Geological Excursion to
the Eastern Sierra, California

Spring Break Field Trip for First-Year and Sophomore Students
March 10-17, 2012

Application Deadline: Friday November 11, 2011

Looking at Mono Lake from Lee Vining Canyon.
Photo: Sidney Hemming

Earth and Environmental Science V1900y (2 points)

The excursion is aimed at first-year and sophomore students with little or no prior background in the Earth and environmental sciences, striking a balance between the examination of modern phenomena and examples from the geological record, and with emphasis on developing interpretations from observations. Many of the outcrops are accessible with short hikes. However, days are long, and you should be prepared for a large range of weather conditions.

Summary of Geology.

The field trip will focus on the geology of the eastern Sierra -- a chance to see geology in action, and to look back through geological time, in an area of outstanding vistas and natural beauty. The terrain is spectacular due to the uplift of mountain blocks with respect to structural valleys along faults, a process that started some 35 million years ago as a result of stretching and thinning of the crust in this region, and continues today.

The field trip area contains diverse geological features, including faults, volcanoes, glacial valleys, moraines, lake terraces and outcropping lake sediments, as well as the famous tufa towers. Mono Lake is also an important example of water demands and environmental issues. We are going to examine examples of these and other features, focusing on the processes at work, the geological history and, in some cases, competing interpretations of geological history. Our emphasis in the field will be the observations upon which the interpretations are based. The intent of the excursion is to show you some fabulous geology while you take a well-earned break from spring classes. Among planned diversions, those wishing to do so will be able to take a dip in the hot springs not far from our base at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL).


Although the excursion is aimed at first-year and sophomore students with little or no prior background in the Earth and environmental sciences, we are nevertheless going to do real geology -- this isn't Earth science for poets or geotourism. Contrasting vignettes have been selected, striking a balance between the examination of modern phenomena and examples from the geological record. There is so much great stuff to see! Working in small groups, students will make observations/collect data and develop/defend hypotheses (plausible explanations), in some cases in response to specific questions. The instructor and teaching assistant will provide help as needed, and lead discussions aimed at drawing general conclusions from specific examples. Our focus is what you can observe rather than conveying information.

Many participants will be introduced to the world of geology for the first time. For a few students, the experience will reinforce concepts that may have been covered already in formal courses in high school or at Columbia. Those who would like to find out more about the Earth sciences are encouraged to enroll in EESC V2200, The Solid Earth System, one of three coordinated courses dealing with the ocean, atmosphere, solid Earth and life from a systems perspective.

Preparation for Excursion.

Preparation for the trip will include modest background reading and several sessions to introduce the geology. We have found that such preparation is important to help students to benefit from their experience in the field. Assigned readings will be posted in Columbia University Courseworks. We will be dividing the class into 5 field trip groups who will lead 5 of the day excursions (with our help). These groups will present the background materials for their day excursions during the pre-trip sessions. Sessions are provisionally scheduled as follows, at 7:30-9:00 p.m. on Wednesday evenings in Schermerhorn 603.

Wednesday, January 18. Overview of excursion. Assignments of group leaders for the daily excursions.

Wednesday, January 25. Global Geologic Context of the Eastern Sierra.

Wednesday, February 1. Group 1.

Wednesday, February 8. Group 2.

Wednesday, February 15. Group 3.

Wednesday, February 22. Group 4.

Wednesday, February 29. Group 5.

Wednesday, March 7. Final briefing on logistics. Potluck dinner.

Transportation, Accommodation, Showers, Hot Springs, Meals and Entertainment.

The group will fly round trip from Newark to Las Vegas, Nevada, and travel in the field by van. We will spend the night near Las Vegas both coming and going, and will camp at coming and/or going. For the rest of the week, overnight accommodation will be provided at SNARL (Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory; Most food will be prepared communally. There is a fully equipped kitchen at SNARL. Students will self-select five teams of four (at least one of which will accommodate vegetarians and others with dietary restrictions). Each team will be responsible for the preparation and clean-up of one evening meal for the entire group. Your other evenings will be free of responsibility. Menus will be coordinated in advance, paying attention to dietary preferences. We plan to have evening dinner at inexpensive restaurants on two days associated with the most driving.

