On the last day of June this year, I headed out west from Calgary to do a ridge walk with one of my friends and his children. The Nihahi Ridge lies at the far end of the Elbow Valley, close to a number of peaks named after either World War One Royal Navy battleships (Cornwall, Glasgow) or Roman Mythology (Romulus, Remus). We started from the car at about 10.30 AM, and were back down by 2.10 PM. This included a walk-in of about 1.5Km from the parking lot, and taking many small breaks due to my fitness level.
Today proved to be a lesson in mountain weather, and just how rapidly things can change for the worse. The start of our walk was in brilliant sunshine, though driving west, we had seen showers trailing beneath clouds in the distance. In such hot weather, heat-stroke is a risk, and adequate water should always be carried. Sun-block is essential too, and insect repellent.
Right from the start, the view in this walk are spectacular. The surrounding mountains beside the Elbow River rise to large peaks all around, and the view of Nihahi Ridge during the drive in is striking. At first you wonder how you will manage to get up there. As it turns out, the approach is straightforward, switching back and forth, gaining height rapidly until you find yourself in an alpine meadow (coming into bloom at this time of the year), with Gaillardia, daisies and other flowers all around. Excellent views are seen from here, of the peaks to the southwest, Mt Glasgow, Mt Cornwall and Banded Peak. These bad boys are all in the 8000-9000 ft height bracket, and offer walking / scrambling that is unlikely to crowded. No queueing for Sharp Edge here!
Nihahi means “Rocky” in the local Stoney dialect, which is appropriate. Just as in Gaelic in Scotland, the local names tend to be descriptive. I much prefer them to some of those imposed by later settlers. Why name mountains after warships or politicians? The original names sound great, like “Yamnuska”.
As we approach the meadow, the views to the east, south and west open up. With the switchbacks, height is gained quite rapidly, but inside the pine forest, lack of external visual reference makes you feel as though you’re crawling along. At this point, as the pictures show, it was a bright, hot, sunny day. There weren’t even that many biting insects.
Looking out to the west, below, we start to get our first proper view of Mts Romulus and Remus, named after the mythical founders of Rome. These are serious mountains, though the very southern end of the Nihahi Ridge obscures the valley containing the Little Elbow River.
To the south, again, nice views as we gained height, with the Little Elbow River visible away down in the valley floor. Don’t know the name of the mountain in the far distance, but I like the shape of its profile.
Once up and across the meadow, a steep trail switches back and forth up the eastern side of the ridge. The post I’m holding in the photo below is part of a fence system protecting that section of the walk from a drop of perhaps one hundred and fifty feet. What isn’t clear from the shot is that the meadow in the background is actually quite high above the starting point, right down at the river. In the background, Elbow Valley runs east for miles, towards Elbow Falls and Bragg Creek. On a day like today, it is a fantastic drive, rarely seeing other drivers, let alone some of the aggressive yahoos commonly encountered on the TransCanada Highway. On another subject, I’m unashamed of the sweat covering my rugby shirt. Getting to this point was a real effort, and there’s nothing wrong with a good sweat in any case. Proves you’re putting the effort in!
As we gain height, Mount Glasgow and Mt Cornwall become a bit more visible. Even at this point, from the first real viewpoint on the ridge, the weather out to the west is perfect. At this elevation, there is little wind, and no real indication in the sky that anything is amiss. The walking is more of a scramble at this point, though still very easy. My main problem at this point is overall fitness. While I train three times a week in martial arts, this is more steady, prolonged effort, and suffering from asthma makes my chest ache and breathing is difficult for the first thirty minutes to an hour of any hike. Still, perserverance pays off, as here.
Just before the trees give out on the main ridge, the view to the east is still pretty spectacular. I think the hill over my left shoulder is Forgetmenot Mountain, though I need to check that. The meadow is now significantly lower, and what you can’t see immediately behind me is a much larger drop. To the east, the weather looks as it has done all day, lovely. Up here, there is quite a bit more wind, funnelling out of the valley to the west, where the sky is just starting to darken. Lunch was a good option at this point.
Now, the view west is starting to look a bit more ominous. In perhaps fifteen minutes, the sky behind Evan-Thomas E3 has darkened, and the clouds have closed in. At this point, I think I can hear distant thunder, but am not sure if I’m imagining it, with all of the ambient noise created by the wind from the west.
