Tuesday, August 20

Of Mountains and Mars Bars


“The mountains are calling and I must go” is a familiar line by preservationist Jon Muir to all Americans. Muir, as much he adored the American west and wildlife, would have also fallen in love with these, the alps of Switzerland. The story of the mountains have an effect as grandeur as the carvings they create but yet have much humble beginnings. In order to have a river, one must have a trickling stream. This KISC Eco Blog will explore the mountains, snow and avalanches of the Alps compared to that of my home in the western North America.
                While they stand lifeless, all mountains start with explosive beginnings. The Alps themselves were formed over 50 million years ago when the African tectonic plate slammed into the Eurasian plate. Think of it as two candy bars, Africa in this example being an old fashion Snickers and Europe a Mars bar. Africa’s strong nuggety and peanut mass is not match for Europe’s soft inner. As they collide, the Snickers apply more force and bend the Mars bar northerly. That is why most of the North Faces in the Alps, such as the Eiger, are notoriously steep. Unlike the candy bars though, the Eiger lacks a sugery core, instead igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rock. Much less delicious indeed, but important in the start of our culinary allegory.

                While the mountains, or candy bars, might differ little from continent to continent, it is the snow that is truly the different factor. Snow in this case is the sugar or frosting we will throw on top of our candy bar. The white sugary mass in my native home of Interior Alaska is just that, like sugar. Lacking lots of water in the snow crystals, the snow at home is very dry and is much like pouring sugar on the Mars-Snickers collision. Sugar snow does not bond together and creates sluff or loose snow avalanches, similar to sand dunes. This snow creates smaller avalanches that are less destructive. This differs from the snow in the Swiss Alps around Kandersteg that create slab avalanches. Because of more water from the nearby Mediterranean ocean, the snows in the Alps stick together like frosting. Also like cooled frosting, its creates slabs, or chucks that break away at the top of the mountain, bringing thousands of pounds of snow, ice, debris and none happiness to the valleys below. These are much more large and violent but is the reason why the Swiss protect with constant surveillance, snow fences, and manually triggered avalanches. It may look pretty, but the frosting is not delicious when it comes down on top of your head.
                We finally come towards the closing but the most important part of our mountain and candy adventures. Glaciers.
Glaciers are moving rivers of ice built up overtime over time by consolidating and melting snow. Lets take those Mars and Snickers bars, and in the middle of the folds poor lots of frosting. Heat and cool the frosting repeatedly, let gravity take control and let bake for a few 1000 years. The glacier of frosting slowly start to carve out the sides of valleys and into what are called U-shaped Valleys, much the Gastental here in Kandersteg or Yosemite Valley in California, United States.

This differs from V-Shaped valleys that are carved out my rivers. Like poring milk down our candy bars, it is less ground moved on the whole, like the Ueshental where our KISC upper hut is located.

                The similarities and differences between the KISC mountains and that of my home are diverse yet on the whole not at all. I beg all to pick up their rucksack, a good pair of boots and maybe a few Mars Bars, and explore the mountain ecology around Kandersteg. They are something that never visually dull with time, yet physically speaking, do. To sum, American author Normal Maclean said that “eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the worlds great flood and runs over the rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops.” Timeless like the mountains in my life.

Tad (US)
STS Summer 2013

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