I wanted to be angry.
I wanted to look up at my mountains and see them grieving their mistake with low clouds; agonized rocks falling; groaning and creaking in the wind.
I wanted to walk among them and feel their pain at the loss.
But the pain I felt was my own, my pack heavy on my shoulders, as my steps drew me through the aspen and out onto the moraine, up the block stairs to the shores of Loch Leven. The familiar slopes riding to Piute Pass spread before me, but the sparkles off the water, tossing lightly in the wind, did not light a path. Each gust dove from the peaks on either side, rode the surface of the water, spun it into whitecaps pushing towards me as I stood, unmoved, along the shoreline. Clouds whipped across the Basin; racing to reach the slopes of Humphreys, climb, and dive into the Valley to the east.
I stepped carefully between the boulders beyond Muriel Lake, the open meadows of the Basin having been left behind, taking care to watch my feet and not roll with the rocks. Crawling up the drainage, passing lakes of lighter green, I ducked after hearing the rumbling train of rushing air fall from the heights of the cirque. Unphased, I pushed up the rock piles, closed in on the weakness in the wall I knew to be Snow Tongue Col. “It’s only a few hundred feet of suck,” I whispered to myself as I clutched for holds and kicked my toes into the sand. Half-buried rocks pulled loose as I weighted them, several sent tumbling to the drainage below. With a grunt, I pulled myself over the top, the sun winking from behind a grey cloud and the wind rushing up the south side of Glacier Divide.
John and I had strolled this slope a month before, and found meadows of purple lupine lining the small streams. A few remained, steadfast in the summer sun, the tips of the racemes bold and purple, but fading into dryness and seed along their bases. It was easy travel along the high meadows, transitioning from the rock and sand to prickly grasses around the banks of the lakes. Behind a large boulder, out of the wind, I pitched my tent and set up camp, then drew out my rod and gear before trudging down to the water’s edge.
I knew the wind might push the fish deep, so my casting was less than optimistic. In fact, I lost a brand new lure on the first cast, caught on some unseen rock 30 feet from shore, and me unwilling to get wet on a blustery evening. I don’t strategize when I fish: it’s cast and pray all the way. Instead, the quiet exercise of flip the reel, hold the line, cast and reach, lock the reel, then slowly turn the crank to pull it all back again quiets me. It allows my head to clear. I close my eyes. I sink into the ground. I feel the water’s pull as the lure streams through.
No, it couldn’t be. This isn’t the night for it. I’m here late. The sun is setting. The wind… has calmed.
I pull up on the rod, see the fins breaking the surface for the first time. Crap, crap, crap… it’s a REAL one. Not some little mini-pan-fryer. OK, don’t get too excited, hold him… hold him… Closer to shore, then quick! Big pull and lift and turn and keep it low and all the way behind you to stop it from twitching off the line and back into the water like so many others this summer. Omigosh omigosh omigosh… There’s enough here for two!
Of course there is.
I am pulled back to the reality, the knowledge of how we had talked so many times of trips. Of how I like to imagine she would have enjoyed this one on so many levels. How I wanted to cook for her back here, to share myself and my own talents in this remarkable place. With a flip of the knife, the catch was clean, and I ambled slowly back to camp to warm the stove, rub the fish in spice and drop it into the oil in the pan. I ate well, watching the light edge away from the Divide.
That night, the wind sang through the treetops but never rustled my tent. A coyote yipped and barked somewhere along the Bench. And I snuggled down in my bag against the dark.
I couldn’t reach the snooze on the Clark’s Nutcracker that squawked and clicked above my tent. Mornings were the toughest: packing up and getting started again, all the while thinking how nice it might have been to have someone with me, sharing this ride. I remembered her bounding up to me at the beginning of the Challenge last year: “HI!! My name’s Pat, and YOU’RE Laura Molnar, and I need to shake your hand because you’re a legend!!” I was bowled over and overwhelmed, in part because I don’t see myself that way: I set a goal for myself, and I worked to achieve it. But she did. I imagined how much she might have liked this trip, what with staying away from the crowds, the myriad of peaks at our disposal, the route-finding across the Bench. But in the morning light, I struck out alone across the golden meadows, jumping quickly above sodden moss beds to keep my feet dry, striding up the interconnected slab sidewalks above Evolution Valley. Beyond the creek, I angled down to the trail, smiling as I voyeuristically watched others on the freeway slowly step off the switchers and cross to the edge of Evolution Lake.
