Friday, May 04, 2012

Comparing Mountains

Jan raises an entertaining point about climbing mountains – 4000 feet doesn’t sound like much when compared with the peaks of the Rockies.  Why do we even call them by the same name when the difference is that great?  As a boy, I just assumed it was a local chauvinism perpetuated by history.  The Appalachian Range and all its progeny were already called mountains before the Rockies were discovered by the Europeans, that reasoning goes, so they just shrugged and said “Well yours are really big mountains, then, but we’re not changing it.”  This would fit somewhat with the idea of settlement by the English, whose mountains also boast less-than-stunning elevations.  That is weakened a bit by the idea that the British Isles were certainly aware of the Alps for centuries back, but still, you can see some sense in the idea.

I did ask about that among the people I knew who climbed, decades ago.  One common answer was “Let them come here and try it, and then see what they say,” delivered in a chippy tone.  Well, yes, that’s technically an unarguable answer, but not a very useful one.  We can’t know about anything until we have done it, but we also haven’t the time to do everything, so we must have some way of weeding out the likely possibilities from the unlikely.  You could say the same thing about Bray Hill outside Dublin, too.

Significantly, the first person that I asked about this gave me a good answer, which I discounted.  Brother Louis had grown up in the Italian Alps, and now, a Somascan working at a school for troubled boys, thought that pushing them up and down mountains was just the thing.  I noted that it must be quite a come-down to go from the Alps to our poor New England offerings.  He disagreed.  He noted that the terrain was much harder, and people usually climbed more than one mountain at a time, here.  I just figured that he was young when in Italy and middle-aged now (1977), and thus had the false impression of equivalence.  I persisted in my Peak Envy.

That is entirely reasonable.  That Eastern skiers might be generally superior to Western ones (no longer true, I hear), because of learning under more challenging conditions, that I could accept.  But there were factors so stark in any hiking comparison that even quite genuine qualifiers could not erase them.  The thinner atmosphere, in and of itself, makes the Rockies more difficult and even dangerous.  Next, the difference in elevation gain is quite high, two or three times as great.  You can get well over 4000’ elevation gain on Mt. Washington – 5000’ on a loop trail – but the Presedentials are an exception.  A three thousand foot gain is more typical.

This simplest answer is bad trail design.  Steepness matters, as I noted in my earlier post, and many of the trails here are just straight up the mountain, wavering neither to the left nor the right in their course.  No one had laid out trails in Europe that much, remember.  They had developed over time, and anything stupidly designed tended to be less-often used and another took its place.  Given centuries, you get a nice balance.  But even in the 1800’s when people designed the first trails, not much was known.  Think of the contrast between climbing a ladder versus climbing stairs versus handicap ramps.  If you’ve got that nice burst of leg strength, the ladder seems easiest.  Stack a few of those on top of each other and you start looking for the stairs.  Apparently – and I don’t know this myself – you have longer trails to accomplish the same rise in the Rockies.  Not hugely so, but enough to keep yourself from wasting so much energy.  You can find a lot of places on NH trails where people have started to go around the long way.  These are either embraced by the trail clubs or blocked off, depending on their own whims.

Insert: But wait.  I did some research to check this out. I knew Western trails started out higher, but I hadn’t realized they were that much higher.  Colorado trails start at 8-10,000 feet.  They don’t, in fact, have 3x elevation gain, and not often 2x.  Mount Blanco is the 5th-highest. A gain of 5600’ over 14 miles.  Mt. Elbert, 4600 over 8 miles, Bison 4300 over 11 miles, Holy Cross 5600 over 10 miles. Like I said about steepness. 

But what Brother Louis may have meant by “terrain” is simply footing.  It’s horrible.  Sections of trail are just rocky stream beds in the spring, mudbeds by May, with no flat place to get a purchase with your boots. If you try walking on your toes for any distance, you’ll see what I mean. A twenty-yard stretch of even trail is pure joy. I don’t know what things are like on Mt. Powell, though.  Maybe just as bad.
And then there are those multiple mountains, known as “peak-bagging” here.  Goaded by Brother Louis, I did three in a day myself once as a young man, and did that at least twice more with my sons.  Come to think of it, I did two yesterday.

So yeah, Jan (I said in a chippy tone of voice).  Come here and try it.


Dubbahdee said...

