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Last week Aubrey and I found ourselves in Yosemite for a few days, and took the opportunity to explore a little.
Today, there is little mystery left as to how Yosemite Valley formed. However, just over 100 years ago, there were several competing theories. The idea that glacial action carved the valley was first proposed by John Muir in the late 1860’s, but was met with criticism from Josiah Whitney (head of the California Geological Survey). Whitney believed that the valley formed during a cataclysmic earthquake. In 1872 one of the most powerful earthquakes in California history struck Lone Pine, and the lack of overwhelming geological shifts helped convince people that Whitney’s theories could not explain the formation of a valley so grand as Yosemite. It was a start, but more convincing evidence was needed.
Like many geologists around the turn of the century, both Muir and Whitney have Sierra peaks named after them. But, curiously, “Mt. Muir…is easily overshadowed by its more famous neighbor, Mt. Whitney“.
To resolve the controversy between Muir and Whitney, one year before Muir’s death in 1914, the Geological Survey assigned François E. Matthes, an accomplished topographer and budding geologist, the task of gathering scientific evidence to determine the origins of Yosemite Valley. Sixteen years of hard work later, Matthes published a paper detailing the geologic history of Yosemite Valley, confirming Muir’s theories.
In honor of his contributions, the formation informally known as Echo Ridge was formally named Matthes Crest. “Dr. Matthes was greatly pleased at the suggestion that this ridge bear his name, saying he knew no other unnamed feature in the Sierra which he would rather have chosen.” (SCB 34, no. 6, June 1949: 110-11.)
The choice does seem fitting – Matthes crest was a nunatak (an island of rock sticking up through an ice field or glacier) during the last ice age when Tuolumne was covered in ice. Thus, it would have been a perfect vantage point from which to watch the glacial action do its magic. Every exposed piece of granite not poking through the ice sheet was polished so smooth in places that it feels like ice.