Yeah. Lots of stuff in this post…
Friday morning I dropped Awesome Wife and Trifecta off at the airport on my way in to work. We’ll reunite mid-next week in Boston. In the meantime, they’re vacationing with family and friends on the New Jersey shore* while I’m in San Diego for a conference.
*Pic right = Twin B with fresh-caught crab and “Uncle Mike.” (Twin A in background, fishing.) Confusingly, “Uncle Mike” is not actually their uncle. Even more confusingly, they have a real “Uncle Mike”, whom they’ll also be seeing this trip. It gets even more confusing, due to complicated family relationships, adoptions and paternity histories, but I can’t explain it here, since Awesome Wife occasionally reads this blog.
Side Note Prospective Burglars: Don’t even think about. My brother Ray is house-sitting. Sort of a mixed blessing. I know the house will be secure, but when I get home I know all the neighbors will be pissed off about his pit bull barking and he and his buddies his blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd until all hours of the night.
But my flight out wasn’t until Monday AM, which meant that I was all alone for the weekend. A Bachelor Weekend. So I spent the weekend kicking back, drinking lots of beer, watching ESPN and playing video games. Saturday night I called up a few of my friends and we got together, complained about the government, talked about our feelings, and commiserated about how our wives don’t really understand us. Then we got in a circle and one of us starting beating a drum, and we…
OK, actually no, that’s not what I did. I didn’t do any of that stuff. Especially the shit with the drum.
Tangent: A friend of mine- let’s call him “OCRick”- belongs to a “Men’s Group”. In all the years I’ve known him I’ve never made fun of him for it, until last year, when he joined a second men’s group, and made the mistake of mentioning they had a drum. “A drum?” I asked. “You’re a bunch of late-middle-aged upper-middle-class white guys. What the **** do you need a drum for?”
Anyway, the men’s group thing seems to work for OCRick and that’s fine. It just never had any appeal for me, and that’s probably in part because I’m not into the whole share-your-feelings-group-therapy thing, but also because I can’t stand it when upper-middle-class generic Euromericans try to latch on to some “primitive” culture thing- like a drum- to find meaning. It’s like they’re thinking, “Man, this whole 21st-century modern existence is really bringing me down… I know! I’ll get a drum!”
Nested Tangent: About a decade ago, at the height of the dotcom era, Awesome Wife and I traveled to California for the wedding of a friend of hers who was marrying some dot-commer-hit-it-big-now-richer-than-god guy. At the reception, the wedding party- which consisted of unanimously of Americans of suburban, upper-middle-class origins- participated/performed in a series of ethnic rituals: an Apache wedding blessing, a West African commitment ceremony, some Tibetan something-or-other and a couple other things I forget. It was like this patronizing little third-world-lite tasting menu of wedding traditions. By the time they got to the Tibetan thing, it was all I could do to keep from yelling out, “Give it up already- you’re white kids from the suburbs! Just do the Chicken Dance!”
No, what I really did was pack a whole bunch of different stuff into a very short weekend: I did a bike race (road), climbed a mountain, and capped it off with a mtn bike ride. So Friday night I loaded up the 4Runner with road bike, mtn bike, daypack, camping gear, and 4 pair of footwear*.
*Road bikes shoes, mtn bike shoes, hiking boots, sandals.
Saturday I raced Chalk Creek, up by Coalville, Utah, my first real Cat3 race (80 miles). Technically it was my second, but the first was a hill-climb, which is more like a time-trial/free-for-all than a real road-race.
Tangent: Know what the best thing about racing Cat3 is? Nobody sucks. Everybody knows how to work safely in a pack, and that lowers a lot of the early-race stress.
Know what the worst thing is about racing Cat3? Nobody sucks. Seriously, here’s the deal. When you’re a Cat5 racer, if you’re any good, you think, “Hey, I’m a pretty good racer…” But much of the reason you feel like a good racer is because a huge number of Cat5 racers, well, suck. They’re all over the road, they’re out-of-shape, they attack senselessly, they blow up early and get dropped. In every Cat5 race, at the 1st big climb, a large portion of the pack gets left behind, and if you can avoid falling off, you’re immediately in contention.
