Tuesday, August 24, 2010
This mountain is unusual in having two tree lines—one common to all high mountains is a line above which trees cannot grow due to cold and wind, but this mountain has a line at about seven thousand feet below which trees cannot grow due to heat and drought. Within this slim band, several species survive—limber pine, pinion pine, mountain mahogany, juniper, and bristlecone pine. They were mostly cut down in the 1880’s to make charcoal in these kilns, for the sole purpose of feeding a mine smelter. Wagons hauled the charcoal thirty miles to the Modoc Mine where its hot flame extracted silver and lead from rock. The wood was gone in only three years, and the kilns abandoned, but at least the old Bristlecone pines at the higher elevations escaped the miners. Great effort and great sacrifice for a small purpose! Not unlike these escapades of mine in mountains and deserts, except that I leave things mostly as they were
I drove a long dirt road, past the kilns, getting to the trailhead, and stopped a mile short of road’s end to spare the Toyota. Thus I extended the hike to eight miles each way, and would rise four thousand feet to the summit.
The forest has mostly recovered from the miners, but some of the old stumps record their passing like tombstones.
Above the dense forest, in a sparsely vegetated band where only the hardiest trees live, flowering plants believe it’s springtime. Here I see tracks of lizards, snakes and deer. And somewhere there’s a colony of bees.
Since coming to Death Valley a week ago, I have never felt cold while hiking, but this morning I am cold. On the long grind up and up, the Valley so far below me it seems like a mirage of white snow, the summit seems to move away as fast as I approach it.
Bristlecone pines thrive above ten thousand feet in the last two miles of the climb. Some of them are four thousand years old, I’m told. Their living parts look fresh as newborn pine trees, but their old wood is what’s intriguing. It swirls with furrowed grain, skin that has born centuries of wind, heat and bitter cold, wood that holds on its surface those forms and crevices that conform the world, having sloughed off any shape that tried to resist the elements and go its own way.
The summit is just a short way now; I can make it. Most of the trees have settled for lower elevations, and I feel ready to do the same, but can’t give up now.
From the top I see Badwater eleven thousand feet below. A circle on the picture shows about where I took those snow-white pictures of the salt a few days ago.
Far to the west, the Sierra Nevada Mountains rise above Owens Valley.
As the day warms, I trudge doggedly downward in the sun, which was getting higher and hotter each half mile, and by afternoon it had reached a hundred degrees. By the time I slogged into my vehicle, the valley was already deepening into shadow. Is this wonderful pageant of the world the only reward for having climbed to the giddy height of Telescope Peak?