Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Trip up Mount Washington

Ready for a road trip? We're going to head up the west side of the South Snake Range to Mt. Washington in Great Basin National Park. It's a long trip (and a long post), but it's worth it! The road goes nearly to the top of the mountain, but the road is not the easiest to drive. Think switchbacks that are so steep you have to do three-point turns to go up some of them. This is a section my dad would rather get out and walk. (Dad, you have to come visit sometime in summer so you can see for yourself!) 

The trip starts from Nevada Highway 894 (a spur off US Highway 93 in Spring Valley),  opposite from the Pickering Ranch. The unmarked gravel road goes up the bench (in other places it would be called the alluvial fan), crossing from sagebrush to pinyon and juniper. Up in the pinyon-juniper, the road starts switchbacking, but is still passable to passenger cars up to the Pole Canyon adit of the Mount Wheeler mine at 7850 feet. The adit is over a mile long. Water flows out from the entrance (see photo above), but I've heard that it contains heavy metals so isn't recommended for drinking.

This beautiful swallowtail was enjoying the coolness of the water.

Several structures still stand from when this mine was in action, in the late 1940s and 1950s. Beryllium and tungsten were the primary targets. (You can find more information in Chapter 20 of Great Basin National Park: A Guide to the Park and Surrounding Area--link in the sidebar to the right).

From the adit, the road becomes much more of an adventure. It was made as a jeep road in 1948. High clearance and four wheel drive are required. A chainsaw wouldn't be a bad idea, as we didn't get too far up the road until we found this:
We didn't have a chainsaw. Or a handsaw. Or a hatchet. But fortunately there were three of us, and through brute strength we were able to roll that tree off to the side of the road.

Then came the numerous switchbacks. I was busy driving so didn't manage to get any photos of them. I don't know if you could capture them well on photo--they are definitely an experience!

A bit further on we reached the small sign informing us that we were entering Great Basin National Park. The road crosses the park part of the time. The other time it's on private land owned by LongNow, a foundation interested in the very long perspective. (See their website for more.)

From up on the cliff we had super views of the switchbacks we had just traversed, Spring Valley, and the Schell Range.

Located along the cliff edge were bristlecone pines. Bristlecone pines are a great way to think of a longer perspective. Needles stay on the trees for 40 years. The harsher the climatic conditions, the longer the tree grows--one was found nearby that was about 5,000 years old (and then it was cut down, but that's a story for another day).

There's a lot of concern about bristlecone pines and other five-needle pines due to the combination of mountain pine beetle (MPB) and white pine blister rust.  MPB is a native beetle that has benefited from climate change. In some areas, instead of completing one life cycle in two years, it may do it in just a year. That means lots more beetles, and all those beetles need something to eat. As they eat the trees, the trees die. In normal years, a few trees die every year from MPB. When epidemics occur, and MPB beetle populations are especially high, nearly entire forests can die, although MPB generally just attacks trees greater than six inches diameter, so at least the young trees are spared.

However, the non-native white pine blister rust is spreading. It can attack trees of any age and kill them. Some trees are naturally resistant, but those trees may still be susceptible to MPB. It's a nasty one-two punch that has nearly wiped out whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), the predominant tree near treeline in the northern Rockies. In some areas, more than 90% of the population has been decimated, and the tree was petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared it warranted but precluded in 2011, meaning that it deserves protection but that the staff and money don't exist to do that. In Canada, it's been listed as endangered.

What about the bristlecone pine? Could it suffer such a fate? That's not known. For now, some proactive measures are being taken. A number of seeds were collected several years ago and are being tested for white pine blister rust resistance at the Dorena Genetic Resource Center. The main test takes seven years. If the tree shows resistance, more seeds can be collected to protect the genetic material, and if needed, help restore populations. But what happens if mountain pine beetle attacks the tree during those seven years, and the tree's not around to produce more resistant seeds? That's where our trip came in. We were putting pheromone pouches containing the chemical verbenone on the selected trees. Verbenone is what the mountain pine beetles send out to tell other beetles that the tree is full. It basically is the "Stay out, we're full," signal. If MPB populations aren't too high, the beetles are tricked and stay away. If they are high, nothing can really be done. But we do what we can, in the hopes that we can help this majestic species.

