An Evolutionist in the Evolutions
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It’s not often that you have a Google Image Search to thank for identifying the location of your next mountain trip. I teach evolutionary biology and history of science and am more dependent than I should be on Google for the images I use in the classroom.
It didn’t take long – courtesy of SP – to find out about these peaks. They are part of the Evolution Range in the High Sierra of California, on the North Eastern edge of King’s Canyon Nat’l Park. For a fabulous panoramic photo (not shot by me) taken from the summit of Mt. Spencer, one of the peaks, see here. And a rather less fabulous panorama:
The area was first explored in 1895 by Theodore Solomons, the man who was arguably more responsible than anyone else for establishing the John Muir Trail (he was a friend of Muir).
The results were six Evolution peaks. Mount Darwin (13,831’) is, appropriately enough, the highest point in the region. Mount Wallace (13,377’) is named for Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) who, along with Darwin, was the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection. History has not been kind to Wallace: while Darwin has become ever more lionized, Wallace has been condemned to the obscurity of an occasional footnote in a biology textbook. Mount Spencer (12,431’) honors Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), who gave us the term “survival of the fittest” but who tends these days to be forgotten save for his unfortunate association with “social Darwinism”, a kind of unattractive marriage of eugenics and the worst excesses of capitalism. Mount Haeckel (13,418’) lies between Mounts Darwin and Wallace, with the ridge continuing beyond Wallace to Mounts Fiske and Huxley. John Fiske (1842-1901) is the only member of the Solomons Six who has well and truly disappeared from view – I am supposedly an expert on this stuff, but had to resort to Wikipedia to track him down. He was an American philosopher who popularized Darwin’s ideas in the US, most notably in a wonderfully titled book, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy. Mount Huxley refers to T. H. Huxley (1825-95), Darwin’s most vocal defender in the debates that followed publication of On the Origin of Species. It was Huxley who in 1860 famously put down the Bishop of Oxford: "If then the question is put to me whether I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape."
Solomons also named the region’s main body of water, Evolution Lake. Subsequently, two additional peaks in the region have picked up evolution-related names. Mount Lamarck (13,147’) honors Darwin’s most influential predecessor as an evolutionary theorist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Lamarck is primarily famous for being wrong – he is the one who believed incorrectly that characteristics acquired in a lifetime (the beefy right arm of a blacksmith) could be transmitted to offspring – but, regardless, he was a pioneering and bold biological theorist. It’s only proper that he should have been added to Solomons’ evolutionary pantheon. Gregor Mendel (1822-84), the monk whose studies of pea plant breeding gave us our first coherent vision of how heredity works, wasn’t an evolutionist per se but his contributions were vital to the development of the modern theory of evolution.
Now, I have two major passions in life. The first, which, happily, pays the bills, is my interest in evolutionary biology and the history of science. The second, which more typically creates bills (usually in the form of flights to Colorado), is mountains. Sadly, the venn diagrams representing these two passions in my life do not typically overlap: one happens on weekdays and the other on weekends or vacations… Here, however, I had stumbled upon a spectacular instance of overlap…. By climbing Mounts Darwin and Wallace (Wallace is my particular hero), I would be bringing the scientific and mountain-y components of my life together. OK, so it’s a bit of a stretch, but the idea was irresistible. Moreover, it had to be 2009, the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth (and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species). The evolutionary biology community marked the occasion in the way in which academics mark occasions: with conferences at which we sit around and listen to our colleagues talk about their latest and greatest insights before, at last, the talks are over and the bar is open. In fact, I was already rather fed up with Darwin jamborees by half way through the year: every institution wanted a slice of the action -- its own Darwin event -- meaning that there was an endless round of conferences, each one attended by, give or take, the same set of usual suspects. It had all become rather repetitive. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy a good academic get together as much as the next nerd – but I had developed a desire to do something more personal, more intimate, to honor the grand old man who still towers over my field of evolutionary biology. What better way to do so than to climb Mt Darwin?
