A hiking beginner’s journal: The space-time revelation

12 July 2019

For a year now, I have been addicted. Addicted to hiking different places with varying topography, difficulty, and this made me go over 28 peaks in six different countries in three continents. A very simple motivation for me to hike was to be outdoors more, because for 2.5 years of my masters I was just indoors, with no real communication with humans or nature of any kind. Being in Switzerland led to a relentless study of different Alpine paths, mapping elevation gains to the level of fitness, understanding the layers of clothes essential for different heights, and such trivial tasks which defined whether I was finishing the hike within the last ride back home or not. I remember the first hike I did where I was in a large group and made everyone stop for a mere 200m ascent, and I remember the last where I stopped just once for a 5-minute lunch after 800m ascent. So yes, personally, I have gained a lot from these hikes, in terms of a better fitness level and a better understanding of nature in different parts of the world.

A chronological map of my hikes – The dip for the peaks accurately shows the winters, with most peaks closed (except for skiing) for hikes

A chronological map of my hikes – The dip for the peaks accurately shows the winters, with most peaks closed (except for skiing) for hikes

But these hikes were never just personal. Every hike made me a step closer to realize that how each of the path I was taking was not just unique in the amount of difficulty or type of exposure of the path (e.g. T1-T3, a scale to differentiate between different types of paths among hikers/ mountaineers). But it was extremely unique in the aspect of where it was and when it was formed. In one of the recent hikes I started noticing that the colors of the rock were extremely different even in the same Alpine range; the reason being that they had travelled from many different places and times to be finally settled there. And that was the start of the space-time revelation for me, or in very normal human words – an interest in geology of mountains and hills.  

Because plots and geology are the new love, here is one more .

Because plots and geology are the new love, here is one more.

As far as I studied, the oldest place I have been to till now, is the caves in the eastern part of Czech Republic, called the Moravian Karst, with the history of the rocks there as old as 400 million years old, which means way before dinosaurs. This was an age called Devonian age, where the fishes were most prominent species. Moravian karst are filled with limestone caves to beautiful gorges, which are not just specific to the times of the fishes though, they also range till the Tertiary age (around 30 million years ago or 30 MYA), with the processes of orogeny (basically, processes of mountain formation where earth’s crust is folded and deformed). This is something not specific to the Moravian karst, as I will discuss later, almost every mountain range or region has immense number of ages trapped in it’s layered formations. While hiking, if you are observant enough (I haven’t been always), you would see these beautiful layers even in the exposed rocks, with clear lines and different colors in a single rock.

The next wiser (i.e. older) place I travelled to in early 2019 was in Germany and it is one of the most travelled natural place of Germany - the black forest! The rocks in these forests age back to as old as 300 MYA with mostly a lot of Gneiss, granite and sandstone content. Gneiss is a common term for form of a metamorphic rock i.e. formed by multiple combinations of igneous (formed by volcanic eruptions) and sedimentary (formed with erosion and settlement processes) rocks. Black forest does not go very high (highest peak at around 1490 m), but it goes extremely wide (160 X 50 km) and has a very varied topology from grasslands to ridges, and multiple glacial lakes from more than 10,000 years ago.

Having spent borders with Switzerland, Germany had to be explored more and thus I travelled to the other extreme (i.e. the east part) of Germany with other beautiful set of forests. The germans call it the Sächsische Schweiz or the Saxon Switzerland. This has peculiarly weird and extremely tall sandstone rocks standing alone and covering an entire landscape for about 100 square km. The mountain ranges are made mainly from the erosion processes from the Cretaceous period (around 70 MYA, or post-jurassic times). This part is rich in mostly sand, clay and quartz remains as sediments of many river banks and the erosion processes have made bigger hills to just settle into large standalone rocks, adding to the beauty of the vast landscape.

The old and wise and much eroded, Elbe Sandstones

The old and wise and much eroded, Elbe Sandstones

Though I travelled a lot around the non-swiss regions, the Swiss Alps were definitely the true-found love and most of my stories and research is from there. To be honest, I was extremely disappointed to find out that they are one of the very young mountain ranges. In fact, they are even younger than the Western hills (“ghats”) of India where I grew up. But I was extremely pleased to find that they are insanely complicated. Not a single mountain is like the other. They do have a similar story of formation, but looking at the vastness of the Alps itself none of the peaks can be same. So, as I understood from the different scattered studies on Alps, they are mostly divided in terms of geology as Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Alps. Some even consider the Western and Central as one group (mostly the Austrians, yeah, they are too proud of their Eastern Alps’ ranges). Swiss lies mostly in the Central Alps part. Except for three of the peaks I have been to which were Eastern and/or Southern, all have been Central.

