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What is Krumholz?

Krumholz on Mt Lafayette

Krumholz (also spelled Krummolz)is a German word used to describe the stunted trees that grow on exposed mountain tops above treeline. They look like weathered bonsai trees but instead of a human gardener, the wind is their master.

These trees grow together in impenetrably dense clusters usually below head height. They’re broken and battered by storms and subjected to periodic fires from lighting strikes. Still they survive in the alpine zone which has a very short growing season because it’s covered by snow most of the year. For this reason, hikers are asked to steer clear of krumholz so they don’t interfere upset their growing season or cause irreparable damage to the plants that can’t regenerate before the cold winds of winter return.

If you’re hiking up a mountain and the trees around you start to get shorter and shorter, you have come to a transition zone between full-grown trees and the dwarf trees that grow in the krumholz zone. I always make a mental note of where this transition point is, just in case I need to bug out and get below treeline in the event of a thunderstorm or high winds.

Although krumholz provides some protection from wind, you wouldn’t want to weather a thunderstorm or high winds here. There is not enough protection from hail, lightning strikes, or wind chill. Getting below treeline, where the trees are taller than you, and there is a canopy of leaves and branches above your head, is always the safest alternative.

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