Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Last month's adventures

This month I took things easy, due to a busy work schedule.

HA! Jokes.

First up was skiing. M, C, and I piled into C's Prius and headed for Mammoth. Rain in the Mojave and dinner at the Whitney Cafe saw us safely at our destination by a semi reasonable hour. We deployed sleeping technology, ate food, and passed out.


The following day we rented skis and hit the mountain. High wind and thin snow kept the summit closed, so we zoomed down the skittery ice in the middle of the mountain, dodging fumaroles and errant snowboarders. The snow as almost Australian in quantity, which I suppose is good training for global warming. Ordinary black runs were now nearly filled with baby christmas trees, and we had an incredible time. That evening we consumed Avogadro's number of calories (subject to experimental error), contemplated a hot tub, and went to sleep.

Sunday was perfect, sunny, clear, and still. The summit was opened and we headed for our destiny. An incredibly steep, icy run called cornice was the scene of perhaps half a dozen ongoing breakups and sundry relationship crises, so we expertly glissaded past and traversed to a much nicer looking run, called drop out chutes, where 'the best snow on the mountain' hid from the sun between parallel rows of jagged rhyodacite. Below us stretched the whole mountain and nearly 11000 feet of atmosphere. I took a deep breath and linked turn after turn, applying the technique as best I could remember, and occasionally picking up pieces of former attempts to return to their owners down the hill. Later, we headed to the western edge of the mountain for some (slow) work on bumps and between trees, before traversing back to the lodge and once again attempting to bridge the caloric abyss. That evening we decided to sleep instead of trying to drive back and, after a couple of hours of wit and wordplay, I eventually did manage to align the springs of the fold out mattress with my 10 principle chakras and pass out. 

The following day we piled into the car and shot off down the 395, one of my favourite roads in the world. When I first drove part of it years ago it seemed an interminable length of tar with bad drivers and terrible scenery. Now, the Sierras spike up on the east and the White Mountains on the left, I am the bad driver, and good restaurants ping past at alarming speed. We stopped at the Fossil Falls and clambered about, crashing drones and experimenting with bouldering technique. Soon enough we were heading back through the Mojave (now green from the rain) and into LA, for another splendid week of teaching and unlocking the mysteries of the universe. Or compiler warnings, at any rate.

The following weekend looked forlornly in my direction, so I rounded up a couple of willing co-conspirators and went flying out to Catalina and back. This time there were big fluffy clouds around the airport, so we instead flew around the island and headed home, waiting until the last minute to plunge into the murk smothering Los Angeles. 

A few months ago a spare weekend reared its ugly head. Worse, it was the Valentine's Day weekend. A barren wasteland seemed a fitting place to mark the passage of yet another year lonely and unfulfilled. Sadly, it was not to be. The Caltech Y is a student-oriented organization at Caltech who first took me to Yosemite, and since a few other camping trips, the Washington DC trip, and a trip to Costa Rica to build orphanages with my teeth.

Anza Borrego desert is a fabulous playground sandwiched between the mountains to the east of San Diego and the Salton Sea. I sometimes fly around down there, and since my previous visit in 2012 there were many attractions I was keen to see and share with other students.

We planned and executed the trip in record time, booking two enormous rental SUVs about 18 hours in advance. By 10am on Saturday morning we were on the road, navigating LA's sinuous expressways at record speed, turning east at Temecula, and climbing up towards Warner Springs, where a few gliders whooshed about. The road twists and turns as it descends about 5000 feet to Borrego Springs. We refueled the cars and ate a snack lunch on the absurdly enormous roundabout.

Time was getting on so we elected to skip the wind caves at Split Mountain and proceed to the campsite at Hawk Canyon. At this point, a casual observer unversed in the sediment geomorphology may have remained yet stoically unmoved. That was to change as we went for a quick hike down the canyon, which rapidly deepens and narrows - at times you have to turn sideways to squeeze through. At the bottom we spotted a stuck Corolla and, more importantly, some more local wind caves which we, still fresh, enthusiastically scrambled all over.

Back at camp, we set up tents and made dinner - an interesting exercise given a (known) lack of running water or tables. I consumed a satisfying quantity of stew, patched up a cut finger, and helped orchestrate strategic repacking of supplies for the following day. We stowed all within the vehicles and went to walk the canyon once more, this time at night. Around one bend we saw a flickering red light, only to discover some other campers enjoying a fire at the bottom of the canyon! Around the next corner we killed the lamps and watched the stars, including a very bright Jupiter and a few meteors.

I returned to camp and snuggled down under the stars wrapped in a thoroughly inadequate sleeping bag, and shivered my way through the clear, cool night. Which was all the better since the following day we had to get up EARLY, pack, eat, and get on the road. 

