Thursday, August 16, 2007

Mt. Yale, Colo 7/25-7/30/07

Here's the short version of the hiking adventure in Colorado:

It's true that this is not astronomy related, but there were three astronomers on the trek, so that counts for something!

And now the longer version: Wednesday night, July 25th, Ann and John flew into Denver. Yancy drove up from Tucson on Thursday afternoon. Thursday evening, the four of us and my mom, enjoyed BBQed lamb and a variety of libations at “Base Camp”: aka my house. Ann & I also taught the rest of the crowd how to play “Chicago” which basically involves trying to roll a better hand of dice than the person before you, or bluffing your way to victory at the expense of the person after you—a great way to build trust and camaraderie!

After a relaxed breakfast Friday morning, it was a 2.5 hour drive west, from Co Springs through the Front Range (dominated by the sight of Pike’s Peak), the ___ valley (home to a few bison herds), and the Sawatch Range foothills. It was rainy for much of the drive, but since that has been the trend all summer, the valley was unusually green. For the last half of the ride, we could see the peak of Mt. Princeton drifting in and out of the clouds that had settled over the surrounding Collegiate Peaks.

The Sawatch Range runs north to south through the middle of Colorado. Starting from the south, there is […] Mt. Princeton; Mt. Yale; Mt. Harvard and Mt. Columbia; Mt Belford, Mt. Oxford, and Missouri; Mt Elbert; Mt. Massive; etc. As far as height goes, Harvard is 3rd in the state behind Elbert & Massive. Princeton is 14,197. Yale is a mere one foot shorter. (My advisor, a Princeton grad, is rather proud of this fact.) Columbia…well, it’s somewhere down there on the list. Meanwhile, Cornell doesn’t need a mountain to remind people of its prestige. Dartmouth has a glacier in Alaska.

We settled in at a campsite in a narrow valley south of Mt. Yale. Campsites normally have to be reserved 4 days in advance, but we were able to snag a site by the creek for one night under the condition that we moved out by 2 pm the next day. The next night, we’d be at a different site. Because of the limited time frame we had to reach a summit and get down we decided to climb Yale the following day instead of tackling Harvard.

Amazingly, everyone woke up before the 4:30 am alarm on Saturday. In fact, the only miserable part of the morning was breakfast. It turns out the non-descript oatmeal from our pantry tastes like liquefied cardboard. Thankfully, I think we suffered through, or threw out whatever was left, for the good of future summer hiking parties.

Mt. Yale was a 4 mile hike, one-way, gaining ~5000 feet of elevation. It was the shortest 14er I’ve done (of three), but also the steepest. We reached the tree line a little more than half way into our hike, around 12,100 feet. The view to the west was phenomenal. From the side of Mt. Yale we looked across to other peaks and alpine valleys, many still with snow patches. At some point we caught up to and passed a large group of backpackers that had begun the climb at 3 am—we left the trailhead around 6! Ann and John made it above 13,100 feet—a really impressive feat in and of itself—and enjoyed even better views. At this point Yancy and I were getting a bit worried about the weather—it had been getting cloudier as the morning went on. John and Ann hung out for a bit before heading back down the trail. Yancy and I powered on. The adrenaline rush was good for about 100 feet before the altitude kicked in and we had to moderate the pace once more. Around 13,200 the trail got significantly steeper and harder to follow. Our next goal before the weather turned was the shoulder along the north side of Yale at over 13,900. We stopped frequently for breath along the way. Upon reaching the shoulder it was clear why this was considered a Class 2 climb. The path was essentially disappeared, but having come this far, it was no time to turn back—we followed sparse trail markers to scramble over another few hundred yards to the top. There wasn’t much vertical left; but the top of the mountain was essentially a massive granite rock pile, with its own challenging ledges and crevasses.

At the top, Yancy and I did a little victory dance, took pictures as evidence of the ascent, and sat down for a tired lunch. We were joined by a marmot perched on a rock ledge about 30 feet below. Framed against swirling clouds, he became “Marmot in the Mist”. We were convinced he was stalking us and our roast beef sandwiches.

The trek down was faster, but hard on the knees and the quads. We had reached the summit just in time because just before we reached the protection of the tree line, Mother Nature pummeled us with hail and rain. It must have let up with about a mile to go, so thanks to the dry air and altitude we were nearly dry by the time we met Ann and John at the trailhead. (I love the utter lack of humidity in Colorado—did I mention this means no mosquitos?)

Back at the campsite, we decided that our stuff was sufficiently soaked and, more importantly, we were sufficiently exhausted that we wouldn’t attempt another peak the next day. We packed up for base camp in Co Springs with other brilliant schemes for thrills and adventure the next day. We hit up the super tasty coffee shop in Buena Vista (population: several hundred?), Bongo Billy’s, on the way out. Whatever impression the name gives, this is the place to be in middle of nowhere Colorado, and an ideal stop between Co Springs and the ski resorts, driving from the south. Back at base camp, we devoured dinner, but took it a bit easier on the drinking this time around.

