By Joshua Brown Article published April 24, 2007
“This is the most extreme thing I’ve ever done,” Taylor Severns ’08 says, as ice crystals and sunlight sift across her black North Face jacket. She and six other students have just climbed a snow-filled chute dotted with stunted spruce trees. Far below, the Stowe Mountain Resort ski lift drones like a misplaced lawn mower. Above, scoured drifts follow the ridge to the top of Mount Mansfield’s “chin,” Vermont’s highest point.
Compared to the travails of Edmund Hillary on Everest, this gondola-assisted trek is mild. And even compared to most winter days here, this 20-degree March afternoon is balmy. But Severns is on to something. This is an extreme place, part of the northern Appalachian mountain range, where thousands of storm tracks converge, bringing the worst weather in the world. It’s no accident that Mount Washington — sometimes visible from where the students stand — has the highest wind speeds ever recorded, 231 miles per hour.
“New England’s alpine ecosystems are extremely rugged and extremely fragile,” says Rick Paradis, the students’ instructor in Comparative Mountain Systems Natural History and Conservation. Paradis, a faculty member in the Environmental Program and director of UVM’s Natural Areas Center, brought the students here for one of four field trips that form the heart of the course.
Over Easter weekend, they traveled to New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch for another deep snow hike in the White Mountains and to perform a service project at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center. On May 15, the students will fly to Britain for two weeks of meetings with conservation organizations and boot-leather education — hiking in the Scottish Highlands.
Tough and tender
Reaching the Mansfield summit, the students eat cold sandwiches and watch off-trail snowboarders rip down an impossibly steep gully while Paradis describes a tiny plant, Lapland diapensia, hidden under snow. Diapensia serves as a symbol of the paradoxical nature of these mountaintops: tough and tender. A true arctic plant, it has persisted here since the last glaciers retreated. Diapensia still exists in Vermont only in a few patches on Camels Hump and in sheltered pockets of the 250 acres of alpine tundra UVM owns on the summit of Mansfield.
As the students learn in one of their course texts, North Woods, diapensia grows in a low cushion to resist the tearing power of winter winds and ice, using tight, thick leaves to endure hurricane-strength blasts, thin soil, and limited available water. It’s a 10,000-year survivor. So Paradis is not worried about the plant getting too cold; he’s worried about boots. More than 40,000 visitors cross the summit each year, and when they stray from the path, the extremely slow-growing plant faces a crushing threat that can take decades or centuries to heal.
“What are you guys studying?” a backcountry skier asks the group as he comes up the Sunset Ridge Trail. “You guys!” Paradis answers, with a laugh.
“As much as I like to think it’s all about the ecology here on the ridge, it’s more about culture,” Paradis says. “It’s a grand experiment. How can we use these places and also protect them? Can ornithologists and skiers get along? We have large ski areas and a major telecommunications interest,” he says, pointing to the series of hoar-frosted radio and TV towers that poke up from the Mansfield “forehead” on the other end of the swooping ridge. “And we have Bicknell’s thrush, mountain sandwort, and other sensitive creatures and plants that live here.”
He describes a summertime summit caretaker program he manages through UVM’s Natural Areas Program that puts rangers on the top of Mansfield and other peaks in the state to talk with hikers about the delicate natural communities underfoot. It’s one example of the point of this class — to understand the unique natural communities that are mountaintops and to understand the role of conservation organizations, government agencies and private businesses engaged in the work of land protection, habitat restoration, visitor management and ecotourism in these high places.
New England to Old Scotland
“Take in this landscape,” Paradis says, pointing to the knobbled ridge, the slope plummeting west to the settled Champlain Valley and east to a venous network of ski trails that winds down to a compact knot of parking lots, lodges, new houses and snow-making ponds — “then see what you see in Scotland.”
Though the Scottish Highlands are farther north than New England’s mountains, they’re about the same elevation, Paradis points out. The highest point in Scotland, Ben Nevis, is 4,406 feet high, almost identical to Mansfield. It gets some 100,000 visitors each year. Although the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream keeps Nevis, and other Scottish sites these students will visit, a bit warmer and rainier than the Green or White Mountains, the climate is roughly the same. It’s no coincidence that diapensia finds its southernmost strongholds on Mansfield and Mount Washington and in one spot in Scotland, a 2,800-foot summit near Glenfinnan.
“These two mountain regions also have a similar land use history, with forest products and agriculture, though the history of exploitation is deeper in Scotland,” Paradis says. “My interest is in how we have responded to these things, to this history. Why has Scotland only recently established national parks? How are ski areas managed in these two places? And trails and forestry?”
“The Scottish model is quite different from the U.S.,” he continues. “They have farms and a working landscape in their national parks. What does this teach us about conservation?”
Back down in the parking lot, the students peer up at two cranes poised over a four-star hotel under construction. Skiers pour out of the gondola house like helmeted subway commuters. Rick Paradis looks around and points back up the mountain. “You might think that this kind of development is the biggest risk to the alpine zone. But, really, this new development is quite compact and well-managed,” he says, “I think the biggest challenges for conservation here are the more subtle problems of acid rain and climate change.”