Hot Spots and Glaciers: Running from the North American Plate to the Eurasian Plate

Beneath all the wealth of detail in a geological map lies an elegant, orderly simplicity — J. Tuzo WilsonScottish Canadian geophysicist that laid much of the framework for modern Plate Tectonics.

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Sunrise in the Hengladir Valley, near Hengill Volcano, Iceland. Running with Michelle and looking at a boiling hot spring. Elísabet Margeirsdóttir photograph. Click on any figure to make it full sized.

4.5 billion years is a long time — even for a geoscientist.  The age of the Earth is known with remarkable precision (the error in age is less that +/- 1 percent), thanks to radiometric dating of Earth and Moon igneous rocks and meteorites from other parts of the solar system.  The Earth has been an evolving planet for about one third of the existence of the universe; despite this “old age”, the planet is a dynamic and HOT planet.  The heat flow from the Earth’s interior is a little less than 50 terawatts, which drives the constant reshaping of the surface — raising mountains, erupting volcanoes and causing earthquakes.  The source of this geothermal energy is fairly well understood, and is due to the decay of radioactive elements and primordial heat (the heat left over from the original formation of the planet).  However, how the heat is transferred from the Earth’s interior to the surface is less well understood.  The details of the heat transfer matters — it is the driver of plate tectonics.

In the early part of the 19th Century Charles Lyell, a great British geologist, proposed that the Earth had to be at least 300 million years old based on the slow rates of geologic processes.  This ancient age for the planet not only infuriated the religious order of the day, but it annoyed the growing global physics community because it was based on speculation and logic arguments instead of models and calculations.  Lord Kelvin expressed this contempt simply: “When you measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it, but when you cannot express it in numbers your knowledge about is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.”  Kelvin went on to calculate the age of the Earth assuming cooling through conduction, and arrived at an age of between 20 and 90 million years.  I used to assign this problem as homework in my course on mathematical methods in geophysics.  The calculation is straightforward and stunningly incorrect.  Kelvin’s calculation had almost nothing to do with the Earth’s heat flow – it had the wrong heat transport model by ignoring convention and did not account for continuing heat production through radioactive decay.  In 1919 Arthur Holmes — another great British geologist — suggested that the high temperatures in the Earth’s interior meant that rocks could “flow” in convection, and mass movement was the primary mechanism for moving heat from the deep interior to the surface.

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Arthur Holmes used his idea of convection in the mantle of the Earth to propose a mechanism to drive plate tectonics in 1928. It took another 30 years before the Earth science community began to understand it as the unifying theory in geology.

It took another 30 years before a later generation of geophysicists took Holmes ideas and connected them with observations of ocean bathymetry, volcanic chemistry, and the geography of earthquakes to understand Plate Tectonics.  However, there were some still some very odd observations that defied explanation with the plate tectonics paradigm.  One of these was the idea of “hot spots” – large volcanic complexes that seemed to be located totally independent of plate tectonics.  J. Tuzo Wilson — a Canadian geophysicist — showed that Hawaii was a long chain of volcanic islands that could be explained as a “hot spot” that melted the overlying plate as it passed by on its path determined by the driving forces of plate tectonics.  The nature of these hot spots was a subject to great debate (during my graduate school career it was the regular topic of daily coffee discussions), with most scientists believing that they were thin columns of hot mantle that came from depths near the Earth’s core.  Today, the concept of “thin” plumes is largely rejected in favor of broad convection plumes.

There is one place on Earth where a hot spot and a mid-ocean ridge coexist – Iceland.  This is a truly strange and marvelous place.  The hotspot has created an island about 1/3 the size of New Mexico; the center of the island is constantly being pulled apart as the mid-Atlantic ridge grows and the North America plate moves away from Eurasia at a rate of about 2 cm per year.

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Geologic Map of Iceland. The “pink” zones show the recent volcanic activity that includes both the spreading center that travels across iceland through the Reykjavik Peninsula in the southeast to Husavik in the north as well as the center of the hotspot.

I have always wanted to visit Iceland and see with my own eyes the most impressive expression of the Earth’s heat engine.  The physical location of Iceland — centered about 66 degrees north latitude — adds an extra wrinkle to the heat.  The climate demands snow and ice…the geology demands volcanoes and lava flows.  Finally the opportunity arrived to visit Iceland arose, and I planned to run from North America to Eurasia, and from glaciers to geysers.

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Map of southwest Iceland, and the locations of our various runs, treks and geology visits.

Running in the Rift

I planned a late September trip to Iceland, and arranged to see the geology the only way it is meant to be seen — underfoot.  I had the fantasy of the ultimate trail run; running from one major tectonic plate to another.  The mid-Atlantic ridge comes ashore in Iceland along the Reykjavik Peninsula (see the geologic map above), and the splits the island from north-to-south. The plate boundary is not a single, simple fault.  It is more diffuse;  however, geodetic measures clearly delineate that it is possible to run from North America to Eurasia with a  good geology map.

About 25 miles east of Reykjavik sits Hengill Volcano.  Modest by volcanic measures, Hengill is a row of craters aligned along a NNE trend, and has erupted material that now covers about 100 km2.  The last eruption was about 2000 year before the present, but today is a major source of geothermal electrical production. The climb up the volcano offers wonderful views even though its maximum elevation is only 2200 ft.

We (my wife and I) planned a run from the west side of Hengill, up towards the summit craters, and then down Reykjadalur Valley, which is also known as the Smokey Valley due to its large number of fumaroles.  We used a running tour guide from Arctic Running (Elísabet Margeirsdóttir) to lead us over the 10.5 miles of very varied terrain.

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Running on the flank of Hengill Volcano.  This rocky hills are called “borgs”.

After a brief climb up the flank of Hengill, the run is across a moonscape of cinders and volcanic bombs and cobbles.  The run is challenging because of the surprises in footing, but is mostly slow paced because there is so much to see.  After about 6 miles the trail crosses a pass that allows a view 40 km to the north.

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Smackdab in the middle of the Mid-Atlantic Rift – North America to the left of the photo, Eurasia to the right. In the distance is the large lake Þingvallavatn, which is in the rift valley (usually marked on maps for the culture center Thingvellir).

In the distance is Þingvallavatn, the largest lake in Iceland.  This lake is located within the rift valley separating the plates.  On another day we visited the lake and the numerous basalt flows and dozens of grabens.

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Þingvallavatn and the rift valley. There are numerous fissures in the basalt that are expressions of dozens of pull-apart grabbens. These grabens are an markers of the plate boundaries. However, despite the advertisements that you can “stand on both plates”, the boundary is more diffuse – probably 2-5 miles across. The view is to the southeast, and on the horizon is Volcano Hengill, source of the previous pictures.

Þingvallavatn is partially within Þingvallir National Park, which is quite popular with the tourists.  The original Icelandic Parliament was established here in 930 (about 60 years after Norsemen arrived on the Island), and remained here until the beginning of the 19th Century.  Despite the crowds, a short hike will allow one to explore the geology in relative solitude.

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Another graben at Þingvallavatn. The sides of the grabben form the channel for a river.

The trail run turns to the south from the pass on the flanks of Hengill and enters Reykjadalur.  Every hillside is alive with fumaroles – the mountains are literally smoking. At about mile 8 the warm waters of the all the springs drain into a modest river which runs along a short plain.  The river here is famous for bathing, and indeed we stopped and soaked a bit before running on to the end of the trail.  The water in the various natural pools is about 100 degrees – a warm bath.

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Running down hard scoria into Reykjadalur – The Smokey Valley.

The final part of the run has a challenge that is unlike any I have faced.  There are two spots that have warning signs advising hikers not to breath in the milky clouds coming from some of the springs.  The warning talks of health hazards – and it clearly related to the release of H2S.

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A special hazard of running the lower Smokey Valley – clouds of steam that are rich is H2S. Signs warn to hold your breath….really.

At the first of the these warning I attempted to hold my breath, but clearly I was not running fast enough, and had to take a deep gulp of air right in the middle of the cloud.  The rotten egg smell is enough to cause one to knell over, but the total exposure is pretty limited.

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Kerið crater — just beyond the completion of the Smokey Valley trail run. A 3000 year old scoria crater filled with water.

A short distance beyond the end of the trail run is a series of “cinder cones” that have erupted in the last few hundred years.  The best preserved of these is Kerið crater, which is filled with a deep blue lake.  The contrast in colors – the red of the scoria and the blue of the lake make for a striking geologic panorama.

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Glacier on mountains mean flowing water everywhere. Starting up the the washout plains to Thorsmork, and one of the scenic waterfalls.

Trekking Across a Volcanic Complex

A short jog across the plate boundaries serves only as a reminder that the geology of Iceland is immense!  The Hengill area is dominated by the dynamics of the spreading center.  Further to the east are a series of very large volcanic complexes – not really volcanoes, but a series of vents and craters that have a strong fingerprint of the deeper mantle chemistry indicative of the Iceland hotspot.

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Glacial outwash on the road to Thorsmörk. On the horizon is another volcano, Tindfjallajokull.

Only a few 10s of miles east of Hengill sits the most famous Iceland volcano, Hekla. Hekla is a stratavolcano that is about 4900 ft in elevation, and has had 20 significant eruptions since the first occupation of Iceland.  There are numerous deposits in Ireland and Scotland of tephra from Hekla eruptions.  A large eruption conjured a vision of hell, and a monk wrote: “The renowned fiery cauldron of Sicily which men call Hell’s chimney … that cauldron is affirmed to be like a small furnace compared to this enormous inferno”.  Hekla is one of only two Icelandic words that made it into common English language.  “Heck” is a shortened version of Hekla, and “what the heck” literally means “what the hell”.

