Expedition: June 2014

Bighorn Sheep

June 2014 before dawn (1)June 2014 dawnJune 2014 frameJune 2014 summitJune 2014 snow bankJune 2014 sheepIt has become a tradition with us to wake up before dawn (4:30 AM!) and drive up to the Patriarch Grove to see the sun rise. Nobody has to do it, but nobody opted out either. The sunrise we saw was the best yet.

Changes are afoot at the White Mountain Research Center; positive ones. They have actually lowered the rates they charge us for using the facility. The director was on the mountain during our visit, and we met him.
before dawn

We found the cold frame in good shape; the pump, battery and window vents still work after all this time on the mountain. We fertilized with some more sheep manure, watered it, and planted radishes, nasturtiums, and herbs.

Now that we’re experts on spiral grain in bristlecone pines (we published a paper in a peer reviewed academic journal on it this year!), we wondered if we could tackle the question of why some trees have purple female cones and some have green ones. We did a quick preliminary survey on the cone color of 100 trees on the Timberline Ancients Nature Trail and 100 more on the Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail, both of which are located in the Patriarch Grove. On both trails, 86% of the trees have purple cones; the purple pigment is obviously the dominant trait. So what, though? Unlike spiral gain, nobody is arguing that the color of the cones offers any selective advantage. Unless we find a very different proportion of purple/green in the Schulman Grove (and I don’t think we will) there may be nothing more to say about it. We’ll see next trip.

Twelve of us of us climbed 14,000′ White Mountain Peak. What made this climb special were all the bighorn sheep on the peak. They were all over the place – never have we seen so many.

What we learned:

  • First-year female cones in bristlecone pines in the Patriarch Grove are purple on 86% of the trees. Trees with green ones are hard to find. The proportion of purple ones doesn’t vary within the grove.
  • Bighorn sheep will let you get surprisingly close. They see you, of course, but they aren’t particularly afraid since they know they can outrun you.

Expedition: September 2013

The cold frame gets a reprieve

September 2013 WMRC fall 13 005September 2013 WMRC fall 13 002This trip it was just one person, yours truly. No students this time, although I was coming to the White Mountains directly from Yosemite National Park where I had spent three days with 54 tenth graders. To tell the truth, I was going to take the cold frame apart and haul it to a landfill. After five years, the project is beginning to feel routine. We’ve proved our point with it.
When I got there and saw how well everything was going, I began to have second thoughts. After years on the mountain, the electrical system’s battery was up to +14.7 volts! That’s actually the highest we’ve ever recorded. The pump still works, even when it is run dry. The growth chambers were more filled with foliage than they have ever been. The Barcroft caretaker said he had taken “lots” of radishes out of it and he seemed to appreciate them. The herbs were doing well too. The carrots were not. The coat of paint we put on it still looked good. Nobody is calling the project an eyesore yet.

Maybe we can keep it going another year or two! I turned off the timer, drained the water tank and left it for another year.

Taking stock of our projects here: The cold frame is probably down to its last year or two, the bristlecone pines spiral grain project is completed, and the artificial hypoliths need to sit undisturbed for a few more years. We need a new project to keep us busy here, and maybe we have an idea for one. Bristlecone pine female cones come in two colors: purple and green. Purple cones are more common than green. Nobody knows anything except that; it’s probably “just genetics.” Maybe we should do a survey on that – are the ratios of purple/green the same everywhere?

We’ll be back.

Expedition: June 2013

We plant again, for the fifth year in a row

June 2013 Patriarch at dawnJune 2013 Girls around treeJune 2013 Working on cold frameJune 2013 Hiking towards PeakJune 2013 Girls on peakJune 2013 campfireJordan woke us up with a loud yell at 5:00 AM so we could drive up to the Patriarch Grove to see the sun rise. It’s rare for teenagers to wake up their elders at this hour, but as you can see from the photos it was worth it.

There are some new staff members at the White Mountain Research Station. It changed hands from U. C. San Diego to U.C.L.A. last year. But our old friend Tim Forsell is still the cook and caretaker at Crooked Creek.

We found the cold frame in pretty good shape, but a marmot had evidently broken into the left hand chamber and vandalized it. We fixed it and tested the electrical and irrigation systems. The battery voltage was +14.6 volts. That’s better than last year at this time! The pump still works, so it didn’t take us long to set everything up. We fertilized with some sheep manure, watered it, and planted carrots, radishes, arugula and herbs.