The effects of wind and rain are clear in the shot above, giving an idea of the time taken to erode these magnificent mountains to mineral grains. Literally a geological age.
To the north, the ridge loses it’s forest cover, and becomes essentially bare rock. Here we have a choice to make. The sky is darkening to the west rapidly, while to the east and south, everything is as it was. However, the main weather system is coming in from the west, and it doesn’t look good. The last thing we want to do is be stuck at altitude on a bare ridge with lightning bolts coming down. June and July is thunderstorm season here in Alberta, and the storms themselves tend to be significant, with lots of bolts and large, potentially damaging hail. Given the ascent time, we decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and turned around, unlike a small group of young people without much gear, who happily (and noisily) made their way upwards. Given their exit options, and the storm that was shortly to follow, I sincerely hope they got out OK.
Now we can definitely hear thunder, and the sky has a funny cast to it. The underside of some of the clouds starts to look bulbous, or domed, an indication of cumulonimbus, or thunderclouds. Mountaineers have reported their metal gear, such as ice axes, singing or humming in intense electrical fields before thunderstorms. I’ve never been this high up when such a storm has rolled in, and I admit to being very keen to lose some elevation before it arrives. Another hazard at this point is moving downhill rapidly. It isn’t as easy as you might think, and the chance of falling or turning an ankle is actually higher. As Baz said to his kids, if you fall uphill, you have less distance to fall. Now we can trip and sprawl downhill, potentially breaking wrists. The tree roots that helped us to climb the trail now become wet, and lying at an angle, represent sliding hazards. The first drops of rain fall, thick, fat and slow, but still not numerous. Thunder is now close and loud, with occasional flashes of lightning from close to the ridge.
Down at the meadow, we’re aware of being out in the open, and decide to shelter. Not being the tallest object in the area is a good thing, so we take shelter in a thick stand of trees, but not touching any. As the thunderstorm moves over us, we pass through one of the belts of strong hail, which comes drumming down, with a downpour of almost biblical proportions. If this is a typical Alberta thunderstorm, it will be violent and move through quite quickly. As it turns out, it slackens off fairly quickly, allowing us a window of opportunity to head for lower elevation still, among trees that now smell beautifully of pine resin and clean air. All around are pools of new rainwater, and the sun finally starts to reappear, even while the thunder is still crackling around the highest reaches of the ridge.
In terms of wildlife, this area is rich, though we didn’t see a great deal, mainly some butterflies that I need to look up in my guide. One thing we did see, and quite close to the road, was bear scratching marks, below. As with any walk in western Alberta or British Columbia outside of Fall (or Autumn for my non-North American readers), bear spray should be carried, and you should be competent in its use, before going on your hike. You won’t be any use to anybody if you end up spraying yourself – it happens.
So, overall, a great walk, within about an hour of the western edge of Calgary. The Elbow Valley was full of people taking advantage of the approaching Canada Day long weekend, but it still didn’t feel cramped. Everyone we met was friendly, including a batch of people all wearing red Raytheon t-shirts. Some sort of fundraiser perhaps. Anyhow, lots of nice folks, and when I can bend my legs again, I’m sure I’ll look back on this walk with affection. It was well worth the effort, and it reminded me that there are so many excellent places to hike, close to the city, but away from the usual tourist draws like Banff and Lake Louise.
Christmas Day was beautiful this year in Alberta. Clear blue sky, cold, but the snow was glinting on the mountains on the western horizon, and I had itchy feet. It wasn’t the happiest of days for me, for a couple of reasons, and the prospect of a long drive looked likely to help blow the cobwebs away.
At this point, it wasn’t too cold, and the bright sun in the southern sky looked to be the biggest problem I’d have to handle. This is where Highway 40 runs south from the TransCanada, past a really ugly casino on Stoney First Nations land. While I think the First Nations art of the Pacific Northwest is fantastic, I really think they could teach the Russians a few things about ugly buildings. Possibly, aesthetics were not at the top of their list, rather than income.
To the north lay one of my favourite mountains, Yamnuska. I’ve seen this hill in just about every kind of weather, and different light. My normal route home runs right along the base, visible as a line just below the main slopes. Seeing this mountain in the early evening, as the sun sets in the Bow Valley, is one of the things that I really love.
