Field season in the Rockies is over, which means no more long days carrying heavy equipment up and down mountains in stormy weather. There is some pleasure in sitting at a desk working through data and manuscripts, but I mostly miss the work – challenges and dangers and all. Most involved ladders – and lightning.
A major aim of the summer was to take thermal videos of alpine plant communities from sunrise to sunset, then to measure the performance of the plants in the video. So up the mountain we would go, with thermal camera, gas analyzer, eight or ten lead-acid batteries, some ladders, some wood beams, a cooler with ice, and various other items whose weight was less memorable.
A borrowed 1991 Ford Explorer took us part of the way there, but the rest of the journey was on foot.
Some of the heavier gear we would hike in a day in advance, to have ready in time for a sunrise start the next day.
But most things – especially the expensive ones – had to come up the day of measurement. Waking up in the middle of the night was no pleasure, but seeing the sky begin to glow in the high mountains certainly was.
On this day, we managed to get everything running about thirty seconds before local sunrise – a close call.
Fifteen hours of sitting on the mountainside later, the sun would go down, and we would pack up to head home.
Then we would come back the next day with our other equipment (here a gas exchange system) to make more measurements. Sweaty work, but no major challenges.
The interesting part involved the clouds. These mountains make their own weather, and working on a treeless ridgeline between two major ranges at almost 12000′ elevation means that storms come quickly and often.
We found ourselves with a large storm a few miles away on the only day we had to carry down about 40,000 USD of heavy equipment – and two eight foot-long aluminum and fiberglass ladders.
By the time we had packed up and waterproofed the gear, and were bailing down to the trees, the storm was upon us. It is only possible to run so fast on rough terrain when carrying an external frame pack on your back, an internal frame pack on your front, and a ladder on your shoulder. We got about half a kilometer down the ridge before the lightning was hitting trees around us, flash-bangs in an instant.
At that point we decided to ditch the ladders, and dropped down a gully to a sparse forest that looked like a good place to get into a safe position (my assistant is about to transition to a safer squat), then sat in the hail and lightning, waiting for the storm to pass. An hour later, with rumbling in all directions, we decided to abandon the ladders and make a break for our vehicle far down the slope.
We and all the other equipment made it back safe, but the ladders were still somewhere high up the mountain. So the next day, I came back to go find them. Not the simplest task, because I forgot where we left them in the chaos of the previous day’s storm.
About twenty minutes of searching later, we found them – just in time for another storm to blow in. The hike back down was thundery, but dry.
We got the equipment strapped on just in time for the rain to begin falling.
Now all the gear is safely in storage, and we are safely back at our desks. Mountains are dangerous and unpredictable places, but I think that is why they are so fascinating to work on, and why they will keep calling me back.