Sunday, May 23, 2010

5-21-10 Mt. Washington & Lakes of the Clouds

If I were to give the most elegant gift I could think of to someone really, really special I'd pick a perfect mountain day just like last Friday (5-21-10) and include a leisurely hike up the enchanted Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail to Lakes of the Clouds and on to the summit of Mt. Washington; a lovely day-long hike up the ridge, stopping often to look around and take everything in and, much later, coming back down again just as the shadows of late afternoon fall across the trail. Friday was just such a gift; a rare, gorgeous, perfect mountain day.

Mt. Washington still has snow clinging in large patches and both of the lakes, except for the outlets, are both frozen, but beginning to thaw. Lakes of the Clouds hut is in the lower left hand corner of the photo.

There was a warm sun and a cool, tempering wind from the northwest Friday morning. It was clear enough to see mountain peaks in minute detail and to fuel that age-old excitement to race to a summit just for the pleasure of looking around.

When I arrived at the Cog Railway Base Station at 8:30 in the morning a helicopter was busily flying round trips up to the Appalachian Mountain Club's (AMC) Lakes of the Clouds hut with supplies for the summer. The sound was deafening. I was at Lakes in 1964 for the inaugural flight of the first helicopter the AMC used to fly supplies to the huts. .

There was a small croo there opening the hut for the summer and our usual regimen was to work from breakfast until late into the night cleaning, hooking up water lines, putting away food and supplies we had been packing down to the hut from the summit of Mt. Washington. Packing was what we loved most and what took the most time. At any rate, on the second or third day, we woke to an awful racket and looked out the croo room window to see this huge helicopter landing on the knoll in front of the hut. It was a huge old Sikorsky of Korean War vintage with a bulbous nose and the cockpit sat high over the cargo hold. It looked like a large insect. It was a defining moment in hut history.

Up until that moment a number of ideas had been trialed for getting supplies to the hut quicker and with less human effort including dropping items from a fixed wing airplane. There was a local pilot, Shirley May, who was a very cool pilot and could do amazing things. She would put our supplies in her small Cessna and make passes flying over the hut kicking the bundled supplies out and landing them almost at the door of the hut. I once saw her bounce a bundle of blankets right into the back door of Greenleaf Hut. She also flew bags of sand to Carter Notch in the winter of 1963 for the new the bunkrooms. Shirley would fly up the 19 Mile Brook Trail and at the height of land kick out a sandbag that would arc down to the big lake at 100 mph, bounce 10-20 feet in the air, land on the small lake and slide to a stop just below the hut. Two or three of us would hide behind things while the sandbags were airborne then we would scurry out and secure the sandbags off of the lake ice while she circled around for another drop.

This helicopter was sleek and efficient, making a round trip to Lakes and back in just a few minutes. When they were first used there was a 50-50 split among the croos in terms of those who thought the use of the helicopters was a great idea and those who didn't see the necessity. That first Sikorsy was used intensively in the construction of Mizpah Hut in 1964-65, proving itself over and over. In the end they've been deemed useful, helping keep maintenance costs down and saving a lot of wear and tear on the backs and knees of hut croos. Not that hut croos no longer have to pack. They do. It's still a fundamental, important part of the job and still revered as a high point of the work.

This is the same Purple Trillium photographed last week that is now so obviously flowering. My trip up the Ammy was primarily to take a look around Lakes, Monroe Flats, Mt. Monroe and Alpine Gardens and make note of the progress, if any, of several flowering alpine plants that I am monitoring. They include the Dwarf and Three Toothed Cinquefoils (Potentilla Robbinsiana and P. tridentata), Diapensia (Diapensia lapponica), and Alpine Bluet (Houstonia caerulea var. Faxonorum) and others as well.

The Amm0noosuc was roaring as it surged down the ravine. It was loud enough to drown the noise of the helicopter which was a blessing.

Roots become steps on the Ammy

and Gem Pool becomes an emerald in the morning light.

Above the headwall of the ravine the trail was still under a huge amount of snow with vast snowfields in places, but there were also places where the ledges were bare and snow melt water ran freely in rivulets like this one, whirling around in pot holes, glistening like gold where the water and sunlight conspired to create magic.

The familiar cone of Mt. Washington from the 'Ammy'. On Friday the snow pack above the headwall was maybe 4'-5' deep, but it's melting fast.

