The Lake of 1000 Postholes

Posted in Backpacking with tags , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2014 by moosetracksca

I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to be in this drainage.

–Yup: I can’t see a damn thing, save the ten feet in front of me with this headlamp; I’ve been going hard for 9 hours and somehow I thought I’d been able to step up this moraine while still wearing my snowshoes.

Hear that? That’s running water beneath you. And up ahead? Yeah, that’s a cascade. Maybe I should have holed up on that shelf a few hundred yards back down. Maybe I should have made camp in the trees, near the running water, eaten a good dinner, tucked in warm with the sound of the breeze whispering through the tent.

–Maybe I should try not so hard to be so damn stubborn.

Oh, shut it. You’re almost to the lake.

–Really, sometimes the conversations in my head just crack me up.

Come on, now: Focus. Look around. Does anything go?

–Hell if I know.

Wait: there’s a loosey-goosey section just above you, then step across the blocks to those ledges.

–I can see the headline: woman buried under rockslide and her own pack.

Please.

–<sigh> OK, 10 steps up. Now 10 more. Now 10 more.

Well, isn’t this a lovely knoll… In the middle of nowhere.

–Hey: it’s flat, there’s snow for melting, there’s even a laundry tree.

Does this mean I’m done?

–For today. Now, get this tent up.

 _______________

<poof> Nice work.

–What? I thought you enjoyed postholing.

Not when I have an objective.

–Oh really, now? And what would that be?

I’d like to finally get up Mt. Davis.

–And your plan to head around the lake instead of across it? How’s that workin’ for ya?

Wait: what’s that over there?

–Where?

Does that big flat boulder not have any snow on it?

–Oh no you don’t. Don’t even think about it. We have miles to go…

And the sun just came out from behind the clouds. It’s so warm. My legs are tired. I’m tired. There’s a notch for my feet, and it rises at a perfect incline to lean back on my pack…

–Damitol, you are NOT succumbing to a nap rock. In January. Where you have the lake all to yourself, save a few loud-mouthed birds. Nope. Keep plugging. Time to head up the pass. Ready? Head down…

ZZzzzzzzzzz…

_______________

I can’t believe you made me slog around the lake instead of walking right on across it.

–Shut it. Have some whiskey. And triscuits. And cheese. Enjoy the last sun. At least your boots are dry.

Just try not to mix anything up with the marmot poop. Goddamn gorgeous knoll for camp.

_______________

High road or low road? Sliding up scree or sliding on ice?

–Really? That’s all you’ve got for me? Meh, let’s see how conditions are down low by the river.

It’s a long walk back up from Agnew Meadow, you know.

–Yeah, but I’ve got all day. And way too much energy stored up from the best nap ever.

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Please see more pictures of the weekend here:

From the luckiest girl in the world:

Climb Hard. Be Safe.

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On the Trail of the Bighorn: Mt. Lewis (Jan 3-5)

Posted in Backpacking, Skiing with tags , , , , , , , on January 18, 2014 by moosetracksca

The air barely moved at Tioga Pass as I stabbed my skis and poles into the drift. The Beast leaned up against my truck’s wheel well, waiting patiently for me to heave to and stumble in my boots towards what little snow covered the road. I had to smile up at Gaylor Peak, then over to Mt. Dana and Gibbs, and I shook my head at the sad view of their rocky slopes. The sun blazed in the early afternoon as I glided down to the Mono Pass trailhead, the fallen giants lay quiet between patches of white and brown.

Laura came into view twenty minutes after I arrived, her pack swollen and taller than she. “It’s mostly down,” she insisted, but I liked this idea of travelling with another woman loaded down as heavily as I.  Her touring rig slid easily down from the parking lot, while I pushed each step. Too late, I realized that the snow wasn’t sliding under my skis and skins, but instead was sticking, turning the skin track into a boot track. At the creek, I stopped to try and wring the skins out and wax them, but I was now part of the “Mountain Relocation Team”, where I would haul snow from the flats to higher elevations, whether I liked it or not.

