Sunday, March 20, 2011

3-19-11: Lakes of the Clouds

The summit of Mt. Washington clears briefly around 2 pm yesterday (3-19-11) after a morning of fierce wind, cold, snow and dense fog. Winter is far from over here!

I finally got up to the mountains and Lakes of the Clouds again after what felt like an eternity (three months!) and with great delight except for the discomforts of being grossly out of shape. The discomfort was worth it, though.. it was a lovely mountain day.

I'm beginning this piece with this photo after receiving a wonderful email from a young woman in California two days ago that read: "Dear Mr. MacPhail, Just wanted to say hello and mention that I stumbled on your White Mountain Sojourn blog tonight when looking for information about my grandparents, "Slim" and "Cal" Harris. Imagine my surprise when I found your blog with not only a description of their work on the Dwarf Cinquefoil project with Miriam and Robert Underhill, etc, but also your kind description and nice photo of Gramma. That photo was taken the last, or next to last summer I spent in the Whites with Gramma, so it brought back great memories. All the best to you, Sara."

Mt. Monroe with a plume of snow blowing off the summit.

Sara and I emailed back and forth and I mentioned I was planning a trip to Lakes on Saturday and she asked me to "say hello to Grandda", referring to Stuart K. Harris, who I knew and mention often in the blog as "Slim", a renowned mountain man, a wonderful character, botanist, writer, artist and teacher. He worked at Lakes of the Clouds in the 1930s and with his gorgeous wife, Calista or "Cal", and their two young children, ran Zealand Falls Hut the summer of 1945, at the end World War II. I was attracted to them both as a kid because of their openness and willingness to teach me about plants. In the early 1960s they collaborated with Miriam and Robert Underhill in writing Mountain Flowers of New England published by the AMC in 1966. Slim did most of the writing and drawings for the book, Miriam took all or most of the photos, and Cal did a lot of the collecting and keying of specimens. There's a small plaque dedicated to Slim bolted to a rock on the knoll above the large lake and I went there to pass on Sara's regards to Slim, admire the stunning view of Washington and Monroe, and eat a sandwich.

When I arrived at the Base Station parking lot at 8:45 am there were already 15, or so, cars parked and more were arriving. The weather forecast was a little sketchy mentioning clearing, cold, windy and the all-encompassing "Partly Cloudy". At 8:45 it was snowing heavily. Anyway, this cheery trio tore into the parking lot, hopped out of their car and were gone in a flash. I envied their speed and organization. It took me a half hour to suit up, finish packing and just move a few steps towards the trail. Even then I had to drop my pack a 1/4 mile up the trail and run back to retrieve my gloves which I'd left on the roof of the car!

Part of the half hour getting ready was spent in French lessons with this fellow, Etienne, who is a veteran climber and French speaking Canadian from Quebec. We'd started a conversation about weather and trail conditions, what equipment to bring, etc, but he spoke only a little English and my French is kind of like Michael Palin's in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (The scene at the castle where he says to King Arthur, "Of course I'm French.That's why I am talking with this outrageous French accent you silly king!"), but my French is not the least bit amusing.

Then Nichole came over to ask about weather, trail conditions, what equipment to bring, etc. She spoke a little English and translated for Etienne and I. Nichole was one of a group of 4, two couples from Quebec. Her companions arrived and then everyone was speaking French and my French began to warm up a tiny bit which was helpful later up on the mountain as half the hikers were French Canadian which is fairly standard these days.

Starting up the lovely, lovely Ammy.

Still lots of snow everywhere.

The blue blaze on the tree is usually 6 feet off the ground.

The track of the massive avalanche that occurred in Ammonoosuc Ravine in February 2010.
See "Blog Archive" on the right side of the top blog page. Open "2010" and scroll down to "March" and open 3-7-10, then in "April" open 4-5-10 for photos of the avalanche damage.

Gem Pool crusted with ice and snow .

Above Gem Pool the going is steep for a 1000 yards, or more. Most of us were wearing crampons but Nichole stubbornly stuck it out with snowshoes. The steepness is not exaggerated.

View to the northwest from the top of the Ammonoosuc Ravine headwall. The snow was letting up and it looked like the valley would soon be bathed in sunlight. The 2010 avalanche track can be seen in the lower right hand area of the photo.

There were sporadic breaks in the clouds. This is just above the treeline and looking across the upper realm of Ammonoosuc Ravine towards Mt. Jefferson.

Impartially cloudy. The Summit breaks through! (for a few minutes.)

The winter trail sometimes runs close to the summer trail, but often it kind of wanders here and there on the whims of the first person up after fresh snow. At this point the summer trail was a quarter mile to the right, but no one seemed to mind. When you can walk on top of the snow you can go anywhere. It's like a sidewalk without the cracks.

A few snowflakes were still drifting around on the wind but it looked like the main force of the weather was towards an eventual clearing.

Lakes of the Clouds Hut.

Etienne and Michel showing their pleasure with their hike. They were heading on to the summit of Mt. Washington from here. You can't tell by the photo but Etienne was giving me a thumbs up to express his contentment.

I headed for Mt. Monroe to look at krummholz and felsenmeer. I also wanted to spend an hour or two exploring around the larger of the two Lakes of the Clouds to take advantage of the hard snow pack that made traveling so easy.

Recognize this? It's a dense, high standing (5-6 feet) clump of krummholz (a mix of Black Spruce and Balsam Fir) that the Crawford Path cuts through just east of the Hut. I've photographed it numerous times particularly in the winter as a way to show how different the weather patterns are from year to year. Last winter this clump was completely enclosed in a cocoon of ice. As I hiked up Monroe on Saturday and walked around the lake I had the feeling that this winter is not the great snow winter that 2010 was. The amount of snow on this part of the mountain this winter maybe as much as 40 percent less than last year. It's likely that a lot of the snow that fell here has since blown over to the east side as the winter winds this season have primarily been out of the northwest.

