Sunday, December 29, 2013

Crossing the Main Divide at Arthur's Pass

Arthur's Pass, New Zealand (May 31, 2008)

The Main Divide parts the Pacific coast of New Island from the western coast facing the Tasman Sea. It is mostly impassable, due to the high mountains and glaciated valleys of the Southern Alps. Unless you can hitch a ride on Gwaihir, or take a detour through Khazad-dum, there are only three passes available. One of them is Arthur's pass.

A forest at Arthur's Pass
Arthur's pass takes its name from Sir Arthur Dudley Dobson, who led the first european party across it in 1864. To be fair, he really didn't discovered it, as it was sporadically used by Maori hunting parties led by the local chief Tarapuhi, who gave him the lead on where to look for the pass. Nevertheless, the "discovery" by Sir Arthur came just at the right time as it provided easy access through the mountains shortly before gold was discovered in the west coast (all major european settlements were at the time on the east coast). We crossed Arthur's pass in our 2008 trip, as we moved to the Tasman coast from the Canterbury region. As you can see from the photos, it was a wet late-fall day, which certainly helped to set the mood. We stopped at the pub in the tiny hamlet with the same name, where we got some food and warm beverages. The area of the pass is in fact at the center of a beautiful protected natural area, encompassing tall mountains and very lush forests (it seems to rain and snow a lot, over there). Even a short walk from the pub offers an incredible view of the trees (see e.g. small photo on the left). What we didn't see was the kea, which is the funnies (and more delinquent) bird in the world. Keas are mountain parrots (world's only alpine parrot) that only live in New Zealand. They are very smart and inquisitive, and regularly harass tourists and their cars (they like to strip all lose rubber parts, like swipers). They even know how to open the zip of backpacks to steal the content. They know how to solve logic puzzles (things like figuring out the correct sequence in which levers must be pushed to access food in a container) and group of them can work together to crack more difficult problems. Although we may have seen some Kea feeding on roadkill along the road (not sure, though), we didn't meet any while we had our walk: it was raining and keas are definitely too smart to go for a stroll in foul cold weather, as opposed to a certain clueless human writing this blog.

Arthur's Pass, New Zealand (May 31, 2008)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Mountains of Canterbury

Rakaia River, New Zealand (May 29, 2008)

Along NZ Alpine Pacific Triangle
The Canterbury region is the largest subdivision of New Zealand's south island. It is also the most populous, with its capital Christchurch being the largest city in the island. Canterbury is the epicenter of the wool industry with millions of sheep grazing on its grassy plains in front of the Pacific. In my 2008 trip I spent three days driving up and down along Canterbury's roads, especially the Alpine Pacific Triangle running on the side of the white capped mountains at the center of the island. The road passes several one-lane bridges crossing the glacial rivers descending from the mountains, like the Rakaia river in the large photo above. During one of my escapades I took a side road along the river, ending up on a dirt path which probably voided the insurance of my rental car, but afforded me an amazing view of the river gorge below, and the snow-capped mountains above. Plus a close encounter with some cows that decided I was interesting enough to examine at close distance.

The capital of the region, Christchurch, is very beautiful historical city. An important commercial outpost, it spearheaded the european settlements in the south island. Differently from the north, the south was only sparsely inhabited by the Maori, due repeated incursions by bands of Maori from the north (armed with british-made muskets) that destroyed the settlements in the region exterminating their population. When I visited in 2008 I had the opportunity to truly enjoy Christchurch and its gothic revival architecture: soon after however three disastrous earthquakes (between 2010 and 2012) destroyed a significant portion of the city, causing 185 deaths. The destruction was so severe that its historical center is still not fully rebuilt.

Route 70, New Zealand (May 29, 2008)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Southern Alps

New Zealand (May 26, 2008)

You are all probably familiar with Hithaeglir (Misty Mountains), the majestic chain of tall mountains crossing Middle Earth from Mount Gundabad in the far north to Methedras in the south. You also probably know that the cinematic representation of this mountains in the Lord of The Rings and Hobbit movies is based on real mountains in New Zealand South Island: the Southern Alps. This is where we are going next.

