Saturday, 20 July 2013

A Journey Through Time

I've given a talk a couple of times. I call it “Twin Peaks – a Brief Hike in the Himalaya”, meaning it to be a not so clever reference to the famous “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush”, that classic statement of English understatement and whimsy by Eric Newby.

The talk is a travelogue which recounts a 19 day journey including the climbing of two peaks of over 6,000m and that seasons first crossing of a high pass (at an altitude of 5,750m). It is of course littered with pictures of one of the most photogenic landscapes in the world and gives me the opportunity to perform a little; to extemporise, and to be a little quirky. I start by explaining that this is a very physical journey and also an emotional and spiritual one but however the real journey starts as follows –

“70 million or so years ago what is now the Indian sub-continent parted company from the super continent of Pangea. On board was a lonely and bewildered dinosaur named Norman. The journey across what is now the Indian Ocean took some 30 million years until this peripatetic land mass smashed into the far larger and essentially immovable mass of the Asiatic plate. The damage was, in geological terms, enormous. Of course by this time not only had Norman the bewildered dinosaur long gone, but so had all his successors although minute traces of some of them can still occasionally be seen.

Recently a friend and I went to the site of this geological trauma to assess the damage, and what we found was astonishing. . . . .”
A terribly long journey (sourced from - modified) 
Well you can’t fault it for being beguiling – and audiences have been very polite.

But whimsy aside I have subconsciously opened up, at least in my mind, the essence of geological time scale as something that is actually understandable at a human scale. Accepted the life span of homo sapiens is but a smidgen in the face of the tens of thousands of years on the geomorphologic ruler, and the millions of years of the geological clock, but here in this landscape I believe you can feel the passage of these time scales.

Nuptse - a geological Black Forest cake
From a Southern viewpoint Nuptse is a long ridge with several small peaks. It is a counterpoint, a frame, for the majesty of Lhotse and Lhotse Shar and the aloof presence of Sagaramatha (Everest) behind. From this angle Nuptse is bare of snow because it is so steep; and because unlike both Lhotse and Everest it is not a prominent peak it does not have a cloud plume. It does however have the most extraordinarily showy display of strata. These sensuous lines are a gentle counterpoint to the jagged profiles of the saw-tooth multiple peaks above and are a stark illustration of the modernity of these mountains that were laid down as sediments and recently (geologically speaking) uplifted with tectonic forces that we rarely see in older mountains. In time with weathering the succulent inner layers of this giant Black Forest cake will become the surface.

This geological gentleness, a sign of a recent and not ancient history, is perhaps a clue to the atmosphere of this landscape. Older mountain systems have been through astonishing tectonic traumas. They have been twisted, turned, stretched and compressed; broken, upended and overturned. They have been heated and cooled to extremes; and the process repeated so that the visible strata has been cracked and fractured and turned on its head. And over time the surfaces has been abraded and smoothed to gentler, more mature surfaces.
Cutting on the Bulembu/Barberton Road
(Mpumulanga Province RSA) showing local

A close-up of a geological signature

Here in the Himalayas the mountains are young and callow. They have not been subjected to ancient forces that older ranges have been, and the weathering of the surface is still in its early stages. Peaks are jagged and momentous, but the exposed strata shows rocks that are still much as they were when they were laid down under modern seas that had level littoral surfaces.

The ridge at Amphu Labche Pass, Nepal. Jagged, knife sharp
rocks . . . . 

Here there is a sense of geology in process, of morphological change, of weathering in progress. In millennia to come there are going to be massive forces that will be just as great as those that have thrown up these mountains. In the meantime the puny but persistent forces of wind, ice and water continue to pick away at the rock with these temporary and dramatic results.

My home is among mountains of a far older provenance than the Himalayas. But in a sense these mountains are no less momentous. Just 50 or so kilometres away among the jumbled mess known by Geologists as the “Greenstone Belt” there is evidence of the oldest microbes yet discovered among rocks that are 3.5bn years old.
Rock sample from the Makhonjwa Mountains (Swaziland)
with little bits of very old life forms embedded in it.

As I sit on a grassy Swaziland high veldt summit I can with the romantic vision of imagination superimpose in my mind the sheer hubris of the Himalayas on the maturity of the Mkhonjwa Mountains. Ironically the mountains so familiar to me – the ones in my back yard - are located on a remnant of the ancient super continent of Pangea from which the Indian subcontinent calved a mere 70 million years ago.

View from Imja Tse, Nepal; and view from Mkhonjwa, Swaziland. Similar journeys - just a couple of billion years apart.

Walking through valleys and ascending heights in the Himalayas I found myself consciously touching rock faces as we passed. I think that I had already noticed Kipa, our Sherpa climbing guide doing just that and maybe I was initially just aping his behaviour. I'm not sure, but it seemed; it seems – a natural thing to do, at two levels at least. The spiritual one speaks to offering thanks and permissions to be there – a theistic gesture.

The other is more a recognition of age and the passing of time – a tactile chronometer perhaps?

1 comment:

  1. As always Steve - interesting and thought provoking. Why are you a QS, not a geologist?


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