Saturday, July 5, 2014

7-03-14 Mt. Washington, Lion Head, Alpine Garden, the Summit, and Tuckerman Ravine (photos set, text to follow)

Sunset over Mt. Washington after a line of violent thumpers swept across the Presidential ridge

Getting on the trail as the sun begins to pour over the Wildcat ridge into the beech and maple tops.

 Boulders in a net of red spruce roots on the banks of the Cutler River in Pinkham Notch.

Wildcat Mountain over the Cutler River.

Crystal Cascades at the bottom of the Fire Trail (the popular name for the section of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail between the AMC camp at Pinkham Notch and the AMC and White Mountain National Forest camp at 2.4 miles up the mountain and near the Ravine.)

Cornus canadensis aka Bunch Berry.

It was still early but I wasn't alone on the trail. Several others were off early including this hiker.

Bushwhacking up the Cutler River is a trip back in time. The Cutler is named after Manasseh Cutler (1742-1823), graduate of Yale College, a pastor and U.S. Congressman and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences who co-led, with Jeremy Belknap, a scientific expedition to Mt. Washington in 1784. That expedition, and many of the very early explorers, approached the mountain from the east, or Pinkham Notch, side and ascended as far as they could up the Cutler before tackling the krumholz on Boott Spur. Cutler, after the expedition, hired a woodsman to cut a rough trail from the south bank of the Cutler to the treeline on Boott Spur to make passage easier.

Bushwhacking means encountering scenes like this just below Boott Spur.

Here I made a quick decision to go up the Lion Head Trail as I wanted to get to the ridge before the heat of the day did. This Lion Head Trail is pretty much an elevator rising steeply and quickly to the Alpine Gardens and to the summit cone of Mount Washington.

For those of us who are constantly in awe of the extent of the felseenmeer (sea of rocks), the name for the extensive boulder fields most notable above timberline, we forget that the boulders are not just in the areas above treeline but cover the sides of many of the mountains in the range but are hidden by vegetation which, over thousands of years, has developed a tenuous relationship with the mountain.

A momentary shift in the cloud cover caused a shift in the light. It was eight o'clock in the morning but looks like it was taken at dawn. That's Mt. Kearsarge (Peqauwket) in the distance.

Some of the Lion Head Trail requires a bit of rock climbing, not difficult, but hand over hand stuff where you feel like you're getting a full body workout superior to the gym.

There are pull outs on the Lion Head Trail where you can park for a few minutes to catch your breath and look around. This is looking south at Boott Spur with the slide track on Hillman Highway that came down in Hurricane Irene. Hillman's is a popular ski run during the spring skiing season.

Nice stone work by the trail crew.

And you're there, well, almost. This is coming out of the trees just below the top of Lion Head.

Looking into the left side of Tuckerman Ravine with the top of Lion Head to the right.

This is only to show the mantel of vegetation that has found a niche here at treeline in the "lee" (out of the wind) of Lion Head and that's been getting somewhat denser and taller, in the years since my last trip up the Lion Head Trail.

The trees seem to be experimenting by stretching out their full height to see what will happen particularly in light of the frequent, fierce gales that literally roar down the side of the mountain from top to bottom. The vegetation, consisting of balsam fir, black spruce, willow and alpine birch, appears to be making inroads colonizing this spot. The pioneer trees have created a sheltering niche with it's own micro climate giving other vegetation a "leg up". That's Carter Dome, Mt. Hight and the Wildcats in the background.

Looking north towards Nelson Crag (just over the top of the cairn), Old Speck in the far distance, and the Mahoosuc Range taken from the top of Lion Head

A better look at the "Maine Side" with Carter Dome in the center.

And Mt. Washington across Alpine Garden. What interests me here is the vegetation, the balsam and spruce, showing as clumps of green low on the cone and spreading eastward, towards the camera, from the bottom of the cone. It's an area of active, albeit slow, colonization by these larger plant species.