Looking north and west from the top of the 'headwall' out towards Vermont and Quebec. In the near distance are Cherry Mt. behind Mt. Dartmouth and Mt. Mitten. Vermont's Mt. Mansfield is in the background on the horizon.

Tradition once referred to this rock formation as 'Sheep Dog'. It's just below the hut and consists of the Littleton Schist that was shaped and smoothed by the Wisconsinan glacial ice sheet thousands of years ago. It has those subtle curves where the rock, originally part of the floor of a vast prehistoric ocean, was compressed and folded under huge pressure from movements in the Earth's crust. That all happened hundreds of million years ago during the creation of the Appalachians. There are numerous examples of this 'folding' in the Littleton Schist around Lakes of the Clouds.

Lakes of the Clouds hut. Still some snow in the front yard left from the southeasterly storm of late January. The hut is still shuttered and closed to the public but will open in the next few weeks (6-1-10).

Doug Weihrauch (left) and Caitlin McDonough, from the AMC's Research program, were at the hut observing several species of alpine plants which is part of an effort to record the actual times of flowering for these plants to see if there's a negligible difference from year to year. An aspect of the study is to measure whether there's a correlation between a global warming trend in the varying flowering times. I was made a little jealous of their nifty cameras that 'observe' selected flowers continuously and records exactly the moment they begin to bloom.

The upper and larger of the two Lakes of the Clouds is still caked with ice. I noticed that there was a considerable area around the outlet that melted in the six hours I was on the mountain on Friday.

Two 'cushions' of Diapensia lapponica nestled in a slight depression that holds water after it rains. Flowering occurs in late May to early June. The flowers are small, white and showy against the green background of the plant's leaves (see photo below). Each cushion is made up of many, many plants. One project for the summer is to measure a few of the Diapensias in these photos in terms of size of the cushions, number of plants in each cushion, and the site characteristics, to serve as a baseline for a longitudinal study. How long does it take a Diapensia to grow 12 inches in diameter, for instance?

A Diapensia close up. Many individual plants are tightly grouped to form the cushion, or colony, and when flowering they are quite unique looking. The 1/2 inch wide flowers appear on slender stalks about an inch tall.

As the following photos will show the Diapensia is prolific in the alpine zone around Lakes, on Bigelow Lawn and the Alpine Garden. Diapensia is cataloged as a 'circumpolar, subarctic-alpine species' that is at the southern terminus of its range here in the White Mountains.

This is a small plateau or 'table' area a hundred yards east of Lakes of the Clouds hut where the Diapensia is well established. It's versatility as to habitat is well represented around Lakes where it grows in every conceivable situation as to soil, shelter, water, and sunlight. Sunlight is the least marked of all the variables and usually you find Diapensia growing fully in sunlight, or rather, you do not find it growing in dense shade.

This a small shelf of soil on the summit of Mt. Monroe supporting a small community of alpine plants including Diapensia.

Here's a large grouping of Diapensia stretched out across the summit ridge of Monroe.

I'll have to mention that word again: 'felsenmeer'(German for 'sea of rocks'), which was becoming a bit tedious a few months ago, but here's a brilliant example of it right on the summit of Monroe. It really piques my curiosity how the rocks became stacked up like they are in this formation.

Looking south from Monroe down into the Dry River watershed and Crawford Notch. In the middle distance from left to right is our friend Moat Mt, Mt. Chocorua, the Ossipee Mountains in the further distance, and then the entire Sandwich Range with Passaconway, Whiteface, Tripyramid, Tecumseh, Osceola, and lovely Mt. Carrigain.

Looking east from Monroe across the Oakes Gulf headwall to Bigelow Lawn, and Boott Spur, with a section of the Mt. Washington summit 'cone'.

Mt. Washington from Monroe showing the seasonal snow patches in their annual mosaic. There is some consistency in the location and aspects of these snow 'fields' and patches but with some variation from year to year. I would like to look for correlations between the location of these snow remnants and existing vegetation in the same locales.

A telephoto of just the cone of Mt. Washington showing the snow remnants but also the highest clumps of krummholz on the south and southwesterly side of the mountain. You can see them as wide ranging, small, dark splotches to the left and right of center. Please note, also, the light brown, fawn colored 'lawns' or grass cells that form a patch work in the felsenmeer of the cone.I want to spend some time this summer studying these 'lawns' from an ecological perspective.

