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Granite Crags (1884) by Constance Gordon-Cumming



June 15th.

For some time I have been feeling so puzzled while attempting to follow the discussions of various travellers (as they gather at night round the blazing wood-fire in the Big-Tree room), that this morning I determined to give myself a geological-geography lesson; so, armed with Professor Whitney’s ‘Notes on the Geology of California,’ I sallied forth in search of a quiet nook wherein to study them undisturbed. I found a retreat fit for any sage, in a natural hermitage, formed by a huge granite-boulder resting on two others, some way up the hill. It is carpeted with greenest grass, gay with flowers, and the overhanging oaks make a frame through which the distant fall appears like a shadowy spirit.

There I sat, till I had taken in some of the main points, and their bearing on the various statements I have recently heard; and now, as I daresay you know no more on the subject than I did, I shall give you an outline of my newly acquired knowledge, hoping thereby to impress it on my own memory!

First, then, I must remind you how, in our early school-room days, we were taught to call the great mountain-ranges of Western America “The Cordilleras,” which was the name given by the Spanish settlers to describe the many chains of mountains which trend north and south from Patagonia to British America, forming the sinews of the vast continent. In South America, these mountain cords were defined as Cordilleras of the Andes, that grand simple range usurping the supremacy beyond all question.

But the Cordilleras of North America comprise a great number of ranges, intricate as the cordage of a ship. Nearest to the shores of the Pacific lies the Coast Range, which is composed of a multitude of subordinate ranges, most of which bear the name of some Christian saint, bestowed on them by the early Spanish-Mexican settlers. This region is described as a sea with “innumerable waves of mountains and wavelets of spurs.”

It is a comparatively low range, its highest points not exceeding 8000 feet, while those near San Francisco are only about half that height. Mount Hamilton, the highest point visible from San Francisco, is 4440 feet high. The charm of the range consists chiefly in the beauty of its slopes and fertile valleys, and of their rich vegetation, including the magnificent forests of redwood cedar, which belongs exclusively to the Coast Range.

The southern part of the range must, from all accounts, be a pleasant region in which to make a home. Its park-like slopes are dotted with splendid evergreen oaks, its soil is productive, and its climate delightful. It has no winter. Six months of delightful spring are followed by a long summer of unvarying brilliancy; but the blazing sun is tempered by sweet sea-breezes (not always free from fog, I suspect). In summer the land becomes burnt up and yellow, but in the spring its fresh beauty is unsurpassable.

The northern part of the range is less favoured. In winter, snow generally lies for some days, and occasionally for weeks. Part of the range is described as “the chaparral waste,” being made up of a wilderness of ridges all so densely covered with chaparral, that even sportsmen shrink from attempting to penetrate it. I should mention that chaparral is the name here given to dense brushwood, made up of low shrubs, such as the scrub-oak, with its cruel thorns, and the still more dreaded poison-oak. You can imagine that such thickets are not inviting!

The next “cord” is the mighty Snowy Range. It is separated from the Coast Range by the Great Valley— i.e., the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, which run north and south for a distance of about 500 miles. At either end the two ranges meet and blend in a perfect labyrinth of ridges, and form innumerable deep valleys and ravines, most bewildering to the explorer.

The Sierras are, as it were, strands in the mightiest of the Cordilleras. The name applies to the western belt (about 80 miles wide) of a vast wilderness of mountain-chains built up in intricate ridges on the great plateau, 1000 miles in width, which forms the watershed of the continent.

The Sierras trend north and south through the States of Washington, Oregon, California, and Mexico. The great plateau includes Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.

The parallel mountain-chain on the eastern edge of the plateau is known as the Rocky Mountains. It is a belt 700 miles in width, and trends through the States of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.

As compared with the Sierra Nevada, the Rocky Mountains lose much of their dignity, from the fact that they rise from a base 6000 feet above the sea-level; and this high pedestal is reached by an almost imperceptible ascent, the prairie sloping gently upwards all the way from the Mississippi, a distance of 600 miles. So, although the mountain-summits do rise to 12,000 and 14,000 feet, half their apparent height is lost—as it were, buried—in this deep deposit.

The Sierras, on the other hand, are within a hundred miles of the seaboard, and rise at a far more abrupt gradient, thereby gaining vastly in apparent height.

But if the Rocky Mountains summits fail to impress a full sense of their true height, there is one respect in which they stand pre-eminent—namely, in the stupendous canyons which seam them in every direction,—gigantic ghastly chasms, the existence of which is attributed to the ceaseless rushing of mountain torrents, wearing for themselves ever-deepening channels.