Southern Alps
The Southern Alps are the "spine" of New Zealand South Island: 450 km longs they divide the narrow coast land on the West from the broad and green plains of the East. These are majestic mountains, covered by glaciers and crossed by long glacial valleys. We visited New Zealand in 2008, after a meeting Mayli had in Christchurch, and spent a couple of weeks driving around in the South Island. The photos in this page were all taken as I was approaching Christchurch from Sydney. Since Christchurch is on the eastern coast, flying from Australia means crossing the island above the mountains and its glaciers. The Southern Alps have 3,155 glaciers with an area larger than one hectare, the longer of which (the Tasman glacier) is 29 km in length. The mountains themselves are nothing to joke about: the tallest peak, Mount Cook (Aoraki), is 3,754 m high, one of sixteen peaks higher than 3,000 meters on the sea level. In the next few posts I will dwell on the mountain photos that I took during that trip.

New Zealand (May 26, 2008)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Volcano in Japan

Mount Hakone, Japan (May 30, 2012)

Let's keep going west, across the Pacific to the shore of Asia. But just before hitting the continent, let's stop for one post and briefly explore one volcano in Japan. And no, it is not the one you are thinking.

A garden or a forest?
I tried, I really tried. Hard. I really wanted to get at least one photo of the most photogenic volcano in the world: mount Fuji. But he was playing coy... hiding behind a curtain of mist that never left the sky for the whole time I was in Japan. I tried looking west from the observatory of the Tokyo tower, but I could only see an interminable and impressive forest of high rise buildings fading in the mist. I tried looking for him from the shores of lake Ashi, but I only found a placid lake framed by green mountains, themselves frames by heavy rainy clouds. He was still in hiding. Oh well, I guess this calls for another trip, in a different season, when the sky is more transparent and the majestic mountain is less shy. In the meantime you can look at the incredible Fuji-san photos captured by +Yuga Kurita  (they are quite exceptional indeed).

What I will offer you today, is another japanese volcano. It is not as famous as the white snow-capped Fuji-san, but it powers the hot waters of some of the most famous onsen of Japan. It is a very green volcano, covered by a lush green forests that resembles the best kept gardens. You can read the full story in my Japan travel diary, and specifically here. The short version is the following. We were staying a few days in an onsen in Hakone. We decided to take the famous Hakone ropeway all the way to lake Ashi, with the intention of crossing the lake by boat, walk a little along the Old Tokaido road and then take the bus back to the onsen. We did all this, except that we decided to stop for a short walk at the Owakudani ropeway station. We saw across the valley an overlook with an interesting view on the volcanic fumaroles. We should have been deterred by the mysterious signs "Can Not Go Buying Black Eggs Shop" at the beginning of the trail, but we didn't, and only after a couple of hours hiking on a very steep path we realized that we were going to the summit of the volcano, where clearly the world famous Owakudani black eggs were not available for sale. We did find, however, the even more famous Hime Iwakagami, a small pink flower that only grows in this area, for a brief spring season. And maybe next time we will see Fuji-san...

Lake Ashi, Japan (May 30, 2012)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The domain of Kamapua'a

Big Island, Hawaii (November 7, 2005)

As dry is the southern part of Hawaii Big Island, wet and lush is its northern end. Sitting on the most ancient of the island's volcanoes, the domain of Kamapua'a is battered by the trade winds, harbingers of rain. It is a stark contrast with the desert black rock wasteland of the Volcanoes Park. 

Pololu Valley
One of the most picturesque spots of the green north is the Pololu valley. To reach it you have to drive around the north tip of the island, either along the trafficked coastal road (Maukona-Niulii Rd), or along the Kohala Mountain Rd. We chose the latter: the road starts from Waimea (allowing a brief visit to the Keck Observatory Headquarters) and climbs on the flanks of the Kohala mountain. Estimated to be 1,000,000 years old, it is now extinct, having last erupted more than 160,000 years ago. It is highly eroded, covered by green pastures on the western side and deep valleys on the eastern side. Driving along the mountain road one can be excused to think, for a moment, that this is not Hawaii but Ireland (see panoramic photo below). The landscape is dotted by cows and horses: cattle raising is the main industry of this area, spawning the tradition of the Hawaiian cowboy equivalents.