The summer trail up Monroe was a bit icy but the wind was the real problem as it contributed to a wind chill factor of -17 degrees (F). From the rocky nub just uphill in the photo that's just below Monroe's lower, north summit I retreated out onto the southeast face and climbed to the summit ridge from there, but it was too cold even on the lower summit to remove my glove to take a photo.

A mat of Diapensia lapponica exposed to the weather on the southeast slope of Mt. Monroe.

The Monroe summit is to the left.

Monroe Flats from Mt. Monroe looking southeast into the Dry River watershed.

Looking east from Mt. Monroe towards Boott Spur.

I descended through deep wind drifted snow on the east slope of Mt. Monroe.

Looking southeast (again) across a portion of Monroe Flats and towards Boott Spur.

Thanks to Sara's grandparents, Cal and Slim Harris, along with Miriam and Robert Underhill working in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service and the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) this unique protected site was created at "Monroe Flats" which contains a number of fragile, alpine plants. One of them, Dwarf Cinquefoil, that was mentioned earlier, is a rare plant that in the early 1970's was down to just a handful of individual specimens that were becoming fewer each year in this habitat where they had originally been favored by environmental factors for hundreds of years. The Dwarf Cinquefoil was put on the Federal Register of Endangered Plants. The site has been protected for 30 years. During the first years of protection Cal and Miriam along with AMC researchers and volunteers (myself included) re-planted hundreds of Dwarf Cinquefoil plants. More replanting has been done recently and in several other locations.

Nicole and Claudia (small specks in the upper center of the photo) followed my tracks up the east side to the col between the north and main summit of Mt. Monroe. The north summit is on the right. The snow pattern on Monroe is quite different than last year with much less snow on the east face. This is primarily accounted for by the fact that in the winter of 2010 the largest storms came in from the southeast.

Wind contributes to the formation of the rime ice that was everywhere Saturday morning. The low clouds earlier in the day were the second factor in the formation of the rime. Rime is a cross between snow and ice and made from tiny ice particles that form these feathery crusts on anything protruding above the snow surface. In this case the rime is forming on the snow itself.

This pattern is formed by a combinations of rime and wind blown, hard packed snow called "sastrugi" due to its shape. Sastrugi normally forms in layers in concert with the wind direction. Here the wind that created the sastrugi a few days before has decorated it with rime.

This pattern was uniform on all the snow surfaces around the hut. This is the knoll above the larger of the two Lakes of the Clouds, towards the east.

Looking back at Monroe from this enormous snowbank on the east end of the lake.

Rime clutches at a balsam fir.

Looking again at Mt. Monroe across the lake.

You can see the same pattern in the snow on top of the lake. The landscape looks very much like it has been sculpted by the wind but recent heavy rainhas also played a major role in the softened forms we see here.

Looking northeast towards Boott Spur from the surface of the lake. This lake is fed, to a large extent, by snow melt into June and the rest of the summer from water draining from the ridge in the distance which also borders Bigelow Lawn to the east. The water in this, the larger of the two Lakes of the Clouds, is astonishingly clear all summer. This is partly due to it's being fed by the huge volumes of snow that fill this glacially formed "pocket" on the ridge.

Standing water from recent rains covers the outlet of the lake.

There was actually a good amount of water sitting on top of the ice at the west end of the lake. It came to the top of my boots in some spots. It had not frozen but west and downhill from the outlet rain runoff from the lake froze repeatedly in thin layers resembling a large, multi-layered cake.

Rime contains a fraction, around 25 to 50 percent, of the water that is contained in an equal volume of ice. The percentage of water in ice is around 91-92 percent. But even the rime contributes something to the water table and it would be interesting to find out to what degree moisture from rime impacts the local vegetation. Ice and snow contribute most of the moisture used by the alpine plants here which have adapted to the habitat by flowering in late May and early June even with the high risk of a heavy frost, or a blizzard.

Melting ice and snow, and perhaps rime, contribute water to the mechanical process of freezing and thawing that causes the fracturing of bed rock in the formation of the felsenmeer blocks that I've been writing about. These photos show rime sticking handily to the mica schist blocks.

The wind forces both snow and the rime particles onto the rock and into cracks like this one where it has the potential to contribute to the fracturing process.

One could conclude that between rime and ice in its various forms, including this ice that froze on an incline following a rapid temperature drop after recent rains, that the slowly melting ice would be a more consistent source of water to aid in frost-fracturing mechanics. The melt water will find its way into even small fissures in the rocks, freeze and thaw in daily (or other) cycles producing the force that breaks the larger blocks from the slabs, breaks the larger blocks into smaller ones, and also lifts the blocks from the subsoil over vast periods of time.

There was an enormous amount of snow packed in around the felsenmeer as well as ice that froze as it flowed and coats everything, at least at the 5,000 foot elevation. The combination of rime, snow and ice offers a glimpse of how conditions for frost-cracking occur even though temperatures and amounts of precipitation vary enormously from winter to winter. It is also a glimpse of how felsenmeeer becomes more common in higher elevations.

As I got ready to descend the clouds were still brushing the summit.

and people were still arriving even though it was mid-afternoon.

A last look at the hut. It looks like a scene from the movie Dr. Zhivago.

And a last look at the summit.

Descents on this hard packed snow are a delight as you can run with abandon.

Two views of the Dartmouth Range. (Above and the photo below). My next project, in a few weeks, will be to bushwhack the length of the range beginning from the Jefferson Notch road and coming out on the Cherry Mountain road.

Light and shade among the trees along the lower stretch of the Ammy

and late afternnoon sunlight on snow.

True to form, it always clears up on the peaks just as you get down to the road!