Tuckerman Ravine (vernacular = "Tucks" or newer = "Tux" and are interchangeable) from Lion Head. The Tuckerman Ravine Trail (Tuck Trail) is visible as an "S" shaped line coming down over the lip on the center right. It's should also be noted that vegetation mainly Mountain Birch (Betula minor) is getting denser in Tucks, as well, particularly between the floor of the Ravine, around the bottom of Left Gully and heading up towards the Chute. In the past 50 years Mountain Birch has made a strong foot hold and is expanding it well up the steepest walls and not just in Tucks but in all other ravines on the Presidential Ridge e.g. Ammonoosuc Ravine, Huntington, Oakes, etc.

Are you ready for a plant quiz? The ones I will show you are pretty easy to identify and common throughout the Whites. This one is Labrador tea, or Ledum groenlandica. The leaves are leathery-= and the flowers are white, that's all you have to remember. At 4,000 feet they are usually found near ledges in dense clusters of plant 3-4 feet high. In the alpine zone they are usually found hunkering down where they can find shelter from wind in among rocks.

Goldthread, or Coptis groenlandica. It's root are bright yellow.

 One of my favorites: Alpine Bluet, Housatoniacaerula var. Faxonorum

Mt. Cranberry, Vaccinium Vitis-idaea var minus

The white bunchberries again, with the yellow Clintonia borealis also called "bluebead lily" for its large purple berries appearing towards the end of the month.

Looking towards the summit from the Lion Head Trail and drawing your attention to the green areas and where they are densest on the lower part of the cone. From time to time balsam and red spruce seedlings are found at high altitudes, close to 6,000 feet on Mt. Washington, way out of their habitat, or so we think. In the White Mountains of Northern New Hampshire and Mt. Katahdin in Maine the tree line is between 4800 feet and 5200 feet asl (above sea level), but there are often strays. Since seeds travel by a variety of sources, can retain fertility for years, as long as there's enough soil for the seeds to germinate, "pioneers" are often found high up. There was a balsam fir in a very exposed place and growing on a tiny, postage stamp-sized bit of soil on the summit of Mt. Adams (5,799 asl) that I first noted and measured in 2008 that flourished for a year or two but has since died. So, depending on luck, perhaps, some of the pioneers do become natives and help other pioneers get past survival stage and begin to thrive. However, they are vulnerable at best. A particularly harsh winter, or dry summer, or combination of factors, can kill them.

An enticing mystery, before we move on, is how seeds travel particularly to these high places on the Presidential Range. Balsam firs have two ways of reproducing; via seed germination and a non-sexual system that's called "layering" where a balsam trees, in a way, clones itself. But the seeds can travel in a variety of ways including on the soles of a hiker's boot. The traditional ways are by wind, water, or animals, and all  of them are effective is with measure by the success of the balsam firs and red spruce in populating the White Mountain National Forest.

A valuable trail sign in bad weather and a place to make a key decision. This sign is at the junction of the Lion Head Trail and Alpine Garden Trail. The Lion Head Trail is the safest exit from the exposed alpine areas on the east side of Mt. Washington in the winter. Climbers should have ice axes and crampons for their optimal safety but the Lion Head Trail is in the trees most of its length, and is the most popular trail in the winter so it is often packed down and easiest to travel on. It can be navigated (carefully) without crampons or ice axes although it is absolutely never recommended. In winter conditions and throughout the winter the Tuckerman Ravine Trail is not a safe descent route unless you are a skilled climber and have the requisite equipment and are knowledgeable about avalanches. However, at all other times of the year Tuckermans Ravine Trail is a comparatively safe egress during bad weather.  Either trail can be safely used during the snow and ice free months. In non-winter months the decision of which trail to descend can pivot on how harsh the weather is at the time. To descend Lion Head you have to cross the exposed areas of the Alpine Gardens and to get into the trees can take up to 30 minutes, in high winds. If you need to get down quickly Tuckerman Ravine Trail is most likely to be the best route in the non-winter months e.g. July, August, September.

Behind the sign are diminutive forests of red spruce and balsam fir. Red spruce and balsam fir are often seen growing close together but with a distinct lines between them. For the sake of an ongoing discussion about both species I am trying to find answers to several questions. I have been paying particular attention to these small "forest" occupied by these two species (often with mountain, or alpine birch included) that you see in these photos. They can be found throughout the alpine zone including the apline zone on the Franconia Ridge. In his salient master's thesis, Robert Monahan (1933), gave a great deal of importance to wind as primary selector of where these trees grow and to what height. He looked at other factors, testing each carefully, and concluded that wind was by far the most important.

