Tuesday, December 30, 2008

McNeil Point Travels

On August 26th 2008 we undertook the long haul up McNeil Point on Mount Hood. From the Top Spur trailhead this is a 3000 foot elevation gain with about 5.5 miles distance to a viewpoint above the glacier. An exceedingly steep shortcut taken on the way back drops about a thousand feet in only around a half mile. In the process it saves about a mile and a half distance. We added another mile or so hiking out to the Bald Mountain viewpoints in the waning light.

The trail passes through several miles of mature but not ancient woods. At first the forest is a typical late seral tall Northwest rainforest. Fire has kept this area from developing a truly old growth condition.


A few interesting plants gave some interest during this portion of the tour.

Drippy Fungus

This fungus is covered with strange droplets of liquid. This is not dew - the how and why of the droplets is unknown to me. It grows perched on the side of a large fir. Only one was spotted.


Merten’s Purple Coralroot

The coralroot orchid bloomed away in the deep woods. Leafless and without the chlorophyll of most plants, this herb gathers all of its nutrients from decaying forest duff.

High Up McGee Creek

The trail crosses high up the many branches of McGee and Elk Creeks. Cold springs create the creek and the wet meadows which intersect the trail. The water and the wet meadows appear on the steep bank behind this view; forest covers everything uphill from the springs.

Spring-fed Meadows Along the Trail

Paintbrush, buttercup, and shooting star among others were growing in the soggy soil.

Climbing along the sometimes steep ridge path a point is reached where the forest quickly changes. The trees become only half the size of the lower elevation forest just below. Snow creep - the winters slow movement of the snowpack downhill - has made most of the trees bent, especially at the base, but sometimes higher too.

An Aberrant Rhododendron

Cascades Azalea

Cascades Azalea is an atypical member of the rhododendron clan. Unlike most rhodies or azaleas it blooms from buds formed along last years shoots rather than at the shoots tip. Consequently its been threatened with transfer to some other genus. It becomes common in the mid-elevation shrubfields and forests of our mountains. Not actually a member of the Azalea subsection of the genus, its so unlike a typical Rhododendron that the azalea name gets slapped on.

Glacial Outwash Events

As we climbed onto the high shoulder of Bald Mountain, the views opened up to the mountain and into the Muddy Fork of the Sandy River valley. The broad valley floor was created by both glacial debris flows and volcanic ejecta.

The last substantial eruption of Mount Hood was a little over 200 years ago, just before the journeys of Lewis and Clark took them past the mouth of the Sandy River on the mighty Columbia. Those intrepid explorers took note of the fact that the route of the Columbia was forced North against the far bank away from the Sandy River delta because of the huge outpouring of sandy grit. They named the Sandy from this phenomena, and to this day the Columbia skirts North around the shallow broad delta formed by the deposition from the much smaller Sandy River.

Glacial outwash events are frequent on Mount Hood - and recent. The last one from the Sandy Glacier was only five years ago, and the effects were widespread and dramatic.

Muddy Fork Outwash Plain 2008

There were no witnesses to this event. Deep snow was on the mountain in the Winter of 2002-03 and few hardy travelers come high enough on this side of Mount Hood to view the upper valley of the Muddy Fork. Snow just after may have quickly hidden the evidence too. And no roads cross the valley high enough for passers-by to notice, and access roads up the canyon are closed in winter. The following summer exposed miles of deposition along the valley floor.

The photo here of Old Maid Flats and higher reaches of the Muddy Fork valley shows miles of extensive deposition of rock from gravel up to truck-sized boulders. The beginnings of this event were beneath the Sandy Glacier high above on the flanks of the mountain. At an elevation around 6500 feet (2000 meters) occurred the most likely scenario: a subglacial lake formed, ponding sufficient water, which subsequently was rapidly released. The upper section below the glacier is extremely steep, with two waterfalls and a 2500 foot (760 meters) drop in only a mile (1.61 km). The velocity this initial drop provided was able to distribute the large amount of stone over the next 2.5 miles (4 km) of valley and more.

Of course that first mile was scoured out of any loose material and probably much bedrock as well. After dropping 2000 feet, the grade lessens and the torrent began tearing into deep deposition from previous outwash events. I am uncertain of the previous depth of the stream channel; after this event a huge vertical sided chasm up to one hundred feet deep and more across was formed. The flow at least at first overtopped that and deposition occurred in relatively speaking small amounts. After another 500 drop the ground became less steep again; the depth of the channel lessens and more deposition than cutting became the rule. Still, large sections of forest were rubbed away and the flood entered two old channels, dead-ending amid a jumble of two and three foot thick firs. In the lower section of the debris flow erosion ceased and rather than removing forests the outwash buried and killed them instead.

