Memorable moments and photos from 2013

We are well into 2014 now, but it is not too late to look back at 2013 and pick some of the best moments (which means photos in my case) of the year that just passed.

We started out the year with a trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. Although it was fairly cold (especially at Bryce Canyon NP — this park has a much higher elevation overall than Zion NP), we had lots of sunshine and did several day hikes. Visiting these parks in the winter is a great idea — they are a lot less crowded than in the summer, and obviously the landscapes and sights are quite different when they are covered with snow.

Zion National Park is paradise for a sedimentologist: there are endless, top-quality exposures of the Navajo Sandstone, showing all kinds of sedimentary structures characteristic of deposits of wind-blown sand. I have included two examples here; you can find more on my Smugmug site.

Sedimentologically, Bryce Canyon National Park is a bit less exciting than Zion, but this is counterbalanced by the fantastic geomorphology of this place. I haven’t seen Bryce Canyon in the summer, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was more beautiful when it’s covered with snow.

In February, I went on a ‘business’ trip to Torres del Paine National Park in Southern Chile: I attended a field consortium meeting organized by Steve Hubbard’s group at the University of Calgary. I have been to this area several times before, as it has some of the best outcrops of turbidites (= deep-water sediments) in the world, but I was once again shocked how uniquely beautiful Chilean Patagonia can be.

At the end of the official trip, Zane Jobe (who is blogging at Off the Shelf Edge) and I did a bit of geo-turism: we went to see Glacier Grey and Lago Grey, and then did a day hike in the park to check out the actual Torres del Paine. The rest of the photos are here.

In July, my wife and I took a few days to do some hiking and running in Rocky Mountain National Park. I was struggling with a running injury at that time, but the mountains and the trails acted as efficient tranquilizers. More photos at Smugmug.

In September I attended a research conference on turbidity currents in Italy and Peter Talling showed us some of the classic outcrops of the Marnoso-Arenacea Formation. These rocks are very unique because they were deposited by huge submarine flows that covered the entire basin floor. Always wanted to see them and it was enlightening to get up close to them.


Turbidites of the Marnoso-Arenacea Formation, Italian Apennines. David Piper and Bill Arnott for scale

In October we spent a long weekend in Moab, Utah, to participate in our first trail races, but we also did some hiking. Running the Moab Trail Marathon was an amazing experience (I think I will have to do it again this year); unfortunately I didn’t take a camera with me, as I was trying to focus on running (and surviving the race).


Typical view in Canyonlands National Park

To continue with the theme of ‘national parks in winter’, some friends from California and the two of us wrapped up the year with a Christmas trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. More photos, of course, at Smugmug.

A hike in the Bucegi Mountains, Romania

Recently I had a chance to revisit a fantastic hiking trail in the Bucegi Mountains, located in the Romanian Carpathians (or Transylvanian Alps, for those who prefer a more exotic name). The Bucegi are among the most spectacular hiking and climbing places in Eastern Europe, with some of the tallest cliffs in the region. Back in the good old days when I used to live closer to some significant topographic relief (as opposed to a living on a %^$#@ flat passive margin), this hike was one of our favorites. The main attraction is a steep climb along a valley floor that usually has some snow even during the summer months. In the steepest sections there is no proper trail and usually there is nobody else around; this is the perfect place if you want some outstanding scenery without the crowds.

The predominant rock type in these mountains is the Bucegi Conglomerate, a Cretaceous formation with lots of limestone clasts. The limestone pebbles, cobbles and boulders were eroded from Jurassic carbonates that outcrop in the western parts of the Bucegi. This is one of the thickest conglomerate accumulations I have seen and I know of; its thickness reaches 2000 meters in places. It was probably deposited as fan deltas along a rocky coast, with rivers that were directly depositing coarse-grained sediment onto a submarine slope. There is evidence for deposition by sediment gravity flows: many conglomerate layers show no obvious stratification (which one would expect in a river deposit) and normal  grading is common. Toward the top, there is one spectacular layer, likely deposited by a single flow, with limestone blocks tens of meters across. [These blocks are often called olistoliths.]

Typical Bucegi Conglomerate (photo taken in 1995)

Originally these rocks were described as ‘molasse’ (one of those terms that probably were invented only to hide our ignorance about the relationships between mountain building and sedimentation), likely reflecting deposition in shallow marine environments. In the late seventies, when the idea that thick piles of coarse sediment could be of deep-marine origin was still big news in geology, the Bucegi Conglomerate actually made it onto the pages of Nature.,25.49273&spn=0.029012,0.080263&t=h&output=embed
View Bucegi Hike in a larger map

In any case, our hike in June was long and strenuous (see the map above), but the weather was outstanding and we had the whole mountain to ourselves: apart from the meteorologists at the Omu Peak, we haven’t seen a human being while hiking.

Here are a few more photographs (see the rest at Smugmug):

There is still plenty of snow in the ‘Valea Alba’ (‘white valley’) in June
The artist previously known as erosion
That’s all conglomerate
When you clearly need a log-scale for grain size (note the two limestone ‘grains’ and the normal grading above the lower one)

This picture gives an idea how big the limestone blocks in the previous photo are: note the two guys in the front for scale

Garmin Forerunner 110 GPS watch – a review

A couple of years ago I decided to take running a bit more seriously and to try to keep track of when, how much, and how fast I run. As a dedicated Apple-afficionado and beginner runner, the obvious choice was the Nike+ sensor (which you place in the sole of your shoe), coupled with an iPod Nano. I have been using this setup for about two years now, and I was fairly happy with it. It was easy to start using it, it definitely helped me run more and faster than before, and GPS units were just too big or too nerdy (even for me) to carry around on a Saturday morning run in the park.

