Timberline on Mount Rainier is rather low due to the extremely heavy snowfall and the low elevation of the prominent snow and ice fields. There is no distinct timberline but the zone of tree life will usually be found between seven and eight thousand feet elevation. At nine thousand feet among the rocks and on the pumice slopes of the wind-swept "cleavers" few plants grow; a little moss or lichen on the rocks, one or two sedges in damp places and a few flowering plants such as the Saxafrage, the golden aster or Lyall's lupine and that is all.
Among the boulders a thousand feet lower down are found the dead white stems of small twisted jumpers (Jumperus communis sibirica.) They are the most adventurous of the forest frontiers man, but as so many other adventurers beyond the last frontier they have left their bones to bleach in the sun. Only a little farther down, a few of the same hardy species still hold their own in the unceasing battle against the elements.
They cannot, however, be called trees although their brothers in more favored locations reach to that state. Sheltered behind rocks they lay close to the ground taking every advantage of the nigardly supply of heat offered them by an unsympathetic earth. Twisted and gnarled as sagebrush, they are not more than a few feet in legnth and seldom do they attain a height of six inches.
A quarter of a mile below one comes upon the real forest outposts. On the crest of a steeper slope where through ages a handful of soil has accumulated, stand clumps of low busy Alpine firs, one of the true firs or balsms (Abies lasiocarpa).
They share their hardships and privations with the grizzled mountain hemlock (Tanga mertensiana) and the sturdy white-barked pine (Primus albicaulis) which grows only at timberline and seems really to enjoy it. These trees usually grow in mass formation covering sometimes a quarter of an acre of ground, and forming a dense growth sloping from the ground on the edges to the tips of the tallest trees in the center - these less than three feet high.
Pushing the crowns aside reveals the mass of twisted supporting stems, a mass so dense that individual trees cannot be distinguished. Crushed beneath tons of snow for nine months out of every twelve they have developed a support for the heavy carpet of crown leaves that can almost be walked upon. These far outposts of the great fores in their struggle against adverse conditions, command the respect of one fully as much as the tall clean-boled giants that grow in the more favored locations below. Many of these two-foot trees are as old as their cousins of two-hundred feet. Two-thirds of their lives they have struggled to hold their own against the crushing weight of winter snows; the other third they have fought desperately to add what growth they could from their meager supply of soil and to stand up against the driving sand-filled gales which would grind individual trees into mere skeletons were it not for the protection of natural wind breaks or for the stregnth of numbers cooperating to withstand the blast.
The mountain hemlock and the Alpine fir are the two common trees of Paradise Valley and other alpine parks. The rugged - almost ragged appearance of the hemlock with its drooping tip, short needles and small pendant cones is easily distinguished from the stiff, spire-like Alpine fir with its regular whirls of drooping branches, longer needles and larger upright cones which grows only in the tips of the trees.
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