Paul Andersen: Crossing high passes with no trails
The deep hoof prints of elk fade where the ridge turns from soft tundra to fractured granite scree. Graeme and I crest the ridge with a collective utterance, WOW!
All around us are high, steep, ragged ridgelines. Beyond them are more ridges and towering mountain peaks jabbing into the gray, storm-laden sky. To the west, the dark edge of a black cloud trails the telltale drift of rain.
It is late summer. The unmistakable sense of seasonal change is carried in the cool breeze that has us donning jackets. Soon, a light pattering of rain arrives in advance of the glowering storm cloud that quickens our steps toward lower elevations.
We are planning to drop into the next valley, to the scattering of lakes far below, lakes that are a uniform gray, like pieces of slate that have been tossed helter-skelter into the emerald green tundra of a glacially carved gulch spotted with stands of stunted spruce and fir.
We don't have much time to assess the route because the first tremor of thunder ripples toward us across the basin. Without equivocating, Graeme ventures down a steep couloir, using embedded rocks as steps.
I take another look from this lofty vantage and feel an exhilaration that comes from a blend of awe and fear. Before committing to the couloir, I take a deep breath for calm and relaxation. I don't want to make a misstep on terrain where a slip and a fall could lead to a deadly tumble into the boulderfield below.
The rain patters against my hooded jacket as I maneuver down the first half dozen steps. The rain quickly makes the tundra grasses slippery. The soles of my hiking shoes squeak with the slick failing of traction, so I stick to the rocks, testing each one to make it is firmly embedded.
An occasional elk track provides a platform on which to plant my foot. I imagine these majestic ruminants working lungs, hearts and legs as they cross this pass. The next roll of thunder brings total focus to my foot placement, balance and breathing, but there's no rushing this descent. I adopt a calm, easy acceptance of the challenge while feeling inspiration from the alpine splendor around me.
There is no trail over this pass, nothing marked on the quad map we surveyed on the quiet, peaceful lake shore that morning after breakfast where we assessed contour lines as appropriate to a reasonable crossing of the ridge.
My fishing rod strapped to the side of my pack, we climbed to the ridgeline, not having seen anyone since we set off at a remote trailhead two days before. We find a contrarian satisfaction to laying claim to this lonely patch of wilderness.
This measure of exclusivity is a form of elitism that is part of our MO because wild places seem wilder when the masses of humanity are elsewhere, occupied by the mundane, the commonplace, the usual, the working life of 9-to-5.
The destinations we select are elite because they require hard physical effort and a sense of daring. In the midst of industrial life there are still places that are uncluttered and silent, that provide a lone spiritual quality and a palpable feeling of reverence. We are venturing into the place where man first came in. We, like the pioneers of old.
Graeme and I say nothing during our descent. Speaking would ruin the spell. We keep eyes on each other as we thread through narrow gullies and scramble over rocky escarpments. All the while we are very conscious of the storm cloud now sweeping over the ridge with tendrils of rain that beat down and make the granite glisten.
Passes with no trails — at least no trails marked on any maps — were scratched out by elk, sheep, goats and deer. Their paths are braided, faint, ephemeral markings etched as contours into the soft, forgiving earth where these animals have walked for millennia.
I have crossed many such passes and revisit them as metaphors for the watersheds of life, the great divides of the mind, the high points of spirit, the cherished passages of transcendence.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.