Accretionary Wedge #27 : Important Geological Experiences

Lockwood DeWitt at Outside the Interzone is hosting this month’s accretionary wedge where he asks “What is the most important geological experience you’ve had?”. The stress here is on the word important.

Picking the most important is incredibly difficult for me. I have been fortunate in my earlier career to have all sorts of important geological experiences, from climbing the summit of Mt Fuji in Japan to exploring the deepest wastes of the Atacama desert, from standing at the top of Monte Perdido in the Pyrenees to the bottom of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado.

However, the most important for me has to be my undergraduate mapping in Lukmanierpass, Switzerland because it was important to me on so many different levels. I’ve already covered this way back in Accretionary Wedge 11, Field Camp, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much.

The first part of the importance is because it was a turning point in my life, the point where I grew up. Up to that point I had had something of a sheltered upbringing. I had not travelled abroad except for a “De la Beche Club” (the student geology society at the Royal School of Mines) cycling geology field weekend in Northern France, and I certainly hadn’t been abroad alone. There were three of us sharing a large frame tent in Switzerland, but the car could only take two plus the tent, so I had to make my way there by train. The Swiss railway system is incredible and runs to the second. It was the first time that I saw proper mountains. The metre gauge train from Göschenen at the northern end of the Gotthard Tunnel climbing up to Andermatt is an experience in itself. Travelling alone across Europe gave me the confidence to go to so many other places since then.

(Note: I’ve converted these to black and white because the older colour photos have faded badly)

It was also the first time that I had done proper independent mapping. Prior to this our mapping training was done as buddy pairs but here I was on my own. We wouldn’t be allowed by health and safety regulations to do this today, which is a real shame because it was a wonderful experience. It was just me against the rock. I had to sort things out for myself. It took me about four weeks to work out why in one part of the area the bedding/cleavage relationship was telling me that the beds were upside-down where as I knew from the stratigraphy that they were the right-way up. It was a struggle, but I cracked it – myself.

The geology was incredible. I’ve never really seen anything like it before of since. The sediments trapped between the internal and external basement zones of the Alps exhibit one of the highest metamorphic gradients in the world with one unit going from amphibolite grade (shown above) to sub-phyllite in just a couple of kilometres. Some of the faces with white kyanite acted a mirrors in the bright sunlight. You couldn’t examine the mineral texture without sunglasses.

My last day in the field was my 20th birthday. After almost six weeks mapping, I had just one last valley to map. And, halfway up the valley I found a rock that I was not anticipating to find. This has taught me never to assume anything where mapping is involved and always check everything out. I had to work very hard to sort out that valley’s geology because I had a train booked home the following morning. I returned to camp absolutely exhausted but ultimately triumphant.

Google Earth view of my undergraduate mapping area, from the lake to the top of the ridge in the middle distance. The foreground ridge by the lake is Precambrian external zone basement gneiss and the middle distance ridge is Precambrian internal zone basement gneiss. Between them is a sliver of highly deformed and metamorphosed Mesozoic sedimentary cover rocks.

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