Heading south, the road runs between towering masses of the front ranges. I was surprised by how many people I saw, this being Christmas Day. One consequence of being in a winding valley was that the wind made the temperature drop. Starting off at minus 17C, it dropped steadily towards the mid-twenties. Strangely enough, the air itself seemed to have a blue tint to it – an effect that I couldn’t explain until yesterday. Apparently even the colour of shadows can be affected by reflected light from the sky. In this case, light from the intensely blue sky. Apparently the shadows aren’t black, but can appear really deep blue. Who knew? Certainly not me.
Highway 40 is only open part-way to the south. When open, it allows you to make your way to Longview, for possibly the longest wait for a cup of coffee in the history of catering, but that’s another story. Fortunately for me, it was closed and barricaded off well before that became a possibility.
The run south takes you past one of the popular ski resorts of the area, and Kananaskis Village. I seem to identify better with trees and mountains than people – certainly I understand them far better, so this is a good drive just to get away from people. The views are superlative; it is almost impossible to take a bad photograph, though I would caution you as to where you stop to take said pictures. It is possible in more clement weather to be flattened by some yahoo in a pickup truck who hasn’t noticed you.
The forces of geology are on display here in a number of ways. First, the effect of the collision between continental and oceanic tectonic plates, creating the Rockies. I tend to bang on about that quite a bit, so won’t belabour the point here. Secondly, the effect of glaciers, carving the landscape over an entirely different timescale, leaving unmistakeable traces in the country around you. While they operate more quickly than your average continental collision, I wouldn’t use either plate tectonics or glaciation to set your watch by – even Lothian Buses run more quickly.
Down here, the road branches off west and north around the base of the mountain chain, and becomes the Smith-Dorrien Highway. This runs north past Mount Chester, Black Prince Cirque, a whole load of interesting mountains and the (presently frozen) Spray Lakes, reappearing at the east end of Rundle (EEOR) high above Canmore and the Grassi Lakes. The steep descent to Canmore on snow and ice is not one for the faint-hearted, but not overly difficult.
Mount Chester is a great day-hike, though possibly not while the trails are covered in a thick blanket of snow. There are lots of promising mountains here to wander, though bear spray is essential in non-winter seasons. I never did get to the bottom of why so many Canadian peaks in this part of the Rockies are named after British World War One naval vessels (Chester, Galatea, Black Prince, Nestor, Hector, Indefatigable and so on). Many of them exhibited an unsettling habit of exploding and sinking, which makes them even more improbably candidates for immortality. I would imagine that Canadians have a variety of other names for them that are more suitable, and think it would be more appropriate to go back to using them.
From here, I started to encounter idiots on the road again, after a refreshingly long time. Some people fail to understand (or don’t care) that their brakes won’t prevent them from crashing into the rear of cars ahead when driving on ice. While it is comforting to know that their insurance will repair my car, I don’t much fancy the prospect of being forced off the road into a steep slope of conifers with massive boulders in it.
At least once through the township of Canmore, it was possible to head back home along one of my favourite roads, Highway 1A in the fading sunlight. All in all, possibly the best Christmas Day I could have had, and proof that sometimes, the best company is your own.
Here in Western Canada, winter normally means crazy freeze/thaw cycles (the Chinook, where moist, less cold air from the Pacific Ocean rolls over the Rockies, raising the temperature by up to 10C) and vast numbers of people for whom a steering wheel is an unfamiliar and unsettling object. The bonus is frequent days like today, with clear skies and bright sunlight. While cold, it is a great opportunity to get outdoors and enjoy the mountains. Last weekend, I took a trip up Highway 93, otherwise known as the Icefields Parkway. This Highway connects the TransCanada to Jasper, running through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. The geology is varied, the landscape titanic, and the driving conditions quite interesting, in a don’t-lose-concentration-or-you’re-off-the-road sort of way. Early in the winter, the driving surface tends to be powdery snow, which then packs down and is polished, to an icy base layer. The actual route isn’t too bad to drive, as long as you think carefully about bends, and changing your speed without braking much. I didn’t realise just how slippery the road was until I stepped out of the car to take some pictures.
