By Lionel Rolfe
A half century or so ago, I took a trip to the top of the Sierra, where I made the acquaintance of the fragile land of delicate meadows and lakes and dramatic ice fields and glaciers just below the jagged peaks that form the spine of the Sierra.
As I recollected my adventure, it became more and more like a dream, hyper-realistic, a place I know I could never really return to.
There is no Trans Sierra Highway that crosses the John Muir trail along the spine of peaks anchored in the south by Mt. Whitney and in the north by Yosemite. Much of that pristine land would be destroyed if there were such a road. Some years back, the freeway bureaucracy wanted to build such a road, but luckily, wiser heads prevailed.
The only way to get there is to hike in, carrying your sleeping bag and provisions. Physically I am no longer up to such a task and that means I will never see God’s country again, which makes me sad.
But in my mind, there is one moment I can not lose. It was the moment I stood next to a glacier at the top of the Sierra.
We had parked our cars at Florence Lake, the source of which is the Stanislaus River, along whose banks we’d climb to where the river begins. We slept bone tired that evening beside the Stanislaus, which at that point was racing down a narrow heavily wooded canyon with the speed and noise of a thousand steam engines. We slept among the aspen groves along the dank forest trail under the luminous stars and brightly burning falling stars.
The day had begun at the eastern side of Florence Lake after we had crossed it by ferry. We began traversing gentle oak-covered meadows pierced by jagged granite boulders. One strong memory was of arriving at the other side of the gentle meadows, and staring into the more intense forest trails ahead. At the entrance of the trail where it became forest, were beautiful, almost luminous red flowers — I don’t remember what kind. It seemed as if they were either welcoming us or warning us. Once you enter the forest, you begin a steep climb to the top.
The western slope of the Sierra gets steep near its top, but still is never anything like the sheer eastern side which rises nearly vertically from a desert floor thousands of feet below. By later afternoon, we were tired and that helped put us to sleep under the spiraling peaks and great black sky, which looks nothing like the sky you see in the cities.
In the Central Valley, the Stanislaus is a wide, meandering river that flows out of the Sierra only a few miles south of Modesto. By the time you first see it in the valley, it has been tamed by a series of dams and lakes. But near the top, it’s a raging and very loud river. Its sound dominates everything.
We awoke the next morning, walked with the glacier as an incredible backdrop. The last half mile or so to the top took us into the treeless rock basins, perpetual snow fields, and high tundra lakes and talus fans. We kept walking — pulled forward by the great glacier now towering above us nestled in a canyon jutting out between the spiny mountain peaks.
I don’t know if it really was fully a glacier. I had never been so close to a glacier. The people I was with — some of whom considered themselves veteran mountain men — told me it was a glacier left over from the last Ice Age 15,000 or so years ago. You could feel the cold radiating from it the closer you got to it. The glacier towered majestically above our heads. It was one of many glaciers at the top of the Sierra, which had sculpted Muir’s trail through the delicate flora and fauna. It was easy to imagine what the Ice Age had been like, which at times had not only carved out the tops of the Sierra and Rockies, but half the continental United States.
The connection between the glaciers and the delicate high country just below the Sierra peaks was first made by John Muir in the 1880s. It was he who postulated that the high country had been created by the way the glaciers scraped and cleared away the mountain tops, not by the tectonic grinding that is thrusting this great mountain range ever upward. Muir also was the first to take notice of the fact that there were active glaciers in the United States. And he pointed out that they were not just inert ingredients in the landscape, it was they who had landscaped the valleys and lakes and meadows over the centuries.
He said these glaciers were the tools nature used to sculpt the delicate landscape. The Sierra were created by the grinding of tectonic plates, but the valleys, lakes and meadows along the mountain tops had been chiseled out by the glaciers.
I think it was the drought that made me begin contemplating anew the Sierra high country. At first, rather idly, I began to wonder what the top of Kearsarge Pass looked like these days.
Luckily I had a friend, Bob Sipchen, the former editor of the Sierra Club’s magazine. He directed me to Tim Walker, author of a volume of photos and narrative called, “California Glaciers.”
“I have no doubt you experienced the ‘freezer, but it was not a glacier, but probably a permanent snowfield that had once been a glacier,’” Walker wrote back, “Sorry to burst your bubble (ice cube?) here, Lionel, but I think it was just a snowfield.”
And then to add insult to injury, “I hope you’re still getting out a bit!” he said.
I paused, pondered what he had said, because the snowfield I had touched towered hundreds of feet over me at the time, or so it seemed, and damn it was dramatic and cold, I didn’t really care if it were technically a snowfield rather than a glacier. I asked Walter how much of it remained.
“Oh, nowhere near as much as when you saw it,” he said.
He said the glaciers and permanent snowfields along the top of the mountain range had all shrunk “a lot, particularly in the last decade or so. I’m sure it’s way smaller. They all are.”
That made me sad, even sadder than I was at the notion I would never stand at the top of the mountains again.
In his book, Palmer leaves no doubt that while glaciers have come and gone many times in the past, this time the reason they are disappearing so quickly is man-made climate change. We can only guess at what this will mean. Maybe that TransSierra Highway will one day cross at Kearsarge Pass, and there will be a Burger King and McDonalds there as well. The glaciers will be preserved in museum models. It’s all a bit overwhelming to contemplate. I might as well retire to the parlor and drink some port and not worry about my gout and say, “to hell with it all..”
Lionel Rolfe is the author of a number of books available at Amazon’s Kindlestore.