Laura pulled ahead while I wallowed a bit, the skis too heavy to even kick against a tree to clear the snow. “It’ll just make me stronger!” I yelled ahead, and she laughed as she logged another sighting of porcupine tracks. There were signs of all sorts of wildlife, actually: marten, birds large and small, rabbit, even bear. I wondered if the lair was anywhere close. At dusk, Laura looped back a bit after spotting a flat bit of open ground in the trees, but I wasn’t done yet. I would prefer a view of some sort, having done the work, after all. We trudged another half mile to the clearing and meadow where the Mono and Parker Pass trails split. I found a clear spot on the lee of a great whitebark pine, and we quickly got to work setting up camp.

On an overhanging branch, I hung a new light I had received for Christmas, and our site became perfectly lit. Extinguishing our headlamps, we sat and laughed over stoves as we melted the meager snow and boiled water for dinner. There was red wine, a little tequila, tortellini and bacon-spinach pesto, and cookies for dessert. Under the Cheshire cat moon, we caught each other up on the fall activities, as well as how she and Rob had settled into Tuolumne. The air was still as we crawled into our bags, and the moon set behind the Kuna Crest. In the absolute dark, the stars were almost three-dimensional, reaching down to the earth; the Milky Way stained the northern sky. I drifted off watching Orion do his cartwheels to the south.

We awoke early, but were none too keen to spring from the lofty down cocoons behind the whitebark. Ice crusted the rim of my bag from my breathing. The sun was teasing the eastern faces of Koip and Kuna when we finally sat up and lit stoves for breakfast and coffee. Shadows of Dana and Gibbs reflected in the orange atmosphere across Tuolumne Meadows. Laura called in to Rob to give him a rough itinerary of the day, and we crossed the meadow to gain the ridge towards Parker Pass.

We ran out of snow atop the ridge looking across to Spillway and Helen Lakes, and both took stock of the pass to Lost Lakes, so sadly half-covered in this meager winter. At the top of the ridge, we racked our skis for ¼ mile before trading out our ski boots for trail runners. Stashing our skis and boots on a sun-soaked slab, we hiked up the rocks to the ridgeline, gazed back down into Bloody Canyon and to Mono Pass. I looked up to Laura, and was about to call out when she squatted and waved her arms at me, motioning for quiet. Twirling her hands about her head, she silently and emphatically mouthed, “BIGHORN.” My breath caught as I stepped to her, and I pulled out my little camera as quickly and quietly as I could. Not two hundred yards ahead on the ridge was a huge ram, solid and proud, out for a daily stroll, soaking in the sights.

Laura and I exchanged giant smiles, high-fives, mini-dances of happiness, and pulled up our shots to compare as we walked across the ridge. The ram had really not taken much notice, and had calmly walked around the corner. Excited, we followed the ridge to the great overlook, straining to see any sign of the ram, even with her binoculars. Laura whooped a bit, but I took her lead and bellowed out a call. “Great: harassing the sheep, now?” she smiled at me. But I turned to look a mile distant to the summit of Mt. Lewis, and up popped the rounded rack! So, we had a tour guide!

It took another 30 minutes to finally make the summit of Mt. Lewis, in trail runners, short-sleeve shirts, dripping sweat from our ball caps. The air was clear; a light breeze breathed its chill onto our necks. But the view was epic! The switchers to Koip Peak pass were devoid of snow, the snowfield shining blue and barren in the sun. I wondered aloud if the Alger Lakes might be skate-able. After eating lunch, and having a few more pulls of wine, we strode back down the easy, rocky slope and traversed back to our skis. The snow below wasn’t great, but at least we could claim about ten turns each in the facets.

The wind had picked up during our descent, and we were glad to have the tent that night, even though it meant being “in” for over 12 hours. Laura’s radio faltered, so by early morning she was packed and ready to go, eager to get in touch with Rob. I lingered in the morning dark, waiting for the sun as I sipped coffee and munched oatmeal. My toes screamed at being shoved into cold ski boots, but the downhill work quickly warmed me through. I passed through the silent forest, played tag with the sun as it rose around each corner. I couldn’t help but hum along with the wind in the trees as I slid across the lower meadows.

The road climbed from the trailhead, and opened to look across the lower slopes of Mt. Dana once again. I red stop sign just before the pass glowed against the white ground, blue sky, and dark trees. Leaning into each step, I found a rhythm.

