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‘Song’ explores life in the alpine

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SONG OF THE ALPINE: THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN TUNDRA THROUGH THE SEASONS, by Joyce Gellhorn, 2002, Johnson Books, 260 pages, $22.50.

While hiking through rarified, cold air, have you ever wondered how plants survive at 11,000 feet or higher elevations? This new book uses the Rocky Mountains of Colorado — "the roof of the Rockies" — to examine life and the land at high altitude.

Gellhorn combines her 25-plus years of hiking and outdoor experience, along with her Ph.D. in botany, with 138 color photographs to tell the story of the four seasons in the Rockies. Even though the book focuses on Colorado, many of the plants, animals and seasonal changes are similar to Utah.

This well-written book begins by telling how the author grew up in Illinois but spent a good deal of time at her family's cabin in Colorado's Rockies. Those stays prompted her love of the longest mountain barrier in the world (it extends 2,700 miles, from the Yukon southeast to Santa Fe, N.M.)

Gellhorn also clarifies how different the arctic tundra is from the Rocky Mountain landscape. In fact, the timberline decreases as you travel north. It's such a consistent phenomenon that the book has a graph showing its rate of decline.

Trees grow as high as 14,000 feet in the Andes of South America but reach only 11,800 feet in New Mexico. Trees only grow as high as 11,000 feet at the Colorado-Wyoming border and fall to 7,000 feet in British Columbia. In the Yukon, they only grow at the 2,000-3,000-foot level.

Speaking of the Colorado peaks, Gellhorn writes, "When doing research or hiking during the summer, I always keep an eye on the color of cumulus clouds. White billowing clouds well separated from one another appear harmless, but they can turn dark and threatening. A wispy, anvil-shaped cloud top indicates ice crystals, warning of a developing thunderhead."

The most intriguing is Chapter 14 — "Mapmakers, Miners and Road Builders." This tells of the earliest explorations and briefly outlines how the road and railroad to the top of Pikes Peak came to be. Fascinating vintage pictures supplement the story.

The transient aspect of nature is also illustrated in the Mount of the Holy Cross, because by 1954, this national shrine was lost when the right arm of the cross deteriorated through erosion of the rocky face.

"Though I enjoy hiking up Pikes Peak, the road, car, buses and cog railway on the top offend my sense of wilderness," Gellhorn writes. "They seem out of place in the alpine, and I retreat quickly. Every time I visit a familiar alpine landscape, I look at a world that looks the same, but is not. A melody accompanies each season."

E-MAIL: lynn@desnews.com