Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Snowbird, Utah for Botany & Mycology 2009 - my last day here

I'm heading home this morning, one day before the conference ends. That's the problem with timing I have given the travel time and the Dublin Irish Festival this weekend. Next year looks to be the same or even worse timing - depends on when the festival weekend will be.

At any rate, yesterday was a very full, but productive day. I chaired the morning session on Lamiales and Gesneriales. It was a great session with a lot of good talks, including the one by my co-author on the Penstemon low-copy nuclear gene phylogeny. A quick break for lunch and then I had a talk scheduled in another great session on hybridization and speciation questions. My talk went well, which is always nice, but I have to admire Pam Soltis for her amazing handling of the technical difficulties that resulted in her slides not working. She was talking on the polyploidy of European Tragopogans and her slides just quit changing (Mac incompatibilities with the equipment in use). She was calm and collected and just did the talk sans slides. I know she thinks it was a disaster, but it came across as an amazing display of professionalism. Kudos, Pam.

The genomics talks were interesting. I'm not in that field of systematics, but I sure do appreciate the results of the investment NSF has made into those projects. I also enjoyed meeting Ken Wolfe, the Karling lecture speaker. He talked about genomics of yeast - another topic far afield from my work, but I'm interested in how others are mining the huge genomic databases that are now available.

Genomics is a field of study where whole genomes (all the DNA in the nucleus and organelles) are being sequenced. The information is analyzed for content - genes, repetitive DNA elements, control regions, etc. and the data are deposited into databases that are available for everyone to use. There's a whole new field of science called bioinformatics, which involves the mining of those databases.

I think most people have heard of the human genome project. It's that investment in science that has led to a cost-effective way of sequencing the genomes of other animals, plants, fungi, and microbes. We're learning so much about how life evolved and how it 'works' in terms of development and growth of the organism, and the timing and location of gene expression that makes it all happen. It's a fascinating area of science all on its own, but its particularly interesting in the comparative framework of evolutionary biology.

I also enjoyed visiting with students who did their PhDs with me and are now out on their own, training the next generation of scientists. I'm an academic grandmother and all of my 'progeny' have been pretty impressive. That's a great feeling, to know that I've contributed to our knowledge base through my career as a scientist. It's also incentive to stay current with what's going on in my field - it changes so rapidly. Genomics wasn't even a word when I started coming to these annual meetings in the late 1980's and now this field of study dominates funding priorities and research in systematics. Pretty amazing.

Ok, this 'interlude' is done and I'll resume my Nepal trek posts later in the week. Then I'll have another interlude for the Dublin Irish Festival - coming this weekend. One of the biggest and best in the world - don't miss it!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Snowbird, Utah for Botany & Mycology 2009 meeting - day 2

Yesterday was very, very busy, but also very productive. I have to confess that I honestly did not want to take the time to come to this meeting for a variety of reasons. First, the timing of this meeting is really awful for me, personally. This coming weekend is the Dublin Irish Festival and having to take four days out of my schedule ahead of the biggest gig of the year for Aisling is a real pain. Second, I've felt disconnected for the past couple of years and really didn't think I would be comfortable back in the thick of things. Third, I've been away from home way too much this year already.

Thus, I had a lousy attitude going in, but the first day of the meeting was a tonic of sorts. I had some fantastic conversations, received some invitations to do seminar visits, plus the start of a new collaboration. All those things are what these meetings are about, plus getting to sit in on some great talks and see where the cutting edge in my field is at the moment.

So, let that be a lesson to be learned - just do it!

One of the highlights from yesterday was a talk given by Noel Holmgren of the New York Botanical Garden. He presented an overview and history of the Intermountain Flora and I truly enjoyed seeing the slides of Art Cronquist, Art Holmgren, Jim Reveal and Noel and Pat in the field, plus the amazing landscapes of the intermountain flora region. It's such a fantastic project that was conceived seven decades ago.

ps - the scenery here isn't hard on the eyes, either.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Snowbird, Utah for Botany & Mycology 2009 meeting

My Nepal posts will be interrupted for this brief interlude to my annual scientific conference. I'm in Snowbird, Utah for the Botany & Mycology 2009 meeting. Snowbird is a lovely setting for a meeting; a ski resort with the conference center sitting at 8,100 feet. The top of the resort is at 11,000 feet, I think. It must be higher than the mountain I'm looking at from my room, because the tramway goes up and over that spot.