Being several hundred kilometres long, the weather along the Parkway can be quite varied. On this occasion, it was fairly cloudy, with snow falling through the lower reaches of the route. Where Highway 93 branches off from the road to Vancouver, infrequent traffic meant it was necessary to estimate where the lanes were. I love this turnoff though, as it always gives me a sense of going somewhere special, off the beaten track, as it were. The Smith-Dorrien highway out of Canmore to the Spray Lakes also does it, and Highway 68, down Jumping Pound way. On this occasion though, the drifting snow made finding the appropriate lane something of a challenge.
The drive follows a path between ranges in the Rockies, with lakes frequently to the side of the road. In summer, these are a vivid turquoise colour through the presence of ground up suspended minerals, termed “rock-flour”. Today, everything lay under a layer of ice and snow, though not everything had frozen. It was possible to see patches of unfrozen lake, though they were being swallowed up rapidly.
One of the things I really love about being up here in the winter time is the silence. Stepping from the car, often the only audible sound was the murmur of the wind through the endless pine trees. Occasionally, you might hear the gurgle of a creek that had yet to freeze solid. Proper silence, without any of the things that we normally tune out.
When you drive east to west (or vice versa) anywhere in the Rockies, you are weaving your way through successive waves of a geological car crash, literally waves frozen in stone. To the south, on Highway 40, Mt Kidd is a graphic reminder of this, with the waves plain for anyone with eyes to see. You don’t need to be a geologist to see how and where the forces that shaped that mountain range were applied. If it bakes your brain, don’t be concerned; we are no more capable of being blase about the forces and timescales involved. After many years, the specialist term that I apply for such situations is “Oh wow”. Works most times.
Back to the Icefields Parkway – here, we are travelling north-west, between successive waves of mountains. For me, the things of note change depending on the season. In spring and summer, the lakes dominate, with their beautiful turquoise caused by rock-flour. In winter, the mountains running alongside the road are dominant, brooding shattered crags, often rising into mist or low cloud. Then there are the glaciers. Frozen titanic masses of water, descending from immense ice sheets to the west, some hang down mountainsides, such as the Snowbird Glacier, while others extend to the east, such as the Bow or Athabasca Glaciers. The ice that makes them up has a vivid blue hue, due to the removal of ice bubbles that normally gives ice a whitish colour. This material has had all of the bubbles crushed out of it, and so looks almost synthetic in nature.
The primary rock type up here is limestone, and the weather has eroded it into the kind of vertical structures that I’ve seen in pictures of karst topography in the Far East. Below is a picture of the crags on Mt Murchison which illustrated the landform quite nicely.
It is a long drive, and the landscape changes as you head towards Saskatchewan River Crossing. Ahead is Mt Wilson, with its large syncline (v-shaped structure, caused by rock beds being folded) and inclined beds. Beyond lies the Weeping Wall and the Sunwapta Pass. The aptly named “Big Bend” rises to the pass, with Cirrus Mountain on the right, with the Palliser, Banff and Rundle Formations all laid out for inspection. For my part, my concentration is focused on staying on the sharply rising curving road, and not driving into the thin armco barrier that really doesn’t look as though it would prevent a plummeting descent into the valley below.
Past the Sunwapta Pass, the weather became quite a lot worse, with snow blowing in from the north, as well as off the icefields to the west. At the Icefields Visitor Centre, closed for the season, the snow lies in thick drifts. This is not a place to get into trouble, as I was shortly to find out first-hand. Here, on a clear day, the Athabasca Glacier descends from the Columbia Icefield, and several hanging glaciers push down from Mt Andromeda and Mt Athabasca. Vast quantites of lateral moraine (ground-up debris from the passage of the glacier) lie on both sides of the valley. In summer, special buses take tourists up and on to the glacier itself. Today, it would end badly. and to be honest, even if you could get out on to the glacier unharmed, the weather was severe enough to make you wish you hadn’t.
This was not a good time to drive your car into a snow-filled ditch, but I did. Two of us proved unequal to the task, and thankfully we managed to enlist the help of a number of people passing on the road. For an hour or so, it was fairly unpleasant, and a tow-rope moved to the top of the to-buy list.