Not a bad way to start the year. Image

Resolution: 2013 Review

Posted in Uncategorized on January 13, 2014 by moosetracksca

Someone recently asked me to give a letter grade to the past year, to rank the roller coaster on a bell curve of time. I had to laugh at the thought of somehow consolidating all that the past year had to offer, arriving at some standard about which I could either be proud or hide the results from my parents, forging their signature before returning it to my superiors.

Is this going on my permanent record?

Ok, I’ll give it a “B”.

But wait: we instinctively focus on the highs and lows, each extreme weighing on our memories like stones on a scale. Throw on a few expectations and the balance swings wildly hither and thus, further muddling our ability to evaluate the greater picture. I can remember what a crummy snow year it was; yet a master of the backcountry showed me the wing tracks of a bird of prey as it swooped to grab its dinner. The weather also conspired against me as I ventured north, and I met some incredible people and skied the skirts of Rainier on a bluebird day, dodging crevasses and riding 3000 feet of cream-corn under an icefall. I had my heart broken, but completed my most challenging birthday challenge to date and made a substantial donation to the Friends of the Inyo.

I lost a friend, but somehow saved someone else’s life.

There were so many stories from this past year, many I chose not to tell, except to those seeing me in person. There were some that I wish I had written: like how I managed to forget my big down jacket on a February overnight to Humphreys Basin; about hauling a sled into Rock Creek Lake with my best girl friends to celebrate green’s birthday; how my trip up north turned into a random assortment of fun, from visiting friends, to beer tasting, to climbing a few volcanoes, to driving the coast, to beer tasting, to jet-skiing the Columbia River, to playing with my nephews, to beer tasting; returning to a few 8000 vertical foot days both solo and with an incredible friend/photographer/backcountry hero; to resupplying my friend on the JMT and my ranger buddies in Rock Creek South; to dodging thunder storms with another dear friend during the Sierra Challenge.

I watched the leaves change in autumn, and slipped away from the grasp of social media for a while. I needed the space to regain perspective, to revisit exactly why I go out to have adventures of all sorts. Some may claim responsibility for my “leaving”, but I assure you all, this was coming for quite some time. In returning to my adventures as play — and, believe me, this is ALL play of some sort – I’ve found a new sort of happiness. I suppose these adventures are selfish in large part: I have goals, and know what sort of work it will take to achieve them. I will share some of the adventures, both in photos and words, but my focus must be inward still in order to finish healing and changing.

In cleaning out a section of the gear room last week, I came across one of my first assignments from grad school: my Mission Statement. Written in 1998, I remember keeping it pinned to a corkboard for years:

“I am determined to persevere in the face of adversity.

I will utilize my personality and talents to encourage, inspire, and challenge myself and those around me.

I will strive to maintain a balance of my passions: my family, my work, and my friends, knowing that they make my life fuller and richer.

I will be open to the experiences this world offers me, knowing that each dawn brings new hope and perspective.”

It’s more than a resolution: it’s a lifestyle. I am genuinely looking forward to what 2014 has to offer. There are plenty of lessons yet to be learned.

Oh, and maybe I should change that grade to an “A”.

 

Thanks to all for your continued support, and I’ll see you in the heights.

 

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,700 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Long Night’s Journey Into Day: Winter Solstice Below Sawmill Pass

Posted in Backpacking with tags , , , on January 10, 2014 by moosetracksca

The north wind swept across the desert, chilled the drips of sweat that fell down the back of my neck. Under my first heavy pack of the winter, I kept a calm and focused stride as I followed the sandy trail across the face of Sawmill Point. Animals had already broken the occasional drifts across the path. I picked my head up at the pops of distant gunfire, and wondered if it was deer or elk that had been in the hunter’s sights. Across the narrow, rocky gap, the trail turned west into the canyon, gently descended to the toe of the Hogsback.

The Beast landed with a soft thunk in the shadowed snow near the creek. While I had frowned at the sun as I had plodded up the sandy slopes earlier, now I longed for its touch as it teased and lingered one hundred vertical feet above me. The pine boughs carried snow puffs; the branches sagged and swayed in the breeze. Miles to go, I thought, as I lugged the Beast back up onto my shoulders. The snow was only ankle-deep here, but steps were careful and regular.