From SP and a newly acquired copy of Secor’s guidebook, I discovered that the plan wasn’t as straightforward as I’d hoped. I am a hiker, not a technical climber, and I am scared of heights. Wallace, an ugly pile of loose rock, would be fine but Darwin has its own special obstacle, its awkward summit pinnacle, complete with some reasonably serious exposure. For anyone with any climbing experience, this is no big deal, but for me, I realized, it could be a deal breaker. And I for one was not going to traipse all the way out to California from the E Coast all for the privilege of getting to within a few frustrating feet of the summit of Darwin. I needed help. Dunbar Carpenter. Dunbar, an ex-student of mine who’d graduated a year or so before, had taken a course from me in evolutionary biology, so (hopefully) he’d get the whole honoring Darwin thing, but, more importantly, he had been a leading light of the Harvard Mountaineering Club. I contacted Dunbar with the tentative suggestion that he drag his old professor up some Evolution-themed Sierra peaks. His response was to send me a copy of an article about Peter Croft’s climb in the Evolutions. One of the great N American climbs is a full traverse of the Evolution ridge, “Fisher/Gould” -> Huxley: about 8 miles, 10,000’ of elevation gain, and plenty of pitches of exposed 5.9. In 1999, Croft had succeeded on his third attempt, completing the route in 15 hours. Relative to El Capitan, Croft rated it “way, way harder.” I explained gently to Dunbar that he should reduce his expectations (by several orders of magnitude): anything that took Croft 15 hours would take me rather more than 15 days and, anyway, I would have fallen off and expired before the route got anywhere near serious. Sorry, Dunbar, this is a hiking trip, not a climbing trip. Dunbar, fortunately, was still keen: not only did the Darwin thing resonate, but he was eager to check out a part of the US mountain world he’d not spent time in before. And I guess there’s something to be said for the role reversal: the professor becomes the student, and the student the professor…
In late spring ’09, Dunbar spent a Saturday morning at Quincy Quarries putting through me through my paces on some climbing basics. I’d done some climbing before but never become remotely competent. As I clumsily rappelled off the cliff top (as a Brit, I insisted on calling it abseiling), I could almost hear Dunbar’s silent inward groan as he pondered the prospect of spending a few days in the mountains with this sack of potatoes… At least there was now absolutely no question in Dunbar’s mind about the possibility of completing even modest segments of the Croft traverse….
Next came the issue of scheduling. I spend the summer in the UK teaching a summer school program (more Darwin…) and have to head back directly to Cambridge MA for the start of the Fall semester. Dunbar was going to be out West anyway in Aug (on a Harvard Mountaineering Club trip to the Wind Rivers and Tetons) and was planning on visiting his folks in Oregon at the beginning of September. Early September it would be, then. Complicated, though. University commitments meant that I wouldn’t be able to get away until the end of the day on Fri Sept 11, and even then it was going to be awkward to reconfigure my teaching for the following week… So it would be out on the evening of Sept 11 (turns out it’s a good day to get cheap flights…), back on the red eye on Weds 16th, in time to put in an appearance, bleary and jet-lagged, in the classroom on Thursday morning.
I nearly missed my 5pm flight out of Boston on 11 Sept, as I scrambled to get things done in my office. I met up with Dunbar at LAX, we rented a cheap and extraordinarily ugly car, and headed North East-ish to Bishop. Four hours later we were checking in to one of Bishop’s most dubious motels. Then came a full morning and more of logistics: permits and bear canisters at the Parks Office in Bishop, food/fuel shopping, and picking up those odds and sods that you should have packed but hadn’t. We ended up getting to the Lamarck Lakes trailhead at North Lake rather later than we’d hoped, but now, finally, we were under way.
