Exploring the Krummholz
The alpine zone is a magical place. The region above the treeline, whether by latitude or altitude, is a delicate dance of life spurred by abundant sunshine and haunted by howling winds. Known as the krummholz zone, the alpine is its own ecosystem, clawing and fighting for a firm hold of survival. It’s impossible not to be impressed, awed, and enamored by the organisms that eke out a living across the steep expanse of barren, loose rock, pummeled by never-ceasing winds, battered by afternoon storms, thriving where the hardiest of trees cannot, and surviving in what should be a lifeless zone. It is ironic, then, that in this region of dedication and toughness, where plants grow out of rock and not soil, a single human footstep can destroy the same plant that weathered each of nature’s assaults.
Among the lofty, celebrated peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park the alpine begins above 10,000 feet. Here, the few trees that survive are stunted and windblown, hanging on to life by a thread. Trees grow so slowly up here that a century-old tree might be barely taller than you or I, its rings packed tightly together. These beacons of strength fade at 11,000 feet, growing sparser and smaller until with a frightening suddenness the climber is left alone with the wind and rock. Here is where the true magic happens, that tiny web of life that is so easily overlooked but deserves far more admiration than the stately pines of the lower slopes.
As with any food web, life begins with the sun. It is this celestial energy which feeds the alpine plants that thrust their roots into rock. From afar, the upper reaches of the mountain are devoid of greenery and color, a gray mat of rock. But upon closer inspection these rocks are home to life, where alpine lawns emerge from boulder fields.
The foundation here is lichen, part fungus and part plant, but wholly living and important. From the dull greens and faded colors of the lichen arise the tiniest of plants. Among the plants are a variety of wildflowers too proud to give up their existence. These flowers coat the mountains in splendid hues of yellow, purple, and blue to match the skies at dusk and dawn. Here grow the petals of alpine sunflower, the pistils of dwarf clover, and the anthers of my personal favorite, and Colorado’s too, the columbine.
The complex web of life continues up the food chain to the pollinators that rely on these flowers. Upon closer inspection, these flowers sustain insects of every variety. Ants and beetles crawl across the lichen-coated rocks. An astounding diversity of bees buzz in and around the petals, and delicate, intricately decorated butterflies like the American Lady rest on them too. These winged beauties somehow navigate the biting winds that chill bipedal visitors and threaten to blow hikers off the peak, floating gracefully where one would never think it possible.
Dwarfing the butterflies, but still a tiny pollinator, a mountain classic hovers above alpine gardens. The Broad-tailed Hummingbird calls the harsh krummholz region home. Given the abundance of them and the frequency of their high-pitched chatter, I wouldn’t hesitate to claim they are thriving in this fragile ecosystem. If one has sharp eyes they might notice a White-tailed Ptarmigan, the only ptarmigan endemic to North America. The changing plumage of this incredible bird mirrors the landscape around them. This bird prefers high elevations and northern latitudes, being well-adapted to the cold. Equally fascinating is the songbird adapted for life on rocky alpine slopes, rosy finches. Rocky Mountain National Park is home to the Brown-capped Rosy Finch, a small passerine tinged in pink often seen skylarking above the slopes.
On another strand of the food web, the energetic Rocky Mountain Pika exudes positivity despite the harsh environment where it scurries around, beneath, and over rocks, daintily collecting alpine sunflowers in its mouth. The shrieks of the pika drift across the slopes as this tiny, mouse-like mammal cheerfully works to thrive where few species can. Pikas are well-adapted to the krummholz, and their sensitivity to changing environments makes them an indicator species of climate change. Alongside the friendly pika is the much larger marmot, more commonly seen lazily lounging on boulders than scurrying like the pika. The daily delight of visitors, Yellow-bellied Marmots take life at a slow pace with quizzical expressions, but they too have a place in the ecosystem.
It frightens me to think of the crowds of passerby that traverse the alpine zone to summit and back without a second thought for the life beneath their feet. In the krummholz, a careless footstep has a cost, but there is reward for those that tread slowly and take note of the rhythm of life tucked between rocks. There is more to these peaks than tagging summits, a whole ecosystem more. Whether it’s the sheer peaks of the Rockies, the staggering High Sierra, or the remote Chic-Chocs, the krummholz offers ample exploration and infinite learning for those that greet the rocks, lichens, butterflies, and birds with slow footsteps and thoughtful gaze.
by: Will Babb