Above the Hogsback and through the burn, the aspen of Sawmill Meadow were briefly backlit as I broke trail. I leaned back against a huge pine and watched the last rays hide behind the ridge. I could stay here, I thought. Plenty of snow to melt for water but not so deep that digging out a platform would be too much work. It was quiet, out of the wind.

But it was only 2 p.m.

Ahead, the headwall to Mule and Sawmill Lake was too much of a challenge for me to not attempt it. I knew the trail switchered through the forest, but I wasn’t totally sure where, so I headed right to the north wall, hoping that the snow was layered less thickly. Up and across the moraines I stumbled, the heavy pack pulled me back down the drainages as I fought forever upward. I found more than one bottomless hole between the boulders. Near the top I wallowed a traverse back into the trees, laughed at the steepness and knowing that a fall would cause nothing more than a bruised ego: a hapless tortoise on its back in the snow.

I admit I didn’t expect the uphill swim to take quite as much time, but the colors were fading from the above the Inyos across the valley as I finally started to search for a campsite. The purple haze of winter was chasing the pink sunset into the upper atmosphere when I spotted a small basin in which I could perch my tent. Pinecones flew in all directions as I nested. Every few minutes I would grunt as I tossed another shovel-full of snow, and I nervously glanced around the darkness, looking for eyes. Without the moon, my headlamp was a lonely beacon; my platform, a small sanctuary between creaking pines. I was glad to finally fire up my stove and go through the motions of melting snow and making dinner. If nothing else, the small rumble of the gas flame was company in the dark.

The longest night, I thought. And I remembered back to my first snow camps, to all of those who showed me just a little bit each time so that now I could confidently stride up into the hills and know I was safe.

The longest night, I thought. The darkness forced me to look inside, since I couldn’t see out. How long I had beaten myself up for one thing or another, how much energy I had spent on trying desperately to be perfect. How I had taken other’s compliments and used them as motivation to keep pushing myself, but how I had somehow morphed that into a responsibility to continue in order to make everyone else happy with pictures and stories. You must keep going, I would say. “They” are counting on you. And when I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or didn’t want to keep going, there was my excuse to berate my weakness, my weight, my slowness, anything.

The longest night, I thought. My knee injury had been an excuse to stop and drop into a perilous state of apathy. Instead of being gentle and consistent, I motored through fits and starts, pushing myself hard and burning out. It was like I was playing with the stove, cranking the gas and then killing it.  It wasn’t fair to try and sprint through life, or even to think that I could. The pace I was trying to push wasn’t sustainable, so instead I did almost nothing. I convinced myself I was content to watch the world pass by, but then I wracked myself for not pushing forward. It was a dark and lonely cycle.

The longest night, I thought. I awoke after a few hours to a glow as the half-moon soared above the forest. Long shadows creased the snowdrifts; the wind touched the treetops and breathed gently through my tent. I was warm and safe, curled up with my bag tucked snugly under my chin and around my head. The hot water bottle had wandered somewhere between my legs. I tucked my hands across my chest until they fell asleep and needed a different position. For a few minutes, after I rolled over, adjusted the stuff-sack pillow, I stared into the orange moon-glow of the tent walls and listened to the quiet.

Seven miles in and five thousand feet up, a small orange tent perched in a snowy basin between the pines. The walls shuddered from movement within, and the zipper growled as the door opened.

I greeted the sunrise with a smile, sparkling eyes, and a new sort of confidence.

Another chapter had begun.

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Under (no) Pressure: Fourth Recess Lake

Posted in Alpine Skating, Day Hiking with tags , , , on December 6, 2013 by moosetracksca

Framed against the grey sky, the northeast face of Bear Creek Spire cradled the gloaming. The guys had already pulled ahead, driving hard to Mono Pass while I settled into a comfortable swing of legs and breath, loaded down for the day. Around the corner, the Ruby Wall traded shadow for its morning burst of gold. Bill waited at the cutoff to Ruby Lake, offered a shorter day and fresh legs for the skating. I glanced up the south face of Mt. Starr, spotted John and Steve striding up the switchers, and the fire of challenging myself roared to life. With a wave to Bill, I turned and leaned into the packed down snow covering the trail.

