Editor’s note: To warm your spirits during this cold winter we have reprinted this story from our 2011 Tooele County Magazine.
In the shadow of 11,031-foot high Deseret Peak, Tooele County’s most famous and tallest summit, stands a narrow, unnamed arête. Ancient pines jut abruptly from its rugged slopes. Their exposed roots, bleached a dull gray, radiate like octopus arms to grip the solid bedrock. Gnarled trunks twist upward, diverging into a mélange of dead and vibrant limbs. Here the haggard nobles stand, whipped by centuries of wild weather. This is a land where symmetry and flair are sacrificed for survival. I call it the Arête of the Ancients.
While climbing this arête in early morning light last fall, a sobering moment came to me as I balanced precariously midway up its southern face. I wasn’t stuck, technically. My options were plenty; it was a matter of choosing wisely. The last rock hold I had reached for crumbled in my hand. No crag was trustworthy now.
Should I have known the arête would be steeper than it looked? Probably. Should I have looked for a safer route to the top instead of rushing toward the first couloir I saw? Absolutely. But rarely does the search for hidden treasure allow for honest risk assessment. Somewhere on this ridge stood the Holy Grail of old-growth timber—and I was determined to find it.
Great Basin bristlecone pine is the longest-lived, non-clonal organism on earth. Known officially as Pinus longaeva, it thrives in the harsh sub-alpine reaches of the western U.S. The oldest documented specimen, a 17-footer called “Prometheus,” was nearly 5,000 years old when it was mistakenly felled by forest rangers in 1964.
The bristlecone had achieved iconic status in 1958 when core samples taken from a tree in California’s White Mountains showed it to be approximately 4,500 years old. The 50-foot tall “Methuselah” was declared to be the “world’s oldest living thing” (Prometheus’ rings had yet to be counted). The tree became so popular that the U.S. Forest Service eventually removed signs and scrubbed its location from maps to prevent visitors from loving it to death.
Methuselah lives on, presumably in peace—though it’s no longer considered to be the world’s oldest living tree. In his 2007 book, The Bristlecone Book: A Natural History of the World’s Oldest Trees, forester Ronald Lanner gives that title to an unnamed bristlecone that is reportedly 4,810 years old. Its location is a closely guarded secret.
Scientists value the bristlecone because unlike clonal organisms, which continually replace dead material with new growth, the non-clonal bristlecone adds new growth atop old, preserving the ancient material. Bristlecone has been used as a benchmark for radiocarbon dating. Its dense growth rings are a veritable Rosetta Stone for ecological study. Hence, it’s protected on all federal lands.
Science aside, perhaps our fascination with the bristlecone stems not from the tree itself, but from our intrinsic desire to commune with the past and our obsession with endless youth. In a way, seeing an ancient bristlecone is like traveling back in time. That first ring it grew a thousand or more years ago? It’s still there—mere feet or even inches from the ring it grew last year.
What’s more, exhaustive studies of bristlecone find no evidence of senescence— the natural process of degeneration over time. The trees age, and yet they don’t. Lanner put it best in his book: “These trees die not of old age; they die when something kills them.” Those who seek the Fountain of Youth might be wise to look toward the rugged mountains of the American West.
In Utah, stands of Great Basin bristlecone occur between the 9,000 and 11,500-foot level, and mostly in the southwestern part of the state. In Tooele County, their official range extends only as far north as the Deep Creek Mountains near the Nevada border. That’s why in 1977, when a group of University of Utah geography researchers spotted a single bristlecone in the Stansbury Mountains—some 75 miles northeast of the range limit—they stopped cold.
The men had spent the day taking core samples from Limber pine that flourish on the arête. While they ate lunch, Jack Oviatt, a graduate student at the time, noticed the lone bristlecone rising from the bedrock on a sheer rocky slope. The tree was 25-feet tall with three major limbs—two dead, one very much alive. Two more long-dead snags with characteristics similar to the living tree stood nearby. But the group had no way to positively identify them. Even if they were bristlecone too, it wouldn’t be enough to warrant a range limit shift. If it showed up on subsequent range maps, it would be labeled an “outlier.” The group took a core sample of the living tree. They counted 1,225 annual rings.
In a telephone interview, Lanner clarified that the number of rings counted in a core sample does not indicate exact age because they are taken at breast height (4.5 feet above the ground). He said it might have taken the tree several hundred years to reach breast height, given its extreme locale. Even if a conservative interpretation of “several hundred” is added to breast height ring count, the Stansbury’s lone bristlecone might be over 1,500 years old.
That may seem like nothing compared to the likes of Prometheus, Methuselah or the anonymous 4,810-year old titleholder, but it’s still an impressive figure. Think of it. This tree germinated right around the time of the Persian-Roman Wars, which occurred a little more than 500 years after the birth of Christ. It became mature when Charlemagne, whose empire united Western Europe for the first time since the Romans, was crowned emperor in 800 AD. It stood, looking much the same as it did when Oviatt spotted it, when the Colonies declared independence from England 235 years ago.
The tree is the first ever Great Basin bristlecone ever logged in the Stansbury Mountains, and it remains the only officially documented specimen in the range today. Lanner speculated it might be a remnant of a population that once thrived in the Stansbury’s. If that’s the case, the only documented specimen in the nearby Oquirrh Range might have been carried there by wind from the Stansbury’s.
Oviatt and crew logged a specimen sample with the University of Utah’s Garrett Herbarium, and published their findings in a 1978 edition of The Great Basin Naturalist.