Interestingly enough, one of the currently invisible peaks in this area, Snow Dome (3456m) is, according to Ben Gadd’s Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, the Hydrographic apex of North America. In short, water poured on the summit of this mountain flows into three oceans. To the south and east, water drains into the North Saskatchewan River, and by a meandering course, into Hudson Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. To the west, into Bush River, the Columbia River and ultimately the Pacific Ocean. To the north, water drains into the Athabasca River, Slave River, MacKenzie River and finally the Arctic Ocean.
So, all in all, a good drive. It’s worth remembering that it’s a long drive back to Calgary, and breaking the trip up somewhere like Banff or Canmore to have some food and decompress from concentrating on driving for a few minutes is a really good idea. This is one of my favourite drives, and certainly not one I’m likely to forget any time soon.
I found out about Chester Lake by walking with a local hiking group from Calgary, the Calgary Nature Lovers. You can reach their website here: http://www.meetup.com/Calgary-Nature-Lovers-Hiking-Meetup/ This was my second walk with them, and while not too strenuous for most people, I am still unfit enough that it made me sweat a bit. It can be found by driving west from Calgary on Highway 1 until you reach the intersection with Highway 40, running into Kananaskis country, beside the large and unattractive casino on Stoney land. Turning south, the drive is a good one, running past Barrier Lake (another good walk), and weaving between mountains on either side of the road. It is here, roughly opposite Mt Kidd, that I encountered a large female moose, standing still in a darkened roadcut. Thankfully car and moose went on their separate ways unharmed, driver forcibly educated about the kinds of wildlife to expect on rural roads. Rounding the base of Mt Kent, you take the Smith-Dorrien Spray Trail, twenty kilometers of gravel road. Along the way, you can see into glacial cirques such as the Black Prince, named for a World War 1 Royal Navy warship. Even in the last weekend of July, there was a sizeable snowfield in the cirque, that will probably last until the winter snows fall.
The view westward from the parking lot is seen below, showing Commonwealth Peak, Mt Birdwood, Snow Peak and Mt Burstall. Hidden behind Burstall is the evocatively named Whistling Rock Ridge. However, our trail today would take us to the north-east, climbing through forestry trails until we reached a plateau and a beautiful wild-plant and conifer meadow. From there, the trail wound easily along the flat, among streams and pools, to a green-blue lake, surrounded by large mountains on three sides.
The trail was well marked, and worked its way gradually up the side of Chester Creek, with tall trees providing some shade from the bright sun beating down. Thankfully, the walking group I was with had a good attitude towards pacing, and with lots of brief stops, we made our way to the plateau. As can be seen below, there was still a lot of snow higher up.
Once up on the plateau, we were surrounded by wild flowers. All of the usual Albertan suspects were here, and the smell of pine resin hung strongly in the air. It was truly a beautiful day to be outdoors. We had also been warned of the presence of a grizzly in the vicinity of the lake during the past two days. Bears are not stupid animals, and will tend to stay away from people, unless their young are threatened, or you do something stupid like leave food out where they can be drawn to it. When I was registering to buy my bear spray, a guy said to the people at MEC that he had been told he could spray it around his camp as some sort of barrier. NEVER do this. Bear spray is a strong extract of capsicum or pepper. If you spray it, bears will smell it from a long way away, and be drawn to investigate. You do not want this. Thankfully, on this day, no bears were to be seen anywhere.
Mt Chester, like the Black Prince, was another Royal Navy warship from the First World War. Why so many peaks in the Canadian Rockies are so named isn’t clear to me, but one of the mountains on the west side of Chester, Galatea, is another one. Most of these ships had a nasty tendency to blow up, as the crews stored cordite in open corridors. This allowed explosions to flash down the length of the vessel, generally causing a catastrophic detonation. Needless to say, the Royal Navy eventually learned from these lessons, and designed ships that were less dangerous to their crews than the enemy.
Approaching the lake, the mountains begin to rear up. In the photo above, Mt Chester is on the right, shedding vast scree slopes of limestone and mudstone, which contain fossils. The Fortress is almost in the centre, and Gusty Peak is the large one just left of centre. Galatea lies just out of shot the the left. These rocks give a real sense of age. Folding is visible, and the major beds all dip away to the south-east. Imagine the force needed, and the immense time needed to apply it, in order to make these gigantic bands of rock bend and twist.
