Author: Laura Scott
Aidan Dougherty (junior) sat down on a mountainside this summer, took a bite of his sandwich and snapped a picture of the Alps with his iPhone that would go on to win the geology department’s summer photo contest Thursday. He was hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc, a roughly 100-mile hike that loops through Switzerland, France and Italy.
“It was amazing. Definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life,” Dougherty said.
He took the winning photo on a stretch of terrain commonly known as a balcony hike, where the mountains rise above to the left and drop to the right to provide unobstructed, dazzling views. And Dougherty was lucky — almost every day of his trip, the skies and views were crystal clear.
REI organized the trip, which Dougherty and his mother hiked with a group of about 11 other travelers and two guides. It took the group 12 days to complete the circuit, following a footpath that winds through towns and villages they stayed in along the way.
Dougherty said looking up at the jagged, glacial peaks from the verdant valley they traversed was like stepping into a mystical realm, with panoramic views and the gentle sounds of cow bells in the background as the animals grazed. He captured the dramatic Alpine spires as his hiking group stopped to rest for lunch on a rolling hill slightly off the trail, just outside a small town in Italy.
“It was just unbelievable, that view, that photo that I took,” he said. “Just eating a sandwich in front of the stunning natural beauty.”
According to Geology Professor Geoff Cromwell, the goal of the photo contest was to highlight remarkable places that geology students traveled to over the summer.
“It was also a great opportunity for the geology department, both students and faculty, to gather together outside of the classroom,” Cromwell said.
Students were not limited to submitting photos taken while conducting geology research; some, like Dougherty, took their photos while on summer vacations or recreational hikes.
In the outdoors, geologic stories are everywhere. In Dougherty’s case, the geologic history of the Alps is an ancient, dramatic crash scene. The majestic mountains framed in Doughty’s shot were pushed into the air upon the collision of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates 30 million years ago, a collision similar to the one that produced the Himalayas. The crash pushed crystalline rock from the crust up to form the razor sharp peaks of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.
Professors in the geology department announced Dougherty’s win Thursday at a free lunch, where geology students gathered with their professors to look at each others photos and explain the stories behind them. Students and professors present at the contest voted for the winning shots; Dougherty’s prize was a mineral sample of galena, which is a shiny, metallic rock.
The submitted photos remain on display on a wall in the geology department’s main foyer in Hameetman Hall.
Dennis’ photo lost out on first place by one vote. He took his photo while conducting geology research on the Juneau Icefield in Alaska. His photo is of the Gilkey Glacier, in the Gilkey Trench.
Dennis lived on the Juneau Icefield for two months over the summer, working with the Juneau Icefield Research Program. For almost 70 years, the program has been perched on the icefield studying mass balance; that is, the difference between the Gilkey Glacier’s ice loss and ice gain. Adding up these numbers, said Dennis, shows whether the glacier is growing or retreating.
Once researchers have an idea of how the glacier has advanced and retreated, they can see how those movements might have been reactions to factors like decreased precipitation, higher temperatures, storms or snow accumulation.
When Dennis recalls the moment he stood at the threshold of the Gilkey Trench, his eyes light up.
“It was just one of those really great days where you couldn’t have anything go better,” he said. “A beautiful view, an inspiring, tear-inducing view that makes you recognize that personal sacrifice in order to insure the survival of places like this is valuable and necessary.”
*Dennis is a staff member on the Weekly.
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