The trees we were visiting were scattered, which meant we had more higher up the mountain.
Further up the road, we took a side trip to some historic cabins. These were made by miners. Guess what trees they used. If you guessed bristlecones, you're right! These bristlecones are taller than the really old ones, mostly due to a gentler climate--not as much wind.

You can tell that the cabins are really old by the construction style. They didn't use nails to put these logs together--they built these cabins lincoln-log style.

Oops, I got distracted by a pretty penstemon with a pollinator in it.

Did the miners get distracted by the flowers? It must have been quite a hard life to get up there and then mine at such a high elevation. Then they had to get the ore off the mountain. One account says that they waited for winter and used toboggans to get the ore down.

Near the cabins is a thick metal cable. It goes down into the canyon. I decided to see what it was connected to up on the mountain.

First I found a huge pulley, probably ten inches in diameter, up high in a bristlecone. The chain holding the pulley in place is starting to get overgrown in the tree. This pulley appeared to help get the cable up high in the air.

Further uphill was the attachment point, the cable running around the base of a bristlecone. It's been there so long the cable is part of the tree now. I feel a little bad for the tree.

We got back in the truck and headed up higher.
Our next stop was to look at the Nevada Climate-Ecohydrological Assesment Network (NevCAN) weather station. This is a network that goes across the Snake Range and up one side of the Sheep Range in Nevada. You can look at real-time data and photos from the cameras at the link above.

The views kept getting better and better as we ascended. Finally we reached the end of the road and had to travel the last part of the way up to the summit of Mount Washington on foot. It was good going on foot, we had time to absorb the beauty around us.

These dainty Erigeron looked bright and cheerful with their yellow and white coloring.

A knob of wind-eroded wood made me consider the bristlecones that used to grow at this elevation, which is now above treelike.

The Colorado Columbine (Aquilegia caerulea) made a striking appearance.

I wasn't the only one being held captive by the diminutive but colorful flowers!

Soon we could see north towards Wheeler Peak. It's so interesting how the colors change. Wheeler , Jeff Davis, and Baker Peaks are all made of metamorphic rock, the Prospect Mountain Quartzite. Closer we start getting into granites, and then closest, with the grey rock is limestone.

We had to pause for a few photos.
Aileen's first visit to the summit of Mt. Washington.

Looking northeast towards Steve, with a view of the Snake Creek drainage and Eagle Peak behind him (another limestone area with bristlecones).

Looking west towards me, with Spring Valley and the Schell Range in the background.

The view to the east takes in the North Fork Big Wash. The day was a bit hazy, so we couldn't see Snake Valley or the next mountain ranges very well.

Then it was time to head down the mountain.
We paused to check out some trees that had burned during the 1999 fire. The fire had burned up into bristlecones. We're not certain what the effect might be to the bristlecone community, but the fire certainly has opened up a lot of habitat to bighorn sheep, which are being tracked periodically with collars.

The afternoon light was magical, and I couldn't help but take a few more photos.

I noticed a younger bristlecone tree. Here's the next generation!

This striking three-foot tall plant with four-petaled green flowers is green gentian or elkweed (Frasera speciosa).

In contrast, here's the tiny dwarf alpine paintbrush (Castilleja nana), with a bee pollinating it. Note the orange pollen on the hind legs of the bee. This has been a busy bee!

The stunning sego lily (Calachortus nuttalli) with a pollinator. 

It's a long drive back down the mountain, but with great views along the way.

It's worth the trip!


G. Robison said...

Oh that's a perfectly good road! Almost a regular highway.

I've been on way worse than that, lol.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Beautiful! For some reason, I couldn't see all of the photos, but saw most of them. I love the pic of the busy bee, the vistas and burned trees. Can't wait for more! Nerd

Anonymous said...

Oh, glad I wasn't on the switchbacks with you. Yikes! I'm glad you all made it safely and we can benefit second hand from the whole trip! Nerd

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