Lichen taxonomy is really exciting to some people. And I’ll be honest, I’m not one of them. I prefer the meta-stories — ones about how land and climate barriers have propelled speciation into many divergent paths, how species assemblages shift along different environmental gradients, and ways in which the lichen symbiosis can inform a more balanced way of living in the world.
That being said, I often feel like there’s not much room for me in the sciences, apart the field. The well worn paths of most lichenologists are paths that focus strongly on taxonomy, much less on narrative.
This taxonomic focus is mainly out of necessity: the frontiers of the unknown-unknowns in lichenology are so vast, and understanding and furthering taxonomy is like carrying a torch into that vast darkness.
What are the common alpine lichens found in the High Sierras of California? This handy six page guide just might answer that question. Jason and I made it for naturalists, alpine enthusiasts, and citizen scientists, with the hope that it will be helpful in field identification of common alpine lichen species or species groups. Rarity is indicated, so if anyone observes any of these rare lichens on a summit in the High Sierras, we encourage you to take a photo, a GPS location with elevation, and email us.
Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the conterminous U.S., looms over the Owens Valley, once a thriving agricultural area, now increasingly arid as its the major supplier of the Los Angeles water supply. It’s a striking landscape characteristic of the High Sierras, and the lichens on the summit were different than those we’ve found on other peaks in the region, underscoring how unique these high elevation sites are for regional biota. I’ll get into the lichens in Part 2 of this post, but for the moment I’d like to share more about the hike itself.
The Mt. Whitney portal trail is a powerful trail, and felt similar to a pilgrimage site. In mid-September, people from different backgrounds and continents, were quietly hiking up the 7,000 ft elevation during both day and night, a steady stream trudging on for 11 miles to reach the peak, then turning back again for the long hike down. The impression I got was that most people weren’t there to simply reach a mountain summit, but rather that they were there to reach a summit within themselves, struggling against and overcoming barriers that block other areas of life. A ritual to face challenge and overcome.
“This is really huge for me,” shared one hiker as she was ascending. Another person I met on the way down had been hiking for over 24 hours, the joints in his knee were blown from previous injuries, but he was doing it anyways, one slow step after another. Other folks could hardly pick their feet up as they walked the last mile to the summit, shuffling along in the thin air. Discouragement wasn’t on their faces despite the challenges and exhaustion, rather, most shared a feeling of intensity and perseverance, and sometimes, oftentimes, exuberant joy.
Jason and I were there to resurvey the lichens on Mt. Whitney, following in the footsteps of the extraordinary lichenologist Henry Imshaug to investigate how the lichens have changed since 1955. A huge honor. And for me, the survey went beyond lichens, and incorporated summiting a host of self-doubts and dodging a couple storms.
The stats: The hike is about 11 miles from the Whitney Portal trailhead to the summit, with a 7,000 ft elevation gain. The last 6 miles are above treeline.
Our hike: Jason and I packed our gear and food for three days, and headed out on a mid-September day at around noon. Within a couple hours, the sun shifted to clouds, then thunderstorms started rolling in. So we set up camp about 6.5 miles from the summit, with the false impression that we were only 3 to 4 miles away.
The next morning Jason left at 4am while I stayed at camp with Marvin since dogs are not allowed in the Park. Jason summited a little bit after dawn. His report: icey. The rocks along the hike and on the summit were icey. Cold. He was extremely cold. That cold that gets deep in your bones. But the lichens – awesome! (I’ll get into the lichens in the Part 2 post)
Our plan was for me to meet him at midday along the 99 switchbacks. So we met there at about 2pm, Jason filled me in on what he had already collected, and then I started for the summit while Jason took Marvin back to camp. With a little over 2 miles to go, and some 2,200 ft elevation gain, I anticipated reaching the summit by 3:30pm, or 4pm at the latest. I didn’t anticipate how the altitude would get me.
By 4pm I was about a mile from the summit, rushing along the ridge trail, and I came around a pinnacle and finally got a good view of the summit. There was a huge lenticular cloud right behind the summit. Tall like a thunderhead but made of dozens of lenticular discs all smashed together. Lenticular clouds usually indicate intense winds at high elevation. And to the west, dark storm clouds were rolling in. To conduct a proper survey, I need at least 2 hours at the summit. And I had 3 hours until sunset. Barely enough time to get to the summit and do the survey before pitch blackness. And with a storm rolling in and such winds creating horrible collecting conditions, I started questioning my plan.
I turned back. And then stopped. And then started for the summit again. And then realized that I hadn’t seen anyone else on the trail in at least 30 minutes, which seemed highly unusual, and there wasn’t anyone visible up ahead on the trail either. And so windy.
I turned back again and got to the switchbacks with a sinking heart, I was totally committed now. Sinking stomach. Heart. Doubts came surging. What if I should have just kept on going to the summit and got it done while I had the chance? A summit of doubts.
I got back to camp, resigned myself as a failure, crawled into my bivy sack and went to sleep without dinner, the winds kept strong, chilling every opening in my sack.
At about 3am the winds stopped and the air became quite warm, almost balmy, with a clear starry sky. My heart started beating really fast, adrenaline surging – my body was completely awake. Very unusual. Apparently, I was going to get to that summit and finish the survey!
And I did! Along the way I made a friend, Emily, from Denver. She was day-hiking it, her 25th 14,000 feet peak. Intense, I really respect folks who can do this hike in one day! Including the lichenologist Henry Imshaug, who also conducted a lichen inventory at the same time!
To read about the lichens collected on Mt Whitney summit, click here.
Bishop Pass is one of the more species-rich alpine locations in California that Imshaug collected in during his 1955 surveys. Despite the lack of well-developed soil, he found a number of soil crust lichens (terricolous lichens), along with dozens of rock lichens (saxicolous lichens). So we tasked ourselves with the same, and found all the species that Imshaug originally found.
The only trouble was: pretty horrible altitude sickness. Its unfortunately usual for Jason, so we’ve been slowly acclimatizing ourselves with training hikes, etc. But usually I’m just fine. And I got it bad that night below Bishop Pass. The comforting thought was considering that perhaps it’s an initiation: do we have what it takes to tackle this project? All 91 peaks throughout the Sierras, Cascades, Intermountain region and the Rockies? If the sun peaking over the ridge of Mt. Agassiz was saying anything the next morning, it might just have been saying: Yes, initiation successful.
Giant fires raged last year when Jason and I attempted to survey two alpine lichen locations in Washington: Mt. Pugh (Glacier Peak Wilderness) and Mt. Tiffany (Okanogan National Forest); the 2015 fires shut down many of the towns in the Eastern Cascades, and flames were jumping over regional Hwy 2, blocking our access to the Mt. Tiffany. Luckily we were still able to survey Mt. Pugh, and we saved Mt. Tiffany for this year. And it was well worth the wait!