These gruesome gorges wind about, apparently in the very bowels of the earth, and the bold explorer who tries to follow the course of the waters, looks up two perpendicular rock-walls, several thousand feet in height, to a narrow strip of sky far, far overhead, well knowing how hopeless would be any attempt to reach the upper earth. Fearful and thrilling have been the adventures of prospectors, who, in their determination to find the mountain’s hidden treasures of gold and silver, have dared to face every danger that could be combined—hostile Indians, hostile nature, and most appalling hardships.

Undoubtedly the thirst for gold has done good service to geographical research in the vast barren tracts of mountainous country. In themselves most uninviting, they offer such possibilities of mineral wealth as induce a large number of adventurous men (to whom danger and hardships are as second nature) to undertake the most perilous journeys in order to explore the inhospitable desert and hungry regions of these Western wilds.

These men have traversed every mountain and valley, and have examined the soil of every creek and gully, and the sand of every river, in the most inaccessible regions; and there are few who could not, if they chose, tell of hairbreadth adventures and deeds of daring. Some have been left sole survivors of their party, escaping from wild Indians to find themselves lost in awful canyons and chasms, from which escape seemed impossible, and where starvation stared them in the face.

Yet by some means or other, and by the exercise of almost superhuman endurance, they have found their way back to the haunts of white men, and have added their hardly earned knowledge to that of a multitude of other explorers; and so, little by little, the nature of the country has come to be pretty well defined.

Probably the greatest chasm in the known world is the Grand Canyon of the Colorado river (the Rio Colorado Grande), which is a gorge upwards of 200 miles in length, and of tremendous depth. Throughout this distance its vertical crags measure from one to upwards of six thousand feet in depth! Think of it! The highest mountain in Scotland measures 4418 feet. The height of Niagara is 145 feet. And here is a narrow tortuous pass where the river has eaten its way to a depth of 6200 feet between vertical granite crags!

Throughout this canyon there is no cascade; and though the river descends 16,000 feet within a very short distance, forming rushing rapids, it is nevertheless possible to descend it by a raft—and this has actually been done, in defiance of the most appalling dangers and hardships. It is such a perilous adventure as to be deemed worthy of note even in this country, where every prospector carries his life in his hand, and to whom danger is the seasoning of daily life, which, without it, would appear positively monotonous.

I suppose no river in the world passes through scenery so extraordinary as does the Colorado river, in its journey of 2000 miles from its birthplace in the Rocky Mountains, till, traversing the burning plains of New Mexico, it ends its course in the Gulf of California. Its early career is uneventful. In its youth it bears a maiden name, and, as the Green river, wends its way joyously through the upper forests. Then it reaches that ghastly country known as the mauvaises terres of Utah and Arizona—a vast region (extending also into Nevada and Wyoming), which, by the ceaseless action of water, has been carved into an intricate labyrinth of deep gloomy canyons.

For a distance of one thousand miles the river winds its tortuous course through these stupendous granite gorges, receiving the waters of many tributary streams, each rushing along similar deeply hewn channels.

In all the range of fiction no adventures can be devised more terrible than those which have actually befallen gold-seekers and hunters who, from any cause, have strayed into this dreary and awesome region. It was first discovered by two bold explorers, by name Strobe and White, who, being attacked by Indians, took refuge in the canyons. Preferring to face unknown dangers to certain death at the hands of the enemy, they managed to collect enough timber to construct a rude raft, and determined to attempt the descent.

Once embarked on that awful journey, there was no returning—they must endure to the bitter end.

On the fourth day the raft was upset. Strobe was drowned, and the little store of provisions and ammunition was lost. White contrived to right the raft, and for ten days the rushing waters bore him down the frightful chasm, seeing only the perpendicular cliffs on either side, and the strip of sky far overhead—never knowing, from hour to hour, but that at the next winding of the canyon the stream might overleap some mighty precipice, and so end his long anguish. During those awful ten days of famine, a few leaves and seed-pods, clutched from the bushes on the rocks, were his only food.

At length he reached a wretched settlement of half-bred Mexicans, who, deeming his escape miraculous, fed him; and eventually he reached the homes of white men, who looked on him (as well they might) as on one returned from the grave. The life thus wonderfully saved was, however, sacrificed a few months later, when he fell into the hands of his old Indian foes.

The story of White’s adventure was confirmed by various trappers and prospectors, who, from time to time, ventured some little way into this mysterious rock-labyrinth; and it was determined to attempt a Government survey of the region. Accordingly, in 1869, a party, commanded by Major J. W. Powell, started on this most interesting but dangerous expedition. Warned by the fate of a party who attempted to explore the country in 1855, and who, with the exception of two men (Ashley and another), all perished miserably, the Government party started with all possible precautions.