First up was the Blair Valley pictographs. A short walk revealed a boulder with about a dozen prominent red symbols, meaning unknown. The rock face on which the symbols was painted was sheltered from rain and seemed to have a strong magnetic signature. We drove on down the Vallecito valley, past Agua Caliente, and then on a network of unnecessarily technical gravel roads to the Goat Canyon Trestle trailhead. We ate lunch and set off up the hill. The trail wound up a canyon and valley to a series of plateaus and down the other side to a gigantic wooden trestle. Unfortunately, we reached our turnaround time just as the trestle remained out of sight around the next corner. In future, we will need more time to conquer that hill, or perhaps a less difficult one. We rock hopped back down the hill (all 2400 vertical feet of it), through a dry waterfall and palm grove, before jumping back into the cars and getting out before the sun set. We drove up the road to the camp ground at Mountain Palm Springs where, for once, I did not miss the turn (GPS is too easy!). As night fell we set up camp, cooked pasta, ate food, told stories, lased stars, and admired the splendid surroundings.

Five of us were insufficiently destroyed by the previous hike so opted to do the Oasis loop hike. I had never done this one before either, but it was topographically simple and these new friends/victims, only 72 hours before nameless faces in an overlit briefing room, seemed to think it was a grand idea. 

We started up the nearby wash, and before long, the ground got wet. These springs were far more flowy than I had previously seen them, including even running water. At one point my headlamp's beam was broken into thousands of golden shards. Rich, at last, I could leave grad school. Sadly, my education suggested substantial quantities of iron pyrite, or fool's gold, was the culprit! A series of small palm groves led up the canyon to its head, where perhaps 50 palms rustled quietly, interrupted only by croaking frogs and abrupt whooshing of bats and birds disturbed by our progress.

We left the canyon floor behind and climbed the saddle to the north. A series of half a dozen false summits tested my patience and (no doubt) credibility, but eventually a cairn marked our halfway point, so we took a few minutes to admire the stars before continuing on. A steep descent and a sandy wash led us back to the campground where, once again, I reveled in 5 minutes of blissful horizontality before enduring 5 hours of breezes and thermodynamic confusion. 

Monday was upon us, and what better way to celebrate than standing up, searching vainly for the as-yet-unrisen sun, banishing the goosebumps with some frenetic sleeping bag stowage, and deploying the jetboils for the morning tea/hot chocolate. Before long, we were once again on our way, headed to the south. Our first destination of the day was Fossil Canyon, yet another canyon, this time with fossils, seemingly of Atlantic origin dating from ~35MYA. That's roughly half way between the end of the dinosaurs and us. Much of the canyon was still in shade. At one point, a group of students who had rushed ahead and stopped in an open area. Standing on an exposed ridge of rock they looked forlornly about. "Where are the fossils?". There were no archaeopteryx or t-rex skulls to be seen. On closer inspection, however, the ridge was about 70% shells by volume, so the day was saved.

We shot off back down the road, turning left at Mexico and then north through the irrigated lands near El Centro. A low cloud came down and added to the other-worldly nature of the place. Eventually, with only two wrong turns, we found our way to the obsidian butte, which is a butte made of obsidian, a volcanic glass, on the shore of the Salton Sea. With a beach comprised of razor sharp flakes of black rock and the skeletal remains of millions of fish, I have to say I've seen more appealing places. So we headed a few blocks north to the mud volcanoes, which were met with a collective 'meh', right up until it was realised you could climb right up to them and look at the boiling mud blopping about in them. With the plumes from nearby geothermal power stations billowing into the air, it is truly an extraordinary place. And only one person managed to get their feet covered in mud!

We continued up the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, stopped only once by a checkpoint where we used our best American accents and, turning right at Mecca, made our way to the Painted Canyon trailhead. Lunch and the usual amount of hand wringing over schedule occurred, before we set off for the trail. A few minutes up from the carpark, it branches to the left and a series of ladders lead up a narrow, twisty slot canyon, eventually breaking out to the 'surface'. We added a few rocks to the pile and returned via the main canyon, which is in large sections lines with a striking green stone, with white quartz, granite, prominent unconformities and faulting. 

Back on the road by the appointed time we turned for home, only to get stuck in a colossal traffic jam behind a crashed lorry for more than an hour. We watched the sun set over the Banning Pass and, traffic restored, sped (metaphorically) for Caltech. Everyone stayed to help pack the stuff up, before heading for home, where hygiene, laundry, and a bulging inbox awaited.

Luckily I had the following weekend to rest. Yeah right.

Instead, I arrived at Caltech at 5:30am one bright Saturday morning. We packed the trucks and, headcount completed, took off for the great northern deserts. Climbing up out of the LA basin on the 14 we drove through mist and rain before emerging on the San Gabriel foothills abutting the Mojave desert. Clouds from LA's temperature inversion spilled through the mountain passes as we poked and prodded the San Andreas shear zone, full of Mylonite.

The road continues dead straight towards the Tehachapi mountains and the Garlock fault, before dipping through the pass at Red Rock Canyon, where we stopped to investigate oxidized paleosoils and basalt caps. Passing Inyokern, the Sierras rapidly built up on our left until, passing Little Lake, we stopped at Fossil Falls. Here, I repeated the chimney climb and we got a rundown on ongoing and imminent volcanic activity in the southern part of Owen's Valley.

