we arrive at Aid Station 2 (10.2 miles) about 2hrs and 15 minutes from the start.  That time is 10 minutes slower than I have ever covered on this course, but does not seem alarming yet.

Right before the aid station there is a very tough climb – short, but steep.  It is associated with the scarp of the Pajarito Fault.  The fault is related to the Rio Grande Rift and has been active (at least in a geologic sense) for at least 5 my.  The offset of the Bandelier Tuff approaching the aid station is 100m. This short climb sends alarm bells off in my head about my state of health.

dacite.geology

Once Aid Station 2 is passed, the trail is out of the Bandelier Tuff, and the rocks become much harder and angular.  For the next 8 miles the geology is dominated by grey dacite – there are little white flecks of plagioclase, and sometimes you can find tiny biotite crystals. Today the rocks just seemed grey. The dacite was not formed by a massive eruption, but by a series of lava flows and injections of dikes.  The map above shows the Pajarito Mountain Dacite, and the surprising location of a 3 million year old vent that extruded the dacite.  Yes, Pajarito Mountain is an ancient volcanic vent, and that vent is located just east of high point of the JMTR.

Although I am feeling punkish, we are making pretty good time on the trail.  By mile 14 we still only 10 minutes off my typical pace.  However, I have to get off the trail fast here – I urge my companions on, and by the time I am able to resume the run I am far behind.  Unfortunately, no amount of water drinking can cure the stomach maladies that now have me in their firm grip.  By the time I top out near Pajarito Mountain, I have no real control over my body.  I usually love the run from the mountain top down to the ski lodge – a drop of 1200 feet in 1.3 miles – today I am limited to a slow trot.  I make it to the ski lodge in 5 hours, but I make the very painful decision that I have to drop, and declare a “Did Not Finish”.

Only 18 miles covered on the 10th Anniversary JMTR.  Bummer.  However, the incredible volunteers at the ski lodge aid station have me pseudo hydrated soon after I drop, and arrange a ride for me back to the Posse Shack.

The JMTR was a great event despite my pitiful journey.  I was most fortunate to have a couple of guests in my home that traveled from Washington DC to race in the JMTR.  BethAnn Telford is an amazing and inspriational woman – she was diagnosed with brain cancer in the Winter of 2005 and has dedicated her life to raising awareness of the illness and constantly inspiring others that suffer from this killer.  BethAnn is an amazing runner and came out to experience the JMTR as training for a Rim-2-Rim run this October to highlight HOPE that no disease should stop the joy of life.  With BethAnn was a young woman, Sarah Domnarski, that is a running partner.  My wife ran with BethAnn and Sarah for their first ultra, and they were far more successful than I.

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The HOPE team at standing in front of the JMTR quilt honoring ten years of running in Los Alamos Mountains. From left, Michelle Hall, Sarah Domnarski, and BethAnn Telford.

 

 

Super Volcano in the Backyard: The Valles Caldera Marathon

Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen…..All things belonging to the earth will never change–the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark, and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth–all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth–these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever – Thomas Wolfe, in You Can’t Go Home Again (1940).

fromtheplane

Ariel view of the Valles Caldera and Jemez Mountains. This view is taken from a small plane at an elevation of 14,000′ looking south-southeast across the Valles Caldera. Photo by L. Crumple. (Click on pictures to get full sized view)

There are numerous influences in my childhood that propelled me to a career in the Earth sciences;  a father that loved to prospect and collect minerals, hundreds of family camping trips to the most interesting geologic province in the world (the Rocky Mountains!), and a progressive high school that offered a rich course in geology.  In hindsight, one of the most important influences was the fact that I grew up on the flank of a huge volcanic complex, the Jemez Mountain Volcanic Field.  The terrain of deep canyons, flat mesas, and a beautiful grass valley, the Valle Grande, surrounded by ponderosa pine covered peaks frame my childhood memories and help define home for me. The Jemez Mountains rise some 5000′ above the Rio Grande River and are remnants of a massive volcanic system that experienced two “super” eruptions about 1.4 million years ago.  The Jemez don’t really look like a volcano today if one’s idea of an active volcano is Mt. St. Helens or Kilauea – it is a large circular depression surrounded by the high peaks that once where the steep slopes of a series of craters that spewed forth hundreds of cubic km of hot ash. The figure at the top of this column is an aerial view of the Jemez, and the depression and surrounding peaks protect a series of valleys that once were filled with rain water after the great eruptions.  These valleys, or valles in spanish, are a unique feature of the Jemez. These mountains shaped me in many ways.  Out my back door was a riveting geologic panorama that provided an open invitation to explore nature.  Although most of the Valle Grande proper was off limits during my youth – it was a working cattle ranch that we just called “The Baca” in recognition that it was part of a old Land Grant called Baca Location Number 1 –  the surrounding mountains and forest lands were our play ground.

vallesgrande

View from within the Valle Grande to the west. The high peak is Redondo Peak, and the smaller rise on the righthand shoulder is Redondito Peak. The Valles Caldera marathon traverses around the base on Redondo on the edge of the Valles.

I learned about hiking, camping, wildlife, and calm call of nature.  I even learned some things about mineral collecting; in general, there is not much “mineral wise” in the Jemez, with the one exception. My first vehicle was a hand-me-down four wheel drive Toyota Land Cruiser.  Not many things worked on it (including the gas gauge which more than once left me stranded), but it did afforded me the freedom to explore the Jemez on my own.  My favorite trip was to the ghost town of Bland, a short-lived gold mining center located a few miles south of the Valles Caldera.  The mineral deposits were not formed by the volcanic processes that built the Jemez Mountains, but were from an earlier epoch of magmatic activity that injected quartz dikes into surrounding bedrock.  The Jemez volcanics covered these dikes, and later, through the randomness of erosion, were exposed in a narrow canyon (Bland Canyon).  In 1893 the first of a dozen claims was staked on these dikes for gold and silver.  A rush ensued, and soon a town was built and the population grew to more than a 1000 people.  The town was named Bland in honor of Richard Bland who had advocated for the governmental purchase of silver, and in turn, that bullion was minted into silver dollars.  The Bland act, and further requirements for the government to purchase silver (in particular, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act) were repealed in 1893 causing a collapse in silver prices — just as the mines in Bland were being discovered.

bland.1900

The boom town of Bland, circa 1900. Many of these same building were identifiable in the early 1970s when I searched for artifacts (with some success) and traces of gold or silver (without any success!). Unfortunately, all traces of Bland were destroyed in the 2011 Las Conchas fire – it is even impossible to find most of the old mine dumps.

I drove to the ghost town of Bland every chance I got in the early 1970s.  There was a “back way” in that required delicate 4WD navigation;  I was rewarded with a harrowing journey through the Jemez Mountains, and a chance to search through all the old building looking for artifacts and the mining dumps for some sign of gold or silver.  Mostly my searches were unsuccessful, but I had taste of the treasure hunter.

insulator

An insulator I collected near Bland in the early 1970s. The screw on glass has a patent date of 1893.

In the year 2000 the Federal Government purchased the “Baca” and it became the Valles Caldera Natural Preserve.  The charge of the Preserve was to remediate the effects of logging and cattle/sheep grazing, and eventually make the Valles Caldera a multi-use facility.  Although access is still carefully controlled to the Valles it has become the home to several special events.  In 2006 it became the site of a trail run – first a marathon, and later a half marathon and 10 km run were added.  The course has changed over the years, and a fire in late May of 2013 forced a change to a partial out-and-back route. The chance to run in a certified super volcano, only a few miles from my house is a huge draw – the Valles Grande Caldera Runs are a geologist’s dream.

IDL TIFF file

A recent NASA satellite image of the Valles and Jemez Mountains (click on the map to get a large, and clearer view). The circular depression of the caldera is obvious; left of the depression (east of the caldera) is Los Alamos. The brown-gray color is due to the denudation of the ponderosa pine and other vegetation after the 2000 Cerro Grande and 2011 Las Conches fires.

The volcano in my backyard

The Jemez Mountains and Valles Caldera are a spectacular sight from space. The satellite image above shows the circular depression that is about 13 miles across that formed after a series of very large eruptions of ash-flow tuffs emptied a large, shallow magma chamber.  Nearly 800 cubic km of ash were propelled from various volcanic vents, and the “hole” left by this erupting ash caused the volcanic edifice to collapsed back into itself producing a broad valley. Later, renewed magmatic activity pushed rhyolitic magmas up through the fractures formed during the collapse, producing a ring of domes breaking up the original valley into smaller, isolated valleys.  The largest of these magma extrusions, known as resurgent domes, is Redondo Peak, which has an elevation of 11,258′ and towers some 2500′ above the valley floor.  Redondo Peak is not a volcano – it was not “erupted” but extruded from the magma chamber beneath the Valles much like tooth paste would be extruded from a tube as it is slowly squeezed.

Vallea cauldera section 700

Geologic evolution of the Valles Caldera. The Valles volcanic center was active for 12 to 13 million years before a pair of major eruptions (1.5 and 1.2 million years before the present) caused the edifice of the volcanic system to collapse forming a large circular depression. Eventually this depression was dotted with a number of volcanic plugs or domes, forming the mottled landscape of Valles Caldera today (Image from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History).

The Valles Caldera remarkable symmetric, and incredibly well preserved — there were no major eruptions after the last collapse a million years ago to obscure the valley, resurgent domes and ring fractures that were formed during that collapse.  These qualities attracted geologists from around the world, and it has become the archetype volcanic caldera referenced in hundreds of studies and textbooks.  Although the Jemez Mountains were recognize being volcanic by the later part of the 19th century, it was not until the 1920s when C.S. Ross of the USGS visited, and later teamed with R.L. Smith in 1946 that the area was mapped in detail.  This mapping was done in part to understand the potential for supplying the new Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory with fresh water, and whether it was possible to bring a large natural gas line across the Valles to provide energy for my home town.  In 1970 Smith, Bailey and Ross published a beautiful geologic map of the Jemez Mountains and the Valles Caldera (figure below), and was the first map to grace the wall of my bedroom (I wish I could find that original wall hanging, but alas, it was packed away when I left for college and no doubt is today been composted and returned to the soil…).

jemez.htm_txt_smithmapjemez2

A section of the Smith, Bailey and Ross map (1970) showing the geology of the Valles Caldera. The yellow domes circling Redondo Peak (the brown color in the center of the figure) are the post collapse rhyolite resurgent domes.  The olive green color is the Bandelier Tuff – the base rock beneath Los Alamos.

The colors of the map hint at the extraordinary history of the Jemez Mountain Volcanic Field (JMVF).  The exact reason that the JMVF exists remains a bit of a mystery; it is located at the intersection of the western margin of the Rio Grande Rift and a trend of volcanic fields called the Jemez Lineament that has been postulated as a ancient “zone of weakness” that allows magma generated in the mantle to rise up into the crust.  I think that it is far more likely that the Jemez Lineament is the lucky connection of dots on a map, and that a more plausible explanation is that marks the boundary between a thick and stable crust (the Colorado Plateau) and thinner, more tectonically active crust.  Irregardless, it is clear that the opening of the Rio Grande rift caused volcanic activity to began about 13 million years ago in the vicinity of present day Los Alamos.  For about 10 million years the volcanism was dominated by basaltic lava flows.  Black Mesa, near Espanola, is one of the most famous landmarks representing this period of volcanism (Black Mesa is about 3.7 million years old).  About 3 million years ago eruption of more silica rich magmas commenced and the Jemez Mountain began to grow — there were probably 6 to 10 major volcanoes that tapped interconnected magma bodies.  These volcanoes conspired to create a major eruption about 1.5 million years ago that erupted what is known as the Otowi Member of the Bandelier Tuff.  Nearly 450 cubic kilometers of ash was erupted over a short period (probably a few years, but certainly less than a few decades).  This resulted in a collapse of the volcanic system, and the creation of the Valle Toledo Caldera.  This caldera is obscured by a similar sized eruption about 1.2 million years ago that ejected about 350 cubic kilometers of ash, the Tshirege Member of the Bandelier Tuff.  On the eastern margin of the Valle Toledo is the highest peak in the Jemez, Tschicoma Peak (elevation 11,561′), an remnant that survived both collapses.  The second eruption, and subsequent collapse created the now familiar Valles Caldera.

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Extent of ash fall from the second major Jemez Mountains Volcanic field eruption (1.2 million years ago). Ash has been identified in Kansas and Wyoming, and a large volume of the ash was transported down the Rio Grande (the blue streak in the map down the center of New Mexico).

The widely popular phrase “super volcano” has its roots in the 20th century, but mostly it is a phrase invented by the media around 2002 to dramatize the power of big volcanoes.  By 2003 the phrase appeared in more than 100 stories that covered everything from global warming and cooling to mass extinctions.  The USGS tied the phrase to the Volcano Explosivity Index (VEI), a measure of “explosiveness of eruptions”, and a VEI value of 8 became the definition of a super volcano, and implies a volume of material erupted that is at least 250 cubic km.  There have been 3 super volcanic eruptions in the US in the last 1.2 million years; the Jemez, Long Valley, California and Yellowstone in Montana/Wyoming.  All three of these eruptions resulted in the creation of a caldera.  Of course, our human centric view of geologic time — i.e, a million years is a long time — distorts the sense of “super” volcanic eruptions. Although Yellowstone was a large eruption, it was dwarfed by an eruption 28 million years ago that created the La Garita Caldera near Creede, Colorado.  Over the same time that it took the Jemez to erupt the Tshirege tuff, the La Garita erupted the Fish Canyon Tuff — all 5,000 cubic km of it (more than 15 times larger!).  Despite the size of La Garita,  Los Alamos is perched on the shoulder of a real super volcano.

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Comparisons of volumes of eruptions – Yellowstone and the Valles are “super volcanoes”, while more recent eruptions like Crater Lake and Krakatau have to settle for being “big” and Mt. St. Helens is just puny.

The relative tranquility of the Valles Caldera belies its violent history and magnificent history.  The most recent significant volcanic activity in the Jemez is the Banco Bonito rhyolite flow, which is located smack dab in the middle of the Jemez Caldera marathon.  The Banco Bonito is a very silica-rich rhyolite, and filled with large blocks of obsidian.  Although most everyone recognizes obsidian, and thinks arrowheads and black shiny pebbles, the geologist thinks about very rapid cooling of a volcanic rock.  Obsidian is silica glass – same material as a chunk of quartz, but it has no crystalline structure due to the rapid quenching of the hot lava. The Banco Bonito rhyolite was extruded (probably not erupted) 40,000 years ago.  Although the Jemez Mountain Volcanic Field will be active again in the future, it is mainly showing signs of exhaustion, and the likelihood of a future, large scale eruption is extremely small. Running through the Valles Caldera on a marathon is a unique experience.  Laid out along the course is every aspect of a few million years of violent tectonic history.  Ash fall, resurgent domes, ancient lake beds that filled with water in cooler and wetter times.

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A view from the southeast to the northwest across the Valle Grande, Redondo Peak, the the Colorado Plateau on the horizon. A little over 1/2 of the marathon course is an out-and-back from El Cajete to Cerro Pinon – right through the heart of the Valles Caldera. Also shown is the head of Bland Canyon, home of the ghost town. Picture from 2011 Nature article on Southwest drought.

