Sunday, July 12, 2009

7-11-09 Mt. Adams via the Star lake Trail and the Search for the True Timberline

Mt. Washington at dawn last Saturday (7-11-09) from the cabin in Pinkham Notch. I was going to spend the day on the Carter ridge but when I saw this sunrise and the telltale signs of another gorgeous summer day I changed my mind and decided to get up higher than the Carters and climb Mt. Adams.

I was on the trail before 7 am and a mile or two up the Valley Way as the sun came over the ridge on the northern end of the range. The sun filtering through these stripped maple leaves (Acer pensylvanicum) reminded me of a couple of things. One is that the relationship between the sun and those green leaves represents everything of value on Earth. Allan Savory (1988) says that all or most of our wealth, even monetary wealth, on Earth comes from the sun. The second thing, going one step further, is the astonishing idea that the sun, being at a precise distance from Earth and working in concert with the chlorophyll in leaves, catalyzes a fairly uncomplicated chemical reaction using carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, and some highly active phosphate, to give us life (as we know it on Earth). The breathtaking elegance of this reaction is there in this photo! (I discovered on Google that chlorophyll contains magnesium and nitrogen, as well as carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. I never knew that. Wonderful thing, Google! All that info right at your fingertips!)

A specimen white birch (Betula papyrifera) at just about 3000 feet elevation on the Valley Way. There are numerous large birch like this one gleaming in the early morning sunlight and remnants of the older forest (not necessarily "old growth").

Turning around from taking the photo above this is the view. It's mostly balsam (A. balsamea) and all conifers. The major difference in the two forest types, the mixed stand of both hardwoods and conifers and the homogenous stands of just conifers is the amount of sunlight that reaches the forest floor and how efficiently plants utilize that light. More light reaches the forest floor in the mixed stands even on cloudy days then the reaches the floor in the coniferous stands.

Looking straight up at the canopy there's mostly balsam, some white birch, and maple mixed in. This image of the canopy is pretty much the idiom of the forest found on northeastern moountain slopes for thousands and thousands of years. Acid rain dating from the late 1920s (probably) through the 1980s (and even some currently) has taken a toll on the canopy density so that the percentage of leaf coverage dropped precipitously and threatened plants on the ground that were shade tolerant like American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). Since acid rain is theoretically no longer a problem then the question is if the forests, and this is primarly about the soils, are in remission? I'm not sure how to answer that when I am asked. Hopefully, we will be able to have a more definitive answer in the near future.

Looking at current canopy densities some new-school foresters might say that this is not a productive forest in terms of the carbon cycle. The number of older trees represented in the canopy plus the numbers of blow downs means the ratio of carbon absorbed by the forest is roughly equal to the carbon released. Older trees do not absorb carbon and as they die they release carbon. Blow downs, too, give off carbon into the atmosphere. Younger, more uniform stands absorb more carbon then they release and, inversely, release more oxygen.

At 4,000 feet in elevation on the Valley Way the balsams are backlit by the morning sun. The forest here is predominantly coniferous (evergreens) with a small percentage of white birch. In previous entries in the blog we have established that the timberline on the Presidential Range is between 4800 and 5500 feet in elevation. That was augmented a bit by Dr. Nancy Slack, who is co-author of a lovely, and much needed compact guidebook to the New England mountain summits published by the AMC (see Bibliography) and who, in her research, reported seeing black spruce and balsam fir growing as krummholz at 5700 feet on the east side of the Mt. Washington summit cone. That kind of blurs the concept of a timber "line" and opens up the possiblity that what we mean by "timberline" should be redefined. Or, perhaps, the definition of "timber" should be adjusted in the term "timberline."

At 4500 feet the trees are shorter, more compact and mostly balsam. That's a paper birch in the upper left corner of the photo. At this elevation, too, hikers are rewarded with views and here it is off to the North towards the Kilkenny Wilderness and beyond. It's difficult to see in the photo but the balsams on the left have formed a seamless wall as they maximize their potential to "catch some rays" of sunlight. It's fascinating to see, all along the trails, how plants find and maximize sunlight in the dense forests.

Again it's more balsam than anything and shorter still as we get up to 4700 feet.

This is what the Valley Way looks like at 4700 feet elevation near the beginning of the top most section of the trail which is quite steep and referred to as "1000 yards".

Near the top of "1000 yards" you find this sign (to cheer you up!) which by US Forest Service standards establishes the lower edge of the timberline "zone"
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At the top of "1000 yards" the sense of a timberline effect is reinforced by the trees shrinking and the vistas opening up even more. If this wasn't a relatively warm, sunny, calm summer day, the timberline effect would include a bit of high mountain weather which the yellow sign warns us about.

