21 September 2012

Field memories (Accretionary Wedge #50)

Posted by Jessica Ball

Evelyn of Georneys is hosting this month’s Accretionary Wedge, and has asked us for fun field memories. Looking back on all the field trips I’ve taken, I have quite a few, but I think the one that still sticks in my memory is my first visit to a volcano, ever. I’m pretty sure I didn’t find it hugely funny at the time (you’ll find out why), but in retrospect I always find myself laughing at…well, myself.

On my first real geology field experience back in the summer of 2004, the William & Mary field geology class spent three and a half weeks wandering around the Colorado Plateau, and one of our days was spent in the San Francisco Volcanic Field in Arizona. This is a beautiful field – volcanic features for miles, and lots of lovely field trip stops. Like SP Crater, a classic cinder cone volcano with a huge lava flow erupting from the base of the cone.

Just before the climbing 'challenge'

Those of you who are familiar with the quirks of naming conventions in the western United States will probably have heard what “SP” stands for. For the rest of you, let’s just say that there’s a story about some rancher thinking the volcano resembled a chamber pot, and replace ‘chamber’ with a less polite term. Anyway, SP Crater has a trail part of the way to the top, although on this day my field group decided to see who could get to the top first, and not necessarily using the trail.

Scoria slope of doooooom

I should mention that at this point I was in generally okay shape but not my mountain-climbing best. I also have minor asthma issues, which when combined with not being in super shape can make me a very slow climber. I am clearly not physically cut out to be a scientist that climbs large mountains for a living. Anyway, I was, determined to get to the top of my first volcano.

The folks I was climbing with followed the trail for a while, but on the way up we decided it might be faster to cut across the face of the cone. It looked a bit rubbly, but not terribly rough terrain, so we thought it would be all right. What we hadn’t reckoned on was how difficult it actually is to climb a pile of loose rock that shifts under you. It’s kind of like climbing a really big sand dune at the beach, except the sand dune is essentially made of crushed glass and . The scoria also hosted, as we discovered, a number of spiky shrubby plants that we eventually had to climb through to get to the top.

I should also mention at this point that I had decided it would be a fantastic idea to wear shorts that day.

My classmates, who smartly opted for trousers.

The upshot of the whole experience was that I arrived on the top of SP Crater well after the rest of the group and, as my advisor immediately pointed out, covered in bleeding scratches. (I hadn’t noticed, as the pain had been canceled out by the sheer determination to make it to the top no matter what I had to trample my way through). But, by golly, I made it up. In retrospect, seeing as SP Crater is only 250 meters (820 feet) tall, and I’ve since climbed much higher edifices to do research, it’s a bitĀ embarrassing to think about that hike. However, if I put it in context as my first encounter with a volcano, I suppose it could have been a lot worse! (Even if the volcano wasn’t active. Volcanoes are tricky beasts…)

Proudly showing off my horrible posture, mangled legs and grey-and-khaki fashion sense. Take that, cinder cone!

On the positive side, I did get a bunch of very macho-looking scars out of the experience. They’ve since faded and been replaced by others – it’s clear I will never make it as a model for shaving cream ads – but they were a quirky reminder of my first experience in the world of volcanology. I did manage to pay attention to some other things on the climb, including this nifty breadcrust bomb (surrounded by some of the same plants I was fighting with).

Oops, baby geologist me forgot a scale...

And, of course, the reward at the top was worth the hike: a fantastic view of the volcanic field:

Great big lava flow

Kendrick Peak (?) and more of the volcanic field in the distance

Going down the volcano was, actually, a lot of fun. You basically ski down, because there’s no way to maintain your footing on a slope covered in scoria. Oddly enough, I didn’t sustain any injuries from this part of the hike, although I did have to empty quite a few rocks out of my boots afterwards. (Oh, I miss those boots. They were sacrificed on the lava flow fields of Kilauea, and I never got to save the soles for posterity….but that’s another story.)

The moral of this story? Don’t climb volcanoes in shorts. I can laugh at myself now, but man, nettle scratches sting when you get them.