The meadow really was idyllic. This is all hidden from the road, and has to be earned by tramping up the trail. Well worth it, by my reckoning. By now, the lake was pretty close, and we saw deer crossing one of the gullies on the side of Mt Chester, high up above us. The rocks making up Mt Chester are different colours, and where they change, the scree slopes change colour from cream to grey quite markedly. The photo below shows the grey slopes, at the base of which fossils can be seen. To be clear, it is not permitted to remove anything from here, and the only thing you can collect is photographs.
The lake itself is clear, not very deep, and extremely cold. Swimming here would be a challenging proposition! It was clear enough to allow us to see brook trout rising towards the surface and take flies, with gills and fins moving gently. It was almost as if you had an aquarium right at your feet. Stupendous.
As I mentioned, the scree slopes below Mt Chester contain fossils. In this case, not bivalves, as I had thought, but according to a friend of mine, Dr Stan Stancliffe, who studied the things, brachiopods, Rhynchonelliformea to be exact. The picture below is pretty low resolution, but I didn’t have a proper camera to hand. Better examples are seen if you Google the scientific name above.
After making our way back around the lake, crossing the scree slopes, we retraced our route back along the meadow and worked our way down through the trees to our starting point. All in all, a diverting few hours, and a really beautiful little lake. I’ll definitely do this walk again, and bring a better camera next time!
Apologies for the picture-heavy post, but hey, people like pictures, right?
I’ve loved dinosaurs since I was a little kid. It’s not difficult to understand why. Something about them captures the imagination. When I first watched “Jurassic Park”, I was riveted, imagining something extinct for tens of millions of years wandering about. The sequence where the protagonists are chased by a Tyrannosaur is still one of my favourite movie moments.
Also, they were around for a very long time. Humanity has done some amazing things, but the dinosaurs were around for approximately 160 million years. That’s what I call staying power. By comparison, we have been here for a few eye-blinks. So, when I moved to Alberta, one of the places on my must-see list was the Royal Tyrell Museum, near Drumheller. Leaving Calgary on Hwy 2, you turn off east on Hwy 9, on to an immensity of flatness. When people think of Alberta, they tend to focus on the Rocky Mountains. That’s fine, but a large part of the province is very flat. The kind of flatness that the Dutch would find curiously familiar. The road to Drumheller runs east for about forty miles, with very little in terms of landmarks or elevation to break it up. It actually makes driving more difficult, as your mind and eyes wander in search of variation. We actually cheered when we saw a bend in the road near Drumheller, with a large blue teapot painted on the side of a farmhouse. All the way out there, I was wondering where the Badlands were, those amazing banded formations and strange rock formations.There is little sign until you are almost in Drumheller, then the road abruptly drops down into an eroded zone. Drumheller is surprisingly large, with many amenities, and not what I was expecting at all. Most notable is a giant fibreglass T-Rex that lurks among the low buildings. Being at least three storeys tall, it is a convenient waymark for navigation.
The Museum itself is a few miles further on, but our large plastic friend was well worth visiting. This is the kind of thing that should be in Tokyo! If the Japanese don’t have a similar sized Godzilla, someone needs to sort it out.
On the day we visited, the Museum was overrun with lots of children, but they were generally well behaved. The range of exhibits is astonishing, and I will let most of them speak for themselves. I was particularly pleased to see one of my favourite childhood dinosaurs, Dimetrodon, with a well preserved skeleton. Anyway, some pictures. I might come back and add some more commentary, but for the moment, here they are.
I visited Yellowstone National Park to do some geological fieldwork in 1992. With the benefit of twenty years hindsight, it has turned out to be possibly the best trip I have been lucky enough to undertake. Despite some of my meaner spirited class-mates calling it a holiday, I learned a great deal, and the experience of being in a totally different country was excellent.
The north gate of the park is a pretty imposing structure, with an inscription by Theodore Roosevelt. I didn’t take the photo below, which is from Wikipedia.
Arriving in Bozeman, Montana at night, I ended up dropped off up a mountain in the dark. What this meant was that I wasn’t at all prepared for the view when I opened the curtains.
Closing the curtains and trying again didn’t make the view disappear, and it stayed the same as I emerged blinking into the sunlight.
