Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

July 17

The first full day I learn a lot. I learn what bristlecone pines look like, and a lot about their significance beyond just being the oldest trees in the world. This place is astounding. So is the background.

Edmund Schulman, dendrochronologist at the University of Arizona, was the one who discovered that the bristlecone pines are the oldest trees in the world. Schulman spent much of his career studying old trees. He found 1500-year-old limber pines in Idaho, and dated many of the 3000+ year old giant sequoias. A ranger on the Inyo, Al Noren, knew of very old trees in the White Mountains. In fact, Noren first became aware of the trees' age when he took some of the wood to use as paneling in his house in Bishop. (The house is still there, but no longer in his family.) When the wood had been polished and mounted, he realized that the rings were so close together that he needed a microscope to count them. A quick calculation led to an estimate of great age.

Noren heard about Schulman's work, and invited him to visit. Schulman first sampled the more vigorous bristlecone pines but could find none older than about 1500 years. One day he ventured up the opposite slope and took a core from a terribly decrepit looking pine. This tree proved to be much older.

That was in 1953. In 1956 he came in the company of a geologist to help locate the sites most likely to have the oldest trees. Ironically, these are the poorest growing sites, where the very slow growth yields dense, resinous wood. He found an entire grove with many trees over 4000 years old, which he named the Methuselah Grove. The Forest Service now has a beautifully maintained 4-mile trail starting at the visitor center and winding through a variety of bristlecone habitats, including this most ancient grove. They won't identify the oldest tree, but the grove is awesome. (There was once a 4900 year old bristlecone in eastern Nevada, but it was accidentally cut down for study. Its form was such that no one guessed it was anywhere close to that old.) I spend over three hours on this 4-mile trail. The oldest grove is on an outcropping of almost pure dolomite, where almost nothing but the bristlecones grows.

Schulman continued this work for five years. He wrote an article about it for National Geographic, but died before it was published in March 1958. All the talks and literature at the visitor center only say that he died early, so I asked why. He died of a heart attack — and he had diabetes. The photographs of him show an obvious ectomorph, so it's a pretty safe assumption that he had what we now call type 1 diabetes. Doing a bit of arithmetic tells that he was 15 years old in 1924. This makes it likely that he was one of the first people saved by insulin, though I haven't been able to discover when he developed diabetes. He died early, of a known diabetic complication, but insulin gave him enough life to have an important career. Hearing at age 50 that he died at 49 gives me yet another bit of appreciation for the improved care of the past 40 years.

Soon after Schulman's death, the Forest Service designated much of the ridge of the White Mountains as the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and granted it considerable protection. Protection is a relative thing; within sight of the bristlecone pines I see cattle grazing on the sagebrush. The area where Schulman did most of his research on Pinus longaeva is now called the Schulman Grove.

The greatest impact of Schulman's work came after his death. The visitor center talks about "The Trees that Rewrote History", and it's only a bit hyperbolic. The carbon-14 dating method, developed in the 1940s, ran into problems around 1960. It agreed entirely with independent dating back about 2000 years. But then researchers found a room in one of the Egyptian pyramids with hieroglyphics which mentioned a solar eclipse, giving an independent date. The carbon-14 dates were off by 700 years!

Such inconsistencies built up until someone thought, you know, we've got organic material sitting right here which we can date precisely, since we can count the rings. The bristlecone pine samples demonstrated that one of the assumptions behind carbon-14 dating was false: the atmospheric concentration of carbon-14 is not constant. (We now know that it is affected by variations in the earth's magnetic field — and I assume the related Van Allen belts — and by variations in the sunspot cycle. carbon-14 is formed when gamma rays from space collide with nitrogen-14 nuclei.)

Finally the old pines were used to calibrate the carbon-14 method. In fact the bristlecones can calibrate the method back 8600 years. Dead wood, especially the dense, resinous bristlecone wood, decays incredibly slowly in the White Mountains. There are standing snags which have been dead for 2000 years. And because the bristlecones are highly sensitive to annual weather variations, they form distinctive patterns in the growth rings. By matching the patterns in dead wood which overlap live wood, dendrochronologists can date wood which is older than the oldest living trees. Thus the 8600 year record.

But that isn't all. Using the original carbon-14 method, artifacts from all over Europe had been dated. Based on these dates and independent dating of other artifacts, archeologists had constructed a theory of how civilization developed. This is the framework that I learned in school: that civ developed in the Tigris-Euphrates river valleys and then spread through Europe. A closely related theory was that the Egyptians developed the techniques for building with large stones and somehow disseminated this to England, leading to the construction of Stonehenge. But the redating destroyed these theories. Stonehenge predates the pyramids. Artifacts from all over Europe have intermixed dates, with no area being clearly the leader. Tablets from the Balkans are older than those from Mesopotamia. And so on. Civilization developed diffusely rather than centrally.

Thus "the trees that rewrote history".