Another study that I want to engage for the next few summers is on alpine soils and see if I can get some help with the relationship between the soils and the surficial geology of the Range. Friends and colleagues who are also pre-eminent geologists, Brian Fowler and P. Thompson Davis (Thom) have an exciting project starting this summer which is to update the surficial geology of the Presidential Range and to try and anwer a few unanswered questions. One of the questions that lingers from all the work done by previous geologists, particularly Billings and the Goldthwaits, is whether the Wisconsinan ice sheet actually rode over the summit of Mt. Washington, or went around it, leaving the very summit poking above the ice. Thom is also working on trying to find an accurate dating for the age of the felsenmeer.

Diapensia is an important plant in the alpine zone and so are the lichens of which there are many and they've recently been studied and written about. I have to profess that I know very little about their taxonomy. This one, though, is Arctic Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia alpestris). In Mountain Flowers of New England (1964, AMC, Boston) there is a clearly written section on lichens and another on mosses by Jean Langenheim.

The mosses are also something I know little about but want to learn. This common one is Hair Cap Moss (Polytrichum juniperinum) and it's prolific in the alpine areas of the Presidential Range and found in the sedge lawns. It's often seen like this with Bigelow sedge, or other sedges and rushes entwined, and it often grows with Diapensia.

Krummholz! This is the same clump of black spruce and balsam fir (near the base of the Mt. Monroe Cutoff) that I photographed back in February when it was caked in snow. (see the earlier blog entry.) Krummholz poses some questions in terms of its successes and failures to survive in the harsh alpine areas that shape it. We've looked at a number of adaptations krummholz has used in its strategies to grow at the extreme altitudes in the Franconia and the Presidential Ranges and learned in Robert Monohan's article from 1931, "Timberline", that the wind, of which the velocity and ferocity are unique features of the White Mountains, is the main determinate in whether krummholz will sink or swim.

Inside the krummholz. It looks like the sort of place you'd find a small gathering of gnomes! There's quite a bit of space, light and plant diversity in this cluster. Some clusters are nearly impenetrable to light and humans. In this photo the primary ground cover is Shining Clubmoss (Lycopodium lucidulum) which is common throughout the alpine area. Krummholz poses some questions (similar to those regarding Diapensia) regarding the age of the trees, the trees' relative interdependence on each other, the soils particularly the soil pH and moisture content, how the boulder fields assist in promoting growth of the krummholz, and, certainly, how the krummholz came to be there in the first place?

The clusters of krummholz, even the very thin mats of it, impact the alpine zone considerably. It would be quite a different kind of environment without it. I'll go into that a little later, but it's interesting from the perspective of the krummholz and what it's "trying" to do. Is it trying to succeed here and, over huge amounts of time, take over so that in 4,000 years, or less, there are balsam and spruce forests growing here? Several ecologist during the past 100 years, most notably LeRoy H. Harvey in 1901, have stated that it is only a question of time before all but the two or three highest summits will be completely forested.

This is a cleft, a protected space or niche, where there were a few dwarf cinquefoils (Potentilla Robbinsiana) last summer. The plants in the photo are Potentilla tridentata, or three forked cinquefoil.

The small 'tarn' near the Crawford Path where the trail now crosses to the south of Monroe Flats.

A Raven! (Corvus corax) It's really exciting to see these large black birds. They're closely related to crows and often mistaken for crows, but it appears that ravens are back after having absented the mountains for several years. I recall a mating pair on Mt. Lafayette in the early 1970s that stayed around for many summers raising young that then started their own families. After a decade, or so, they mysteriously disappeared. It may have been an issue of overpopulation or lack of individuals to breed with. Over the last three decades they've also appeared around Mt. Adams. I saw a pair gliding over Kings Ravine in November. Now it as though there's a mating pair near the summit of Monroe. For us wingless-two-leggeds the only way to tell the difference between a raven and a crow, really, is to listen for it's "voice". The crow, of course, has that noisy "cawing" where the raven has a singularly odd sound it makes which Fred Steele called a "cruk", or a more flutey "crook" sound, but sometimes it uses other consonants and are hard to imitate. One observer referred to it as a "squawk". When I was farming we had a family of crows who thought they owned the farm and that I was working for them. Their names were Noches and Eurydice. They were incredibly savvy, as is well known, and after a few years learned a few English words like "Hi!", and "Hello", and would come when we called their names. Ravens, I think, would have a harder time enunciating words.

