Mountains weÕve met & their friends

Let us review where weÕve been on this literary journey. Having hiked the mountains and hills of Southern California, we thought we knew mountains. Backpacking in the Eastern Sierras, we experienced a different kind of mountain, one that did not fit in our mountain box. In attempting to understand these different landforms, we built some topo maps, one of the Kearsarge Pass in the Eastern Sierras, the other of Manzana Creek in the Sierra Madres. In so doing our preconceptions of mountains were destroyed anew.

Attempting to rebuild our conception of mountains we returned to basics. We met our first type of mountain, a traditional sedimentary mountain with classic valleys and peaks, those of the Sierra Madres. It seems that they were runoff that was wrinkled up, caught between opposing forces. We then attempted defining mountain. We discovered that mountains rise to a peak above the adjoining countryside. This led to the interesting ambiguity that there are no mountains in the Santa Ynez Mountain Range. This paradoxical thought led us to meet our second type of mountains, those of the Coastal Mountain Range. These mountains were in no way ŌnormalÕ mountains although they occur up and down the coast of California and Mexico. These mountains are more of a mountain ridge than a mountain range. They are the scrapings of Farallon Plate as it was subsumed under the North American Plate. Thus while the Sierra Madre mountains are primarily sedimentary rock, the Coastal Mountain Range is made up of a mish-mash of rock, called the Franciscan melange. While the Sierra Madres consist of an area of mountains, the Coastal Mountains just consist of a single ridge. Our notion of mountain has expanded to contain a ridge.

At least we know that mountains are tall. In Scotland Munro defines mountains as over 3000 feet above sea level, with a few other criteria. Just looking at the 3000 feet criteria, we were led to more paradoxical puzzlements, concerning mountain plateaus, peaks, and the like. We discovered that the altitude criterion was subjective depending upon where the base was. We looked at three different objective ways of determining the base and altitude of mountains, realizing in the process that there were no absolutes. Practically for humans, the sea level criterion was best because it determined how much air pressure there was, although it didnÕt help us understand which was a mountain and which was not.

Our topo map of the Eastern Sierras had lots of named mountains in it. So we decided to analyze why these were called mountains by our two other mountain criteria, distance and drop. Using these two criteria, along with altitude, we were able to make a lot of sense out the mountains and peaks of Kearsarge Pass. However we did discover a few anomalies. These were resolved when we took the perspective of the hiker on the path. Visually the named mountains rose commandingly above the surrounding country. We then took the perspective of a giant and realized that all these mountains were merely peaks on top of a huge mountain block. Which perspective was right? In attempting to define mountain we realized that where the lines were drawn determined which were mountains and which were not. Further where the lines were drawn was totally subjective. Hence we came to realize that ŌmountainÕ is not a technical term, despite attempts to make it so. The determination of mountain is totally based upon the perspective of viewer, not on any truly objective outside criterion. No absolutes where mountains are concerned.

From here we met our third type of mountain, those of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. We discovered that this is not really a series of mountains, but is instead one huge granite block, 100 miles wide by 250 miles long. Further this granite block was formed under the ground before it rose to become a mountain. It was presumably formed because of a series of island arcs docking onto the North American Plate. The heat from the friction of subduction melted the crust into a dense block of granite. The block of granite rose when the continent separated eastward.

Knowing about the formation of the Sierra Nevadas helped solve some curious facts, such as why there were no individual mountains in the range. It also answered the question of why it was almost 7000 feet from the base before our mountain peaks began differentiating themselves. But it didnÕt answer any of the questions concerning the incredible land forms of the Sierras. It seems that glaciers were the sculptors of these unique shapes. Thus we went on to explore glaciers.

In exploring the history of their discovery, we saw how scientists as part of a culture hold onto their preconceptions in spite of evidence to the contrary. It took decades to shake the scientists of the day out of their false notions. We discovered the mechanisms of Ice Ages, including that they are more the norm rather than the exception. Further the planet hasnÕt even thawed from the previous Ice Ages as witnessed by the permafrost that covers a substantial portion of the land area of the earth. We also explored glacier growth and movement. We then applied all this knowledge to our portion of the Eastern Sierras around Kearsarge Pass, analyzing all the variety of glacial landforms.