However, it has always bugged me that the precision and accuracy of the Nike+ system was far from perfect, and I knew that GPS watches could do much better, not to mention that you can also put your run on a map. I caved in to the temptation a few days ago and ordered a Garmin Forerunner 110 GPS watch; here are some initial observations.

The Forerunner 110 is designed to be relatively small and simple, with limited functionality. In other words, it is targeting people like me: mostly outdoor runners (it is not very good for biking and useless for indoor running) who don’t need all kinds of functionalities that most other Garmin GPS watches have. It gives you basic information like pace, time, distance, and heart rate (if you are using it with a heart rate monitor), and that’s about it. The relatively small size and reasonably good (=minimalistic) look means that you can wear this gadget on your wrist pretty much every day, without looking like a total nerd.

In terms of usability, the Forerunner 110 does pretty well. It doesn’t rely on the touch interface that is built into the latest and greatest Garmin sports watches; instead, it has four large buttons that are easy to push when you want to — or not to push inadvertently when you don’t want to. This can be important in the middle of a sweaty run when you are not really in the mood for the subtleties of dealing with a sensitive touch interface. For example, I often have problems with the touch-wheel of the iPod nano. Recording a run basically comes down to (1) waiting until the watch gets a GPS fix; and (2) pushing the ‘start/stop’ button. In my limited experience, getting a GPS fix works pretty well and relatively fast, although it did take about 5 minutes the first couple of times. That is too much for a runner. Yesterday and today however it was much better, it locked on to the satellites in less than a minute.

So far so good. The one major issue I ran into was that, after a first recorded run, when I wanted to upload the data to the Garmin Connect website, I couldn’t get the watch to talk to my MacBook. It took lots of trial-and-error and one-and-a-half hours on the phone with the Garmin help desk to figure out that the charging clip that’s supposed to attach to the four exposed contacts on the back of the watch was not exactly where it should have been, despite the fact that the watch was charging (or it looked like it was charging anyway). This might be just a reflection of my limited intellectual capabilities, but I doubt that I am the only one who will run into this problem.

When it comes to uploading your workout data to a website for visualization and analysis, the Garmin ecosystem definitely leaves the Nike+ setup in the dust. The obvious advantage is the visualization of your runs in Google Maps. This is a major plus for a map-lover; but in addition to that, the Garmin Connect website makes it very easy to export the data and visualize it with Google Earth or any other software that can handle geospatial data. No export options exist for the runs you have recorded with the Nike+ sensor. In addition, the quality and usability of the Garmin graphs showing pace/speed through time is way better than the flashy but largely useless attempt that Nike has put together. Compare these two graphs (representing the same run):

Nike+ website

Garmin Connect

The Nike+ graph is pretty close to useless, whereas the one from Garmin Connect looks like a plot based on real data and it shows real trends (e.g., that I was running significantly slower during the last half of the run). And this is not a reflection of poor data quality coming from the iPod software; it turns out that the resolution of that data is much better than what Nike shows you. In general, Garmin treats the workout data in a much more scientific yet simple manner, also giving you the options of taking the data elsewhere, whereas the Nike website is colorful and animated, but has limited and closed information that has been dumbed down too much for my taste.

To wrap it up, despite a few – hopefully short-lived – annoyances, I am fairly happy with this new gadget. I will try to find out later how well it can be used for geotagging photographs while hiking or doing field work, something I still don’t have a simple solution for.

Update (6/20/2010): I have been using this watch for more than a month now. It works pretty well for running, although I did have a problem today: it froze at one point, and I couldn’t record any new data. It was very hot and humid, and I guess the contacts on the back side of the watch couldn’t handle the amount of salty sweat I was producing. Now it works again. Also, it is a good idea to turn on the GPS reception a few minutes before you start the run because sometimes it still takes 2-3 minutes to get the coordinates.

In terms of using it for hiking and geotagging photographs: I did a hike using both this watch and an older Garmin unit, and noticed that the accuracy of theForerunner 110 is better than that of the Garmin eTrex Vista Cx. The watch worked much better in the forest and in a deep, narrow valley, where the GPS signal must have been weak. The problem is that the battery of the Forerunner 110 doesn’t last long enough for a full-day hike; after about 5 hours of constant GPS recording, I couldn’t use it any more.

Update (2/4/2011): It looks like this watch (certainly the one that I am using) has a major flaw: when connected to a computer, the USB connection is easily broken because of the questionable design of the contacts on the back of the watch and the clip. The watch freezes and the only way I could get it back to life was to do a hard reset. This means that any data you have on the watch is lost. I have lost running data due to this issue several times; the last time it was especially annoying since it successfully got rid of the GPS record of my first marathon. Thanks, Garmin!

Update (3/30/2012): The problem I mentioned in the update above hasn’t occurred since I did a software update. However, a few months ago (about one and a half years after I bought the watch) the strap broke and I don’t think there is an easy way to replace it. Also, often (but not always) it takes 20-30 minutes to get a GPS lock. It is time to get a new watch, and I think I will stay away from Garmin for now.