The Valles Caldera Marathon

The Valles Caldera runs – there is a marathon, half marathon, and a 10 km – are not classic trail runs per se.  Most of the courses utilize dirt roads that once were used to move cattle or cut timber, and only some short segments are single track.  However, this does not diminish the spectacular setting of the race. It does mean that most people run the distances much faster than a typical trail run (I say “most” because single track versus tire rutted roads has nearly zero impact on my speed – sadly).  The races start at Banco Bonito Staging Area within Valles Caldera National Preserve.  The name “Banco Bonito” is applied to a modest plateau that is composed of the rhyolite-obsidian conglomerate that goes by the same name.  It is easy to find very attractive pieces of obsidian at the starting line — just look down.  There are more than 300 people signed up for the half marathon and 10k, but only about 45 of us toe the line for the full marathon at 7:30 in the morning.

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Gathering of the runners for the start of the Valles Caldera marathon. Temperature at the start was 34 degrees, and throughout the day the weather alternated between sun, clouds and occasional grapple. Perfect.

The course for the marathon heads due east, climbing up the Banco Bonito lava flow along a logging road.  The lava flow is probably not obvious to most of the runners as it now is forested, and only along certain sections are there stratigraphic sections exposed.  But the topography of the lava flow is evident;  over the first three miles we climb about 450 feet (not much elevation gain, but enough to slow old runners down).  The pack of runners sorts out pretty rapidly, and good runners like Dave Coblentz disappear with a doppler shift over the horizon.  At the three mile mark the course comes to an aid station on the edge of a large bowl shaped depression — El Cajete.  This is a very significant geologic formation (but not such a significant aid station).  El Cajete is the crater that last had significant volcanic activity in the Valles Caldera.  It is responsible for the Banco Bonito lava flow 40,000 years ago, as well as a massive eruption of pumice sometime after the lava flow.  The pumice fell close to the El Cajete, and dammed the Jemez river creating a lake in the Valle Grande.

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Aid station at mile 3 – looking out on El Cajete. If you click to enlarge the photo you can see a herd of elk scurrying across the crater on the right hand side — the crater is big, so the elk look small.

From El Cajete the course drops off the plateau and the run is downhill for 2 miles.  Fast and easy.  Unfortunately, the elevation lost is a penalty for the next part of the race.  At mile five there is a steep climb up a pass between Redondo Peak and another resurgent dome called South Mountain.  In a little bit more than a mile we climb 550 feet to the high point of the race, 9150′.  The top of the pass is a reward, but also a harbinger of things to come since we have to repeat this climb on the return from the Valle Grande.

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Course elevation profile. By my watch the course of 25.8 miles long.

From mile 6 to mile 12 the course is in the Valle Grande – well, strictly speaking, skirting around the edge of the Valle.  The grass “meadow” of the Valle Grande is due to the fact that it was a reoccurring lake bed in the last million years, and it is not particularly friendly nutrition wise to trees.  The last time the lake had a significant extent was after the El Cajete pumice eruption, and probably lasted for 4 to 7 thousand years (there have been smaller lakes during damp cool periods usually associated with glacial epochs).  The picture below is a view across the Valle towards Pajarito Mountain.  That summit, all 10,400 feet of it, is the high point of the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs — which will be run a month from now.

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A view across the Valle Grande to Pajarito Mountain. The weather alternated between sun and dark clouds through the entire run. The temperature was mostly in the high 40s, perfect for running a marathon.

Running through the Valle is always wonderful.  It is sensational scenery, and mostly flat topography.  At mile 9.4 I get passed by the leader of the pack returning towards the finish.  This means that the leader is about 4 miles ahead of me already.  Once the first runner passes by me it is a steady stream;  strangely, all the runners that are ahead of me look like they are strong and running very easily.  I, on the other hand, am beginning to lose focus and daydreaming of the geology.  Dave Coblentz passes me with a group of 5 or 6 runners at mile 9.7. The course “turns around” is at a point just beyond another resurgent dome — Cerro Pinon.  The milage here is just about 12 miles; there is a mental boost knowing that the “out and back” is done, but I also realize that there are 14 miles to go.  For the next 5 miles I pass by a few runners (a very few) that are slower than me, but mostly see no one.  I am alone – happy, but alone.  The climb back up the pass at South Mountain is brutal, but once that is done I am certain that I will finish the race largely unscathed.  The run down from South Mountain is fast, but as I expected, hard on my legs. The run between miles 18 and 22 is a descent of nearly 800 feet.  It should be fast, but my legs are tired.  There is a great aid station at mile 19, and I stop for way too long to eat oreo cookies.  The descent ends at a broad meadow called Redondo Meadow.  This meadow is an wildlife experiential station, and there are lots of people working in the area.  The course route is always confusing here because there is no real trail across the meadow, and there are meandering streams.  The course is marked, but that means you actually have to pay attention to the flagging (not my best skill – however, I have memorized the maps, so I don’t get detoured).  Once across the meadow the home stretch begins.  A steep climb up the Banco Bonito lava flow, and then a lonely run back to the finish.  I pass a couple of slowest runners of the 1/2 marathon, and try to encourage them (however, they are really tired).

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Crossing the finish line – photo curtesy of Petra Pirc. I finish in a little over 5 1/2 hours. Long after the good runners, but happy for the experience.

I rambled into the finish line in a little over 5 1/2 hours.  It is a nice marathon – not exactly a trail run, but much harder than a street run.  The total elevation gain is about 3000 feet and the average elevation along the course is 8400′.  However, it is the geology that makes this run so great.  The Valles Caldera is truly a marvel….

Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii: A trail run in the Valley of the Rocks with a nod to John Wayne

Monument Valley is the place where God put the West. John Wayne, American Actor, circa 1950.

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Post card from the 1950s, part of a series celebrating the icons of the United States. This scene of the Mittens and Merrick Butte in Monument Valley defined the American West for a generation. The Monument Valley ultras follow a course around these iconic sandstone buttes. Click on photos for large versions.

The southern half of the Colorado Plateau stretches from Lake Meade in the west, to Cuba, New Mexico in the east, and is a stunning desert highland of pastel colored bluffs, and exotic wind sculpted rocks. The land is both beautiful and desolate; in more than 80,000 square miles there are only 250,000 inhabitants (more people live around Lake Meade and Flagstaff that the rest of the southern plateau combined), but there are 10 National Parks and 17 National Monuments, 10 Wilderness areas, along with another half dozen parks in the Navajo Nation.  It is also the land that American geologists wandered in the 1860-1880s and their observations shaped modern thoughts about geologic time and the extraordinary patient, but always persistent, force of erosion which eventually grinds even the highest mountains to dust. John Wesley Powell navigated the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and Clarence Dutton mapped the geology with remarkable insight; these geologic giants were the vanguard of the American contribution of “the second age of discovery” that transformed the mystery of nature into a science.  I love visiting these desert lands; in a crowded and noisy world the Colorado Plateau imposes it’s will of solitude and reminds one of man’s temporary significance. Ulta Adventures runs a series of ultra runs across the southern Colorado Plateau that they call the Grand Circle.  Last year I ran the Ultra Adventures Bryce Canyon 50k – and it was a spectacular run!  The geology was great, the UA staff are wonderful, and course was challenging.  This year I decided I wanted to run the UA ultra in Monument Valley held in mid-March.  No other piece of real-estate has defined the American psyche of “the old west” than Monument Valley.  You would be hard pressed to find any baby boomer that would not immediately recognize the “Mittens” — sandstone bluffs in Monument Valley — as the movie backdrop to scores of films.

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Scene from the 1939 production of the film Stagecoach. John Wayne played the Ringo Kid – a criminal that makes good, vanquishes the real bad guys, and of course, gets the girl.

Monument Valley is a tract of canyon lands located about 100 km west of the Four Corners along the Utah-Arizona border. Within the valley there is a 140 square mile park – the Navajo Nation’s Monument Valley Park — that was “discovered” by film director John Ford in 1939 with the release of the classic western Stagecoach. Ford chose Monument Valley because, to his mind, the desolation and isolation of the bluffs and red sandstone captured the essence of the hardscrabble life of the wild west. Ford cast John Wayne as the Ringo Kid, a gunslinger. This roll is largely credited with making Wayne a film superstar – and forever he is pictured across from the Mittens.  There is a creation myth about how John Ford found Monument Valley — it starts with Harry Goulding, a sheep herder and owner of a trading post in Monument Valley packing up and heading to Hollywood with photographs of the scenery as an act of desperation during the crushing poverty of the great depression.  Goulding showed up at Ford’s offices and somehow, against all logic, convinced Ford that he should film his upcoming western in the corner of Arizona that was hundreds of miles from the nearest train station and only accessible by a dicey dirt road.  Ford eventually filmed parts of 6 of his most famous movies there;  other directors followed, and Monument Valley has appeared in more than 100 movies!

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Forrest Gump ends his epic run back and fore across the US at Monument Valley. This scene, as Forrest stops, and his followers are baffled, was shot on Hiway 163 looking south to the bluffs of Monument Valley.

It is only appropriate that the rich movie heritage of Monument Valley would collide with ultra runs. The 1994 movie Forrest Gump is the tale of a man’s life that serendipitously criss-crosses 40 years of tremulous American history. I saw the movie in Flagstaff, Arizona when my wife was working on the geodetics of volcanoes at the USGS field office – we loved the movie and it remains one our top ten favorites ever. In the movie, Forrest starts running on October 1, 1979 to ease the pain of rejection by his true love. He ends up running for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days and 16 hours, and covered 15,248 miles (crossing America at least 4 times) – no ultra runner has ever equaled the trail brazed by Forrest. Forrest ended his run at Monument Valley – he just stopped, and decided the run was over, and it was time to go home.

What a perfect setting for an ultra run; geology, history, and the termination point for the greatest ultra run ever.

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View from the start of the race — the day before. The west entrance to Monument Valley is guarded by three erosional remnants. From the left, West Mitten, East Mitten and Merrick Butte.

Running on Ancient Sand Dunes Monument Valley refers to a large swath of landscape along the Arizona-Utah border, but most people associate the name with a modest 3 by 5 mile drainage basin. This basin stretches from the world famous Mittens in the north to Wetherill and Hunts Mesas in the south. The name “Monument Valley” first showed up on maps in 1917.  Who exactly was responsible for that moniker is lost to history, but the name is appropriately descriptive; the view down the valley is filled with monoliths and buttes that are the erosional remnants of a thick layered cake of sedimentary rocks that were deposited by water and wind nearly 200 million years ago.  The Navajo name for the valley is Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii, which translates approximately to Valley of the Rocks (at least my Navajo friend tells me this – others have slight variations).

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Satellite image of Monument Valley. This is not a false color image – the land is reds and browns, colored by the strained sedimentary rocks that were deposited on an ancient continent during Permian times.

The Colorado Plateau is one of the most unique geologic provinces on the globe. A huge, broad plain or basin was formed at the margin of the primal landmass that today we call the North American Continent. This “basin” captured the cobbles and shards that resulted from the erosion of the ancient continent. Sometimes the basin was beneath a shallow sea filled with corral reefs and marine life. Other times it was at the edge of an uplifted and rejuvenated continent and was covered by a system of deltas cut by meandering rivers – not unlike the Mississippi delta today. Still other times it was a massive wasteland covered by sand dunes. Over a period of 500 million years this broad area we now call the Plateau accumulated a lithic layer cake; thousands of feet of alternating sandstones, limestones, shales and conglomerates. About 20 million years ago this layered rock cake was uplifted, and subjected to the same erosional forces – wind, water and ice – that had ground ancient mountain ranges to dust.

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The stratigraphy of Monument Valley laid bare in Merrick Butte. The lower apron is the Organ Rock Shale, which gives the Valley the ubiquitous red dust. The steep cliffs are the sandstones from the DeChelly formation, and the butte is topped by the Shinarump conglomerate.

The slice of this great lithic cake that is exposed in Monument Valley dates from the Permian Age. The rocks exposed on the Valley floor are the oldest – and are known as the Organ Rock shale (about 280 million years old). This shale was deposited as muddy clays in deltas and swamps. Above the shale is the rock that builds the monuments, the DeChelly sandstone.  The DeChelly is an amazing rock – it is a nearly pure quartz grain sandstone, that is tough and strong, and can maintain vertical cliff faces hundreds of feet high.  The DeChelly was formed from wind blown sand dunes.  The modern day analogy for these type of sand dunes is the Namib Desert along the southwestern coast of Africa.  The desert that made the DeChelly sandstone was long lived — probably 25 million years of blowing dunes. Finally, that desert yielded to a more hospitable environment and rivers returned depositing sandstones and shales, which we call the Moenkopi formation.  About 230 million years ago the last of the rocks exposed at Monument Valley were deposited on top of the Moenkopi, the hard cobbles and boulders of the Shinarump conglomerate. The Shinarump is the “cap stone” on the mesa in Monument Valley, and reason that the softer rocks below have not completely eroded away.

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Carving Monument Valley. (from Abbot and Cook, 2007)

The landscape of Monument Valley today is only a shadow of what it most have been a few million years ago.  In a few more million years, there will be no sign of DeChelly sandstone, and all the steep cliffs will have been reduced to rubble.  The unique monuments are a result of the layered cake geology; the Shinarump conglomerate is a difficult rock to erode, and for millions of years protected the “softer” rocks below.  However, joints and zones of weakness in the Shinarump eventually yielded to the relentless rains, frost, wind and gravity, and began to erode forming small washes exposing the DeChelly sandstone below.  The DeChelly is relatively easily eroded, but forms steep cliff faces, making for spectacular canyons.  Eventually these canyons cut down to the soft Organ Rock shale which is rapidly washed away.  The canyons then begin to undercut the DeChelly, and the stout sandstone collapsed in rock falls and avalanches. What is left are isolated buttes, mesas, and rock towers. When you run through Monument Valley your view is one of the distant past.  The vertical cliffs demand your attention; they tell a story of time when huge sand dunes moved slowly across the edge of a continent.  There not many fossilized bones in the DeChelly, but there are numerous fossilized track ways of Permain Age creatures (both vertebrate and invertebrate).  The ultra runner today may find the course difficult, but the arthropod racers of 260 million years ago had it much worse.

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Sunrise over the Mittens, moments before the start of the race. The runners started the run with a traditional Navajo prayer, facing east to the rising sun and the start of a new day.

Race Day The Monument Valley Ultras — 100 miles, 50 miles and 55 km — all start near the Monument Valley visitor center that sits on the lip of a small cliff overlooking the iconic Mittens.  The runners gathered at 6:45 am for a traditional Navajo prayer welcoming the new day. The prayer, the approaching sun rise, a perfect temperature of 39 degrees, and the energy of the runners creates an emotional aura.  Two weeks before the race, Monument Valley received a record snow fall during a late season storm.  There was some question as to whether the race would follow the traditional course as flooding from the melting storm closed much of the Valley.  However, everything reopened days before the race;  the 55 km course followed a quick descent along a sweet single track that looped around the West Mitten before joining the main Monument Valley tour road.  For the first couple of miles I run a pace of about 9;45 minutes per mile – a little faster than I want given the long day ahead, but there never is any way to calm the emotion! One of the biggest surprises to to me in the first couple of miles is seeing the Mittens from all angles.  Although they look like large buttes, they are actually very thin monuments.  Viewed from the start of the race the West Mitten is a couple of hundred meters across, but  when I pass the western extreme I see that the West Mitten is only a few 10s of meters wide. Although the race started in the glow of pre-sunrise, soon the sun is lighting up the cliffs of DeChelly sandstone.  The reds and browns glow – the promise for a great run.