Looking up hill from the top of "1000 yards" there's this welcome treat; a view of Mt. John Quincy Adams which is hiding, directly behind it, the bulk of Mt. Adams the second highest peak in the Presidential Range and the northeastern quarter of North America.

The top of the Valley Way is lovely and truly alpine with the dwarfed balsams and the patches of sedge and rushes that on Saturday were hosting blossoming alpine flowers like Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandica) and Three Toothed Cinquefoil (Potentilla tridentata) and Mountain Avens (Geum pecki).

The Valley Way ends here at this sign at the front door of Madison Spring Hut which is the oldest of the mountain hostels operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). The first hut, referred to fondly as "Madison Number 1", was a small stone fortress to the weather built in 1888 mainly as a shelter but frequently used for overnight excursions by AMC members. It could sleep 12. No. 1 was made larger in 1911 (Madison #2), again in 1922 (Madison # 3), again in 1929 (still Madiosn # 3) and then completely rebuilt in 1941 after the unfortunate fire on October 7, 1940. The present hut has been remodeled in a vast progression over the past four decades and is scheduled for a complete make over in the next two or three years.

The kitchen at Madison is compact and efficient and well loved by the croos for the ample amount of light that comes in through the large windows and truly alpine views of the surrounding high summits in which the hut nestles. Madison evokes that unique excitment that a high, remote mountain shelter creates.

Alas, for those who toil in the huts night and day, day after day, like Madison Hutmaster Hillary Gerardi it doesn't feel quite as remote as it does to the guests. It's hard, rewarding work and was once described as "The best summer job in America" and most hut croos would agree. Here Hillary is tying on a "downhill" load of recyclable cardboard and other items deemed as "trash". All trash including garbage is packed out.

Hillary and Maayan Cohen, Madison Hut Naturalist, are about to literally run down the mountain to meet the AMC truck in order to exchange the recyclables for fresh produce and other items used at the hut which they will tie on their packboards and pack back up to the hut by early afternoon.

Potentilla tridentata! It's so lovely. The red dots that look so orderly are the tops of the stamens but they look like decorative additions to the flower petals. This alpine flower, also called Three Toothed Cinquefoil, is in the rose family and a close relative of the Dwarf Cinquefoil (Potentialla robbinsiana) that I was obsessed with back in early June.

It's delicate and ephmeral and will only be in blossom for a short time. It grows in the "lawns" and in sheltered places around the rocks. The "Three Toothed" part of the name comes from the tips of the leaves where you can see three notches or teeth.

The potentillas are quite a treat. They always remind me of a line from a poem by William Butler Yeat's that: "Everything that's beautiful is but a brief, dreamy, kind delight."

An emerging Mountain Avens blossom. This plant is found at several elevations. It is abundant above Zealand Falls growing in crevices in the ledges. It grows up to 5000 feet elevation as well and is abundant here in the Madison-Adams Col and around Mt. Monroe.

This is the mature blossom of the Mountain Avens.

Diapensia lapponica in full flowering stage. I've been tracking this since early June when the first buds began to show.

Hare's Tail (Eriophorum spissum) (quite a name!)

Black Spruce (Picea mariana)

This is classic krummholz (remember krummholz is German for 'twisted wood'). In this photo it's a composite of black spruce and balsam. You can easily see where the trees reproduced by "layering" in which the lowest branches touch the ground, put out roots, and eventually create a separate tree. This is an adaptation in which the trees save energy by not putting out cones and seeds.

It looks like I purposefully posed this family for an advertisement. I see a lot of families like this backpacking-camping, many for the first time, and exploring ideas for inexpensive vacations.

Star Lake is in the col between Mt. Madison and Mt. Adams. It's shallow and really not a lake at all but something of a curiosity and it adds a nice touch to the alpine landscape. That's Mt. Madison in the background.

That's Mt. Adams on the left and Mt. John Quincy Adams on the right. Mt. Adams rises about nine hundred feet above the col and can be climbed from here by the spectacular Star Lake Trail. (Readers were quick to respond that I screwed up originally by calling the Star Lake Trail the Buttress Trail. So thanks Ari, Bill, et al. for keeping me from wandering off the map.)

The Star Lake Trail is steep even though it slabs across the slope and cuts through a lot of krummholz that grows extensively on this east-facing flank of the mountain. Again, the krummholz is an even mix of black spruce and balsam fir. Star Lake is in the center right of the photograph and Mt. Madison is in the background.

At 5300 feet we're almost at the same altitude as the summit of Mt. Madison in the background. Star Lake is in the center of the photo and you can still see the cohesive carpet of krummholz spreading over the side of the mountain.

