THE SAVAGE FIGHT FOR LIFE Above the timberline

Only a few animals, some violent, many gentle, can survive the beautiful but harsh world above the trees. Here, a woman who lived there describes how animals outsmart the mountains

JEAN GEORGE September 22 1962

THE SAVAGE FIGHT FOR LIFE Above the timberline

Only a few animals, some violent, many gentle, can survive the beautiful but harsh world above the trees. Here, a woman who lived there describes how animals outsmart the mountains

JEAN GEORGE September 22 1962

THE SAVAGE FIGHT FOR LIFE Above the timberline

Only a few animals, some violent, many gentle, can survive the beautiful but harsh world above the trees. Here, a woman who lived there describes how animals outsmart the mountains


SLASHED ACROSS THE TOPS of tall mountains of the world lies a cruel no-man's land, where howling winds make dwarfs of trees and ice beats grass and flowers to a mat. The sun punishes, ice and rocks avalanche. This is the land above “timberline”—beautiful, but harsh, dangerous, where seemingly nothing can live. And yet life has grubbed a toehold there. Not ordinary life, hut birds and beasts and plants that have learned to live with unbelievable hardship.

1 first became intrigued with the ingenuity and endurance of life beyond the trees some years ago when a mountaineer, sitting at a campfire in the west, his ice axe still on his belt, pointed to a black peak against the stars.

“But for the insight into that mountain by a black-eyed mountain goat. 1 would not be here tonight,” he began. “Three days ago I was crossing an icicle-heavy glacier when a puff of smokelike dust arose from the hanging wall below me. I knew it was the first signal of an avalanche. I thought my time had come.

"A mountain goat, who had been feeding quietly to my left in a windswept garden in the rotting snow, suddenly tensed. His big hump back quivered under his white fur. The mountain was telling him to run. He bounced to an ice wall, appraised it swiftly, and sprinted out of sight. I turned and followed. At least it was a chance. I had learned long ago that all animals of the high country know the mountains, but that the wild goat knows it best. Some people think the goats keep alive up there merely because they can run away from avalanches and leap from enemies; but it's more than that. They are students of every crack and cranny of their home. I ran to the wall, slammed my axe into the marks he had made with his hooves and heaved up his route. There were ledges and handgrips for me that I'd never guessed were there. Struggling over the top 1 rolled onto solid rock just as an artillery explosion announced the collapse of my trail.”

As he talked I stared at the peak and wondered what other intelligent life lived in those bleak rocks, and how they made out in blizzards and storms and relentless sun. I felt that some day I must go to the land beyond the trees.

A year later I stood at tree line in the Colorado Rockies. (It could have been the Grand Teton in Wyoming, Mount Rainier in Washington, any of the many mountains that stretch above 10,000 feet.) The wind that dried my face was icy cold as it funneled down a pass from a glacier. The snow still covered the northern slopes. I could see no life at all. I could hear nothing but the wind. Gradually I realized that


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Each Sept. 1, the ram takes the same trail to the same place. Then, he fights for his harem

a big white Rocky Mountain sheep was staring down on me, his pantaloons blowing in the gusts. I stared in disbelief: he was fat and calm and comfortable, standing in nothing hut wind and snow. I saw no food for him. Presently, bored with me, he leaned down and ate. and I realized the old mountaineer was right—the animals of the high country do know their mountains. The wind had swept the slope for the ram. exposing the sweet grass.

He sprinted down from his meadow, and lightly running over a talus slope disappeared around a boulder.

I decided to follow him. remembering that the sheep like the goats knew the best trails. (In fact, the Forest Service, at the turn of the century, tossed out its own blueprints for mountain trails in favor of the trails built by the sheep and goats. These routes were longer but out of the wind and sun. Also the animals maintained them free of charge.) Immediately 1 learned that knowing where to walk is not enough. You also have to know how to walk. The talus slope went out from under my clumsy feet like a nightmare and I slid fifty yards to the bottom of a moraine. The ram walk,ed on. up his own switchbacks, over ice and snow. He stepped to a high pinnacle, looked down at me, scratched. and leaped to another pinnacle. He alighted with stiff legs, and was instantly rigid. There was no teetering for a grip—just bang!—there he was. His control was breathtaking.

I limped to the lowlands understanding some of the problems of the top of the world, and how sheep and goats solved them. Knowledge and shockproof legs were one half of their survival story; the other was a society suited to hardship.

Several days later I saw a group of females and lambs in a wide high meadow. The ram was a speck above them grazing the small lonely gardens that took skill and endurance to find. It was women and children first, for the sheep, until September when the ram would join them. Head down he would drive his curling horns against those of a rival, shaking the mountains like thunder.

On top of all the high peaks of the world members of this remarkable group of animals cavort and sprint on the edges of cliffs and dash along sheer precipices. The Himalayas have the shy ibex, the Andes have their alpaca and llama, and in the Alps the chamois capers on the boulders where lesser beasts fear to go.