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The rising sun lights up Mitchell Mesa – the runners will have to climb that Mesa later in the day. Picture is from the main Monument Valley tour road, about 3.5 miles into the run.

There are a few tour vans on the Valley road, and tourists are busy taking pictures in the early morning light.  I roll into the main aid station, called Hogan, at 58 minutes.  The total distance covered is 5.75 miles, so I am feeling pretty good.  The 55 km course is shaped like a 4-leafed clover with the Hogan aid station at the center – I will pass through it four times today.  I am trying to run the course today with minimal aid station support – I only want to refill my water bottles, and I carry all the food I will need.  Turns out this is not a great idea – the food looks pretty good at Hogan!

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Running into the Hogan aid station — the hub of the 55 km course. I end up visiting this aid station four times during the run.

After a quick fill of my water bottles (and longing gazes at the food – I decide to stick to my plan, and eat a lemon wafer I am carrying), I start the second clover leaf, a relatively short 5 mile loop, almost all on a wonderful single track.  I roll back into the Hogan aid station at 2 hours (10.5 miles), and began a much longer loop towards Hunt’s Mesa.  The first couple of miles are along the Valley road, and pretty easy.  However, the course then begins to follow a very sandy trail/road route.  I had hoped that the recent snowfall would have made the sand semi-compact and easier to run.  Wrong.  The fine grained sand does not hold moisture, and it is a leg burner!  The course passes a series of slender monuments – the tallest of which is called the Totem.

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Standing in front of the Totem – a slender monument, about 14 miles into the run.

I ponder the fate of the Totem; it is an inverted pendulum, and will eventually fall.  It is clear that there has not been any significant earthquake activity for a couple of thousand years near Monument Valley, or the precarious nature of Totem would most certainly have caused it to tumbled.  I guess it will stand for a few thousand more years.  Assuming there are ultra runners in a few more millennia, they will not experience the Totem. Miles 14-18 are sandy.  The cliffs of the DeChelly sandstone are rounded by the abrasion from the winds.  Today is a rare and fortunate day – little wind.  The wind of Monument Valley picks up the fine gains of sand and silt that had eroded from the Permian sediments and slams them into the cliff faces.  This constant assault eventually carves the rocks into bridges and arches.

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Wind is a very powerful erosion agent, and its effects are well represented in Monument Valley along the race course. I first was introduced to modeling saltation (the lifting of particles by bouncing along a surface) 35 years ago in graduate school.

The route takes us to an amphitheater-arch call the “Big Hogan”.  It is a wonderful example of the power of saltation.  The wind has carved an amphitheater, and at the top has cut an arch – like the smoke hole in a hogan, hence the name.

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Approaching the Big Hogan – an amphitheater that has a small arch in its ceiling. Sandy running, but the scenery is great!

The route eventually loops back to the Hogan aid station.  The mileage for the third visit is almost exactly 20 miles.  My time is 4 hrs and 6 minutes.  A little slower than I planned, but considering the sand and all the time I took out to take pictures, I am pretty much on schedule.  Once again, I look at the great selection of food laid out at the aid station and regret my stubborn dedication to minimal support.  Out of the Hogan aid station the last loop is an out and back to the top of Mitchell Mesa — before me is the most difficult climb in the run. The trail leads west along a road cut to support a uranium mine on the the top of Mitchell Mesa back in the 1960s.

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The location of Mitchell Mine, a uranium mine that operated between 1962 and 1965. The last push of the Monument Valley utra is a climb up to the top of Mitchell Mesa on the road built to service the mine.

During the uranium frenzy of the 1950s, amateur and professional prospectors fanned out across the Colorado Plateau in search of the metal that fueled the nuclear age.  There are numerous small uranium deposits located in old river channels within the Shinarump formation.  These old channels captured carbon debris – trees, branches, decomposing leaves, etc. – which in turn served to precipitate uranium out of circulating ground waters.  One of these ancient river channels cuts across Mitchell Mesa, and was mined briefly in the period 1962-1965.  The mine’s operation came to an abrupt end when the operator, Robert Shiver, accidentally backed the ore hauler he was driving over a cliff, and tumbled more than 450 feet into the valley.  The same cliff that took Shiver’s life is the one that we have to climb to get to the top of Mitchell Mesa!

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A sample of the uranium-vanadium mineral tyuyamunite from the Monument #2 mine – located across the valley from the Mitchell Mesa mine, and located in the same ancient river red. The tyuyamunite is replacing a log that had become stranded in the river channel.

The ore from the mine on Mitchell Mesa was primarily Tyuyamunite – a rare uranium-vanadium oxide (chemical formula: Ca(UO2)2V2O8·(5-8)H2O).  Like many uranium minerals it is colored canary yellow.  The picture above is a sample of Tyuyamunite that was found across the valley on Hunt’s Mesa.  I don’t see any sign of mineralization as I grind my way up the mesa…. The climb really begins at mile 23; there is a rocky and relentless pitch that ascends 1200 feet in only a mile.  I had visions that I would bound up the winding trail – wrong.  It takes me 30 minutes to get to the top, and my quads are burning.

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Top of the climb up Mitchell Mesa, looking back at the narrow canyon that the trail runs up. You can see the faint track of the trail along the Organ Rock Shale in the center of the photo. It is hard to do the difficulty of the climb justice with a photo.

The run to the northern end of Mitchell Mesa is physically easy – but the views into the valley are breath taking, and I find myself drifting into tourist mode.  Mitchell Mesa and Merrick Butte are named after a pair of prospectors that were murdered in the Valley in December, 1879.  Charles Merrick had supposedly found three crude smelters built by Ute Indians to recover silver.  Merrick recruited Henry Mitchell to help him find the source of the silver; legend has it that they indeed did find a rich deposit, and the prospectors were heading home with ore samples when they met their untimely demise.  For years treasure hunters have searched for the lost Merrick-Mitchell mine, but it remains lost.

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West Mitten and Merrick Butte from the top of Mitchell Mesa. The views from the mesa are spectacular.

The run along the top of the mesa is only about a mile long, but it is difficult after the long climb.  There are patches of snow in the shade of trees, and I stop twice and fill my hat with a couple of handfuls of snow.  It is now about 64 degrees (at least according to my weather app), and I am really overheated.  The melting snow cools my hot head, and steels me for the last 9 miles of the run.

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The end of Mitchell Mesa and the turn around point, mile 25. The view looks down to the starting and ending point of the race – only about a mile away, and 1000 feet below. Unfortunately, I have to turn around, run a little under 9 more miles to get to the finish.

The turn around point is the end of the Mesa.  There is a hole punch that you apply to your bib, and turn around and retrace your steps back to the Hogan aid station.  The view from the turn-around point is down to the finish line — so close, yet so far.  I am pretty tired at this point, and my pace is slow.  I pass lots of runners still making their way to the turn-around point, and I realize that although I have been pretty much running alone for hours, there are people that are going to finish several hours after I do.  The descent off Mitchell Mesa is much more difficult than I expect – no springy legs hoping from rock to rock for me!  I get to the Hogan aid station for the final time about 7 hours and 14 minutes.  There is still a little less than four miles to go – argh. The last part of the run is completely along the Valley tour road.  Unlike earlier in the morning, the road is now heavy with traffic.  The speed limit is 15 miles per hour, and many of the cars and tour vans honor the limit, which minimizes the dust.  However, every fourth or fifth car comes zooming by, and stirs up a chocking cloud of red dust.  I really hate this part of the run, and curse at drivers that are obvious to the runner’s fate.  The last two miles of the run are a steep climb back up to the lip of the cliff where the race started at dawn.  I finish at 8 hours and 10 minutes by my watch – 40 minutes slower than I planned, but I am just happy to done!  My watch says 33.5 miles, so it is just short of 55 km. Within a few minutes of rest I begin to think about how great the run was, and even the dust of the tail end begins to seem not so bad.  A wonderful place to have a trail run.

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Homage to Gump: Standing near the point north of Monument Valley where Forrest Gump decided he had run enough.

My Forrest Gump Moment I discovered trail running late in life.  Not mountains, geology, the solitude of towering peaks and deep canyons – those have been with me since my earliest memories.  But trail running is a too recent passion, but has allowed me to experience calm even as my muscles ache and I experience true exhaustion.  I am not a competitive runner – oh sure, I wish I was fast, but my age and athletic ability preclude even the allusion of “competitive”. So, why run as hard as you can during an ultra run if you have no chance of being competitive?  Because it is a grand challenge – ultra train races are hard, and pushing your limits are rewarded with the knowledge that you accomplished something difficult.  That sounds a bit trite, but doing difficult things, accomplishing goals, are a reality check on realizing one’s potential.  Like most everyone, I have much grander goals in life than just running long distances on dusty trails;  I want to make a difference in the world, I want to discover, I want to make right.  Those goals are pretty hard to evaluate except post-mortem, and once I am dead I don’t much care.  But doing difficult things allows me to center; accomplishments are mileage posts along the way.

This past January I had my annual physical (I will soon be 59).  Once you pass the half century mark the ritual of the annual physical is aways approached with trepidation.  Most American medial studies define “old age” as an onset of a plethora of symptoms, usually beginning sometime between 60 and 70 years.  The most frightening of these symptoms is the decline of cognitive abilities – slowing down of the brain and gradual memory lose, for example.  Everyone is different, and the decline is certainly a broad spectrum, but just as erosion will eventually wear down Mt. Everest to a nub, brains do wear out.  So, at each annual check up I listen attentively to my doctor hoping to hear that I am amazingly young for “my age”.  My check up in January started more or less as always – I have great heart function, good cholesterol, I seem to have good hearing except when my wife asks me to do something, still have most of my hair, etc.  However, when the final part of my blood test was discussed my doctor said that my thyroid was pretty much kaput.  I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism – an under active thyroid – a little over a decade ago.  I have been taking levothroxin everyday for that decade.  This is a synthetic hormone replacement;  over the years my dose of levothroxin has been increased, so it was clear my thyroid was declining.  I did not receive the news of “kaput” well – I was assured that this is okay, but I needed increase my medication, and monitor it closely.  Hypothyroidism is not particularly rare – a few percent of Americans experience it, and both my parents had it.  But it does have consequences – the thyroid helps regulate many functions in the body (including hair loss, which I appear to be immune to), but to athletes it is the key to fatigue, and to recovery from endurance events.  In fact, there is a mini-scandal in world of endurance racers with the suggestion that some elite runners are using levothroxin to enhance performance.  That has never been my case! But now I began to question if I would be able to truly run, bike or swim anymore.  Was this the onset of old age for me?

The Monument Valley ultra was my first race since my new medicine regime. As I lined up on the start line I could not help but wonder if I could actually do the race.  However, I ran it just fine (well, my legs are not so sure it was just fine).  Unlike Forrest Gump, I am not ready to stop running.

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The Goose Necks – meanders on the San Juan River about 20 miles north of Monument Valley

El Tour de Tucson: Riding bikes with 8,400 friends

A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles – Edward Abbey, in Desert Solitaire 

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Looking north across the Tucson Basin in southern Arizona. The El Tour de Tucson is one of the largest biking events in the country – nearly 10,000 riders circle around the “Old Pueblo”.

I moved to Tucson  late in the summer of 1983 to become an Assistant Professor of Geosciences at the University of Arizona.  I spent 20 years in the “Old Pueblo” and lived the academic life, became curator of an outstanding mineral museum, worked on the greatest mineral show in the world (the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show), met my future wife, raised my family and saw my son become a third generation Eagle Scout.  The Sonora Desert is like a cactus in bloom – beautiful but also deadly.  I hated the summers that seemed to stretch from May 1st to the end of October, but the months of November and February are so extraordinary that heaven is the only description that is sufficient.

A few years after I arrived in Tucson I began to ride a bike to recover from knee surgery, and discovered that long rides in the Sonoran Desert were therapeutic both for the body and soul. In the 1990s Tucson was a very bike friendly community, and you could choose rides of any flavor; climb 6500 feet up Mt Lemmon along the Catalina Highway, ride the frontage road near I-10 to the north and easily average 22-25 miles an hour, group rides, and daily commutes.  My first “serious” bike was an aluminum framed Cannondale, and in 1990 I purchased a sweet steel lugged Serotta Colorado.  I entered a number of the centuries, and in 1991 I signed up for one of the premier long rides, the El Tour de Tucson.

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The official poster for the 1991 El Tour de Tucson. The route was 109 miles and traversed the perimeter of the Tucson Valley.

The El Tour de Tucson, which had its inaugural event in 1983, is one of the nation’s largest single day cycling events. The father of the Tour, Richard DeBernardis, wanted an epic event that captured the challenge of “riding the perimeter” of a landmark, and circling the Tucson Basin fit the bill perfectly.  In 1991 the event attracted around 3000 cyclists – which seemed immense to me when I pushed my bike to the start line at the Sheraton El Conquistador on the north side of Tucson.  It was  a cool Saturday morning just before Thanksgiving, and riders were segregated in “corrals” based on ability – I was in the massive public corral.  It took me a little less than 5 hours and 20 minutes to ride the 109 mile course that included some iconic peculiarities of the El Tour (there were two “water” crossing that require the cyclists to dismount and carry or push their bikes – mostly the crossings are about getting off the bike, but sometimes they are wet!).  Cyclists that finished the course in times between 5 and 6 hours received a “gold medal”, and I only regretted that I totally bonked the last hour and imagined I barely missed out on a “platinum” medal (it is really unlikely I could have made up the 20 minutes, but that is the power of positive thinking!).  I rode the El Tour again in 1994 when the temperatures at the starting time were much less than 40 degrees and froze, but still did the ride in less than 5 1/2 hours.

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Rainfall totals around Tucson for 8 hrs beginning at the start of the El Tour de Tucson on November 23, 2013 (figure made at Rainlog.org click on the image for a full size image to see the rainfall totals). The three day storm dumped nearly 3 inches on the Old Pueblo.

When I left Tucson in 2003 I always thought I would return to ride the El Tour often — I did not find the time until 10 years later when a couple of friends from Los Alamos and I entered the 31st version of the El Tour.  We headed out from New Mexico on Friday, November 22, and by the time we got to Tucson it was raining.  It is not unusual to get some precipitation in Tucson in November, but the storm forecast called for a significant chance of rain during the race.

It rained overnight before the race, and was lightly sprinkling at the start of the race.  Cold and wet, I waited at the start line with high expectations — how bad could it be?  Well, it rained nearly continuously for 4 hours.  The map above shows the rainfall totals at stations across the Tucson Basin during the race – many recorded more than 1.5″ during the race.  I never had a more miserable ride – between the rain fall, the spray from other riders, and road grim that comes with big storms, the ride was a major challenge! I did the first 75 miles on pace for a 5:50 finish, but cramped up and limped home in a time of 6 hr 21 minutes, and placed 521 out of 1626 riders (the race officials pulled a large number of riders off the course because the Sabino Creek crossing became too dangerous – and thus there was a much smaller finishing cadre than usual).  After a few hours of recovery, my friends and I vowed to return and conquer the El Tour in 2014 and simply celebrate the most ridiculous and wet ride we just experienced.