At 5500 feet we're still 300 feet below the summit of Mt. Adams and higher than the summit of Mt. Madison and Mt. John Quincy Adams but still in zone of dense krummholz.

This is balsam fir krummholz and the branches are beautifully fanned out to maximize efficient use of the sun's energy.

The summit of Mt. Adams almost appears as an overhang at this point on the Star Lake Trail and for the last 200 feet it feels a bit more like a rock climb then a hiking trail.

For a second I thought this lichen was an ancient Buddhist symbol painted on the rock but no such luck. In the 1960s there was a group called the Atherian Society that visited Mt. Adams often and told us it was a "holy" mountain. They would sit on the summit and meditate for days as they tried to communicate, they said, with life on other planets. They left at the end of one summer, 1966 I think, and never returned but they left a carving of an Omega symbol on a rock at the summit. The rock with the carving has long since disappeared.

This is the highlight of the climb up the Star Lake Trail, this last bit, which is a 'chimney' of sorts in rock climbing jargon and can be ascended using rock climbing techniques requiring the use of hands as well as feet. It's safe and fun and really the best part of the climb!

At the bottom of the chimney I found this assortment with Labrador Tea on the left and the Pale Laurel (Kalmia polifolia) on the right. Bigelow sedge (Carex bigelowii) is in the foreground.

The pale laurel (K. polifolia) close up. It's really striking!

Moss Plant (Cassiope hypnoides) is another delicate alpine flower. It's range extends from Greenland and across Labrador and south to the Presidentials.

This innocent looking clump of krummholz at the top of the chimney didn't catch my eye until I used some arithmetic and figured out that it was growing slightly higher than 5740 feet!

Then, a few feet higher, I tripped over this small clump of balsam that's literally at the top of Mt. Adams. I laughed aloud because I'd never noticed this pioneering balsam here before because it refutes our prior theories that "timberline" is a distinct entity. The fact that I don't remember seeing this balsam before doesn't mean it's a new arrival (and that climate change has fostered it's arrival), or that it is evidence of a slow, continued succession of plants on the Presidential ridge. I don't have enough data to make any conclusions, really. I think the question of timberline raised by Bob Monahan and Andrew Riely is fascinating and, let's face it, we actually like it when theories are trounced a bit. It's Nature grinning at us.

Anyway there's the balsam in the foreground and that's the actual summit of Mt. Adams in the background so this black spruce is growing at 5779 feet (accurate to within a foot). Two hikers with altimeters tried to get accurate readings but, by some quirk, neither of their altimeters were working. Mt. Adams is 5799 feet above sea level and by my own measurement the bit of krummholz is a little less than 20 feet below the summit.

From this evidence we could say that timberline extends from 4800 feet to 5800 feet in the Presidential range so it really isn't a "line" in a conventional sense. It varies throughout the range where the limits vary according to the microclimate which also vary. The krummholz Dr. Slack reported at 5700 feet on the east slope of Mt. Washington and this clump both indicate that the limit of tree growth is much more fluid and independent of earlier thinking. Bob Monahan's paper, "Timberline", published in 1931 and discussed in this blog, explored a list of variables and concluded that the wind on the upper slopes of the Presidential Range is the essential factor which limits tree growth and acts to define the timberline. The east slope of the range is certainly protected from the harsh winds that rake the west and northwest flanks of the ridge. Prevailing northwest winds also cause snow to build in depth on the eastern flanks of the ridge and in the glacial cirques there. The snow often stays past June and into July above the 4000 foot elevation. The snow creates a protective blanket over the krummholz in winter and early spring and then provides moisture during peak growing season as it melts. Sunlight shining on the steep incline of the eastern slopes of the range is warmer than at any other locale on the ridge. These variables just listed, when combined, may foster growth for the frost hardy balsam fir and black spruce across altitudinal limits otherwise noted.

Aaah! Le Summit! The summit of Mt. Adams is wonderful. It's a real summit. It comes to a point that you can actually stand on and the mountain drops steeply on all sides so there's almost a feeling you're flying when you stand on the tippy top (which is the rock in the foreground). As second highest mountain in the Northeastern US the views are spectacular. It's also a prominent summit that hasn't been comodified (developed commercially). There aren't any trains, cars, buses, motorcycles, tourists, microwave dishes, huge towers, noise from diesel generators, restaurants, or museums like those you find on neighboring Mt. Washington. It's pristine, elegant, and for those folks of simple tastes who relish being alone with their own thoughts even if only for a few moments.