Strange how everything changes once you have a pack on your back. Up ‘til now, everything had simply been about getting to this point – about making it all happen – but now a whole new set of priorities and concerns loomed. Would Dunbar, about half my age, find hiking with Grandpa too wildly frustrating? Would the weather hold? It was starting off fine – a few clouds here and there – but there was a hint of thunderheads in the valley behind us. And what about the altitude? This was a major concern. Because of my time constraints, we didn’t have time to acclimatize, but I’ve had enough experience of altitude to appreciate its unpredictability. It was a gamble: possibly altitude issues would kill off the whole endeavor. I’ve had serious altitude problems before (in Pakistan) and, on a couple of occasions, run into minor problems on first arriving at altitude in Colorado. Dunbar was in the Winds a couple of weeks previously but that acclimatization would pretty well have evaporated by now; and I was coming from ...er… sea level. Starting at around 9,400’, our first objective was Lamarck col, just shy of 13,000’, and from there we would drop down into Darwin Canyon, whose floor is at about 11,600’. I was hoping that we’d be able to walk out of Darwin Canyon to Darwin Bench, from where we could drop down to a lower spot for the first night.
A bite to eat at the Lower Lamarck Lake and I took a dip; Dunbar, I discovered, is cold water averse. We picked up the excellent use trail that departs the main Lamarck Lakes trail between the two lakes and headed on up towards Lamarck Col. As we sweated our way up towards the pass, under the watchful eye of the flakey golden-yellow Paiute Crags, my worst altitude fears began to materialize in the form of that telltale headache.
The pair that made it up to Lamarck Col at around sunset was an unhappy shadow of the jaunty duo that had set off from the car a few hours earlier. At least the steep little snow field immediately below the pass hadn’t posed a problem as we could simply follow the deep groove created by a summer’s worth of Lamarck Col-ers. Nauseated and head-ache-y, we weren’t really in the mood the enjoy the glorious view laid out before us: Mounts Darwin and Mendel bathed in the last of the sun’s rays, and Darwin Canyon’s series of lakes pointing westwards towards the setting sun.
Nope, it was just a matter of getting down as fast as we could. It was dark by the time we had reached the second lake, and it was quite apparent, as we stumbled over the large boulders that formed all too often the lakes’ shores, that we were not going any further that night. My goal of sleeping rather lower – somewhere below Darwin Bench beyond the end of the canyon – was thwarted.
Having made the decision to stop, we had to find somewhere to pitch the tent. Not easy in that boulder-y, dark universe. When finally we found a site that was halfway acceptable, a new problem arose. We were using an old two man tent of mine. I’d not used it for a long while because all the backpacking I've done for the past several years has been with my offspring (two daughters) in a rather larger tent. I should (of course) have checked out the old tent before heading out… The tent itself was fine, but the elastic connecting the pole sections was utterly perished; now we had to cut out the useless, flaccid elastic from each of the 18 segments before assembling the poles, which, as we floundered around on the rocks in the dark, would then promptly fall apart in the absence of the tension imparted by the elastic… Ugh, the last thing you want to deal with at the end of a long day. Food? God, no. Sleep, but fearing the worst. I was certain that we were sleeping way too high, and that the morning would find us worse – more altitude-y – rather than better.
Wrong. Very wrong. Not a comfortable night by any measure, but we awoke to a new day and, relative to the night before, to new bodies. Both of us felt fine, if a little groggy. Yay! My worst imaginings of the night before -- having to crawl, oedema-crushed, down valley to the nearest Ranger Station -- were not to be realized. Perhaps my Darwin pilgrimage was going to fly after all. Or perhaps not: we spent 45 minutes struggling to reconfigure a key part of the tent that, we discovered, was connected to the missing elastic… But then, sun shining, on past the lakes, those huge boulders of last night now magically rather smaller when viewed by day…
We headed down on to the lovely plateau-y, lake-studded open spaces of Darwin Bench and from there dropped diagonally down (to minimize altitude loss) to the main Evolution Valley. Here we met for the first time the John Muir Trail (JMT), and after the loneliness of Darwin Canyon we had rejoined the human race, as we encountered JMT-ers making their way up and down the trail. Our first views of Evolution Lake and the region as a whole: gorgeous! Mt Spencer thrusting up like some kind of wannabe Sugar Loaf in the foreground and the great craggy buttress of Mendel-Darwin on the left.