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Abraham Ortelius’ 1585 map of Iceland showing Hekla in eruption. The text translates as “The Hekla, perpetually condemned to storms and snow, vomits stones under terrible noise”.

A few miles southeast of Helka is one of the treasures of Iceland, Thorsmörk (Thor’s Valley).  This valley is bounded by glaciers to the north and south (Tindfjallajokull and Eyjafjallajökull respectively), and blocked by a third major glacier, Myrdalsjokull in the east.  I planned to hike between the Eyjafjallajökull and Myrdalsjokull glaciers (adding the word glacier is redundant since jokull means glacier, but Icelandic words are very difficult!) through a pass known as Fimmvörðuháls.  The second part of my jog across Iceland was trek on the edges of the hotspot.

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The beginning of the trek – Thorsmörk, looking up at the glaciers of Myrdalsjokull and across the wide plain of a flood basin and the river Krossa.  The Myrdalsjokull glacier sits atop the Katla volcanic complex – one of the largest in Iceland.

We hired a ride to the Thorsmörk, and hoped for about 35 km of walking. Along the way we visited one of the small valley glaciers that connects to Eyjafjallajökull, Gigjokull. Eyjafjalla erupted in 2010, and caused significant ice melting that caused Gigjokull to surge, and released a great outwash of debris destroying the jökulurð (terminal moraine).

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Gigjokull glacier;  The toe is about 50 m across.

A few miles beyond Gigjokull we begin our trek climbing along the flanks of Eyjafjalla.  The soft volcanic tephras and modestly welded tuffs are deeply eroded by the constant rainfall.  The trek is up and down, intermixed with stunning views.

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On the trail, looking up at Myrdalsjokull. The elevation on the trail is 1600 feet, and glacier line is 2200 feet. Scenic hike, but the volcanic terrain has been eroded with endless canyons, so lots of climbing and descending.

The last climb of the day is up a hill called Rettarfell.  Coming down the trail there is a view across the Krossa river.  The fall colors are tremendous – delicate red flows intermixed with yellow grasses offset the harsh black and gray volcanic rumble. In the picture below the end of journey is in sight – a hut across the river in the center of the photograph.

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Descending off the flank of Eyjafjalla into the hut for the evening. Fall colors are spectacular.

The first day has been perfect weather wise, and the trekking was quite enjoyable. However, the weather forecast for the next day is ominous.

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Descending into the valley for the end of day one.

One of the most challenging aspects of the trek is actually crossing the Krossa. The river is braided with many strands, and the main sections have channels flowing several feet deep.  In the hut there is a “book of shame” that documents all the jeeps that attempted to cross the river only to become mired, and then flooded.  Various hiking clubs in Iceland have built portable bridges that can be wheeled from one location to another as the river changes its course.  From high up on the ridges at Rettarfell I can see the bridges, but they look like they are just stuck out randomly on the flood plain – we joke that Iceland, like American, has its bridges to no where.  Fortunately, the bridges are in the right spot and traveling across to the hut for the evening is uneventful.

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Early in the morning of day 2 in Thorsmörk – a short night because we waited for a meager northern lights.

The hut is comfortable – and a light sleeping bag on a foam mattress is more like probation than a life sentence in prison.  Although the clouds began to come in around 10 pm, we held out hope that the total darkness of the remote area would reward us with a glimpse of the northern lights.  Indeed, as predicted by the Iceland Aurora Watch, the lights appeared at 10:30.  However, they were quite weak and fleeting.  The was a chance that they would reappear at midnight, but all we got for that wait was sleep deprivation.  On the other hand, the night sky was filled with stars I seldom get to see, and the Milky Way splashed across the horizon like a haphazard paint stroke.

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First morning’s light. Clouds moving in, but barely indicated the steady rain to follow.

The plan for the second day was a 22 km trek with a descent along the Skógá River, ending with a spectacular water fall, Skógafoss (foss means “falls” in Icelandic, so Skogafoss waterfall is also a wonderful redundancy!).  However, by 10 am the rain was falling in buckets, and the wind had gusts in which it was impossible to remain upright. We shortened the hike – but covered distances along the trail on both sides of the pass.  By 2pm it was clear that this trek would mostly be noted for the fact that we did not drown.

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Skógafoss falls, along the Skógá River, draining both Eyjafjallajökull and Myrdalsjokull.  The drop across the basalt cliff is about 60 m, and produces a persistent mist.  This mist is famous for strong rainbows…however, there are no rainbows in the driving rain.

The end of the trek comes with the realization that Michelle’s rain gear is no longer certified…everything leaked.

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End of the trek – and the 20 year old quality raincoat that can now be best used as a sponge.

After the trek we made a short trip to Reynisfjara, which is famous for its black sand beaches.  The beaches are indeed beautiful, but it is interesting that if you say “black sand beach” to an Icelander they will reply – all our beaches are black sand, and there are too many miles to count.

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Black sand beaches of Reynisfjara. The “sand” is actually pebbles of basalt.

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A close up of the “black sand”. The image is about 2 feet across. I tried running on the beach, and it was quite difficult!

The purpose of the trek was to visit the glaciers and volcanics of the hotspot.  Although the scenery was amazing, it was difficult to see uniqueness in the volcanics; it is clear that the stratavolcanoes are broad and much larger than the modest structures along the extension of the Reykjavik Ridge.  However, the changes in rock type is subtle – at least to the eye.

Dotting the i – Visiting Geysir and Langjokull

No visit to the volcanoes of southwest Iceland would be complete without a journey to Geysir and then on to the second largest Icelandic glacier, Langjökull (strictly speaking, Langjökull is an “icecap” – meaning it flows in all directions from its summit). This particular journey is not amenable to running (or trekking), so we hired a driver.

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The pool of hot water over The Great Geysir in the Haukadalur Valley. The valley sits in a structural embayment within a rhyolite dome, and the meteoric waters that fall on the dome descend through cracks and are heated by a shallow magma body. The Great Geysir no longer erupts, but that probably is a temporary condition.

The Haukadalur Valley is about 50 km northeast of Þingvallavatn.  There are a half dozen large, boiling hot springs in an area roughly the size of two football fields. Presently there is only one of these that erupts with regularity – Strokkur – which has a periodicity of about 8 minutes.  The Great Geysir was the first boiling fountain described in literature, and was adopted into the English language as “geyser”. In the past the Great Geysir had eruptions that reached 170 m in height.  The plumbing of the system of hot springs appears to be highly influenced/connected to the occurrence of earthquakes in the area.  Moderate sized quakes appear to turn on and off the eruptive cycles of the various springs.

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Crystal clear water in a boiling hot spring. Looking down this conduit one can see approximately 2 m (or so the sign says). Although the water is crystal clear, every few minutes a cluster of bubbles ascend releasing pungent H2S gas.

Haukadalur Valley suffers from inevitable comparisons with Yellowstone and Old Faithful.  The modest sized region is thick with tourists – but most of these are loaded and unloaded in large buses that follow a loop called the “Golden Circle”.  We did not spend much time at Geysir, but it was on the way to Langjökull so the stop is worthwhile.  The massive glacier Langjökull is visible from Haukadalur, and frames a horizon as an imposing block of snow and ice.

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Langjökull – a massive ice cap glacier. The glacier has a volume of ice that is approximately 200 km3. Late in the season – like the 3rd week in Sept — the lower reaches of the glacier is covered with black mounds that resemble giant ant mounds.

Langjökull covers a highlands that is actually two active volcanic systems.  The glacier is about 50 km long in the north-south direction and 20 km wide (east-west); at its  thickest the ice is 580 m.  The large size of the glacier makes it easily seen from space (see the location map at the top of the blog section on the Hengill run).  Unfortunately, the glacier is in rapid retreat.  Using 1990 as a baseline, Langjökull has lost 15% of its ariel extent, and models project it will disappear by the middle of next century.

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A large moulin – vertical hole or shaft in the glacier that serves as a plumbing system within the ice mass. Our line of snow mobiles are in the upper left for scale.

We toured the glacier via snowmobile.  As advertised, driving the snowmobiles was no more difficult than driving a bicycle.  I ride my bike a lot, so my thought was “this will be really easy”.  Well, Michelle and I sharing a snowmobile means that we had to coordinate our leans with every sharp turn.  Our coordination was not world class.  However, the tour allowed us to see the scale of the glacier, and certainly observe the obvious signs of ice retreat.

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A spot of color in the volcanic highlands. The fall season gives texture to the otherwise monotonous gray of volcanic rubble.

The journey to, and away from Langjökull is a winding dirt road through barren volcanic badlands.  However, late in the fall the sparse vegetation is alive with bright color.  There is something majestic about survival of these plants even in the most hostile environments.

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The most famous water fall in Iceland – Gullfoss.

The drive back to Reykjavik follows the Hvítá river for a short distance.  Along this route the river tumbles over a 3 step staircase creating a beautiful waterfall.  Gullfoss, like Geysir, is on the tour bus route for the Golden Circle so the area is always crowed with camera clickers (okay, I was also a camera clicker).

Hotspots require more time

The geology of Iceland is wonderful – and although the southwestern portion of the island is relatively compact, it is clear that a series of runs and treks hardly do justice to the remarkable tectonic processes that are going on here.  The evidence of volcanism is everywhere, but strangely mysterious in that it is also hidden.  The forces of water, ice and erosion are also everywhere.  Nothing about the landscape of the island seems permanent; wait a hundred years, and eruptions and floods will change the view shed.  It is clear that a real visit to Iceland requires far more than a few days…but it is a great place to run!