Four light Chicago-built boats were provisioned for six months, and, with infinite difficulty, were transported 1500 miles across the desert. On reaching their starting-point, they were lowered into the awful ravines, from which it was, to say the least, problematic whether all would emerge alive. The dangers, great enough in reality, had been magnified by rumour. It was reported, with every semblance of probability, that the river formed terrible whirlpools—that it flowed underground for hundreds of miles, and emerged only to fall in mighty cataracts and appalling rapids. Even the friendly Indians entreated the explorers not to attempt so rash an enterprise, assuring them that none who embarked on that stream would escape alive.

But in face of all such counsel, the expedition started, and for upwards of three months the party travelled, one may almost say, in the bowels of the earth—at least in her deepest furrows—through canyons where the cliffs rise, sheer from the water, to a height of three quarters of a mile!

They found, as was only natural, that imagination had exaggerated the horrors of the situation, and that it was possible to follow the rock-girt course of the Colorado through all its wanderings—not without danger, of course. In many places the boats had to be carried. One was totally wrecked and its cargo lost, and the others came to partial grief, entailing the loss of valuable instruments, and almost more precious provisions. Though no subterranean passage was discovered, nor any actual water-fall, there were nevertheless such dangerous rapids as to necessitate frequent troublesome portage; and, altogether, the expedition had its full share of adventure.

The ground was found to vary considerably. In some places the rock is so vivid in color—red and orange— that the canyons were distinguished as the Red Canyon and the Flaming Gorge. Some are mere fissures of tremendous depth; while in other places, where the water has carved its way more freely, they are broad, here and there expanding into a fertile oasis, where green turf and lovely groves are enclosed by stupendous crags—miniature Yō-semités—which to these travellers appeared to be indeed visions of Paradise.

I do not hear of any canyons of this description in the Sierra Nevada—a name which is generally applied to the whole range, extending from Tejon Pass in Southern California, to Mount Shasta in the north, a distance of about 550 miles. Some geologists, however, do not admit the use of the term farther north than Lassen’s Peak, which is a grand volcanic snow-capped mountain, beyond which a great volcanic plateau stretches to the north.

On this grand base is built up Mount Shasta, which is the Californian counterpart of Fuji-yama, the Holy Mountain of Japan, and, like it, is a perfect volcanic peak, standing alone in its colossal might, and sweeping upwards from the plain in unbroken lines of faultless beauty, to a height of 14,444 feet. There are few days in the year when this glorious mountain is to be seen without its snowy robes, or at least a snow crown. Hence the name by which it is known to the Indians—the White Pure Mountain.

As a volcano, it has long lain dormant; but there are boiling sulphureous springs within a few feet of the summit crater, while jets of steam and sulphur-fumes rise from many a fissure, and have proved the salvation of rash mountaineers who have been storm-stayed and benighted on the freezing summit. Below these symptoms of hidden fire, and the cone of loose volcanic ash, lie ice-fields and living glaciers.

Three distinct glaciers are accessible, from one of which, on the eastern slope of the mountain, flows a stream known as Mud Creek, which shortly disappears in the earth; and though the thirsty traveller is tantalised by the murmur of snow-fed waters gurgling beneath and between the loose rocks, he may march right round the cone—a circuit of 100 miles—without finding a spring or crossing a stream.

Whether that glacier stream really deserves such a name as Mud Creek, I cannot fathom; but in its next appearance it burst from the ground in a great volume of water, clear as crystal and cold as ice, and rushes seaward at the rate of twenty miles an hour, between the rocky walls of a deep canyon. In this second stage of its existence it is known as the M‘Leod river, or—sometimes far more poetically—the M‘Cloud,1 —a worthy name for the stream, which, like its godmother, is a true

“Daughter of earth and water,
And nursling of the skies.”

[1Child of a cloud.]

It is a stream abounding in trout and salmon, the former sometimes weighing as much as three pounds. A red-spotted trout, known as “Dolly Varden,” which is found only in glacial streams, is also abundant, and runs from one to twelve pounds. I hear sportsmen speaking of this region as of a most happy hunting-ground. Deer are abundant; so are elk and antelope; also cinnamon, brown, and black bears, but no grizzlies. The absence of the latter does not appear to be a matter of deep regret, as they are ugly customers. Mountain quail and Californian grouse abound; and to the north of Mount Shasta, in Oregon, mountain sheep are found, and an occasional puma, or Californian lion; also wild-cats and lynx.