It had only taken us a couple of hours to reach Evolution Lake (10,800'); we set up camp as soon as we could, right near the N end of the lake on a rather attractive promontory jutting into the lake. Blue skies... Maybe we should try for Wallace (the less challenging of our two target peaks) today? Now some bad news. Some other backpackers visited us as were sorting our kit and asked whether we had spoken to the Park Ranger. No. Seems a ranger had been through that morning warning people that heavy snow was forecast for that evening, starting around midnight... Ugh. Seemed that anyone who could was forsaking the region and heading to lower ground. Just what we needed... One especially dismal fellow appeared and shook his head when we mentioned that we were planning on sticking it out before returning over Lamarck col. "Several people died up there a few years ago in a storm. Hypothermia." Well, thank you for that. Oh well, nothing for it. Time to head to Wallace.
A long approach, initially on the JMT, along the shores of Evolution Lake and Sapphire Lake, crossing to the west of the drainage at the south end of Sapphire. Then a gentle ascent into a broad basin flanked by Mts Spencer to the north and Huxley to the south. I have a particular fondness for Wallace (I once wrote a book about him), so it is with regret that I have to report that Mt. Wallace is not the most impressive of peaks -- it is rather overshadowed by its spiky neighbor, Haeckel.
Alfred Russel Wallace was an extraordinary man, a self-taught naturalist who left school at 13 barely educated. His first great scientific adventure (1848-52), which took him deep in to the unexplored realms of the Amazon, ended in catastrophe when the boat he was returning to England in caught fire in the middle of the Atlantic. On board were his thousands of hard won specimens, his notes and journals, and some 30 living animals that he was hoping would help make a name for him in scientific circles in London…. All lost. In fact, Wallace had to flee the burning wreck so precipitously that his hands were rope-burned. He spent ten days at sea in an open boat before being rescued.
Wallace’s brother John had emigrated from the UK to California in 1849, lured like so many by the prospect of finding gold. Alfred, by then a revered senior scientist, visited the US on a lecture tour in 1887, and met up again with John, whom he had not seen for nearly 40 years. During this visit to California, Alfred met John Muir, with whom he visited a grove of redwoods (ie Sequoia trees). Perhaps influenced by Muir, Wallace wrote passionately and presciently on their conservation:
“Neither the thundering waters of Niagara, nor the sublime precipices and cascades of Yosemite, nor the vast expanse of the prairies, nor the exquisite delight of the alpine flora of the Rocky Mountains--none of these seem to me so unique in their grandeur, so impressive in their display of the organic forces of nature, as the two magnificent "big trees" of California. Unfortunately these alone are within the power of man totally to destroy, as they have been already partially destroyed. Let us hope that the progress of true education will so develop the love and admiration of nature, that the possession of these altogether unequalled trees will be looked upon as a trust for all future generations, and that care will be taken, before it is too late, to preserve not only one or two small patches, but some more extensive tracts of forest, in which they may continue to flourish, in their fullest perfection and beauty, for thousands of years to come, as they have flourished in the past, in all probability for millions of years and over a far wider area.”
It is wonderfully appropriate, then, that Mount Wallace lies within the joint National Parks, King’s Canyon & Sequoia.
Back to climbing Wallace. Dunbar was keen to take a gulley forming a diagonal gash across the west face, but I preferred the look of Wallace Col to the south of the peak. In this instance, at least, prof trumped student. Not that it was an especially good choice: the ascent to the col was a nasty, steep, slide-y scree field. That took us on to the main Evolution ridge that connects all these peaks – Peter Croft had come this way! -- and from there it was an easy scramble to the top. We were there by about 4. The very top is a slightly awkward boulder, which Dunbar had to help me clamber on to. I preferred to sit astride it; Dunbar was happy standing up. Photos, including a long lens shot of the summit of Darwin some mile or so distant to the North. There indeed is that nasty vertiginous summit pinnacle. A fun descent, a scree run, and we were back at the tent, hungry, shortly after 7. Everyone we met on the JMT as we descended was on their way down – seems that snow warning had done the rounds. Time then to brace for that snow. Funny to think that anything we leave outside might be buried and difficult to find again... I hadn’t even packed gaiters.
