Eastern and Western Summits Robert Leverett
July 28, 2009


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 seeing eye.
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 difference.


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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 Smokies.

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 ENTS.

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 anyone?

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.


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