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Only the hardiest survive in High Sierra

It is already autumn in the land of granite and glaciers.

The sky is cobalt and the cold landscape seems lifeless, more than two miles above sea level. But sparse life does exist -- elegantly adapted to this alpine wilderness.

And it already is hunkering down for a long winter.

Killing frosts become frequent in September above 12,000 feet in the Sierra. The wind blows more consistently. Blizzards are only weeks away.

The Sierra crest in September is as far as you get from California's profile of surf, sun and sand. It is a place most tourists will never see. In fact, most Californians will never see this up close.

When the alpine winter arrives -- sometimes as early as October -- no deep snow drifts accumulate on the very peak of Mount Mendel, which rises to 13,710 feet.

Why? The wind averages 50 to 75 miles per hour in winter storms, scouring snow from such tall peaks.

"It's one of the harshest environments in California," says William Tweed, author, naturalist and retired staff member at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Mendel's neighborhood is in the highest of the High Sierra -- there are more than 100 peaks taller than 13,000 feet. For comparison, Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is 8,836 feet above sea level. That's almost a mile lower than Mendel.

The range's alpine region is considered arid. The daytime temperatures climb high enough in July and August to melt away most of the snow, except in protected bowls, or cirques, where glaciers reside.

The melting snow runs away quickly down steep canyons and sheer rock faces. Soils are generally thin and don't hold water well.

But there are glacially carved basins and benches -- low spots -- where soil can collect. They provide the best opportunities for plant growth in summer.

For six to eight weeks from July to late August, herbs, shrubs and other vegetation peek out from between the rocks. Some of the hardiest plants include alpine fescue, a bunchgrass. Many grow close to the ground, taking advantage of the warmth in the rocks.

In boulder fields, you can see the blue wildflower known as sky pilot. It has a skunklike scent.

Trees and large mammals generally are not found in the highest of the High Sierra. The air gets too thin and temperatures too low for trees, and there just isn't much food or protection for large animals.

The critters are small, such as the alpine chipmunk and the yellow-bellied marmot. You might also see birds such as the gray-crowned rosy finch, which forages on ridgetops above 9,000 feet.

In sheltered granite bowls that face northeast, the sun does not shine more than a few hours a day. That is true at Mendel Glacier, say some who have hiked them.

Author Peter Stekel visited the glacier in August 2007 to search for the site of a 1942 military crash, and he found the mummified body of one airman.

Stekel described the scene on his Web site:

"Not a tree, not a shrub, not an herb or a blade of grass or a tuft of sedge. There are no mosses or lichens. I kick at a rock but it doesn't move. It's still embedded in ice."

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