Labrador tea plants have found this boulder useful to shelter from the wind. With sunlight and no wind this niche is a "warm spot". You can also see balsam fir using the niche to its full advantage on the lee, or southeast, side of the rock. The plants "use" many features of the topography, in random ways, to make optimal use of wind protection, moisture and warmth and, of course, soil. 

This triangle of balsam fir is a good example. It has been masterful in colonizing this area of felsenmeer. There is a thin soil that you can see exposed soil in the right foreground. It is a glacial till made of coarse gravel, weathered sand and fines plus a small amount of organic matter. But lateral growth for this clump of trees has been inhibited, possibly by the lack of soil. The trees are confined to the niche they have already filled. At the same time they have achieved an evenness of vertical growth, have good anchoring, and adequate protection from the full force of the wind. Will they continue to spread, and, if so, where and how  long will it take. Will this photo a hundred years from now document noticeable changes.  They will need, but do they have the supports they need to move laterally.

Jeremy Belknap, mentioned above as one of the leaders of the Belknap-Cutler Mt. Washington Expedition in 1784, was laboriously climbing the north-facing flank of Boott Spur when he noticed  that the trees actually grew on top of the felsenmeer. He took a step on some moss and roots only to find out that he opened a hole that went down a few feet between the boulders and when he pulled his foot out he saw in cross section that the trees were not in soil, per se, but by their network of roots, their moisture holding top layer of moss, and the abundance of other trees crowded together in close proximity, the forest grew. This is useful to know. It isn't set in stone that all the trees on the range are growing in this fashion as we can see that a high percentage of the forest trees up to the treeline are anchored by their roots in the soil. It is just those areas where the trees were stretching out to take over a slope and eventually a whole mountain that they adapted in this way to negotiate the felsenmeer.

Apparently this is what happens when trees opt to rebel against the wind and gain height.

One last note, another mystery. What will these mountains look like, do you think, in another 10,000 years. Will the forests look the same? Will they eventually grow over the entire range, right up and over the summit of Mt. Washington. The rate of change IS slow, but you can see in old photos that the trees do cover more ground. But there are also cycles of weather including destructive storms, plus diseases, landslides, avalanches etc that can change that landscape dramatically--and 10,000 years is a long time. The question I am most interested in is whether the balsam fir and red spruce will eventually spread completely cover the range and even take supplant the alpine zone? An ecologist from the University of Illinois, in 1929, predicted that Mt. Katahdin would eventually be forested right over the summit. Katahdin is not the same as Mt. Washington, however. Close, but no cigar. So what happens at Katahdin may not occur here in the White Mountains, but it is a good question to ask because it underlines a process within the native ecosystems and it is fascinating to think how they might be effected, and how humans will be effected, or involved.

Thinking of the trees taking over the high summits when you look at this photo is what inspired me to ask the above questions. These boulders lie just below the clump of balsams in the photos above. It's a rather intimidating configuration of boulders. It seems unlikely that the balsam firs will be able to colonize this area but I have seen places where the trees have covered boulders like these, just not as high in altitude.

Looking West towards Bigelow Lawn and the Franconias there are clumps of green indicating slow, patient growth of both balsam fir and red spruce that probably have not changed remarkably in my life time. It is a hostile environment due to exposure to wind and sun and the lack of moisture and soil. Compared to the support the vegetation on the east side of the cone gets from the immediate environment this areas, as far as the Lakes of the Clouds and Monroe Flats,  have enormous limitations. You can just make out the roof of Lakes of the Clouds Hut at the base of Mt.Monroe in the middle distance center.

The top of the Alpine Garden Trail just before the junction with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail.

A couple just below the summit carrying heavy packs.

Ahhh, the Summit, bubbling with excitement. I avoid the summit because of the commercial overload and how it has become somewhat sterile. It's no longer a summit in a rugged range of northern mountains, a wild place where humans struggle with the wild forces of nature. Now it has the feel of a theme park. It's been tamed and commercialized.

It started getting tamed a long time ago and in the intervening years lots and lots of people have visited the summit and enjoyed it to the hilt, as they should, whether I approve or not. These sweethearts were enjoying being together and just hanging out for the day.