Photocopied pages of Secor in hand, we headed for the most southerly of three west face chutes before clambering out of it -- ah, a mini-cairn! How reassuring -- into the middle of the three chutes, which runs like a diagonal slash across the face. A steep haul on loose rock. We veered off near the ridge line in to a gully on the right. At the top of this Secor said we would join a "knife edge" ridge, which would take us up to the summit plateau. I was worried about this, especially after having seen for myself, on Wallace, that the region knows a bit about knife edginess...
But the ridge turned out to be fine. It was easy enough to negotiate and soon we popped out on the summit plateau. Darwin was ours! Well, not quite. Don't forget the summit pinnacle. We made our way over to the SE corner of the plateau and there it was, as advertised. At least the weather was holding. We could see tops around in cloud, but Darwin itself was unaffected. Should we pause for some food before going for the top, or should we get to the top first? Easy call: let’s get this done.
The closest, direct approach looked OK but involved a couple of short pitches of vertical almost-holdness climbing. Dunbar went to investigate, dropping off around the west side of the tower, and disappearing around the back. I waited. Suddenly his red helmet emerged on the top... For Dunbar, there were no serious issues. For me, however, there were some... I edged round and down as far as I was willing. The crux involved descending diagonally a narrow ledge some 8' long with, well, a long way to fall. Very little in the way of hand holds. Here, I announced to Dunbar, I required some protection. At least this single short pitch would provide justification for having schlepped all the climbing gear with us… I sat on the edge and waited, feeble client waiting for ever-patient guide, while Dunbar set up the protection. I hardly dared glimpse down at the dizzying plunge beyond my boot toes.
The "Darwin Awards": “In honor of Charles Darwin, the Darwin Awards commemorate those who improve our gene pool by (accidentally) removing themselves from it. The Award is generally bestowed posthumously.” Hmm. Not an award I’m keen to acquire. But I could see the headline in my mind’s eye: “Harvard Evolutionary Biologist Commemorating Darwin’s Birth Falls to Death on Mount Darwin” plus a subheading, “Natural Selection? Loser!” I had to admit that, under those circumstances, I would deserve a Darwin Award…
Dunbar put in place a couple of anchors, showed me where to place my feet, step by step, and let me get on with it. Here's SP-er Deb doing this exact move and showing how it should be done. I did things rather differently: definitely not, in my case, an elegant piece of climbing -- 'clambering' might be a better word for it -- but I made it across. That Darwin Award will have to wait! Now all that remained was the relatively straight forward climb up 30 feet or so to the top of the pinnacle. Dunbar went to the top, set up more protection, and up I went. The top of Mt Darwin!
There was no summit log that we could find. In honor of Darwin’s 200th, I left a copy of the Origin of Species. Naturally, I subscribe to leave-everything-as-you-find-it maxim of environmental impact in the wilderness but this, I felt, was a legitimate exception. Crosses at the tops of European summits are OK; and prayer flags on Himalayan peaks; why not a copy of the Origin on Mt. Darwin? [That’s a rhetorical question]. Happy 200th Birthday, Charles! It felt wonderful to be up there, an airy perch in the midst of some of the finest scenery in the world… Croft’s fantastic ridge snaked away from us towards Haeckel and Wallace.