Surprisingly we found a new type of mountain in this exploration, a mountain of glacial rubble. It seems that while glaciers sculpt the landscape in their growth that they literally leave mountains of debris in their retreat. It seems that some of the highest mountain peaks of the Sierras are merely a pile of glacial droppings. Because of our puny human perspective they seem like huge mountains rising above us, when in actuality they are merely mounds of granite chips left on top of the granite block of the Sierra Nevadas. We also saw another type of mountain bursting out the top of the Sierras, a volcanic peak. Thus we have volcanic peaks, glacial debris and sculpted granite block all deemed mountain peaks in the Sierras. All three different types of mountain peaks rest on the granite batholith that lies underneath.

The subduction of one tectonic plate underneath another caused these volcanic peaks. What are these tectonic plates? This led to our last exploration into continental drift and ocean spreading. Again we saw how academia was blinded by preconceptions and pride. We attempted to understand the pride of knowledge so that we could avoid its pitfalls. We realized that this pride was neutralized by the humility of ignorance. In this case it took a full half-century to let go of this academic arrogance.

The truth finally came out, which included continental drift due to ocean spreading. Further the ocean floor spread from an underwater mountain range that circled the globe – yet another type of mountain, an underwater mountain. All the other mountains that we explored are above sea level. Earlier in the paper we even justified the use of sea level as the base to determine altitude. Not true here. Rising from their ocean-floor base, these mountains rise commandingly above the surrounding land. Further they are purely volcanic, but all on a ridge circling the earth. An underwater volcanic mountain ridge. And we thought we knew mountains.

On a planetary level this mountain ridge allowed the earth to breath, to neutralize internal pressure and heat. For us surface dwellers it happens to be the most dominant tectonic force on the planet. The volcanic ridge creeps slowly downhill to be eventually subsumed in a deep trench. This movement is one of the slowest movements on the planet. It makes glaciers look fast by comparison. While it is one of the slowest, it is also the most powerful. The incredibly slow movement moves continental landmasses around the planet as an afterthought. It melts solid rock and wrinkles continents creating mountains. Slow, but inexorable - irresistible.

When a mountain is a continent

This was the end of the paper, but life went on and we, all my selves unified by divine purpose and will, were led to study China. In the study of China, we were led to understand the extreme importance of the Himalayan Mountain Range in the historical development of China. In studying the Himalayas we realized that the mountain range is so huge that it is the continent of Asia.

In contrast the mountains weÕve studied have only local significance While the Coastal Mountain Range separates coastal California from the Central Valley creating some relatively minor cultural differences, it is just on the West Coast of the North American Continent and has no influence at all upon the East Coast. The Sierra Madres are just crunched up coastal plain - good hiking, but no cultural significance except making that part of the world difficult for habitation. The Sierra Nevadas, while the tallest mountains in the lower 48 states, are only a phenomenon affecting the southwestern section of the continent. They have no effect upon Canada or even Washington or Oregon in the Pacific Northwest. The Sierra Nevadas forced early explorers north and south to reach the West Coast, but didnÕt prevent it or create any huge cultural differences. Although incredibly significant for Central California, the influence of the Sierra Nevadas is relatively local.

On the other hand the Himalayan uplift, in the center of Asia has been the most dominant historical force upon the planet. Basically because of its enormity four distinct language groups with their different cultures have settled around its base. In the east we have the diverse Sino-Tibetan language group, which includes the unique cultures of Tibet, China, and the South-east Asian peninsula. While these languages are in the same language group, their connection is loose at best. While in the same language group they are three distinct cultures with entirely different customs. In the south of the Himalayas is India, which speaks Sanskrit, an Indo-European language, with its own unique culture. In the far west of the Himalayan extension we have the Arabic culture, with its own unique differences. Separated from the Arabic cultures by an extension of the Himalayas there is the Persian culture speaking Farci, which is part of the Indo-European language group. Thus so far we have six major cultures speaking 3 major language groups, settling at the base of this huge uplift. These are familiar cultures to almost anyone with any knowledge of history.

