Volcanic questions for tomorrow's earth scientists

Written by Patrick McIntosh, Sacramento County Office of Education

WEED – My friends and I recently hiked up Mount Shasta. It was awe inspiring, beautiful and having summited, left us with a huge sense of accomplishment. I am a middle school teacher and work closely with the students and faculty from the Department of Earth & Environmental Science at Pacific on a number of teaching endeavors. While I have a pedestrian understanding of Earth Science, my hike up Mt Shasta – as with any new endeavor – left me with more questions that need answers. My cousin is a biologist and was along for the hike. I am consistently learn things about the Earth from him, but try as we might, we couldn’t explain some rocks we encountered. So, we are looking to Pacific’s budding Earth Scientists for help.

Life is a give-and-take experience and I don't expect to get information for free, so I’m willing to work out a trade. I’m looking for answers to our geologic questions, but in return am willing offer some climbing tips for Shasta that could help you (should you happen to be as crazy as us) should you decided to go yourself! First, the tips then our questions.

We started from the Clear Creek trailhead on the east flank of the volcano. We camped at the spring so we could get an early start. It is the least trafficked trail and really beautiful. After a three mile hike to base camp, you can drink right from a glacier-fed spring which not only helps you stay hydrated, but saves you the weight of having to carry water purification supplies. Bring enough bottles to carry 2 gallons of water per person. Drink water aggressively the entire time.

We suggest taking 3 days to do reach the summit. We did it in two and the altitude adjustment proved a painful struggle for some of us. Start hiking at midnight. Walking in the dark saves you from unnecessary exposure to high-altitude sunlight and keeps you from getting discouraged every time you look up and see how much of this huge the task remains in front of you. The beam from your headlamp helps keep things in perspective and allows you to focus on just putting one foot in front of the other. Wear gators. The loose scree is a pain. We liked having walking poles. It felt like skiing coming down in the loose pumice. I see I'm getting to the geology so here are my questions. 

Why are there so many different colors of rocks on Mount Shasta? We found are numerous types of pumice near the base. At the summit, we crossed swaths of basalt and chalky deposits that were oddly colored in hues of red and white. The geology at the summit seemed to lack any sort of consistency. I expected to only see one or two types of extrusive, igneous rocks, but rocks of every color of the rainbow were there! Of particular interest was the pumice we found at the summit, which was very soft and white. I brought a few samples back and had a lot of fun floating them with my kids. So, if Mount Shasta is an intermediate stratovolcano, why all the diversity in color and type?

Thanks for the help. I hope I’m upholding my end of the bargain by providing some good tips!

Patrick McIntosh is a teacher with the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE). As a teacher at SCOE’s Sly Park School, Pat collaborated with the Department of Earth & Environmental Science to develop and implement a new program for creating earth science curriculum. Pat also volunteers his time every summer to help students from our department conduct research projects in remote areas within the Sierra Nevada. You can see and hear more of Pat McIntosh's tips at his blog, http://prosportstalks.com.

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