At the slabs beyond the inlet, I dropped my pack and dangled my feet into the clear water cascades. Once again, the breeze had quickened in the late morning hours, and shadows danced up the walls of Mendel and Darwin. I just wanted to be alone there in the heart of EVO Basin, to lose myself in watching the light dance across the granite. I would flash to thoughts of my itinerary, and then settle into repose and lean back against the polished rock. There was an almost constant flow of people crossing the inlet, marching back and forth on the trail just away from my perch, but they fluttered on the edge of my perception. The rock along the east side of the creek offered an easy and gentle walk up to Sapphire Lake, where I gave into the sadness and pitched camp above the shoreline. Be gentle, I reminded myself. Be gentle.
Hours later, after the peaks had burned through the sunset, and the glow had lifted from the atmosphere, I stared at the west faces of Mounts Huxley and Fiske. The water still lapped onto the beach below camp, but the wind was slowly calming. Against a grey sky, the rock still seemed to glow, but in ways that I still have difficulty describing. Perhaps they were painted there, millions of sharp strokes creating edges and shadows to bring out the ridgelines and ledges. They appeared almost smaller, coming down to my level of existence. I shook my head numerous times in a reminder to blink and bring myself back to camp. The first stars appeared, but the mountains held their glow as long as they could.
The trail through Evolution is a social experience, with a constant flood of humanity shuttling back and forth across the Basin. I felt strength in my legs that morning, such that striding up the shallow switchers below Wanda Lake was an easy task, even with the constant weight of the pack. I chatted with passers-by: How was Snow Tongue Col? I’m not sure my shoes can take much more of this, and I’ve already tripped? How’s the fishing? Where are you headed? Where are you coming from? Where do you live? Are you out here alone? Isn’t that scary? Your plan sounds so adventurous! We’re from Seattle: what peaks could be a fun scramble?
I bypassed the turnoff to Wanda Pass, searched the top of Nietzsche Col for snow, and opted to visit my old friend, the Hut, at Muir Pass. I touched the blocks around the walls, felt the roughness of the cement bonding them under my fingers, smiled at the wooden panel on which I had spent a lonely night listening to the storm rumble around me. Scrambling to the top, I reached skyward. I invited the Seattle guys to join me over Black Giant Pass and into Ionian Basin, to have company for the scramble up Charybdis. At their reluctant decline, I loaded up once more and followed the easy line across the slopes of Mt. Solomons to the Pass.
“No matter where you go, it’ll be right!” Seattle called from behind.
The dark cloud settled in atop the summit of Charybdis as I dropped the mini-Beast on an island of rounded rock above the lake. Broken, sharp chunks surrounded me; barely a patch of open ground was visible. Hunting around, a single tent platform availed itself, and the rocks served a valuable purpose to anchor the corners and the fly of my tent. I’d never been in a quieter place. The cloud and I began our staring match; the wind and I held our collective breaths, only for the air to rush across the lake and send me into shivers. Rockfall, occasionally soft and tinkling, other times blocky and resounding, sent new material splashing into the lake. The ridge looked challenging, and also loose. I lost my nerve. Shaking my head, I wandered the shoreline, hopping over rocks that perhaps would be underwater in a normal year. More silence.
The broad outlet poured into the enormity of Ionian Basin, each level defined by rough walls of moraine, striped to match the rock beneath. Shallow lakes glowed emerald in the shifting light. I spied a patch of green along the wall to my right near a seep, a flash of red from a few last Indian Paintbrush clinging to summer. It offered a soft perch above the endless boulders. I still watched the cloud, which hadn’t moved, stubbornly clinging to Charybdis and that damn ridge. I tanked up at the cascade, reaching between rocks to where the water fell, before scrambling up to the meadows directly underneath the peak.
The canyon to the south offered only a narrow view, bleached by the afternoon sun, so I turned and rambled back to the outlet. I was surprised to see anyone back there, but with his rugged face, slender legs, and small pack, he didn’t seem too out of place. We waved, and smiled, and came together, calling greetings and starting the small talk of the backcountry. He was 62, been out for 24 days, covering plenty of ground from Road’s End to here. I asked about Explorer Pass, and when he said out of Wood’s Creek, the bridge popped directly into my head. “I wish I had started this when I was your age,” he said. His camp was below, at the bottom of the cascade. Randy seemed to know exactly what he wanted to do, so with a wave, we turned and I headed for camp. “Enjoy the journey!” I called over my shoulder.