(The historical themes that follow are developed more fully in my volume called the Tao of China or The Way of the Middle Kingdom.)

The least familiar of the Himalayan cultures is the one in the north. This culture speaks languages in the Altaic language group, with at least three major languages, which are also loosely connected. Although this Central Asian culture is the least known to the western cultures it is the most important historically. The cultures of Central Asia have been nomadic by necessity. This nomadic culture has created the cultural dynamic necessary for the creation of civilization, as we know it. The nomadic culture by nature is warlike. From their position high on the steppes, they have conquered at one time or another, all the major cultures of that part of the world, including China, India, Persia, Arabia, Egypt, and Europe. In short these nomadic cultures to the north of the Himalayas have been dominant militarily on a global level until the rise of technology.

Although the Central Asian cultures have come and gone, leaving very little traces, their military culture was so dominant that it remains the global political structure of the earth to this day. The Kurgan warriors from the high steppes near Lake Baikal ended the Age of Fertility by their constant raids and invasions into the early fertility cultures in Anatolia, now Turkey. They inaugurated the Age of Weapons, which is still with us today - in a major way. Central Asian cultures were responsible for the spread of the Bronze Age military culture and technology all around the base of the Himalayas (perhaps with the exception of the southeast). It included China, the Fertile Crescent, India, and Egypt. Bronze Age military technology was based upon the chariot dominating any agricultural population. The Iron Age culture, which dominated Egypt, also came with these nomadic cultures. It was this Central Asian nomadic empire which spread all of these dominant military technologies east and west no matter who thought of it first.

The horseman with a bow and arrow, the ultimate military technology, dominated the world until NapoleonÕs cannons were developed in the Age of Technology. This lethal combination of horse and man was developed and perfected in the Central Asian steppes. With this technology Genghis KhanÕs Mongols conquered and ruled the largest empire the world has ever known. Just a few centuries ago the nomadic Moguls of Manchuria conquered civilized China using the horseman with bow and arrow. The attack of the Moorish horsemen on Europe inspired the forming of knight-training programs and the subsequent feudal system of Europe by CharlemagneÕs grandfather, Charles Martel. The feudal system led to Europe with its organized states and countries. The horseman warrior military technology then allowed Europe to conquer and invade the Americas. A calvary was still used in World War I, although unsuccessfully.

Coming as a few conquerors they always adopted the culture that they defeated. This included the Chinese, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Moslem cultures. Their political legacy includes the military industrial complex designed to protect civilization from exterior aggression. Of course it has become also an instrument of suppression and aggression, but its purported purpose is to defend and protect. While the military mentality is dominant, it has no culture. It transcends culture, just as the nomadic influence wasnÕt specifically cultural, it was the culture. It is this military culture, which dominated the Americas and now dominates the world. This is neither good nor bad. It just is.

Anyway this mountain that is also a continent is so big that 4 major language groups with 7 different cultures have formed around and within it. Let it be noted that each of these cultures is as different as United States and Japan - not like the difference between Mexico and the United States. The Euro-American culture is one culture in this context, not many. The indigenous Indian culture would be another culture. Hence we have 7 unique cultures developing around the immensity of this mountain. Further the dynamics between these 7 diverse cultures has created the political foundations of modern civilization, both in the east and in the west.

Not only is this mountain so huge that it has affected the historical development of humanity, it also dominates the weather of the Northern Hemisphere. The moisture of the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans are all dropped in the western reaches of the Himalayas. The rain shadow effect has left Central Asia and Siberia arid of moisture, which spawned their non-agricultural nomadic cultures. The jet stream is affected by it, which affects the global weather. Some have suggested that the moderation of the weather west of the Rockies versus that of the east is due to the influence of the Himalayas. In the western US the winters rarely get cold enough for it to snow at sea level. Further the summers are not that hot except in the middle of the desert. From the Rockies to the East Coast the summers are always hot, with days over 100 and the winters cold with snow.