Mt.Everts is essentially a large fault scarp, and the continuous layer on top was deposited during one of the Yellowstone volcano’s more recent eruptions. That layer can apparently be found on the opposite side of North America, in New York State, showing that the volume of rock and ash ejected was truly stupendous. More of that later.
In the northern Park, Mammoth Hot Springs is one of the first places on anyone’s itinerary. Some period buildings remain, and the administrative departments are housed in what was once the US Cavalry’s barracks. One of the things I love about Mammoth is that wildlife is not hindered by fences, and able to wander around everyone’s gardens.
If you’ve never heard elk calling, you’re in for a treat. During the mating season, they tend to get a bit noisy. The sound is difficult to describe, kind of a combination of creaky gate and mad bugler. A quick check on Google will show you what I mean.
The hot springs that give Mammoth its name contain mainly calcium carbonate, in the form of travertine. It forms large terraces, which start off as tiny flat flakes of mineral, and these build up to give large structures.
Down at Mammoth Hot Springs, a remnant feeder pipe for a previous hydrothermal system is present, known as “Liberty Cap”. This formed in much the same way as a pipe furs up with deposits carried by water. If you’ve ever seen a kettle, or oil-pipe full of scale, this isn’t too different. Note the onion-skin structure below.
The whole thing is visible below, and would have been a pipe in the subsurface, feeding deposits similar to those higher up the mountain.
One of the most memorable things about my trip was the people that I encountered. Aside from being robbed in Minneapolis St Paul, virtually everyone was really friendly. The Park Service staff, particularly Dave and Kathy LaConte, Bob Lindstrom and Wayne Hamilton all made my life much easier while I was in the Park.
The scale of hydrothermal activity in Yellowstone is pretty significant. Geological studies show that there is a mantle “hot-spot” beneath the Park, and that continental drift has been moving North America over the heat source for a long time. It is believed that a similar mantle “plume” created the various Pacific seamounts in a chain ending with the Hawaiian Islands. Here’s a useful link – http://seamounts.sdsc.edu/, showing a vast array of seamounts. Using the map to look at the Pacific Ocean, you can see the chain I’m talking about, stretching away north and west of Hawaii. Not all seamounts form from mantle plumes, but this tool is a useful illustration.
Anyway, back to the plume under Yellowstone. This plume has been responsible for a number of catastrophic volcanic eruptions through geological history. The National Parks Service have shown this far better than I could, and their graphic is reproduced below. The link to their site is here: http://www.nps.gov/yell/naturescience/eruptions.htm.
Looking at the relative volumes of material ejected during the Mt. St. Helens and Krakatau eruptions, it is clear that when the Yellowstone caldera lets rip, it does so on a truly gargantuan scale. For non-geologists out there, a caldera is what you get when the top of a volcano collapses in on itself, a structure a bit like a basin. Good examples are Crater Lake, Oregon, and Olympus Mons. On Earth, calderas are not generally very large, a couple of miles in diameter or less. To give you an idea of scale, according to the US Geological Surgvey, the current Yellowstone Caldera measures approximately “28 by 47 miles”. This gives me the shivers. Basically the entire central section of Yellowstone National Park is a volcanic structure. I knew this before I did any field-work there, but the sheer size of it is awe-inspiring. On a trip to the southern end of the Park, we drove down the fault scarp for the caldera, and it stretched for miles to either side.
One thing is for sure, when that bad boy cuts loose, as it will eventually, the whole world will know about it. A drama that gives an idea of what a major eruption would look like is available through the BBC. Kind of tips 2012 and similar movies into a cocked hat.
Regardless of what lies beneath, Yellowstone National Park is well worth repeated visits. I for one would love to visit again in the depths of winter, when the Park is transformed by snow. The Indians called this part of the world “Big Sky country”, and I can see why. Standing among the grasslands, framed by mountains and deep clear blue sky above, I almost felt as if I could fall off the planet.
One thing that really gets me about geology is time. We are taught that a particular geological epoch lasted for seventy million years, or took place five hundred and fifty million years ago, but this seems incomprehensible to me . Working backwards, I can just about manage to think about eighty thousand years, then the numbers just don’t mean anything.