This is a full-immersion experience, with long days in the field. Expect to get tired and to need plenty of sleep. Leave other coursework at home. Bring a novel or self-entertainment (nothing loud). A star chart is useful. The desert night sky is remarkably clear. There is no television at SNARL.

Outline of Excursion.

We plan to depart each day between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m., and to return by 6:30 p.m. (Daylight Saving Time). The trip is not fully planned, but the outline below is a likely scenario.

Friday, March 9. Leave in early afternoon from NYC- Arrive in Las Vegas- get vans, get groceries, drive to Cynthias. (cooking group 1 for dinner).

Friday, March 10. Death Valley tour and camping at Furnace Creek (field trip group 1 to lead).

Sunday, March 11. Panamints, Owens Lake, and drive to SNARL (field trip group 2 to lead).

Monday, March 12. Bishop Tuff (field trip group 3 to lead).

Tuesday, March 13. Geothermal Plant, Panum Crater, Mono Lake Committee tour of South Tufa (instructors to lead).

Wednesday, March 14. Mono Basin Lake deposits; glacial deposits of the area (field trip group 4 to lead).

Thursday, March 15. Return to Furnace Creek- explore more (instructors to lead).

Friday, March 16. Lake Manley deposits in Death Valley (field trip group 5 to lead). Night at Cynthia's.

Saturday, March 17. Return to NYC.


The course will be graded pass/no pass. Our intent is for you to have a stimulating experience.


The student contribution to the cost of the week-long excursion, which includes air fare, transportation, accommodation, park entry fees, course materials and food, is estimated to be $350 per student (approximately 50% of the actual cost). Endowed funds are currently being sought to underwrite this kind of activity on a continuing basis.

How to Apply.

Email applications (and queries) should be sent as soon as possible, and no later than November 11, 2011, to Sidney Hemming ( Please include contact information (full name, mailing address, telephone, e-mail); year at Columbia University or Barnard College; a summary of prior Earth science courses or experiences; intended major(s) or concentration(s) if known; how you found out about the trip; and any health, dietary or other concerns. Most of the outcrops are readily accessible with short hikes, but be prepared to scramble around and spend long days in the field.

As a result of heavy demand, the trip is restricted to first- and second-year students from Columbia College/General Studies (16 places), Barnard College (2 places) and the School of Engineering and Applied Science (2 places). We can accommodate a maximum of 20 students.

Registration and Payment Schedule.

All students must register for EESC V1900 (2 units).

Each student's contribution of $350 is requested no later than December 1, so that we can go ahead with airline reservations. Checks are payable to the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. These may be taken to the campus DEES office (Room 557, Schermerhorn; note that the office closes at 4 p.m.) or sent by mail to Carol Mountain at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Palisades, NY 10964-8000. Please mark checks "Eastern Sierra" to ensure that they are credited to the correct account.

Personal Equipment Needed.

Students will need clothing suitable for a wide range of weather conditions, including sun hat, sunblock, and sunglasses; as well as down jacket or equivalent, woolly hat, and gloves. Bring boots with good tread suitable for clambering over rough terrain (with enough room for two pairs of socks to avoid blisters); a pair of comfortable shoes or sneakers; sleeping bag and towel; two one-quart (liter) water containers or equivalent for the field (Nalgene bottles are good); day pack; swimsuit; and a flashlight (essential). Leave hair dryers and similar electrical devices at home. Cell phones don't work well in many parts of the Eastern Sierra; it's too remote from population centers. The chance of significant rain is not high, but some protection is advised. It can also be windy during the spring season. Space will be limited in the three 12 passenger vans, particularly when we are in transit. It will be necessary to be disciplined about luggage. Soft-sided bags are packed most easily.

Geological Equipment Needed.

Students will require a notebook, pencil/eraser, scale (15 cm), and 10x hand lens. A lens can be obtained through the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences for about $8.

Optional equipment includes a geological hammer, a small folding shovel, a small pocket knife, binoculars (or a monocular), Brunton compass, a camera and/or digital camera. Estwing hammers are sold at many hardware stores. Both hammers and knives must be placed in checked baggage to prevent confiscation by airport security.