There are two men now in the valley who were shooting near Mount Shasta last year, and are especially enthusiastic on the subject of stalking mountain sheep,1 which they describe as most graceful, active creatures, about double the size of an average domestic sheep, and clothed in a greatcoat of straight, glossy, dark-grey hair, covering the under coating of soft, fleecy, white wool. In general form they resemble strongly built, shapely deer, having only the head and horns of sheep. Both the ewe and the ram have horns—the former of modest dimensions, the latter very large and handsome, increasing in size to the age of eight years. A good head may measure two and a half feet across the horns, each of which might measure three feet, following the grand simple curve, and about sixteen inches in circumference at the base.

[1Caprovis Canadensis.]

These Big-horns, as they are called, are brave, fearless creatures, wonderfully agile and sure-footed. They contrive to scale the smoothest glacier-polished granite domes (where an experienced cragsman can scarcely make his way), by means of a series of little stiff skips. They never miss their footing, never slip or slide, nature having furnished them with a very elastic hoof, furnished at the back with a soft springy pad, acting in some measure like the sucker-foot which enables flies to walk on glass.

Thus provided, the mountain sheep roam in glad freedom among inaccessible crags, where the frozen snow lies chill on the high wind-swept ranges, from ten to thirteen thousand feet above the sea-level; and here the mountain lambs begin their hardy lives in grim cradles of rock and snow, far above the eyries of the mountain eagles. The mother ewe selects a spot somewhat sheltered from the chilling winds, but commanding such an outlook as to guard against possible surprise; and here she scrapes herself a bed of crumbling granite, and gives birth to her lamb, which soon grows strong and fearless, and lives a joyous life in the high pastures, starred with daisies and blue gentians.

Sheep-stalking in these regions is apparently its own reward—a pleasure quite apart from the bloodthirsty or covetous instinct of shooting a creature because it is rare, or wild, or beautiful. But whether animate or inanimate nature be the attraction, every one who has visited that district speaks of it with rapture as a region of beauty and delight. The mountain rises from a magnificent belt of forest, which clothes its slopes to a height of about 10,000 feet, where it meets the snow-line. Travellers ascending the mountain, spend at least one night camping in the upper forest. They say the view from the summit is magnificent, taking in a radius of nearly 500 miles—a circle including the whole of Northern California, from the Coast Range to the Sierras, and also a considerable part of Oregon.

The region abounds in mineral springs, differing chiefly in their degrees of unsavouriness. Some are strongly effervescent, and contain iron, salts, and soda. People who are not intent on climbing the mountain to obtain a widely extended view, generally prefer the autumn, when the atmosphere is invariably clouded by smoke of burning grass or forest. They tell me it is easy of access, and that there are very comfortable hotels. So I think some day I shall make tracks for Mount Shasta, which from all accounts must, I think, unquestionably be the loveliest mountain in California.

It forms a grand junction for the Sierras and the Coast Range, which there combine, and merge in one great ridge known as the Cascade Range, which trends northward through Oregon and Washington, gradually losing level, till it sinks into comparatively low spurs. It is a purely igneous region, and from Mount Shasta right up to Pugin Sound, a series of great volcanic cones tower many thousand feet above the basaltic beds from which they spring. In short, this crest of the Sierras was a vast volcanic chain, of whose former activity proof still remains in the immense area covered with lava—an area which geologists estimate at 20,000 square miles.

Respecting the work of fire and frost in these regions, Mr Whitney states that, although the central mass of the Sierra Nevada consists chiefly of granite, “it is flanked on both sides by metamorphic slates, and capped irregularly by vast masses of basaltic and other kinds of lava, with heavy beds of ashes and breccia, bearing witness to a former prodigious activity of the subterranean volcanic forces, now dormant.” The existence of a number of hot springs, and an occasional earthquake, alone survive to tell of the slumbering fires. I am told that in 1872 so violent an earthquake shock was experienced here, that it shook the whole valley—all the clocks stopped, and it is said that even the mighty El Capitan rocked like a cradle.

The largest amount of volcanic material is found to the north, where it covers the whole of the range, forming one vast plateau, crowned with many cones, with clearly defined craters. Mr Whitney recommends the summit of Mount Hoffmann as an excellent point whence to obtain a good view of the almost inaccessible volcanic region lying between the Tuolumne river and the Sonora trail, where great lava-beds, in some places 700 feet thick, rest on the granite at an elevation of 3000 feet above the valley, the dark lava-flow showing conspicuously in contrast with the dazzingly white granitic masses.

