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François Matthes and the Marks of Time: Yosemite and the High Sierra by François E. Matthes (1962)


Familiar to all who have visited the Tuolumne Meadows, and transcending perhaps all other mountain groups overlooking that campers’ paradise in spectacular beauty and monumental dignity, are the pinnacled and spired peaks of Unicorn, Echo, and Cathedral. Each has its own individuality, striking and unforgettable, each is wholly different from the others, yet all are notably alike in one respect: their frail minarets and splintered crests stand planted upon full-bodied mountains of great bulk, all rising to approximately the same height; they seem like delicate super-structures, specially added for the sake of ornamentation. Indeed, they recall the slender turrets and spires on certain ponderous cathedrals of Old Europe.

The significance of this peculiar style of mountain architecture, which is not prevalent in the Sierra Nevada, has been hinted at by more than one writer. Muir and Chase both have suggested that the sharp pinnacles and crests may be summits that were never overridden by the ice of the Glacial Epoch; that stood out above even the highest ice-floods and escaped being planed down and rounded off as were the massive shoulders of the mountain pedestals under them. This explanation, though only conjectural, was eminently reasonable, and it is a genuine satisfaction, now that the region has been submitted to a systematic and detailed study, to be able to confirm its correctness and to corroborate with positive and abundant evidence the surmise of these two keen and perceptive observers.

However, the matter is not so simple as it at first may seem. In Muir’s day glacial science was in its infancy, and no man had as yet that perspective of the succession of ice-ages and intervening epochs of milder climate which the world-wide research of the last two decades has made known to us. To Muir and his contemporaries the Glacial Epoch still seemed a single, uninterrupted cycle of glacial conditions that slowly reached a climax, like an oncoming tide, and then slowly waned, the glaciers making many repeated but progressively feebler re-advances, like the waves of an out-going tide. Today we know that the Glacial Epoch, so-called, really consisted of several prolonged ice-tides separated by equally prolonged intervals, during each of which the continental ice-sheet and the lesser ice-bodies on our western mountain ranges shrank back to their sources and perhaps vanished altogether.

In the Sierra Nevada indications of at least two great ice-floods have been clearly recognized by several observers—two ice-floods that occurred manifestly at widely different times, the later culminating probably only twenty thousand years ago, the earlier, perhaps as much as several hundred thousand years ago.1 The evidence is the more readily established as the later ice-flood was the smaller and less extensive of the two and left undisturbed the moraines—that is, the ridges of ice-carried rock debris—that mark the limits of the earlier ice-flood. In no part of the Sierra Nevada have these facts been ascertained with more precision than in the Yosemite region and the High Sierra immediately above it. Thus it is now definitely known that the later ice-flood invaded the Yosemite Valley only as far as the Bridalveil Meadows, whereas the earlier ice-flood advanced eleven miles farther down the Merced Canyon, coming to a halt a short distance beyond El Portal.

It will be clear from this that there must be from the Bridalveil Meadows upward throughout the Yosemite region and adjoining the High Sierra not one but two “ice-lines,” each marking the culmination of an ice-flood. The pursuit of these two ice-lines up towards the crest of the range was, indeed, for the better part of two seasons the writer’s most engrossing occupation. He traced them in detail and mapped them along the length of the Yosemite, up through the Little Yosemite and the upper Merced Basin and all its tributary canyons, and also up through Tenaya Canyon and the great Tuolumne Basin and its tributary canyons. The result, it may be said, was to him, as glacialist, a genuine surprise. The two ice-lines, which in the lower Yosemite lie several thousand feet apart in altitude, were found to approach each other as they ascend the range and ultimately to coalesce at its crest. One might reasonably have expected the extensive and deep ice-fields and glaciers of the earlier epoch to have come from a Sierra crest completely domed over with smoothly sloping, unbroken

snow-fields, and the relatively modest ice-stream of the later epoch to have flowed forth from cirques filled only to moderate depth, and partitioned from one another by bare rock crests and “arêtes” rising high above the ice; but, curiously, it appears that the snow conditions along the Sierra crest were substantially the same in both epochs. The snows that fed the vast glaciers of the earlier epoch filled the summit cirques to no greater depth than did the snows that formed the smaller glaciers of the later epoch. The significance of this remarkable coincidence need not be here discussed—it would lead too far afield; suffice it for our purpose that the fact has been established.