The chamois is like our mountain goat, using the environment as a shield against enemies. Hunters stalk him for days before he becomes careless enough to stand alone. Usually he walks with a sheer wall on one side and a 1.500-foot drop on the other.

But for all their intelligence, the mating ritual of the chamois seems poorly planned. The stag lives alone until September 1, according to

mountaineers. Then he leaves his hide-out and follows his trail to his harem and kids. He doesn't just take the same trail every year: hut he "appears in the same places on the same day every year. He is magnificent, head high, prongs polished, haunches well-rounded and sleek. When he finds his females and young the vigorous rutting begins. His horns slash open his rivals, his voice rumbles like an avalanche. He does not sleep. He docs not eat. And when he turns to leave two weeks later, he is gaunt, thin and exhausted. Drifting oil to his solitary hide-out in poor condition, he faces the famine of winter. The snow is falling, his food is hard won, and long months of fighting wind and cold are ahead.

After watching the goats and sheep on several trips to the timberline I began to understand how they survived, but the marmot's ability to adjust to these rigors continued to surprise me.

The marmot is a hibernator. Most hibernators, like the marmot's lowland cousin the woodchuck, need long springs, summers and autumns to store up food. However, the whistling marmot (who, in his high-altitude home, actually does w'histle) has only two and a half months at the most to get fat for winter. For a long time it was believed his secret was to eat from dawn to dusk without stopping. But one day on a camping trip to the high country I noticed a marmot who spent most of his day running in and out of his den and w'histling. He spent very little time in his meadow.

1 asked a mammalogist who was with us what he made of this idleness and he told me that the remarkable secret of the marmot’s survival in the mountains is the animal's unique metabolism.

"All of a sudden, toward the end of the season, these fellows can put on layers of fat in no time at all, on no more food than usual. It is a remarkable and still-mysterious utilization of energy. The army is studying the nature of it for possible use in man's trips into space. It would be nice for an astronaut going to Venus to hibernate.”

One of the most surprising things about the majority of the animals of the alpine tundra is that they are not as massive or rugged as the polar bear and the caribou of the Arctic. Some are just plain dainty and delicate like the little mountain cony.

The first time I saw a cony, brighteyed with soft tan fur. and no bigger

than a gray squirrel, 1 asked my ecologist brother why the cony was running around with pretty flowers in its mouth when it ought to be working.

In three leaps brother Frank went up a talus slope and called to me to follow.

"He's a farmer.” he said, “and flowers are his crop.” He pointed to a pile of exotic hay under a rock in a "cony barn." It was sweet-scented and as big as a bedpillow'. I could see many crops tucked under the overhangs of the boulders. We climbed higher where the snow still covered the slope. Frank got down on his stomach, twisted and peered under the snow'. "A cony city,” he said. 1 got down to look at the most original of all the hide-outs on the alpine tundra. Rocks made tent-poles and ropfs for the snow, leaving alleys and main streets, silos and barns below. These cities are dim. but warm, about thirtytwo degrees Fahrenheit all winter. And the cony's eyes arc big. enabling him to run and cavort in his dark winter city under the snow and rocks.

The cony has other assets which help keep him alive during mountain blizzards. His body is round and compact. his ears are small, he has a puff for a tail. These characteristics conserve heat. There are no long appendages like ears and tails for the wind to cool and freeze.

All the birds of the alpine tundra have their secrets of survival but the ptarmigan probably has more tricks than any other. Densely feathered, he changes his plummage to match the browns of summer, the whites of winter. While doing this, his shabby molt matches the splotchy melting of the spring snow. This amazing bird has another and stranger habit. Unlike most birds he fights to the death during mating season, thus killing many of the weaker ptarmigans. If they were allowed to live and compete for the hard-to-find food, starvation would kill more birds than those that die in the battles for land and wives.

Some biologists on a day of picnicking at 12,000 feet in the Rockies noticed a group of ptarmigans. Immediately the outing was turned into a busman’s holiday. An ornithologist, his feet near a snowficld, bent over and patted snowballs into a snowbird. It was spring—June—so he stuck brown grass into the sculpture to simulate the molting cock. We all sat still while he whistled the call of a proud male strutting around on his neighbor's territory and challenging the ow'ner to run him off. “1 w'ant to see what the fury of the ptarmigan is like,” the scientist said.

Immediately what I thought was a rock got up and turned into a furious bird. Over the tundra came the cock of the club. He looked neither left nor right, just bore down on the snowbird; and, feathers lifted, wings dropped in battle, he struck wing-first. He jumped back in surprise at the cold reception and struck again. I moved in the excitement and he turned and rushed me. Before he struck he came to his senses, took to the air. and circled back to his family. He led them, sneaking with heads low. to a knoll. I stole forward, keeping an eye on the spot where they sat for they were hard to see. When I came upon them. I found nothing hut stones.

Another bird that has learned to live on the mountaintop is the pipit.