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Crossing Sabino Creek in the rain in 2013. The organizers closed this crossing about 40 minutes after I crossed over.

The 2014 El Tour de Tucson

The line up for the El Tour begins before sunrise and the sky has a faint red glow associated with the sunlight diffracting from beyond the horizon. 3200 cyclist mill around the starting line in Armory Park near the center of old Tucson just before 7 am start time for the 104 mile race/ride (the distance of the course changes from year to year depending on road construction).  It is always clear that the cyclist come in all varieties — there are expensive bikes, mountain bikes, tiny people, large bodies, and some just strange sights like the fellow in a hot pink body suit.  The Armory Park area dates from the the civil war when Union troops from California established a military camp here, and today it is the heart of one of the oldest Tucson neighborhoods.  It is cool — 38 degrees — as the starting count down begins.  I know I am pretty far back in the corral, right behind a group of riders that are wearing jerseys advertising bicycle accident lawyers (Hurt in a Biking Accident? Call xxxx).  I am not sure if this is some sort of message from father fate, but I am reminded that I really have to be careful over the next 30 minutes.  The countdown from 10 signals the start — and I don’t move for 3 minutes as the mass of cyclist in front of me slowly start up;  it takes another 1 1/2 minutes until I pass the official start line.   The mass of cyclists is amazing.  Finally, I am rolling along and hugging the far left side trying to pass as many of the cyclist as possible within the first 5 minutes.

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Starting line corral at 6:45 am. The official starting line is on the horizon of the photograph, and I am in a sea of some 3500 riders get ready for the 104 mile event. A total of about 8400 riders competed in an El Tour Event and 5122 crossed the finish line at Armory Park.

Tucson sits in a broad valley (with an average elevation of about 2600 ft above sea level) surrounded by tall mountains in all directions.  To the east and north are the Rincon and Santa Catalina Mountains, to the west are the Tucson Mountains, and to the South are the Santa Rita Mountains.  Despite the high mountains, the El Tour de Tucson is a relatively flat course – rolling hills, but less than 3000 feet elevation gain/loss for 104 miles.  Of course, this is because of geology!  It is a little hard to examine geology from a bike, especially during a fast moving century, but I have the advantage of knowing about the geology and that makes the ride much more interesting.

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Simplified geology map of the area surrounding Tucson (from the Arizona Geological Survey). The red colors are granitic batholith rocks (although sheared). The Tucson Mountains, on the west side of the basin, were once located some 30 km to the east above the batholitic rocks. The Tucson Basin is an alluvial filled down-drop basin and range graben.

The Tucson Basin separates the crystalline cored mountains in the east (the Rincon and Santa Catalina mountains) from the mostly andesitic volcanics in the Tucson Mountains.  Before about 1975 it was assumed that the Catalina-Rincon mountains were simply an uplifted batholith (granitic roots that represented large, mid-crustal depth magma chambers), but there was a perplexing rock fabric that was exposed with the granite that hinted at much more complex geologic pedigree.  Around 1980, Peter Coney (an extraordinary geologist from the University of Arizona) proposed that this fabric was the result of extensive “stretching” of the crust and denuding of the deep seated rocks along low angle detachment faults.  The fabric in the rock is a metamorphic (recrystallization due to extreme stains due to the crustal extension) overprint on the granites.  The Catalina-Rincon mountains became the “type” locality of what geologist coined as metamorphic core complexes (MCC).  When I was a young faculty member at the University of Arizona there was an intense debate on how low-angle detachment faults could form – in fact, to this day, their origin is hotly – and emotionally – contested.  What makes the MMC model so significant for the Tucson Basin is that it provides an mechanism to connect the Tucson Mountains to the Catalina-Rincons;  the Tucson Mountains once set on top of the Catalina Mountain rocks!

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A model for the MMC based on the Catalina-Rincon Mountains (from a paper by Spencer and Reynolds, 1996). Around 30 million years ago the crust began an episode of extraordinary extension and the upper crust was transported to the west along a detachment fault. As this detachment fault “uncovered” deep seated rocks, these rocks uplifted creating a large domal structure, which is defined by the crest of the Catalina and Rincon mountains today. The rocks that were “pulled” to the west eventually traveled some 30-50 km.

The start of the El Tour sends the riders for a short jaunt to the south before ending east and crossing the Santa Cruz River.  The Santa Cruz River is a misnomer today – it is a dry ribbon of sand that only comes alive when there a large rainstorms that run off the parched desert landscape.  The Santa Cruz River drainage basin covers a large area in southern Arizona, and eventually empties into the Gila River just south of Phoenix.  Two major tributaries of the Santa Cruz — again, dry sandy washes most of the time – are also crossed by the El Tour.  These are the Rillito River which drains the southern Catalina Mountains, and the Canada Del Oro which drains the northern Catalina Mountains.  Last year all three washes were flowing with brown, churning water; this year they are sandy hiways.

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Official map for the 104 mile El Tour de Tucson. In red are a couple of landmarks in the text.

The first 5 miles of the El Tour is all about survival – avoiding accidents and falling water bottles, getting ahead of wandering cyclists, and making a couple of sharp turns with cyclists of mixed experience. There is lots of shouts of “hold your line” – mostly in vain, but survive I did!  After about 15 minutes the rider field is beginning to spread out, and the course turns back east; almost immediately we have our first “river crossing” — a run through the sandy Santa Cruz channel.  The riders have to dismount and wade/walk/trot about 150 yards.  This crossing seems crazy, but it actually spreads out the rider field.

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Riders crossing the Santa Cruz — I am in there somewhere. Once you come up the east bank the riders are pretty spread out, and the real cycling begins. Photo from the Arizona Daily Star.

Once I climb out of the wash I quickly get back on my back on my bike knowing that the real ride begins now.  The vistas to the east are spectacular (although, in truth, my glances towards the Rincons are very brief as I mostly worry about other cyclist’s wheels).  The detachment faulting that beheaded the Catalina-Rincons occurred between 30 and 20 million years before the present.  Around 10 million years ago Southern Arizona was subjected to another episode of crustal extension, characterized by fairly steeply dipping faults (in opposed to the shallow dipping detachment faults) and a whole series of down dropped grabens were developed to accommodate the extension.  In the Tucson area a series of high angle faults down dropped the area west of the Catalina-Rincons producing a deep basin.  Subsequent erosion of the mountains has filled the basin with sediment, and the relatively flat topography of the developed area of Tucson belies the 1000s of feet of sediments filling the basin. The fast flat track of the El Tour more or less follows a contour line circling the basin.

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A notional model for the formation of the Tucson Basin and surrounding areas (from the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum). Looking from the north to the the south, the sequence begins 30 million years before the present with the eruption of a large andesitic volcano.

The first hour of the bike ride is mostly uneventful; I averaged 21 miles per hour and pass at least a 1000 riders. The course loops around Tucson International Airport, and eventually turns along the frontage road of I-10. Finally, we turn north off the  I-10 frontage road on to Kolb Road and cross over the massive freeway.  A few minutes after the peddling along Kolb the riders pass through a unique Tucson landmark — the Bone Yard.  Kolb road slices across property associated with Davis-Monthan Air Force Base that is home to the Air Force Materiel Command’s 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) – an organization charged with “dealing” with excess military and government aircraft. In reality, “dealing” with excess aircraft means miles and miles of out of service planes parked in the dry Tucson desert. As I cycled along Kolb I can see planes to the left of, planes to the right (and I am stuck in the middle with a bunch of jokers on bikes). One of my favorite planes in the line up are a few hundred B-52s that have their wings chopped off – all in the name of the START I treaty that required the US and Russians to remove a large number of delivery systems for nuclear weapons.

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A 2014 google image of the Bone Yard. The vertical stripe is Kolb Road, the route of the EL Tour, and the line up of decommissioned aircraft stretches for miles.

At about mile 29 the already huge mass of riders merges with the riders that have chosen to ride the 75 mile tour.  The merger is more than vaguely related to a stream being captured by a river; the 1200+ riders that are starting the 75 mile course flow in from the left, but are slower than the passing mass of the 104 mile cyclists, so they tend to form a strip of cyclists that keeps its “identity” for at least a half a mile.  The organizers plan the start times of the shorter routes such that all but the elite riders can arrive at the finish line within about a 2 hour window.  This means that although the long stream of riders gets thinned out by cycling ability and speed it gets repopulated 3 times (for the 75, 55 and 40 route starts) and you never are cycling alone – you get 8400 friends joining you!

A few miles after the merge of the 75 milers the course turns north on to Freeman Road, and begins a 3 mile climb up Freeman Hill, the high point along the El Tour.  The climb is only a few hundred feet, but it serves to break up the pack into much smaller groups.  Freeman Road is the western boundary of Saguaro National Park East, and home to one of the largest saguaro cactus forests.  Saguaro are only native to Arizona and a very small region of California in the US (despite showing up in advertisements for salsa from Texas, Oklahoma, and even New Mexico — sigh), and are a remarkable sight.  The cactus can grow to 70 feet in height, and typically live for more than 200 years.  For the first 70 years or so of life, a saguaro is a solitary green thumb; after 70 years the cactus might grow arms, giving the saguaro an anthropomorphic silhouette.  Riding along Freeman road my state of exhaustion causes me to image the saguaro are a marching army of green aliens.

Saguaro National Park East, ca. 1935. NPS 3423

Image circa 1935 of what will become Saguaro National Park East, right along the El Tour course. The cactus in the foreground about about 55 feet tall.

At mile 47 (and 2hr 21 minutes into the race for me) the El Tour arrives at the Sabino Creek crossing – an event in its self.  Sabino Creek travels through Sabino Canyon which is a deep incision into the southern flank of the Catalina Mountains, and has its headwaters just below Mt. Lemmon, the high point in the mountain range. Sabino Creek is an ephemeral stream, but is usually flowing in the winter months due to the high mountain precipitation.  The average stream flow at the Creek during the tour is usually on the order 10-50 cubic feet per second (a fire hose is about 1-2 cfs).  During last years El Tour the flow reached a few thousand cfs, which meant that the water was calf deep when I waded through – this year the stream flow is more like a garden hose, channel through a culvert. I dismount to run along the dirt crossing and use the porta potty.  There is a Mariachi  Band playing, and scores of volunteers cheering the riders on and refilling rider’s water bottles.  I pause and listen to the music and look at the dry stream boulders at the crossing – and they are fantastic.  You can see large blocks of light colored granite as well as boulders of dark banded gneiss.  The gneiss was created by the strains associated with the detachment faulting 30-20 million years ago; because I am dismounted from my bike I can actually see the geology!

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Sabino Creek Crossing – dry in 2014, but still have to dismount. The Mariachi Band was great, and the volunteers here are fabulous.

Once we pass through the Sabino Creek aid station there is about 57 miles to go.  The first stretch of the remaining route is through the Tucson Foothills – a mostly swank and newer group of neighborhoods and resorts located on the Santa Catalina Mountain alluvial fan. After about 60 miles the El Tour turns north on Oracle Road; this is where the change in Tucson since my arrival in 1983 becomes overwhelmingly apparent.  In 1983 there were about 550,000 people in Pima County, mostly residing in the area around Tucson proper.  There were essentially no homes along Oracle Road – even when I rode my first El Tour in 1991 this section of the course was largely rural mesquite chaparral.  Today it is developed and most of this section of the course is through neighborhoods.  By the time I left Tucson in 2003 the population of greater Tucson had grown to about 900,000 and today it is nudging 1.2 million.  As typical of southwestern cities and communities this population growth translates to suburban sprawl; the population of Tucson proper has not grown much, but all the open desert around the Old Pueblo is vanishing.  Given the scarcity of water this population push is unsustainable, but likely to continue.  I suspect that when I return to ride the El Tour in 2026 – I will be 70 year old – the entire ride will be urban/suburban.

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When I arrived in Tucson in 1983 the population of the greater Tucson area was a bit more than 550,000. By the time I left it was 880,000 and today it is just a little less than 1.2 million. Most of this population has settle on the fringes of Tucson in places like Oro Valley and Marana — when I rode the tour in 1991 there were no houses along the northern part of the route. Today it is becoming crowded.

Cycling along through the foothills and on to Oro Valley I am now in a group that will be with me until the finish.  We work together — although we are rank amateurs everyone takes a pull, and we maintain a nice pace. I am pretty sure by mile 65 that I am going to easily finish under 6 hours.  I feel very strong, and have been sticking to my fueling and drinking plan. What a difference a year makes!  Last year in the rain this part of the course was littered with riders shivering with hypothermia at the aid stations, but today everyone seems like they are part of a schooled peloton.

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The pace line coming down Tangerine Road. I found a group of about 7 that worked together for 20 miles,

After the quick descent from the Tortollita alluvial fan the El Tour course passes under I-10 and does a hard left on to the frontage road along the bank of the Santa Cruz River.  The course is a relatively straight 22 mile shot back to down town Tucson, and a steady, gentle climb.  However, I am tired, and know that this is slog time. It should take me about 1hr and 15 minutes. The real reason it is a slog is is not the gentle uphill but that there is a pretty strong head wind.  However, I am with the same group of riders, and we continue to work together (although slower, as our average pace is more like 17 miles per hour compared to 20 miles per hour earlier in the race).

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Vanadinite from the Old Yuma Mine, in the collection of colleague Tony Potucek.

10 miles into the homeward stretch the El tour crosses over a road named El Camino Del Cerro.  If I turned right here I would reach the home I built in the Tucson Mountains.  I was single during the construction and lived in basic camping conditions for the year 1986.  The house was definitely on the outskirts of Tucson at the time (not so much today!), and was located only a short mile from one of the most famous Arizona mineral localities, the Old Yuma Mine. As I noted earlier, the Tucson Mountains are a volcanic complex that once was located above the Santa Catalina Mountains.  That old volcanic complex was moderately mineralized, and the transport along the detachment fault left the mineral riches intact. There are four mines of significance in the Tucson Mountains, and the Old Yuma was the largest and most successful. The Old Yuma was mined for gold, but it also was rich in colorful secondary lead minerals.  It was a favorite locality for collectors that occasionally found seams covered with deep read vanadinite or yellow wulfenite; these specimens now grace mineral collections world wide.  I visited the Old Yuma many times, but never found anything of note.  After I left Tucson the Federal government purchased the mine from my friend Richard Bideaux and cemented the shafts and removed all the mine dumps — it is a locality no more.

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The 2014 El Tour de Tucson is in the books.

Finishing the 32nd El Tour de Tucson

5 miles from the finish any pretense of working together with my group falls apart.  Everyone can taste the finish line, and we are at a time of just under 5 hours.  I am peddling comfortably, trying to save a little reservoir for the last mile which can be a sprint.  I round the corner to the last mile before the finish line, and stand to sprint.  However, I seem to have encountered some sort of gravitational well and my bike simply stands still!  I beg my wheels to turn faster, but they don’t.  I cross the line at a clock time of 5 hrs 24 minutes and 20 seconds; the chip time, which takes in account that I did not even reach the start time for over 4 minutes, is 5 hrs, 18 minutes, 56 seconds (this is my garmin time!).  I average 19.5 miles per hour, and am pretty happy for an old guy. The deluge of 2013 suddenly becomes a fond memory!  Michelle, my wife, entered her very first cycling race in this El Tour, riding the 55 mile version of the course.  She finishes in under 3 hrs, and looks fresh like she could have done the 104 miles event.  The furthest that she ever has cycled before the El Tour was 42 miles, so her’s was a fantastic ride.  All told, about 8400 riders participated in El Tour de Tucson — covering difference distances, but all ending together at Armory Park.  The finish line park is a festival, and unlike the finish line of an ultra run, every body type in the human race is represented — and everyone is smiling.