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Urridafoss falls – the largest VOLUME waterfall in Iceland, and totally off the beaten track.  Waterfalls here a ubiquitous, and perhaps a bigger signature of the geology than even the volcanoes.

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Running the Heart of the Caldera; It’s about joy not genetics

I am glad I will not be young in a future without wilderness — Aldo Leopold, scientist and author, New Mexico Forester, and architect of the modern Environmental Ethics movement.

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A romp through the San Juans – three 14ers and a collapsed caldera. The run started at the Silver Creek Trailhead, up to Redcloud, over to Sunshine, back to the Trailhead and then looped around Handies Peak. A figure-8 course of high altitude bless. click on pictures to make them large format

“Why do you like to run?” – a question I often get asked. I usually make up some answer to steer the conversation back away from emotional strands to more comfortable analytic themes. In fact, I don’t like to just “run” – I am not really very good at it (if being good is measured by being speedy), and although I run most every day, my joy is found ON the run, especially along rough and rocky wilderness trails where the enormity of nature overwhelms prosaic modern life. The irresistible forces of geology, the incredible delicate touch of nature that can make even the smallest flower bloom with perfectly symmetry, winds that carry no smells made by man – these are the things that unleash astounding joy. At the end of the day I like having accomplished something difficult in a run, but that is more about being a driven personality; it is the joy of nature that makes running so essential to me.

Most any trail can unleash nature, but there are some very special places for me that are beyond the pale.  The San Juan Mountains are my personal enchanting wilderness; not only are the mountains and geology stunning, but rich history of minerals and rugged miners are backdrops to a place that I have visited for more than a half century.  The wilderness here is stark – miles and miles of exposed ridges and peaks far above timberline.  But surprisingly, there is evidence everywhere that prospectors touched and turned over rocks in the most inhospitable places; nature is supreme, but the San Juans have been a siren for hundreds of years for people like me.

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Top of Handies Peak (9/6/15) looking north after a brief storm. The San Juan Mountains have miles and miles of rugged peaks above tree line. Near Lake City, the Red Cloud Wilderness Study Area is nearly 40,000 acres with 34 peaks above 13,000 ft.

Despite my motivation of joy of running in nature and an espoused aversion to “racing”, I do seek out and enjoy organize ultra trail runs.  I choose interesting places – mostly based on geology or history – and toe the line on a half dozen 50+ km races per year. I try to run fast, but in reality, I am a jogging geoscientist.  I am happy with that, but hate failure nevertheless.  Earlier this year I stumbled and fell during a glorious race in the San Juan Mountains known as the San Juan Solstice 50 miler (SJS50).  I have unfinished business with this race, and have focused training around next year’s event.  Of course, this means “training” by returning and running often in the San Juan Mountains.

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Summiting Red Cloud, day II of the Heart of the Caldera. This picture is about 35 minutes after first sunrise, and about 13,500′ in elevation. Fantastic terrane!

The Runs:  Familiar mountains, but a long journey

I decided to set up a trail run(s) within the Lake City Caldera and enjoy the high San Juans before winter once again shroud the peaks in impassable snow.  Labor Day weekend traditionally marks the change in session in the San Juans – although it is quite common to have great weather into mid-October, it is also not usual to get freakish September snows, making running above 13,000 feet a Darwin-Award type event.

Day I of the Heart of the Caldera was a modest 16 miler in the northeast part of the Lake City Caldera.  The route was inspired by the San Juan Solstice 50 M; the path follows Alpine Gulch (a major north-south drainage into Henson Creek) to a pass between Red Mountain and a peak known as 13,881 (many unnamed peaks are only denoted by their elevations).  From the pass, which has an elevation of approximately 11,770 ft, the route climbs and then follows a ridge line to 13,811.  It is a scrabble of about 700 feet to the smooth summit of 13,881 – it is also incredibly peaceful and isolate.  No trail, no people!  From the summit of 13,881 the route is a backtrack with a side scrabble up another prominent peak, Grassy Mountain (elevation 12,821 ft).

The weather forecast for September 5, called for significant rainfall starting at about 11 am.  There had been plenty of rain the previous couple of days in the area, and when I started the run at 6:30 am it only took 1 mile or so before I was soaked to the bone from the dew provided by the heavy growth of the underbrush.  Compared to the SJS50 in late June, the Alpine Gulch Trail was barely passable (or even visible!) due to the summer growth.  The stream was running with less volume than in June, but the 7 crossing required during the climb still meant wadding in ankle deep water.  About 2 miles up Alpine Gulch the drainage splits into an East and West Fork; the East Fork leads to the pass and peaks beyond.  Somewhere around 10,000 ft elevation, there is no sign of the trail, but a runner knows that you must keep heading upward.  There are a number of mines (mostly small spoil mounds) along the valley that I did not notice during the SJS50.  The stream meanders through the spoils, and obviously collects discharge from the old underground workings.  The water is crystal clear, but the channel has a thick orange mud coating.

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East Fork of Alpine Gulch. The water is clear, but there is a mud that probably represents iron minerals that flow out of the old underground workings of mines in the area.

Above 11,000 feet elevation it is possible to rediscover the trail, and running is easier (actually that is a mis-statement, running is never easy above 11,000 ft).  Clouds begin to roll in, and I fear that storm is due any moment (my fear is for lightning, not rain – I can get no wetter…).  A mist descends, and lowers the visibility, but no heavy showers or hail. I pass the saddle, which serves as the first aid station in the SJS50 at 1 hr and 40 minutes (4.8 miles).  I had hoped for views, but all horizons look gray and wet.

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A view of Red Mountain, home of some of the richest mines near Lake City. The view is from the ridge line on 13,881 looking due north. The iron stains are eponymous hero – signaling that hydrothermal solutions surged through the collapsed Lake City Caldera 5-8 million years ago.

The mists – or clouds – temporarily rose about 13,000 ft as I climbed up the ridge to peak 13,881.  Still no great views, but I could at least gaze upon Red Mountain to the north (and know that Lake City was only a couple of thousand feet below).  The picture above is taken about 5.5 miles into the run, and sense of isolation settles on me with great comfort.  The clouds soon dropped to surround me with a thick gray curtain.  It remained with me even as I summited 13,881 – I think the visibility was less than 20 yards.  I quickly retraced the path way back, and headed for Grassy Mountain (or where I thought the peak was!).  This is beautiful running county – all above timberline, and alpine grasses.

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A few hundred ft below the summit of Grassy Mountain. The clouds shrouded the peak, giving the sense that perhaps this was Mt. Doom in Mordor.

I climbed up Grassy Mountain – sort of strange name for a peak in the San Juans.  On the flanks are alpine grasses, but in the clouds I only see crags.  When I reached the summit I was surprised to find a peak register.  I opened the log, and saw only 4 people had signed the register in the last 3 years.  I guess Grassy Mountain is not on the beaten path.  I was now at mile 9.2, and decided to eat some food before running back down the Gulch.  I was rewarded with a temporary rise of the cloud, and captured a panorama of 13,811 and the ridge line defining its northern shoulder.

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Panorama from the crest of Grassy Mountain towards peak 13881 (on the left hand side of the photo). The distance from Grassy to 13,881 is about 1.3 miles as the crow flies.

The descent back to the Alpine Gulch Trailhead was uneventful;  for day one the mileage was just over 16 miles, and the elevation gain was 4,200 ft.  I finished in 5hrs and 50 minutes, assuring that I could brag about a trail run with an average pace of under 3 miles and hour…but that would seem fast compared to day II of the Heart of the Caldera!

The second day I had advertised through the Mountain Trail Series, an excellent resource for trail runners in Northern New Mexico.  I had proposed a run to the top of 3 14ers in the western edge of Lake city Caldera: Red Cloud (14,041 ft), Sunshine (14,006 ft) and Handies (14,058 ft).  The trails connecting these peaks are straight forward, and is quite “runnable” although there is major elevation gain along the 24 mile route.  Labor Day weekend is a great time for a trail run – but that also means there are LOTS of trail runs, and the interest in what I call the “Figure 8 of fun” was mostly cheer leading.  We started and finished the run at Silver Creek Trailhead, which is located in the center of the “figure 8”.  Silver Creek TH is at an elevation of 10,400′;  we started the run at 5:45 am on September 6, and quickly run (an exaggeration…) up the first couple of miles of Silver Creek in the dark.  The temperature at the start was 34 degrees, which is pretty nice when it is dry and there is no wind.  We pass about 10 groups of hikers that had an even earlier start on the day than we did.  Silver Creek gets its name from the stain it leaves on the rock – not from any great silver deposits in the surrounding peaks.  There are some molybdenum deposits in the valley, and these deposits carry some easily dissolved aluminum which precipitates out on the stream boulders giving them the look of the moon when it is full.

sunrise.redcloud

1000 ft below the summit of Red Cloud. The sun has risen in the east (the left hand side of the photograph), and there is a fresh dusting of snow barely visible on the summit. This photo reminded me very much of my last visit to Red Cloud with my good friend Dave Bunk, who made his first 14er summit. He was carrying an old school backpack, and plowed up the steep trail with grit and determination!

There is nothing difficult about the trail to Red Cloud, but the last mile is quite steep, and our pace slows to 40 minutes per mile.  The previous days clouds had dusted the top of Red Cloud with snow, and the trail rocks was coated with ice.  Hoka running shoes and ice are a comical mix, but with care and luck, we arrived at the summit in 1 hr 50 minutes (the distance is 4.5 miles).