Chris Kopp, a Ph.D. student at U. C. San Diego, took us out into the field to show us his climate change experiment on alpine plants. We also talked about bristlecone and whitebark pines with University of Montana student Colin Maher and talked geology with professor Allan Glazner of the University of North Carolina.

George found a number of arrowheads in the meadows below Barcroft.


We found our old array of artificial hypoliths. Some of the tiles were out of position. We are getting used to this sort of thing from the rodents. Elena photographed the bottoms of 59 tiles. Several of the tiles have some green on them.

While some of us climbed 14,000′ White Mountain Peak, a few of us rested at Barcroft. Everyone who started up the peak made it to the summit, but it sure was strenuous.

Our work done, we enjoyed telling scary stories around the fire.

What we learned:

  • One of the benefits of coming here is learning from the graduate students and professors you meet,
  • All three of our projects here are maturing, and we don’t have as much work to do as we used to have in past years. The bristlecone pines spiral grain project has been submitted to an academic journal and we are waiting on that. The artificial hypoliths won’t need to be checked again for several years. The cold frame project is getting to be routine. If we want to keep coming here (and we do!) we need to think of some new projects.

Expedition: September 2012

Peak Fall Foliage at Cottonwood Canyon!

Sept 12 001
Sheep Pass
Sept 12 002
Bolted lettuce

Sept 12 003Sept 12 004Sept 12 005Sept 12 006There were only four of us on this trip We had to record what we grew and put the cold frame to bed for the winter. We got up before dawn to see the sun rise over the Patriarch Grove, as we often do. We also measured 100 more dead bristlecone pines on the slope above the Timberline Ancients Nature Trail to double-check whether or not the proportion of left- straight- and right-handed spiral grain is different in dead trees than in living trees. It is not.

We noted that these trees practically never have broken trunks. When they fall over, it is because the whole root ball is ripped out of the ground. This means the ” spiral grain strengthens the tree and keeps it from being broken by the wind” hypothesis doesn’t work for bristlecone pines.
We checked up on some of the artificial hypoliths we had deployed in June. All but one of the hypoliths we placed near the Sierra Overlook were missing. Somebody had found then and picked them up. But the ones at 11,800′ Sheep Pass are still there and some are already showing signs of colonization by cyanobacteria.

At the cold frame, we found some bolted lettuces. Alan (the Barcroft caretaker) told us that he had harvested radishes, lettuce and garlic on multiple occasions. That’s the problem when you plant crops that grow in two months (radishes and lettuce) but don’t come back to check on them for three months. Next year we’ll plant carrots, which take longer.

Alan said he had re-filled the rain barrel two and a half times. We had the drip irrigation timer set to run for 12 minutes per day, which was maybe too much. Next year we’ll try 8 minutes per day.

The calendula and sweet basil had not done well. The plants were stunted, and the calendula never flowered. We turned off the digital timer, drained the rain barrel and pump, and dug some sheep manure into the growth chambers. The battery voltage is still +14.4 volts!
Five miles down the road from Crooked Creek the quaking aspens in Cottonwood Canyon were in peak colors. Yellow, orange and green – it was spectacular! Sublime. Here are some pictures.


On the way home we stopped at Obsidian Dome and Panum Crater, near Mono Lake. These are well worth seeing.

What we learned:

  • Dead bristlecones pines have the same proportion of left, straight, and right-handed grain as living ones,
  • Bristlecone pines get uprooted by the wind, not broken,
  • You have to place artificial hypoliths far from any parking lot if you don’t want people to find them,
  • Three months on White Mountain Peak is enough time for the hypolith colonization process to start (soil grains clinging strongly due to exo-cellular polysaccharides, but no green film),
  • Our irrigation system worked,
  • Calendula and sweet basil do not do well in our cold frame,
  • We should try carrots next year,
  • Panum Crater and Obsidian Dome are just a few minutes out of our way and are very interesting and educational – especially Panum Crater, which is a miniature volcano that you can walk around and into,
  • The fall foliage in Cottonwood Canyon is a must-see.


Expedition: June 2012

Basil, Garlic, Calendula

June 2012 IMG_3434
At Patriarch Grove
June 2012 IMG_3453
Bristlecone pine with spiral grain
June 2012 IMG_3472
Garlic in the cold frame
June 2012 IMG_3465
The team at work
June 2012 First Green
First green on our artificial hypolith
June 2012 quantum radiometer
Using the quantum radiometer

One of the first things we did was to go back to the Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail and double-check seventeen bristlecone pines to see if last year’s team had recorded the spiral grain (right handed vs. left handed) backwards. They had. It’s easy to make mistakes at this altitude. The data from this section of this trail looked very different from the other 500+ trees we measured, and we had our suspicions. Now we know that the pattern of right handed, left handed and straight trees is remarkabley consistent everywhere on the mountain.