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Michelle Hall and Terry Wallace at the finish line with our gold medals!

The 2014 El Tour did not turn out as well for some of my other Los Alamos companions because of tire troubles, but over all, we all feel the disappointment of 2013 vanquished.  I don’t know for sure when I will be back, but the event is one of those “great challenges” that one just needs to experience.  Besides, expending 5500 calories in a race means you are free to indulge in one of Tucson’s iconic restaurants, El Charro and feast on the world’s best carne seca.  Who says bikes, geology and chile don’t mix?

Tsoodzil: An ultra run on turquoise mountain

How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains! John Muir, the great Scottish-American naturalist.

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The Summit of Mt Taylor on race day. The view is to the east down the amphitheater.

80 miles west of Albuquerque a lone mountain peak rises above the horizon; it seems distant but significant, an alpine oasis in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. The peak is Mt. Taylor, an extinct stratavolcano that towers some 5000 feet above the uranium mining boom town of Grants.  The high point of Mt. Taylor is 11,305′, located along the lip of an eroded caldera, and offers unobstructed views for at least 90 miles in all directions of the compass.  The mountain is one of four sacred peaks that surround the Dinetah, the traditional homeland of the Navajo.  The name Mt. Taylor was assigned in 1849 to honor President Zachary Taylor, but the Navajo call the mountain Tsoodzil, and more informally, the turquoise mountain – a name that it deserves as it appears to be a deep blue  gem on the horizon.

Mt Taylor is home to one of the three crown jewels of northern New Mexico trail running (the others being the Jemez Mountain Trail Runs and the La Luz Trail Run).  It is a relatively new event (the inaugural race was in 2012, although early versions of the run existed), but its fame, or at least admiration, has grown rapidly. The start and finish of the Mt Taylor 50k is a couple of miles west of the caldera rim and is at 9400′ elevation.  The course has some steep climbs (and equally steep descents) – about 7000′ elevation gain – much on single track, and through unspoiled mountain top wilderness.  I have wanted to do this race for some time, and signed up for the run within minutes of when the registration was opened in early February of 2014.  The run is limited to 175 people, and indeed, the roster fills early creating a waiting list.

Although I grew up about 100 miles north of Mt. Taylor, I had only visited the peak once; that was back in the summer of 1975 when I was an undergraduate student working summers at Los Alamos National Lab.  We installed a temporary seismic station near La Mosca lookout – which is on the course of the 50k! – to record seismic waveforms from a number of underground nuclear tests conducted in Nevada.  The nuclear weapons tests were part of Project Anvil, a series of 21 tests.  In 1974 the US and Soviet Union agreed to the terms of a bilateral treaty that would limit the size of nuclear weapons tests to 150 kt or less;  this treaty is known as the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT).  Although the terms of the TTBT were negotiated in 1974, both nations wanted to conduct a series of tests before it would come into force — this resulted in a period of frenzied activity for nuclear testing.  The treaty was submitted to the US Senate (but not acted on) in July 1976, and 150 kt became the punch line in numerous conflicts with the Soviets in the subsequent 15 years.  Little did I know at the time, but the concept of monitoring nuclear tests, and more importantly, determining the nuclear yield from geophysical data would dominate my career.  However, the installation of the seismic station on Mt. Taylor nearly 40 years ago was mostly a just a chance to visit at really interesting mountain top. I was far more familiar with the flanks of the Mt. Taylor were my father and I had collected numerous radioactive mineral species in the early 1970s. The Mt. Taylor 50k provided a long overdue opportunity to visit a wonderful New Mexico mountain.

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From the north looking to Mt. Taylor on the horizon above Mesa Chivato, and a volcanic plug called Cabezon in the right center (the picture is high resolution, so click on it).  The picture was taken while touring the geology of the Naciemento Uplift along the western margin of the Jemez Mountains.

Mt Taylor – A beautiful stratavolcano and tombstone

Mt. Taylor is a magnificent landmark – it really is an isolated volcanic peak on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, a huge region (more than 130,000 square miles) of relatively flat mesas and valleys with an average elevation of about 7000′.  The Plateau is a geologic mystery; it represents a region of relative geologic stability that has existed for  nearly a half a billion years.  All around the plateau there are geologic provinces that suffered tremendous episodes of geologic deformation – the Rocky Mountains, the Basin and Range in Arizona and Nevada, and the Rio Grande rift in New Mexico.  Why did the Colorado Plateau escape these tectonic spasms?

backgroundmap

Location map from Kelley 2014; The Mt. Taylor volcanic field is part of a series of volcanic provinces that ring the southern half of the Colorado Plateau. Mt. Taylor sits atop Mesa Chivato, which is a group of basaltic volcanic vents that were most active as Mt. Taylor became extinct.

Mt. Taylor seems unique, but is actually part of a much larger geologic phenomena – a ring of volcanoes that surrounds the southern boundary of the Colorado Plateau.  The most famous of these mountains in this “ring of fire” is the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff. The Plateau is defined by a thick sequence of sedimentary rocks – some of these rocks were deposited in marine environments, others in wide river valley flood plains, and still others represent long periods of time when the surface was covered with wind blown dunes. Taken together, this block of real estate was near sea level for nearly an eighth of the entire age of the Earth. Around 25 million years ago the Plateau began to rise uniformly to its present elevation of 7000’ feet. The cause of this rise is a subject of much speculation and research, but most geoscientists accept that the uplift was due to a hot mantle. This idea holds the key to why the edge of the plateau has so much volcanism, similar to that that that produced Mt. Taylor. The juxtaposition of the thick, and obviously stable, lithosphere of the plateau and the much thinner lithosphere of the Basin and Range created what is know as Edge Driven Convection (EDC). This EDC brought hot mantle materials up toward the surface along the edges of the plateau and it melted rocks both in the upper mantle and lower crust which then erupted in a series of volcanoes.  The same reason Los Alamos has the marvelous Jemez Mountains is the reason Grants celebrates the glorious vista of Mt. Taylor.

crosssectionfromnorth

A notional cross-section through Mt. Taylor – the conical shape of the stratavolcano is a layered stack of andesites and ashes from eruptions. At some point Mt. Taylor probably reached 14 or 15,000 feet elevation; however, the volcano eventually blew its top and created the geomorphology that is seen today.

Mt Taylor first erupted about 3.5 million years ago, and was active for 2 million years.  The volcano had many eruptions that were mainly ash; these eruptions built an edifice that probably reached a maximum elevation of between 14 and 15,000 feet (which would have made the Mt. Taylor 50k much more difficult!).  Today there is a pronounced depression at the top — it is called the amphitheater — that is the eroded remains of a caldera.  The amphitheater is open towards the southeast and is drained by Water Canyon.  The shape of the amphitheater looks eerily like Mt. St. Helens 30 years after that volcano blew its top. As the volcanism of Mt. Taylor was winding down, a whole series of small vents developed to the northwest.  These vents extruded basalt rather than ash, and built a broad and flat table land known as Mesa Chivato.

mttaylor

Aerial view of Mt Taylor and Mesa Chivato. The high crest of Mt Taylor is visible in the new snowfall (the snow line is about 7000′ in this photo). The right of the crest is the amphitheater which drains to the southeast. The broad basaltic table land that is Mesa Chivato is to the upper right of Mt. Taylor (photo from Kirt Kempter) .

As spectacular as Mt. Taylor is, the rocks of the Colorado Plateau that sit beneath the volcano are more unique. There is a 2 km thick sequence of sedimentary rocks hidden below Mt. Taylor and Mesa Chivato, and these rocks contain one of the largest known reserves of uranium ore in the world. This uranium fueled the American nuclear power and nuclear weapons enterprises for half a century; it also brought tremendous devastation to the miners, in particular the Navajo miners, that extracted the ore from underground workings.

The long history of stability of the Colorado Plateau played an important role in making it a “trap” for uranium.  As great mountains of granite and ancient volcanoes rose and were eroded over the last half a billion years the rocks from these massifs were ground to cobbles and grains.  In turn, these grains slowly released their constitute minerals which reacted with the environment;  a tiny fraction of these minerals contained uranium, which was eventually mobilized by the ground waters and flowed through the rocks of the Plateau.  Occasionally these ground waters would encounter conditions that caused the uranium to precipitate out of solution and be deposited as new minerals.  When these conditions lasted millions of years the precipitates would become extensive enough to become uranium ore.  After WWII the US government started a prospecting frenzy for uranium, and the sediments of the Colorado Plateau became site of a new “gold rush”.

uraniummines

Location map for uranium mines that have produced ore to be milled. 98% of the ore came from mines in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah – all on the Colorado Plateau.

Uranium was first discovered in New Mexico part of the Colorado Plateau in 1950.  A Navajo shepherd, Paddy Martinez, had heard about the uranium rush, and seen some yellow colored ore.  Martinez recalled seeing rocks with similar yellows stains at Haystack Butte, just west of Grants (strictly speaking, Martinez “rediscovered” the uranium deposits that others had noted in passing in the early 1920s), and started a mad era of exploration and mine development in the Grants Mineral Belt, which encircles Mt. Taylor. Legend has it that Martinez brought several pieces of yellow ore to stake his claim, and that the yellow ore was carnotite. I personally doubt this is true because carnotite is extremely rare in the grants Mineral Belt (I have never seen a single specimen). Nevertheless, the population of Grants went from a few thousand to 45,000 in a decade.  Two major mines were developed; Ambrosia Lake, north and west of Grants (you can see the mine workings as you drive up to the start of the Mt Taylor 50k), and the Jackpile Mine, a few miles east of Grants.  The Jackpile mine was remarkable; it was discovered in 1951, and between 1956 and 1960 it was the largest producer of uranium in the world – during the same time it produced more uranium than all other mines in the US combined!

jackpilemine

Jackpile uranium mine in full production in the 1970s.  Mt Taylor is visible on the horizon of the picture.

The ore of the Jackpile mine is dispersed uranium — mostly in the form of the minerals uraninite (UO2) and coffinite (U(SiO4)1-x(OH)4x) — in a sandstone that was created by a systems of braided streams that flowed from somewhere west and south of present day Grants in Jurassic time (145 to 200 million years before the present).  The host sandstone at the Jackpile defines a sausage shaped body that is about 50 km long and 25 km wide, and the average grade of ore is less than one percent.  However, it is clear that one of the factors that contributed to the deposition of uranium out of the ground waters was the presence of carbonaceous materials — dead plants.  Throughout the Jackpile sandstone there are large petrified logs – trees that must have been swept away in floods and then stranded as log jams – and these petrified logs are where uranium concentrations can rise to 20 percent or more.  In 1972 my father got a call to visit the Jackpile because they had discovered a cluster of logs that appeared to be completely replaced by uraninite.  I accompanied my father, and we collected about 20 pieces of petrified wood.  From our geiger counters it was clear that the material was radioactively “hot”, but the uniform dark color made identifying the minerals by sight impossible.  One of these logs became the source materials for my education in power diffraction. Back in Los Alamos we prepared about 15 different powder samples and my father performed the x-ray diffraction at work; he then brought home the films and it was my job to identify the diffraction peaks.  The material ended up being almost all coffinite.  I have long since gotten rid of all the material (safely and securely), but I learned how to identify minerals with x-rays on uranium grunge….sort of poetic justice I suppose.

u238chain

The decay chain of uranium 238 to radon and progeny. Although U238 is barely radioactive, its daughter radon 222 and subsequent decay to polonium 210 are cause of many miner’s lung cancer.

The Jackpile mine was an open pit mine, but many of the other mines had underground tunnels.  In general, the ventilation in these underground facilities was poor, and the presence of the uranium means that there was radon, which is a radioactive decay product. U238 is marginally radioactive (it has a half life roughly equal to the age of the Earth!), but when it does decay it will eventually produce radon gas as a daughter.  This gas is quite radioactive and decays by emitting an alpha particle.  The progeny of radon, in particular polonium, also emits an alpha particle.  Inhalation of radon allows the alpha particle emissions to interact with the very sensitive tissues of the lungs;  this irritation of the lung tissue dramatically increases the chances of developing lung cancer.  The cancer rates among Navajo uranium miners is extraordinary, and a very sad legacy of the mad rush to find the heavy metal.  A mineralogical sidebar to this tale is that in the year 1530, Paracelsus described a wasting disease that afflicted miners in Joachimsthal which he called male metallorum – we now know that is lung cancer from the exposure to radon.

The Navajo also associate Mt. Taylor with the home of the chief of the monsters – and by monsters, the Navajo means those things that get in the way of a successful like.  The monster the Navajo deal with now is leetso, the yellow dirt.  It is strange to write about running an ultra race and spend so many words on things nuclear.  But to me, there is always a celebration of the place of the race, and for Mt. Taylor there is a fabric that is very much woven by things nuclear;  a high peak overlooking a legacy, a cenotaph.

startofrace

Start of the race at 6:30 am. Cool and dark.

The race

I signed up for the Mt. Taylor 50k in February, and had every intention that it would be the my crowning achievement for ultra runs this year.  However, my approach to the race was quixotic at best.  I have run 4 ultras, many shorter trail run races, climbed Rainier, and done several cycling events this year, and by the end of September, my dedication to training for a long tail run had wained.  As September 27 approached I oscillated between unrealistic optimism and trepidation.  My base fitness was good – I run 30 to 35 miles per week and cycle 60 to 65.  However, I had not put in the long miles on individual runs that I needed for a tough ultra.  Further, much of the summer I had chosen to train for climbing Rainier (carrying a back pack, hiking 14ers in Colorado). In fact, I was still experiencing the effects of Rainier — I still had some blisters on my feet, and I had only partially recovered from an infection I got from stabbing myself in the leg with a crampon.  Finally, I had been called unexpectedly to DC the week before the 50k run for a very tough set of meetings and only flew back to Albuquerque late in the afternoon before the race.  But, then again, what could go wrong in 50 kilometers?

coloroffall

The race ascends the ridge below MLookout as the sun is rising. The color of fall is glorious. View to the west.

The race starts at 6:30 am – in the dark at Rock Tank Shelter.  The runners head due east and climb about 1500′ over 3.5 miles to the ridge just below the Mosca Lookout.  The goal is to reach the ridge as the sun rises above the horizon and welcomes Mt. Taylor to a new day.  I am quite certain that many of the runners made the ridge as the sun rose — I settled for a little more leisurely ascent, but nevertheless basked in glow of autumn colors and fantastic views.

thecourse

My gps track through the Mt. Taylor 50k.