Here's a picture of my view, taken with my cell phone.

the view from my hotel window at snowbird utah for Botany 200... on Twitpic

I'm watching the sun work it's way down from the peak this morning, so my view is to the east.

I arrived mid-afternoon yesterday and it was pretty hot outside. I enjoyed watching ground squirrels on the grass - they must have dens in the slope down to the stream. There are a lot of plants in bloom up here as well and I photographed a couple of different Penstemons yesterday in the calm air at dusk.

I went to the Plenary lecture, given by Nancy Turner, on the ethnobotany of Pacific Northwest indigenous peoples. It was pretty interesting and I learned a lot of new things about the use of plants in those cultures. The mixer was afterwards - well attended, but I never enjoy those kinds of things. I don't know why I haven't developed a social ability after all these years in academia, but I'm always uncomfortable in a mixer setting. I need to bring Emma, my miniature dachshund - that would make it bearable. She doesn't have any trouble approaching strangers and distant acquaintances for some social interactions.

Doesn't this picture just scream, "Love me! I'm adorable!" ?

One thing I didn't know about Snowbird is that the bird doesn't go for the early worm around here. This place is shut tight until 7 am. That's pretty hard for an early riser on east coast time, especially with it not getting light until well after 6 am. Oh well - off to my first session this morning. Should be an interesting couple of days for the beginning of this week and then the Dublin Irish Festival is next weekend.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Nepal Trek 2009 - May 15, Climbing Kala Patthar

Today was the big day - our climb of Kala Patthar. We headed up the mountain after breakfast in the tea house. That was an adventure all in itself because a pony came in the back door and walked down the hallway. The Sherpas chased it back outside before its pal could come in and do the same. That would have been even more exciting - two ponies in the tea house.

Gorak Shep sits atop the lateral moraine on the western side of the Khumbu glacier. On the western edge of the moraine is a dry lake bed, so you have to climb down the moraine to the lake bed and then start climbing Kala Patthar. You can probably see the circle there that's demarcated by a stone ring. That's the cricket pitch for Gorak Shep. It's beyond my ken how anyone would have the breath to run around at this elevation to play cricket or football, but, then, I'm a lowlander living at 900 ft elevation. Gorak Shep is at 16,990 ft.

The first pitch up the mountain is a bit steep and so you gain elevation rather quickly. I took a series of photos of our campsite at Gorak Shep. This village used to be Everest Base Camp, but now is a seasonal village that caters to climbers and trekkers.

Our line of green tents is out behind our teahouse (off to the right, just out of the frame of this image). There's a blue toilet tent just up the hill from our tents. We usually had an outhouse or an inside squat toilet at the tea houses, but the staff always dug a trench for a toilet tent as well. At some of our camps, this was the most luxurious and clean spot to do your business. The hole was covered up with the dirt removed for the trench as we broke camp, but I wondered if there was more to the clean-up since the outhouses compost human waste for the fields where crops are grown. One can imagine that there would be an incredible amount of sewage to deal with each climbing and trekking season.

We tried to keep together for the first pitch of the climb, but it didn't take long for our group to split up. Monika and Steve ended up going fastest, followed by Thilo, Chris and myself, and then John, Megan and Kyle. These three ended up turning around and returning to camp - altitude was truly a wildcard on this day. Kyle came back later in the day and pushed through to the summit, but paid the price later on. He came back to the tea house totally chilled and sick and slept through tea, dinner and on to the morning. He pretty much laid down on a bench in the tea house and didn't rouse again until the next day. Jon Miller filmed an interview with him, which, if I recall, was pretty incoherent.

Yep, we're getting up there and our camp is disappearing. The view of the Khumbu glacier and the peaks flanking it was stunning. You can see how small Gorak Shep is - just a few buildings.

I think this is the view to the south. I'm not sure what peaks those are.

This is Changtse - the closest peak to Everest on the Tibet side of the border.

Pumo Ri dominated our view as we climbed Kala Patthar. During one of our rest stops we spotted some climbers on their way to the summit, and we found their advance base camp. I wish I had brought my binocular with me to have gotten a better look, but I was trying to keep my pack very light for this climb - only spare layers and water, plus my camera gear.

Gorak Shep has all but disappeared from view at this point, but the Khumbu glacier is there in all its glory. We couldn't have asked for a better morning to climb and to see the mountains.

Aha! Our first glimpse of Everest, up close and personal, just coming above the ridge of Nuptse there in the center.