A Punctured Glacier

This view of the blown-out snout of the gravel covered Sandy Glacier from 2003 is difficult to read for scale. This is a telephoto shot; the trees in the apparent foreground are around fifty feet high; they are also easily a thousand or 1200 feet from the glacier. This means the opening may be two hundred feet across. Note also the small opening just above the trees.

The Punctured Sandy Glacier 2003

The Ice Cave

The Hollow Sandy Glacier

The passageway continues hundreds of feet uphill under the dirty grayish ice of the glacier before being exposed by some collapsed ceiling. Its unknown if the opening continues farther up. A stream of meltwater falls into the big hole in the glacier, and a much bigger stream exits at the snout. The area in the upper left between two snow patches is the location of the collapsed glacier. Here the glacier is punctured ceiling to floor.

High Mountain Ponds

The trail passes small meltwater pools, filled with tannic cold water and possessing no outlets except at highest peak inflow. These are located on a bench at about 5600 feet (1700 meters) elevation. These remain visible through much of the climb to McNeil Point.

Mountain Pool

The trail here is confusing. If you follow the official trail you miss these attractive waterbodies. If you visit them on the well-established trails, and avoid backtracking to the official trail, you end up with a bit of bushwacking. All and all I always opt for the bushwack. Its just plain more scenic and entertaining. Cross the ridge above the ponds and veer right to the main trail.

The Fin

The Fin

Between the two lobes of the Ice Age Sandy Glacier a remnant fin of rock stands. With the ice retreated far uphill the narrow, leaning object still stands. For scale, the trees in the picture near the feature stand a hundred feet high. And yes, there are stunted trees atop the fin too.

High Mountain Gardens

The high mountain areas of Mount Hood are a great place to study the forces of nature and their expression in the ecology of the region. Trees reach the limits of their growth, and the great, dense forests of the Pacific Northwest give way to banks of heather and natural perennial gardens of great beauty.

Snow, Boulder, and Blossom

Here in a valley below our irregular treeline are interlaced snowfields, boulders, lupine and heather. Trees are eliminated by the deep, late melting snow. There is too little time for tree seedlings to establish here. They will higher up where the mountain winds blow some of the snow away into the valleys. Our treeline is established by length of the growing season after snowmelt, not by cold.

Our native heathers prefer dryer, poorer soils and are tough evergreens. This is an advantage in this short season area. They photosynthesize as soon as exposed to the summer light. The lupines along side them must sprout and grow from their perennial rootstock. The lupines have their own set of advantages. Taller than the heathers, they fix nitrogen though a symbiotic relationship with fungi, enriching the soil and encouraging other flowers. It is actually rare to see heathers and lupine interlaced like this, as the lupines create conditions that lead to the demise of the heathers. Over time as the soils improve the lupines and the meadows they help create will dominate.

Slow Changes in the Meadows

With the climate warming there is less snowpack and that throws the ecological balance in favor of the trees. Starting back in the 1930’s many long-established high mountain meadows have been invaded by trees, shrinking or eliminating the flowery meadowland.

A Few Trees Struggle to Grow in a Glacial Basin

Here in the deep glacial McGee Creek basin, a few scrawny firs are the only ones for quite a distance. As they slowly grow they will capture snow on their lengthening branches, where it can evaporate and never reach the ground. In this way they slowly make it possible for more of their kind to establish, at least in the driest years.

Red Mountain Core

This late afternoon shot shows The Red Shaft on Mount Hood.

The Red Shaft Above the Sandy Glacier

This stratovolcano is the result of many eruptions which resulted in rock of many colors and ages. One major eruption left behind a vertical stretch of red stone now at the center of the West side of the mountain. Most of the rockfall covering the Sandy Glacier is from the Red Shaft. Rock from other eruptions are gray to black and generally more dense than the light red cinder.

Glisan Glacier

Glisan Glacier

The Glisan is one of the lesser glaciers on Mount Hood; its crevasses are comparatively few but always present. It is lower in elevation than most but is North facing. It is also short. Most of its basin has been abandoned by the glacier, and is a boulder-strewn fellfield with little vegetation.

Wind Timber

This snow skirt found above the mountain treeline testifies to the brutality of the high mountain environment. Formed from a single Alpine fir, its shrubby shape is determined by winter snowpack and blowing grit and snow.

Snow Skirt

Rainbow Circle in the Fog

Rainbow Fog

A final curiosity: with the fog swirling in and out we caught a shot of a circular rainbow in the mist. Whenever water droplets are exposed to sun, you have the chance of a rainbow. In the picture my head and shoulders are circled by not just one but two round rainbows. Somehow the shadow creates the conditions necessary for the rainbow to form. I’ve seen this at waterfalls where concentrated spray will show a round rainbow around the shadow of your head.