Another small 'tarn' on the Cross Over Trail near Bigelow Lawn.

This is a great view of the summit cone. One question that remains for the geologists is whether the Wisconsinan continental ice sheet actually went over the top of Mt. Washington, or stayed below the very summit and went around the cone. Brian Fowler, Thom Davis, and one or two other geologists who have inherited the tasks left unfinished by Marvin Billings, Katherine Fowler-Billings, Dick Goldthwait, and others, will try to get a final answer on that question this summer.

The Davis Path cuts out across this plateau to Boott Spur (visible in the distance) and follows the Montalban Ridge south towards Crawford Notch. This photo and the ones following show the entirety of Bigelow Lawn, showing just how remarkable it is when you stand in the middle of it. You're 5,000 feet above sea leave and standing on this vast open plain. The Billings and the Goldthwaits concluded these "lawns" (Bigelow and Monticello) are remants of a pre-glacial erosion surface (what Goldthwait called the "Presidential Upland) that was uplifted, perhaps more than once, over hundreds of million years and each time cut away into ravines and valleys by local forces.

These are "block stripes" Goldthwait identified as the result of intense frost over long periods of time. The rocks were sorted into these long stripes, or into 'nets' by continuous freezing and thawing of the underlying soil aided by the slope of the ground. The stripes are found at several locations throughout the Presidental Range but most notable on Mts. Washington, Jefferson (Monticello Lawn) and Adams. Goldthwait had some of his students map these areas precisely and it's of enormous value and interesting to me that there's no indication of change in the patterns over the past 50 years. The soil has not increased in area or depth and the rocks have not moved since Goldthwait mapped them in the late 1930s.

It's astonishing to stand here in the middle of the lawn late in the afternoon with the light changing, looking out over the vast distances, periodically looking back at the steep cone of Mt. Washington, and trying to fathom all the events that have brought this magical place into its present form. The rocks feel ancient as is the story they withhold for us to guess at. I remember one August afternoon coming over from Lakes for some exercise and laying down in the middle of this lawn and staying there motionless for more than an hour while a red shouldered hawk circled high above me, barely visible, and then suddenly dove and grabbed a small animal (that squealed audibly) in its talons and then the hawk flew a few hundred yards away and stood with its back to me and ate it's repast.

Boott Spur from near Tuckerman Junction. That's Mt.Kearsarge (or Mt. Pequawket if you like) in the background.

From Alpine Gardens I took a return route that curved up and around the steep east side of the cone to come up just below the summit but without benefit of a trail. I then curved downwards across the rocks to intersect the Crawford Path halfway up the cone. This allowed me to cover areas I haven't explored for several years. (to be continued)

This is pretty far up on the southeast side of the cone. Traversing in a westerly direction, moving around the cone, I was looking for any sign of movement in the surface rocks, like a sign that rocks had slid down slope exposing gravel or bed rock, or that rocks had flipped over exposing a lichen-free fascia.
This the south side of the cone with the summit in the upper right hand corner. I did find, at least on this short hike, any sign of movement in the suface rocks. Walking on them identifies some that will move under weight but not actually upend. Given the steepness of the slope it's amazing that the rocks are as stable as they are.

Lakes looking abandoned. Hiking on weekdays is a very different experience then being here on a Saturday or Sunday. I did pass a few hikers today plus Doug and Caitlin but for the most part my hike was a solitary one.

In two or three hours time the ice on the upper lake melted back to mid-point attesting to the jump in temperature.

Mt. Monroe and the knoll in front of the hut.

Looking down at the Cog base station and across towards the northwest.

Late afternoon on the Ammy.

Gem Pool in afternoon light. I sat here for a while as the light transitioned and and after 30 minutes a small brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) suddenly appeared and flew around me, climbing, gliding, then skimming the surface of the pool for food. I've heard but can't prove that bats eat two or three times their body weight in mosquitoes every day.

T. erectum, Red Trillium, in afternoon light.

Trout Lily (E. americanum), or Yellow Adder's Tongue, in later afternoon sunlight next to the Ammy and not far from the Base Station of the Cog.

Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana)

The Ammonoosuc rushing through the late afternoon spring light.

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