In Lone Pine we found the truck, ate lunch, and watered the horses before continuing north to Manzanar. Today, almost completely empty, Manzanar has a long and storied history of native dispossession, agricultural failure, and as a Japanese internment camp during WWII. Surrounded by the Sierra's lofty peaks, a lingering image is a photo of (anglo) workers being instructed on how to administer the loyalty test. In the crowd there was not a single positive expression - evil is banal everywhere.

At Big Pine we hung a right, discussed the Waucoba lake beds and then climbed up to CARMA, a combined radio telescope array in the White Mountains. The road continues through the Deep Springs Valley, home of an unconventional (but by all accounts excellent) boarding school, and then to the south east descending through the Eureka Valley. All these valleys are tectonically formed, so few have natural drainages. Eureka Valley has a dry playa and extensive sand dunes at the end. We arrived at dusk, pitched tents, ate an excellent dinner of chili, sat around the campfire and admired the moon, Mars, and Venus. It's tempting to think of the stars as 'up' and the earth as 'down', but radial directions are somewhat arbitrary. In my research I routinely use a coordinate which is inverse radius, in which the stars are 'down' and the center of the earth is 'up', and that we humans happen to have legs above our heads is a freak consequence of evolution, corrected only in Australia where people orient correctly. We run around on the ceiling of the universe stuck on by some short range gravitational force but could easily (and probably should) fall downwards and away from Earth at some point.

D, W, A, and I left the fire and followed the relatively firm dune ridges inwards and higher until at last we were at the bottom of the 680 foot (200m) high peak. We started up the slip face, with extremely tiring and uncertain footing until at last we achieved the summit. The Eureka dunes are known to 'boom', where collapsing sand creates a deep and sustained almost musical note. 

Back at camp I headed for my cot and banked 8 hours of excellent cozy sleep underneath the stars. The following morning we struck camp, had a few talks and then ran all over the dunes, which were much more than shapes in broad daylight!

There is a rough 4WD track from Eureka dunes directly to Saline valley, but our long-wheel base vehicles preferred a different route up past some twisted Cambrian limestone, by which time it had started to snow. At the cusp of Saline Valley we ate lunch, talked about alluvial fans and rates of uplift, and then headed down to the hot springs. With camp set, dinner, and a light misting of rain J, W, and I discussed colonization of the moon and Mars before hot tub enthusiasts (myself included) headed for the exquisitely constructed and managed hot springs. Several hours were whiled soaking in hot water before, inevitably, it was time to head to bed. With rain threatening, I curled up in the back seat of my vehicle and passed out. Tents are for weaklings, clearly.

Next morning the clouds had lifted, revealing the jagged coloured peaks of the Inyo mountains dusted with snow. Saline Valley is a roughly triangular section of dropped land surrounded by mountains nearly 10,000 feet higher. In the low point there is a salt lake with significant borax deposits nearby. We headed for the requisite dune field where I gave a talk on dune formation and dating. Dunes take many forms, depending on vegetation, wind speed, consistency of wind direction, and sand availability. These forms represent stable shapes for lumps of particles under wind. While aspects of dune formation and movement can be described using Rayleigh-Taylor instability, particle dynamics, electrostatics, or computer models, they represent an excellent example of obvious things that result from complex, difficult to understand behaviour. It's not obvious, for instance, why sand dunes can interact, bounce, etc without reverting to the low-energy flat formation. Meanwhile, perturbations like tire tracks or foot prints are quickly erased, as they are nowhere near stable. If you add some small rocks to the mix, however, desert pavement can easily revert to dune fields. It's an emergent phenomenon.

We headed for the former salt mines, wherein salt was shoveled into a salt tram and sent many miles over the mountains to the Owens valley for processing. The system, built in 1907, is long dead today.

We continued for the southern exit of the valley, passing a wonderful exposure of the Hunter Mountain batholith in the process. Passing the snowline, the road got a little bit slippery and we had to engage 4WD to get up the steepest slopes. With gas running low, retreat was not an option. Fortunately we made it through with machine capability to spare, stopping only for lunch, snowball fights, and my successful demonstration of the superiority of sandals in all conditions, including ankle-deep snow. We ate lunch overlooking the spectacular Panamint valley before continuing on to the Darwin plateau and thence south of (former) Owen's lake to Olancha and Coso Junction, where we refueled before heading for home. 

Traffic passing through the San Gabriel mountains was, as usual, a hair raising exhibit of human cognitive capacity (or lack thereof), but we made it back to Pasadena without incident. At the Arms circle we passed out spare food, separate dirt and luggage from trucks, and then headed our separate ways. Another incredible weekend of attempting to plumb the depths of human ignorance, of our limited capacity to even perceive the world we live on. Geology can really adjust your perspective!

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