One of the most remarkable mountains in that district has been named Tower Peak. It rises in steps like a series of truncated pyramids piled one above the other; and Whitney declares it to be one of the grandest mountain-masses in California.

He recommends the ascent of Mount Dana as being very easy, and affording an admirable bird’s-eye view of the principal geological features of the Sierras. Mount Dana itself is a mass of slate, part of which lies in bands of bright green and reddish-brown, forming a mass of rich colour pleasant to the eye, which has been wearied by the continuous panorama of cold grey or white granite. This belt of metamorphic rock extends a long way to the north, giving a rounded outline to the summits (some of which are upwards of 13,000 feet in height) in striking contrast with the jagged peaks which chiefly distinguish the granite belt.

The latter gradually widens as it passes through Southern California, where it has a breadth of about forty miles. This is the highest part of the Sierras, some of its peaks being about 15,000 feet in height. Here lie the chief traces of the Frost King, in highly polished granite slabs, and the moraines deposited in all the valleys. On Mount Dana, also, the traces of ancient glaciers are distinctly visible at a height of 12,000 feet; and, in the gap south of the summit, there is evidence of a mass of ice fully 800 feet thick having lodged for many a long year—a chilling guest!

While each gorge and canyon had its own special ice-stream, a giant glacier appears to have passed by Mount Dana, and filled the great Tuolumne valley to a depth of fully 1000 feet—that is to say, 500 feet higher than the pass which lies between the Tuolumne river and the Tenaya lake.

By this pass the ice-lake overflowed into the Tenaya valley, where the ridges are so worn and polished by its action, that they afford slippery footing, and horses and men slide pitifully as they pick their way over the broad smooth slabs of rounded granite. At the head of Lake Tenaya there is a conical knob of granite 800 feet high, so smoothly polished by glaciers, that not a blade of grass finds a crevice in which to nestle.

While the overflow thus left its mark for all time in the Tenaya, the great glacier passed on its slow, silent way down the Tuolumne valley—an ice-river 1000 feet deep, and a mile and a half in width. Everywhere the rocks bear witness to its passage. They are grooved, and scratched, and scored by the grinding of the gravel and the rocks, crushed beneath that ponderous weight; while at other points, long parallel lines of débris lie just where the melting of their ice-carriage left them.

Professor Whitney says that this region of the Upper Tuolumne is one of the finest in the State for the study of traces of the ancient glacial system of the Sierra Nevada.

He tells how, at that part of the valley called Grand Canyon, the whole surface of the rocks, for a distance of about eighteen miles, is all glacier-polished. Just at the head of the canyon he found an isolated granite knob, rising to the height of about 800 feet above the river, beautifully polished to its very summit; and on climbing this, he obtained a wonderful view of the valley. Below him lay outspread smooth, glittering surfaces of granite, telling of a far-distant past; while above the steep pine-clothed slopes lay the great dazzling snow-fields, crowned by the Unicorn Peak and a multitude of nameless spires.

Farther up the valley he had found a granite belt, worn into many knobs, some of them about 100 feet in height, and separated by great grooves and channels worn by ice. But in general, he is chiefly struck by seeing how little effect the ice has had in shaping the land. The rough-hewing has been the work of fire and other agents, while frost has done its part chiefly in rounding and polishing the pre-existing forms.

Descending the Tuolumne canyon till he reached the beautiful Hetch Hetchy valley, he there found clear proof that the great glacier had passed through it, the rocks being all ice-grooved to a height of 800 feet above the river, while a moraine was observed fully 400 feet higher.

This has a special interest, from the fact that, in the Great Yō-semité Valley, no trace of such glacial action has been found. Apparently the magnificent amphitheatre of high mountains which formed the cradle of the Tuolumne glacier favoured the formation of so vast a body of ice, that it descended far below the line of perpetual snow ere it melted away.

On the other hand, the plateau whence springs the Merced river did not allow of the formation of a glacier sufficiently massive to reach the Yō-semité Valley, so that its course can only be traced to the Little Yō-semité above the Nevada Falls, and to the spur at the head of the valley. There it seems to have melted away; and only the quaintly perched blocks, poised on the rounded granite slabs, tell of the chill ice-river that flowed thus far and perished.

I fear these geological details may sound to you very dry, but to any one on the spot they are intensely interesting. I sometimes sit for hours on some high point overlooking the distant ranges, trying to picture the scene in remotest ages, when the Fire King was forging these mighty ribs of the earth, or when the Frost Giants held it frozen in their icy grasp.

With respect to geological periods, as in most other matters, I am inclined to think that “there is no time like the present”!

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