RedCloud.summit

Dave Dogruel at the summit of Red Cloud at about 7:30 am. View is to the north.

It is only 1.5 miles running along a ridge to the south to reach Sunshine Peak. However, the icy conditions meant it was a bit of slog.  Sunshine peak is the lowest of Colorado’s 14ers, and the prominence along the ridge line is only 450 feet. However, this in no way diminishes Sunshine, and in fact, is one my very favorite peaks.  Once a runner arrives at Sunshine the views in all directions are stunning; but most hikers and runners just stop at the summit – a little further journey, perhaps 30 yards, leads to a most amazing view.  Sunshine towers above the Valley of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.  There is a nearly vertical drop of 4500 feet!

townofsehrman

View from the summit of Sunshine into the Valley of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison. The path of green in the left-center of the photo is the former sight of the mining town of Sherman – only 1.1 miles away as the crow flies, but 4500′ lower in elevation!

The view down to Lake Fork of the Gunnison River spies a flats at the intersection of two drainages.  It is green from vegetation, but even from this elevation, it looks like a great place for flash floods.  Never to be deterred by geologic disasters, miners built on that exact spot when a rich silver deposit was discovered in 1876.

Blackwonder

The Black Wonder Mine and Mill, from a stock certificate issued in the late 1890s. The mine was high up on the ridge, and ore was transported down via a tram to the mill built on the river.

There is not much to be seen at Sherman today, but I did spend time in my youth picking over the dumps of the Black Wonder.  I don’t have anything to show for it today, but the view from Sunshine floods my mind with happy memories.

townofsherman.new

Photograph of the Black Wonder Mill, and the general store next door in the late 19th century. It was totally destroyed in a flood shortly after this photo. Today this is the site of an aid station in the Hardrock 100.

The total distance from the TH to Sunshine is 6 miles, and we made the summit in just under 3 hours.  The views in all directions are wonderful, but we see lots of clouds building, and know that time is short to assure a safe Handies summit.

day1today2.x

A view from Sunshine to the northeast. The highest ridge-peak in the center of the photograph is peak 13,881. The right of 13,881 is a lower peak in the very center of the photograph, which is Grassy Mountain. Day I of the Heart of the Caldera meets Day II.

The sun has melted the ice on the rocks, and the descent back to the trailhead is pretty fast.  We retrace our steeps are reclimb Red Cloud.  One of my favorite views is to the west, and looking across the southern fork of Silver Creek.  Some hikers choose to bush whack down the steep talus, but it is strongly discouraged – both for safety reasons, and also the erosion that it promotes.  The picture below shows the steep walls of the valley and the long stringers of rockslides.

rockslides

Looking across the South fork of Silver Creek.

We arrive back at Silver Creek TH in 5 hours, and have the lunch of trail running champions – cold pizza and cheetos.  12 miles into the run, and about 12 to go. Right across from the Silver Creek Trail is the Grizzy Basin Trail, heading west-southwest up Handies.  This 4 mile trail is on the Hardrock 100 course, and is a relentless climb that averages 18% grade.  Not really runnable by the likes of me – I am in total awe of my friends like Dave Coblentz and Blake Wood that run this in the Hardrock year after year.

Grizzly.to.Handies

Mile 2 on the Grizzly Gulch trail looking up towards the summit of Handies. The trail follows the ridge on the right shoulder of the peak.

The climb up Grizzly brings our first taste of real weather.  We have hail and wind, intermixed with sunshine.  The trail is nearly empty of hikers – most day hikers chose the much shorter route from west side of Handies (which will be our descent route).  We arrive at the summit and the wind is spectacular.  Handies is a broad summit, and there is little cover from the wind.  The summit is 16.5 miles into the run, and we arrive at 7 hrs elapse.

summitinghandies

Summiting Handies – the last push before getting to the broad top.

I have been to the top of Handies many times, but never I have been there with not another hiker/runner in sight.  All around is wilderness, and although I can see the road to Cinnamon Pass far below I feel far removed from “civilization”.  Many people see marvelous vistas from Handies, but when you ask about the rocks, they shrug and mention that they are all gray and not descript.  That is not what I see – I see exploding volcanoes, the mid-Tertiary ignimbrite flare-up that shaped Colorado and New Mexico, and collapsed calderas that would someday host some of the richest mines in America.

HandiesPeak

Geology of the area around Handies Peak. Most people see gray nondescript rock, but I see the colors of dozens of volcanic eruptions and the erosion of those rocks.

I don’t see grays – I see colors of the different flows and episodes, like a geologic map.  the picture above is the geologic map of the area around Handies, and the colors represent rocks that came from different volcanoes.  A collage of violence.

back.to.sunshine

View back down Grizzly Gulch towards Sunshine – which is behind the vail of moisture falling in the distance. As a crow flies the distance is about 3 miles, but much longer when you run!

The descent down Handies is one of the best runs known to trail lovers – about 3 miles of pretty smooth trail, only a few rock glaciers crossing, and a drop of 2500 feet.  We run those three miles in about 50 minutes, and fell great coming into the upper TH in American Basin.

americanbasin

View from Handies into American Basin. In the center of the photo is Sloan Lake, a cirque basin.

We arrive at the TH in a little less than 8 hrs total elapse time.  However, all the fun is now gone.  We have 4 miles of running along Hinsdale County road 30 to get back to the Silver Creek TH.  It should be fast because in that distance it there is an elevation drop of more than a thousand feet.  We spend about 30 minutes talking to various people in American Basin – a surprising number saw us on Red Cloud and after their climb had driven over to American Basin.  I was shocked that they recognized us, but most said it was easy to remember the crazy guys running at 14,000 ft.  One person said that they remembered my shoes (Hokas) and wondered if I had a foot problem…

roadbacktoTH

Hinsdale Co. RD 30 back to the Silver Creek TH. 4 miles of hard packed rumble….

We left the American Basin TH having run 19.5 miles in 8 hrs and 30 minutes – about 30 minutes slower than I expected.  We still had 4 miles to go, and realistically, it should have taken us an hour.  However, all the chatting – and even more likely the running 16 miles the day before – meant that I was not really able to convince my body to get going.  It took an hour and 20 minutes to get to the finish line.

The Heart of the Caldera runs were a great adventure.  The solitude of the first day was perfectly blended with the challenge and struggle of the climbs of three 14ers on the second.  The total distance covered was just under 40 miles, and the elevation gain was about 12,500 feet.  But, the benefit of breaking the ultra into two days meant that I got to eat at Bruno’s in Lake City between runs!  Bruno’s is a fantastic restaurant run by Frederika & Chef Bruno with some of the best food I have ever eaten.  We always go to Bruno’s and it is so unexpected in a remote corner of the San Juans like Lake City, that it brings joy to my heart.  The downside of multi-day events – several days of 4 am starts!

readytoroll

4 am starts are the norm. Not sure if this is evolution or illness.

Running Fast?

The Redcloud-Sunshine-Handies loop is a challenging run – a geologist’s dream to be sure, but still, it is a true physical test. I have many friends from Los Alamos that have done this loop and I am always amazed how fast they can cover this geologic gauntlet.  I can’t help but wonder why are my friends and colleagues so much faster?  Do I have a poor training regiment?  Am I even less coordinated than I appear in everyday conversation?  Or, am I genetically predisposed for last place in a trail run?  Mostly on a lark I decided to have a genetic analysis based on a blood sample for “athletic genes” a few years ago.

Beginning in the 1960s a group of physicians began to look at genes as indicators of human performance – either in the classroom or on the athletic pitch.  There have been huge data bases complied that provide a statistical framework to investigate the “nature vs nurture” arguments of why some excel in particular fields.  Athletics is one of the richest data basis; there are about 20,000 human genes, and through statistical analysis there are approximately 100 that seem to be related to athletic performance.  I say “seems” because although we can understand the rudimentary functions of genes the complex interplay between all the genes is not even poorly understood.  However, in the last 4 Olympic Games, every single male medalist in distance running races shared some specific alleles!  An allele is a variant form of a gene – inherited – and there can be specific variations that are quite rare.

I had analysis done on 30  genes;  I had some strange vision that a secret would be unlocked by having this analysis.  However, I was mostly unsurprised.  I found a genetic makeup that statistically suggests I have a higher BMI and less VO2 max than endurance athletes (I am slightly stocky, and not quite as good a delivering oxygen to my blood as I would hope), Further, I have a “more efficient deposition of fat leading to higher BMI when consuming a high fat diet”, meaning my love for cheese should be reflected in my choice of swim ware.  But I also found a statistical cadre with powerful muscles, and a quick recovery time.  All my indicators of endurance fell in the vast middle of expected performance – I guess pretty much what I show in every race.

What the genetic markers don’t measure is will power.  Nor do they measure joy.  The lesson learned from this academic excursion – which I am prone to do – is that the mind is the organ that matters.  It is complex; but it is our mind that lets us truly experience joy and happiness.  For me, trail running unleashes something in my soul (mind), that makes life an adventure.

San Juan Solstice 50M; A most beautiful run cut way too short

“Joy to you, we’ve won”, the final words uttered by Philippides upon running from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory over the Persians, circa 490 BC.  Philippides was a professional day-long runner delivering urgent messages.  He is an inspiration for ultra runners — he ran first to Sparta to plea for help (240 km over two days), and then ran the 40 km from Marathon to Athens before expiring.

14000feetandlookingsw

Top of Handies Peak, San Juan Mountains, early June, 2009. The view is to the southeast, and you can see above timberline for 35 miles.

