Saturday, October 6, 2012

Upward over the Páramo

"It's a dangerous business,  going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."

In my last post, I left off at the end of our trip to the Andean forest. Our day was not finished though: we were on a mission to reach the upper limits of the Andean range ecosystems: The Páramo. As you go up in elevation, the conditions on the mountains gradually become colder and more extreme. Around 3500m (11,500 feet), the tree line occurs - this is where the Andean forest ends and the Páramo begins. And when the Páramo begins, it's a whole new world (no magic carpets were involved though, just a magic school bus).

Everywhere I go (even into mountains), there seem to be paparazzi.
All of a sudden, there are no more trees (tree line - who would have thought?), and all you see is a vast expanse of grasses, and shrubs - a far cry from the elfin forest that was found just a few hundred feet below. The lack of tree cover means it can get very windy, and the lack of big biomasses means temperature is pretty unstable. They say Páramo is summer during the day, and winter at night. But if it's a cloudy day, like when we were there, it's definitely still chilly. Good thing I brought my sweet, sweet alpaca hat I bought at Otavalo, an indigenous market. 

Contrary to popular belief, there are no schools around here - just mountains. 

The Páramo is itself divided into three contiguous but distinct section, each with its own vegetation: the lower Páramo is filled with a variety of grasses, shrubs, flowers, and some interesting plant formations called cushion plants, which are spongy mat-like colonies of low-lying rosettes.

A Bobby's-eye view of the lower-level Páramo.
The Asteraceae family of plants flourishes here; this daisy is an excellent example.
Here's a cushion plant - they can get pretty big. Its weird body form is an adaptation to cold temperatures and the challenges in obtaining and retaining water.

One of the cool things about the lower level Páramo is how much the temperature can change if you duck between the shrubs - they make excellent wind shields, and the temperature is actually quite cozy if you hug up against the ground. Some smaller species of plants take advantage of this, and only grow low to the ground right next to the larger shrubs (so they use the bushes for avoiding the wind - kind of like Tour de France cyclists use their opponents and the peloton to slipstream and save energy). 

Here is our professor, Kelly, demonstrating said slipstreaming. 

Here's something interesting: Alpinism. That term gets thrown around a lot, and people usually just assume it's a generic term for mountain climbing...but it's a little more complicated than that. It comes from the European alps - so techinically, the sport of alpinism is restricted to the European Alps (which are never higher than 5000m), or other sub-5000m mountain ranges like the Rockies. So if you're climbing something else, you're technically not an alpinist. Similarly, if you engage in mountaneering in the Andes, you're an Andinist - not an alpinist. Here, the mountains are usually always above 5000m, and can get as high as 6,900m (in Spanish, there is also a term for climbing the Himalayas: himalayismo - but there is apparently no equivalent term in English). One of the coolest plants around is named after this, because it's only found in the high elevations of The Andes: Flor de Andinista, or "The Andinist's flower". It's now one of my favorite plants.

Flor de Andinista. It makes you feel right at home in the mountains.

A few hundred meters higher, and the shrubs start to disappear - grasses (Poaceae) then become the dominant familiy. You even start getting some snow build-up between some of the plants; it's still too warm for it to cover the ground entirely, but you can get some patches inside the nooks and crannies between leaves and stems. There was even enough to have a small-scale snowfight. 

Not quite enough for a full snowball, but it's acceptable ammunition for targeting small children.

Snowball fight. Disclaimer: no small children were harmed in the making of this blog post.

Once you get high enough (no, not that kind of high), the tall grasses disappear all together; only small mosses, lichens, and very small low-lying plants are left. A thin layer of snow covers the ground, and it's extremely windy - not necessarily prime living conditions. But definitely very beautiful. These are some of the most beautiful sights on earth - these pictures don't do justice.

Another Bobby's eye view.

I love mountains. I could spend hours here. Days, in fact.
 The mountains are were Emerson and Thoreau got a lot of their inspiration. If you're seeking solitude and peace, there is no better place. I now get why monks live in the mountains. Being here alone is probably the closest to nirvana you could ever get. You really do feel at peace up there. 

 "Language has created the word "loneliness" to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word "solitude" to express the glory of being alone." -Paul Tillich

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