Word of the discovery reached Lanner, who was teaching forest biology at Utah State University at the time. He told me he once went casually looking for the tree but never found it.
I chanced upon the article last year in the now-defunct publication’s online archives. As an outdoors writer, my interest in flora is mostly limited to the realm of survival: which plants will save my life, which will kill me, which make the best firewood. I didn’t know much about the Great Basin bristlecone, but I was intrigued. An ancient, isolated maverick of a bristlecone—now that’s my kind of tree!
To find one tree in an entire mountain range is a daunting task. I didn’t reach Oviatt or his colleagues before starting my search. But that was okay; their article included a description of the tree’s location and a small map that Oviatt had created by tracing contours from a topographic quadrangle. I lifted Oviatt’s map and scaled it to match a terrain-layered Google Map. The overlay gave me a ballpark search radius. With it in hand I hit the trail.
I couldn’t imagine the university researchers had climbed the arête in 1977 the same way I had chosen. I had set off on South Willow Canyon’s Mill Fork Trail at sunrise and arrived at the arête with adrenaline to spare. According to my map, the tree stood at the head of a steep couloir about 100 feet below the highest point on the arête. Find that couloir, I told myself, and I’d find the tree. It was this mindset that prompted me to dart from the trail and attack a wall of white quartzite.
Deseret Peak now loomed 2,000 feet above me. A trail curved safely over solid ground some 200 feet below. To my left was a large slab with crags just wide enough to grip, and to my right, loose scree, with the contorted root of a Limber pine just out of reach. It was time to make a decision. I lunged for the root.
I was met at the top by a silent audience of Douglas Fir, Limber and Ponderosa pine, all of which displayed the signs of old growth: stout, knotty trunks anchored by long roots that snaked up and down the ridge side. The top of the arête was 20 feet wide at its broadest point. I sat down, opened a Pop Tart, and marveled at the bizarre marriage of rock and timber.
Bristlecone isn’t tough to distinguish from its cousins. Its glossy, deep green needles come in bunches of five and span a good length of the shoot, giving them a distinct bottlebrush appearance. Its mature cones bear unique bristles on each scale. Still, I hadn’t walked 50 yards before every tree I saw looked like it could be the bristlecone. I was certain I was within my search radius, but locating the approximate 1,500-year-old specimen seemed all but impossible.
Awe quickly gave way to frustration. Everything—every tree, every misstep, every thought—was maddeningly annoying. Why didn’t I try harder to reach Oviatt before I climbed up here? Why didn’t I bring something other than Pop Tarts to eat? Why couldn’t we come up with American terms for “couloir” and “arête?” How are these trees fooling me?
By afternoon it was time to start looking for a way off the arête that wouldn’t involve plunging to my bloody death. My map showed a dipping saddle that might make for a non-technical exit. I would head that way soon, but I wanted to check out the other side of the arête. It was just as sheer as the other, but densely forested and covered with a dark, fertile soil. The contrast was staggering.
After a quick lunch on top, I strolled back to the couloir I had been shooting for when I began my climb. With one last look, I shifted my gaze slightly. And there stood the bristlecone, possibly Tooele County’s oldest tree, perfectly hidden by another Limber. The excitement of discovery reminded me of the scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” where Indy, in search of the Holy Grail, finally sees a rock bridge hidden by perspective. In fact, the movie’s soundtrack might as well have been playing in the background.
There it stood, unmistakably, unassumingly, at the head of the couloir. Getting down to it would be dicey, but the mood had flipped again. I slid down to its base. There was the long root the researchers had described. There were the two dead snags. The outlier stood mostly straight with lush, fragrant shoots. Eyeballing the trunk, I estimated it to be 22 to 23 inches in diameter.
There was no doubt I had found the tree, but I wanted official confirmation. I met Collections Manager Ann Kelsey at the Garrett Herbarium, an inconspicuous little complex tucked behind a door marked “Emergency Exit Only,” deep in the bowels of the University of Utah’s Museum of Natural History. Kelsey retrieved Oviatt’s samples from 1977 and compared them to photos, and seed cones I had collected from the ground beneath the tree. She elatedly proclaimed them a match.
“You know,” she mused, “We celebrate the dinosaur. We celebrate the Native American—when are we going to celebrate photosynthesis?”
I finally reached both Jack Oviatt, who now is a geography professor at Kansas State University, and Professor Paul Kay, who was also on the 1977 research team and now teaches at the University of Waterloo. Both were excited to hear an update on their tree. Neither could remember how old the Limbers were that they had sampled on the arête, but they weren’t as old as the bristlecone. Oviatt told me that he and Kay later found a separate stand of bristlecone not far from the arête. But they didn’t sample or officially document it.
“There might be quite a few up there,” Oviatt speculated.
I wouldn’t be surprised. The longest lived bristlecones sink their roots in the harshest of alpine neighborhoods—places like the high Stansbury’s where, as Lanner puts it, they “can only barely survive and reproduce, but where their enemies fare even worse.” Given the Great Basin Bristlecone’s biological hardiness and its downright refusal to age, the Stansbury’s outlier should be there for the long haul.
So what of its distant future? The tree is mature now, but won’t be technically old for another millennium. Then, if it avoids all enemies, it will eventually starve or collapse under its own weight, having out-survived the land that sustained it through the ages. Until then it will stand, the noblest of nobles, there on the Arête of the Ancients.