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[woodcut of John Muir] John Muir Writings

Steep Trails, by John Muir (1918)

Chapter 15
Glacial Phenomena in Nevada 20

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The monuments of the Ice Age in the Great Basin have been greatly obscured and broken, many of the more ancient of them having perished altogether, leaving scarce a mark, however faint, of their existence — a condition of things due not alone to the long-continued action of post-glacial agents, but also in great part to the perishable character of the rocks of which they were made. The bottoms of the main valleys, once grooved and planished like the glacier pavements of the Sierra, lie buried beneath sediments and detritus derived from the adjacent mountains, and now form the arid sage plains; characteristic U-shaped canyons have become V-shaped by the deepening of their bottoms and straightening of their sides, and decaying glacier headlands have been undermined and thrown down in loose taluses, while most of the moraines and striae and scratches have been blurred or weathered away. Nevertheless, enough remains of the more recent and the more enduring phenomena to cast a good light well back upon the conditions of the ancient ice sheet that covered this interesting region, and upon the system of distinct glaciers that loaded the tops of the mountains and filled the canyons long after the ice sheet had been broken up.

The first glacial traces that I noticed in the basin are on the Wassuck, Augusta, and Toyabe ranges, consisting of ridges and canyons, whose trends, contours, and general sculpture are in great part specifically glacial, though deeply blurred by subsequent denudation. These discoveries were made during the summer of 1876-77. And again, on the 17th of last August, while making the ascent of Mount Jefferson, the dominating mountain of the Toquima range, I discovered an exceedingly interesting group of moraines, canyons with V-shaped cross sections, wide neve amphitheatres, moutoneed rocks, glacier meadows, and one glacier lake, all as fresh and telling as if the glaciers to which they belonged had scarcely vanished.

The best preserved and most regular of the moraines are two laterals about two hundred feet in height and two miles long, extending from the foot of a magnificent canyon valley on the north side of the mountain and trending first in a northerly direction, then curving around to the west, while a well-characterized terminal moraine, formed by the glacier towards the close of its existence, unites them near their lower extremities at a height of eighty-five hundred feet. Another pair of older lateral moraines, belonging to a glacier of which the one just mentioned was a tributary, extend in a general northwesterly direction nearly to the level of Big Smoky Valley, about fifty-five hundred feet above sea level.

Four other canyons, extending down the eastern slopes of this grand old mountain into Monito Valley, are hardly less rich in glacial records, while the effects of the mountain shadows in controlling and directing the movements of the residual glaciers to which all these phenomena belonged are everywhere delightfully apparent in the trends of the canyons and ridges, and in the massive sculpture of the neve wombs at their heads. This is a very marked and imposing mountain, attracting the eye from a great distance. It presents a smooth and gently curved outline against the sky, as observed from the plains, and is whitened with patches of enduring snow. The summit is made up of irregular volcanic tables, the most extensive of which is about two and a half miles long, and like the smaller ones is broken abruptly down on the edges by the action of the ice. Its height is approximately eleven thousand three hundred feet above the sea.

A few days after making these interesting discoveries, I found other well-preserved glacial traces on Arc Dome, the culminating summit of the Toyabe Range. On its northeastern slopes there are two small glacier lakes, and the basins of two others which have recently been filled with down-washed detritus. One small residual glacier lingered until quite recently beneath the coolest shadows of the dome, the moraines and neve-fountains of which are still as fresh and unwasted as many of those lying at the same elevation on the Sierra — ten thousand feet — while older and more wasted specimens may be traced on all the adjacent mountains. The sculpture, too, of all the ridges and summits of this section of the range is recognized at once as glacial, some of the larger characters being still easily readable from the plains at a distance of fifteen or twenty miles.

The Hot Creek Mountains, lying to the east of the Toquima and Monito ranges, reach the culminating point on a deeply serrate ridge at a height of ten thousand feet above the sea. This ridge is found to be made up of a series of imposing towers and pinnacles which have been eroded from the solid mass of the mountain by a group of small residual glaciers that lingered in their shadows long after the larger ice rivers had vanished. On its western declivities are found a group of well-characterized moraines, canyons, and roches moutonnees, all of which are unmistakably fresh and telling. The moraines in particular could hardly fail to attract the eye of any observer. Some of the short laterals of the glaciers that drew their fountain snows from the jagged recesses of the summit are from one to two hundred feet in height, and scarce at all wasted as yet, notwithstanding the countless storms that have fallen upon them, while cool rills flow between them, watering charming gardens of arctic plants — saxifrages, larkspurs, dwarf birch, ribes, and parnassia, etc. — beautiful memories of the Ice Age, representing a once greatly extended flora.

In the course of explorations made to the eastward of here, between the 38th and 40th parallels, I observed glacial phenomena equally fresh and demonstrative on all the higher mountains of the White Pine, Golden Gate, and Snake ranges, varying from those already described only as determined by differences of elevation, relations to the snow-bearing winds, and the physical characteristics of the rock formations.