Cat4 is different in that everybody’s raced before, but there are still plenty of, uh, “not great” Cat4’s. And though you have to work a little harder, and have stiffer competition for a top 10 finish, your ego and confidence are still bolstered by the significant number of “not great” racers.
But in Cat3, everybody’s a really, really good racer. Nobody is foolish or reckless or unprepared or inexperienced or overweight or out-of-shape. And so the tricks that got you far in your Cat4/5 days don’t work so well anymore. You power up a big hill, setting a blistering pace, thinking, “Well, that’ll shed a few of them…”, but then you look back at the top and they’re all still there!
Despite the more formidable competition, I did respectably. At around mile 45 Coyote Dave (who also recently upgraded) and I bridged up to a small break, and combined, we maintained the break for the remaining 35 miles, thanks in large part to our teammates in the main pack who blocked for us. I took 4th.
After the race I kept driving East, up into Evanston, Wyoming, then South and up the North slope of the Uintas. I camped at 9,000 feet in a clearing up an old jeep trail, surrounded by Lodgepole Pines and wildflowers. Most of the flowers were familiar from the Wasatch, but some weren’t. This one was new to me: Silverleaf Phacelia, Phacelia hastata (pics left and right). Phacelias are weird little flowers, with too-long stamens sticking out every crazy which way past the petals, almost like little insect antennae. The most closely-related thing- and only other Phacelia- we’ve looked at in this blog is Scorpion Weed, which we saw back in the Spring in the desert outside of St. George, 300 miles South and 5,000 feet below.
Sunday morning I drove up to the Highline trailhead and set out to climb Mt. Agassiz.
I used to do a lot more hiking. Back when I lived in Colorado I hiked often, and climbed several 14,000 and 13,000 ft peaks. And my first few years in Utah I hiked frequently in the Wasatch. But in recent years, with family, biking and racing, hiking has fallen off. And that’s a shame, because so many of the really great places in the Intermountain West can really only be reached on foot, and most of the best peaks only by scrambling off-trail.
I accessed the peak via the Highline trail (pic above, right), which I followed at around the 10,000-foot level until I was due South of the South-running ridge of Agassiz, at which point I left the trail and struck off North through open forests. In the Wasatch below 9,500 feet such bushwhacking would be slow and tedious, but in the Uintas at 10,000 feet the forests are open and easy to pass through (pic left). After about ¼ mile I reached the base of the ridge and started the steep scramble up.
The initial slope up the ridge was stiff and tiring, but there was enough vegetation to hold scree and gravel in place, and provide occasional handholds. At about 11,000 feet the slope eased just a bit, and the trees became more widely spaced. At about 11,200 feet the trees became scattered, stunted and disappeared. Mats of krummholz persisted for another 30 vertical feet or so, and then disappeared. I’d reached treeline.
All About Treeline
Treeline has always fascinated me. Forests blanket mountains seemingly endlessly, but if the land pokes up just another couple of thousand feet, suddenly the trees are eliminated. The peaks and high plateaus above treeline are some of the most beautiful places to hike anywhere, with views in all directions, but the environment is harsh and the weather fickle.
The first interesting thing about treeline is that it’s not always the same; it varies with latitude. Down in central Mexico, treeline is about 13,000 – 14,000 feet. By the time you reach the Sangre de Cristo mountains in Northern New Mexico, it’s down to 12,000 feet. In most of Northern Colorado and Utah it’s around 11,000 feet, then down to 10,000 in the Wind River range, about ½ “up” Wyoming.
By Glacier National Park, it’s down to 8,000 feet, and up in Jasper it’s down to just a bit above 6,000 feet. At the southern border of the Yukon it’s down below 4,000 feet, and finally at around 67 degrees North, it gets down to sea level, meaning you’ve reached Arctic timberline.