Calderas, collapse, karats, and cannibals, oh my!  The tiny town of Lake City in southwestern Colorado is the home to a magnificent mountain ultra, the San Juan Solstice 50 miler (SJS50).  Lake City is the epicenter of unbelievably beautiful high mountains, amazing geology, mineral and mining history, and only a few miles from the most infamous episode of cannibalism in the old wild west.  In my opinion the San Juan Mountains are the most beautiful in the world, and the mining history has drawn me to the range for 50 years; the opportunity to run a long race through the mountains I have known was something incredibly special that I just had to do (even if I was only marginally qualified for the extreme course!).

michelleonhandies

Michelle Hall, my wife, on her first 14er Handies Peak. Over her shoulder Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn (more 14ers) are visible. Handies is a couple of miles southwest of the SJS50 course.

I first visited the San Juans with my father on a mineral collecting expedition in the early 1960s.  Although I have no real memory of that adventure, I know that it was the first of more than 50 trips we would take before I left home for college.  I visited every mining camp, large and small, across the San Juans looking for mineral treasure.  I found silver, gold, rhodochrosite, great quartz crystals, galena, hubnerite, and artifacts galore. But mostly, I found a place that inspired and thrilled me, and connected with my soul.  The San Juans are no longer a “hidden gem”; they are visited by more than 150,000 people every year.  Telluride has become a major ski resort and playground of the rich.  There are dozens of companies that provide jeep tours to some of the most remote and rugged corners of the range, and sometimes in the summer there are more than 500 ATVs ferrying people to vistas they could barely imagine before they got to the San Juans.  However, despite its growing popularity, the San Juans are still a wilderness, and there are ample opportunities for solitude and reflection — along with climbing, camping, running, and yes, even mineral collecting.

lookingforsilver

Collecting minerals. My grandson’s first mineral collecting trip was to TomBoy located in the San Juans above Telluride. He was 2 and half years old, and found lots of rocks…and a taste of the world’s most beautiful mountain range.

The San Juans are where I took my then-to-become wife on our first “very serious” date.  Once she camped above timberline, and pounded on rocks looking for silver, and had to purify water before breakfast, we knew that we were right for each other.  She saw Cement Creek, Cinnamon and Stoney Pass and the ghost town of Animas Forks before she met my parents.  Years later we returned for a celebration of an anniversary and she climbed her first 14er, Handies Peak.  Later my son would also climb his first 14er there, and it transformed him into a “mountain man”.

Lake City is on the north-central flank of the San Juans, and is less well known than the “big three” mining towns that brought much fame to the area:  Silverton, Ouray, and Telluride.  However, Lake City is just as historic, and is only a few miles – as the crow flies – from 5 peaks that top 14,000 feet. The San Juan Solstice 50 started as the Lake City 50 miler back in 1995.  The terrain is spectacular, but also poses challenges for snow pack and summer lightning storms – much of the course is above timberline. In the early part of last decade the race assumed its modern name, and the goal of running close to the solstice became a mantra.  The SJS50 is extremely popular, and requires runners to qualify and signup for a lottery for the 250 available spots.  The lottery and wait list adds drama to the hopeful runners, but the real challenge is waiting to see if the snow pack cooperates with the third week in June.  In 2015 it was touch and go – an amazing wet late spring kept the high country under a thick white blanket.  Snows finally began to melt in mid-June – and boy did they melt, sending roaring runoff down the drainages.  This set the stage for a true adventure – a 50 mile run with more than 12,800 feet elevation gain and loss, a low point of about 8,700 ft elevation, and an average elevation of approximately 11,000 ft, snow fields, and 9 stream crossing with churning melt waters.  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it turns out lots can go wrong – flat tires on 4WD roads, warning for missing 25 mile/hour speed limits, and most unfortunately, a bad trip on a downhill run that ends a race early.  However,  the SJS50 is now a life challenge for me.

fromUlay

Artifacts from the Ute and Ulay mines, located just beyond Alpine Gulch. In the early part of the 20th Century there was a major struggle between newly formed unions and mine management that played out across the mining camps of the Southwest. Pictured are two union ribbons and a ceremonial “sliver slug” stamped “Ulay” (the slug is about 2 inches across). These artifacts are from the collection of a close friend, Dave Bunk. The history of the Lake City is really about the miners and mines – and what is left today are these wonderful artifacts. Jesse LaPlante photograph.

There’s gold in them thar hills (with a shout out to Mark Twain)

I have written several articles on the San Juans – some for technical journals, and some for more popular literature.  Recently, Gloria Staebler and Lithographie published a monogramThe San Juan Triangle of Colorado; Mountains of Minerals that captures the spirit of the geology and the wonderful minerals.  From my writing in the monogram I attempt to tell the tale of the 8th wonder of the world.

san-juan-triangle-co_2

Lithographie monographie on the San Juans (http://www.lithographie.org/bookshop/the_san_juan_triangle.htm)

The San Juan Mountains are a spectacular range of towering and rugged peaks that cover an area larger than the entire state of Vermont –  25,000 sq km of alpine bliss in southwestern Colorado. The range stretches from Creede in the northeast to Durango in the southwest; the San Juans are home to 14 peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation and  hundreds of peaks that top 12,000 feet.  The topography is extraordinarily steep, and much of the range is above timberline.  The imposing landscape was shaped by some of the most violent volcanic eruptions known in geologic history.  Between 35 and 26 million years ago huge volcanic centers rose and collapsed and erupted 10s of thousands of cubic km of rhyolitic and andesitic tuffs.  The scared landscape that remained was full of factures and faults that would later localize the magmatic fluids that deposited the ore bodies of some of Colorado’s richest mining districts:  Creede, Summitville, Silverton, Ouray, Telluride, Rico, and of course, Lake City.

allthecalderas

The volcanic centers of the San Juans. The western-most center is a series of calderas that formed over a 5 million year period nearly 28 million years ago. The initials “LC” denotes the Lake City Caldera, home of the SJS50.

The extraordinary episode of volcanism that created the San Juan Mountains began at the end of the Eocene (a geologic epoch 56-34 million years ago).  More than 30 centers of volcanism formed through out southern Colorado and northern New Mexico in what is known as the Mid-Tertiary Ignimbrite Flare-Up.  These volcanoes probably looked like stratavolcanos that form above subduction zones (eg, Mount Rainier and Mount Fuji) but they produced far more voluminous eruptions.  Initially, the eruptions produced andesites and explosive ash falls, but starting about 30 million years ago huge sheets of pyroclastic flows were erupted.  The pyroclastic flows are welded tuffs known as ignimbrites. These flows are unparalleled in size; within the San Juans there are at least 22 flows that are larger than 100 cubic kilometers.  The only way to explain these flows is to assume nearly continuous eruptions for dozens of years.  The eruptive centers ultimately collapse forming large calderas. The largest eruption known in the geologic record occurred in the San Juan Mountains at the La Garita Caldera north of Creede (denoted as LG in the figure above).   La Garita produced the Fish Canyon eruption 28 million years ago; the Fish Canyon Tuff was voluminous – more than 5000 cubic kilometers!  The Fish Canyon tuff could fill Lake Michigan!  Equally remarkable, after La Garita erupted the Fish Canyon tuff, the volcanic system continued to be active for 1.5 million years producing at least 7 other major eruptions.

The reason for the Mid-Tertiary Ignimbrite Flare-Up is a subject of geologic debate, but most geologists believe that the volcanism is related to the tectonics along the west coast of North America.  The Laramide Orogeny, which resulted in the uplift of much of the Rocky Mountains along an arc from Canada to New Mexico, is thought to be related to the subduction of the Farallon oceanic plate beneath North America.  The Farallon plate was quite young geologically, and thus buoyant.  This likely resulted in a shallow angle of subduction, which caused an uplift of the entire western US.  About 35 million years ago the last bit of the Farallon plate was subducted resulting in a major re-ordering of plate tectonics on the western edge of the North America.  Without subduction, the Farallon plate began to simply sink through the mantle in a process that is known as “slab roll-back”. This allowed very hot mantle to melt large regions of the lower most crust, and created the magma sources for the ignimbrites.  The eruptions of ignimbrites lead to the collapse of the huge calderas throughout the San Juans and developed a structural fabric that would localize much younger volcanic activity, which would give rise to rich mineral districts.

LakeCityCaldera

The Lake City Caldera (from Bove et al., 2001). The high peaks between Henson Creek, which passes through Lake City, and the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River are all volcanic centers that erupted about 22.5 million years before the present.  Collapse of the volcanic center produced an elliptical depression – about 1/2 the diameter of the Valles Grande Caldera near Los Alamos.

In the area defined by the San Juan Triangle (Telluride-Ouray-Silverton, and over to Lake City) there are four collapsed calderas; the Uncompahgre, San Juan, Silverton, and Lake City.  The first three were formed during a time period of 29 to 27 million years ago.  The Lake City caldera was the last to form, at the end of the ignimbrite flare up, 22.5 million years ago.  The geologic record within the San Juan Triangle is complex and difficult to interpret due to the superposition of the calderas and their structural manifestations. The Uncompahgre and San Juan calderas are the oldest; they were active at the same time, and collapsed simultaneously with the eruption of a very large ignimbrite sheet.   The ring faults associated with the Uncompahgre and San Juan calderas form an oblong structure that is about 45 km by 15 km, trending southwest-northeast. The formation of the Lake City Caldera was the last gasp of the Mid-Tertiary Ignimbrite flare up.  The rich ore deposits in the San Juan Triangle were emplaced 5 to 15 m.y. after the calderas formed. This mineralization is classified as epithermal and is associated with minor episodes of magmatic activity.   The base metal deposits contain mainly galena, sphalerite, and chalcopyrite while the precious metal deposits are mainly native gold.  Silver occurs in a suite of exotic minerals that includes tetrahedrite/tennantite, proustite, and pyrargyrite.  Gangue minerals include quartz (most common), calcite, pyrite, pyroxmangite, rhodochrosite, fluorite, and barite.

