There is a small Colorado town that masquerades, most of each year, as a down-scale suburb to a meth-and-Tea-Party-plagued low-elevation haven for refugees from the “neo”-liberal/conservative herd that infests nearby ski-industry-dominated counties. Sometime each winter though, a blizzard followed by a cold snap turns the potholed streets to ice. Like a chrysalis opening, an old-fashioned mountain town emerges, and one is best served by a good pair of felt-lined, fur-topped caribou boots until the weather changes.
A certain winter not so long ago, I found myself snowed in on the edge of town, snug as one down-and-out writer/guide-type can expect, in a 1966 Alaskan camper perched on the back of a 1971 Chevy PU (known by me and a select few for the last 27 years as “Lucy,” but that’s another story).
I’d parked the rig in a campground space while attending a WFR recertification class, and a second blizzard made sure I had ample opportunity to read a stack of old National Geographic travel books the owners had put in the laundry room. The previous summer, someone had given me a bottle of high-test booze of uncertain pedigree that tasted not bad if mixed with enough instant cocoa and hot water, so, while snow piled against the half-buried tires and blew through cracks in the Alaskan’s armor, I sat in front of an admittedly unsafe but vastly efficient propane camp heater, and whiled away several long, dark nights in misty contemplation of lands many leagues more tropical than the temporary polar zone outside. On the pages of a couple well-read copies, mountains rose in the background beyond sandy beaches, with enough barely clad nubile fauna frolicking in the foreground waves to fog up a photographer’s lens. I fell in love again, though not with any specific candidates among the nubile fauna, since experience has taught that time changes nearly everything. No, the object of my affection was an old childhood friend, the rediscovered ability to defeat winter doldrums with idle visions of unexplored paradise.
Right now I’m in another landscape, a desert that last year went through a year-long drought that had local cacti re-assessing survival strategies. As I write, the rain has been falling since yesterday morning, is predicted to last through tomorrow or the next day, and while I’m glad as all hell for my succulent friends, personally I’m dreaming of a mountain range I’ll never visit. I’ve been contemplating these mountains for a couple of days now, and here is what I see.
They are jagged (“Teton-like,” say some who’ve had longer to contemplate them than I have), young-looking as mountains go, though old enough that if they resided on the same plane as most of us, they’d likely have eroded down to stumps of themselves. As it is, they seem to have vast, unexplored frozen lakes at their bases, and glacier-carved canyons radiating from peaks where nobody has yet scribbled name, date and profound thoughts in a tattered journal, or built a cairn to say, “I was here!” to all who follow. In fact, these mountains have never been seen by humans, though “discovered” almost 60 years ago. The only visible depictions now are computer-generated models based on measurements taken from planes and from on top of the ice that buries them. They are the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains, named for a Russian scientist who thought of a new way to explore the earth’s crust, and their Alpine topography rises into the underside of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, while their roots (no shit, mountains have ’em too) extend into the earth’s mantle like the unseen base of the iceberg that made Leonardo DiCaprio a disaster chic-flick legend.
The Gamburtsevs are in the news these days because that pesky bane of the right-thinking industrial/extraction complex, science, has reared its head with some new theories on how these unseen physical features of our humble planet came to be as they are where they are, even why they are where they are, in a billion years of mountain-building and erosion processes.
OK, now that I’ve chased away all believers in the hypothesis of a 5,000-year-old-earth, along with anyone put off by the long sentence above that almost became a palindrome for a skinny-assed second there, here (close as my limited understanding of structural geology and mathematic proofs allows) is how it works. Start with several large chunks of our little planet’s crust. If you imagine the next layer of earthly material, the mantle, as a pool of hotter, denser liquid in the hot-tub shared with your favorite ever-desirably nubile and/or virile (fill in personal preference here) fauna after a long day of wintry frolic, it’ll make the next part easier to follow.
The crustal chunks, aka continents, displace enough mantle “liquid” to stay afloat, but not enough to sink, because of the difference in density — just like old Archimedes laid out in his Law of Buoyancy. If you and your imaginary friend(s) set one continent’s edge on top of another, the underneath one sinks, while the top one rises. Looking above and below the surface, you’ll see that one edge of the top continent is highest, while an edge of the bottom one sinks deepest under it. Congratulations, you’ve made the ancestral Gamburtsevs and their roots, circa one billion years ago, and created a supercontinent from two smaller ones. Earth scientists call it Gondwana. Good time for a sip of beverage, if so inclined.
Now wear away the topside for say, 800 or 900 million years, and you could have a mostly flat plain, with a ridge of remnant roots under the long-bonded continents marking the mountains’ birthplace. Then Gondwana begins to break up and causes cracks in the continent near the roots, allowing mantle liquids to warm the old Gamburtsev roots. Heat expansion, structural weakness and buoyancy help create a rift and bend the continent (I know this shit seems weird, but let’s just go with it). The bending may not break what’s left of your supercontinent in two, but it can cause one edge of the rift to sink while the edge above the ancestral roots pushes up. Have another sip, because we have now re-created the paradise of these winter contemplations.
The unfeeling cycle of seasons aboveground starts the erosion process one more time. But (and this is why the Gamburtsevs are how they are where they are today), this particular chunk of crust just happens to float into a polar region of our planet, collects a snow load that puts to shame a ski bum’s wettest dream, and then a massive glacier that would cause even a caribou to think about trekking to the tropics come next migration. Keep adding ice, time and an eventual evolution of exceptionally curious and inventive mammals who have found a way to stop fighting and work together just often enough to parlay thinking some shit up (hypotheses), investigating said hypotheses into theories, testing theories for proofs and then presenting proofs in peer-reviewed journals read by other practitioners of the ancient craft, into a way for one down-and-out writer/former-guide-type to slip through yet another round of cabin fever during our planet’s darkest season.
The sun has broken through the clouds outside my window, and is bathing the western slope of one of my favorite mountain ranges. A monolithic rock I’ve contemplated during many seasons is jutting like the prow of a ship into the golden evening light. Snowcapped peaks glow in the background as I feel the rubble-filled rift below my winter quarters absorbing the life-giving rain.
(Click away for peer-reviewed science about Antarctic rifting and the Gamburtsevs; an educated opinion using Archimedes’ and Newton’s Laws to mathematically prove that a mountain range has roots; and contemplations on using the Law of Buoyancy to fly and float [yeah, the last one is mine, but unlike a lot of peer-reviewed science, you can read it free and only buy the book if the story sucks you in])