Side Note: Treeline isn’t consistent with latitude. Moving East, it “dips” precipitously Southward as you approach Hudson Bay. Nor is the relationship between latitude and treeline linear, though it’s roughly so (about 75m/degree of latitude) between about 30 and 50 degrees North. There’s a similar relationship between treeline and latitude moving South in the Southern hemisphere.
What stops the trees isn’t the thin air; if it were, treeline would always be the same altitude regardless of latitude. Rather it’s the combination of low temperatures, minimal (unfrozen) soil and high winds. It’s just too tough to make a tree “work.” And so grasses, mosses, lichens and other little things take over. At 11,800 feet I came across this clump of Spikemoss, Selaginella (species unknown) which is a lycophyte. I blogged about lycophytes this past Spring down in Costa Rica, and how they used to dominate the entire world in forests of mighty trees. Today, 300 million years later, their surviving cousins eek out a living in this harsh place where trees can’t manage to grow.
Altitude and People
But for many other creatures, the lack of air at high altitude does limit their range. One such creature is us. Everybody knows about altitude sickness, and feeling winded or light-headed when you suddenly travel from sea level to high altitude. And anyone who’s read Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” knows that above 26,000 feet is the “Death Zone”, where a human being will absolutely die should he/she remain long enough without supplemental oxygen. But there are a whole series of altitude-related health issues in between those 2 extremes.
One of the most fascinating is pregnancy and miscarriage. One of the challenges of all placental mammals is providing the fetus with sufficient oxygen; most babies are born slightly hypoxic. At altitude the placental machinery is further stressed. Over 10,000 feet, miscarriage rates go up and birth weight goes down. For much of the 20th century, miscarriage rates in Colorado’s Summit and Lake counties were nearly 20% higher than US miscarriage rates at sea level*. Above 14,000 feet, it becomes unlikely-to- impossible that a European woman will successfully carry a pregnancy to term**.
*I suspect this is no longer the case, due to improvements in prenatal care, but was unable to confirm.
** These figures apply to women who reside, or spend significant time, at these altitudes. Short visits don’t seem to have the same effects. Air travel by the way is not thought to be a danger; cabin pressures mimic altitudes of 6,000 – 8,000 feet. Although some studies have suggested higher miscarriage rates in flight attendants, such higher rates- if true- may be the result of work-related stress and exertion.
But there are women- lots of women- for whom these guidelines don’t apply. Tibetan and Andean Indian women, for example, routinely conceive and give birth at altitudes of over 13,000 feet. This is fascinating, as Tibetan and Andean peoples have lived at their altitudes for only 25,000 and 11,000 years respectively. Yet in that short time- maybe 600 – 1500 generations- they’ve evolved the capacity to reproduce at extreme altitudes. But what’s even more fascinating than the sheer short-term evolutionary feat is how they do it, and specifically, how they do it differently.
Probably the leading researcher in high-altitude human physiology over the past few decades is Cynthia Beall, Professor of Anthropology at Case Western University. Beall’s research indicates that Tibetans and Andeans overcome the physiological challenges of altitude through very different, and independently-evolved, adaptations.
Andeans (pic left = photo of Andean woman I pulled off the web) solve the problem in a manner not wholly dissimilar to a cheating TdF racer: they increase their red blood cell count. While this overcomes challenges of fertility and exhaustion, it is not- not unlike EPO- without disadvantages. Andean Indians living at altitude suffer rates of pulmonary hypertension significantly greater than those of lowland populations.
The Tibetan (pic right = photo of Tibetan woman I pulled off the web. No, I have no idea what the hell that is on her head.) adaptations are more interesting. The most basic changes appear to be increased airflow, in part due to a higher rate of resting respiration (i.e. they breathe faster.) But the really cool adaptation has to do with blood flow. When you or I go suddenly up to say 14,000 feet, our blood vessels actually constrict slightly, which amplifies shortness of breath and exhaustion. But the linings of Tibetans’ blood vessels synthesize far more Nitric Oxide* (NO) than ours do, and that NO has the effect of dilating the blood vessels, improving blood flow and minimizing the effects of altitude.