I have had conversations with long distance hikers who have done (for example) both the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Train. Invariably the agree that while the elevation gain is smaller in the AT and the distance shorter, it is MUCH harder hiking. They attribute this, as you have figured out, to the quality of the trail. The PC was specifically designed for horse traffic and the grades established accordingly. That is why a reasonably competent hiker can complete the 2700 mile PC in the same or less time than the 2100 mile AT. More evidence for your theory.
As for the AT, I found that from Ga to VT I could generally put in 15-22 mile days without much problem. But when I hit NH I was fortunate to complete 10 miles per day. At that point, conditioning wasn't the issue. It was the grueling terrain and rough trail.
There is a reason why it is called a trail and not a path. ;-)

Donna B. said...

I was born at 7700 ft. and spent the first 16 years of my life between 5800 and 7800 ft.

It was mostly flat land :-)

Kitten said...

Growing up in Colorado's (fairly flat) front range at about 5,000 feet, I was prepared to mock central Pennsylvania's mountains when we moved there. I didn't try hiking any of them, but from a driving perspective I vote they count as real mountains. Yes the run-away truck ramps are shallower and use gravel instead of sand, but I found the grades to be worthy of respect as the climb is indeed pretty abrupt.

james said...

Wet sand is firm enough to be tolerable, but the dry is bloody awful to try to walk on even on flat ground--dunes are exhausting. Terrain is a huge deal.

Texan99 said...

Counting the distance from my toes to my nose, I'm taking in air at about 23 feet of elevation. Never did understand why you fellers wanted to live perched up high like that.

james said...

Steep heights and narrow trails make me feel cast down. Going To The Sun road weirded me out.
Planes are OK. Go figure.

Gringo said...

Interesting discussion. Regarding comparing places for steepness, "mountaininess," etc. my reply would be that each area has its own particular characteristics and beauty. I heard of a New Englander saying how BORING the flat landscape in Oklahoma was. One spring I worked on drilling rigs in Oklahoma, and got to see a lot of the green spring wheat blowing in the wind. It reminded me of a green ocean- and the landscape was rolling enough to remind one of waves. Only boring if you cousider enchantment boring.

The only hiking I have done in NE has been in the woods around my childhood home area. This hiking was usually in the "make your own trail" category.

I considered the hills around my childhood home, none of which reached 1000 feet in altitude, hilly enough when I bicycled them. A friend was clocked at 60 mph on a bicycle going down one of the hills.

In my younger days I did some hiking in Central and South America. I once took a bus from Huarás in the Peruvian Andes to a drop off point at Olleros for a 5 day hike to Chavín.

When the locals on the bus found out what I was doing, they informed me that the people living in the mountains would rob and assault me. I laughed the warning off. I had enough experience with people in the Huarás area to know that they were 1)very outgoing and 2)were very jocular.

One local invited me to spend the night with his family in his stone hut. I reciprocated by sharing my food. They may have been the only people I saw during my hike.

Several years later, such a hike would have quite ill-advised, as Sendero Luminoso was known to kill Gringo hikers.- and about any Peruvian they could get their hands on. But I did my hike in the days before Sendero Luminiso.

Jan said...

Ruggedness is a good measure. I wonder if it has anything to do with the extent of the glaciers in the last ice age. The Cascades aren't nearly as high as the Rockies (where even a moderate elevation gain is difficult due to altitude), but they are quite rugged in many places. One of my favorite hikes was 4000ft gain in 4 miles. However, the valleys carved by the glaciers have left even large hills of 3-4000+ft more rounded off and milder to walk.

I always thought that elevation difference from where you normally live and the summit to be a big factor too. 4-5000ft looks pretty big from sea level, as long as it's the biggest thing you see. One of the reasons that Mt. Rainier is so impressive looking at only 14,000ft is that you're viewing it from mostly sea level. My favorite view of it is from the middle of Puget Sound in fact; it makes the silhouette of Seattle seem so small. There's lots of "Fourteeners" in Colorado, but they don't seem as big as Rainier. Just as an example, my great grandmother was born and raised in Leadville, at just over 10,000ft, right in the shadow of Mt. Elbert, tallest peak in CO at 14,440ft. Big difference!

And yes, I'd love to come there and try it!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I believe the Appalachians are older and worn down. Perhaps resident geologist Sponge-headed Scienceman can weigh in.

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

I believe the Appalachians are older and worn down. Perhaps resident geologist Sponge-headed Scienceman can weigh in.

Much older. Those Rocky Mts are just young whipper-snappers by comparison.

Donna B. said...

The rough edges of youth up against the treachery of age?