July 18

One other thing I learned yesterday: the hike to White Mountain Peak, at 14,250' the highest point in the White Mountains and third highest peak in California, is quite reasonable. Drive to a locked gate at 11,600', leaving a much easier hike than most of the 14,000' peaks in the US. Much of the top of the White Mountains is a fairly gentle ridge, so it was crisscrossed with roads long before anyone thought of designating it as wilderness.

Naturally I wanted to climb it.

Until my hike up Arc Dome a few days ago, the White Mt trailhead was higher than I'd ever hiked before. The peak will be 2500' higher than I've hiked.

I knew that some hikers are planning to sleep at the gate to get an early start. I elect to sleep at Grandview and drive up in the morning, following the mountaineer's dictum of "climb high, sleep low". The drive in the morning takes an hour, but the hikers who slept at the gate are mostly only awakening when I arrive. I take off, I think, before any of them. And then spend 15 minutes coming back to get my hat, which I forgot. (Yeah. Three weeks ago I sunburned my scalp on the California coast, in the King Range Conservation Area. OK, so that 50th birthday really did come and take some hair with it. Can't ignore that anymore. So I acquired a couple of hats to protect my scalp for the rest of the trip.)

No problem following this trail. It's a road. Up to the Barcroft Research Station at 12,500', it's regularly used though not open to the driving public. Beyond that it's only occasionally used by vehicles. More by hikers. Sometimes by mountain bikes. And marmots. Lots of marmots. They sit right in the middle of the road, still and blending so well that I almost trip over them. They run off when I'm only about ten feet away. Talk about cute and cuddly. Marmots have it cornered.

For a mile or two the trail is almost level. Finally it reaches the base of the final climb up a heap of rubble, the last 500' to 1000' to the top. The views, spectacular from the start, become giddy and dizzying. The trail cuts through multiple bands of rock, of varying colors. Near a saddle north of the peak, a snow bank remains. No one bothers to stay on the trail here, as it's easy to just walk up the rocky slope, and in fact multiple trails have been stomped out over the years, matching different points in the meltback. I'm really noticing my lungs expanding in a way they just don't do at sea level.

Several people have passed me, and some are already on their way down. Two guys speaking French leave the peak shortly after I arrive, and I have it to myself for about 45 minutes. There's a stone hut on top that's sometimes used by the research station. I sign and peruse the peak register and take compass bearings on a variety of distant objects. The Sierra Nevada emphatically dominate the western view. It's a bit of a thrill to realize that I'm actually looking down over the Sierra into the Central Valley! Well, OK, I can't actually see the valley — too much haze. But I know it's there. I can identify the Grapevine Mountains, beyond Death Valley. I can see a vague lump where Arc Dome should be, but the haze is still too thick to see it clearly. The west side of the peak drops vertiginously with an alarming view of Bishop fully two miles below.

Then one person arrives, and soon I look down at the trail/road and announce a parade. I stay on top for almost three hours. Four or five groups come and go in that time, so it's quite a party. I take pictures for some, and dole out ibuprofen to others. Two of the people are from the research station. I ask Chris when the last time was that anyone drove to the top; he says a couple of years.

The party fades. I've been talking with Ela, the other person from the research station. She and I have a delightful conversation all the way back to the station. She has my email address; I hope she remembers to write me when she gets back to UC Riverside in September!

July 19

Gotta get back to Reno to fly home. I do stop by Mono Lake for a while. It's indeed a lovely lake, even half consumed by Los Angeles. I'm surprised that it's no larger than it is. Of course, the appearance of small may be partly an illusion. On the map it looks about 1/3 the size of Lake Tahoe, but in person much smaller. Perhaps the illusion is from the much more rugged mountains hemming in Lake Tahoe.

I'm almost disappointed that the damage to Mono Lake isn't any more obvious. When you know that it's forty feet below its historic level, you can see the signs. but vegetation has covered most of the land which is no longer inundated, and the transition isn't as jarring as I'd hoped. On the positive side, the Forest Service is doing a yeoman job of explaining the ecosystem and publicizing the depredations of the city, and a lot of people are visiting and seeing.

July 20

I take off from Reno just after sunrise. At first some thin clouds obscure the ground. They clear and I look down on a mountain range that I've learned well: the Toiyabe Range. I'm staring at Arc Dome and its plateau from above! And soon Mt Jefferson. It's quite a thrill to get such a perfect aerial view of the mountains I explored for a week and a half.

Too bad I put my Nevada/Utah map in my suitcase. This flight is going to Dallas, and passes over southern Utah and northern New Mexico. The scenery is incredible; I rate this flight as the most scenic I've ever taken. Only I'm not sure what all the stuff was, since I didn't have my map. I know enough about Utah to make some good guesses — Zion, Bryce, Grand Staircase, Lake Powell — but I'm not sure. On the other hand, if I had the map, I'd be looking at it rather than staring out the window. Maybe it's better that I don't have it.

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