This landscape inspires one to sit and ponder. Well, actually, the elevation motivates one to sit and rest, but that presents a good opportunity for reflection. I loved it!


There were a lot of huge glaciers coming off the flanks of Nuptse, down to the Khumbu glacier.

Now, this is an ice fall. Those seracs are probably more than 100 ft tall, but it's hard to get a sense of scale without a reference point.

The guy in orange was described as a "crazy man" by Tendi, our lead trail Sherpa. He acted as if he were drunk or high on something.

Another view of the glacier coming off Nuptse. You really have a sense of how glaciers are rivers of ice when you can see one merging into another.

The rocks and boulders capping the Khumbu glacier serve as a reminder of the force of nature to wear away the slopes of these mountains. These Himalayas are the biggest mountains in the world - the result of crashing continents, but they are being brought down before our eyes. To put this in perspective, one has to travel back in geological time about 400 million years, to another era when the Appalachians of North America and the Sperrin Mountains of Northern Ireland were the size of the Himalayas. Anyone familiar with these two mountain ranges (they were connected at the time of their orogeny) will have a hard time imagining that they were mighty giants in their day. Over the course of millions of years, erosion wore them down to the nubs that remain in our day and time.

And there, my friends, is the mother of all mountains - Sagamartha, Chomulungma, Everest - whatever you call it, it's the biggest mountain in the world. From the summit of Kala Patthar, it's still two freakin' miles above your head. I've always wanted to see this with my own eyes, and now this sight is one of my fondest memories.

We had been hearing the roar of avalanches all morning as we climbed, but by the time we heard them, they would already be done. I caught this one early enough that I was able to snap a photo as it was near the bottom of the slide.

The upper third of Kala Patthar is rock, snow and ice - at least it was for us. I'm sure it's just rock later in the season - black rock, the namesake of the mountain. Kala Patthar means "black stone."

Trekking poles came in pretty handy here. At 18,000 feet you take a few steps, breathe hard, say a few choice words, and then go on. This was my biggest challenge, but I decided that I would make it to the top if I just took small steps and took my time. It worked.

The reward is a spectacular view of Pumo Ri, which I forgot to photograph from here, plus Everest and the other big mountains, and Everest Base Camp. It's a sprawling tent city on the western edge of the Khumbu glacier.

Our two Sherpas who assisted us: Pasang Dawa Sherpa and Tendi Sherpa (in the pink hat). Pasang climbed the mountain in just a couple of hours, bringing two hot thermoses of orange drink and wearing pink Crocs sans socks.

Thilo brought a flag from his home town in Germany.

A spectacular view of Everest Base Camp and the Khumbu Ice Fall, which is what the climbers have to negotiate on their climb to advance base camp.

Everest and prayer flags.

The clouds are rolling in, but Everest is still visible above them.

Steve thought it would be neat to play his flute at 18,230 feet - it wasn't all that successful. One has to be able to breathe to play the flute.

I loved Tendi's pink hat - it reminded me of a Smurf's hat, but pink instead of blue.

Steve brought some prayer flags to the summit.

Last view of Everest before the clouds filled in and we headed down to Gorak Shep.

Interesting rocks here - looks like fossils, but aren't.

Here is my blog entry from Gorak Shep: climbing Kala Patthar.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Nepal Trek 2009 - May 14, Lobuche to Gorak Shep

Sunrise comes late to the mountains, simply because the Himalayan peaks are so huge. Lobuche is situated in the Khumbu valley, toward the south end of the glacier. The peaks to the east include Nuptse, Lhotse, and Everest. No wonder it's a late sunrise.

We were always awake by 6:00 am with breakfast served at 7 am, and a start time for the trail around 8 am. The first few pictures of this post are from around 7 am. First, a view of our camp.

Ama Dablam with the morning sun ablaze on its summit.

Sunrise over Nuptse. I'm so glad I got to see this sight.

Our "kitchen" - even though we ate inside the tea houses, all of our food was prepared by our team staff and they did this outside or in a side shed at every camp we made.

By the time we finished breakfast, all our tents were packed and our gear was on its way up trail to Gorak Shep.

The last staff members to leave camp were our kitchen boys, cooks and servers. They had to really be fast on their feet, because they had to be at our next stop to prepare lunch before we arrived.

They're so fast that I couldn't get my camera set up to take a proper picture. They pretty much ran out of camp to hit the trail.