The road ends in Hawi, a small town of less than 1,000 people, significant because its territory includes the birthplace of Kamehameha I the great. From Hawi you should follow route 270, literally to the end of the road. You park the car, walk to the side of the road and, lo and behold, you see the view in the large photo above (well, I cannot guarantee that you will still see the same horses next time you go there). The huge cliffs are the result of hundreds of millennia of erosions by the ocean and the rain on the tired igneous rocks of Kohala. Hidden between the cliffs is the long narrow Pololu valley, which you can see in the small photo on the left. From the parking lot at the Pololu lookout you can walk down (on a 400 ft steep sandy trail) to the bottom of the valley. The valley is all private land, so there is not much you can do there unless you ask permission to walk the swampy trails that cross it through its length. The beach at the end of the valley, however, is quite a spectacle, thanks to its black sand and high surf typical of Hawaii eastern coast. It is a popular destinations, provided of course that you are willing to climb up all 400 ft of trail to get back to the car, on your way back home.

Big Island, Hawaii (November 7, 2005)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The volcano that never stops

Double rainbow on Kilauea, Hawaii (November 3, 2005)

Kilauea, Hawaii
The Hawaiian islands were born by the union of the Sky Father Wakea with the Earth Mother Papa. As such they are the abode of the gods of hawaiian mythology. Two of these gods, however, never got along very well. Pele, the goddess of fire, and Kamapua'a, the god of rain, kept fighting memorable battles all the time. The theatre of the most epic of these battle is the crater of Halema'uma'u, where Pele found refuge when the rain god tried to extinguish the lava that she made sprout from the ground. To force her to out, Kamapua'a covered the crater with fern fronds, trapping of the smoke and choking Pele in her hiding place. Mad for the affront, Pele threatened to destroy the whole island. At that point the other gods were forced to intervene, dividing the island among the quarreling deities. Kamapua'a got the northern side of the island, rich in moisture carried by the trade winds. Pele was confined to the south-eastern side, the dry domain of the volcanoes.

The domain of Pele is dominated by one of the most active volcanoes on Earth: the Kilaueua. This volcano has been continuously activity for most of the islands recorded history. Even before, Hawaiian oral histories testify about Kilauea random acts of violence, like the eruption of 1790, when the present-day caldera was formed, as the ground collapsed under the feet of Keouha Kuahu'ula warriors, the last to resist the unifying forces of Kamehameha I, the great. Since then Kilauea has had at least 61 recorded eruptions.

Kilauea, Hawaii
The volcano is part of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and is one of the most monitored volcanoes on Earth. In fact, it was the first volcano to be monitored, by initiative of Thomas Jaggar. The MIT geologist, after witnessing the destruction caused by the earthquake in Messina (near Mount Etna) decided that a network of observatories monitoring the activity of volcanoes was absolutely required. He chose Kilauea because of its high activity and the relative benign nature of its eruptions. The fact that the eruptions are benign does not mean that they are not impressive, though. In 1819 a huge lava flow filled the caldera in the photo above, creating an enormous lava lake. In other occasions the activity was so strong that reportedly allowed the inhabitants of Hilo (20 miles away) to read at night without the need of other lights!

The Volcanoes Park and Kilauea today are a big touristic attraction. If you go there at sunset you can see the lava flow dropping in the sea (panoramic below). From the parking lot it is a short hike on a pitch-black moonscape terrain until the rope that delimit the "safe" area from the places where the fresh lava is still warm. The park ranger discourage you from hiking beyond the ropes, but people still do... which leads to the inevitable casualties, mainly tourists that walk too close to the volcanic vents, their lungs swelled by the deadly inhalation of hydrochloric acid. That said, if you are careful, Kilauea is one of the most spectacular places in the world to visit!

Kilauea, Hawaii (November 3, 2005)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The tallest mountains in the world

Mauna Loa, Hawaii (November 3, 2005)

Mount Everest is not the tallest mountain in the world. Not by far. It sits on the Himalayan plateau, which is pretty high itself. With 8,848 meters above sea level, mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world, but not the tallest if you start counting from its base. That record is held by the Hawaii volcanoes, Mauna Kea rising 10,203 meters from the seafloor, followed closely my Mauna Loa, a few meters lower but the largest mountain in area and volume of rock.