Darwin grew up in Shrewsbury within striking distance of the mountains of N Wales. At the age of 17, he recalls in his Autobiography, he “took a long walking tour with two friends with knapsacks on our backs through North Wales. We walked thirty miles most days, including one day the ascent of Snowdon [the highest peak in England and Wales].” For much of his early scientific career, Darwin considered himself primarily a geologist, not a biologist, and it was in those same Welsh mountains that he received his geological training from his Cambridge University geological mentor, Adam Sedgwick. It was when he got home to Shrewsbury after a post-Cambridge tour of Welsh mountain geology with Sedgwick that he found awaiting him the letter inviting him to join the Beagle voyage. One location in Snowdonia that had particularly appealed to him was Cwm Idwal, and it was here that he returned, post-Beagle, in 1842 to see for himself whether the then new theory of Ice Ages – and therefore of the glacial sculpting of landscapes – was sound. He was easily convinced, writing “a house burnt down by fire did not tell its story more plainly than did this valley,” and marveling at his failure, eleven years prior, to recognize the telltale signatures of glacial action on the landscape. The sad aspect of this return to Wales is that it gives us a chance to calibrate the impact of Darwin’s ill health on his physical activity. Whereas in 1826, he could cover with ease 30 rough miles in a day, he was barely able in 1842 to make it up 1000’ of vertical gain. Whatever it was – and the causes of Darwin’s mystery illness remain a hotly debated point in the history of science – it marked the end of Darwin’s mountain days.
The summit block of Mt Darwin was big enough to give us plenty of space to move around – some pics and an almost surreal sense of achievement. Here we were, less than 48 hours after leaving the trailhead, having, despite the headaches of altitude (literal in this case) and the threatened snowstorm, made it up both our target peaks. Now for the business of getting down. To spare me that nasty pitch, Dunbar set up an abseil for me, so that I could drop off the direct route, facing the summit plateau. Possibly the most inelegant descent ever, but it was something of a thrill to abseil off Darwin (arguably everyone who calls themselves an evolutionary biologist is symbolically abseiling off Darwin because of the way his thinking continues to dominate the field...). Lunch on the plateau. We found the summit log book and the official US Geological Survey marks for the top; bit of a cop out, that, not placing them on the actual summit.
I don’t have especially fond memories of the descent. We returned the way we had come up, sliding down the long, loose gully towards the lake. This time we were down at a reasonable hour, around 5, with time for what might optimistically be called a refreshing swim in Evolution Lake. I can’t say I have especially fond memories of that either. Brrrr. But it was a good evening: ample time, as we watched the sunset paint the hills orange, to savor our triumph.
Having done what we set out to do rather sooner than we had expected, Tuesday was essentially a rest day. We took the morning to climb a slabby hill on the opposite side of the lake from the Mendel-Darwin massif, giving us handsome views into the heart of Darwin (Mt Darwin, that is...).
Then we packed up and headed back to Darwin Canyon, arriving in rather different circumstances (and state of mind) from before... We found a fine campsite at the head of the top-most of the main string of lakes. We were positioned just below Lamarck col, our destination once more on Weds morning.
And then it was down, down, down... It can't have taken us much longer than a couple of hours to cover the territory -- in the reverse direction -- that had been so brutal on Saturday. North Lake, we discovered, is popular with fishermen who drive there and sit there inertly all day; we spoiled their peace and quiet by doing our best to wash off the sweat and soil of the past few days in their lake...
Lunch in Bishop and a stop at the Parks Office to return their bear canisters and to re-sort all our gear in their hot, hot parking lot. Not a bad drive back down south, though – surprise! -- we hit traffic on the LA freeways. The red-eye was an hour and half late leaving and was full, every seat (aren’t they always?). Not the most relaxing of ways to get back to Boston... but, having said goodbye to Dunbar (*thank you*, Dunbar. The perfect companion on the hill) at the airport, I was in my office by 9am. And then it was straight back into the swim of my normal life. Within an hour, despite that dry-sticky rumpled feel that you’re left with after the red eye, Darwin-Wallace-Lamarck and Theodore Solomons had dwindled. Those few days were such a departure from my regular existence that they seemed almost other worldly. That’s why, just a little more than a year on, I’ve decided to post this sprawling not-quite TR – to record an exhilarating few days in which my life’s two venn diagrams, evolution and mountains, did indeed converge. Happy 200th (well, now 201st), Charles!