We never realized that any mountain could be so big. All the major rivers of Asia flow away from the Himalayan uplift. There are multiple mountain ranges in the Himalayas. Each country gave its part of the Himalayas a different name. It is so big that it wasnÕt until more recently that many mountain ranges, thought separate, were realized to be just part of the huge uplift. Mount Everest, its largest mountain, is part of multiple countries, not just a small part of a state, like our Mount Whitney. Anyway our experience with the Himalayas left us breathless. It expanded our mountain consciousness to new levels. First we explored smaller hiking mountains, which seemed so big at the time; then underwater mountains, which carried mountains effortlessly with their slow, slow flow and finally we find this mountain that is a continent and has also dominated both world history and global weather.

At last some Real Mountains

Oddly enough it wasnÕt until 4 years after my 2nd rewrite of this little book that I saw my first real mountain. We were driving Miranda, my youngest daughter, to PNCA, an art college in Portland, for her freshman year. She was all of 10 years old when we first journeyed to Onion Valley for the experience that catalyzed my first topo sculpture, my subsequent involvement with Montessori, which included my second topo sculpture, and then to the writing of this book. On the transition between California into Oregon we entered the edge of the volcanic Cascades. In Weed, a small town on the California side of the border, we experienced Mount Shasta – a volcanic cone, which rises abruptly from the base. It towers above the surrounding area. There is no doubt about its identity. There are no questions about false peaks and summits. There is only mountain. We donÕt need a diagram to identify it from others in the mountain range.

Before we hiked to Kiersarge Pass on our second trip to Onion Valley we stopped at a ranger station in Lone Pine, a small city on the valley floor, to rent a bear canister, an indestructible plastic tube to protect food from the wild life. Outside the lobby was a picture of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range with an arrow pointing to Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental United States. Without this assistance we would not have been able to distinguish which one it was. Even with the picture it was still a little difficult without looking carefully to determine which was peak and which was mountain. Some of us even disagreed as to which one it really was. (Clarence King, the man, who named Mt. Whitney and identified it as the tallest mountain in the Sierra Nevadas, was not the first one to scale the peak because he accidentally chose the wrong mountain to climb.)

This was not true of Shasta. There were no arguments or discussion as to which one it was.

Later the same year we escorted Serena, my oldest daughter to the University of Washington in Seattle for her first year of graduate school. Looking south out over the campus, which is located on a small rise, the omnipresent clouds opened up. The vista took our breath away, as Mount Rainier emerged from the mist - fading in and out of existence as the overcast journeyed eastward. Rising 14 thousand feet from the base, sea level, we were stunned by its raw magnificence. It became very clear why many use its powerful image for their logo.

Further flying over the Cascades on the way to and fro on our regular visits to our daughters in the Northwest the grandeur of these huge volcanic uplifts viewed from our window seats inside the jet continually awe and amaze us. Successively - Rainier, the Three Sisters, Mt. St. Helens, with its top blown off, Mount Hood, and then Shasta – each one magnificent in its own right.

In contrast Mt. Whitney, although the tallest, only rises 8,000 feet above its high desert base. Further when driving up Highway 395 on our way to Independence, the town at the base of Onion Valley, we have seen a huge mountain range growing on our left for hours. The hundreds of miles long granite uplift was visually impressive in and of itself. But the so-called mountains were just part of the ridge. None of the peaks was impressive or awe inspiring individually. The sight of Mt. Whitney took no oneÕs breath away. We couldnÕt even tell which one it was without a program.

So I give thanks to the powers that be for finally leading me to my first real mountains. There is no ambiguity when viewing Mt. RainierÕs rugged visage emerging from the clouds.


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