*No this isn’t “Nitrous Oxide”. Tibetans aren’t synthesizing laughing gas; that’s N2O
The Tibetan system appears more evolutionarily advanced, and that’s probably because the population’s been living at altitude more than twice as long (25,000 years vs. 11,000 years) as the Andean Indians.
Tangent: I love to highlight specific examples of evolution in this blog, but I’m particularly wowed by this one, involving as it does human beings, and occurring over such a short time-frame. Then again, you could say the same for the last couple hundred thousand or so years of human evolution in general.
I noticed a several flowers on the climb, some familiar, some new. Finally, at just below 12,000 feet, I saw the last new flower: Sky Pilot, Polemonium viscosum (pic left). This distinctive lovely little flower, with its lavender petals, bright yellow anthers and tripartite stigma occurs across the Intermountain West, but only at the loftiest heights. It never sees trees or forests. It’s common above timberline in the Uintas, though I don’t recall having seen it in the Wasatch. It’s closely-related to the other Polemonium species we looked at recently, Leafy Jacob’s Ladder, though I doubt the two ever cross paths.
As I scrambled toward the summit (pic right) I saw weather several miles away, both to the East, and more worryingly, the Southwest. Only a few hundred feet from the top, I moved fast, breathing hard. Above timberline it always seems as though the light somehow changes. The air is clearer, the sky bluer, and the real world, when you think about it, seems, well, unreal. For this reason I typically linger a bit at high-altitude summits (pic left). It’s like a brief vacation from existence in this world, stepping into one where I know I can’t stay for long, but in which everything is beautiful and different.
On this day though, I didn’t linger. A few snapshots, a sign-in at the register, and a couple minutes scanning through the binoculars at possible future routes to nearby peaks and basins (pic right), and I was off. As it turned out the rain didn’t hit me till I was but a mile from the trailhead, but thunder and fast-moving clouds make one eager to get below treeline quickly.
I’d planned to mtn bike in the Uintas as well, but the foul weather drove me West to familiar terrain, and I soon myself pedaling through Pinebrook on the good old PBX loop. But the change from 10,000 foot to Uinta forest to 7,500 feet Wasatch forest was a shock. Down close to home, the forest was a dense green jungle, with things growing everywhere. In fact, many of our “standard trails” are getting a bit grown in. Time for a couple of rides with the pruning shears…
On the ride I spotted one more new late-summer flower, and this one’s a cinch to pick out. It’s Fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium. You only see it in late summer, often along roadsides or disturbed areas. It’s called “fire”weed not for its color, but for its habit of sprouting up in burnt areas. In fact you only see it infrequently in undisturbed areas, as it competes poorly with established vegetation.
Unlike most of the flowers in the Wasatch it’s 4-petaled, and the things it’s most closely-related to around here are the also-4-petaled Evening Primroses. They’re all part of the Evening Primrose family, Onagraceae.
Tangent: Here’s something cool. Notice how amost every flower I blog about now I’m able to mention some relative or other I’ve blogged about previously? I couldn’t do that a year ago, but as I’ve learned about more and more plants, I’m able to make more of those family-tree-type connections. The world’s starting to make sense.
I finished the ride and headed home, finishing my Bachelor Weekend with that satisfied “got-my-money’s-worth” feeling. Un-packing, repacking, and some weekend work-work and preparation for the coming week made for a late night. When the alarm went off for my early AM flight to California, it seemed like my head had just barely hit the pillow.
Tangent: I was deep in a dream when the alarm went off. So deep that the beeping was integrated into my dream for a moment or two before it finally “pulled me up.” Coming out of a deep, heavy dream feels sort like surfacing after a scuba dive. You feel yourself getting pulled up, the light grows, the sounds start to change, and then- bam!- you pass a boundary and you’re in a different world, one with way too much light and noise…
Note: Special thanks to Professor Beal. I’m extremely grateful to researchers who make their research available online, where it can be accessed by motivated amateurs such as me. Thanks Cynthia!