One of the Lobuche peaks - not sure if this is the east or west - given the lighting, I'll guess west.

This landscape is pretty much what we had up there on the Khumbu glacial moraine. Rocks, rocks, and more rocks with some patches of soft dirt.

I actually enjoyed the scenery the most of all the places we trekked.

That's Chris Marquardt, front and right. Check out his podcast - Tips from the top floor. Here's a link to the Everest Trek 2009 teaser.

You'd never think that we were walking along a glacier - it looks just like a boulder field. That's the top layer. The ice is below and that rocky ridge is the lateral moraine to the east. We're walking on the western one.

There's a well-worn path to follow - somewhat rocky in places, but easy enough to see on the flats.

As we walk north, Changtse comes into view - that's the peak in the center to the back. It's actually in Tibet, so you can see how close we are to the border.

We had a rest break at a place where there were some memorial cairns. Jon Miller is talking to Apa Sherpa there on the left. Apa has summited Everest more than any other climbing Sherpa or non-Sherpa climber and he was on his way down from Everest for a low-altitude (well, lower altitude compared to base camp) rest break. He summited Everest (his 19th) about a week after we left Nepal. I wish I had thought to have him sign my trekking journal.

I can't believe how lucky we were with the morning weather. The mountains were everything I ever dreamed of - so glorious, so pure, so beautiful, so BIG!!!!!

You don't have a sense of scale from these pictures, but the peaks you can see in them are all over 20,000 feet. The one on the left is Pumo Ri - 23,494 ft.

This is Nuptse - 25,790 feet.

A good view of the Khumbu glacier, flanked by these majestic peaks of the Himalayas.

One of my best Woodcentral sightings pictures - ever!

A glacier coming off the base of Nuptse.

A glacial cirque along one of the flanks of Nuptse.

I had brought the travel section of the Dispatch along for a photo op. We became the subject of an impromptu workshop on the proper use of a reflector. Thilo snapped the picture and a whole lot of others were involved in setting up the reflected lighting.

The birds up at this elevation were very tame. They didn't seem too bothered by humans or yaks and just kind of wandered around us as we were trekking. I need to look up this bird in my Birds of Nepal book - wherever I put that. Hmmmmm - I'm sure there are other things that are misplaced from the trip, too.

You can see where the Khumbu glacier makes the turn, lower left. Everest base camp is just at the edge of the turn.

A good view of Changtse.

The Khumbu glacier. This gives you an idea of the boulder field that caps the glacier. Where the ice has melted you have glacial lakes and erosion caves for runoff. You can see in this picture how much of the glacier has melted - it's dropped about 400 feet there from where it used to be.

Melting of the glaciers will have a severe impact on Nepal and the countries that depend on melt water for their supply of fresh water. It's a sobering reminder of what we're experiencing on a global scale, but there are dire consequences to a large population in this part of the world.

If you click on this picture, you should be able to see the tents of Everest Base camp on the left. EBC is a huge tent city with hundreds of tents from all the expeditions. We're still about a day's hike away (western pace) at this point.

Pumo Ri in all it's glory. The darker peak in front of Pumo Ri is Kala Patthar - at 18,230 feet. More on that in a later post.

Our final rest stop of the day - hot fruit drink and snacks. What a grand place for a picnic, don't you think?

It's so beautiful. The clouds start rolling in after lunch, so it won't be long before the views of the mountains disappear.

The trail becomes a bit more challenging the closer we get to Gorak Shep. Cairns mark the way.

Trekking poles are pretty handy. Steve's front right in this picture, followed by Pasang Sherpa, who is carrying my pack. I was really feeling poorly with my upper respiratory infection. I posted a bit about this day while we were in Nepal. You can read that post here: We're in Gorak Shep.

One more ridge to climb and then we're over into Gorak Shep.

The yak parking lot outside our tea house. It was so nice to come into the tea house and warm up by the yak dung stove. I don't remember much about the afternoon or turning in for the evening. I do remember there was a team of climbers down for a rest break and they were having a good time.

What I remember the most from this evening is that it was very, very cold and the yaks were restless all night. The cacophony of yak bells ringing all night was enough for me to put in ear plugs. I do remember getting a good night's sleep, despite the high elevation and the restless yaks wandering through our camp. We were at 17,000 feet at Gorak Shep - two nights of camping there and some major highlights of the trip to be had - stay tuned for my fun day of climbing Kala Patthar.