In Scotland, one of my favourite geological areas is the far north-west, Sutherland. As students, this was one of the first places that we ever did any geological fieldwork. It made quite an impression on me, and I love to go back. The coastal areas of Sutherland are some of the oldest rocks on Earth, formed two to three thousand million years ago. Remember what I said about the incomprehensibility of geological time? The Earth is believed to have formed, according to current estimates, four and a half thousand million years ago. So, the western Highlands are old, vastly old. This is where I have been walking, as a geologist, it’s difficult not to be excited at the prospect of seeing such ancient rocks.
For the trip I am writing about, I started at Inchnadamph. It is a good base for a few reasons. There is an excellent hostel, pictured below.
Inchnadamph is well situated for exploring many of the hills of Sutherland. Conival and Ben More Assynt are near to hand, and the massive bulk of Quinag looms just to the northwest. One bit of it (Sàil gharbh, rough heel?) is visible just to the left of the hostel, but such an impressive hill deserves a picture of its own.
Quinag is mainly Torridonian sandstone, with a thin skin of Cambrian quartzite on top. It was previously thought that this mountain, like many others, had been overrun by glaciers, but according to Leeds university scholars, there is evidence on the summit that this was a nunatak, or”bit sticking out of the top of a glacier or ice-field”. Many of the other local mountains are made of Torridonian sandstone, and sitting on a landscape of much older Lewisian gneiss. For more information on Quinag, I would recommend Leeds University’s excellent page, which can be found here: http://www.see.leeds.ac.uk/structure/assyntgeology/classic/quinag/
This part of Scotland was involved in the dawn of geological science. During the Enlightenment, gentleman scientists, or “natural philosophers” as they would call themselves, would come here to try and understand the formation of the Earth. In the eighteenth century, the idea of the Earth being older than the six thousand or so years quoted by Bishop Ussher was difficult to accept for many people. James Hutton’s studies showed that the time needed for geological processes to take place meant that the Earth simply couldn’t be 6000 years old. Needless to say, this still causes controversy among a particular segment of the population. See here: Nutty Waffling. I’m not going to start in on this, or why even normal Christians should find their “alternative” theories offensive, but I think that they have strange views, which do not stand up to scrutiny. Anyway, back to the geology!
My walk this time started down at Cam Loch (Cam, bent or twisted), at NC 233 121, just off the A835. The loch is beautiful on a nice day, and the landscape is worth shouting about. Basically, it is a huge sheet of old Lewisian rocks, with mountains of Torridonian sandstone sitting on it. The rest of the sandstone has been eroded away, leaving the mountains sitting proudly.
From here, the path heads to just north of west, following the edge of the loch. As you can see, it was a beautiful day, and we didn’t expect to get sunburn in April. At grid NC 214 413, the path becomes less distinct, but heads to the north, skirting around Meall na Braclaich. There is some really nice conglomerate up here, which is basically just a mish-mash of old rock. The path soon brings you to Lochan Fada, Little long loch.
From Lochan Fada, the trail brings you north-west, under the shoulder of mighty Suilven, or The Pillar. This impressive sandstone mountain stretches for 2Km to the northwest. For the whole walk, the aspect of this hill changes. At the beginning, you are seeing the south-eastern end, almost end on. From Loch na gainimh (Sandy loch), you see it flank-on, and from near Lochinver, the impressive sugar-loaf of Caisteal Liath (Grey castle) at the north-western end.
From here, it is still quite a long walk to Glen Canisp lodge, about 6Km. On those rare days when the sun beats down on Sutherland, you need to be careful and carry enough water to last the course. One of our party collapsed at Glen Canisp, though he later recovered. The loch is your last real chance to reload with clean water, so use it wisely. Despite its appearance, Suilven is a straightforward hillwalking trip, working up to a bealachat the lowest point of the ridge between the summits, and then heading to on to the ridge top.
This is an old land, and you can almost forget that humans exist. Aside from the track, you are alone among the oldest rocks in Britain, with only the wind for company. This can be an unforgiving environment, even in summer, so care is needed. Any day out on Suilven is a long day out, and you need to be prepared for it. That said, it is a beautiful place.
Sadly, there are no cows in this post (Sorry Jen), the terrain being a bit too rough for them. I’ll try and make sure that some get into the next one!