Mauna Loa, Hawaii
And in Hawaii we should go, because I cannot make a series on mountains and forget the mountains of paradise. Hawaii has special significance for an astronomer, because it is the site of the largest telescopes in the norther hemisphere. For obvious reasons: why would you go anywhere else if you can get a free trip to Hawaii? Just kidding. The real reason for placing gigantic mirrors on the top of the Hawaii volcanoes is precisely their height: the highest the mountain, the less air is overhead, ruining your observations. Why not going to the Himalayas, then? Because of humidity. It turns out that the Himalayan chain is still subjected to heavy precipitations from the monsoons raising from the Indian Ocean (these are snow-capped mountains), while the volcanoes of Hawaii are above the local inversion layer. Even though in Hawaii it rains every day, the humidity stays at lower elevation, and the summit of the volcanoes is bone dry. No humidity means no rain days and, most importantly, a very transparent and stable atmosphere. The only other comparable sites on Earth for elevation and dryness are the high plateau of northern Chile (we will go there, photographically, a little later) and Antarctica, which is covered by 3,000 meters of ice (and has very low humidity, as all water vapor is frozen).

I have been several time at the Mauna Kea observatory: I did a large part of the astronomical observations for my Ph.D. thesis up there. At that time, however, I didn't have any digital camera (hey, that was still in the last millennium), so the photos in this post are more recent, taken when I was visiting Hawaii for a conference. All images show Mauna Loa, the volcano whose eruptions created most of the land in the Big Island of Hawaii. It is a shield volcano, and as such it has the gentle sloping flanks that can be seen in the large image on top. Gentle volcano is not, however. Since the first recorded eruption in 1843, the volcano has erupted 32 times. The 1935 eruption, in particular, caused grave concern as the lava flow started to move towards Hilo, the main city on the island, George S. Patton (of WWII fame) was tasked to save the city by trying to divert the lava flow by throwing bombs at it: he did so on December 27 of that year, and by January 2 the lava flow was stopped. While the operation was declared a resounding success, it is unclear if the bombing had any effect, and geologists think that the lava stopped only because the volcano decided so.

The last eruption happened in 1950, with a single day event in 1984, when a narrow lava flow descended again towards Hilo, illuminating the city at night but stopping before causing any damage. Since then the volcano has been inactive, the longest period of quiescence in its recorded history.

Mauna Loa, Hawaii (November 7, 2005)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens, USA (January 11, 2007)

There was a mountain in North America that was as beautiful as Fuji-san in Japan. It was a perfect cone with a snow-white tip, raising to the sky amid lush forests and crowned by silvery rivers. That mountain was sacred to the people living in its vicinity.

Washington State, USA
Wikipedia tells us that Tyhee Saghalie, the chief of all the gods of the Klickitat people, traveled down the Columbia river from the ancestral lands in the north. He was with his two sons, Pahto and Wy'east, searching for a new land to settle. After much wandering they found a land so beautiful that both brothers wanted it for themselves. To resolve the dispute, their father used his magic bow to shoot two arrows in opposite directions. Patho followed the arrow that went north; Wy'east went instead south. Their father then built the Bridge of the Gods to connect the two lands, so that they could periodically have their family reunions.

For some time everything was well and dandy, until a fateful day the two brothers met a beautiful maiden whose name was Loowit. They both fell in love and started quarreling again, while Loowit could not choose between the two of them. In their fight, they buried villages and razed forests, shaking the earth so violently that the bridge of the God fell into the river (creating the Columbia River Gorge). Saghalie was very upset by all this devastation, and decided to punish the quarreling lovers. He struck down his two sons and transformed them into mountains: Patho became what is known now as Mount Adams while Wy'east became Mount Hood. And Loowit? She became the fairest mountain of all, Louwala-Clough (fire mountain) which we now call Mount St. Helens.