(An awkward situtation occurred while I was sitting at the summit alone for a few minutes and I was joined by two men, one in his twenties and the other in his mid sixties. The younger man immediately took out a cell phone, dialed, and commenced a 15 minute-long, loud, personal conversation and forced the two of us without phones to listen to every detail of his life. I was so annoyed I wanted to strangle him and felt he should have moved to a more private place out of our hearing range. This happens more and more often where I pass people standing right on the trail who are deep in conversation on their cell phones. And that's only one aspect of it. I'd love it if every hiker wanted to be immersed in the mountains, in that environment, in the beauty, in nature, and responsibly leave the "noise" of cell phones and the world outside the mountains outside the mountains. The flip side of this new technology is that companies striving to extend the range of service to remote areas like the White Mountains need sites for towers and other "hardware" and that need directly threatens New England's mountain summits, all those outside the National Forest boundary. It would be prudent to pass legislation at the state level (for now) to protect every New England summit from development by the communication industries.)

That's Mt. Washington staring in envy at Mt. Adams across the Great Gulf . Mt. Washington has a lot more mass than Adams. It's huge by comparison so in that aspect Washington has more area to explore, more cirques for skiing and climbing, and it's nearly 500 feet higher, and, of course, it IS the highest, so a lot of hikers prefer it to the other Presidential summits which creates a nice balance of having fewer people on Adams at any one time. Adams in enviable simply because it's beautiful.

Mt. Jefferson strikes a philosophical pose between Washington and Adams (as Jefferson often did in real life). You can just make out the patch of snow (there's actually two small patches of snow over there) that I talked about earlier in the blog with a photo taken at the end of July 1968 when the snow patch was much larger than this year. I think the recent rain, which has been considerable, has taken its toll on the snow patch.

This is the drier, colder side of Mt. Adams, the west flank, and it is noticeably different in several ways. It looks a little like a lunar landscape. It's drier. There's little that's green compared to the eastern, leeward side of the summit cone. Krummholz is here but quite a bit lower off the summit in protected sites and the felsmeer, the large areas of broken, frost heaved rocks is extensive above 5000 feet. The piece of white quartz is sitting on top of a cairn used as a beacon to designate the trail above timberline. On the ridge between Adams and Jefferson there are large outcroppings of white quartz.

From the summit of Mt. Adams several trails radiate down the mountain. The gentlest is Lowes' Path (constructed in 1876 by Charles Lowe) and it slabs up Adams from Route 2 in Randolph starting at Lowe's Store. I descended Lowes Path from the summit for 3/10ths of a mile to this broad saddle and sedge lawn between Mt. Sam Adams (in the background) and Mt. Adams. Thunderstorm Junction is in the center of the saddle and several trails crisscross here including Lowe's Path and the Gulfside Trail. I followed my usual route by taking Gulfside back to Madison Hut.

The lawn, itself, is a little known haven of alpine flowers and worth a few hours of exploration particularly taking in the summit of Sam Adams for it's views.

The Gulfside Trail stretches out for 7 miles, or so, across the Northern Presidentials between the summit of Mt. Washington and the front door of Madison Hut. It stays on the shoulders of the peaks avoiding the summits which can be reached by smaller trails that "loop" off the Gulfside Trail. It's very exposed most of the way and can be hair raising during electrical storms, but there are few trails anywhere more beautiful on a summer afternoon. In the photo above the summit of Mt. Madison is the sharp pointed peak in the background. For a few moments around noon on Saturday as I was looping back to the hut dark clouds descended on Adams and swirled around Madison for a few moments before disappearing. In this area the krummholz is limited to niches where it is protected by configurations of rock(s) that block the wind.

This is an inviting, lush lawn of Bigelow sedge at the top of the King's Ravine headwall and just off the Gulfside Trail .

There's Madison Hut again and nestled into the side of Mt. Madison in the Madison-Adams col.

This small "lawn" beside Snyder Brook is at the top of the Valley Way and is the front "yard" of Madison Hut. It's my favorite place for spending sunny summer days in the mountains (or sunny winter days). I love the view to the wild North and the dreamy phalanxes of clouds streaming overhead. In my mid-teens, whenever I worked at Madison to help pack supplies, I used to do my pack trip early and get back up to the hut in mid afternoon and lie here in the sun reading Hemingway and daydreaming about adventures to come.

3 comments:

Ari said...

Hey Alex,

I think you were on the Star Lake Trail; the Buttress Trail goes down from near Star Lake to the base of Six Husbands (one of the easier ways down the Great Gulf, with easier being a very relative term). I hiked down from Adams via Star Lake and Buttress yesterday, and gosh do my legs feel it this morning.

Jackie said...

This was quite and interesting and informative discussion. I tend to be surprised by the suddenness of the timberline. I can imagine having fun trying to find one more tree as I hike higher and higher.

Joanna said...

Not everyone who sets out on their great adventure is prepared for the total lack of privacy that is just part of hostel living.

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