Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Grand Tetons 1

images from Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The Grand Tetons, in northwestern Wyoming, are one of my favorite places on the planet. I first saw these jagged young peaks when I was 18 years old, studying geology in the field, my first college course at the University of Michigan, the summer of 1977. We were based near Hoback Junction, just minutes south of Jackson, and the Tetons.

It's been several years since I was here last. Driving through Jackson, it's a lot more developed. When I was here doing geology, Hoback Junction was a turn in the road; now there are houses and businesses, and it's an actual small town. Jackson proper was the central park square downtown, surrounded by the shopping district which is pretty much unchanged, classic Western porches and boardwalks in front of a wide variety of stores; the general store looks about the same as it used to from the outside. The town itself was small, although it was already known as a ski resort in winter. The southern end of Jackson seems to be where it's been built up a lot more: hotels, condos, shopping malls. I stopped on this trip at a very good organic grocery store, and bought myself cheese, meat, and crackers for a hearty snack lunch. There was a very nice used book store next door, and a laundromat on the other side of the grocery store. Obviously a lot more tourists are here than used to be. The town was hopping as I passed through, stopping briefly at the used book store, buying a couple of books, and having my lunch out of the cooler in the back of the truck.

For me, the Tetons are the archetypal mountains. In my imagination, when I think about how mountains are supposed to look, I think of the Tetons. In my dreams, when I am in the mountains, it is usually near mountains that look like these, sipping water from cold glacial lakes like these.

The Grand Tetons are the youngest mountain range in the Rocky Mountains. Most of the ranges in the Rockies age out at around 50 million years ago. The Tetons are 10 millions old, and they are still uplifting. The eastern face of the range is a block fault that is still moving, so the peaks are going up and the floor of Jackson Hole is going down. The block is rising relatively fast, too, about 5 inches a century. Every thousand years or so there's a magnitude 7 or more earthquake, right here, as the rocks along the fault break and slip, raising the peak even higher in a sudden jolt.

The reason the Tetons are so jagged is because they're young. Sharp edges haven't been worn down by time as yet, although the Hole and the Tetons were covered by glaciers during the last ice age events, circa 15,000 years ago. There are glacial polish zones where the bedrock has been smoothed and brightened by the moving ice.

I've climbed up to the glacial cirques at the base of the tall peaks, when I was doing geology here; I summited one or two of the lower peaks, on various climbs. I don't know that I could do that again; it's a younger man's sport. I remember hiking up the canyon trails towards the summit valleys. I stopped once at a switchback to drink water and rest for a moment; a ground squirrel came and sat on my knee, looking for a handout, obviously used to being fed by hikers. At the lowest of the glacial lakes, we all stripped our clothes off after the hot summer's day climb and skinny-dipped in the freezing, clear lake waters. That was our lunch break. Afterwards, it was another thousand feet and more to climb up to the foot of the glacier itself. I remember standing on the terminal moraine just under the high mountain peak, very close to the edge of the glacier itself, breathing hard, staring off into the vast open space over Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre Mountains to the east of the Hole. It was a hot, clear summer day, and you could see literally over the curve of the earth. I got sunburned in the thin air and bright light. I'd never experienced such a long view before in my life, and it left a permanent imprint on me. In all my travels since, I've often looked for the long view, which you get from the tops of mountain ranges, looking out over valleys, or the ocean. By this time in my life, I'd already been around the world, and grown up in southern Asia, the first half of my childhood. But I'd never seen a view like this before, and I was immediately addicted to such views. I remember standing there a long time, contemplating. I also took some print and slide photos with my pocket Instamatic camera (110 cartridge film), the only camera I had at the time, on this trip. This was my first extended trip out West, and my first photographs of the West were taken on these excursions. (I found some of these old photos recently when I was sorting through boxes in the basement.)

I bought a small book sometime that summer, probably in a store in jackson, called Creation of the Teton Landscape: The geologic story of Grand Teton National Park, by two USGS geologists, J.D. Love and John C. Reed, Jr. David Love is the same geologist that John McPhee profiled along with his home state of Wyoming in his classic book Rising from the Plains, part of McPhee's masterpiece of popular writing about geology, Annals of the Former World. I've read this book a few times since I bought it in 1977, a fresh reprint; it turns out that the book's entire contents are available online, here. It's still the standard guide to Teton geology, in its current edition.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful with that patch of color.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks. I had to shiver in the wind awhile to wait for the clouds to move to get just that right spotlight of illumination. Well worth it.

12:38 AM  

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