No alarm was set this morning. I cracked an eyelid at sunrise, rolled over, and went right back to sleep.
Around 9:00, I lit the stove for piping hot, properly-dissolved coffee. I sipped it while still in my sleeping bag. I lit the stove again when I wanted to rewarm it half-way through.
We left camp at 10:30. Compared to the last 8 mornings, this day’s pace felt like pure hedonism.
We strolled along the trail, relaxed from the exhaustion that nested in our bones, relaxed from the comprehensive release from any pressure at all. We switchbacked down down down down, pausing at breaks in the trees to spot waterfalls in the escarpment across Bomber basin.
At 12:30 we stopped for lunch beside Torrey Creek, although I’d been calling it Bomber Creek, and quite liked that name better. It was a gorgeous grassy meadow, deeply shaded on the bank, and the flowing water was bewitching. I’d have been perfectly happy to set up camp again, if I wasn’t so keen for a shower and superstitious about the car starting. As we helped ourselves to whatever of our remaining food we wanted (we still had an extra day’s stingy rations in case we’d been weather-bound) Prana pulled out the blue bag he’d picked up from the trail.
“I wonder if this is any good,” he said as he shook it. “It looks pretty new. Like someone must have dropped it not long before we came through.” He squinted at the back, and shrugged. “100% cheese, it says.” I started giggling. “I guess it fell from the moon.”
When he popped one in his mouth, nodded, and dug for a second, I lost it, and we both dissolved into uncontrollable laughter. Turns out moon cheese is freeze dried cheese cubes. Astronaut cheese. Delish.
After a leisurely hour and a half lunch, we resumed the ever-widening, ever-more-civilized trail, limestone cliffs appearing, and then reddish sandstone. We crossed a massive bridge over a deep entrenchment of the Torrey Creek, a bizarrely straight funneling. Perhaps another fault?
The gap of the road and parking area spread below. We reached the car, pulled out the keys, and sighed with contentment into clean clothes and flip flops we’d packed for the drive home. But I didn’t want it to be over! I’d only wanted a slow day like today so I could process and rest; now I was ready for more! More would just have to wait until the next trip.
We bumped back to the pavement with no trouble at all, the air warm and thick with oxygen down here at 6,000 feet. By late afternoon we were back at home, cracking cold beers and taking turns in the shower.
I fired up my laptop and started researching. So many questions! I read and followed different rabbit holes that branched and converged and twisted back upon themselves, and sent a couple of emails for things I couldn’t quite pin down on my own. Here are some things that I learned.
Glaciers are changing rapidly. That’s a big duh. But how they are changing is…interesting. I learned the standards: the types of moraines, advance and recession, and how shear stresses produce the crevasses. I learned that snow falls and starts to compress under its own weight: this is the névé. The compression pushes the crystals together, squeezing air pockets out from between the crystals as they merge. Blue glacial ice is more or less one giant crystal with no air pockets, and can take years to fully consolidate. The stage in between the névé and the ice is very compact, frozen snow or softish ice, with huge granules: this is called firn. The firn is an important factor in glacier recession, as the firn layer not only becomes the blue ice, but shields the blue ice beneath it; glaciers with their protective firn layer melted away liquefy at a much, much faster rate. One high-cost benefit of the firn being gone is all crevasses are laid bare, unconcealed; leaving a very high level of certainty of travel for the non-technical backpacker.
I learned about another glacial feature I hadn’t heard of before: a moulin. Moo-lawn. French for “mill,” like the title of one of my favorite movies. The milling action, created by meltwater draining, leaves behind a more or less cylindrical main shaft that can extend all the way to the bottom of the glacier. To the bedrock. Yikes. I started clicking through pictures: they could be anything from tiny pinpricks, to giant, yawning portals, although the giant ones were linked to entire lakes draining, an event fantastically and Icelandically named jökulhlaup (yo-KOOL-lahp). Often they formed where they could exploit a crack that already existed, but they could establish themselves anywhere water flowed; and were therefore less predictable year-to-year than crevasses. Then I opened a journal article that made me sweat. Apparently, new studies had revealed that unprecedented high temperatures were causing unprecedented moulin formation. Small ponds were accumulating and mimicking, on a tiny scale, the jökulhlaups. The researchers had observed, on really hot days, how a new moulin could establish itself in the course of hours. And the kicker? The way these melt patterns worked, the moulins could appear beneath the firn layer without visually affecting it: their mouths could open to the surface while still concealed from it. Well. So what was that dark footprint, really? I wished now I’d stayed calm enough to do a little more cold, detached, scientific investigating. I had a lot more investigating to do if I hoped to tour the glaciers before they were gone.
More reading turned up an entire eco system of organisms living on and in and melting out of the ice, and bouncing around in tiny moss universes known as glacier mice. Bacteria, cyanobacteria, ice algae, archeas, fungi, springtails (or snow fleas), ice worms, nematode worms, and…tardigrades. Oh my god. I’d only ever heard of them in the quantam realm of Antman, and so assumed they were made up. But tardigrades are real? They are, and are also known as water bears. This discovery made me very, very happy. It also made me realize I should probably filter my glacier water. I pictured the inside of my digestive tract looking like the quantam realm of Antman.
And finally, the prints I’d puzzled over were not, in fact cat prints. I’d looked closer on the bigger screen, and though it appeared like there were 5 toes, I thought it was because so often two prints were partially overlapped. Which itself was also strange; I’m hardly an expert, but I’d seen plenty of big cat prints around watering holes in Utah , even followed them for miles on sandy trails, and had never observed a gait like this. Then in one of the photos I noticed several single prints…that still each had 5 toes. I sent a text, googled, sent another text, then sent an email to confirm. If a friend’s suspicion was correct, I would wish I had taken the time to put my spikes on, step carefully down, and touch the frozen prints, the perfect ice casts of improbability. Within a few hours a definitive answer landed: gulo gulo. A wolverine had padded across the snow above our camp, likely in the evening as we’d sat watching the sky, perhaps stopping to watch us, perhaps catching a whiff of pasta on the air. “You were experiencing the mountains just like a wolverine!” the confirming email cheered. I bounded laps around our tiny studio apartment in delirious, soul-healed joy.