I have seen Mount St. Helens once, even though I didn't know it at the time. I only recognized the mountain of fire much later, when I finally started to work on the photos I took from a plane that was bringing me home from Seattle. It is the photo above, where you can see the huge crater of the volcano, and the plume of steam still rising from it. What you cannot see is the picture-perfect cone that, like Fuji-san, stands high above the forests and the river covered in snow.

The reason why the beautiful cone is missing is that Mount St. Helens top, at the 8:32AM PDT of May 18, 1980, blew up, in the course of the most destructive volcanic event recorded in the United States. The eruption cut 400 meters from the height of the mountain, killing 57 people, flattening 250 homes, felling 47 bridges, and destroying 15 miles of railways and 185 miles of highways. It became one of the most famous volcanic eruptions in the history of North America. You can still see, even in my foto, the huge scar left behind by the explosion. The north side of the mountain is missing, crushed by the explosion into an enormous avalanche of almost 3 km cube of debris. When President Jimmy Carter visited the devastation shortly after the eruption, he commented that "Someone said this area looked like a moonscape. But the moon looks more like a golf course compared to what's up there."

The area around the mountain was designated in 1982 by President Reagan and the US Congress (when it was still doing something) as a national Monument. As such it is granted protection that has allowed scientists to study how the environment can naturally recover from the disturbance caused by such cataclysmic events.

Taking off from Seattle Tacoma, USA (January 11, 2007)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Flying over the Alps

Somewhere over the Alps (February 4, 2005)

Almost 6% of the surface of Earth is mountains. This corresponds to 20% of all available land (once you take out the oceans). As much as I like Italian mountains, it is time to move on. Let's take a plane and fly over the Alps. This route I have taken many many times, from west to east when visiting my family in Italy, and from East to West when getting back to the US. Hop on a plane and fly. Piece of cake, right?

Well, maybe not so easy, after all. In fact, in my brief jet-flying career (700,000 miles so far) I have already suffered two emergency landings as I was crossing the Alps.

Somewhere over the Alps
The first time was almost uneventful, thanks for my cluelessness. This was one of those planes with the little screen attached to the seat in front, showing the live map with the plane route. Well, at some point I noticed that the plane was making an unexpected U-turn, as to get back to Paris. People on the plane were kind of agitated but I could not understand what was going on. Then the pilot announced that we were getting back because, "as you may have noticed" there was a strong smell in the main cabin, which he was positive it wasn't gourmet cheese, and we were getting back to investigate. So we landed on a separate runway with the fire trucks ready to intervene... and intervene they did, as the reason of the smell was that one of our engines has gotten on fire mid-flight, and the smoke was already entering the cabin (so much for being pressurized). Of course, due to my anosmia, I didn't notice anything, but it must have been terrifying for the passengers that could see the right wing of the plane with its trail of smoke.

The second time was in fact more directly connected to the mountain crossing (which appropriate given that I am running this series about mountains). The flight was between Torino and Paris. As soon as we got over the Alps we started to feel very strong vibrations at the back of the plane. Horrible noise and shaking, like the worst turbulence I have even gone through. We did an emergency landing at Lion, nearest airport at that point, just on the other side of the mountains. No fire trucks, that time, but as soon as we landed one of these service trucks with the elevator cart approached our plane. We could not get out, but from the window we saw that the service crew was looking very carefully at the tail section of our plane. Nothing... we were stuck on the plane and these people were just looking and looking. As the passengers and the flight crew were getting just a little too nervous, one of the workers outside grabbed the tail of the plane, hanging to it, as to see if he could pull it out! As that happened the pilot, that by then was in the main cabin looking outside as everybody else, became red, said something like "that's it" and declared that he would not have flown that plane ever again. That was it indeed. We disembarked, managed to get to Paris with another plane before nightfall, and then took yet a different plane the next day, to get back to the US. All this happened a few months before a plane of the same model crashed in Queens (New York) because, you guess it, the tail section snapped due to excessive turbulence.

Despite all this, I still like the experience of flying (and I would not mind flying to space, if it was economically feasible). And that's nothing compared with what happened to a friend of mine that crashed twice with a helicopter, the same day, in the middle of the Amazon jungle. But that's a story for another day.

Somewhere over the Alps (February 4, 2005)