It was hardly a chase: more like I harbored an insane notion that I might see the guys again on the trail into the Fourth Recess. Instead, their single set of tracks cut a line through the snowdrifts; an occasional tread outlined in the sand or across a flat boulder; wound down the face to Trail Lake and into the trees. Tucked against the north face, the trail became a trench in soft powder, with more than a few crystals wiggling down into my boots to chill my toes. With each step down, there rose knowledge that the climb out would be brutal, but I did not fear the work.

At last, the trees opened into the cirque, and I spotted them gliding along the western shore. My call echoed off the granite walls, and John skated up, big camera poised as I smiled and waved. They shared the beta on thickness around the lake, how somehow their standing in one spot had set the whole plate to split into hundreds of cracks at once. They skated anxious circles by the shore as I dug into my pack for dry socks and heavy skates, and I was left once again to catch them up on the far side of the lake.

The sound of the skates gliding on the ice has a grind to it, bumping and jumping across feathers of new crystals. Snapping and popping, small cracks spread from under my steps as I leaned my weight into the fronts of my skates. John found a patch of kryptonite: the ice glowed green in the shadow behind the rocks at the lake’s edge. Bubble trails stretched through the ice, some pock-marked the surface to add texture. Fuzzy boulders lurked in the depths.

In the middle of the lake, the old plate had absorbed the snow from last week’s storm, melted, and broke apart. Black, fresh ice canals wound around the broken white sheets, at once angular and then winding. The guys took to balancing on the frozen fractures, racing off to the far corner. I stumbled a bit on the white ice, my body chattered as I pushed across. John got a shot of me tentatively gliding along, arms out front, but a tremendous smile across my face.

I didn’t bother racing them to either end: I only wanted to feel the glide, the air on my face, the sun reflecting off the ice and rock. Steve reassured me at every crack under my skates; John grabbed my elbow to do-si-do as fast as we could. I laughed and cheered, then listened to the echo.

The climb out beckoned, and I knew how I would be forced into a slow march to get back up and over the Pass. The guys headed out for a final lap as I packed, and I whooped to let them know I was off. “Patience,” I kept repeating, as I kick-stepped in our trench in 50-step increments. I still got frustrated, the old anger at myself kicked in to try and berate my lack of speed. But then I looked up and across the Recesses to Bear Paw Peak, at the deep green of the forest, the golden trunks of the snags, the blue of the sky. I breathed deep, took another 50 steps. I knew where I was going, and what it was going to take to get there.

I topped out on the ridge a half-mile shy of the pass and accidentally dropped my pole. In disgust, I turned and crouched to lift it from the snow, but my eyes caught on the flame and fire of sunset reflected on Pointless Peak and the wisps of clouds in the sky to the north. I brought my poles together, cocked my hip to one side to shift the load on my back. But that was all my shoulders carried in that moment: no expectations, no pressures, no desires from myself, or others. There was just the quiet of the high country as the mountains and I watched the sun blaze through the last moments of the day.

Venus sparkled brightly above the Crest, and lit my way home.

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First Solo Skate, 11/16/13

Posted in Alpine Skating on November 18, 2013 by moosetracksca

I crouch.

Gingerly balanced on steel blades,

Poised to leap, arms rigid at my sides,

Teeth clench as I listen and feel,

Waiting for the ice to crack.

I whimper.

Tentative steps away from shore,

Blades never losing contact.

Each puff of breeze throws me.

Mountains stare down in silence.

I glide.

Patterns beneath my feet swirl.

Ripples shining in the last sun.

Reflections of broken rock in an infinity pool.

Gusts sweep the shavings into long feathers.

All is quiet, save for the wind

And the grumbling roar of the shifting lake.

It doesn’t mind me.

I tuck into the far wall, waiting with mischievous eyes.

The air builds on the ridgelines,

Dives in a rush.

Pushing off my toes, strong legs drive.

Laughter bounces around the cirque.

The wind and I in a desperate race to the opposite shore.

My arms raise.

I fly.

Learning to Live: EVO Basin Rambling

Posted in Backpacking on September 6, 2013 by moosetracksca

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.

*yank

No, it couldn’t be. This isn’t the night for it. I’m here late. The sun is setting. The wind… has calmed.

*yank *yank

Bloody hell.

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.

“Thaaaannnnkkkk yyyooouuu…”

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.

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