Geologist Bill Guyton Publishes Glaciers of California

Hikers climb Bolam Glacier on Mt. Shasta.
(photo Michael Zanger)
"Mention glaciers and few people will think of California. The Alps, the Canadian Rockies, or Alaska, yes—but not sunny California." Thus begins Geology Professor Emeritus Bill Guyton's Glaciers of California, published as part of the series of California Natural History Guides.

Glaciers of California is a book for the hiker, the naturalist, the explorer—on California's several hundred small glaciers, glacierets, and the stunning landscape created by glacial activity. Guyton covers glaciers from the most well known glacier, Mt. Whitney Glacier on Mt. Shasta, to the Palisades Glacier in the Sierra Nevada, to dozens of lesser known glaciers and glacierets. While California's glaciers are small in scale compared to more well know glaciers, Guyton introduces us to their interesting features, beauty, and suitability for exploring.

Guyton's book is the result of many years of research and a lifetime love of glacial scenery. He provides a summary of the history of the discovery of Ice Age glaciation and modern-day glaciers, as well as a discussion of the controversy surrounding theories about the origin of Yosemite Valley.

In one very interesting chapter, Guyton presents the debate between professional geologist Josiah D. Whitney, a university graduate and respected scientist, and John Muir, a vagabond with no university credentials who did not claim to be a professional scientist.

Whitney believed Yosemite Valley was formed by the down-dropping of a large block of rock between faults, and that glaciers were of no importance. Guyton writes, "This hypothesis had little evidence to support it, but it is interesting to examine as an example of how appearances can deceive." The steep, nearly parallel valley walls, with little talus at their bases, the sheer cut-off face of Half Dome, and the flat valley floor were the features that both impressed Whitney and convinced him that Yosemite was not glacially formed.

Whitney was apparently confused by the fact that thick lake deposits obscured the true U- shape of the lake. Guyton explains, "What is visible of the U, together with the flat valley floor formed by lake deposits, is a good imitation of a down-dropped faulty block, or graden."

Muir, on the other hand, was absolutely convinced that glaciers alone had excavated Yosemite Valley, and that California was once covered with a great sheet of ice. Muir, although not a degree holder, was knowledgeable about many aspects of natural history and was a "careful and perceptive observer." His many years living in Yosemite Valley gave him ample opportunity to study its glacial features.

Muir set out to educate the public, and since, as Guyton suggests, "No writer combines science and poetry better than John Muir," he was well loved and believed by his readers. Geologist Francois Matthes wrote in 1938:

To one thoroughly at home in the geologic problems of the Yosemite region it is now certain, upon reading Muir's letters and other writings, that he was more intimately familiar with the facts on the ground and was more nearly right in their interpretation, than any professional geologist of his time.

Guyton also gives Whitney his due, correcting some mispercep-tions, and giving him credit for his major contributions to understanding Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada, and California. Whitney played an important role in getting Yosemite Valley preserved as public land.

Guyton's book includes many color photographs and extensive illustrations. There is a glossary of technical terms and a 100-mile Sierra field trip guide for readers who want to explore California glaciers for themselves.


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