He walks rather than hops for he spends most of his time on the ground, nesting and feeding and courting. He doesn't perch because there are no trees, and so he has developed a long hind toe that shoves him along. Fast footwork is more protection in his world than toes that grasp.

.Since the flat tundra offers little protection from the elements, the pipit is another student of the terrain. While hiking the Tctons several years ago 1 found the only shelter in an electric storm by following a flock of pipits.

We were overtaken by a sudden explosion of rain, sleet and lightning. There was no place to hide. The guide, shouting that the storm was a dangerous one, asked us to lie down. We were at the top of the world where anything taller than four inches was a target for the snapping electricity.

As I lay down a flock of pipits whirled over a small rise and disappeared. Remembering that other people in the mountains had taken lessons from the birds and beasts, I wiggled after them. Taking their spot 1 saw that the knoll was higher than I. The other hikers joined me. Silently we watched the white fire dance over the flatlands where we had been a moment before.

The brilliant sun of the high country is just as killing as the ice and lightning and cold. Most animals, like the goat, adjust to it by staying in the shadows of rocks or feeding in the softness of dawn and dusk. Many animals are light in color to bend back the intense rays.

The flowers: dainty—but tough

After my last trip to the alpine tundra I concluded that the flowers were the most amazing life on the top of the world, be they in British Columbia, Maine. New' Hampshire. Wyoming or Switzerland. They cannot run like the goat, nor go under rocks like the marmot. They must stand still and endure the sun. the drought, the wind, the short growing season. And they do it w'ith vigorous originality.

One day a botanist from the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory at Gothic Mountain, Colorado, devoted to the study of life at high altitudes, was walking the high meadows with my husband and me. He was shaking his head and collecting small flowers. When he could contain himself no longer he said. "That’s wonderful.” He held a miniature aster in his fingers. its purple flowers exploding with freshness and vitality. "Down in the valley these grow two and three feet high. Up here this little alpine species is four inches. Keeps it out of that constant beating wind . . . and. look at the leaves!”

I did. They were very small. He went on. “But that isn’t all. They are thick, like the plants of the desert, to hold what little water they get.” I looked more closely at the paintbox garden under my feet and then at the sun. “Why don't they curl up and die in the light?” I asked.

"They grow close together.” he said, “and hide in each other's small shadows, winding and bending with the light—all in a frantic race against time. In two months they must do what the flowers below have a balmy

spring, warm summer and fading autumn to do. The alpine flowers manage by budding, flowering, and seeding all on one stem.” I understood. The monk's hood I had put in a vase in our cabin had dropped seeds from low pods onto the table while freshly blooming at the top.

Most reassuring of all. in that lonely harsh world, were the butterflies. Tossed on the winds, torn by showers, they nevertheless fluttered eternally over the wild gardens. Their lives were expendable; if ten thousand failed to live through the cruel night, ten thousand more would arise.

During the winter, by our fire, I would often tell my daughter about the high country. Last summer when we were visiting the Tetons she asked me to take her to the last flower on the mountain. We climbed all day and camped the first night at timberline. In the morning she raced over the grass laughing. "I am taller than the trees.” She stood above a gnarled pine and folded her arms like Gulliver.

"And probably centuries younger,”

I said. "The tree you shade must he at least 200 years old.” She leaned down and curled her fingers around its tiny branches and twisted trunk.

“What makes it so small then?" she asked. “The 200-year-old oak at home is taller than the school."

"It gets so little nourishment, so little water, and has such a short time to grow, that a hundred years doesn't do much for it."

By noon we had passed the last alpine garden and trod on to a permanent glacier. Carolyn ran and danced on it to "play with the snow in summer." And everywhere she stepped her footsteps turned a brilliant pink. She wheeled and stared. "A fungus,”

I said, "that grows over the glaciers in late August. The mountaineers call it ’pink snow.’ ” She wrote her name in flaming footsteps and followed me up the trail.

We climbed higher and higher to the last life I could remember—the willow's. They were matted into forests two inches high. We were tired and dropped down on them to rest.

“But I’m knocking down a forest." Carolyn said. She picked up a tiny tree felled by her boots. “How long did it take to grow?"

“Many more years than you or I. and the growth rings on each tree are so small you can't count them without a microscope."

We sat quietly. “It's time to go down." she said. “I've seen the last flower on the mountain.” We got slowly to our feet. “Let's go a little higher,”

I said, “just to be sure there isn't another tree." Then my hand stuck to the most remarkable plant on earth ... the lichen. I had forgotten it. The trees and flowers had ceased to fight the mountain at 12,000 feet, hut the lichen had just begun. It had a plan to reduce the whole thing to dust. All it needed was an occasional rainfall. It would combine the water with its own carbon dioxide to make a weak acid, and with this erode the mountain at a rate scientists have determined as one millimeter per century.

The lichen wasn't exactly the "flower” Carolyn had come to see but it was the last plant on the mountain. We started down. I was thinking that, given a few billion years, life would beat the mountain yet. ★