Safety Advice and Other Requests.

None of the places to be visited is especially unsafe, so long as we follow some rules. To ensure the success of the trip, please observe the following advice and requests.

  1. Follow instructions. While we are in the field, be prepared to reassemble at pre-specified times and places. Do not wander off alone. At best, it wastes time. At worst, it is an issue of safety.

  2. Watch where you put your hands and feet, particularly when climbing. Natural hazards include rattlesnakes, scorpions, and a great many varieties of thorny plants. Do not run down hills. Loose material tends to move in unexpected ways. None of these hazards has proven to be a serious problem on past trips. Insects are not generally a problem here.

  3. On steep slopes, avoid rolling blocks onto those below you. Avoid being directly beneath others on a slope. Be especially vigilant in proximity to cliffs. Never stand close to a cliff edge. You have no way of knowing how stable the rocks are, and every incentive not to find out.

  4. Be careful when using a rock hammer in proximity to others. Shield your eyes. Never strike one hammer against another. They're made of hardened steel, and tend to splinter.

  5. Drink plenty of water to avoid becoming dehydrated, particularly at the beginning of the day. Take at least two quarts (liters) with you on hot days and long traverses. A wide-brim sun hat, sunblock and sunglasses are strongly recommended.

  6. Wear sturdy boots suitable for clambering over rough terrain. They need good tread for traction. Wearing two pairs of socks is the best way to avoid blisters. Moleskin is an excellent solution if you happen to develop blisters.

  7. The desert landscape is very fragile. Please respect it. No collecting of rocks or plants or artifacts is permitted. Leave no trash.

  8. Efforts will be made to take pit stops wherever convenient. Toilets are not widely available once we leave population centers, and there is very little cover in the desert. Please respect the privacy of others. Bury all waste. Do not pollute water sources.

  9. We'll be living and travelling in close quarters. So treating others with respect applies everywhere and at all times. Stay relaxed. Chip in with chores that need to be done, without being asked. Do your part to make the trip a success. Respect quiet hours.

  10. The drinking age for alcohol in California is 21. No consumption of alcohol is permitted during the day. No open (or opened) alcohol containers are permitted in vehicles under California State law. No illegal drugs. The conspicuous display of good judgment will be appreciated. Offenders will be sent home at their own expense.

  11. For reasons of insurance, only the field-trip leader and teaching assistant are permitted to drive the vehicles.

  12. Either of us can be consulted in case of any difficulty.

Emergency Medical Arrangements.

First aid kits will travel with each vehicle (under the second seat, by the door). In emergency, the nearest medical facility is in Mammoth Lakes. All students should be sure to bring evidence of health care coverage (either Columbia or private plans), along with any medication needed during the excursion.


Sidney Hemming is a Professor of Earth & Environmental Sciences, and has been at Columbia University since 1996. She holds degrees in geology from the Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, TX (B.S., 1983), from Tulane University (M.S., 1986) and the SUNY Stony Brook (Ph.D., 1994), and prior to joining Columbia was for two years a post doc at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She teaches in courses including The Solid Earth System and Introduction to Geochronology and Thermochronolgy.

Teaching Assistants.

Rafael Almeida is a PhD candidate in Earth & Environmental Sciences studying Geology. More info to come.

Meg Reitz is a PhD candidate in Earth & Environmental Sciences studying Structural Geology and Tectonic Geomorphology and has been at Columbia University since 2007. She holds degrees in Geology from Oberlin College (B.A., 2006) and Columbia University (M.A., 2009; M.Phil., 2011). Prior to beginning graduate school at Columbia University, she worked as a lab assistant for Prof. Sidney Hemming at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She has TA'd three classes at Columbia: Alternate Energy Resources (taught by Prof. Dave Walker) and two semesters of Advanced General Geology (one semester with Prof. Mark Anders and one semester with Prof. Chris Scholz).

Contact Information.

Sidney Hemming
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University
Palisades, New York 10964-8000

Tel. 845-365-8417 (95-8417 on the tie line from Columbia campus).

Updated October 12, 2011
To report problems, email webmaster.