Waumbek, my favorite locomotive and long-time servant of the Mt. Washsington Cog Railway, at the summit after disgorging a full load of passengers

Ken with his "baby". He's very proud of Waumbek and spends his off time, particularly during the winter, making repairs, painting, and polishing. The Mt. Washington Cog Railway will soon be 150 years old and is still a marvel of engineering.

The guided tour.

Back to the trail. I ran down the cone as it was getting hotter and the summit was getting crowded with the late morning rush. The ridge curving towards the southeast designates the Cutler River's watershed boundary for the area above and around Tuckerman Ravine. Although snow that sits on top of that ridge sends some melt water west into the Ammonoosuc River watershed, the Cutler gets the lion's share. Tuckerman Ravine, with its huge yearly accumulation of snow adds a steady stream of water into the Cutler which dumps into the Ellis River at Pinkham Notch, which dumps the water into the Saco near the village of Jackson.

Looking back up at the summit.

Tuckerman ("Tuck") Junction. A busy crossroad on this side of the mountain and an important "decision" point in foul weather.

I guess this qualifies as an "alp". It speaks to two ideas regarding water, soil and "niches" discussed earlier in reference to the Alpine Gardens and the east side of the summit cone. This is a "warm spot", that, even in the winter, can be warmer than surrounding slopes, but since it's turf sitting on stone blocks (a large "soil cell'), it's an important link in the water drainage between the summit cone and Tuckerman Ravine.

Plants definitely find the Tuckerman headwall as choice areas. This is a clump of Mt. Avens.

Geum Peckii, or Mountain Avens, is only found in the alpine areas of the White Mountains and one island in Western Nova Scotia. It's a member of the Rose family. The smaller flowers are more of the bluets.

Carter Dome left of center, with the Baldfaces, of Maine, in the background.

A speedy duo.  They were wasting no time getting up the mountain.

Pale Laurel aka Kalmia polifolia

A clump of pale laurel.


Climbing the last bit at the top of the headwall.

Newly weds on their Honeymoon! We had a race--they to the top where they planned to board a stage for the trip backdown to Pinkam Notch and me running down. We tied--almost to the second. See their comment at the end of this article.

Looking down and over Tuckerman Ravine from just below the "Lip". This is an area that is heavily skied in the late winter, spring and often in early summer.

Tuckerman Ravine. The famous Headwall.

I have not been up or down the summer trail "Tuck" trail for probably 25 years. That's because in the prior 25 years I was up and down it 1000s of time, but I want to say that the AMC Trail Crew did a brilliant job redefining this popular trail. The stone work, alone, is stunning. My daughter, Liz, is on the trail crew at Arcadia National Park this summer and eats, drinks and sleeps trails and, particularly, the stone work, and her enthusiasm is spreading to me. This view shows some of the work done on the top of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, but the more difficult work was on the headwall itself and is remarkable. If you're a serious hiker you're constantly comparing trails for their craftsmanship and artistry. This is now one of my faves. It also reminds me of the stone paths I hiked in the mountains of Nepal that were also so breathtaking.

Looking down across the headwall from about halfway.

Looking back up at the "Lip".

A Chinese couple halfway up the headwall.

More bluets on the headwall.

The residual snow left from the Winter and Spring of 2014. Only once in the last 140 years has snow, even small remants, come close to remaining here all year and that was in 1926 when the last of the snow melted in late September.

The snow arch on September 2, 1926. This appears to be the latest date the arch was intact in written history. Photo by Harold Orne and copied from the December 1926 Appalachia.

The snow arch July 3, 2014.

Lion Head from the floor of Tuckerman Ravine.

Tucks from the cache.

I hung out for a while at Tucks talking to Tom, the caretaker, and watched storm clouds gathering over the Summit and Lion Head and then headed down to Pinkham at a trot. There is an incomparable feeling of mixed pleasure and excitement when hiking and of watching afternoon storms building all around you, seeing the light changing and feeling a rush of adrenalin to race the storm to a shelter or the bottom of the trail, before it lets go one drop of rain.


Sara Gayle said...

So nice to meet you and make it on your blog!! Your adventures are amazing!!
-Sara and Brendon Thomas
(Honeymooners from Maryland)

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