I'm convinced that I was born under a curse. I'm sentenced to
compulsively make numerical contrasts and comparisons. And with no
false modesty, I am damned good at it. Where others stumble, I see
the quantitative nuances. For me, rounding off numbers, unless
absolutely necessary, is a vulgar practice.
I am not alone in my talent. Lee Frelich and Will Blozan are equally
gifted. Lee would never, say, round the number 1,047 by substituting
the vague descriptor "thousands" as newspaper reports frequently do.
I guess reporters think that in introducing imprecision they are
capturing the essence of an idea. Hogwash!
Well, I'm expanding my comparative talents with the camera. I don't
yet know what I'm doing, but it feels right. When I attempt to
describe the boldness of the western landscape in words, it can
sound as if I'm diminishing its eastern equivalent. Not so. At
least, not necessarily. However, east and west are qualitatively and
quantitatively different, and where in the past I've concentrated
strictly on numerical measures, I have now added the camera's all
The first and third of the three attached images show eastern
mountain panoramas. The second and fourth images show western
mountain scenes. The vertical relief in these images is
approximately the same. Does it look the same to the eye? BTW, a
spin off talent of this cultivated perception is quickly judging the
heights of trees.
As a general observation, western mountain panoramic scenes are
usually painted from a broader color pallet. Land shapes are more
angular. Outlines are sharper. The blue haze of the Appalachians
softens features and can diminish the appearance of significant
size. The eastern Catskills are mountains - not just big hills.
The vegetative covering of western mountains is heavily skewed
toward conifers,; that of the eastern peaks toward hardwoods.
Neither is better than the other, just different. Viva la
Bob Leverett wrote (July 29, 2009)
You are a kindred spirit. Yes, Maine's Katahdin is remindful of
western summits. It has an impressive cliff face, exhibits
compelling contours that compel the eye to follow its long profile,
and it rises high above its base. One has to see this mountain to
fully appreciate it. And of primary interest to Ents, Katahdin has
first-growth forest on its upper slopes. The individual trees may
not be that old, but the forest is not re-growth from logging.
Katahdin is a national treasure.
Speaking of great views, there is a vista that takes my breath
away in the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. One
encounters the view at the northern end of the Foothills Parkway.
From an overlook, the scene opens toward the massive forms of
6,621-foot Mount Guyot, 6,417-foot Mount Chapman, 6,370-foot Old
Black, and 9 other 6,000-footers that comprise the crest of the
Smokies. People who stop at the overlook and snap shots seldom
realize that they are looking at a 4,000 to 5,000-foot wall of
mountains rising before them -- a Western-magnitude landscape.
In pure vertical relief, the western slopes of the Smokies rank
#1 among eastern mountains, with Mount Leconte often cited as rising
5,301 feet above its "base" in Gatlinburg, a base that I fear is
laterally placed a little too far away. Still, we can squeeze a
5,000-foot base-to-summit rise out of Leconte by choosing the right
approach to it.
Back to the big view mentioned above. For the mountain-attuned,
what diminishes awareness of the size of this view of the Smokies?
The lush vegetation and characteristic blue haze softens the impact
(and other prominent eastern summits). The dense covering of trees
on the slopes and summits along with the almost perpetual blue haze
makes them look softer, friendlier. Clouds often enshroud the
summits where annual precipitation regularly exceeds 80 inches and
can go over 100 in wet years. Rising morning mists lend an almost
tropical look to the Smokies.
But once in their embrace, the wildness, vastness, and sheer size
of the Smokies become apparent. Will Blozan once made a trek to
measure a tree far off the trail network. By the time he had
returned from the tree to his vehicle, he had put on a whopping
7,500 feet of elevation changes. What motivated him to expend so
much energy? Real forest giants grow hidden in the deep ravines and
coves. There are almost 150,000 acres of original growth forest in
the Smokies, and despite the countless hours expended by Will and
Jess Riddle, they keep finding more huge trees and new champions of
height. Their discoveries and the finds of others have made us aware
that the temperate rainforest environment of the slopes and summits
of the Smokies supports the greatest deciduous-coniferous forest in
the East. We have documented more species of trees in the Smokies
that reach significant size and/or height than for any other eastern
forest. Many of our tall tree lists reflect the pre-eminence of the
When I returned from the Far East and southeastern Asia in 1971,
where I had been, courtesy of the USAF, the Smokies were most
remindful to me of the tropical mountains I had found so attractive
in the Philippines and on Taiwan. I had always loved the Smokies,
but as a consequence of my time in Asia, I acquired a new
appreciation for them. In fact, my Asian experiences and southern
Appalachian reconnections were key motivators in the co-founding of
I have always thought the Appalachians to be far richer in
viewscapes than they are given credit by western mountain
aficionados. I'm with James Robert Smith in his disdain for any who
would disparage the Appalachians as mere hills. They are mountains.
My experience as a numerical comparer and contraster has reinforced
that awareness. It has also allowed me to acquire some measurement
benchmarks. For my particular eye, it takes about a half mile of
vertical relief, gained fairly quickly, to create a real mountain
look. Thereafter, visual impressiveness does expand as vertical
relief increases, but a point is reached where my eye-brain
combination just can't calibrate what it is being fed. Beyond that
point, more is not better, at least not a lot better. Well, uh, let
me rethink what I've just said as I contemplate the visual impact of
Denali up Don Bertolette's way. Hmmm, maybe there are other
exceptions as well. Colorado's San Juans or Wyoming's Grand Tetons
I'll conclude this across-the-summits ramble with 3 images taken
last summer on the third of Monica's and my fabulous western
adventures. The first image shows our restful spot on the southern
shore of Lake Superior, a spot near the entrance to Porcupine
Mountain State Park - Lee's old stomping grounds. Lake Superior is a
first-class spiritual experience. In terms of the image, I'm unsure
of the whether the chair on the left side adds or detracts. Maybe it
is a metaphor or symbol for something. My aching bones?
The last two images are of Wyoming's incomparable Grand Tetons.
The first image looks across sage brush flats to the ever-dominant
profile of the Grand. That 13,770-foot mass of rock and ice is the
second highest summit in Wyoming. At 13,804 feet, only Gannett Peak
is loftier, but the Grand is more dramatic. It boldly thrusts its
weather resistant rock nearly 7,000 feet above Jackson Hole.
Eye-popping. However, in fairness to Gannett, the comparisons are
not over (they never are). The slopes of Gannett Peak are home to
the largest of the glaciers within that portion of the Rocky
Mountain chain located in the lower 48 states. Yes, there are much
larger glaciers in the Cascades and on those huge Pacific volcanoes
such as Rainier. Comparisons. Comparisons. Comparisons.
The second image looks across Jenny Lake toward the Grand and
other high peaks of the Tetons.