27 November 2011
Literary Skiers 17
"Spoken like a skier," I said.
He said, "I'm a retired skier."
He skied for the School of Mines. In other Rocky Mountain colleges and universities at the time, the best skiers in the United States were duly enrolled and trying to look scholarly and masquerading as amateurs to polish their credentials for the 1952 Olympic Games. Deffeyes was outclassed even on his own team, but there came a day when a great whiteout sent the superstars sprawling on the mountain. Defffeyes' turn for the slalom came late in the afternoon, and just as he was moving toward the gate the whiteout turned to alpenglow, suddenly bringing into focus the well-compacted snow. He shoved off, and was soon bombing. He was not hurting for weight even then. He went down the mountain like an object dropped from a tower. In the end, his time placed him high among the ranking stars.
Now, in the early evening, crossing Independence Valley, Deffeyes seemed scarcely to notice that the white summits of the Ruby Range--above eleven thousand feet, and the highest mountains in this part of the Great Basin--were themselves being reddened with alpenglow. He was musing aloud, for reasons unapparent to me, about the melting points of tin and lead. He was saying that as a general rule material will flow rather than fracture if it is hotter than half of its melting point measured from absolute zero. At room temperature, you can bend tin and lead. They are solid but they flow. Room temperature is more than halfway between absolute zero and the melting points of tin and lead. At room temperature, you cannot bend glass or cast iron. Room temperature is less than halfway from absolute zero to the melting points of iron and glass.
"If you go down into the earth here to a depth that about equals the width of one of these fault blocks, the temperature is halfway between absolute zero and the melting point of the rock. The crust is brittle above that point and the plastic below it. Where the brittleness ends is the bottom of the tilting fault block, which rests--floats, if you like--in the hot and plastic, slowly flowing lower crust and upper mantle. I think this is why the ranges are so rhythmic. The spacing between them seems to be governed by their depth--the depth of the cold brittle part of the crust. As you cross these valleys from one range to the next, you can sense how deep the blocks are. If they were a lot deeper than their width--if the temperature gradient were different and the cold brittle zone went down, say, five times the surface width--the blocks would not have mechanical freedom. They could not tilt enough to make these mountains. So I suspect the blocks are shallow--about as deep as they are wide. Earthquake history supports this. Only shallow earthquakes have been recorded in the Basin and Range.
"At the western edge of Death Valley, there are great convex mountain faces that are called turtlebacks. To me they are more suggestive of whales. You look at them and you see that they were once plastically deformed. I think the mountains have tilted up enough there to be giving us a peek at the original bottom of a block. Death Valley is below sea level. I would bet that if we could scrape away six thousand feet of gravel from these mile-high basins up here what we would see at the base of these mountains would look like the edge of Death Valley. I haven't published this hypothesis. I think it sounds right. I haven't done any field work in Death Valley. I was just lucky enough to be there in 1961 with the guy who first mapped the geology. I have been lucky all through the years to work in the Basin and Range. The Basin and Range impresses me in terms of geology as does no other place in North America. It's not at all easy, anywhere in the province, to say just what happened and when. Range after range--it is mysterious to me. A lot of geology is mysterious to me."
--John McPhee, from Basin and Range, 1980