The course for the Mt. Taylor race has three major climbs;  the Mosca Lookout ridge, the top of Mt. Taylor, and then a tough final climb up out of Water Canyon in the Amphitheater. After the first big climb the trail is descends down a forest road to about mile 10.5  This descent is fast and should be pretty easy.  Lots of people pass me running fast.  However, I realize that something is amiss on the descent.  My toes are really hurting because of the blisters, and the downhill pounding irritates the wounds.  I am a little unsure if my feet will betray me, or this will pass like the many aches and pains that appear during a 50k race.  Around the 11 mile mark the course turns on to the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).  This trail is soft single track, and rolling through conifer forest.  It is just a pleasure to be running along the trail and thinking about the fact that you could actually follow this trail from Canada to Mexico, some 3100 miles , and straddle the drainage divide between the Pacific and Atlantic.  No one is passing me on this section of the trail, but it hindsight that is because there is no one behind me.

The CTD loops around to return to the Rock Tank Shelter at about mile 16.  My feet are really bothering me as I approach the aid station, and I seriously consider dropping out here.  However, the race organizers have hung a banner that basically paraphrases the famous Lance Armstrong quote: “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.”  What, seriously?  Like the Sword of Damocles, the quote on quitting hangs over me.  I stumble into the aid station, get my drop bag, take off my shoes, change the bandages, and continue the journey.

thelongclimb

The long trail up to the summit of Mt. Taylor

The run between Rock Shelter and Gooseberry aid station is pretty flat and easy.  I am slow, but I am also determined to finish now.  Of course, I am beginning to fret about actually making the cut off times at the various aid stations!  The Gooseberry aid station is at about mile 20, and the many volunteers admonish the runners to be prepared for the long climb to the top of Mt. Taylor.  Indeed the climb is unrelenting for 2000 feet over the next 3.25 miles.  I did not find the climb to be physically punishing, but it was a mental challenge.  After about 2 miles the trail emerges from tree cover and you can see the top of the mountain;  but as one gazes towards the goal you can see switch backs and tiny dots representing runners ahead of you that appear to be barely moving.

profile

The elevation profile — three climbs, but the climb from Gooseberry aid station to the top of Mt. Taylor is epic.

I actually began to pass people on the ascent to Mt. Taylor.  Most of the runners (I use the words “runner” here out of respect.  None of us are running up this climb) look pretty bad to me.  Sweating, cursing, and asking the rhetorical question of “are we there yet?”.  I suppose I looked the same, but in my mind I had to look better than that.  The geology of the whole run is pretty uniform.  The rocks are andesite – gray and sharp.  However, on the ascent you begin to get views into the amphitheater, and magnitude of the stratavolcano comes into focus.  On the far horizons you can see the pastels of the rocks of the Colorado Plateau, and even some of the volcanic plugs dotting Mesa Chivato.

andesiteridge

Andesite ridge in the amphitheater — monument to eruptions past.

The last few switchbacks brings you to the summit ridge.  I can see the Jemez Mountains to the north and my home.  I can see the Ladron Mountains to the south (just north of Socorro), and I can image that this very vista has invoked the same sense of wonder I have right now for 5 thousand years.  Many others have come here before me, and I hope my son and grand children will follow.

Mt Taylor 50k - September 27, 2014

Finally at the top – it is cloudy, and threatening rain. However, it just brings relief from a warm September sun.

At the summit I am surprised to see my wife Michelle who has been waiting patiently for me for 90 minutes.  She has hiked up to take pictures, and seeing her provided a jolt of energy I needed to finish the race. The official photographer is also at the summit, and he deflates me as fast as seeing Michelle lifted me — he asks “is there anyone behind you?”.  I want to say, “oh yeah, there are lots of slower people than me, and I will not experience the pain of quitting!”.  But alas, I mumble that there are several people yet to come.  From the summit there is a tricky descent into the aid station at mile 24.  At this aid station the diabolical streak of the race organizers surfaces.  The course descends nearly 1000 feet into the amphitheater over 2 miles only to reverse course, and climb back up those same contours fighting gravity for 1 1/2 miles back to the same aid station.

done

Running downhill towards the finish line.  Almost done!

I comtemplate the sadistic streak in the race organizers, but any homicidal thoughts are quickly tempered by the truly outstanding volunteers that work on the course.  They are among the best I have ever seen, and their kind words of encouragement and concern for the runners is amazing.  There are now only a few miles remaining, mostly down hill, to the course finish.  My feet feel pretty much like hamburger, but the end is in sight.  I begin the descent – but wait, all those people I passed coming up the big hill start to pass me!  They all say “great job” – I can’t believe I am actually being passed by those folks that looked terrible below the Mt. Taylor summit.  They don’t look terrible now.  I amble into the finish line a little dejected, but happy that I committed to doing the entire course.  I feel I have some unfinished business, and will have to return next year to run the race the “right way”.

feet

It is a pleasure to remove my shoes – my feet are not a pretty sight, but the Mt. Taylor medal is terrific.

The great volunteers at the finish line have food, and make you feel like you must be in first place.  That notion is quickly dispelled when you notice that your drop bag is quite lonely on the trap where there were 175 drop bags a few hours ago.  However, I am informed I won a door prize, and it is a Patagonia jacket!  I have never won any prize for running before, and even if the trophy is purely based on serendipity, I feel like a winner!  It took me 8 hrs and 50 minutes, by far my worst ultra.  But I am quite glad I did it.  When I take off my shoes a survey the damage, I decide that I will not be running for a couple of weeks.  I have to get these toes back into functional form.  Within a couple of hours of the race conclusion all the pain has faded, and only the joy of the journey lingers.  I loved the Mt. Taylor 50k.

Climbing the Great White Whale: Mt. Rainier and marveling plate tectonics

Each volcano is an independent machine—nay, each vent and monticule is for the time being engaged in its own peculiar business, cooking as it were its special dish, which in due time is to be separately served – Clarence Dutton, American Pioneering Geologist, 1880.

rainiersept9

Mt. Rainier, the great white mountain (for me, the great white whale!). This photo was taken on Sept. 9, as I flew into Seattle to begin my journey to the summit. The photo is from the east/north, and you can see the summit crater on the top left flank of the mountain. The clouds are at about 6500 feet elevation.

Mt. Rainier is the most iconic mountain in the contiguous United States. Its nearly perfect conic shape rising 14,410 feet above sea level, and located only 35 miles from Tacoma and Puget Sound make it the most prominent geologic structure in the country; the white cap of the summit plays a game of hide-and-seek with the major metropolitan sprawl of Seattle-Tacoma and when the clouds rise even the most jaded Emerald City resident is jarred by its majesty. I have long wanted to climb Rainier, but never found the opportunity in my youth or the time in my middle age. However, my wife surprised me with a gift on our 25th anniversary in 2013 – the opportunity to climb the great white whale. Work commitments still made the scheduling of the climb non-trivial, but finally in September of 2014 I had the chance to join an organized expedition.

rainier

Mt Rainier from an airplane flight (SEA-DFW) I took in the summer of 2013. The clouds cover the summit, which has a topographic prominence of over 13,200 ft. There are 26 alpine glaciers on Rainier which gives it its perennial white appearance.

Rainier has a special place in the minds of geologists – it is a magnificant monument to the violence of plate tectonics. The Cascade Mountain Range stretches from Mt Garibaldi located just north of the Canadian-American border to the Lassen Peak in northern California. Along the 700 mile arc of the Cascade Mountains there are at least 20 young volcanic peaks – Rainier is the highest today, although the nature of stratovolcanoes is that Rainier will eventually follow the example of Mt. St. Helens and “blow its top”. In the 1960s it was recognized that the Cascades where the volcanic signature of a subduction zone – the collision between the Juan de Fuca oceanic plate to the west and the North American continental plate to the east. I was a graduate student at Caltech in the late 1970s, and understanding the nature of subduction was a subject of intense research. In addition to stratovolcanoes, subduction zones are the source of most of the largest earthquakes observed on the planet. Understanding why some subduction zones had mega earthquakes – events with magnitudes that exceed 9.0 – while others only had earthquakes with a maximum magnitude of 8 or 7 was a mystery. In the Seismolab at Caltech there was a daily coffee in which the faculty and other graduate students discussed the most recent seismicity and new areas of research. It was in these “coffees” that a generation of seismologists were created – everyone was expected to contribute to the discussion and debate, and very foundations of modern seismology were laid. Hiroo Kanamori, perhaps the greatest observational seismologist in history, was pondering the “why some subduction zones have mega earthquakes” question and working with  several of my peers developed the rationale for mega thrusts based on the concept of “coupling” between the subducting plates. This spawned the concept of “comparative subductology” which is rooted in Scottish geologist James Hutton’s concept of uniformatarism – if it is happening now, then it happened in the past, and will happen in the future. One of the surprises of the comparisons of subduction zones world-wide was that Cascadia looked a lot like the segments of the Chilean and Aleutian subduction zones that generated mega earthquakes in 1960 and 1964. However, Cascadian was pretty quiet seismically, so there was a general skepticism in the geologic community that Seattle would some day have an earthquake that would dwarf anything that could happen in California. Today the discussion is not about size of a future earthquake in Cascadia, but rather when and how often.

faulttrip

Caltech 1980 — I am one of the leaders of a field trip to Owens Valley (I am the guy at the far left with the clip board and the really strange ball cap) after the Mammoth Lakes earthquake sequence. The earthquakes occurred within a week of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, leading many to suggest a link. The Seismolab was home to an amazing cadre of faculty and graduate students in the 70s and 80s that help define the paradigm of modern plate tectonics — including the understanding of the Cascadia subduction zone.

My own research at Caltech was more focused on computational methods for seismology and understanding the seismograms from nuclear explosions – however,  I was captivated by the discussions of mega-thrusts. In May 1980 Mt St. Helens erupted – and the reality of the restlessness of Cascadia hit home. I very much wanted to climb Mt. Rainier right then. However, it took nearly 35 years before the opportunity would arise. Of course, this is a geologic blink (or wink!) of an eye, and the decades had not diminished my enthusiasm to walk on the volcano.

overhead.rainier

Google Earth image of the Cascades. The white dot in the middle is Mt. Rainier. To the south (to the left in the image) are Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood. This line of high peaks are stratovolcanoes above the subducting Juan de Fuca oceanic plate. The high mountains of the Cascades blocks the oceanic moisture and makes the Pacific Northwest coastal region a rain forest — and a relatively dry desert in eastern Washington and Oregon.

A brief history of Mt. Rainier (apologies to Stephan Hawking)

Most discussions that start with the topic of “history of Mt. Rainier” focus on it relatively modest relationship between the mountain and man. The earliest evidence of human occupation of the Pacific Northwest is about 13,000 years before the present, and it is certain that the mystic vision of the rugged, glacier -covered tower of andesite evoked the same since of wonder that it does today.

The first written records associated with Mt. Rainier are from the annals of Captain George Vancouver who was the commander of the English vessel Discovery that was sent to explore the Pacific Northwest. In May of 1792 the Discovery sailed into Puget Sound, and Vancouver saw the snow covered volcanoes of the Cascades, and noted three (Mt. Baker, Hood and Rainier) stood out “Like giants stand To sentinel enchanted land”. On May 8, Vancouver wrote “the round snowy mountain, now forming its southern extremity, and which, after my friend Rear Admiral Rainier, I distinguished by the name of Mount Rainier”.

Cascade_Eruption_2008v

The eruptive history of the Cascade volcanoes (figure from the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network) over the last 4000 years. Mt. Rainier is the largest of volcanoes, but it the last few thousand years it has been less active than Mt. St. Helens.

The eruption history of the Cascades – about 50 eruptions in the last millennium – doubtlessly meant that the indigenous peoples knew that the Cascade peaks were volcanoes. However, this first recorded suggestion that Rainier was volcanic was noted in the diary of William Fraser Tolmie in 1833. Tolmie was a remarkable naturalist from Scotland that was trained as a physician at Glasgow University, and joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1832. Upon arrive in Puget Sound one of the first tasks he undertook was to visit Rainier on a “botanizing excursion”. In is notes he wrote that the rocks of Rainier were “volcanic”. I don’t know what character of the rocks lead him to that conclusion, but Tolmie set the stage for USGS studies 40 years later that would confirm that Rainier was a composite volcano. As a side note, Dr. Tolmie as also the first person to write about an earthquake in Cascadia when a small tremor struck Puget Sound on June 29, 1833.

Mt. Rainier attracted many attempts to scale its heights, but the first documented successful ascent occurred by the son of the first governor of the Washington Territory and a pioneering mountaineer in 1870. General Hazard Stevens (a well-named military man, especially climbing Mt. Rainier) first came to the Puget Sound area with his father in 1854 and resolved to climb the “great white mountain”. After a military career and the end of the Civil War, Stevens returned to Washington Territory, and teamed with Philemon Beecher Van Trump in August 1870 to climb Rainier. Stevens wrote an account of their journey – which was quite harrowing – that was published in Atlantic Monthly in 1876. Stevens wrote “We had spent eleven hours of unremitted toil in making the ascent, and, thoroughly fatigued, and chilled by the cold, bitter gale, we saw ourselves obliged to pass the night on the summit without shelter or food, except our meagre lunch. It would have been impossible to descend the mountain before nightfall, and sure destruction to attempt it in darkness… Climbing over a rocky ridge which crowns the summit, we found ourselves within a circular crater two hundred yards in diameter, filled with a solid bed of snow, and inclosed with a rim of rocks projecting above the snow all around. As we were crossing the crater on the snow, Van Trump detected the odor of sulphur, and the next instant numerous jets of steam and smoke were observed issuing from the crevices of the rocks which formed the rim on the northern side. Never was a discovery more welcome!” Today we recognize that they had found fumarole activity, a reminder that silhouette of Rainier is only temporary.

muir.summit

The Muir party summiting Mt. Rainier in 1888.

P.B. Van Trump would visit the summit 5 more times including guiding John Muir in 1888.  Muir had to be convinced to undertake the climb, but once at the top he stated “I hardly know whether I had better try to describe the view but will say that for the first time I could see that the world was round, and I was up on a very high place. The air was very light…I stood there all alone, everything below and all so grand. I had never before had such a feeling of littleness as when I stood there and I would have stood there drinking in that grand sight, but they wanted to go so we started down”.

By the 1930s geologists had begun to unravel the complex volcanic history of Mt. Rainier. The present conically shaped mountain is quite young – less than 600,000 years old. Beneath the high reaches of the mountain though are a complex series of mostly volcanic rocks that record ancient geologic environment and long extinct versions of Mt. Rainier.  The most prominent basement rock is the granodiorite of the Tatoosh Pluton (there are a range of ages for the pluton which probably reflects a complex history – it cooled between 25 and 12 million years before present) which was the crustal magma chamber of former stratovolcanoes.

cross-section

A geologic cross-section through Mt. Rainier from Crandall (1969). The modern andesite and mudflows that define Rainier today lie above a large granodiorite batholith that is approximately 25 million years old.

Mt. Rainier birth as a stratovolcano probably occurred about 850,000 years before the present, and the bulk of the present conical shape is about a half of a million years old. The present summit has two craters that reflect recent eruptions.  It is clear that in the past the summit of Rainier was somewhat higher — maybe reaching 16,000 feet elevation — but explosive eruptions have removed the older cap rock.

