Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Summiting Avalanche Peak in Yellowstone National Park

Winter is a perfect time to find a warm, cozy spot and reminisce about summers past and the memorable events that comprise them.  Around this time last year I published a blog post on an experience dating back to a summer road trip in 2009.  That late July, one of my best friends and I loaded up his car and took two weeks to travel over 4,500 miles on our way to the Seattle area.  We visited numerous national parks and forests including the typical classics like the Black Hills, Yellowstone, Glacier, and Olympic.  The previous post was about our sojourn in the virgin temperate rain forests of the Olympic peninsula.  On this occasion I'd like to share my favorite exploit from our stint in Yellowstone National Park.

Looking up at the summit of Avalanche Peak in Yellowstone National Park

We arrived at the eastern boundary of Yellowstone on a clear late morning in early August with adventure on our minds.  Long before we even set out on this cross-country trip, a plan was made to make time for the Avalanche Peak trail.  This hike takes you to the summit of Avalanche Peak, over 10,500 feet above sea level and one of the most spectacular views in the entire park.  At about five miles in length and an elevation change of over 2,100 feet, it certainly wasn't the easiest hike in the park but certainly made the effort worth your while in the end.

Thick lodgepole pine forest at the lower elevations
Kevin with a dead but impressive pine

Our first steps took us through a thick monoculture of lodgepole pine forest (Pinus contorta) in varying stages of growth.  The lodgepole pine is the signature tree of Yellowstone and much of the mountain west and can occur in nearly pure stands.  Its cones remain tightly closed and sealed for years on end until the next inevitable wildfire event scorches the area and the cone's scales retract and open, revealing a seed ready for germination.

Throughout the post you'll notice that in some photographs many of the pines appear to be dead.  These are the mass casualties of a mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonis ponderosae) epidemic of unprecedented proportions. Unlike so many other problem insects, the mountain pine beetles are native and in fact play a vital role in the health of the mountain west's pine forests in more typical situations.  Climate change resulting in hot, dry summers and mild winters combined with fire suppression that has led to more mature lodgepole pine stands seem to have a direct correlation to the severe outbreak.

Stream opening in the pines with a slew of mountain bluebells in bloom

Along the lowers slopes the trail occasionally led through small meadow openings full of summer wildflowers enjoying their limited window of mild temperatures and snow-free conditions.  In the more moist sections of the openings mountain bluebells (Mertensia ciliata) flowered en masse with scatterings of scarlet-colored paintbrushes (Castilleja spp.) and Lewis' monkeyflower (Mimulus lewisii).

Slowly but surely gaining elevation

The scattered meadow openings gave us our first looks out across the peaks of the Absaroka Range; a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains that make up the mountains on the eastern side of Yellowstone.  It certainly wasn't my first time to see some legitimate mountains and it wasn't my last but each and every occasion has left me equally breathless when pondering their seemingly ageless wonder.

Nearing the tree line, the trees began stunted and shorter

With each increasingly labored step, my friend and I slowly made our way up the mountainside with the promise of an unbeatable view as an encouraging reward.  Our eyes and ears were ever vigilant for any sign or sound of a grizzly bear.  They are quite frequent in these parts and especially active in the latter part of summer while gorging on pine nuts, berries, and whatever else they could use to fatten up for the approaching winter.  You were given plenty of warning at the trail head about the possibility of coming into contact with the behemoths and rightfully so.

That possibility gave Kevin and I pause early on in our hike when we heard voices shouting a ways up the trail.  Our thoughts immediately went to bears and we debated turning around until we came upon the "yellers" who were merely off trail and trying to find their way back.  Glad our paranoia didn't sink its teeth too deeply into us and actually cause us to descend before we'd ever even truly ascended.

View across the desert-like alpine landscape above the tree line

Our persistence paid off upon reaching the tree line and getting a glimpse out across the barren, desert-like alpine landscape.  Rocks, stunted trees, and a wee bit of snow was all that seemed to be around but the bowl-like depression at the base of the final ascent was certainly a sight for sore and burning calf muscles yearning for flat ground.

Nice view out across the Absaroka Range
Nice view out across the Absaroka Range 

Breaking out of the tree line and out onto the open, rocky slopes allowed for some pretty spectacular views across the area and a new appreciation for just how far we'd come from the starting point way down in the narrow valley below.