CapitolCityminerals

Minerals from “Mr. Mesler’s Mine”, which was located in Capitol City, and short distance beyond Alpine Gulch on Henson Creek (about 9 miles from Lake City). From Dave Bunk’s collection (Jesse LaPlante photograph).

There were hints of the great mineral wealth of the San Juans in the earliest expeditions exploring the western US.  In 1848, John Fremont led a privately funded expedition into Colorado to scout a route for an intra-continental rail route along the 38th Parallel. The expedition was a disaster due to an exceptionally cold winter, but an unnamed member of Freemont’s party discovered gold nuggets and flakes near present day Lake City. The exact location of the discovery is not known, but it was probably the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, and may well have been related to the future Golden Fleece mine, which would become Lake City’s most famous mine 30 years later.  This is the first documented discovery of gold in the state of Colorado, although it was largely ignored.

In 1859 gold was discovered along the Front Range, west of present day Denver. This coincided with the decline of gold mining along the Sierra Nevada of California and created a rush of prospectors to Colorado. This became known as the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush, although the gold discoveries had nothing to do with the famous 14er. The huge influx of prospectors far outstripped the easily won gold in the Denver area, and prospectors fanned out to other parts of the Rockies. In the late summer of 1860 Charles Baker led a party of gold seekers to the San Juans. Baker entered the San Juans along the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River – he walked along part of the course of the SJS50! His party eventually passed over Cinnamon Pass, and discovered gold along the Animas River near Silverton.  There was no putting the genie back in the bottle – mining became the heart beat of the San Juans for a century.  The early years were extremely difficult;  the San Juans were actually part of land the US government had agreed was owned by the Ute Indians, the area was so remote that it was nearly impossible to supply and provision, and the mining season was short and harsh due to the alpine environment.  In 1873 the Brunot Agreement opened the land to mining (the Utes in return received $25,000 annually in royalty, and the right to hunt), and  soon toll roads and narrow gage trains began to “civilize” the area.

1911mapofGF

Early cross-section of the Golden Fleece Mine.The upper reaches of the mine assayed at 125 oz of gold and 1250 oz of silver per ton.

The first major mineral discovery near Lake City occurred on August 27, 1871 Henry Henson discovered a rich silver deposit – to be called the Ute-Ulay – along a stream about 3.5 miles from the present location of Lake City. Later this stream would be named Henson Creek (the SJS50 follows Henson Creek for the first 2.5 miles of the course). Once the Brunot Agreement was signed, Henson returned and developed the Ute-Ulay mine, which was a major silver and lead producer (but few mineral specimens exist today – a pity).  This development attracted entrepreneurs of every type; one of these was Enos Hotchkiss who came to build a toll road but instead discovered gold above Lake San Cristobal, a couple of mines south of Lake City.  Hotchkiss did not find much gold at first – in fact his claim was largely based on the obvious color of the rock – anyone with a sprinkling of geologic knowledge just has to gaze up Red Mountain and see the beautiful color of an oxidized cap, and know that there is gold in them thar hills. However, the claim was enough to commit to prospecting, and Lake City was founded on this promise. Eventually the Hotchkiss claim was renamed the Golden Fleece Mine, and became one of Colorado’s most famous.  The early years of the Golden Fleece relied on telluride ores, and there are reports of individual mining carts assaying 50,000 dollars of bullion.  I have been underground at various adits associated with the Golden Fleece looking for rumored veins of hessite, one of my favorite minerals. Alas, like most old San Juan mines, the conditions are deplorable, and one is actually just lucky to get out alive.

goldenfleecestock

Stock certificate from the Golden Fleece mining and milling company dated 1896. Although the Golden Fleece produced silver, and thus was impacted by the 1893 silver crash, the steady production of gold helped the property make it through the “silver crisis”. Dave Bunk collection.

The news of the Golden Fleece started a “Lake City” rush. By 1880 there were dozens of mines in Carson (along the SJS50 course), Argentum and Capitol City.  The population of Lake City swelled to 2500, and the boom times were full steam.  However, silver soon ran into the buzz saw of politics.  The rich deposits of the San Juans began to push the price for silver bullion down, and western mining barons demanded action.  In 1890 Congress passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which required the US government to purchase $4.5 million dollars worth of silver every month.  This proved to be as unpopular among the Republicans of the day as the Affordable Health Care act today, and was repelled in 1893 – and the price of silver plummeted.  In a few week period the price dropped from $1.50 per oz to 63 cents.  At the time, Colorado produced about 2/3 of all the silver in the country; within 2 years more than 1/2 the silver mines in Colorado – including those near Lake City – were shuttered.  Although the mining industry would eventually recover, the heyday had passed.  Today there is some mining in the Lake City area – for example the Golden Wonder Mine located at the head of Deadman’s Gulch – but mostly there is history of an incredible tough breed of pioneer that has long passed.

rhodochrosite.bunk

Rhodochrosite, Champion Mine, Dave Bunk collection.  The Champion Mine is located near Cinnamon Pass – the road over Cinnamon Pass was built by Enos Hotchkiss. Jesse LaPlante photograph.

In 1911 Irving et. al published Geology and Ore Deposits near Lake City, Colorado.  In the text is a haunting statement: “Secondary enrichment…led to the formation of the rich bonanzas of ruby silver found here and throughout …”  Oh, to find a pyrargyrite or proustite from Lake City! I have not in 50 years, so I suppose I am happy to run the San Juan Solstice instead.

googleLC

Google Earth Image of various points along the SJS50. The course starts in Lake City and head west on Henson Creek, then south up, way up, Alpine Gulch. The course turns towards Redcloud Peak, a 14er, but before arriving there descends into the Lake Fork valley. After crossing the valley the course climbs steeply up to the continental divide, and has 15 miles above timberline.

50 Miles, a clock ticking, and then a trip

Lake City is a small town, and every resident seems to be involved in the race.  The Lake City of my youth was a decaying frontier mining town; like nearly all Colorado mountain mining communities it has been gentrified and is now a destination for outdoor enthusiasts of all sorts. Gentrification came decades later than to Aspen or Telluride, so it is still has the rustic flavor of the early part of the 20th Century.  But make no mistake, expensive vacation homes and a very fine French Chef are now part of the Lake City landscape.  The SJS50 checkin is most of the day before the race – lots of hard core trail runners from all around are wandering the small town park that serves as the start and finish to the race.  It does not take insightful self awareness to immediately recognize that I am not really “like” most of the runners.  However, that is not why I run, and I am truly excited to be in the San Juans.

The final checkin for race begins at 4 am on Saturday, June 27.  I put my drop bags into the piles for a couple of the aid stations, and begin to get nervous.  Visiting various parts of the course the day before I know that it will be wet and muddy, so I have a couple of extra pairs of shoes, lots of socks, and of course, my special energy supplies tucked into my drop bags that proudly displace my name and bib number.  In ultras your bib number is aways assigned alphabetically, so my bag is pretty easy to find (although not as easy to find as my friend Dave Zerkle from Los Alamos….).  At 4:55 a soft bull horn announces that the race will start in 5 minutes.  I hustle into position, but it seems strange to me that runners are still milling around the park or standing in line at the port-a-potties.  Suddenly I hear, with no warning, a growled “GO”, and people are off running.  There are also runners running from the port-a-potties.  I realize that 13 or 14 hours running will not rely on a punctual start.

startinginthedark

The glint of reflective tape and headlamps at 5 am start of the San Juan Solstice. A bit of a chaotic beginning, but a perfect morning.

The first 2.6 miles of the race are up a gravel road along Henson Creek.  There is not much chit-chat, and the sounds I hear are the crunch of 500 feet on the road gravel and mixed with the turbulent roar of Henson Creek bringing snow melt down from the high country.  Dave Zerkle and I settle into a very agreeable pace of a little better than 11 minutes per mile (the specter of 50 miles looms large).  When we arrive at Alpine Gulch we start the real race.  Although we have climbed 500 feet thus far, in the next 6.5 miles we have nearly 4000 feet elevation gain.  The sun is still an hour from lighting the narrow canyon, but there is enough glow to switch off the headlamps.  The creek in Alpine Gulch is churning, but the water is much lower than just a week before. At mile 3.75 we come to the first of 7 (or 8, 9, or 10, but who is counting) crossings of the creek.  The crossing has a rope for assistance, and a number of volunteers to offer advice.  The runners stack up waiting for their chance to jump into the frigid waters…the first step is a doozy, although the water is only a bit above my knees.  Cold, but I am surprised how good it feels!

river.crossing

The first river crossing along Alpine Gulch. This photo was taken the day before the race, scouting the various segments. The picture does not give a great sense of the water depth, but it is about 2.5 feet here. At some of the higher crossing the water is definitely crotch level.