We are now ready to publish this research, in either of two journals: “Trees”, or “The Canadian Journal of Forest Research.”


A surprise awaited us when we got to the cold frame – who planted this? It seems the Barcroft caretaker, Dori Cann, had planted some cloves of garlic last October when she was cleaning out the kitchen for the season. The garlic cloves wintered over in the cold fame and sprouted this spring. We watered them and let them stay. We also fixed the irrigation system with a new bilge pump and planted sweet basil, salad greens, radishes and calendula.
The battery voltage was still +14.1 volts!


We found our old arrray of artificial hypoliths. A marmot or some other animal had flipped a lot of the tiles. We are getting used to this sort of thing from the rodents. We photographed the bottoms of 16 tiles that were still in position and replaced the rest. One of the tiles has some green on it!

While everyone else climbed 14,000′ White Mountain Peak, Anthony and Mike measured the transmittance of natural sunlight through 24 natural hypoliths. These cells can grow here with only 0.07% of the natural direct sunlight! We also placed six smaller arrays of artificial hypoliths down the mountainside, at elevations of 8,000 – 12,500 feet.

Our work done, we enjoyed toasting marshmallows around the fire and even did some blacksmithing and woodworking projects. Anna made a wooden spoon, burning out the bowl. A few of us also played pool on the continent’s highest pool table at Barcroft.
first green radiometer

What we learned:

  • Garlic can over-winter in our cold frame, which probably means that onions and flower bulbs can too. We will consider these for a fall 2012 planting.
  • Our electrical system is still good, and we have high hopes for our irrigation system this year.
  • The anamolously twisted trees on the Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail were really just bad data. The proportion of spiral grain that is left handed (< 20%), straight (~ 70%) or right-handed ( < 10%) is very consistent in every part of every grove.
  • Al least one marble tile has a bit of green film after just one year.
  • Marmots/rodents always disturb a densely spaced 6 x 10 array of artificial hypoliths. We need to use smaller arrays, with the tiles spaced a few feet apart from each other.
  • About 0.05% of direct White Mountain sunlight is the cut-off for hypolithic cell growth. This is similar to but slightly less than hypoliths in Namibia (0.08% – 0.10%). It makes sense, because White Mountain is higher in elevation, brighter, wetter and cooler than the Namib desert.

Expedition: September 2011

Third harvest, and we finish measuring the Bristlecone Pines

September 2011 IMG_2432September 2011 IMG_2450September 2011 IMG_2476September 2011 IMG_2489September 2011 IMG_2534September 2011 IMG_2572The first thing we did was to get up at 5:00 AM to see the sun rise over the Patriarch Grove at an elevation of 11,300′.  It was dark, cold and early, but nobody wanted to stay in bed.

Even though our water pump developed a leak back in July, we had some radishes, lettuce and potatoes to harvest from the cold frame. Dori Cann, the Barcroft caretaker, had fixed our plumbing with a bit of wire. Thank you Dori!

The battery voltage was still +14.4 volts! Our electrical system works great when it’s not attended. We wish we could say the same about our plumbing.

Then we measured 250 trees in the Schuleman Grove. We now have a data set of 600 trees. Over the winter, Anna and Sarah will analyze the data to see if we can determine any relationship between spiral grain and the tree’s environment.


What we learned:

  • We still haven’t worked out the best way to get water from our reservoir to the soil. We have tried a a gravity drip system, a submersible pup, and an in-line pump. The in-line pump was too strong. The submersible pump siphoned water even when it wasn’t on. We need to get a much smaller in-line pump, or go back to the gravity drip system.

Expedition: July 2011

Steady progress on three projects

Well earned rest at the top of the peak
Well earned rest at the top of the peak

Heavy snow kept us from reaching our projects this year until July 7. Two teams of four immediately started measuring trees at the Patriarch Grove for our bristlecone pines twisting project while six of us took Rich Melbostad’s 4-wheel drive vehicle up to Barcroft to check on the status of our alpine cold frame. Emma had been there last October; none of the rest of us had seen it for a year. The soil was very dry and the winter wheat that was planted last October had not germinated. Possibly our seeds are too old. No matter – we have lots of crops to plant, and only a few square feet to plant them in.