A few figures will help to give more definiteness to one’s conception of the relation of the two ice-lines. The later Yosemite Glacier ended at the Bridalveil Meadows at an altitude of 3900 feet, but the lateral moraines left by the earlier ice-stream on either side of the Yosemite chasm lie 2700 feet above this spot. At the head of the valley the later glacier attained a depth of about 1500 feet, but the lateral moraines of the earlier glacier still lie 2400 feet higher. Within the next few miles the two ice-lines converge with remarkable rapidity. In the Little Yosemite, for instance, they are only 600 feet apart. There the later ice rose within 100 feet of the top of Moraine Dome, but the earlier ice passed over it with a depth of over 500 feet. Opposite Lake Merced the difference in altitude between the two ice-lines dwindles to 400 feet, and thence upward, to the ultimate source of the glacier under Mount Lyell, the difference steadily decreases until it becomes a vanishing quantity.

Following the ice-lines up through Tenaya Canyon, they are found to be 2100 feet apart in altitude opposite Half Dome. That rock monument was engulfed by the earlier ice up to within 700 feet of its summit, but even the foot of its great cliff rose 800 feet above the surface of the later glacier. At the head of Tenaya Canyon the earlier ice rose only 900 feet higher than the later ice, and still farther up, on the divide between the Tenaya and Tuolumne basins, the two ice-lines are only 400 feet apart. In the great upper Tuolumne Basin, which held an ice-field embracing 140 square miles, the earlier and later ice-floods differed only 200 feet in level, as is to be inferred from the two ice-lines on Ragged Peak. And on the Cathedral Range, which was in large measure the generator of this immense ice-field, being the great hedge behind which the wind-blown snows accumulated, the difference was least of all. From Cathedral Peak eastward to Mount Lyell it lessened by degrees until at length it became insignificant.

The figures are but a very few out of many scores determined by the writer on both ice-lines. Indeed, the total number of determinations made was large enough to enable him to construct a contour map of each ice surface. These contour maps, he is happy to say, have furnished excellent proof of the mutual concordance and consistency of the data.

The group of pinnacled mountains, it will be clear from the foregoing, stands in a region where the two ice-floods reached substantially the same height. Most of the work of paring away the sides of the pinnacles and crests was done by the earlier ice-flood, which was the one of greater duration, but the later ice-flood undoubtedly did much to accentuate the effect produced by the first. It is a significant fact that farther down on the Sierra flank, where the ice-lines diverge widely in altitude, and where the fluctuations in level of each of the floods no doubt were of considerable amplitude, no attenuated pinnacles or crests rising abruptly from ice-rounded mountains are to be found.

In Greenland, which is one of the few parts of the earth even now under the dominion of the ice, an Ekimo word is commonly used to designate those barren rocky summits that protrude here and there above the rapidly descending glaciers forming the fringes of the vast and otherwise continual glacial mantle. That word is nunatak. Physiographers throughout the world have adopted it as a technical term for rocky summits rising above surrounding ice-sheets and glaciers. The pinnacles and crests of the Cathedral Range might, therefore, be referred to as former nunataks. But the appropriateness and desirability of so styling them are, in the writer’s opinion, open to question.

For one thing, it must be borne in mind that the pinnacles and crest were not the only summits of the Cathedral Range, nor of the entire High Sierra, that remained uncovered by the ice. There were many larger and more massive summits of varying shapes and designs, and even occasional plateau-like tracts. Only half a mile to the southwest of Unicorn Peak, for instance, stands a massive peak of blunted, pyramidal form (still unnamed, although higher than Unicorn) that rose several hundred feet above the ice. Parsons Peak and the broad-topped mountain (still unnamed) northeast of Vogelsang Pass are examples of elevated plateaus that remained emergent. Surely no one would think of placing these in the same class with the attenuated crest of Unicorn Peak, the triangular teeth of Echo Peak, or the ethereal spires of the Cathedral. “Former nunatak” might do in a generic and vague sense for all of them, but there is clearly need of a distinctive term for the more fragile, evanescent forms.

Cockscomb Crest, the most magnificent of all the sharply attenuated crests that indicate the highest level reached by the ice in the High Sierra. By François Matthes
[click to enlarge]
Cockscomb Crest, the most magnificent of all the sharply attenuated crests
that indicate the highest level reached by the ice in the High Sierra. By
François Matthes

What is more, there is need, it seems to the writer, of a term from the Sierra Nevada itself, if possible from the locality where the type is found in its purest form.

Now, as a matter of fact, neither Unicorn, Echo, nor Cathedral represents a “pure type” of mountain sculpture. In each the paring effect of the ice is somewhat obscured or even outweighed by other influences, either by the headward gnawing of local cirque glaciers or by peculiarities of the structure of the rock. When closely analyzed each is found to present a rather complex case. But fortunately there are in the same neighborhood three other peaks or crests each of which might well be taken as a type example.