On the Jeff Davis group of the Snake Range, the dominating summit of which is nearly thirteen thousand feet in elevation, and the highest ground in the basin, every marked feature is a glacier monument — peaks, valleys, ridges, meadows, and lakes. And because here the snow-fountains lay at a greater height, while the rock, an exceedingly hard quartzite, offered superior resistance to post-glacial agents, the ice-characters are on a larger scale, and are more sharply defined than any we have noticed elsewhere, and it is probably here that the last lingering glacier of the basin was located. The summits and connecting ridges are mere blades and points, ground sharp by the glaciers that descended on both sides to the main valleys. From one standpoint I counted nine of these glacial channels with their moraines sweeping grandly out to the plains to deep sheer-walled neve-fountains at their heads, making a most vivid picture of the last days of the Ice Period.

I have thus far directed attention only to the most recent and appreciable of the phenomena; but it must be borne in mind that less recent and less obvious traces of glacial action abound on ALL the ranges throughout the entire basin, where the fine striae and grooves have been obliterated, and most of the moraines have been washed away, or so modified as to be no longer recognizable, and even the lakes and meadows, so characteristic of glacial regions, have almost entirely vanished. For there are other monuments, far more enduring than these, remaining tens of thousands of years after the more perishable records are lost. Such are the canyons, ridges, and peaks themselves, the glacial peculiarities of whose trends and contours cannot be hid from the eye of the skilled observer until changes have been wrought upon them far more destructive than those to which these basin ranges have yet been subjected.

It appears, therefore, that the last of the basin glaciers have but recently vanished, and that the almost innumerable ranges trending north and south between the Sierra and the Wahsatch Mountains were loaded with glaciers that descended to the adjacent valleys during the last glacial period, and that it is to this mighty host of ice streams that all the more characteristic of the present features of these mountain ranges are due.

But grand as is this vision delineated in these old records, this is not all; for there is not wanting evidence of a still grander glaciation extending over all the valleys now forming the sage plains as well as the mountains. The basins of the main valleys alternating with the mountain ranges, and which contained lakes during at least the closing portion of the Ice Period, were eroded wholly, or in part, from a general elevated tableland, by immense glaciers that flowed north and south to the ocean. The mountains as well as the valleys present abundant evidence of this grand origin.

The flanks of all the interior ranges are seen to have been heavily abraded and ground away by the ice acting in a direction parallel with their axes. This action is most strikingly shown upon projecting portions where the pressure has been greatest. These are shorn off in smooth planes and bossy outswelling curves, like the outstanding portions of canyon walls. Moreover, the extremities of the ranges taper out like those of dividing ridges which have been ground away by dividing and confluent glaciers. Furthermore, the horizontal sections of separate mountains, standing isolated in the great valleys, are lens-shaped like those of mere rocks that rise in the channels of ordinary canyon glaciers, and which have been overflowed or pastflowed, while in many of the smaller valleys roches moutonnees occur in great abundance.

Again, the mineralogical and physical characters of the two ranges bounding the sides of many of the valleys indicate that the valleys were formed simply by the removal of the material between the ranges. And again, the rim of the general basin, where it is elevated, as for example on the southwestern portion, instead of being a ridge sculptured on the sides like a mountain range, is found to be composed of many short ranges, parallel to one another, and to the interior ranges, and so modeled as to resemble a row of convex lenses set on edge and half buried beneath a general surface, without manifesting any dependence upon synclinal or anticlinal axes — a series of forms and relations that could have resulted only from the outflow of vast basin glaciers on their courses to the ocean.

I cannot, however, present all the evidence here bearing upon these interesting questions, much less discuss it in all its relations. I will, therefore, close this letter with a few of the more important generalizations that have grown up out of the facts that I have observed. First, at the beginning of the glacial period the region now known as the Great Basin was an elevated tableland, not furrowed as at present with mountains and valleys, but comparatively bald and featureless.

Second, this tableland, bounded on the east and west by lofty mountain ranges, but comparatively open on the north and south, was loaded with ice, which was discharged to the ocean northward and southward, and in its flow brought most, if not all, the present interior ranges and valleys into relief by erosion.

Third, as the glacial winter drew near its close the ice vanished from the lower portions of the basin, which then became lakes, into which separate glaciers descended from the mountains. Then these mountain glaciers vanished in turn, after sculpturing the ranges into their present condition.

Fourth, the few immense lakes extending over the lowlands, in the midst of which many of the interior ranges stood as islands, became shallow as the ice vanished from the mountains, and separated into many distinct lakes, whose waters no longer reached the ocean. Most of these have disappeared by the filling of their basins with detritus from the mountains, and now form sage plains and “alkali flats.”

The transition from one to the other of these various conditions was gradual and orderly: first, a nearly simple tableland; then a grand mer de glace shedding its crawling silver currents to the sea, and becoming gradually more wrinkled as unequal erosion roughened its bed, and brought the highest peaks and ridges above the surface; then a land of lakes, an almost continuous sheet of water stretching from the Sierra to the Wahsatch, adorned with innumerable island mountains; then a slow desiccation and decay to present conditions of sage and sand.

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Steep Trails

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