Sunday morning, Ben biked the 90+ miles south from Boulder to the Springs and sometime that afternoon we took off for Great Sand Dunes Nat’l Park in south-central Colorado. The Dunes are nestled next to the Sangre de Cristo Mtn Range that extends into northern NM. The Dunes, created from the erosion of the surrounding mountains, are estimated at a few thousand to a million years old (worse error bars than astronomers!). The tallest, Star Dune, lies 850 feet above the valley floor. To the south is the Mt. Blanca group, a set of four dramatic looking peaks, to the northeast was Mt. Culebra??, and to the east the valley stretched for 60 miles before it is interrupted by the next mountain range.

Climbing the dunes felt like something out of Lawrence of Arabia—from the top of High Dune, we had a beautiful panoramic view. Playing ultimate across the dunetops was a challenge, but they were definitely great for wrestling and sneak attacks, which is how I got destroyed by Ben and how Ann face-planted in the sand. I think only Yancy and John remained relatively unscathed.

We departed a short time before sunset, but still didn’t get home until 11 pm: we had another delicious BBQ—the patented Hess’ marinated flank steak—and then the festivities began. Yancy made his signature margaritas (75% tequila, 20% sugar?), and somewhere around 2 am (“already?”) we threw aside our watches figuring time was rather irrelevant at this point. As the night went on the sky got lighter, but it was Ann, Yancy, and I that made it all the way to sunrise. We sat out on the front step with a giant box of cereal, a gallon of milk, and a 2 pound bag of sugar—to make those cheerios a little more interesting. It was an appropriate end to a couple crazy days.

The next day—that is, the one we witnessed begin at 6 am—was a recovery day. I gave an abbreviated tour of the Springs, and we walked around Garden of the Gods: a beautiful park with red sandstone sedimentary layers that have been turned vertical. It’s hard to describe, you just have to see the photos, but they’re really popular with local rock climbers.

There was a lot more random stuff that happened, but I hope you get the gist. This was easily the best 5-6 days of my summer: I can’t wait for next year to come around! Thanks to everyone who came, and I hope more people will be able to visit next year.

Until the next adventure...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

GMRT, India 8/11/07-8/15/07

I appreciated the drive north from Pune to the telescope more this time than last, because I actually had an idea of where we were going, and I could pick out familiar landmarks as we got close to the GMRT: the first visible antenna on the west arm, still 45 minutes from the telescope; Narayan Godt, a prominent hill a few km west of the GMRT, topped by a small temple and with some really interesting geology (I carried a couple rocks home last time); the Indago winebar/restaurant on the road to Narayangaon; signs in Hindi I could not read; etc.

I finally arrived around 8:45 am, checked in, bought food coupons for the canteen, and feasted on an alu paratha and chai. Soooo gooood! The first day was pretty boring, but that evening during dinner, we lost our internet connection. This had several significant repercussions (1) I had to be a bit more creative in how to entertain myself the next couple days (I'd only printed out so many journal articles to read in advance), (2) but more importantly, it meant I had to get a hold of Laura Chomiuk before her observations because I was there early for my observations, in order to do hers and I had been planning on copying her observing command file and target list that evening. . So, without a command file and target list, 2 phone calls, 20 minutes and 129 rupees later, I had everything I needed to regenerate her files. It was not as dramatic as it sounds, because despite the network being down, the GMRT's internal pages were still accessible, just inconvenient.

The next day, while starting Laura's observations, I learned that five of the six antennas on the west arm of the array were down—1/6th of the array! So, as an introduction to the GMRT—it consists of thirty 45 meter dishes. Ten of these make up the "central square", and the last twenty are arranged in a "Y" shape similar to the VLA. They were built very quickly and incredibly cheaply. I find this an amusing description: "The design is based on what is being called the `SMART' concept - for Stretch Mesh Attached to Rope Trusses." That is, they are not solid dishes, but made of wire mesh. The electronics do not use cryogenics. In fact, the dishes themselves were lifted and leveraged onto their pedestals by large pulleys and teams of men pulling on ropes—none of this high tech stuff. Further, it is a unique instrument because the receivers are sensitive to really low frequencies: 150-1420 MHz. But, as a result of their design, they also suffer from a lot of Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) that makes reducing data a challenge at times. Anyway, it turns out that the optical fiber that carries the signal from the antennas along the west arm and the internet that comes from Narayangaon are one and the same. In the theory that they'd repair the telescope in all haste, this was good news for our internet connection. However, we further learned that the optical fiber had in fact been cut by road workmen in three places (Sabotaged!), and would have to be spliced together The earliest prediction for a return to normalcy was Tuesday night.