The solar electrical system the Gabels built last year was fully charged (+14.4 volts) and working great. We rinsed out the water reservoir, installed a powerful new irrigation pump and new drip lines, and tested the system with our timer. It works. We planted two kinds of radishes (Easter egg & French breakfast), mixed salad greens, potatoes, and a few seeds of bachelor’s buttons. We really think the crop this season could turn out well.

Two of our growing chambers now are open to the air at the top, and one still has a temperature-activated vent. Paradoxically, we think we kill more plants here with extreme heat than we do with extreme cold.
It was too late in the day to bag White Mountain Peak, but we hiked over the hill to check on the artificial hypoliths that were placed last October. They had been scattered by a Marmot! Some of the tiles were even missing. The Marmot’s tunnel was two feet away. Did he redecorate his place with some of our tiles? We re-deployed them in a different place, and replaced the missing ones.
The next day a team of four started measuring trees in the Schulman grove (we now have 300 measured from the Patriarch grove) while ten of us climbed 14,000’ White Mountain Peak. Nobody got sick. The view was sublime. We monitored our blood oxygen concentrations with a fingertip oxygen meter.
What we learned:

  • you really can adjust to low atmospheric pressure. You just have to do it in stages.

Expedition: October 2010

Winter Wheat Harvest

October 2010 IMG_3075
October 2010 IMG_3058
Winter wheat

October 2010 IMG_3094October 2010 IMG_3093We knew that mid-October is kind of late to come up here, and that we were playing chicken with the weather. But, this was the only three-day weekend the students had this fall, besides Labor Day. We don’t like to drive on Labor Day. We needed to see how our plants did and to turn off the irrigation system. We also hoped to place some artificial hypoliths in the field.
The winter wheat we planted 13 months ago (!) looked great. We harvested it. Some of the seed heads had no grains inside them, but many did. Wheat is pollinated by the wind. Maybe it was too still inside the chamber. The next time we grow wheat, we’ll make sure the chamber has more air circulation.

The other plants had not done well. We started them late this year, because of the weather trouble we had in June. We planted some more winter wheat. The irrigation system had run dry. We turned it off and took the pump home with us to see if it needs replacement.
We hiked up the mountain to work on our hypolith project, but the spot we selected in July was covered in snow. We could see snow squalls across the valley in the Sierras. The WMRS staff were bringing the sheep down from Barcroft. A few flakes even floated down on us. We were cold. Time to get off the mountain!

We’ll be back in June – LATE June.

What we learned:

  • Winter wheat works. The plants sprouted last fall, over-wintered, and finished growing this season.
  • We need more ventilation.
  • October is really too late to work here. It’s better to come in September, even if it means a three-day, two-night trip.

Expedition: July 2010

We get a huge amount done and show off our stuff at Open House

Dawn at Patriarch
Dawn at Patriarch
Teens CAN greet the dawn
Teens CAN greet the dawn
Hard at work
Hard at work
Drawing lessons
Drawing lessons
White Mountain Research Station Open House Program
White Mountain Research Station Open House Program
The arrowhead
The arrowhead

We had a big list of objectives for this trip:

• Repair and test our watering system,
• Install a new window for the right hand chamber,
• Plant some more seeds,
• Re-paint the exterior of the cold frame,
• Prospect for good artificial hypoliths sites,
• Measure 100 more trees for our Bristlecone Pines twisting project,
• Bristlecone drawing lessons with art teacher Jack Sims,
• Climb 14,000’ White Mountain Peak,
• And, give a slide show and lecture about our projects for the White Mountain Research Station’s annual Open House at the Barcroft Station at 12,500’ elevation.

We did all this and more in two days. Actually, the first thing we did wasn’t even on the list – four of us woke up before dawn Saturday to drive up to the Patriarch Grove to watch the sunrise. It was magnificent.
When we got to the cold frame the winter wheat we planted last September was a foot high. The radishes and peas we planted in June were doing OK but the Swiss chard was a failure.

Dori Cann, the Barcroft caretaker, had told us that our water pump was failing to shut off and was emptying the water reservoir too quickly. Maybe we had programmed the timer wrong? When we tested our timer and pump they seemed fine. But, the irrigation system continued to water our plants whether or not the pump was on!

Finally, we figured out that water was siphoning from the elevated water tank into the cold frame chambers. We lowered the water tank to ground level. We hope it will work properly now.