The first of these is that narrow, linear, bladelike crest southwest of the Cathedral Pass and overlooking Long Meadow, which has been aptly named Columbia’s Finger. On the topographic map the name is misplaced, and as a consequence there has arisen some confusion as to the identity of the feature to which it is supposed to refer. The writer himself is willing to admit some uncertainty on his own part, but, if form be the main criterion—and it certainly should be in a case of this sort—then the name surely belongs to the crest just mentioned. For that crest terminates southward in a tall, columnar rock pinnacle that seems to point heavenward like a slender, tapering finger. It is especially impressive when viewed endwise, from the direction of Long Meadow, and doubtless it was named by someone who traveled through that flat on his way to Soda Springs. The case is parallel to that of Unicorn Peak, which was named unquestionably by someone in the Tuolumne Meadows, and whose crest does not resemble a pointing horn except when viewed endwise, from one particular direction.

The second crest in question rises a scant mile to the north of Columbia’s Finger, and is of exactly the same narrow, linear type. It even duplicates the latter’s terminal pinnacle, but only in what, by contrast, might be called a “stubby thumb.” More perfectly modeled even than Columbia’s Finger, this crest eloquently tells its story—one wonders that it should still be without a name.

The third crest is a much more imposing feature than either of the foregoing. Rising abruptly from a long-drawn ridge as even-topped as the roof of a house, about a mile south of the Unicorn, it attracts the eye at once by its wonderful symmetry and the supreme boldness of its design. Seen endwise it seems but a narrow blade, springing almost without transition from the broad mountain under it. From certain directions it is suggestive of the upper half of an ornamental “fleur-de-lis,” but from most view points it resembles nothing so much as a splendidly sculptured, gigantic cockscomb. Indeed, it stands planted upon the ice-smoothed ridge as a cockscomb surmounts the proud head of a cock.

The appropriateness of the name Cockscomb may be judged from the photograph on page 81. The writer does not claim to be a connoisseur in poultry; nevertheless, he believes that the likeness to a lobate cockscomb is fairly close— as close as one might expect to find in a piece of mountain sculpture.

Last summer it was the writer’s pleasure to accompany a party from the Sierra Club under the leadership of Mr. Colby across the Cathedral Range by the natural pass above Elizabeth Lake, and into the country at the headwaters of Echo Creek, where the Cockscomb stands. He took that occasion tentatively to submit to those present the name Cockscomb, and was gratified to find it meet with general approval. And so, with additional confidence, he now submits it to the entire membership.2

There is a special advantage in the adoption of the name that is worth pointing out. Not only is the appelation Cockscomb apt because it is descriptive of the form of this crest, but it would also be an extremely convenient generic term for the designation of all similarly sculptured crests—of all crests such as those previously described, which owe their attentuated linear forms to the paring action of the ice that split upon them and passed on either side without overwhelming them. It would admirably serve the physiographer’s needs as standing for the type of mountain sculpture of which the beautiful crest under discussion is the finest example known.

In conclusion, a word anent the desirability, the urgency even, of the members of the Sierra Club giving serious thought to the bestowal of appropriate names upon those peaks, lakes, and other prominent landmarks within the Yosemite National Park which are as yet unnamed. The next few years doubtless will see a tremendous influx of tourists and pleasure-seekers into the higher portions of the park, more especially into the Tuolumne Meadows and the Lake Merced neighborhood. That influx, indeed, has already set in, as all those of us who camped with the Sierra Club at Soda Springs last summer have had ample opportunity to see for ourselves. One inevitable result will be the proposal of names for all such features of the landscape as are of especial popular interest and still without names on the map. That this naming is likely to be mostly haphazard and ill-considered is almost a foregone conclusion—one need but visit a tourist resort where the naming has been left largely to the public and the guides. We of the Sierra Club, it seems to the writer, owe it to the glorious mountain country that is so dear to us to forestall such a fate for its landmarks. As it is, some of them already bear names that are distinctly inappropriate or even objectionable.

The writer ventures to make this suggestion, although he is by no means certain that Cockscomb Crest, the name proposed by him, will stand. It is still to be acted upon, first by the Sierra Club as a whole, and second by the United States Geographic Board. But he cherishes the hope that in any event his proposal will stimulate interest in the duty before us—and it is plainly a duty—of finding suitable names for the features of the High Sierra.

Reprinted from Sierra Club Bulletin, January, 1920, pages 21-28.

1See footnotes on pages 114 and 156.—Ed.

2The name “Cockscomb Crest” now appears on the topographic map of Yosemite National Park.—Ed.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management