In the meantime I have been doing other astronomy, running Laura's observations, taking the usual three tea breaks a day, and running around the GMRT in the afternoons. There is a nice ~2 mile dirt road loop around the antennas in the central square. Running a couple laps in the afternoon keeps me productive in front of the computer the rest of the time. It was a fairly regular thing, that is, until I was informed of the recent cheetah sighting. (Leopard!) At which point I was strongly encouraged to not become leopard bait. Apparently cheetahs do exist in very few numbers in India, but they are nearly extinct, and it is common for the locals to get cheetahs and leopards mixed up (bah—english!). The next day, I was feeling rather antsy just sitting around, so I risked freaking out the locals instead of forgoing the run altogether. I ran north along the road, outside of GMRT property with the theory that a leopard would be less likely to wander near the road and, as Emily Freeland later pointed out, if it did there would be more people around to help me. Even in the middle of nowhere (like the GMRT), India is relatively densely populated, so I saw many people, especially women working in the fields, a couple men driving cattle, and many bikes, motorcycles and cars on the road. There are a lot of crops that grow in this area, but the major cash crop is sugar cane—also a perfect place for a leopard to hide because it grows tall and dense. Anyway, I survived my run down the street, with only being stared at by ~40% of the locals as I went by: a white girl running down the street in shorts and a t-shirt in rural India might be the only thing they see less frequently than a cheetah.

The following day I took off from running, and went for a stroll around the GMRT site; I found out the leopard had actually been sighted more than three weeks ago, and it was south of both the GMRT and the nearby village of Khodad. However, I did see a herd of cattle wandering through the woods/brush; the GMRT site used to be fallow farming land, but has since been extensively reforested. And, although I only learned about it later, I got a friendly wave from some of the tribal people that were herding them! At the time I saw them drinking from a water spout near on of the antennas—I couldn't imagine they were doing any repairs, because they were dressed far differently than anyone I'd seen around here, but the east arm of the array was now down along with the west, so who knew.

So, today was Independence Day. There was a flag raising ceremony in the morning in front of the building, and there were special sweets later in the day. Unfortunately, it is nothing as elaborate as Republic Day in January (more on that in a later email). The antenna is completely up and running again because the workers were up until 1 am last night splicing fiber, but it took half of today before the internet was working again. Aside from trekking, and reducing data (my own of which I don't have yet), there's not much to do around here.

Hope you all are well, and I will try to make up for my complete lack of India reports last January by writing more later this week.

Dehli, India 8/10/07

I don't know about you all, but I'm having an exciting week! Swindling, sabotage, and leopards! I arrived in Delhi, India last Thursday evening and survived for a whole 10 hours before I got ripped off by anyone. Granted, most of that time I was asleep. The following morning, after some, well, not really any, negotiation with the front desk, the attendant arranged for a car to pick me up and "take me around Delhi" which, for 1000 rupees, was actually limited to 80 km total travel. And this was supposedly typical for a full day of 8 hours of sight seeing. Yeah right. I had the driver for 5 hours, saw 2 sights, never even made it to the center of town, and paid for 30 extra km. (Swindled!) In rationalizing the situation I figure (1) the big city of Dehli is more expensive than the smaller southern towns I was in last January and (2) the car had A/C, which is 2-3 times more expensive than non A/C. Nonetheless, I was rather peeved at the front desk because they insisted on making my plans, when I had already been offered a ride all around the city, with no km limit, and the return trip to the airport included, for only 500 rupees, albeit without A/C. . Whatever.

I visited a bit of historical Dehli, and a bit of modern Dehli. The highlight of the historical site was the Qutb Minar—the largest single tower in India, it's a five storeyed "victory" tower was built around the end of the 12th century. It was incredibly striking for its red stone was intricately carved, and rose to 238 feet, contrasted against a beautiful blue sky and the lush green trees of the grounds around it. The courtyard had an intricate gateway that was embellished by carved panels with passages from the Koran—it is also one of the earliest buildings in India to display Islamic architecture. The complex itself is one of those that continued to be built onto throughout history, and it also houses the oldest extant mosque in India.

For a modern taste of Dehli, I visited the Lotus Temple. This is an incredible building—27 marble lotus petals look as though they are about to unfurl at any moment. The approach to the entrance is slightly uphill, so the white lotus is illuminated by the Sun, against a deep blue sky. It is a Baha'I House of Worship and they invite followers of all faiths to meditate and attend their daily services. I certainly took the opportunity to contemplate over my own deep reflections. At the Visitor Information Center, I learned more about Baha'i than I'd known before: the prophet that called himself the Bab meaning "the Gate" and who spread this faith, revealed himself in the 1860's in Persia. His exile and persecution of course helped to spread the religion. Its foundation rests on the idea that all humanity is one race, advocates tolerance, etc. They believe that there are nine basic religions in the world, so nine is considered a divine number. There are eight Baha'i Houses (the ninth was destroyed in an earthquake), at least one on each continent (I don't think they count Antarctica). Whenever someone asks where I am from I say Chicago (because how many Indians have heard of Wisconsin), so the Baha'is got very excited because Chicago is where one of these temples is located.

So, that was my highly abbreviated view of Delhi for this trip. As the nation's capital, one could easily spend a week there and not see everything. Instead, I rode back to the airport and caught my flight to Pune. The Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT)—we astronomers are very clever when it comes to naming our telescopes—is a two hour bus ride north of Pune. There is only one bus that leaves at 7 am from the NCRA facilities on the Pune University campus, so I stayed in the NCRA dormitories for a night and caught the bus the following morning.