The process of formation of Alps started more than 150 million years ago (MYA), but the recent peaks as we see them – even the tallest and one of the oldest one i.e. the Mont Blanc is just of the age of 6 MYA. The Alps were formed when the Adriatic and the European continents collided (as I imagined in my mind, it was not like a process of one explosion, and voila – Alps are here – it literally took millions of years). But the more interesting part is that Alps do not just have layers from these two continent collisions, but also the collision of the ocean basin (from the Tethys sea, Valais ocean, and very old oceans which existed then, and which do not exist as such any more) with the continents. Isn’t it amazing that the same mountains have layers of rocks from not just the oldest of ocean basins (sedimentary rocks), but also from the highly igneous rocks from many eruptions and different continents? Thus, Alps have literally been one of those biggest space-time revelations for me.

Why did they collide at the first place? Basically, Earth is very stable right now (except for the global warming fuck-up we are doing), but it was not millions of years ago – let’s say it was still cooling down – and the mantle’s movements, which is basically a liquid, (the layer of earth below the crust or the upper layer where we are based on) affected the crust and many tectonic plates as well. So, now that we know why the collision happened, we should be clear that these continents kept shifting all time and thus the process of the formation of mountains was stretched over millions of years. In fact, the erosions are still going on due to multiple glaciers everywhere on Alps. On a very general level, it can be said that the Central Alps (at least many of the mountains I have been to) are fairly younger than those in the more Eastern and Southern parts (majorly consisting of the Eocene metamorphic rocks, from around 60 MYA).

Some Alps memories, which have stuck with me from the central Alps, have been from the Valais region. The Matterhorn stands as the most mightiest mountain I have seen till date (said to be even tougher to climb than Everest). The Valais region have been studied in geology differently, especially the Matterhorn, as well. An interesting revelation to me about Matterhorn was that the older rocks are above the younger ones in this mountain. More interestingly, this is a very common trend around Alps that the older rocks are pushed in the process of mountain formation above the younger ones. In fact, Matterhorn has even a third layer i.e. of the sedimentary rocks at the bottom. Look up the YouTube links in the sources I mention below to understand how this actually happens; it is quite wonderful.

The mighty Matterhorn

The mighty Matterhorn

As much as the Alps and generally mountain ranges are always fascinating, I think we credit hills and canyons excessively less because they are basically small (and much younger). But I would like to talk about them anyways because they are not bad and I have been on them too much (I live on one!). Generally. So, the hills originate (usually) from river and glacier settlements or sediments. Looking at their ages, especially in Switzerland/ Europe and around Zurich, they have been quite young generally like 60-100,000 years old. Those in Canada, formed from the canyons of the rivers and especially the processes of erosions date back to around 70,000 years too. But then if we go a little spatially explicit, they can surprise you quite a lot. For example, those which we found at the edge of the coast of Denmark at Mons Klint are 60 million years old. And what they contain is more surprising – they basically feel like chalk or calcium, and we were surprised to find that it is from the shells of the microscopic organisms which lived in oceans/ seas millions of years ago. Crazy, right? The Indian hills are also quite old, formed mostly with many volcanic eruptions and sediments on the coast – more older in the Southern part of India – even older than the Valais Alps, and I found it extremely beautiful that I have grown up on them as a child.

The chalky hills in Eastern coast of the Denmark

The chalky hills in Eastern coast of the Denmark

I started writing this post or even doing this study because with time I have realized, walking on these hikes and every part of the earth I am on, that what we are experiencing in nature is not here just now. It has been here for literally 100s of millions years or it has at least travelled from millions of kiliometers. We need to respect that simple fact to be able to appreciate the beauty, and simply protect it. Everyday. Simple, right?

References and other good sources:

1.       Details on tectonics of all the regions of the Alps (one of the most exhaustive studies I could find)  - here

2.       Mountaineers classification of the peaks  - https://www.theuiaa.org/mountaineering/mountain-classification/

3.       Basins of the sea and the rocks types in Swiss - here

4.       For black forest details: https://www.nationalpark-schwarzwald.de/en/national-park/natural-environment/geology/

5.       About Moravian karst - https://www.gli.cas.cz/users/hladil/www/B2-Guidebook-MK.pdf

6.       The lynn national park and the mons klint have great ecological center to check out the geology of those locations in details.