After two years in the alpine sun the cold frame was looking old. We gave it a fresh coat of white and green paint. We also planted potatoes (Alaska Frostless) and more radishes.

We then went back to the Patriarch Grove and measured 100 Bristlecone Pines on the Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail. After dinner Jack Sims projected some of our best photos onto the screen in the classroom and taught us how to draw them.
Whew! Not bad for one day. When we woke up on Sunday we had checked off most of the items on our list. But this was going to be the biggest day of the year at Barcroft: the annual Open House.

While George and Dan stayed at Barcroft to demonstrate our cold frame to visitors, the rest of us struck out towards the peak. At the four mile mark Brennan and Mike turned back to prospect the area for hypoliths. We found plenty, and identified five possible sites for our artificial hypoliths project. Matthew, Greg, Mary, Jack and Jonathan continued uphill to bag White Mountain Peak.

At 2:45 Mike, George, Dan and Brennan gave a slide show and talk to an audience of 30+ people about our projects. It was just after the astrophysics lecture and just before the talk on bat disease, and I think we were a popular favorite.
The mountain climbers straggled back soon afterwards. They had all made the summit. Jack’s new artificial knee had worked great.

We saw a lot of wildlife on this trip: Bighorn sheep, deer, marmots, birds and Campito the wild horse. We also heard a pack of coyotes at Patriarch. Brennan found an arrowhead.

But, it was tiring. We went to bed before nine! No campfire.

What we learned:

  • The cold frame is really an engineering project, not a science project,
  • A watering system can siphon water even if the pump is off,
  • The hills and meadows above Barcroft are full of hypoliths,
  • People here really like it that a high school is using the WMRS facilities,
  • All of our problems (illness, balky cars, malfunctioning equipment, bad decisions) can be blamed on the altitude.

Expedition: June 2010

We overcome adversity

CF 2010 June pickup
Special delivery of the photovoltaic system
The June hike
The June hike
A big mess
A big mess
Wheat grass in the cold frame
Wheat grass in the cold frame
All smiles
All smiles
The finished frame
The finished frame
The hike down
The hike down
CF 2010 June Campito
Campito the feral horse

We almost didn’t make it. We knew weeks ago that a snowy spring meant our cold frame at the 12,500’ Barcroft Lab wouldn’t be accessible. We came anyway, to work on our bristlecone pines twisting project. We brought our new photovoltaic system intending to store it at Crooked Creek until the snow melted.

But, once at Crooked Creek (10,000’ elevation) we learned that we might be able to get up to Barcroft after all! This put us in a tailspin because we had left some important irrigation fittings and parts at home.

To complicate matters, the staff at the White Mountain Research Station didn’t want us to drive to Barcroft in our own vehicles. They thought we would get stuck in the mud, and they were probably right about that.
Dave Stockton kindly put our heavy photovoltaic system in his high clearance four wheel drive truck and delivered it to Barcroft. We hiked the two miles uphill from the locked gate. Our view was stunning, but we certainly felt the 12,500’ elevation!

A big mess greeted us. A storm had ripped the University of California’s solar panels off the Barcroft Lab roof and most of them came down on top of our cold frame in a tangle of panels, rubber, ropes, cables, wires and splintered wood. We had to spend an hour or so clearing it all off. Our cold frame was not damaged.
The winter wheat we planted last September in the left hand chamber was alive and green. The soil was very dry, though. We watered it with melted snow and then heaped some more fresh snow on top of it to melt. Winter wheat is supposed to do well under snow.

Barcroft lacked electricity and running water. We used dirty puddles to water our chambers, but we couldn’t put dirty water into the 70-gallon reservoir. The dirt would clog the plumbing. Instead, we installed our photovoltaic system (guaranteed not to blow down!) and 12-volt pump and filled the reservoir with clean white snow. We set the pump to turn on in one week. We hope that by that time the sun’s rays on the green plastic exterior of our reservoir will melt enough snow for the pump to have something to pump.
We added manure and planted radishes, Swiss chard and peas in the central and right hand chambers. That was really all we could do until we return. Our work done (for now) we hiked back down the mountain.

Marmots were everywhere. One of them gnawed on the battery terminal of the Sicroff’s Honda Pilot, but no harm was done. We also saw “Campito”, the feral horse who lives alone up here.
What we learned:

  • Where there’s a will, there’s a way
  • Winter wheat can survive the cold season here