A proud and stunted lodgepole pine with the distinction of the "highest" tree near the summit

As harsh and unforgiving as the landscape looked on the surface, a great wealth of plant life still clung to existence between the rocks and remaining hunks of ice.  The lodgepole pine pictured above had the distinction of being the "highest" tree on Avalanche Peak; no others were to be seen or found this close to the summit.  I'm curious to know the age of this particular specimen as its stunted nature and wind/ice swept home would certainly prevent it from growing much of an appreciable amount year to year.

Kevin among a diverse display of alpine wildflowers

You wouldn't think a spot covered in dozens of feet of snow and ice 75% of the time would play home to such a diverse display of summer wildflowers but that is clearly not the case looking at the photo above.  These plants must quickly grow, flower, and set to seed all in a matter of two-three months before their window of opportunity slams shut again for another year.

From what I can remember and tell from the scene above, the plants blooming are:  Indian paintbrush (Castilleja spp.), beardtongue (Penstemon spp.), elephant heads (Pedicularis groenlandica), alpine phacelia (Phacelia sericea), mountain phlox (Phlox austromontana), alpine dandelion (Taraxacum ceratophorum) and some other Asteraceae species.

Alpine Phacelia (Phacelia sericea)
Yellow Columbine (Aquilegia flavescens)

Back nearly five years ago, your blogger was just starting to realize his passion for the botanical world and the nearly infinite number of plants out there waiting to be found.  It's hard to think about the dozens of interesting and unique plants I walked right by during this hike that today would otherwise find me kneeling down to make their acquaintances.  Just another reason to go back and visit, I say!

Kevin standing on a patch of un-melted snow/ice in early August

At an elevation of 10,000+ feet it wasn't too surprising to still see patches of un-melted snow and ice spotting the alpine landscape.  Even in early August the ice persists and reminds the vibrant wildflowers that it will soon be back in full force, signaling the end of yet another short and sweet mountain summer.

The lovely blues of mountain bog gentian dotting the barren landscape

Despite the tenacious strips of ice at even the highest of elevations, wildflowers continued to hold their ground and brighten up the otherwise drab and dreary colors of their abiotic habitat.  Their beauty, as fleeting and ephemeral as it is cannot be overshadowed by the omnipotent mountains that loom all around them in my humble opinion.

Mountain Bog Gentian (Gentiana calycosa) blooming in the alpine meadows of Avalanche Peak

Throughout the newly free and open alpine meadows were splotches of brilliant blue belonging to mountain bog gentians (Gentiana calycosa); easily one of my favorite wildflower finds I did notice on our trek up the mountain. The freshly melted ice and snow give these plants the moist conditions they need to survive and persist all the way up here.

Look across the Absaroka Range from near the summit of Avalanche Peak

As we came ever closer to the summit of the mountain, our views and experience only got better and more exciting.  A cool breeze with a slight nip was never far from your bared skin and was written in the stunted and wind-contorted pines clinging to existence on the rocky upper slopes.  This is a very harsh and unforgiving place for most of the year and  it doesn't let you forget that.

Your blogger near the summit of Avalanche Peak

Avalanche Peak has so far been the only chance your blogger has had to truly summit a mountain and I certainly hope it's not my last but at the very least I did get a small taste of what it feels like to be on top of the world.  There are few points in life where one is at complete peace with themselves and the universe and I can say this experience was certainly one of those junctures.

Looking west from atop Avalanche Peak at Yellowstone Lake

Needless to say the views from the summit were spectacular and quite the ineffable moment.  Being able to see the road snake its way towards the horizon so far below allowed it to sink in just how high we'd come from our first bootsteps.

Looking southwest from atop Avalanche Peak with the Teton Mountains visible on the horizon

Several minutes of stunned silence and slow scanning were in store with so much to take in and process from over 2,000 feet above the valley floor.  Looking southwest from the summit you could faintly see the majestic Teton Mountains hugging the horizon over 50 miles away.

Panoramic shot looking east across the Absaroka Range atop the summit of Avalanche Peak

An extra blustery gust of chilled wind brought me back to reality as I continued to gaze out across Yellowstone's ancient caldera to the west and the snow-tipped peaks of the Absarokas to the east.  I'd visited Yellowstone twice before and seen plenty of the park and its more famous attractions and landmarks but the Avalanche Peak hike instantly nestled itself near the top for me.  It's a well-hiked and maintained trail only open in the latter part of summer and an experience I encourage anyone with plans to be in the vicinity check out.  The photographs in this post could never even come close to doing any of the views true justice but they should at least whet your appetite for a firsthand encounter at some point in any reader's future!