Accretionary Wedge #11: Field Camp

This post is a submission to the Accretionary Wedge #11: Field Camp, being hosted by Ron Schott over at his Geology Home Companion Blog.

I’ve just spent some very enjoyable time looking back over some old photographs of my undergraduate mapping, over a quarter of a century ago now. They are getting quite faded now and I’ve had to tweak the colour balance in the scans here quite a bit. I should have the negatives somewhere but I suspect it would take a long time to find them.

As part of my geology degree I had to map 25km2 and chose with my two mates to go to Switzerland. It was only the second time I had been abroad (the first was a geology field trip around Boulogne, France by bicycle) and because only my two mates and the tent could fit in the one car, I had to make my own way by train. The train journey itself was spectacular and Swiss railways have to be the best in the world. I particularly enjoyed the last, alpine section.

We had chose to map in the Lukmanierpass / Passo del Lucomagno region of Switzerland on the border between the cantons of German- and Romansh-speaking Graubünden and Italian-speaking Ticino. We set up camp next to the Ospizio at Acquacalda, just on the Ticino side of the pass and this tent was home for the next six weeks. Living in such a confined space with two other blokes for such a time was challenging but although we did have a few disagreements, after a day in the field by oneself, things were always patched up over the evening meal and inking-in the maps over a few beers in the restaurant bar every evening.

I’m ashamed to say that my Italian speaking actually decreased over our stay. We went shopping in Disentis, Graubünden where we could speak a little German (my one failed qualification), but ordering beers (something we did in the same bar, several times, every night) descended from something like ‘tre birras, per favore’ to three raised fingers followed by two horizontal facing palms with the gap either widening or narrowing to indicate large or small! One evening in the bar, unusually, the radio was on with much excitement in Italian – two days later we found out that Italy had won the World Cup.

The first thing to grab me was the sense of scale of the mountains. The highest I’d been before was Mount Snowdon in Wales and here the pass was almost twice as high and the mountains even bigger. After six weeks of mapping here it was the fittest I’ve ever been, before or since.

The geology here is superb, with the internal basement zone of the Alps being thrust over the external zone basement and its cover. It has one of the highest metamorphic gradients in the world and one can walk from amphibolite facies hornblende garbenschiefer with large garnets (pictured) to a phyllitic sub-greenschist in the same unit in just a couple of kilometres. For someone like me with a deep antipathy towards palaeontology it was also excellent – someone reckoned that they once found a belemnite here, but the crenulation cleavage was so strong they weren’t quite sure.

We have a euphemism on our field courses that when anything starts getting tough (bad weather, gradient, etc.), it is ‘character building’. My six weeks geology mapping truly was character building for me. I came back a much changed person. I think I grew-up at that point, proving to myself that I could do so many things I never knew I could do previously.