The course criss crosses the gulch many times, and at each water entry there are volunteers and a rope.  Some crossing are more challenging than others, but every time the runners emerge with soaked shoes, socks and compression sleeves.  I really enjoy the crossings, except they continually bunch the runners.  Dave Zerkle and I are trying to maintain a 20 minutes per mile or better (the average grade on most of the climb is 17%).  For the most part, the running dynamics are such that we can pass the slower runners, and get passed by the occasional faster runner (probably the people that were in the port-a-pottie when the race started).  However, around mile 6 I become quite impatient with the “group-pace” and ask to semi-sprint past a dozen runners.  It is hard work, but rewarded with open trail. A downside is that I lost Zerkle.  The first aid station is located at a small saddle at mile 7.6.  The cutoff time for this station is 7:45 am – in other words, 2hr45min from the start.  Sounds easy, but the climb is tough.  I planned on arriving at 7 am, and I am 6 minutes early.  I feel fantastic, and have visions of a sub-13 hr race.

redmountain

View of the south side of Red Mountain from Aid Station #1. The red color that is usually so distinctive is muted in the early morning sun. However, on the ascent up the gulch there are many old mines and the cabins of prospectors past.

Although the aid station is at a saddle, the climbing continues.  I am still moving well, not really tired, and hypnotized by the scenery.  I feel like I am home.  Shortly before summitting at the high point of the first part of the course I catch up to another runner from Los Alamos, Sarah Thien.  She has been battling an injury, and is not her usual rapid self.  We do get to chat a bit, and both marvel that the mountains surrounding us.

terryontop

The first climb is nearly over – a pass on the shoulder of an unnamed 13,600 foot peak visible over my left shoulder. The day is spectacular! In the distance I can see Handies and Sunshine Peaks.

Once on the divide I know that the course is going to descend nearly 3500 feet in the next six miles.  All those hard earned feet and inches of elevation gained are soon to be lost, and gravity wins again.  I always have a difficult time shifting gears from climbing to running downhill.  I suppose it is the stiffness of age, but my hips always have to be convinced that it is okay to have strides longer than 10 inches.  After a mile or so I am beginning to hit a stride of 11:30 minutes per mile;  I had hope for 10 minutes per mile, but I am ahead of schedule never the less!

sarah.top

Sarah Thien running across the divide. The view is towards the west, and the high peaks of Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn can be seen in the distance.

There are a number of snow crossing, but the elite runners have post holed a pathway.  The snow is soft and wet — and slippery – but mostly enjoyable.  At mile 10.5 the snow is behind me, and the steep descent begins.  I am excited and begin to try and sprint.  Disaster strikes at mile 11 – I trip.  I am on a steep trail section and tumble head-long downhill. I land hard on my artificial knee and my right forearm.  The trail is rutted, and I am facedown, feet above my head, unable to get up.  I realize this is bad, but I hope that it is a typical trail run trip where the blood is always worse than the damage.  My dignity is challenged as I try and right myself – a woman runs past as I am still down and asks “did you fall?”  Oh, if only I could have actually answered that question with a response it deserved!

I get up, and start downhill knowing that the Williams Aid Station is only 4.5 miles ahead.  I can’t really run, but I am moving.  Lots of runners now pass me, reminding me that hubris is a nasty sin. I am worried about my knee – being an artificial joint I imagine some horrific breakage.  Hardly likely, but a concern nevertheless. My right foot (below my artificial knee) is totally numb.  Every step feels like I am swinging a club attached to my knee.  Before the fall I was on pace to arrive at the Williams Aid Station at 9:05 am.  Instead I arrive at 9:32.  I check in, and then very reluctantly, drop the race.

cuts

After clean up – once the blood and grim is removed, it does not look so bad. Well, at least the knee. Unfortunately, the day is done.

The medical staff help clean up the wounds, and I get bandaged up.  My wife is at the aid station, and provides the sad sag-wagon ride back to Lake City.  After only finishing 16 miles I am quite depressed.  I look up on the ride in and see two parts of the course I very much looked forward to: Slumgullion and Vickers.

slumgullion

Michelle standing at the Slumgullion pass point of interest. Over her head is the scarp of the repeated Earthflows.

The Slumgullion Earthflow is one of the most interesting and odd geologic features on the entire run. In the 1870s this strange tongue of yellow chalky debris was identified as a landslide off Mesa Seco (the map below shows the geography of the slide).  It was later recognized that the Slumgullion was not “a landslide” but a series of large scale debris flows that have been active for hundreds of years.  About 1200 years ago the competent rocks on the top of Mesa Seco began to slide down towards the river valley because the underlying rocks, which are heavily altered ignimbrites from the Lake City Caldera complex, were exposed and rapidly eroded.  The first flow damned the river and formed a prototype Lake San Cristobal.  Eventually the river cut through this old debris flow and drained the lake, only to see two other episodes of mass wasting, one 700 years ago, and most recently, 300 years ago (and this flow is still active). The distance from the head of the flow – the scarp on the cliffs of Mesa Seco – to the toe is about 7 km, and 170 million cubic meters of material are contained within the scarp.

fig1

The Slumgullon – a large landslide due to the collapse of steep cliffs of decomposing volcanic tuff.

There is a section of the slide that remains active.  At one time it was a standard geology student training exercise to measure downward movement with seasonal surveys.  Today the movement is measured with SAR (synthetic aperture radar).  The image below is from a pair of NASA overflights, and is colored to show the motion over a one week period in 2011.  The red/purple colors show the most rapid motion, about 4 inches per week.

675939main_Slumgullion-UAVSAR

SAR image of the Slumgullion Earthflow. The slide is outlined in red, and the colors are constructed from the fringes of the differences between two radar images. The slide a few hundred meters above the SJS50 crossing is slowly moving downhill.

Although the Slumgullion slide is strange, it pales in weirdness to the last section of the course – the climb up Mesa Seco.  The SJS50 course is very close to the Alferd (sometimes written Alfred) Packer cannibalism site – in fact we are probably running on the very ground that Packer’s victims camped on at back in 1874. Packer – with no real experience, but a gift for tall tales – guided 5 men to the area in February (the middle of winter!) to look for gold.  It seems they were prospecting very close to the future Golden Wonder Mine (it is in Deadman Gulch, named for the Packer victims), but they became snow bound and quickly ran out of supplies.  There are many versions of what happened next, but it is clear that Alferd killed and ate his companions to survive.  For this reason I believe that the final aid station, named “Vicker’s” for the nearby ranch should actually be called Packer, and there should be bacon there…. I ponder what it must have been like to be in the San Juans 140 years ago.  I often think I was born 100 years too late, and could have been a naturalist.  Then I recall the amusing tale of the Hinsdale County Judge that presided over the trial of Packer and sentenced him to be hanged (the sentence was eventually overturned because Alferd ate his victims while Colorado was still a territory, and cannibalism was not a crime in the territory….really!); was reputed to have said: “Stand up yah voracious man-eatin’ sonofabitch…. When yah came to Hinsdale County, there was siven dimmycrats. But you, yah et five of ’em, goddam yah….Packer, you Republican cannibal, I would sintince ya ta hell but the statutes forbid it.”  Ah politics, they have not changed in 140 years.

After I get cleaned up and rebandaged, I go to the finish line and wait for all my friends to finish.  As the first runners come in I am struck how most look very different than runners after a 50K race.  Here they are far more tired, looking thankful for the finish instead of happy.  Nearly every runner I know tells a tale of how difficult the conditions were this year and how hard, very hard, the run was.  I think of Philippides who’s legend inspires ultra runners — giving it all, raising their arms in victory as they cross the finish line, and crumpling to the ground in exhaustion.  I suspect even Philippides would find the SJS50 challenging.

theend

A butterfly at Alpine Gulch. Simple beauty everywhere.

My morning after the race I have come to grips with my race-interupted.  I have decided that this is something I can not leave undone. I will return in 2016 – in fact, it will be the focus of all my training for the next year.  I also wonder how I can make the San Juans my home.

The Riff of the Rio Grande Rift: Running in the Pecos Wilderness and up Santa Fe Baldy

Both the man of science and the man of action live always at the edge of mystery, surrounded by it – J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was appointed the Director of Los Alamos Laboratory in November 1942.

stormoverSangre.post

View of a late spring storm over the Sangre de Cristo mountains viewed from Los Alamos (photo by Jim Stein, Los Alamos photographer extraordinaire, May 26, 2015). The peak in the center-left is Santa Fe Baldy (elevation 12,632 feet).

The town of Los Alamos sits high above the Rio Grande River on the Pajarito Plateau.  The location of the town will always be associated with the Jemez Mountains and the spectacular Valles Caldera; however, the view from the town is always to the east, across the Rio Grande Rift, and towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  The Sangre are the southern most range of mountains that are part of the Rockies, and the view from Los Alamos is dominated by a series of rugged high peaks – Truchas, Jicarita, Sante Fe Baldy Peaks all top 12,500′ – these rocky spires guard the Pecos Wilderness, one of the Jewels of unspoiled New Mexico.

The creation myth of the Los Alamos often casts J. Robert Oppenheimer as selecting the isolated and rugged Pajarito Plateau for the project Y laboratory because of a connection with the Los Alamos Ranch School, a boy’s college prep school. However, that is incorrect – indeed, Oppenheimer recommended and lobbied for a laboratory in New Mexico because of his affection for the area.  But that attachment was with the area that would become the Pecos Wilderness Area.  In 1922 Oppenheimer and his brother Frank visited the Pecos Valley and loved it – so much so, that the brothers first rented, and eventually bought, a ranch along the Pecos River which they named “Perro Caliente” (the legend is that when Oppenheimer found the land for sale he shouted “hot dog”, and the name seemed logical for the new ranch).  When General Groves and Oppenheimer visited New Mexico to locate project Y the preferred site was near Jemez Springs.  However, Oppenheimer convinced Groves that the high cliffs would make the scientists claustrophobic, and thus, unproductive.  The next site visited was the Los Alamos Ranch School, and Oppenheimer beamed with joy at the view towards the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and exclaimed that the scientists would be inspired by the vast vista.  Of course, to the is day, the scientists — at least this one — remain inspired by the magnificent mountains.

attheranch

J. Robert Oppenheimer and E.O. Lawrence at the Oppenheimer Ranch along the Pecos River in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Oppenheimer often rode a horse from his ranch up to Lake Katherine just below Santa Fe Baldy.

