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  Sierra Magazine
  July/August 2005
Table of Contents
 
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Sierra Magazine
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Good Going: Eagle Cap Mountain
by Alison Fromme

"The earth itself assures us it
is a living entity. Deep below
surface one can hear its slow
pulse, feel its vibrant rhythm.
The great breathing mountains
expand and contract."

— Frank Waters, Mountain Dialogues

The species name for pink mountain heather, empetriformis, comes from the Greek word for "on rocks."
The permanence of Eagle Cap Mountain is an illusion. Its peak, seemingly fixed in place in Oregon's northeast corner, rises like a rebel on the sagebrush plains. But each bitter winter, water seeps into granite crevices, expands as ice, and sends rock tumbling down sheer drops. With each rock release, springtime hikers witness a nanosecond of the protracted geologic process that has formed — and deformed — the mountain.

The 9,572-foot peak lies in the heart of the Wallowa Mountains, the result of a late Jurassic magma upwelling at what was once the western edge of North America. Mostly speckled granite and reddish basalts, the mountains are streaked with veins of fool's gold, while glossy flakes of black mica and chips of green hornblende dot the rocks like time stamps from previous eras.

The earth here is laced with ancient volcanic ash, deposited almost 7,000 years ago by the eruption of Mount Mazama 300 miles to the southwest, which is now inverted as the Crater Lake caldera. The soil supports pine forests and alpine meadows, where Clark's nutcrackers — the namesakes of William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark expedition — chirp, or "squall." (Meriwether Lewis used the latter term in his journal, describing the birds' sounds as "something like the mewing of a cat.") In crevices between boulders, rabbity-looking pikas hoard stashes of hay twice as big as their eight-inch bodies to sustain activity throughout the long winter.

Humans have tested their endurance here too: More than 100 years ago, Nez Perce boys sought visions on the bald rock atop Eagle Cap. After sweathouse rituals at the edges of the range, they would summit alone and wait until their spirit guides arrived, accompanied by song. Today the barren setting remains ideal for quiet contemplation, and our footsteps, punctuated by rock releases echoing against the cliffs, are as impermanent as the mountain itself.


Photo courtesy Dave Jensen; used with permission.

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