Although the nature of the Cascades and Mt Rainier were understood by the 1960s, it took the articulation of theory of plate tectonics to set the framework for why the stratovolcanoes exist. The North American plate, dominated by a large continental mass has interacted with an adjacent oceanic plate, known as the Farallon Plate, since Jurassic time (more than 150 million years before the present). Eventually most of the Farallon plate was subducted beneath North America, but a fragment remains off the coast of Washington, Oregon and northern most California. This fragment is known as the Juan de Fuca plate, and is being subducted at a rate of about 4 cm/yr.  In addition that subducted oceanic crust is young – about 10 million years old.  The USGS figure below shows a notional cross section beneath Washington.

subduction

The Cascade volcanoes are a direct product of the subduction of the oceanic crust of the Juan de Fuca Plate.  As the plate descends beneath North America the minerals within the plate release water due to increasing pressures and temperature in the mantle.  This water has the effect of promoting melting of mantle rocks in North American kneel above the sub ducting plate.  The melt rises, and eventually creates magma bodies in the lower crust, which in turn occasionally erupt in volcanoes at the surface.  Once a pathway for the magma to rise to the surface is established a stratovolcano grows. A science paper that was published this year (2014) provided an image of the mantle and crustal rocks beneath Mt. Rainier.

RainierElectricView

Electrical resistivity in the Earth for a cross section beneath Mt. Rainier (the location is shown with a triangle).

The electrical resistivity of rocks is highly dependent on a couple of things;  temperature, water content, and mineral content.  In the figure you can see the cold oceanic crust of the Juan de Fuca plate descending (the blue streak on the left side of the figure).  At about 50 km depth pressures are reached that cause a “de-watering” of the plate, which in turn, promotes the mantle melting.  This is the red and yellow colors beneath Mt. Rainier. The dark red blob to the left of Rainier is likely it’s magma chamber, located between 5 and 10 km below the surface.

Although the volcanoes of Cascadia are not at all unexpected, seismologists did not understand why earthquakes seemed so infrequent in Washington.  Most subduction zones would have a much higher rate of seismicity that was observed here  — and this was the topic of discussion at Caltech in the late 1970s.  Kanamori and graduate student Larry Ruff looked at subduction zones worldwide and plotted the size of the maximum observed earthquake as a function of the age of subducting plate and the rate at which the subduction was taking place.  The analysis showed that rapid subduction of young oceanic plates resulted in very large earthquakes — mega thrusts.

kanamori.ruff

Size of maximum observed earthquake as a function of rate of subduction and age of plate being subducted (from Ruff and Kanamori, 1980).

Tom Heaton and Kanamori used this “comparative subductology” and other geophysical constraints to postulate that the Cascadia subduction zone was capable of generating a mega-thrust earthquake — as large as magnitude 9.0 (paper appeared in 1984). The paper was meet with a great deal of skepticism because the seismicity along the Oregon-Washington coast was quite moderate.  However, in 1987 Brian Atwater, a USGS geologist, found evidence of a major tsunami inland from the coast.  Finally, Japanese seismologists had long been perplexed by a tsunami that hit the coast of Japan in 1700 but did not appear to be connected to any Japanese earthquake.  Connecting the dots, seismologists were able to show that the 1700 Japanese tsunami was most likely created by an earthquake with a magnitude between 8 3/4 and 9 1/4 in Cascadia.

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A trench through a coastal deposit in Oregon shows the sands brought ashore by the 1700 tsunami (Atwater et al., 1999).

Today there remains debate about the repeat frequency and size  expected for the Cascadia earthquake, but it is now excepted that it is only a matter of time before it strikes.  Mt Rainier seems like an ancient and noble giant benignly guarding Puget Sound. In fact, it is a very ephemeral geologic feature that will disappear in a few hundred thousand years, and most certainly will do violence to the equally temporary residents of the Pacific Northwest.  Surely this makes climbing Rainier most interesting for a geoscientist!

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Mt. Rainier from Paradise Ranger Station. This is the start of the IMG hike up the mountain – elevation of Paradise is at an elevation of 5200 ft, snow line is 7000 ft, and the top is 14,411 feet.

The expedition

The National Park Service keeps track of the number of people that attempt to climb Mt. Rainier and those that actually make the summit.  The numbers are a little surprising;  a little more than 10,000 attempt the ascent annually, and about half actually make it tothe top.  This statistic is pretty robust for the last 25 years, and clearly establishes Mt. Rainier as a signifiant challenge.  It is difficult to obtain quality data on the reasons that the success rate is so low, but the two most common anecdotes are weather and altitude maladies.  The weather is easy to understand – the strong oceanic flow from the Pacific brings significant moisture inland to the mountain. When the flow encounters the mountain it is forced to flow over the elevation – which cools the air, which in turn forcing out the moisture, building clouds, and raining/snowing. The jump off for my expedition is the Paradise Ranger Station (elevation 5,200 feet), which has an annual rainfall of 126 inches. That is twice as much precipitation that is received at Ashford (elevation 1,760 feet) the home to International Mountain Guides, my chosen expedition team. Ashford is only a few miles west of Paradise, but the difference in rainfall illustrates the rapid change in weather and how the steep topography of Rainier controls its environment.

The challenge of the weather, and the fact that a significant stretch of the ascent is on ice are the reason that I chose to join an expedition rather that trying to cajole a few friends (whom are all as old as I am) to take a week off work and avoid ice crevices.  I was not particularly worried about the physical part of the climb – running ultra trail races is more demanding – but I last climbed alpine glaciers more than 25 years ago, and as Shakespeare said “The better part of Valour, is Discretion”.  There are three well regarded companies that provide a suite of guided expeditions up Mt. Rainier.  I choose International Mountain Guides (IMG) for my adventure based on the rave review of a friend.  I was a little nervous about joining a group expedition – in general, I am not a group kind of guy – but my friend assumed me that this was a great experience, and in fact, he was correct!

On Wednesday afternoon (Sept. 10) the 8 climbers in my expedition checked in with IMG in the small town of Ashford which is situated on the Nisqually River.  The Nisqually is the main drainage of the southern half of Mt. Rainier, and I spent a couple of hours before checking in at IMG facility hiking along the river, and there are some spectacular exposures of the Paradise Lahar cut by the river channel.  The age of the Paradise Lahar is probably about 7,500 years before the present, and the thickness exposed near Ashford is at least 100 feet — it must have been a significant and destructive event.  The purpose of checkin is to assure that all the hikers are ready (so there is a very long equipment check), make introductions, and set expectations.  The climbers in my group come from all walks of life; the director of strategy for a unit from a major company, a nurse, commodity trader, dentist, venture capitalist, lawyer and a financial analysts for an aerospace company.  All have experience in mountains, although highly varied.  Most importantly, all seem like fine people to send the next three days with tied to ropes, sleeping in crowed tents, and cursing crampons.

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IMG delivers the expedition to Paradise. The wind is very strong, and the posted wind chill is 38 degrees.

The expedition started on Thursday morning — loaded up out packs at IMG headquarters and traveled east up the Nisqually River to the Paradise Visitor Center.  I had weighed my pack early in the morning – full water bottles and mountaineering boots attached, and it was a marginally agreeable 46 pounds.  But, alas, I forgot I had to take a group food package that would eventually become my dinner and breakfast the next two days.  I don’t know how much my package weighed, but probably on the order of 5 pounds.  So, loaded pack was about 50 pounds, about 45 pounds more than I ever run with on the trail.  This was the only thing that I was truly dreading;  pre hip and knee replacement 50 pounds would be no problem, but not positive what the next 3 days would hold.

Although the morning felt cool at Ashford, it was down right cold at Paradise.  The wind was blowing strongly, and the posted wind chill was 38 F.  IMG assigns 1 guide for every 2 climbers, so our team was 12 strong.  Our lead guide was Cedric Gamble, and had the job of both assessing risk and assuring the team that were are super strong climbers; thus, we heard both the comment that the wind was amazing and not at all usual, and surely this weather will pass and all is good.  I had my Garmin GPS watch and tracked the multi day climb.  By my watch, the starting elevation was about 5100 feet. The path wanders out of Paradise and climbs up to Pebble Creek (this was about 3 miles by the route we were on, and a gain in elevation of 1900 feet).  Hiking is easy even with the full pack, although the wind gust literally blew me over a couple of times.

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Climbing the Muir Snow Field – putting on our mountaineering boots.  The views to the south are spectacular with Mount Adams, St. Helens and Hood dominating the horizon.

Crossing Pebble Creek, the trail runs into the Muir Snowfield.  The snowfield is not a glacier but a perennial mass of snow that is both slick and wet.  The path for our expedition is to follow the snowfield up to Camp Muir, some 2.2 miles and 3000 feet elevation gain away.  We changed out of our trail shoes into mountaineering boots for the trek up to Muir — this meant that my pack was lighter, but it also meant that I had to wear the plastic mountaineering boots, which are  composed of an outer hard plastic waterproof shell and an insulating inner boot. These are heavy and warm, and I absolutely hate them.  Too heavy and hot, it was like running in dress shoes.  Over the next couple of days I would realize that these boots, when outfitted with crampons, where by far the most difficult aspect of the entire expedition.

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IMG tent at camp Muir – a great restaurant.

About half way up the Muir snowfield we ran into another IMG team descending the mountain.  A rather sobering and somber conversation took place between the two teams — the descending team had not been able to summit because of the high winds and had turned around at 13,000 ft elevation.  It was very difficult to imagine that one could not summit on a clear day and that there were many factors that determine a successful climb.  The rest  of the first day’s climb is easy into Camp Muir.  Muir is an assortment of small buildings situated on a ridge that separates the snowfield from the Cowlitz Glacier.  The buildings serve as a way station for climbers, and IMG has a small room there where the team can bunk down for the night.  The room is about 20 x 20 feet, and is a couple of plywood shelves to role out your sleeping bags.  Pretty small quarters, but shelter from the wind (it also turns out the expedition members don’t really snore nor have nocturnal gaseous emissions).  The IMG guides have a tent that serves both as the communal restaurant and their sleeping quarters.  Dinner at the IMG tent was a very pleasant surprise, and suddenly I felt very guilt for my mental grousing about carrying that five pounds of community food.  Dinner serves as a chance for all the team members to learn about each other — and I learned far more than I ever thought possible about pediatric dentistry, the incredible attributes associated with living in Coeur d’Arlene and climbing Aconcagua (I am jealous).

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A sketch of the east side of Rainier (from Crandell, 1969). The path for our ascent crosses the head of Cowlitz Glacier, then follows the rock spur below Gibraltar Rock up to cirque of Ingraham Glacier over looking Little Tahoma Peak. The original summit of Rainier went from Point Success to Liberty Cap – before a major eruption 5500 years ago, Rainier was 16,000 feet high.

Friday morning the trek really begins — we practice ice axe skills, crampons on ice, and roping up groups of climbers.  We cross over Cowlitz Glacier and then have a short hike up what is called Cathedral Gap;  the Gap section is bare rock and our passage is in our crampons, a first distasteful snippet of walking on rock and dirt while wearing sharp spikes of metal.  After a relatively short hike we arrive at the high camp located on the upper reaches of Ingraham Glacier.  Ingraham Flats is a moderately sloping section of ice at an elevation of 11,500 ft.  The camp is four tents for the climbers, two more tents for the guides, and small kitchen carved in the ice and snow.  The views are breath taking; the sounds are unnerving.  The Flats are framed by Gibraltar Rock to the south and the Disappoint Cleaver to the north.  Gibraltar lords over the camp as vertical cliff of nearly 800 feet, composed of layers of eruptions and lahars past.  Every few hours rocks fall from the cliffs, a not so subtle reminder that Rainier is always changing.  I also peer up at the ice of the head of Ingraham Glacier and think about the disastrous ice fall in 1981 that took the lives of 11 climbers.  It is the worst climbing accident in American history, and to be in it’s shadow is a reminder that gravity is unforgiving.  I decide it is best not to ask about the accident with the other members of the team.

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High Camp – Ingraham Flats, on Ingraham Glacier.  Over my left shoulder is the Cleaver, a nasty stretch of rock that is the heart of the climb to the summit (which is visible some 3000 feet above us in the center of the photo).

We have “dinner” at 3:45 on Friday so that we can be in the tents by 5:30 pm.  This is to facilitate a 1:00 am wake up call and a 2 am debarkation for the summit.  Sleep that night seems fine for me (better than most of my hotel visits to Washington DC every couple of weeks), but most of the team is beginning to feel the effects of altitude.  Living at 7400 feet elevation has its rewards!  Breakfast at 1:15 is instant oatmeal and coffee.  I opt for multiple cups of coffee and pass on the oatmeal.  At 11,500 the boiling point of water is about 185 degrees F instead of the sea level value of 212 degrees, so the coffee is tepid.  No matter, it is still nice fuel.  The morning is cool – my thermometer that I left just outside the tent reads 28 degrees F.  The wind is still though, so it is quite easy to dress comfortably.  Unfortunately, before we rope up to cross the glacier and head up the cleaver we remove layers to assure that we don’t over heat on the climb.  That means it is cold when we start our trek.  The climb is steep, and the half moon gives a nice glow, but mostly you look at the ground in front of you illuminated by your head lamp as travel.

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High Camp from Disappointment Cleaver. This picture was taken on the descent, mid-morning.  The tiny dots are our tents at the high camp.

The Cleaver is an 800′ elevation climb on rocks.  It is technically the most difficult part of the entire ascent.  Not particularly physically challenging, but the combination of large blocks of Andesite, crumbly scoria, and even some obsidian means that every step of the crampon encased boot is a challenge. Around 3:30 we finally finish with the Cleaver, and are back on the welcome crunch of ice.  The guides lead us back and forth up the south face of Rainier until we finally cross the lip of West Crater about 7 am.  The sun is just rising, and the winds are calm.  Unbelievably majestic.  Crossing the lip of the crater is considered a summit, but I know that we are across the crater from the true high point on Rainier.  Several of us drop our packs and hike the couple of hundred yards to the northwestern rim and climb up to the Columbia Crest, the “true” summit of Rainier.  We arrive there about 7:30, and revel in the success of the trek.

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Summit Team at Columbia Ridge. Just below me is the USGS marker for the elevation.  The marker was placed in 1956 – my birth year.

The views from the summit are both spectacular and disappointing. The skies are clear, and one can easily pick out every major volcano in the Cascades well into Oregon. However, the humidity in the air gives a sense of haze in the distance that one never sees from the summit of a 14er in Colorado. The crater itself is magnificent. A stone circle created by an eruption a few thousand years ago, it has dozens of fumaroles all along the rim. Wisps of steam give hint to the hot rock not far below the surface. I applied the sniff test to several of the fumaroles, and only caught the faintest notion of sulfur; mostly was just moist stream.

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West Crater

Around 8 am we began our long trip reversing our footsteps back to Paradise. By my Garmin we had hiked 12.2 miles and with the ups and downs (mostly ups!) we had gained 9600 feet elevation. The journey down was more difficult than I expected – not because it was a physical challenge, but because the sun was shining and the views were extraordinary! I wanted to stare and ponder the magic landscape, which meant I did not want to focus on traveling on a rope along an icy and steep trail. The descent back to the top of the Cleaver went by uneventfully, and I was able to get a picture of the moon setting over the top Mt. Rainier.

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Rainier Descent – moon setting over the rim of the crater.