The high mountain peaks of the Sangre are accessible by a number of trails that are only 35 miles from Los Alamos.  These trails allow great entry into the high country for trail running (and hiking!); several of the trailheads are located at the Santa Fe Ski Basin, and are gateways to runs of 20, 30, and even 50+ miles at elevations that never drop below 10,000′. This is a perfect training ground for the ultras like the San Juan Solstice 50 Miler (June 27, only 2 weeks away) — so off went about 10 runners from Los Alamos and Santa Fe on June 13 to get some quality high altitude climbing and descending, and tasting the ever changing alpine weather.

Zerkle.done

Dave Zerkle, at the Sante Fe Ski Basin after a wet run up Santa Fe Baldy.

The geologic story of Santa Fe Baldy

New Mexico is an arid state. In fact, it has the lowest water-to-land ratio of any of the 50 states in the US, and more than three quarters of the few lakes that exist are actually man made reservoirs. Despite this lack of water, or perhaps because it is so scarce, the human history of the state is dominated by a narrow ribbon of water that bisects New Mexico, the Rio Grande River.  The Rio Grande is long, but not wide, and only in New Mexico would the name “Grande” be applied to this river.  The stream gauge at Otowi Bridge — on the hiway route from Los Alamos to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains – read 2500 cubic ft per second the morning of June 13, 2015 (the Mississippi River flow was 220 times larger at St Louis this morning).  However, this modest flow supports the state, and 75 percent of the state’s population lives within 50 miles of the Rio Grande.

The Rio Grande River is also a remarkable geologic marker. The headwaters are in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, and entire course of the river through New Mexico follows a topographic depression that traces the Rio Grande Rift (RGR).  The RGR is relatively uncommon geologic phenomena, a continental rift (there are only three others in world), and it represents a stable continental plate slowly being torn apart; or more correctly, stretched apart.  The RGR stated about 25-30 million year before the present, and represents the end stages of extensive crustal extension throughout the southwest. The crust between the California-Nevada border and the Tucson, Arizona extended by as much as 50% during this time. The RGR is presently opening at less than 2 mm per year, but integrated over millions of years this has created a “hole” where the crust has been stretched apart. This hole is instantiated by a series of basins that have been filled with the sediments transported down the Rio Grande River.

Basins

The trace of the Rio Grande Rift is marked by a deep graben, which is mostly filled with sediments that have washed down the Rio Grande River over the last 25 million years. Los Alamos sits on the western margin of the Rift, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are along the eastern margin. Between Los Alamos and Sante Fe Baldy is the Espanola Basin.

The figure above shows the largest of these basins, including the location of the Espanola Basin which sits between Los Alamos and Santa Fe, and is more than 10,000 ft deep and filled with ancient river sediments.  The flanks of rifts are almost always elevated relative to pre-opening of the rift.  This may seem counter intuitive given that the opening of the rift creates a “hole”.  However, the opening of the rift is usually associated with ascending hot mantle material, which “lifts” the region overall.

riftdynamics

Conceptional cartoon for continental rift dynamics. Ascending hot mantle materials raise the elevation, and as the crust is extended a rift valley forms. The flanks of the rift are often uplifted high mountains with steep faces sloping into the rift valley.

This is the case for the entire eastern flank of the Rio Grande Rift in northern New Mexico.  The present topography of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains owes its existence to the opening of the RGR.  The Sangres are an ancient mountain range and certainly were part of a proto-Rocky Mountains.  However, studies of erosional surfaces indicate that 35 million years ago the prominence of the Sangres was only a thousand feet.  Opening of the rift allowed the rocks of the range to rise to their present elevation and develop and prominence of over 7,500′.

pecosmapRobertsonMoench1979

Geologic map of the Pecos Wilderness Area. The western margin is a block of plutonic granitic rocks that have been uplifted during the opening of the Rio Grande Rift. This block contains all the high peaks of the Sangre de Cristo range (from Robertson and Moench, 1979).

The core of the Sangre de Christo Mountains in the Pecos Wilderness area are Precambrian plutonic granites (and granitic gneiss).  In the figure shown above, the large elongate block on the western side of the map shows the extent of this plutonic rocks which are approximately 1.6 billion years old.  They are fragments of the original North American crust that were probably formed 5 to 10 km beneath the surface of the Earth.

The topography from the Jemez Mountains to the Sangre de Cristo Range are due to the dynamics of the Rio Grande Rift.  In fact, the entire landscape of the New Mexico has been influenced and shaped by the RGR.  As a geologic architect, the rift is Frank Lloyd Wright.

lookinguptobaldy

Looking up at Santa Fe Baldy from the Winsor Trail just beyond the Rio Nambe crossing. 2000 feet to climb in about 2.5 miles. Steep and sweet.

Sky running in the Sangre 

The Mountain Trail Series group (meaning Dave Coblentz from Los Alamos) organized a trail run for the high country of Pecos Wilderness.  The run (route shown below) climbed several of the peaks, and included some cross-country (no trails).  Several of the less ambitious (I am actually always ambitious, but my athletic ambitions do not match my actual skill) chose to run a section of the course.  The IDEA was to run up Santa Fe Baldy and then loop back over Lake Peak.

Coblentz.map

Map of the “course” for Beyond Baldy, a Mountain Trail Series Event. A group of us chose a slightly less ambitious versions that topped Santa Fe Baldy and Lake Peak without venturing cross country to Redondo Peak.

The forecast called for rain, but gave a glimmer of hope that the precipitation would hold off until noon.  However, at the start of the run at 7 am it was clear that a storm was brewing.  The Winsor Trailhead has an elevation of about 10,200′, and that is the low point of the run. The trail starts with a steep, switchback climb – about 500 feet in the first half mile – and by the top of first segment the fast runners have baked me off the end of the group.  This is good because it gives me time to look at the rocks and not feel pressure.  The trail is soft and not particularly rocky, but there are ample outcrops to see large blocks of granitic gneiss/schist glistening in the morning light.  The schist is rich in mica – and it is a marvel to imagine that this delicate mineral could last for over a billion years!

Once the trail enters the Pecos Wilderness boundary it is fairly flat for about 4 miles.  Easy running, along with a couple nice stream crossings.  When you arrive at the Winsor-Nambe trail fork the serious business of climbing begins.  However, today is a training run, so the pace is steady and easy. About 1/2 hour from the summit of Baldy we can see the fast runners along the ridge nearly to the top.

terryontop

Standing on the summit of Santa Fe Baldy. Behind me is the silhouette of Truchas Peak and ridge, about 30 miles north. There is no sunshine this June morning.

The views from the summit of Santa Fe Baldy are usually breathtaking.  However, today, hanging clouds at the front edge of a storm surround the ridges and obscures any distant vistas.  There is a fine view down to Katherine Lake, which still has some ice!  Lake Katherine is within a cirque on the northeast side of Baldy.  This cirque was formed by alpine glaciers that were extensive about 11,000 years ago.  Based on the number and character of the cirques on Baldy and Lake Peak the annual average temperature of the region must have been about 10 degrees F less than today. Katherine Lake is the largest alpine lake in the New Mexico (although small), and has an unbelievable connection to J. Robert Oppenheimer – he named it.  The lake is on maps that were produced before 1930 with no name, but in 1933 a map was produced that included the name “Katherine Lake”, and a reference to Oppenheimer as the namer.  It turns out that on J. Robert’s first visits to Pecos he became infatuated with a young woman of an old New Mexico family, Katherine Chaves.  His affections were apparently unreturned (it would appear that Oppenheimer was a nerd as far as the opposite sex was concerned, and he may have never even approach Chaves), but on his many trips riding horses in the Pecos came to love the small lake beneath Baldy, and wistfully named it Katherine Lake.

lookingatkatherine

a view from Santa Fe Baldy down to Katherine Lake. There was still a thin covering of ice on most of the lake, extremely unusual for June!

After a short break at the summit it was clear that it would soon start storming, and we began the descent down Baldy back towards Lake Peak.

zerkle

Dave Zerkle on the flank of Santa Fe Baldy. Over his right shoulder is Lake Peak and the cirque that contains Nambe Lake.

Soon there was grapple falling – then hail – then rain – then hard hail.  All those things are just an enjoyable part of trail running.  However, they were accompanied by thunder and lightning, and it was prudent to get off the exposed ridge lines as fast as possible. At this point I am reminded that being an old, slow runner has advantages – feet close together makes for less potential drop during a close-by lightning strike!

lightning

Most lightning fatalities are NOT from direct strikes. Rather, they are from close by strikes and the fact that humans make a grounding loop. Strangely, if your feet are together the potential drop from one foot to the other is much lower than if you have a wide stance….So, run with a shuffle.

The down pour dictated a change of plans, and we had to delay the run up to Lake Peak for another day.  Nevertheless, the run up Baldy is a great adventure!

moonrise

Moonrise over Santa Fe Baldy seen from Los Alamos. Another outstanding photo from Jim Stein. Full moon, mid-April, 2015.

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).

altitude550

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

rainierfrombottom

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.

journeybegings

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.

Clarence Dutton

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.