The shaft of light burned across the water and hit the base of the wall near camp, then slowly crept skyward as the sun lowered in the west. The clouds had thickened above me, threatening but nothing more. The breeze riffled the water. I had finished my dinner; sipping on the whiskey that had to last me two more nights back here. I stood and wandered a bit with my camera, searching for the best angles of the water and rock and clouds as they flared into the sunset.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
I turned to see Randy wandering back into my camp, almost shyly. I beamed a greeting, asked what he was doing here.
“I’m a little embarrassed to ask, but do you have a spare light?”
The descent down the boulders at the outlet could get a little tricky, I figured, although I was a little confused. With an easy shrug, I dug out my kit bag to look for the light.
“I thought your camp was down below.”
“Well, of course you would think that, because that’s what I told you.”
I cocked my head to one side, wrinkled my brow a bit. I dug into the bag.
When I looked up, tears streamed down Randy’s face.
“I didn’t want to tell you that I had come back here to kill myself.”
He pulled his prayer flags from his pocket, held them up for me to see.
The silence had become palpable, a bolt of energy surrounding us both. He curled into himself, sobbing, his arms hanging limply at his sides, the flags dangling from his hand. Without thought, I dropped my bag, squared my shoulders, and reached out for him, stepped closer.
“Come here, Randy.”
His tears wet my shoulder, but I didn’t let go. I pulled his head up to see the last brilliance of the sunset reflecting on the low clouds around Scylla. “Look where you are, Randy. Look at what’s happening.”
I will never forget the far-off look in his eyes, the sun reflecting on the tear-stained cheeks. He shifted back to me: perhaps the faintest glimmer of hope crossed his face. He shuddered as he drew in a breath.
I gave him my light, and he was obsessed with returning it the next morning. His gear was actually stashed at Muir Pass, tucked at the Hut with a note and some money for the ranger. I insisted he not be concerned with such triviality, as now I really had no clue as to what I was going to do. “I just want you to live, Randy,” my eyes pleaded behind the simple words.
“I’m going to head back to Bishop Pass tomorrow,” he insisted. He could tuck the light under the wipers on my truck at South Lake, I explained. I handed over a few bars to fuel him, and he turned to climb Black Giant Pass.
A pause, another turn.
“Do you realize just how amazing you are?” he asked.
I stood and gave as strong a smile as I could muster, waved him on his way, watched him gracefully climb the talus until he was lost in the rocks of the top of the pass. I exhaled, and sat gently on the block holding the front end of the tent fly, looked up at the sky.
My name echoed across the basin. I gave a shout to let him know I had heard.
The cloud above Charybdis melted away, the first stars sparkled in the graying sky, blurred through my own tears.
The basin was quiet again.
Sleep never came.
Clouds already at sunrise, and I stayed huddled in my bag, pulled it up under my chin. I wasn’t ready to face the world yet, so I rested and breathed as deeply as I could muster. The tears had played out, but I was exhausted. Gently, gently, I reminded myself. I finally emerged from the cocoon and stretched aching bones as the sun crept over the shoulder of Black Giant. The lake was perfectly still, reflecting the old snow and crumbling rock. What was this teaching me, I wondered aloud. Why, at this time, did I have to feel like the shifting sand on the slopes around me?
I stopped midstride on my way back up from the lake. “Wherever you go, it’ll be right” echoed in my head. The memory of the thank you bouncing off the walls struck me again.
We come here to live.
Pat had come here to live, to reach beyond herself. We don’t know what happened, but it led to the end of her life. It happens, as horrible as it may be. But she LIVED.
Randy had come here to die, but had instead found at least one more day.
I had learned the lesson, and it was time for me to go. For once, I needed time out of the mountains to process, instead of the other way around. I packed up my bag, shouldered the load, and scrambled back up the pass.
I didn’t look back.
My breath clouded in the beam from my headlamp, and I could see that the rain had soaked the earth below Long Lake. It took a few minutes to find my truck at the trailhead, and I sank heavily onto the tailgate after throwing my pack inside. The engine roared right to life as I turned the key.
My headlamp was not under the wiper.
“I want you to live, Randy,” I whispered.