The traverse down the Cleaver was by far the most difficult part of trip down. We are all a little tired, and those damn boots and crampons! I did manage to stab myself in the left leg with the crampons from my right boot. I drew blood, and it is only appropriate as a sacrifice to a great mountain. We finally get back to high camp for a brief rest, and some lunch. The journey back to Camp Muir was pretty trivial, and we stop for some water at the IMG tent. All that stands before us and the end of the trek is the Muir snowfield – how hard can that be? However, we decide to keep on the crampons to cross the field since it is soft and slick. Drudgery! But unexpectedly, the slog was made tolerable by the fact that it was Saturday, and there was a menagerie of folks climbing the snowfield from Paradise. We saw people in shorts, skirts, tennis shoes, formal wear, and of course, flip flops! Consider that these snowfield adventurers had invested hiking more than 3 miles and 2000 feet elevation gain, you have to wonder how much thought went into their apparel. One of the most humorous moments of the entire journey was when one of our teammates engaged a woman in a long dress in conversation on the snow and said “you can do it!”. He was being positive, but also preposterous! Finally, at Pebble Creek we shed our boots and crampons, and all is right with the universe.

The trek up Rainier was a spectacular experience. I am fortunate to have combined the wonder of a high mountain climb with a favorable group of colleagues, and wonderful guides. I could not have been more delighted – but of course, I got something a little extra. On the flight home Sunday morning the American Airlines flight to Dallas took off to the south out of SEATAC and flew towards Rainier. Once we reached the Nisqually River the pilot took a hard left and flew right over Paradise, and suddenly out my window was the entire picture of my trek. Fabulous!

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Passing over Rainier on the way home (9/14/14). The image is high resolution so click on it and expand. The various way stations are labeled.

Rainier will one day erupt, and will no longer be the high point of the Cascades. I am grateful that I got to experience the great mountain in its finest state – and mood.

Climbing the Grand Staircase: An ultra trail run in the footsteps of Clarence Dutton

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.  Edward Abbey, in the Preface for Desert Solitaire

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Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, just a few miles east of the trail route for the Bryce 100. The hoodoos are erosional columns in the Claron Formation, a 30-60 million year old lake limestone.

Los Alamos, New Mexico – my hometown – sits on the eastern edge of the Colorado Plateau, an expanse of high desert and pastel hued rocks that covers more than 125,000 sq miles.  The plateau is a geologic marvel; the entire geologic history of the Western United States is laid bare from the bottom of the Grand Canyon where 2 billion year old Vishnu Schist is exposed to the Pink Cliffs of Bryce Canyon in Utah which are 35 million year old sediments that were deposited in a great inland lake. The nearly 2 billion years of history is stacked like a layered cake gently tilted on its side, barely disturbed by faults and folds and other signs of geologic trauma.  There is a huge gap in time – more than a billion years – between the Vishnu Schist and Tapeats Sandstone overlying it, which represents a long epoch in which the region must have stood far above sea level.  Located above the 540 million year old Tapeats Sandstone there are younger rocks, which geologists can use as  a yardstick of ocean invasion and retreat.  Thousands of feet of sedimentary rock record the slow grinding of the ancient continents into gravel and dust.  Nowhere else on Earth is the last half of a billion years of history so beautifully preserved.  The western United States has suffered continental collisions, incredible crustal stretching, massive volcanic eruptions, and yet the Colorado Plateau escaped any significant deformation.  The layered cake geology of the Colorado Plateau is clear road map to our geologic past!

I was looking for a 50 km trail run in southern Utah when I found the Bryce 100 (which has 3 different distances to run, including 50 km) – and it looked like a wonderful tour through a high part of the Colorado Plateau.  I signed up with enthusiasm, and then realized that it was in the middle of June.  I looked at the historical meteorological data at a weather station in Bryce Canyon and realized it likely to be as warm as 85 degrees on the day of the trail run.  Trail runs in the heat are very much like the old saw of the frog in a pot that is brought to a slow boil (lethal, but one in which the frog is a willing participant).  However, the idea of running in the footsteps of John Wesley Powell and Clarence Dutton, giants in American Geology, was enough to blind me to the dangers of hyperthermia and hypohydration.

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Paria Canyon is just south of Hiway 89 traveling between Page, Arizona and Kanab, Utah. Around Paria Canyon are a number of incised channels cut through the red colored Navajo Sandstone. This sandstone was deposited on land – and the fabric in the rock was formed as crossbedding is wind blown dunes. This particular wash is one of the most famous “picture” sites that no one knows how to get to on the Colorado Plateau. The erosion across the fabric gives the appearance of waves, and this is called “The Wave”. I visited this wonderful place on my journey to the start line of the Bryce 100.

For me, a trail run is more about adventure than about being in a “race”.  Seeing new places from a vantage point I have not had before, challenges, and thinking about nature are the joy of the trail.  Although I live on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, I have spent far less time in the high desert than in the rougher mountains of Colorado and New Mexico. But I have an affinity for the Colorado Plateau also – the modern portrait of the geology of North America was laid out here by Powell and Dutton, who were inspired by the carved rock towers of Monument Valley and the vastness of the Grand Canyon.  The Bryce 100 was a trail run and a field trip!

Geologic Giants

The 19th Century was the most remarkable period of scientific discovery in history. In fact, the “profession” of science and the term scientist was first coined in 1833. This was a time of intellectual enlightenment, and the concept that laws governed every aspect of nature and life changed  human thought. Gauss, Laplace, Legrande, and Fourier invented modern mathematics; Dmitri Mendeleev invented the periodic table of elements; Lord Kelvin (Scotsman William Thomson) invented the temperature scale and formulated the second law of thermodynamics; Charles Lyell published Principles of Geology in 1830 and established the concept of uniformitarianism; Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species and established the theory of evolution.

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Clarence Dutton – geophysical poet, and namer of of the attractions and vistas in the Grand Canyon

Against the heady backdrop of new theories for life and forces governing nature, the empty “space” beyond the 100th meridian drew the interest of the nation.  As the civil war ended, there was pressure to civilize and cultivate the west, but little was actually known about the region.  The U.S. government decided to fund four major mapping expeditions to western half of the country — these were lead by Clarence King, George Montague Wheeler, Ferdinand Hayden, and John Wesley Powell. All these men left their signature on geology, but it was Powell that was truly a visionary.  Powell lead the first successful traverse down the length of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869, and his follow-on visits to the region lead to the first modern understanding of great arid regions of the southwest.  Powell eventually convinced a  colleague to map the Colorado Plateau in detail – that colleague was Clarence Dutton.  Dutton’s accomplishments are extraordinary, but his prodigious legacy is often overlooked.

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Cover page of Dutton’s classic work on the geology of the “missing” portion of the geologic map of the USA

Clarence Dutton is a hero of mine. He had remarkable insight into “how the Earth works”, and published works on geology, volcanology, and the geology of earthquakes. In 1889 he coined the phrase “isostasy” and proposed why mountains are high and valleys have low elevation. Along with this keen scientific insight came the soul of a poet. Dutton’s words paint vivid images, and he is compared to John Muir in capturing the heartbeat of a landscape. Dutton wrote the classic paper in 1880, and it remains a masterpiece.

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The Grand Staircase – climbing out of the Grand Canyon. The 500 million years of geologic history in the rocks preserves the entire evolutionary record of life on Earth. Figure from the Utah Geologic Survey (click on figure to enlarge).

When Dutton was doing the fieldwork for the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah, he noted that the layered cake geology of the region created a series of steep cliffs and flat terraces that looked like a “great stairway” climbing north from the Grand Canyon. This description eventually morphed into the “Grand Staircase”, the name the region is known as now. The geologic cross section above shows the series of cliffs – there are 6 prominent cliffs as you travel the 150 miles north from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The final stair is the Pink Cliffs which is topped by the Paunsaugunt Plateau. The Bryce 100 is run on and around the Paunsaugunt Plateau – and the top of Dutton’s Grand Staircase!

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A small section fromDutton’s map “Geological map of the district of the high plateaus of Utah” centered on the area of the Bryce 100.

In Dutton’s 1880 work he published wonderful color maps to illustrate the geology.  The map above is a section from Dutton that is centered on Paunsaugunt Plateau and the trail for the Bryce 100.  The course travels along the western edge of the plateau, then climbs up and over the plateau to finally descends to the finish along the drainage of the East Fork Sevier River. The yellow color on the map represents the Claron Formation, which geologically is a series of lake and river deposits – sands, gravels, and cobbles along with a few limestones. The lake environment was rich in iron, and the pink color of many of the rocks is due to iron oxide staining. The rocks of the Claron are easily eroded, and the climate of the high plateau means that frost wedging plays a roll in breaking apart the strata. It is this frost wedging that produces the famous hoodoos (or rock towers) that populate the Bryce region.

Dutton wrote of the very region that the trail run traverses – the course is truly in the foot steps of a geologic giant.  One last comment on Dutton (and another reason he is one of my heroes). He was an early hire into the brand new US Geologic Survey in 1875. After his outstanding work on the Colorado Plateau he worked on earthquakes and volcanoes and was promoted to the chief of the volocanology unit at the USGS.  He eventually became disillusioned with the growing agency and wrote: “Our Survey is now at its zenith & I prophesy its decline. The ‘organization’ is rapidly ‘ per fecting’, i.e., more clerks, more rules, more red tape, less freedom of movement, less discretion on the part of the geologists & less outturn of scientific product. This is inevitable. It is the law of nature & can no more be stopped than the growth & decadence of the human body.” Not only do I get to share the Pink Cliffs with Dutton, but also his views on the crush of bureaucracy.

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The full moon setting over the start of the race. The course heads for the moon, and then wanders around the Paunsaugunt Plateau

The Race

The Bryce 100 — which is actually a 100 and 50 miler along with a 50k — is staged out of Bryce Canyon City. “City” is a misnomer – the town sites at the edge of the national park entrance, and is a collection of hotels and various adventure companies.  I chose to stay at the main hotel, Ruby’s Inn, a sprawling complex of buildings typical of concessionaire hotels in western US parks.  My room is in a remote building, and everyone in the building seems to be here for the race.  As I make my way to my room I pass countless rooms with their doors open – and there are stacks of water bottles, jugs of protein powder, and all sorts of stuff that ultra runners accumulate.  There is a major benefit to having a hotel dedicated to the runners; lights are out at 9:30 pm, and there is nary a sound until 4:30 in the morning!

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The secret to the ultra – stuff. My stuff includes Tailwind formula for my water bottles, stinger gels, Kind candy bars, lots of sun screen, and gloves for the first couple of miles

The runners are bused to the start of the race, about 7 miles from the hotel.  The starting temperature is a brisk 39 degrees, but perfect conditions for running. There are about 135 runners in the 50 km race, mostly 20s and 30s somethings, and most are in running groups.  I am the only person from New Mexico, but as with most trail runs, everyone is very friendly and chatty.  I find 3 different geologists running the race!  Clearly, the attraction to interesting geology is a big deal for this race.  The course takes off to the west and climbs from 7600 feet elevation to about 8300 feet elevation over the first 6 miles.  The first six miles is a roller coaster – run up 50-200 feet and then descend the same distance as the course crosses dozens of small drainages.

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The Bryce Canyon Route for the 50 km — actually 32.6 km, and 5400 feet elevation gain. The course travels to west side of P Plateau, and climbs up and over into a drainage

The first two miles are on a forest service road – not too interesting for running.  However, after two miles the course follows a wonderful single track.  The track is very smooth, a consequence of the erosion of the base rock – the Claron Formation.  The Claron is about 200 m thick on the Paunsaugunt Plateau, and is composed of soft, red colored siltstones and white colored limestones that are rich in sands. These sedimentary rocks were deposited in an ancient lake that was formed due to the rise of the Rocky Mountains some 70 million years before the present. The rise resulted in a basin to the west of Rockies, and Lake Claron filled this basin – at is maximum size it was similar in area to Lake Michigan. The rocks are rich in iron and manganese oxides, which give the distinctive color. Around 30 million years before the present the Colorado Plateau began a period of uplift, and Claron Lake disappeared, and the former lake bottom rocks became exposed and formed the Pink Cliffs.

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Running among the HooDoos in the Claron Formation

Between miles 6 and 7 the trail wanders among some wonderful hoodoos.  In fact, the rocks are so interesting I am having trouble not stopping a shaping photos every couple of hundred yards!  The hoodoos form because the Clarion is relatively soft, but has thin strata that are more resistant to erosion.  Frost wedging plays a fairly unique roll in the hoodoo formation – cracks are filled with moisture, and when it freezes it parts the harder, more resistant limestones leaving small “caps” that eventually sit atop columns and chimneys.

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Graphical explanation for the formation of Hoodoos along the Pink Cliffs. The rocks of the Claron Formation are quite soft and easily eroded – but what is unique here is the roll of frost wedging breaking apart the rock. The frequent freezing in the region causes soil moisture to freeze and expand which “pries” apart blocks of rock. Repeating this process isolates pillars, or the Hoodoos (Figure from National Park Travel)

The first 10 miles are pretty fast.  I roll into the first aid station at exactly 2 hours (the station is 10.4 miles from the start).  I feel fantastic, although it is getting warm – at least to me.  It is 8 miles to the next aid station, and I have a plan to be there a little before the 4 hour mark.  All my life I have loved maps.  I am an expert at reading maps – but I fail miserably on this next section of the course.  I used the course map posted on the website for the race, which shows the elevation at a very corse scale.  I estimated that there would be modest climbing and descending over the 8 miles, but in fact this section of the trail is quite difficult.  There is much more climbing and very slippery descending than I expect.  The first thing I did when I got back to the hotel room was to download the USGS quadrangle for the region – WHAT!  At the higher resolution it is obvious that this section is tough.  I am embarrassed that I let scale screw me…

After the second aid station the climbing really begins.  It is a lot more walking than running for me.  I actually pass lots of people on the ascent of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.  But the course becomes truly diabolical at mile 23.  The elevation has dropped to 7700 feet, and over the next 2 miles the dusty and sandy trail climbs 1400 feet.  Although most of the course up to this point has had liberal tree cover, the Pink Cliffs show no mercy or vegetation. I swear it is 100 degrees, but alas, when I check the weather record at the Bryce Canyon airport station, I find it was actually 65 degrees.

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Looking north on the long climb up the Paunsaugunt Plateau. The Pink Cliffs are beautiful, and steep.

The views are breath taking, but I am toast at the final aid station, mile 25.  I refill both my water bottles with Gator aid, but it is a bit too late.  The trail after the aid station joins a hard packed BLM road.  It is not particularly pleasant running, but the home stretch is afoot.  The first couple of miles of the road actually continue the climb, and finally at mile 26.5 top out at 9200 feet elevation (by my watch).  Then it is downhill!  However, I just kind of amble down the road, and all those folks that passed going up the hill scream past me.  I got road rash from several that passed me at a high rate of speed!  I do meet several interesting people on the descent, and have conversations;  I meet a young man from Monument Valley that has never run further than 13.1 miles before today.  He is celebrating 6 months of sobriety, and was recently baptized – a joy to talk to.  I meet a couple of people from Phoenix that have only been trail running for the last year.  They are very fast until mile 29, and then absolutely die.  The final part of the course is another uphill for a mile, and it is really tough.

It took me just under 8 and a half hours to finish the 32.6 miles (I love that trail runs are ALWAYS longer than the standard amount).  Waiting for the bus back the Bryce Canyon City I talk to the other runners – as always, at the end, everyone is happy.  The relief of finishing, and the any pain fades pretty fast.  My joy was getting to wander through some unique and interesting geology.  I think I will do this again.

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Tower Bridge, Bryce Canyon.